Privilege, Religion, and Identity Markers

Benefits - Ring Binder on Office Desktop with Office Supplies. Business Concept on Blurred Background. Toned Illustration.

Benefits – Ring Binder on Office Desktop with Office Supplies. Business Concept on Blurred Background. Toned Illustration.

by Philip L. Tite

Last semester I taught two sections of a course on the topic of religion and violence. A key theme in the course is that violence is not simply a set of actions or the application of force. Rather, violent acts are related to social structures (systemic violence). As a way into that theme, we began by looking at Robert McAfee Brown’s well-known discussion of structural violence in the opening of his Religion and Violence (2nd edition; Westminster Press, 1987). All societies have and are perpetuated by social inequality. But I wanted my students to look beyond just acts and structures. I wanted them to study worldviews, ideologies, and conceptual frameworks. I told my students at the beginning of our course that nobody kills or is willing to be killed for an idea, but rather they are willing to die or kill for a conviction. This led us into a discussion of affect theory, socialization processes, the interrelationship between belief, structure, and action.

Over the past few months, given the political and social upheavals that we have seen and experienced in the United States in connection to the general election, this approach in our course inevitably began to explore hate crimes, racial injustices, and the power relations played out through social scripting and counter-scripting. We had already been dealing with many of these concerns, especially with an emphasis being placed on intersectional identity and how intersectionality plays out in narrative social interaction.

Privileged status became a hot topic in November. In response to my students’ interests and the challenges facing campuses across the country that my students and colleagues were struggling with, I decided to put together some of my thoughts on privilege and present those (very basic) insights to my students in an ad hoc lecture. I wanted to encourage my students to not simply react to the conflicts around them, but to theorize those conflicts, to better explain the discursive processes at work within and through the current American identity crises (and there are numerous crises at play at present, each vying for normative status as to what constitutes “authentic America”).

What follows is a bit of what I presented (and later summarized for one student when ask for clarification of my ideas) on privilege. In reflecting on that exchange, I thought it might be of value to share my ideas with a broader audience. Thus, this blog post.

What I’ve noticed is that most people treat privilege in a very simple way, without recognizing the role of intersectional identity. Typically, we think of privilege as unearned advantages over other people (e.g., hiring practices due to race or gender). This is certainly an important part of privilege, but it fails to note (1) that not everyone with such an advantage benefits from that advantage, and (2) that people have multiple identity markers (too often discussion of privilege falls on a flattened identity, rather than recognizing the range or layering of identity markers in the establishment of privilege for one set of social actors over another). This disconnect is what has led to accusations of reverse racism in public debates, for example.

So what I proposed is that we break privilege down into three components or steps.

First, there is advantage (or disadvantage). These are unearned. We are just born with them: body shape, race, age, gender, orientation, disability, language group, etc. They may also work in tandem with other advantages that are earned, such as education, though even the ability to obtain certain earned advantages may be affected (enhanced or negated) by unearned advantages.

Second, there is benefit—the “cashing in” on the advantage. This is “getting the job”, not being sexually harassed or assaulted, not being racially profiled, receiving a promotion, being assessed better grades, being treated better within the judicial system, etc. The benefit arises from the advantage.

Third, there is the context of activation—not everyone with an advantage will “cash in” on that advantage; or, perhaps more accurately, they will “cash in” within one set of circumstances, but might not in another set of circumstances. The context of the job interview, the promotion, border crossing, walking down the street, etc. is what has the potential for “triggering” an advantage to result in a benefit.

As an example, I have never been racially profiled at the border, though I’ve seen others profiled, detained, and treated with suspect and disrespect. I’m a white, English-speaking male. I have unearned advantages and, in that given context, my privilege is “activated” with the potential of gaining benefit. These unearned benefits on occasion being enhanced by the earned benefit of being a scholar and professor. The same is true for when I’m walking down the street at night. I am less likely to be sexually harassed or assaulted than a woman (only once have I had someone try to mug me at knife-point, though the incident did not go well for them, but I have never been sexually attacked). The context of being on the street sets the stage for privilege activation and potential benefit acquisition. Note that a white woman in the first scenario may have the same potential for benefit that I have, whereas the second scenario she is at greater risk due to being female. The advantage/disadvantage plays out differently under different contexts of activation. Similarly, an African-American or Arab-American male may have a greater likelihood of facing discrimination at the border, at a job interview, or on a flight than I would face, but we may both have the same benefit potential walking home late at night.

In class, I added another aspect to this three-fold breakdown in order to address this polyvalent social dynamic, that is intersectionality. We are more than just a racial group, a gendered or sexed identification, a linguistic group, a body type, an age bracket, a social class, etc. We are all of these and much more. Human beings are complicated collections of identity markers that overlap, intersect, and affect each other. In a sense, our very “self” is nothing more than a contingent layering of identity markers within diverse social interactions.

In some cases a person has an advantage that could be activated, depending on context, whereas in other ways that same marker could be a disadvantage. I remember a friend and colleague, at a conference session I organized on the topic of marginality and the public intellectual, indicate that in one sense she is “marginal” in that she is a woman, a lesbian, a feminist, and studies religion and Queer theory (potential “marginal” academic fields of study), but, she went on to clarify, she is also privileged in that she is white, highly educated (Ph.D. from one of the top universities in the world), upper middle class, and a university dean. This complexity was a learning moment for me back in the early 2000s. The layering or select identity markers—and the obscuring or repression of other identity markers—can have a profound effect on privilege. I also noticed that intersection of not only identity markers of unearned advantages, but also identity markers of earned advantage.

So let’s bring this back to our three-fold breakdown. Under certain conditions (e.g., a border crossing or receiving a speeding ticket or a job interview), and certain social settings, some identity markers will serve as an advantage that is activated giving the person a higher chance of gaining benefit (the “cashing in” on privileged status), whereas in other contexts those identity markers may lie dormant/not come to the foreground or they could even be a disadvantage (i.e., not “cashing in” or even “going in debt” on privileged/not-privileged status). Thus, a black male may be discriminated against while driving through a particular county (and yes I’m recalling an incident from the 1990s when I lived in the Midwest), but have an advantage over a woman at a job interview. More than one identity marker can also be at work (remember that intersectionality is the layering of identity to create unique experiences). Therefore, people may have privilege in some general sense, but don’t have benefit from that privilege due to not being in a context where that privilege—or combination of identity markers—triggers potential benefit, yet they might gain benefit (even with those same identity markers) in another context that activates a different set of identity markers in a different way leading to potential benefit. An important point here, however, is my qualification “potential”. Even when in a context of activation, a person or group may not receive benefits. They still have privilege, however, in that they have a potential for benefit that another person or group lacks simply due to having a given set of advantages within a given context.

Now to add to this whole discussion of privilege, let me share something that we did not cover in class, though I did share it with some students after class. Specifically, when discussing benefit, we can break it down with greater nuance by looking at sociological studies of inequality. As I mentioned, all societies have inequalities and, I would argue, depend on those inequalities to survive. This is true not only of societies with slavery (variously constructed, sometimes along racial lines, sometimes not), but also feudal systems and capitalist economies of wealth production/consumption. There are those who are the means of production and those who acquire/consume wealth. This process need not be a sharp dichotomy, of course. The rise of a middle class (or the burgesses) adds a level of fluidity to the dichotomy, yet inequalities of varying levels still exist and, indeed, are necessary.

It is within such inequalities that different kinds of benefits can be acquired (all culturally framed, of course). I was reminded of this point recently while re-reading an older, yet standard introductory sociology book by Tony Bilton et al. (Introductory Sociology, Contemporary Social Theory; Macmillan Press, 1983, especially p. 44ff). Bilton notes three types of benefit arising from inequality:

(1) Enhanced life benefit (material benefits that extend or enhance one’s life, such as food, shelter, safety, etc.),

(2) Social benefits (prestige, how others view us within our social hierarchies and relations), and

(3) Political benefits (who gets to have decision-making power within the community, be that on a national level or a local level).

One type of benefit will usually dominate and the other two follow along, arising from and/or enhancing the primary benefit. As we explored hate crimes and racist reactions to the American general election (in class we spent half an hour analyzing the religious elements in a three-minute pro-Trump hate speech delivered to a white supremacist audience in Washington D.C.), it is helpful for us to recognize different benefits that are being sought after—be that primary benefit or secondary/supportive benefit. Even when looking at privilege beyond hate groups, we need to consider the kinds of benefit potential that advantages may allow under a given context of activation.

As I reflect on these musing over privilege, I am wondering about the role of “religion”, including perhaps the very construction, definition, and utilization of the taxon itself. In one sense, religion can be an identity marker, a marker that one can evoke (for benefit potential) or have imposed on them (to undermine benefit potential). Yet, religion can also serve as a social setting for activating one set of identity markers over against other sets of identity markers. The power dynamics at play within religious identity construction have served to establish (or negate) social prestige—at least for particular social groups—, while in other instances (or in combination) have resulted in political benefits. The rise of the Religious Right in American politics since the late 1970s is a case in point.

There is another side to this discussion of benefit, of course, and that is to use a given political context for the sake of claiming benefit through affiliation. I think this kind of benefit acquisition is what we are seeing with, for example, the pro-Trump white supremacist movement both before and especially after the election. Such Christian groups may not have been endorsed by or embrace by the Republican nominee or party, though we could argue that these groups were not placed at much of a distance during the election, but these groups have claimed an affiliation or identification with a specific political figure that they see exemplifying of their own values and vision for the nation. In this sense, these groups are striving for political benefit by aligning themselves with the social benefit they assume is held by Trump so as to attain or protect what they perceive as threatened life enhancing benefit. This is one, perhaps extreme example of religion as a component of privilege.

Anyway, those are my basic ideas on privilege. It’s not overly complicated, but I think it helps us move beyond simple a correspondence of advantage with benefit. Privilege is a process of social engagement, power alignments, identity politics, and social conflict. It is centered on the crux of identity markers layering, intersecting, obscuring, highlighting social actors as they contend through networks of inequality and benefit competition. Indeed, this very process of social interaction is a factor in the very creation of social actors, perhaps in part due to establishing mutually identifying “individuals” (the individual, of course, being a product of modernity) with fluid aligning survival units (and here I have in mind Stephen Mennell’s excellent discussion in his “The Formation of We-Images: A Process Theory,” in Social Theory and the Politics of Identity, ed. By C. Calhoun [Blackwell, 1994]).

It is my hope that my students will have walked away with not just a better grasp of “religion and violence” (as a topic), but will now try to theorize violence by exploring and thus explaining the links between action, structure, and concept or belief. And in looking at privilege, such an approach is needed in order to fully understand and explain the power dynamics at play within identity politics.

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A Merry Muslim Christmas!

droge-quranby Philip L. Tite

So as it is Christmas Day — and for the first time in three years I’m actually celebrating Christmas (long story) — I wanted to share “other” Christmas stories. The New Testament has two Christmas stories (Matt. and Luke), both of which radically differ from each other but are often conflated in Christian traditions, and a more cosmogonic account in John’s gospel. But there are lots of Christmas legends, accounts, or stories that have arisen and been enjoyed over the centuries. Many of these so-called apocryphal Christmas stories (e.g, the Proto-Gospel of James) have had just as great an impact on popular images of the Christmas tale as the so-called canonical accounts.

Today, I’d like to share one Christmas story that most people are unaware of, perhaps because it’s not a Christian account (!); rather, this is the Muslim Christmas story! Yes, the Qur’an has the birth of Jesus (or in Arabic, Isa) (and John the Baptist), and even has an entire Surah named after Mary (the only one named after a woman!). Although there is more to the story than I’m copying here, specifically about Mary, John, John’s parents, etc., this is the basic Jesus story. There was even a beautiful film made of Mary’s life based on the Islamic tradition.


A few things to note (i.e., the differences from the NT accounts).

(1) There are strong parallels to apocryphal gospels, such as the Proto-Gospel of James (likely second century CE) and (with the mention of turning clay birds into real birds) the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The Qur’an is a strong witness to the importance of these Christian legends/texts within the Near Eastern world of the 7th century.

(2) The first miracle of Jesus is his words, first to Mary and then, most stunningly, to the villagers who believe Mary has shamed the community. This is an important Christological element, because Jesus, like other prophets, is a voice for revelation or recitation (of the word of God, i.e., the “Qur’an”). Thus, unlike John’s gospel, where Jesus’ first miracle points to his Passion through Eucharistic symbolism, the Qur’an presents Jesus as the messenger of God, a prophet for calling the people to “the straight path”.

(3) There is no Joseph. This character is totally absent from the Qur’an, which is stunning given that he plays a prominent role in the Proto-Gospel of James. But what this does is clearly stress the miraculous and virgin birth of Jesus. Removing Joseph clarifies that the scandal assumed by the villagers is undoubtedly misguided. Also, with the absence of Joseph, the Qur’anic account nicely characterizes Mary as completely alone. There is a strong pathos element to the Qur’anic account. The suffering and struggle that Mary faces is accentuated in the Muslim tradition, far beyond what we read in the New Testament accounts. For those looking for tales of strong female characters in religious traditions, the Islamic portrayal of Mary is certainly an exemplar to embrace. The entire narrative venerates Mary in ways that are rare in parallel Christian traditions.

(4) Note the corrective in the Qur’an as to the relationship of Jesus to God. Yes, Jesus is born miraculously. And the eschatology (“end time”) role of Jesus is very significant–and he is certainly one of the most important prophets in the Islamic tradition. But Jesus is not God for Muslims. Portrayals of Jesus in the Qur’an stress this point, pointing out the error of Christians while preserving a pure monotheism. This final point is perhaps the most divisive point between the Christian and the Muslim Christmas stories.

So Christmas is not only a Christian tradition. It is something that extends not only beyond the biblical accounts, but even the Christian tradition(s). Each account of the Christmas story, of course, is a unique presentation–though often intertextually related to other tales–and perhaps the best way to appreciate (and even enjoy!) each tale is to read it on its own terms, to recognize the creative dynamics that people have played with over the centuries on such formative stories of myth and wonder. So here is the Muslim Christmas story.

Have a Merry Muslim Christmas!


Qur’an 3.42-51 (Transl. A. J. Droge)

And (remember) when the angels said, “Mary! Surely God has chosen you and purified you, and He has chosen you over all other women. Mary! Be obedient to your Lord, and prostrate yourself and bow with the ones who bow.” – That is one of the stories of the unseen. We inspire you (with) it. You were not with them when they cast their pens as lots to see which of you would take charge of Mary. Nor were you with them when they were disputing. – When the angels said, “Mary! Surely God gives you good news of a word from Him; his name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, eminent in this world and the Hereafter, and one of those brought near. He will speak to the people (while he is still) in the cradle and in adulthood, and (he will be) one of the righteous.” She said, “My Lord, how shall I have a child, when no man has touched me?” He said, “So (it will be)! God creates whatever He pleases. When He decrees something, He imply says to it, “Be!” and it is.

And He will teach him the Book and the wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel. And (He will make him) a messenger to the Sons of Israel. “Surely I have brought you a sign from your Lord: I shall create for you the form of a bird from clay. Then I will breathe into it and it will become a bird by the permission of God. And I shall heal the blind and the leper, and give the dead life by the permission of God. And I shall inform you of what you may eat, and what you may store up in your houses. Surely in that is a sign indeed for you, if you are believers. And (I come) confirming what was before me of the Torah, and to make permitted to you some things which were forbidden to you (before). I have brought you a sign from your Lord, so guard (yourselves) against God, and obey me. Surely God is my Lord and your Lord, so serve Him! This is a straight path”

Qur’an 19.16-36 (Transl. A. J. Droge)

And remember in the Book Mary; When she withdrew from her family to an eastern place, and took a veil apart from them, We sent to her Our spirit, and it took for her the form of a human being exactly. She said, “Surely I take refuge with the Merciful from you, if you are one who guards (yourself).” He said, “I am only a messenger of your Lord (sent) to grant you a boy (who is) pure.” She said, “How can I have a boy, when no human being has touched me, nor am I a prostitute?” He said, “So (it will be)! Your Lord has said; “It is easy for Me. And (it is) to make him a sign to the people and a mercy from Us. It is a thing decreed.”

So she conceived him, and withdrew with him to a place far away. The pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a date palm. She said, “I wish I had died before (this) and was completely forgotten!” And then he called out to her from beneath her, “Do not sorrow! Your Lord has made a stream beneath you. Shake the trunk of the date palm toward you, and it will drop on you fresh ripe (dates). Eat and drink and be comforted. If you see any human being, say; ‘Surely I have vowed a fast to the Merciful, and so I shall not speak to any human today.’”

Then she brought him to her people, carrying him. They said, “Mary! Certainly you have brought something strange. Sister of Aaron! Your father was not a bad man, nor was your mother a prostitute.” But she referred (them) to him. They said, “How shall we speak to one who is in the cradle, a (mere) child?” He said, “Surely I am a servant of God. He has given me the Book and made me a prophet. He has made me blessed whenever I am, and He has charged me with the prayer and the alms as long as I live, and (to be) respectful to my mother. He has not made me a tyrant (or) miserable. Peace (be) upon me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I am raised up alive.”

That was Jesus, son of Mary – a statement of truth about which they are in doubt. It is not for God to take any son. Glory to Him! When he decrees something, He simply says to it, “Be!” and it is. “Surely God is my Lord and your Lord, so serve Him! This is a straight path.”

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Calling All Concepts! New NAASR Book Series

By K. Merinda Simmons (University of Alabama)

There’s a new book series you should know about. I’m very happy to serve as editor of the Concepts in the Study of Religion: Critical Primers—an Equinox Publishing series, published in association with the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR).

As the title suggests, volumes in the series will serve as critical primers: primers inasmuch as they will offer brief (c. 50,000 words) introductions to and overviews of the scholarly treatment of a particular concept in the study of religion, and critical inasmuch as they will outline their authors’ own suggestive claims about the stakes present in such scholarly treatments and about where these discussions might go moving forward.

bookseriesimageThe timing of the series corresponds with NAASR members’ considerations of how the frequently invoked but infrequently examined “method and theory” pairing can be reconsidered and productively utilized in religious studies (begun with the 2015 NAASR program on “Theory in a Time of Excess”). In fact, two of the volumes already forthcoming—on Comparison and Explanation—stem from presentations in the 2016 program on the methodological approaches many scholars use in the field. Comparison: A Critical Primer, by Aaron Hughes, will kick off the series and is currently in production. In it, Hughes considers what constitutes the act of comparison, who engages in it, how and why. He draws upon his own work on Judaism and Islam to examine the specific conditions that, he argues, make comparison a useful method.

Such discussions are significant for the field for several reasons, as they provide nuanced considerations of basic concepts and their histories for students and early-career scholars, and they also offer productive opportunities for self-reflection to advanced scholars who have made long use of the concepts they take up. Most important, perhaps, is that they productively challenge the analytical dichotomy of “theology v. non-theology” that can otherwise and unfortunately dominate discussions about the kind work scholars do in academic studies of religion.

Other volumes contracted for the series so far include books on Evil, Gender, and Tradition. As outlined in its description on the Equinox site (linked above), the series is a good prospective home for critical examinations of any mode of analysis, tool, or analytic term itself within the discourse of religious studies. Sometimes, the best contributions to the field come with simple, thoughtful considerations of a particular concept.

Do consider submitting a proposal! I would be very happy to hear your take on a concept important to the academic study of religion and/or to answer any questions you might have about the series.

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NAASR Membership, the Bulletin, and Access to Religious Studies Resources

bulletinimage‘Tis the season when academics renew their memberships or take out new membership in the various academic associations that we join to not only further our research and network with colleagues, but also to declare our professional identities (yes, which social affiliation we choose often is a statement of identity). This is true for members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), the professional association that the Bulletin for the Study of Religion is affiliated with. For those who are members of NAASR—and especially for those academics considering joining NAASR—, we want to remind scholars that NAASR membership includes free online access to the Bulletin.

Access to the Bulletin, however, includes even more benefits for members—benefits that our members may not be fully aware. In a very generous gesture of support for the work of NAASR and especially the Bulletin, our publisher Equinox has offered a 25% discount to all NAASR members on Equinox books (Equinox authors, of course, instead have their usual 35% author discount). In addition to receiving access to the Bulletin, our publisher is offering members a 2017 free “companion subscription” to any other Equinox journal that they choose. Part of the goal of such an offer is to encourage greater exchanges of the research, debates, and theoretical focus that both NAASR and Equinox have been developing over the years.

To return to the idea of declaring one’s academic identity, let me say that the work we do, what we publish, critique, read, teach, and share all contribute to the broader identity formation of our profession as researchers and teachers. Joining NAASR is a statement. It is a statement that we stand for a critical, reflexive, and theoretically engaged approach to human phenomena that falls under the label “religion”. The founders of NAASR, in the articles of association, described the society’s purpose as follows: “To encourage the historical, comparative and structural study of religion in the North American community of scholars, and to promote publication of such scholarly research” (Article II(a)). In a time when confessional caretaking of religious traditions has risen and become more mainstream, when, as our current NAASR president observes in a forthcoming Bulletin article, many believe we no longer need theory (that we are in a post-theory period), I am convinced that the mission of NAASR is vital for the continued growth and contribution of the academic study of religion.

And part of that mission can be accomplished through dialogue, debate, and critique. NAASR’s founders—Luther Martin, E. Thomas Lawson, and Donald Wiebe—wisely recognized the importance of publications in shaping and directing a discipline or field of study. It is our hope that more people will join NAASR in 2017, bringing more voices, more theoretical and methodological nuance, and greater sophisticating in the study of religion as a study of historical and social processes. By granting NAASR members greater access to Equinox’s religious studies publications, including the Bulletin, we invite scholars to join the rising chorus promoting method and theory and we invite members to take advantage of such access to resources, to jump in and become engaged participants in the work of the Bulletin and, more broadly, the North American Association for the Study of Religion.

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Revolutionary Love: Scholars Respond to the AAR’s 2016 Conference Theme: David Gushee


Editor’s note: Back in February of this year a number of scholars weighed in on the American Academy of Religion’s chosen theme of Revolutionary Love for the 2016 annual conference (held this past November), with posts from Aaron Hughes, Naomi Goldenberg, Steven Engler, Richard Newton, Deepak Sarma, Craig R. Prentiss, Eleanor Finnegan, and a group of grad students at the University of Colorado at Boulder. After the conference was complete, two scholars, Laura Levitt and Hussein Rashid also weighed in. Most of these posts were largely critical of the AAR’s 2016 theme, taking issue with such things as its Christian focus in a non-sectarian organization, and raising the perennial concern of what the boundaries of the academy study of religion are or should be? In this post, David Gushee, Vice President of the AAR, offers a response to this year’s theme of Revolutionary Love, with particular reference to the plenary sessions on this topic (see Levitt’s post for a critique) and to upcoming themes for conferences in the future.

by David Gushee

While I enjoyed and found meaningful the plenary sessions at the AAR this year that I was able to get to, I was aware that a) this might in part be because I largely share the religious vision that was being articulated, b) I felt the personal need for a “thick,” resistant, religious vision after the shock of the Trump election, and c) there must be AAR constituents who did not feel fully included or comfortable.

While continuing to support the freedom of each AAR president to select a theme and plan plenaries of her or his choice, and reminding AAR members that presidential themes and plenaries can be cheerfully ignored, I can assure all AAR members that in my presidential year (2018) the plenaries will not advance a particular religious vision but will speak to the professional obligations, opportunities, and risks facing all kinds of scholars of religion as they relate to various publics such as media, government, and business. I will be thinking of and attempting to include the guild in its entirety, addressing the professional opportunities, responsibilities, and risks we all face–on the latter front, especially the risks facing the scholars with the least job security in many contexts, such as contingent, untenured, religious-minority, and other vulnerable scholars.

Rev. Dr. David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Georgia. He is the author or editor of 21 books in his field, including Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, Kingdom Ethics, The Sacredness of Human Life, and Changing Our Mind. He is Vice President of the American Academy of Religion and President-Elect of the Society of Christian Ethics. His blog won the Wilbur Award as the best in religious publishing in 2015.

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Highlighting NAASR Research! A Call for Submissions


As a publication affiliated with the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), and published by Equinox, the Bulletin for the Study of Religion wants to highlight recent and forthcoming publications by NAASR members, especially books and articles that engage theoretical and methodological insights into the academic study of religion. Although a small academic association, NAASR has long had an aggressive publishing program—including, of course the Bulletin, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, and the “Key Thinkers” book series–, but NAASR is also comprised of a number of dynamic scholars who are restless in their attempts to shape and direct the academic study of religion, specifically attempts to increase the critical or theoretical study of religion. Through textbooks, monographs, edited books, or scholarly articles (along with online contributions), our members have promoted not just the study of religion but, more importantly, the critical study of religion.

The Bulletin, both in print and through our blog presence, wishes to highlight many of those works and, therefore, we encourage members to contact us with recent publications. We are hoping to not only publish review essays (we have one in the works for Theory in a Time of Excess, a collection arising from the 2015 NAASR annual meeting) and summary presentations (ideally for the blog), but also critical engagements with NAASR member publications. We want to keep the conversation going in the pages of the Bulletin, to challenge and debate, to extend and refine, and to add and correct scholarly positions being advocated.

Please contact the editor, Philip Tite ( or, if you would like the Bulletin to highlight your work!

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Teaching Theory in the Introductory Classroom


This is part of an ongoing series of posts in a collaborative effort between the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blogs. On November 23, 2014, approximately 20 scholars of religion, from grad students to more seasoned professors, participated in a NAASR workshop in San Diego, CA on the question of how to introduce theory in an introductory religious studies class. Participants were divided into three groups addressing: 1) who/which theorists to include; 2) what data should be included, and; 3) where should theory come into play (e.g., at the start, middle, or end?). What follows are reflections from two of the participants. For previous posts, see here and here.

Matthew King: I don’t think a method and theory 101 course should claim to help students think more deeply about religion. By design, as we all know, such a course de-naturalizes the category of religion and turns instead to working with its histories, its locations, and power-laden functions. Our 101 course about method and theory in religious studies actually deals with histories of colonial encounter, imperialism, and the like. Those same moments of encounter, those same moments that birthed new lexicons of human difference amongst Western Europeans are the very moments that birthed our own academic inquiries into the topic (like history and anthropology). So, 101 classrooms, 101 students and the university itself are implicated already in the power-laden histories of thinking (or ‘knowing’) human difference; of which ‘religion’ is just one organizing concept alongside ‘culture’. What remains is a category unbound and a group of students already implicated.

I think that the method and theory 101 course should actually proceed from this point. Our students must be encouraged to consider the implications of typologies of difference and be encouraged to speak back …. It’s useful to go through the process using religion as an example. To that end, I prefer students read a group of founding figures (usually Taylor & Frazer, Weber, Durkheim, Freud, James, Marx & Engels, Mauss) and then more contemporary critics (the feminist critique, the ecological critique, the post-colonial critique, etc.). Student reading and lectures thus focus on so many ‘conversations’ (open to student rejoinders) rather than a ‘canon’ (closed to such rejoinders).

For those reasons, for the sake of garnering some excitement (and not stepping back from some strategic hyperbole) I usually suggest at the start of my 101 courses that the study of religion is not a discipline but a critical field of inquiry. Thinking about how we think about religion (and human difference more broadly) is political, as others on this list know well. I prefer my lower division students to leave my courses seeing theory as the way they organize their own thinking about such difference. To that end, our workshop conversations on scaffolding, and on limiting the field of theory we introduce in the interest of depth, has been immensely helpful.

One question remains for me after our dialogue (one which could bring us all into conversation once again?): How to keep any continuity between method and theory 101 and the other sorts of introductory courses we teach. How do we avoid leaving critical reflections on method and theory in a silo? In other words, how can we even evoke those same driving questions when we turn next semester (with some of the same students) to an Introduction to Buddhism, and struggle to do anything other than reify one other blueprint of religious difference?

Lauren Horn Griffin: In addition to being more thoughtful about the choices I make in critiquing various theories, one idea that emerged for me during our workshop concerns course (and even department) structure. Group One discussed a few textbooks, pointing out the benefits and drawbacks of each. The workshop-wide discussion continued to critique the theorists themselves as well as the presentations of those theorists in the textbooks. Of course, in a class like this whose entire driving question is “what is religion?” there is going to be a breakdown between primary and secondary sources, as each text becomes our “data.” But I began to wonder, is there a constructive element here, or is our work in a course like this necessarily and solely deconstructive?

Like many of us, I structured my theory and methods class around problematizing the definition of religion, starting with the question “what is religion?” and continuing throughout the course to help students expose these categories as artificially constructed. As we encounter and disrupt various theories, students see that any definition is socially constructed, restrictive, and possibly harmful. Also, considering explicitly the “methods” side of the course, I promoted the idea that we would use religion as an angle of vision from which to explore the types of questions asked by disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. So the course could also give students a taste of those disciplines as well as an introduction to the ways in which people have thought about and approached religion. This helps students see that certain approaches, questions, and sources make certain answers possible, thus creating their own objects of study. Since the group was pretty unanimous in deciding that it doesn’t matter what theorist or method we include as long as we are constantly disrupting them and exposing the ways in which they construct the category, perhaps the main takeaway here is to be more aware about which scholars we are choosing as “disrupters” and how we/they choose to disrupt. I realized in new ways after our discussion that our choices are powerful, and I need to be more purposeful with those choices and more explicit in my defense of those choices.

But as I thought about the discussions during our workshop, I also kept returning to the question of course structure. Do we continue to cover various theories and methods and then expose the problems created by them, or should we structure our classes completely differently? Are we in danger of reinforcing the ideas we are trying to disrupt by keeping this structure and using their vocabulary? Should a “theory and methods” course even be offered as a stand-alone course, since all courses necessarily involve both theory and content? Furthermore, should we be restructuring our course offerings and departments so that our job is not always to disrupt and critique the structure of our own courses and departments, or is this as it should be?

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