Expected Meanings


Note: This post originally appeared on the Culture on the Edge blog.

by Steven Ramey

The meaning of words, even entire texts, reflect our expectations of them and our assumptions of their context. This point is apparent in the Argentine soccer ad that uses quotes from Donald Trump to hype the national team’s trip to the United States. If you missed this brilliant appropriation, take a look below.

When I first watched it, I only knew it was an Argentine twist on Trump’s words, so I expected a more direct, political challenge to his xenophobic rhetoric. For almost half of the video, before the images on the soccer field itself, I found it difficult to make sense of it. Once I placed the video in the context of soccer, finding meaning in it was easier.

While we often act as if a word has a fixed meaning and thus a phrase is clear in its point, this ad illustrates the importance of expectations and context in the process of interpreting meaning. “We have no protection. Anybody can come in. It is very easy, and it shouldn’t be that way,” takes a totally different meaning when placed in the context of a sports metaphor as opposed to immigration.

The contexts of the soccer ad and a presidential campaign appear pretty obvious, making it easy for most people to agree on how to interpret the assertions, once we have identified that context. But in the case of other forms of speech and texts, the context may only provide limited clues and is often highly debated. Is a particular phrase a metaphor or a literal assertion? Is the narrative autobiography, allegory, or fantasy? When dealing with translations or texts from other cultures or eras, the possibilities increase further. The process of word selection depends on a translator’s interpretation, and in some cases a series of translators’ interpretations. The greater the distance from the context, the more difficult it can be to decide on the context and thus discern clues to potential meanings.

All of these complications highlight how our understanding of the meanings of a text or a narrative reflects our expectations and assumptions about the type of speech or text and its context. My interpretation of the video shifted when I abandoned my expectations about the video being a direct political statement from Argentina. Even still, the intentions of the creators are not entirely clear. While the interest in hyping a soccer team is fairly evident, to what extent is the ad making a larger political statement? Determining that has much to do with our assumptions and little to do with the creators of the ad itself. In fact, the intentions of the creators, who used images and words preexisting their creation, no longer really matter. As Roland Barthes asserted, the author is dead, so the meaning is more about us.

Posted in Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Steven Ramey, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Adam Miller


In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link

by Adam Miller

The goal of this series is to collect Bulletin reader-contributors’ reflections on how they describe what they do to those outside the discipline, drawing on one or two anecdotes. So far, we have seen just this from Matt Sheedy and Sarah Lynn Kleeb with their posts on the aftermath of their somewhat ad hoc self-identifications (the latter a truly charming story about a chance encounter with a comrade cabbie—well, depending on where one’s sympathies lie, I suppose). After these two inaugural posts, Matthew Baldwin mixed things up with an interrogation of the assumptions underlying the prompt itself—an always fun, thought-provoking move.

By slight contrast to the initial two posts, and in some ways building on the third, I’d like to draw attention to how the insider-outsider encounter (if we can use that language) is not always a one-off thing—that is, the “outsider” is not only the person sitting next to us on airplanes, standing behind us in line at grocery stores, and so on, whom we may never see again. Sometimes it’s a close friend (new or old), sometimes a partner, sibling, or parent.

None of us is born a scholar of religion. It’s a gig we kind of half fall into, half want to do, half get molded into, half work toward. (I never said I was a scholar of math.) In much the same way, people close to us half fall into, (probably don’t) half want to, (probably would rather not) half get molded into, (probably aren’t) half working toward being some kind of “outsider” to us. All we can hope for is that they humor us from time to time. Well, at least that’s what I feel like sometimes. Luckily, in my case, there’s a good deal of laughter—by which I mean: serious, engaged conversation that forces me to know what the hell I’m talking about and why it matters.

My dad (a railroader who all along knew I wasn’t a priest) is my anecdote. Well, he isn’t…our conversations are. How many nights have we stayed up way too late talking about what I do (often over cigarettes and whiskey, at least in more recent years)? I’ve lost count. I do know that they started a long while back…back in high school, when I wasn’t even on any official path to this profession. It continued through community college, through college, and through my first round of graduate school. It continues today.

For years, my pop has resisted becoming an “outsider” to what I do. He’s read a good number of the books that have had significant influence on my thinking—among them (if memory serves), J. Z. Smith’s Imagining Religion, Bruce Lincoln’s Discourse and Gods and Demons, Craig Martin’s Critical Introduction and Capitalizing Religion, parts of Russell McCutcheon’s Critics Not Caretakers, Daniel Boucher’s Bodhisattvas of the Forest, Charlotte Eubanks’ Miracles of Book and Body, etc.—and has acquired through our conversations a working familiarity with folks like Durkheim, Marx, and Weber. Why has he done this? I’m sure it has something to do with me being his kid and all. But perhaps it has something to do with the dialectical nature of our exchanges, which have become more nuanced and complex over the years. Perhaps through a combination of offspring- and content-interest, my dad has compelled me to make what I do—which ranges from terribly arcane (involving, as it does, Sanskrit and Tibetan sources) to not clearly having anything to do with religion (any Death Grips fans in the house?)—intelligible, relevant, and worth all the time and energy (not to mention money) I’ve poured into it and not something else.

This might seem like a post written in homage to my father. In a sense, it clearly is. But I hope it also gives us reason to think critically about insider/outsider language—as it’s clear to me that some people are neither fully inside nor fully outside. (And here I—for what it’s worth—, not some institution or another, answer the question: Who counts as insider and outsider?) It may not be a parent. It may be a sibling, cousin, friend, or child. It may be the cashier at the local grocery store you frequent and with whom you have long been on a first-name basis. It could be anyone, really—relationships come in degrees. As such, from a certain perspective, the boundary dividing “insiders” and “outsiders” is more like a hill than the Wall.

All that’s to say: Sometimes people aren’t “insiders” strictly speaking (strictly = in terms of institutional credentials), but that does not mean we cannot engage in dialogue, sharpen our answer to the “who cares?” question, and learn from people beyond our institutionally defined in-group. Think back to when you were a kid on the playground. Did you ever ask some other kid from your class to play a game with you? It’s kind of like that…

Adam T. Miller is a PhD student in History of Religions at the University of Chicago, an online instructor for Central Methodist University, Editorial Assistant for History of Religions, and Associate Editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. Typically operating within socio-rhetorical theoretical frameworks and employing philological, discourse-analytic, and historical methods, his research interests tend to be all over the place. He plans to specialize in the history and literature of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India (going into Vajrayāna and Tibet, as well), but has written on and maintains a strong interest in such topics as Swami Vivekananda and Death Grips.

Posted in Buddhist Studies, Religion and Society, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Names and Things


Note: This post originally appeared on the Culture on the Edge blog.

by Russell McCutcheon

Have you heard?

There’s a new theory as to where the term “eskimo” originated.

Click the above image to read the brief article, but here’s a snippet:

Picture 5

So, contrary to earlier etymologies that anchored the word in what some (or maybe even many) now see to be derogatory associations (i.e., uncivilized raw meat eaters…), it’s now thought to derive from a much milder and merely descriptive association concerning their footwear.

(Aside: given the price of sushi these days, eating things raw is hardly a static designator.)

But is this alternative etymology mild enough to rehabilitate the term? Likely not, since “the people of Canada and Greenland prefer other names.”

This episode in origins, identity, and naming brings to mind once again the problem with debating the right or acceptable word to use for something: such debates overlook the very designation of certain things as things worth talking about. Instead of assuming that some stable item in the world proclaims its own existence and thereby deserves a name, and then trying to decide the best name for it (and which sensibility do we invoke to make that decision?), we might instead study why it is that we talk about the world in certain ways and how the names we give to things make certain ways of seeing, acting, and organizing seem more persuasive, even natural.

So why not study how names make things?

For why do we even need a distinct name to identify people who happen to live in the north? Or, better put, north of us. (For, without presupposing positionality there’s really no north in the abstract, right? Things are, instead, north of this or that place — and who gets to determine the starting place?! Now that’s the question.) So what set of assumptions about the world, what set of interests, which or whose situation or location, prompts us to see some people as distinct, set apart, unified to each other and thus different from us, and thus deserving of a name — tackling these questions are well prior to debating which proper name to give to them. Or, to rephrase one more time, what are the mechanisms of “themification” (to coin a terribly unwieldy term)? To refer to the above quotation, when did “the people” in question, those who apparently have preferences for what they are named, become a coherent people (in their minds as well as those of others), with shared interests — part of a coherent group thought to stretch across more than one modern nation? How old is that seemingly shared identification and, if it turns out to be more recent than we might at first think, then what factors teased it into existence and keep it going?

I’ve written before about debates on the correct term to use to identify people in the US whose ancestors were from Africa — regardless the term used what ends up being naturalized is the presumption that human communities ought to be designated based on such ad hoc traits as skin color. (That is, the presumption that certain biological differences ought to attract attention goes unexamined.) So what gets overlooked in debates over proper names is how, in this one example, the discourse on race is normalized — regardless how acceptable the term of designation now seems to be.

So whether Eskimo or Inuit, what (and who) gets normalized in assuming a homogenous group lives way up there in the cold?

Answer: me and my warm world down here in the south.

(Same thing with US residents in the north talking about “southerners” — for good or ill — and yet others instead talking about “northerners,” no?)

But making this move — the move to study how our worlds are signified and thereby made sensible in the first place — is rather more work than just debating how we should talk about what strikes us a pre-packaged, and thus eternal and self-evidently meaningful, place.

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Theory & Religion Series: Ann Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered in the study of atheism


by Thomas J. Coleman III

* This post is part of the Theory & Religion Series, where contributors are asked to discuss a current project they are working on, or a book or essay by a particular theorist that they have found useful in their teaching and research in the study of religion.

Finally at age 27 in the fall of 2012, I had decided what I wanted to do in life, or at least where I wanted to start the “doing”. The psychology of religion and cognitive science of religion (and currently theory in cognitive science in general) was what struck my interests. Admittedly, and to digress, I currently see the former two as more similar than distinct from one another. The first book I read was Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane (1959) at the direction of my professor, and now frequent collaborator, Christopher F. Silver. With my interests in studying atheism(s), I began plotting out (naively so) how I would go about my research looking at “secular hierophanies”. Thankfully, that book is not the topic of this blog post – I have since realized the error of my ways – and Silver more or less recommend the book, I only later discovered, in hopes of providing me with some back ground about where much of the study and research on religion had since evolved from. Unhappy with my reading of Eliade for many reasons, the one that stands out as pertinent to the current topic was his insistence that “secular experience”, which he characterized as mundane and rather disenchanted, could never compare to “religious experience”, which was of course inherently sacred, special and enchanted – off limits to nonbelievers. Enter Ann Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered (2009), the antidote to the Eliadeian tradition and the second book I read.

There is no such thing as religious experience, only experiences deemed religious. This is a methodological mantra that no researcher should forget, and scholars in all fields are in debt to Ann Taves for elucidating this point. Religious Experience Reconsidered, has much to offer anyone studying or researching religion, and has proved formative in my own initial studies and research into understanding meaningful experiences in atheists (Coleman, Silver & Holcombe, 2013; Coleman & Arrowood, 2015; Coleman, Silver & Hood, in press). Although the impetus for writing her book was to provide a way for scholars and researchers to work across disciplines, studying “religion” from multiple viewpoints, it has also opened up new avenues of research into what she characterizes as “special things”. Special things, loosely summarized, are a subset of some things that might commonly fall into the category of religion, while others might not. In this framework it is up to the scholar or the individual to do the deeming of what is or is not religious and/or special.

While Taves did not necessarily set out to provide a framework for the study of atheism, her ascriptive approach allows for just that. Human experience falls along a continuum regardless of the labels used to characterize experience, and Taves mobilizes Kopytoff’s notion of “singularization” to just this effect. The question I pose, and that Taves’ framework allows us to both pose and answer, is this: Does the atheist have anything comparable to “religious experience” that might be of interest to researchers of religion and nonbelief? There is both wide qualitative and quantitative variation in the psychological makeup of atheists, and perhaps there is secular experience that might even be realized as more awe inspiring and wondrous than some experiences commonly thought to be “religious”. While I answer the first question in the affirmative, it is one that is certainly open to further empirical investigation under her ascriptive model. The second question, however, awaits much more theorization and research before speculation could commence; nonetheless the idea is there.

Do atheists feel awe, wonder, moments of ineffable moving experience – perhaps even mystical experience (Hood, 2013)? Of course, but importantly (pace scholars of “implicit religion”), nothing previously mentioned necessitates the label of religion – either explicitly or implicitly – be used to characterize the experience either by the researcher or the individual. Taves framework doesn’t privilege religion a priori, and doesn’t eschew an individual for framing an experience religiously either. Moreover, it allows us to explore how experiences, objects, and even words, transition from something “mundane” to something “special” to something “religious”.

Taves approach to religion is both humanistic and cognitive. It has much to offer the cognitive science of religion (CSR) as well as the humanities in avoiding setting up any theoretical postulate as something purely or inherently religious. For example, some researchers in the CSR express that there is no “religion module” or “religious system” to be found in the brain, this is a welcome and correct notion in line with Taves framework. “Religion” is a natural phenomenon just like atheism. However, a strong deviation from her methodology, I argue, typically follows these statements when researchers posit, for example, that a “normal” Theory of Mind combined with a hypothesized “normal” Agency Detection Device leads effortlessly and automatically to a belief in supernatural agency. While this may or may not ultimately be correct, these same researchers then seem to conflate the systems with their content (god beliefs). Thus while they admit on the front end that there is no religious system, they end up sneaking one in through the back door by aligning what should be an agnostic cognitive system(s) devoid of ontological commitment to any notion of the Transcendent, with the very object they seek to explain. To them, then, these systems are religious systems, ultimately. This is curious brand of naturalism indeed!

Importantly, Taves framework does not conflate a cognitive system or pathway with small portions of its operational content. Her methodology allows us to find out how, why, and for what reasons some individuals are beholden to using a religious label or worldview in their lives, as well as studying how, why, and for what reasons various researchers understand some cognitions to be “religious cognition”, even if the person does not believe in God or label themselves as religious. If “religion” is a cognitive universal, then this ends up being about as interesting at the end of the day as discovering that everyone who is alive is breathing, it is simply a truism bearing little meaningful content with which to study the distinctions that make research valuable. What becomes interesting then, to reiterate, is the higher order construction of how an individual and or groups take lower level cognitions – the term “religion” seems rather inappropriate to use at this lower level of analysis – and understand them religiously, secularly, or as something “special”.

While Taves’ book has garnered both praise and critique, as any book worthy of reading inevitably does, it marks not the beginning of an era symbolizing a change in the study of religion and special things, but offers promising answers to that era itself. Importantly, it allows us to view all experiences as equally potentially meaningful and value laden, at least initially, and study processes of meaning making at individual and group levels while investigating the ever changing science behind these processes as well. Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered occupies a unique place on my bookshelf. It has a well-worn cover, tattered pages full of highlights and notes which is set apart from the other books as something special.



Coleman, T. J. III, Silver, C. F. & Holcombe, J. (2013). Focusing on horizontal        transcendence: much more than a “non-belief”. Essays In The Philosophy Of        Humanism, 21 (2), pp. 1-18.

Coleman, T. J. III, & Arrowood, R. B. (2015). Only We Can Save Ourselves: An atheists    ‘salvation’. In H. Bacon, W. Dossett & S. Knowles, Alternative Salvations: Engaging the   Sacred and the Secular. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Coleman, T. J. III, Silver, C. F., & Hood, R. W. Jr. (in press). “ … if the universe is             beautiful, we’re part of that beauty.” – a “neither religious nor spiritual” biography    as horizontal transcendence. In H. Streib & R. Hood (Eds.), The semantics and       psychology of spirituality. Dordrecht: Springer.

Eliade, M. (1959). The sacred and the profane. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Hood, R. (2013). Theory and Methods in the Psychological Study of Mysticism. International Journal For The Psychology Of Religion, 23(4), 294-306.             doi:10.1080/10508619.2013.795803

Taves, A. (2009). Religious experience reconsidered. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton        University Press.

Thomas J. Coleman III is a graduate student in the Research Psychology Masters program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) studying the psychology and cognitive science of religion. He is the Director of the Ralph W. Hood Jr. Psychology of Religion Laboratory at UTC, and an Assistant Editor for The Religious Studies Project and the journal Secularism & Nonreligion. His email is Thomas-J-Coleman@mocs.utc.edu.

Posted in Religion and Theory, Theory & Religion Series, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Matthew Baldwin


In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link

Small Talk and the “Religious Studies” Professional

by Matthew Baldwin

Mavens of etiquette and custom have frequently criticized the propriety of asking people one has just met “so, what do you do?”[1] Nevertheless, outside of a few localities where an unwritten taboo has caused “the question” almost to vanish from social life (this seems to be true, for example in my adopted home city, Asheville, NC), asking the “what do you do?” (WDYD) question remains a fixture of American small talk. Everyone, including scholars of religion, will face it from time to time.

As I understand its purpose, this series is meant to provide a space for scholars of religion to share our experiences with handling the often-awkward WDYD question. The premise of the series depends on a hypothesis, to wit: that many of our experiences with the question will be similar enough to bear comparison, while remaining diverse enough to warrant repeated acts of description and reflection. Presumably, the intent for the series goes beyond the desire to elicit communal feelings of affinity (and empathy) among “Religious Studies” types. We may also hope that these descriptions can lead to redescriptions. The things we learn from sharing our experiences might lead us to better understand the challenges we face in our shared work and social identity as scholars of religion.

The leading question of the series title, “so you’re not a priest?” suggests a humorous direction for the series, drawing on ancient comic tropes of mistaken identity and anagnoresis. It also foregrounds a certain assumption about what makes our collective experiences with the WDYD question similar and worth comparing. You may never have heard these exact words in response to your own answer to the WDYD question. Yet the title question serves as an icon (or synecdoche) of a certain repertoire of familiar-sounding responses that (we assume) outsiders to religious studies regularly present once they find themselves making small talk with a “professor of religion.” The question “so you’re not a priest?” gives us a pre-existing map, a short-cut for thinking about the most common outsider perspective on our professional identity. We aren’t priests. (Except, let’s be honest: some religious studies scholars are priests.) But many people assume we are. Not every interlocutor we meet will share this straightforward assumption that professors of religion must occupy the same classificatory category as religious professionals. But the mistake is common enough that we seem to already have decided that the mistake constitutes the archetypal version of the public’s misperception of our work and social role.

It may be the contrarian in me that wants to play with the premise and assumptions of the series, rather than to indulge in sharing any particular anecdote from the 24 years in which I have been either a graduate student or a professor of religion. Like my colleagues, I can think of many times when I have encountered other people’s cognitive dissonance and uncertainty once they learn what it is that I say that I do. Memories of many individual situations are percolating in my brain, from the astonished river guide on the Rio Grande (in 1992) who couldn’t believe that a scruffy young man wearing a silver demonic-joker-skull ring was going to be a Divinity student, to the thirty-something father at the Asheville Food Lion Skate Park (in 2016) who thought it was “cool” to meet a college professor who teaches about the Bible. But in truth I’m not a very good storyteller, and I have tended to “forget” the details of such encounters. There have been so many. The scores of times something “interesting” has happened to me following the WDYD question have kind of blended all together in my mind.

So instead, I think it might be more suited to my talents to reflect a bit more deeply on the social function of the WDYD question itself, and to consider taxonomically (or morphologically) how the repertoire of our answers to the question serve to position us within the complexities of the late-capitalist economy, constructing our identities in dialogue with others who bring their various ideas about what our various doings may mean within the world.

Let’s consider the setting in life of the WDYD question. Usually, one should graciously assume that, at least at the conscious level, the question is being asked innocently. We call it “small talk” for a reason. People ask it as though they were motivated by mere curiosity, or by a desire for simple human connection. We are in waiting rooms, on airplanes and trains, at parties, receptions, events, luncheons, mixers, dinners, in audiences, or contracting various services, and this is one of the things you ask people. (“We’re stuck sitting next to each other, so we may as well get to know one another.”)

Yet we are scholars of religion. Our theories (along with our experiences) tell us that nothing is so simple or mere. The query has larger social implications that are hard to escape. Ask a person what they do for a living, and you initiate a dance of mutual self-positioning and posturing. In trading “small talk” about one’s employment one is operationally identifying oneself within a larger system of significance. People who exchange profession-identifiers and appropriate responses are drawing on a symbolic and denotative system that has been shaped within a wider context. The signifiers and labels we use operate within a socially constructed system of classification, the terms and values of which are greater than any two individuals talking about their work.

It follows from these reflections that dealing with the WDYD question is relatively sensitive territory for everyone. Furthermore, many different employment-identity positions available in our economic and social life could involve discomfort, hilarity, or opportunities for faux pas in interactions based on the WDYD question.[2]

The situation in which the WDYD question gets asked is complex. It can be referred to a classic idea of human intercourse suggested once upon a time by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (here I draw on it as reported by Josiah Royce in 1881).[3] Holmes suggests that in any conversation between two individuals, there are actually six persons involved. There are the two “real” individuals of course; but in addition to these two, there are four “imaginary” persons. Each “real” person also harbors two “imaginary” persons: a concept of self, and an idea of the other. Our real speech acts come out of our personal self-imagination and address our imagination of the other. Our speech is then received in a way that shapes the other’s imagination of us, and is taken up into their own self-conception. Our relations are therefore imaginary (and having said that, I suggest we leave behind Holmes and Royce, and embrace the Lacanian resonance of the term).

In furthering the analysis, let’s set some more obvious points on the table. Religious studies professionals do not all have the same real being or self-conception. We are diverse. We do not all have or want to be seen as having the same identity position or social role. We operate in a field where the disciplinary boundaries are shifting and contested. We work in contexts which range from the overtly sectarian and religious, to the secular and public. We pursue different goals in the classroom and in research. We have different kinds of work environments with great variation in the levels of compensation we receive and work duties we perform. Vigorous disagreement can be found among our ranks on basic questions of epistemology, metaphysics, theory, and method. There is wide variation in specialization. There are huge regional, local, and cultural variations in available roles and identities with which we can attempt to identify through our choices of clothing, hair, speech, social activities, affiliations, affinities, possessions, and friendship. So much for our real and imagined selves.

And what about how we imagine those outside of the discipline? Again the obvious points come first. The success of our encounters may come down to how well we read other people. We have no way of knowing other people except by semiosis, that is, by interpreting the signs that they themselves are. Endlessly varied in class, position, and roles, other people are just like us in acting out and projecting their affinities into interactions with others. We are forced to interpret (and imagine) the people we are dealing with based on the signals they send. How we imagine the other person shapes what we tell them about ourselves, and how we receive what it is that they send.

So, how ought we to generalize about what other people think of “us”? How well have we formed our conception of how others conceive of us? What is our data?

We could start by considering the problem demographically. First, it should be noted that religious studies professionals are exceedingly rare in our economy. It is highly unlikely that a person will meet a religious studies professional in the ordinary course of life.[4] To consider only the economy of the United States, in 2015, out of the nearly 149 million employed persons over age 16, only 1.3 million (less than 1%) were categorized as “postsecondary teachers.” But postsecondary instructors in “Philosophy and Religion” (where the BLS categorizes us, not including the unemployed, the underemployed, the self-employed, and the graduate students) number only 23,820 persons. Translated, that means that less than 2% of college teachers teach Philosophy and/or Religion. Thus, overall, less than 0.02% (2/100ths of one percent) of working people in America do what you do. In comparison, Clergy, Religious Educators, and other Religious Workers (as the BLS categorizes them) make up some 620 thousand persons, making them about 25 times as common as you in this economy (though still rare at around 0.5% of workers).

But surely, maybe you’re thinking, most people in North America go to college or university, and there they will have met some scholars of religion, perhaps in a required general education course? Perhaps they knew some religion majors in college? Well, maybe, but I wouldn’t count on it. In 2014, it was estimated that approximately 45% of United States residents age 25-65 held an associates or higher postsecondary degree.[5] Furthermore, it should be noted that students with a major in Philosophy and/or Religion have made up from 1% (in 1970) to 0.75% (in 2014) of degrees awarded, while students in Theology have held steady at 0.5% of degrees awarded from 1970 to 2014.[6]

I have not found data to suggest what percentage of students in college have encountered religious studies courses during their time in school. However, the disparity in percentages of postsecondary teachers in our line of work (nearly 2%) versus the number of graduates with degrees in our fields (less than 1%) suggests that many of us are employed because we are at work in teaching general education courses. But some number of these persons teach philosophy rather than religion, and many teach general humanities at an introductory level. In short, I do not think you can count on most people ever having any prior experience with meeting actual religious studies professionals.

That person who just asked you what you do? You are probably the first (and last) scholar of religion they will ever encounter. (Unless the AAR/SBL is meeting in their town.)

Given such observations, is it any wonder that people have difficulty in categorizing us and situating us in their mental systems of kinds of professions?

As a coda to this set of reflections, let me step back and register a few further notes of perplexity and complexity.

Twice every year at my institution, in early Fall and Spring, the registrar sends out a complete list of every student organized by major course of study (double majors are listed twice). In each list, student names appear together with their ID number, the name of their main advisor, their declared concentrations, and their class level (which is determined by number of credits earned). I normally use these constantly shifting lists of majors in Religion and Philosophy to help manage my program, for example, by creating relatively current email lists, or for planning for which courses need to be offered, or for qualitatively tracking individual outcomes in conversation with my colleagues. But recently, while examining the lists from the past four years, I noticed something that was both interesting and a bit troubling. The fact is that it is somewhat rare for my program to retain freshmen majors. We tend not to see those who had declared a religion major when they matriculated as freshmen in our senior seminars. At least half of our graduates declared the major as sophomores or later. And well over half of those whose names appear on these major lists as freshmen do not stay religion majors (some drop out, transfer, or leave the school; others switch majors). What this suggests to me is that students who come in thinking that they want to “study religion” do not know in advance what this work entails. Possibly, when they encounter our faculty, and our courses, these early declarers discover that “religious studies” really isn’t for them. Possibly, there is a mismatch between their preconceptions and the “reality” that the work presents.

And what about the students that do persist? At my school, around half of them go on into seminaries after graduation, and from there into those vastly more common but still rare jobs that are associated with religious institutions.

And as for us: how many of us trained in religiously affiliated (or historically religious) colleges, seminaries, and graduate programs? How many received M.Div. or M.Th. degrees? How many took ordination? How many belong to churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.? How many do mainly descriptive, interpretive, theological or normative and constructive work? How many write editorials extolling the virtues of public theology, critical engagement, and the profound resources of religion, like “revolutionary love”? How many operate with the idea that religion is a sui generis response to a universal human experience of transcendence?

“So, you’re not a priest?”

“No, let me see if I can explain the difference…”

Yes, let us see if you can.


Matthew Baldwin is Professor and Coordinator of the Program in Religion and Philosophy at Mars Hill University, an historically Baptist undergraduate liberal arts school in Western North Carolina.


  1. A vast literature of blog posts and professional self-help articles examine the socially fraught question “what do you do?” Most advise taking alternate paths for getting to know people. For a relatively recent and frequently linked piece on the topic, see Carolyn Gregoire, “Want to Kill a Conversation? Ask Someone What They do,” Huffington Post The Third Metric (10/30/2013) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/30/the-one-question-to-stop-_n_4171266.html
  1. “So, you’re a heart specialist? do you recommend eating bacon or not?” “You’re a psychologist? Wow, I probably shouldn’t even be talking to you; are you analyzing me right now?” “What made you decide to be a garbage collector?” “Cool! I’ve always wondered what it is like being a stripper!” “You’re a writer/actor/painter, eh? interesting; but what do you really do, you know, for a living?”
  1. J. Royce, “Doubting and Working,” The Californian 3 (1881) 229–230.
  1. The following numbers are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and reflect fiscal year 2015. See BLS, “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey,” (2/10/2016) http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.htm. For specific data on Postsecondary Teaching, see the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/postsecondary-teachers.htm and for employment statistic on Philosophy and Religion teachers at the post-secondary level see the BLS, “Occupational Employment Statistics | Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2015 | 25-1126 Philosophy and Religion Teachers, Postsecondary” at http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes251126.htm.
  1. See Lumina Foundation, “A Stronger Nation” (April 2016) http://strongernation.luminafoundation.org/report/2016/
  1. See Quoctrung Bui, “What’s Your Major? 4 Decades of College Degrees, in 1 Graph,” National Public Radio Planet Money (5/9/2014) http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2014/05/09/310114739/whats-your-major-four-decades-of-college-degrees-in-1-graph; and National Center for Education Statistics Classification of Instructional Programs at https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/cipcode/browse.aspx?y=55 which explains and breaks down the categories.
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For the Good or the Guild?: Kate Daley-Bailey Replies


In this series, a number of scholars respond to Kate Daley-Bailey’s provocative essay, “For  the Good or the ‘Guild’: An Open Letter to the American Academy of Religion,” which appears in the most recent issue of the Bulletin journal, Vol 44, No. 4 (2015). The essay can be found here, with an abstract reading as follows: This letter/essay addresses some of the critiques and recommendations I have for the American Academic of Religion regarding its treatment of adjunct concerns. I recommend the American Academy of Religion reassess its values and priorities and ask that the organization decide if it is a nonprofit organization or a guild. Subsequently, I recommend the American Academy of Religion discontinue its obfuscation of data on adjunct existence in the field, readjust its membership dues and conferences fees with the monetary plight of its underemployed or unemployed members in mind, and avoid marginalizing or patronizing those members who find themselves within the cycle of contingent employment.

Where is the Revolutionary Love for Labor?

by Kate Daley Bailey

While others might find the AAR’s theme of Revolutionary Love overtly confessional given that it is foremost an academic organization, I am fine with this theme as long as we acknowledge that this theme comes laden with cultural baggage and as long as the AAR and its members are sincerely dedicated to that theme. I am asking the members of the AAR to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk,” to use another common phrase of Evangelical Christian parlance. If we are to take this year’s AAR theme of Revolutionary Love at its word, and if the AAR and its membership mean what they say regarding labor and human rights, then, as Charles McCrary so poignantly noted in his response “Revolution, Love, the Good, and the Guild,” it is adjuncts who are in the most desperate need of a revolution and their love.

Dr. Debra Erickson, writing in 2011, notes the apparent inconsistency between the AAR’s and the SBL’s support of the working man in regard to the Hyatt housekeeping staff strike during the 2012 conference and the plight of academic laborers. In her article, Standing by the Working Man, she eloquently points out that AAR’s sympathy does not seem to extend to those laborers within the academy itself. Dr. Erickson wrote her complaint in 2011. The AAR finally published its Statement on Contingent Faculty Practices in September of 2015.

Given this past tangle with issues regarding labor and the reaction it garnered from AAR members and the press, I am startled by the AAR’s continued reluctance to address the issue of contingency within their own ranks. It is admirable that the AAR has created a Contingent Faculty Task Force but I am disheartened to learn that even members of the task force feel that many of the changes the task force has been working tirelessly for have been neutralized. Merely look to Dr. Kelly Baker’s lament regarding her decision to leave the Task Force. A best practices document dealing with contingent faculty, which was meant to at least set a precedent for individual departments and colleges was revised (to make the document more palatable to AAR’s executive board) until it was lame and toothless. I applaud the work that AAR’s Contingent Faculty Task Force is doing. They are fighting the good fight. Unfortunately, the good fight, as many of us who study religion know… often ends in martyrdom. If you have not already done so, please read Dr. Kerry Danner’s response to my open –letter here for how to raise awareness about this issue.

The Meetings Industry

I do not pretend to be knowledgeable of the meetings industry but I take executive director Jack Fitzmier at his word that the costs of organizing conferences are staggering. Fitzmier, giving one example of such logistical burdens, refers to the cost of $60,000 to manage the book exhibit. The book exhibit is truly a highlight of the annual conference. According to the most recent exhibitor and advertiser packet for the San Antonio meeting, the cost to rent a booth is roughly $2,000. I am not sure how many booth/exhibits this year’s conference will have, but the 2014 San Diego exhibit featured roughly 137 booths. If the AAR sells a comparable number of booths this year, they will acquire a little over $247,000. I am no accountant but that seems to somewhat offset any cost which the AAR absorbs.

How many of these expenses of infrastructure might be mitigated by soliciting bids from various large universities who want to host an annual conference? Isn’t the AAR’s own office (in the Luce Center) on the campus of a premier university with programs in Religion and Theology (Emory), which is located not far from downtown Atlanta, with its own conference center, numerous university buildings, and multiple hotels and dorms surrounding the campus?

There may be various hurdles to make such a radical change as this but I am asking the AAR and its members to grasp the gravity of this situation for all of higher education in the United States. I am asking the AAR and its members for change… radical, revolutionary, change.

I am asking the members of the AAR to take seriously the words of James Baldwin invoked by AAR’s President, Serene Jones:

I use the word love here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.

The plight of contingent faculty and adjunct labor is not going to go away on its own. The academic market is not going to self-correct. Adjunct faculty cannot change these numbers alone. This is going to take courageous action on the part of senior faculty as well as professional organizations who willingly take our conference and membership money. It is in the AAR’s best interest to appeal to contingent faculty. If the numbers of contingent faculty within Religious Studies and Theology are consistent with the numbers of faculty overall, then in the U.S., contracted faculty and part-time instructors make up a majority of those in the field. According to the latest report from the AAUP, “the majority (70 percent) of academic positions today are not only off the tenure track but also part time, with part-time instructional staff positions making up nearly 41 percent of the academic labor force and graduate teaching assistants making up almost another 13 percent (part-time tenure-track positions make up about 1 percent of the academic labor force).” The modern university is beset on multiple sides and if it doesn’t modify itself, it will be modified from the exterior. As Jason Sager’s response astutely points out, this situation resembles something akin to what European monasteries faced during the Reformation. Needless to say, things do not look good. Check out Brave New Films’ Professors in Poverty film for an inside look at adjunct existence.

I am happy that the AAR’s executive director, Jack Fitzmier, acknowledged that for contingent and adjunct faculty “things are that bad,” but I find his desire to separate contingent faculty woes from those of adjunct faculty problematic. Both adjunct and contingent faculty sign precarious contracts on a semester or yearly basis. Both groups bear the bulk of teaching responsibilities in their departments. Neither group are rewarded for department loyalty and both will likely be passed over when a more permanent position opens up and the hiring committee chooses the shiny new PhD from an esteemed Ivy League program no matter what miraculous feats or selfless sacrifices these individuals have made for their departments. They will simply not be rehired if they speak out. Both are shunned by the academic community. No, these two groups, notably, resemble each other much more than either resemble their tenured collogues.

I would like to address the question of responsibility the AAR’s director noted in his response because there is an element of communal responsibility that needs to be addressed here. Fitzmier outlined various ways to approach the “mess” of contingency: in terms of morality, economic parlance, or utilizing the idiom of responsibility. My thought is that if this issue was created collectively then there should be an attempt to remedy the situation collectively. It is high time that contingent and adjunct faculty no longer shoulder the weight of this issue alone.

As Dr. Helen Ramirez brilliantly illustrates in her response, The Snakes and Ladders of Academia, the blame for the current “mess” is always squarely placed at the feet of contingent faculty and adjuncts (in concert with “neoliberalism, greedy administrators, and politicians”) but that “some of the guilt for our subordinate status sits with regular faculty who haven’t used their privilege effectively.” Ramirez points out an often dismissed element of the adjunct dilemma: “regular faculty will not collectively assume any guilt for what they preserve for themselves regardless of the cost to us.” The silence from senior faculty I am sorry to say is deafening to those of us suffering from this new market paradigm. Fitzmier recommends that AAR members, especially those at the senior level, should share the AAR’s Statement on Contingent Faculty Practices with their Chairs, Deans, and Provosts to the extent that they “feel safe” in doing so. I ask that these same senior members whom Fitzmier describes as “feeling vulnerable, expendable, or otherwise endangered” try to imagine what contingent and adjunct faculty experience because they are, in fact, vulnerable, expendable, and otherwise endangered: they don’t just feel that they are these things. If senior faculty members are scared of speaking up, imagine the terror of those of us without the safety net of tenure, a savings account, health insurance, and the moral support of their professional organizations. The current situation is untenable and the only way forward for senior faculty as well as contingent and adjunct faculty is together. Senior faculty members have more power than they imagine and even just a kind gesture of support and comradery goes a long way with contingent faculty. We are your students, your friends, and your peers and if ever the AAR has needed to be a community that time is now. If our own professional organizations and their members will not speak out against injustices regarding academic labor, which intimately affect their own members, for whom or for what will they break their silence?

I ask the AAR and its members to come together as a community, a beloved community if you will, in the face of this plight. I ask the AAR and its members to not throw its people away but pull together in this time of upheaval. I ask you to sign the linked petition letting the AAR and the SBL know that you would rather invest in a community than a corporation and that you would happily forgo the annual conference tote bag if that would help contingent faculty members make it to the conference. Tell these professional organizations that the community they help foster means more to you than a week long vacation at the Hyatt. Tell these organizations that we are in this together as a people. Tell them you are willing to volunteer to help contingent faculty and the organizations through these times. I leave you with the words of an icon of revolutionary love, Alice Walker, regarding what it means to radically love another, to honor another as your friend.

No person is your friend (or kin) who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow and be perceived as fully blossomed as you were intended. Or who belittles in any fashion the gifts you labor so to bring into the world.

Become a friend of adjuncts and please Petition the AAR and SBL:

“Contingent faculty within Religious Studies and Theology desperately need the moral and financial support of their leading organizations and members of said organizations. According to the American Association of University Professors’ latest report, within the last forty years “the proportion of the academic labor force holding full-time tenured positions has declined by 26 percent and the shareholding full-time tenure track positions has declined by an astonishing 50 percent. Conversely, there has been a 62 percent increase in full-time non-tenure-track faculty appointments and a 70 percent increase in part-time instructional faculty appointments.” Adjunct and contingent faculty need their professional organizations to lower conference and membership rates for those in this precarious plight, they need help networking from established members of their field, and they need tenured professors to fight for them.”

Here are some possible personalized messages you could include:

I would like the AAR and SBL to consider hosting a conference at a large university to save on conference costs.

I would like to forgo my JAAR publication this year to allow that cost to be applied to adjunct resources.

I volunteer to mentor adjunct and contingent faculty and to help them navigate the treacherous field of employment.

I wish to donate money so that adjunct and contingent faculty can attend a national conference.

I am a chair of one of the many committees which meet at the conference and my committee has agreed to supply our own refreshments to help offset the cost of allowing adjunct and contingent faculty to participate at the annual conference at a decreased rate.

I am the chair of a committee and my committee agrees to dedicate their panel to the issue of adjunct and contingent labor in our field.

I am a department head, dean, or college president and I volunteer to raise awareness regarding adjunct labor concerns with faculty under my purview.

I am a tenured faculty member and I volunteer to advocate for adjunct rights within my department.

I am a tenured faculty member who teaches about social justice and human rights. I volunteer to spend some time in my classes discussing the plight of academic laborers.

I am a graduate student coordinator and I volunteer to talk to each incoming graduate student seriously about the current state of their prospects.

I am a department head and I volunteer to balance the load of teaching responsibilities within my department so that adjunct and contingent faculty do not bear the brunt of disproportionate teaching loads.

I am a department head and I volunteer to honor the value of quality teaching in my contingent and adjunct faculty and if the department will not continue to hire them, I will personally help them find employment.

I am a tenured faculty member and I choose be an advocate for adjunct rights at university council meetings.

I am not tenured and I am an adjunct ally.

I am no longer a member of AAR or SBL but I might consider returning if these organizations take the lead in supporting adjunct and contingent faculty.

I am an adjunct or contingent faculty member of AAR and this issue is real.

I am no longer a member of AAR or SBL because I am an adjunct and cannot afford it.

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Religious Studies and Repression A(nother) Cautionary Tale


by Aaron W. Hughes

Last week I wrote on my recent experiences during an interview for an endowed position in Jewish studies. I had been “long shortlisted,” and on the Skype interview was informed that a non-academic from the local Jewish Federation was on the committee. I’ve had some time to reflect on this encounter and I’d now like to think more generally about some of the tensions between religious communities and scholars of religion.

Since nothing is sui generis in the study of religion, I looked for recent analogues. I thought in particular of Wendy Doniger’s recent comments in the Chronicle of Higher Education concerning the desire on the part of religious communities to try to “repress” those who study them. Therein she noted the pressure exerted by Hindu nationalists to remove Sheldon Pollock from his directorship of the Murty Classical Library of India published by Harvard University Press. This was, of course, in addition to her own encounters with such nationalists over the years.

I thought to myself, could a Jewish Federation member on a Jewish studies search committee be akin to Hindu nationalists in India taking legal action against American academics and burning their books publicly? While I certainly would not want to go so far as to say bookburning in Delhi is analogous to non-academic Jews sitting on search committees in the Midwest, the intent is in many ways the same. Both, in their different ways, are attempts to patrol academic conversations. Hindu nationalists disagree with Doniger’s portrayal of Hinduism and have used the courts to silence certain conversations about Hinduism. Jewish federations seek to define discourses when it comes to Israel. Both, I would suggest, are instances of community interference and attempts to derail the freedom of speech.

While many academics are outraged by the case of Doniger and Pollock, it seems to me that they are more than willing to turn a blind eye when it comes to the makeup of search committees in their own institutions.

At the height of the 2014 bombing of Gaza my own local Federation’s “Stand with Israel” campaign completely ignored Palestinian suffering. Federations, simply put, do not tolerate criticism. As it says on the Jewish Federations of North America homepage, “We stand by Israel’s side. Always.” Always? Perhaps, most germane to my point here, though, is that most members of Jewish Federations that I have known over the years know very little if anything about Judaism as a religion, let alone its historical development. So why put such an individual on a search committee?

Jewish Federations do what Jewish Federations do. Ok. Fair enough. Presumably they do it well. Search committees do what they are supposed to do: they are entrusted to be advisors to the Dean or other administrators to hire the “best” candidate. But should the twain meet? That is the issue.

I wondered to myself how the non-Jewish scholars on this search committee could sit with a straight face as a non-academic was introduced. When they hired their scholar of Islam, did they invite a representative from the local Muslim community to adjudicate the candidates’ credentials? Ditto for the scholar of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and so on? If they had not, I would like to ask them, what is the difference with Jewish studies? The paradox was that the department to which I had applied prided itself on being one that was attuned to theory in the academic study of religion. Surely those in religious studies on the search committee were aware that one of the major issues in that larger field was the difference and tensions between religious “insiders” (i.e., believers) and “outsiders” (i.e., scholars). If aware of it, they certainly showed no signs of discomfort.

While I wished my colleagues had known better or would have resisted the intrusion of a community member on their search committee, presumably they were following protocol. But whose protocol? Did the federation insist on having one of their members present on the committee so that the university did not hire someone “unsuitable”? Or, did the university willingly reach out to the Federation because maybe the latter was somehow contributing to the funding of the position’s endowment. An outsider like myself can only speculate. There might be an entire history there that candidates are unaware of, but surely this should be transparent. If one of the conditions for the job is that one also must work for the local Federation, then why not say so. From the outside looking in, though, it looks like discourse patrol.

In her piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education Doniger warned scholars to find the courage to defend religious studies and preserve its independence from external pressures. I say “good for her,” but would underscore her point that external pressures are everywhere, not just “over there” in places like India, but often in places where we might not expect them, like search committees.

Aaron W. Hughes holds the Philip S. Bernstein Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Rochester. Professor Hughes’s books include:  The Texture of the Divine (Indiana University Press, 2003), Jewish Philosophy A-Z (Palgrave, 2006), The Art of Dialogue in Jewish Philosophy (Indiana University Press, 2007), Situating Islam (Equinox Publishing, 2007), The Invention of Jewish Identity (Indiana University Press, 2010), Defining Judaism: A Reader (Equinox Publishing, 2010), Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (Oxford UP, 2012), The Study of Judaism: Identity, Authenticity, Scholarship (SUNY Press, 2013), Rethinking Jewish Philosophy: Beyond Particularity and Universality (Oxford UP, 2014), and Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception(Equinox Publishing, 2015). 

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