Name it and Disclaim it: A Tool for Better Discussion in Religious Studies

by Joseph P. Laycock and Natasha L. Mikles

Anyone who has led discussion in an introductory undergraduate Religious Studies class has experienced frustrating comments from students such as, “Jews practice empty ritual,” or “Buddhists are more spiritual than other religions.” It seems that regardless of efforts to set up “ground rules” at the beginning of the course, comments likes these still show up. The worst is when they appear in final exam essays and one wonders if all of their instruction has fallen on deaf ears.

In fairness to our students, doing analysis within a religious studies classroom is a unique beast.  It may seem comparable to discussions they have in a philosophy class or a history class, but there are subtle differences.  Unfortunately, by the time most students have any sense of how to do religious studies, the semester is over. This problem is even worse in a World Religions class where the students must master course content at the same time they are learning to think like a religion scholar.

While everyone must muddle through, certain students demonstrate assumptions and patterns of thinking that are uniquely aggravating to religious studies professors. Usually what makes these patterns so exasperating is that they conceal some form of intellectual laziness: The problem is not that the student has some unique perspective the professor disagrees with, but rather that they are deploying a rhetorical maneuver to avoid the hard work of critical analysis.

The challenge for faculty lies in identifying these patterns and explaining to the student what we want them to do differently. This is especially the case when, say, grading a mountain of blue books. What follows is an experiment in identifying certain recurring patterns that emerge in religious studies classes and creating labels for them. These labels are a heuristic. They provide a vocabulary to discuss these patterns more easily. The list below is inspired in part by a poster created by School of Thought International designed to help people hone their critical thinking skills by identifying and naming specific logical fallacies.

Our labels are, of course, arbitrary. The purpose is not to perfect a taxonomy of poor approaches to religious studies but rather to create a tool that can expedite the process of learning to think like a religious studies scholar. We encourage pedagogues in religious studies to identify the patterns that occur most often in their courses, name them appropriately, and then share this vocabulary with the students as needed. These terms can be introduced early in the course and then referred to again, especially during discussion or when giving feedback on student writing.  They could also be included on the syllabus or a course website for future reference. Again, their purpose is to help students apprehend larger patterns in what makes a strong or weak argument when doing religious studies.

Square Peg, Round Hole: This label refers to analyzing a religious tradition in terms of another religious tradition––and almost always this tradition is Protestantism. Describing religious beliefs and practices in terms “empty ritual,” “superstition,” or “a lack of morality” are all examples of “Square Peg, Round Hole.” So too are comparative essays with statements like this, “Instead of a church, Jews have a synagogue. Instead of the Bible, Jews read the Torah. Instead of a pastor, Jews have a rabbi.” All of this is technically correct, but it doesn’t demonstrate much understanding of Judaism as a tradition.

“Square Peg, Round Hole,” should not be misconstrued to say that we never use comparisons in our classroom. Students are always making comparisons, whether we ask them to or not, so it behooves us as educators to embrace the comparative strategy when appropriate.  What “Square Peg, Round Hole” challenges is comparisons that tacitly and uncritically take one tradition as the norm and everything else as a distortion or aberration of that norm. “Square Peg, Round Hole,” is also not making the claim that we must take religious traditions at their word or can never apply the hermeneutics of suspicion. We reject William Cantwell Smith’s assertion that “No statement about a religion is valid unless it can be acknowledged by that religion’s believers.” But before we can apply critiques we need some understanding of the internal logic and worldview of the tradition. It is hard to do this if we are constantly contorting the data so that we can measure it solely in terms of some other religious tradition.

No Good Scotsman: This well-known fallacy takes its name from an anecdote in which a Scot claims that Scotsmen never put sugar in their porridge. When shown another Scotman who does put sugar in his porridge, the first Scot specifies that no good Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge. In other words, any counter example to the original claim is dismissed ipso facto.

Franklin Graham invoked this argument in 2009 when he stated that “true Islam” is about beating your wife and murdering your children.  Presumably an infinite number of peaceful Muslim counter-examples would be irrelevant to this claim because they are not practicing “true Islam” as defined by Graham.

Unchallenged, the “No Good Scotsman” argument is very effective for belief perseverance. As such, students may be tempted to reach for it when their preconceived notions about a religious tradition are challenged. Just as Franklin used this argument to dismiss peaceful Muslims, students may claim that Buddhists who support nationalism or who are more interested in blessed amulets than meditation are not “good Buddhists.”

The “No good Scotsman” argument is also frequently applied to the category of religion itself. In his essay “Everyday Miracles” Robert Orsi describes how his students felt Catholics in the Bronx using holy water from a replica of the Lourdes grotto was not an example of religion.  This led Orsi to ask, “So if this is not religion, what is?” Orsi’s work demonstrates that numerous labels including “cult” and “superstition” serve the same function as the “No Good Scotsman” argument, preserving biases about what religion is and does by screening out counter examples. But we cannot get into the hard work of doing religious studies until we have stopped making such excuses with the data. As Jeffrey Kripal states in his book Super Natural, “It is very easy to explain everything on the table if you have just taken off the table everything that you cannot explain.”

Loaded Questions: The classic example of a loaded question is the prosecutor asking, “Do you still beat your wife?” We find these kind of indictments framed as questions are often coupled with anecdotal evidence. For example, one student asked, “I went to Turkey and everyone glared at me. Why are Muslims so intolerant?” Invoking a completely subjective experience of Muslim intolerance reinforced a rhetorical maneuver in which the class was pressured to accept the claim that Muslims are intolerant instead of challenging this idea.

But the loaded question can also take a more subtle form. Instead of just trying to mask a claim, in a religious studies class it can also be used to abdicate the burden of analysis. When a student asks, “Why would anyone believe that?” they are actually making the statement, “This tradition is inscrutable and making sense of it is not my responsibility.” But when students sign up for a religious studies class they forfeit the ability the make these kinds of dismissals. As long as they are in the course, it is their job to figure out why anyone would believe that.

Medical Materialism: This term, famously coined by William James, refers to the practice of “explaining away” religious experiences in terms of medical diagnoses. Common examples include the claim that Paul was epileptic or that Islam arose because, “Muhammad suffered a hallucination from too much sun.”

As James noted, the problem with medical materialism isn’t that these diagnoses are necessarily incorrect (although they are usually made with minimal evidence or medical expertise). Rather, the problem is that they function to dismiss the cultural significance formed around these experiences. James noted that all thoughts and mental states can be reduced to the functions of the nervous system, but we only engage in this analysis when examining ideas we don’t like.

The Dumb Ancestors Assumption: Related to medical materialism is a facile attempt to explain all accounts of the supernatural as a misunderstanding of mental illness or some other natural phenomenon. This maneuver conceals a certain smugness that we have greater powers of reasoning and familiarity with the natural world than our ancestors. The Dumb Ancestors Assumption is particularly an obstacle when interpreting myths or accounts of the supernatural. Our ability to imagine the significance of these stories is limited if our default assumption is that these are just-so stories told by intellectually primitive people to explain the natural world. Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan alludes to this lack of imagination when he writes, “My point is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

Dan Brown Syndrome: This label refers to an assumption that a historical claim about a religious tradition is more likely to be true if it is not believed by the tradition’s practitioners or if the claim would upset them. The most common examples of Dan Brown Syndrome concern early Christianity and include simplistic mythicist claims about the historicity of Jesus or claims that Jesus studied mysticism in India.  Less common examples of Dan Brown Syndrome include hyper-diffusionist theories used to explain, for example, why there are five pillars in Islam and five skandhas in Buddhism. Of course, there is evidence for many historical claims that contradict the official histories of religious institutions. The problem with Dan Brown Syndrome is that it eschews reasoned historical arguments in favor of contrarianism.

Epistemological Nihilism: This label refers to claims that we cannot engage in any sort of analysis or discussion unless we have perfect empirical knowledge. One student told an author it was unreasonable when she was asked questions during class discussion like, “What would Bertrand Russell say about this?” because only Bertrand Russell could ever answer this. Another student chose to write an essay on Elie Wiesel’s exegesis of the Book of Job and wrote that Wiesel did not live in the time of Job and therefore was utterly unqualified to say anything about this story and arrogant for attempting to.

This is one of the most galling maneuvers because, while these arguments are often framed in terms of critical thinking or the scientific method, their function is usually to dodge the hard work of analysis. If we can know nothing, claims the epistemological nihilist, then attempting to learn or understand anything is a waste of time.

This list is just a preliminary exploration, and we encourage colleagues to add their own commonly encountered fallacies and biases in the comments below. Above all, we hope that by labeling these patterns, we can better communicate to our students how to sharpen their analyses. We all were students once and probably at least a little bit intellectually lazy until someone pushed us; we hope to do the same for our students now.

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So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do To Outsiders: Merinda Simmons


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 Merinda Simmons

Sometimes part of the work in articulating what it is one does intellectually or professionally is figuring out decisively what it is one does not do. As part of last year’s NAASR program on “Theory in a Time of Excess,” I talked about the perils of defining an approach exclusively as a negative (i.e., the critical theory as “not theology” approach). But I do think there is something useful in determining where one wants to draw boundaries around one’s work (and why). Plus, this series is all about how to treat the anxiety or discomfort or annoyance that comes with the task (challenge?) of explaining what we do “to outsiders.” At such times, knowing what we scholars of religion don’t do matters. Why would explaining our work be a task at all? Presumably, because “those” outsiders don’t understand “us.” I get it. I sometimes still find myself gearing up when I hear someone about to ask the “so what do you do?” question—shifting my stance a bit as my brain weighs the advantages and disadvantages of saying simply “I’m a professor in a religious studies department” and letting it lie without crafting a more nuanced or explanatory follow-up. The temptation to explain, I think, comes from our own anxiety over the prospect of being mistaken for theologians.

Funny how anxiety works, though. The more we have, the more we try to draw and police the boundaries surrounding the thing about which we’re anxious. In other words, if we really were confident that what we do isn’t theology, maybe we’d let others’ misidentifications of religious studies as theology roll off our backs a bit more easily. My own suspicion is that the label hits just a little too close to home. It’s easy to get defensive, after all, when so much of the field can still rightly be called theological and when religious leaders in a community are still invited to sit in on academic job searches. This is how I make sense of the fact that the impulse to say I don’t do theology!, while perhaps clarifying in social domains where there is little basis for understanding the nuances of religious studies, still holds so much sway among fellow academicians as well. What this impulse prevents, however, is the ability to think about other kinds of analysis—at times more difficult to discern—from which we might try to steer clear.

I find Bruce Lincoln’s brief “Theses on Method” useful for so many reasons, but one of them is that they articulate nicely what scholars committed to critical inquiry are not doing, and, correlatively, what kinds of tendencies in scholarship prevent us from doing that same critical inquiry. I’m thinking specifically of theses 9, 12, and 13:

9. Critical inquiry need assume neither cynicism nor dissimulation to justify probing beneath the surface, and ought probe scholarly discourse and practice as much as any other.

12. Although critical inquiry has become commonplace in other disciplines, it still offends many students of religion, who denounce it as “reductionism”. This charge is meant to silence critique. The failure to treat religion “as religion”–that is, the refusal to ratify its claim of transcendent nature and sacrosanct status–may be regarded as heresy and sacrilege by those who construct themselves as religious, but it is the starting point for those who construct themselves as historians.

13. When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood, suspends one’s interest in the temporal and contingent, or fails to distinguish between “truths”, “truth-claims”, and “regimes of truth”, one has ceased to function as historian or scholar. In that moment, a variety of roles are available: some perfectly respectable (amanuensis, collector, friend and advocate), and some less appealing (cheerleader, voyeur, retailer of import goods). None, however, should be confused with scholarship.

Criticism is not cynicism.

Criticism is not religious reductionism.

Criticism is not advocacy or retail (etc).

The title of this series is telling. “Scholars Explain…” The prepositional phrase “of religion” is not needed here because, as we have long discussed and debated, the object of study is more or less beside the point. If I want to identify myself as a scholar, my disciplinary affiliation notwithstanding, Lincoln’s distinctions are the ones to keep in mind—not those between theory and theology. The latter keep the focus on the object of study, engaging in the very theological rhetoric we try so hard to mitigate or deconstruct.

Getting comfortable with these distinctions helps me to let go of trying to shape perceptions of the kind of work I do. My nascent work with archives is a case in point. As I mentioned a few months ago in a Culture on the Edge blog post, I approach historical texts from a perspective akin to what Hayden White outlines in his now-classic Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), keeping in mind the manifold narrative devices present in the presentation of an artifact. So, I’m not thumbing through library stacks in the same way that, perhaps, colleagues in a History department might. This has caused some confusion when I’ve ventured into special collections. When I set out to explore some resources for my current work on the concept of “slave religion,” for instance, one librarian in particular became incredulous as I explained to her my project (one that focuses on the rhetorical and political implications of the category rather than the descriptive history of rituals and belief systems in the 18th and 19th centuries). “But what are you really studying?,” she asked.

Here was the “so you’re not [what I would have assumed]?” moment. She didn’t anticipate priesthood, but she clearly expected me to be something other than theorist. What use would a theorist have for archives, after all?

I take heart in what Jacques Derrida suggests in Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression:

…the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event. (17)

What am I really studying? Processes of production rather than recording. Or, put more simply, I’m interested in how people tell stories. Many of these stories are to do with matters popularly deemed “religious,” but what it is I do, at the end of the day, is read and analyze narratives.

As long as we try to nuance our objects of study, we will continue to confound curious people asking what they think are simple questions about what we do. And being unable to give a simple answer is our problem—not theirs. “I study Christianity, but you know…I mean, I’m not a seminarian, so…” doesn’t cut the mustard. A productive challenge lies in figuring out how to articulate my approach rather than whatever or whomever I happen to be discussing in my work.

There is, of course, a certain arrogance at work in any presumption that people should understand what we do and why it matters in the first place. It can be all too easy to condescend in reply when asked about our profession. Doing so, however, reflects our own expectations and assumptions far more than those of the enquiring minds wanting to know. The defensiveness that pokes fun at outsiders who just don’t get it does not reflect their ignorance so much as our insecurity. Emphasizing the how instead of the what seems one way to make things a bit simpler, and it seems also a way to make our work translate to a variety of different spheres.

Bruce Lincoln, “Theses on Method.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion vol. 8 (1996): 225-27.

Merinda Simmons is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Both her teaching and research focus on identifications of race, gender, and religion in the Caribbean and the American South. She is the author of Changing the Subject: Writing Women across the African Diaspora (Ohio State University Press, 2014). Her co-edited books include The Trouble with Post-Blackness (with Houston A. Baker, Jr., Columbia University Press, 2015) and Race and Displacement (with Maha Marouan, University of Alabama Press, 2013). She is currently at work on a monograph tentatively entitled Sourcing Slave Religion: Theorizing Experience in the American South.

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


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 James Crossley

Do you want to hear my anecdote about my favourite experience along the lines (though admittedly not the same as), “So you’re not a priest?” Of course you do. I was reading a book on the development of the study of Christian origins in the nineteenth and twentieth century (Ward Blanton’s Displacing Christian Origins) in a dentist waiting room and I was asked by the receptionist what I was reading. No-one wants to engage with fellow human beings and I did keep the cover deliberately obscured (great book though it is) but I nevertheless tried to explain what I hate explaining. Yet it turned out to be a humbling experience because she responded by telling me that she hoped rich people would burn in hell, starting with the Rolex-wearing dentist who underpays his staff. I could only agree with the sentiment.

Most reactions to what I do (assuming I tell the truth) to people outside universities are usually unsurprising ones of indifference or bafflement. Countless times colleagues have spoken about the question, “So you’re not a priest?”, or variations on the theme. While not professing to know what people think, I tend to assume cynically that the question often functions as code for, “look how obscure I am and our little group I’m a part of is!” Maybe I’m wrong in plenty of instances and I actually do like the idea of valuing things deemed obscure, useless, and without obvious economic value. And, in fact, one reason I value such things is because in my previous academic experience there was pressure on my economic valueless subject which was therefore not deemed worthy by influential figures in management. Put another way, my embarrassment outside the workplace is the opposite of my proudly self-identifying with biblical studies against certain universities who treat such a subject with contempt because it does not bring in much money.

Let’s take a look at these two tendencies and some of their ramifications.

Category One: being embarrassed outside university about the subject we study. I always struggled understanding why I am (and others are) socially awkward when it comes to discussing what I/we do. I have always known that it would be deemed weird to admit my interests but I would also read things like the majority of people identifying as “Christian” in answer to the question, “What is your religion?” According to Census 2011, this figure was 70.7% in my hometown of Barrow (a little higher than the national percentage, though notably down from 81% in Census 2001), and might be compared with 22.1% identifying as “No Religion”. This surprised me because I do not seem to know anyone in my hometown who goes to church and very few who care about what I do. I have also read articles and books arguing (not always unreasonably) that the past forty years may have seen a sharp decline in identification with a church but yet people identify as “religious” in a host of different ways. This seemed a little closer to my experiences but still: why would my job be embarrassing in these context if lots of people were now claiming to be SBNR (Spiritual, But Not Religious) or whatever? Well, questions and answers in the context of e.g. the Census only tell a story in one particular context. The British Social Attitudes survey asked a different question (“Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?”) and it suggests a national and regional decline in identification with Christian churches (especially the Church of England) and a rise in those identifying with “No Religion” (44.2% in the North West of England, slightly lower than the national percentage). I am not suggesting that one question is necessarily better or worse but rather both provoke different answers and identity performance in different contexts. One seemed to be a little closer to helping me understand my anxieties but, ultimately, I wasn’t too much the wiser.

Over the summer I decided to find out more about this in Barrow and in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. I asked about thirty people what they thought of the following from the now former British Prime Minister, David Cameron:

[From] human rights and equality to our constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy…the first forms of welfare provision… language and culture… [T]he Judeo-Christian roots of the Bible also provide the foundations for protest and for the evolution of our freedom and democracy…[They form] the irrepressible foundation for equality and human rights, a foundation that has seen the Bible at the forefront of the emergence of democracy, the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women… Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities these are the values we treasure. Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that. But they are also values that speak to us all – to people of every faith and none.

The reactions were telling. Certainly there were constructions of, and assumptions about, what the Bible and Christianity is (e.g. a morally decent something corrupted by later interpreters). But the near-universal response was disbelief that a politician would dare justify political views with the Bible or Christianity which were deemed largely irrelevant. In contrast to immediate answers about politics, almost all participants were puzzled, baffled, and paused for some time to think, and some thought that I even invented the quotation from Cameron (I didn’t, incidentally). Several answers mocked the perceived hypocrisy and stupidity, as well as using industrial language to describe Cameron for doing this. There was little in the way of hatred for what they assumed the Bible or religion to be though little in the way of nostalgia for a lost past either. One of the few generalisations possible is that there was that shoulder-shrugging indifference about something that might once have been influential. I looked at hundreds of related examples in the context of social media over the summer and there were only occasional examples that might commonly be categorised as “religious” of “biblical”. This is, of course, only one town with its own peculiarities. But at least it seemed to confirm some of my own suspicions and experiences (on all this, the article is freely available for download here).

Why might this be relevant? This brings us to Category Two: we demand religion and the Bible be studied, not because we are necessarily wanting to be priests but because it’s all very important. A standard justification (at least in the UK) for a field or fields feeling under threat is to say that the Bible has had a hugely important influence and continues to have a hugely important influence. But what if the puzzlement about the priestly question, the common anxieties biblical studies types talk about, and the sample of people I interviewed and looked at, reveal something more worrying for the future of the field than being red faced? Might it reveal that there are a lot of people for whom the Bible or religion isn’t as important as some scholarly rhetoric would have us believe? Might it reveal that the Bible and religion is actually important for people who think a bit like the academics who insist that the Bible and religion is important, whether in terms of theological commitments or aesthetic tastes? All this could provoke questions and explanations as to why. Yet the claim of cultural importance isn’t exactly wrong either. It is easy enough to find the Bible and understandings of religion present among politicians, on TV, in music, and so on. This in turn might lead us to complicate the standard claim that “the Bible and religion are very important” and think more about these disjunctions and why and for what reasons is the Bible cited as a higher authority or used in the name of subcultural chic when plenty of people don’t care or notice. In the case of political discourse, why is the Bible invoked when the British electorate, as Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell speculated, do not “want their politicians banging the Bible [British English equivalent of “thumping the Bible”] all the time. They hated it, I was sure of that’? (Alastair Campbell, The Blair Years [Hutchinson: London, 2007], pp. 111-12].

That answer is for another context but clearly such questions that complicate the case for importance. Yet the argument of importance has a pragmatic function. I know I am not alone in having experienced a university management who likewise have no interest in the Bible and religion, and some such figures push certain negative subtexts that sometimes lurk behind the question asked in this series. This is starting to have ramifications for degree programs and, most worryingly, jobs in the UK, some of which are being lost. This is where the “importance approach” can be significant, at least if allowed to be put into practice, and at least for those who want the field(s) to survive. The UK model of the study of religion is (largely) tied in with subjects having discreet departments with their own courses for student recruitment. The increasing neoliberalization of universities (especially since 2012) has also contributed to the anxieties about the future of the field(s) based on income. While complicity with (what to some of us is) an unfortunate economic turn would be inevitable for those who wish to continue in the conventional university setting, there are still ways of surviving. By embedding the subject in other academics fields (e.g. English, History, Anthropology, etc.), scholars of religion can put the “importance argument” into practice and help with staff-student ratios for colleagues in other departments and faculties. This might not be as pressing for North American colleagues but there is an intellectual argument that might be of relevance. It seems clear enough (to me at least) that in some areas of the humanities and social sciences there is little knowledge of the deconstruction and genealogy of discourses about “the Bible” or “religion” and too much work which assumes some peculiarly essentialized notions. But so does a great deal of biblical studies and religious studies, you might respond. Certainly. But that does not mean limiting debates and intellectual engagements. On the contrary. There is an opportunity to embed the subject(s), inform other subjects, and learn from other subjects.

So, if anyone is working in a context where the priestly question (particularly when spoken with a derogatory subtext) is too easily assumed, answer: “Not necessarily. Now, sit back, relax and let me tell you all about it…”

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CFP: Sovereignty & Strangeness Graduate Conference, Northwestern Department of Religious Studies

The Northwestern Department of Religious Studies graduate students invite young scholars to submit paper proposals for “Sovereignty & Strangeness,” a graduate conference to be held October 19-21, 2018 in Evanston, IL. Proposals are due May 6, 2018. You can get more details and view the full CFP at our website:
This conference aims to explore the constitutive relationship between sovereignty and that which is strange, queer, or illegible. How might the language of sovereignty be useful for thinking about power in religious or secular contexts when spiritual communities, charismatic individuals, and state institutions make claim to and perform supreme authority over populations and territories? And how might the language of strangeness help trace the disruptive potential of places, practices, and bodies that exceed the logic of sovereignty? Such questions converge in talking about queer and trans* materialities, racialized cosmologies, gender troubles, cultic communities, and liberation theologies, to name just a few examples. This conference hopes to put two intellectual currents – studies of sovereignty and studies of strangeness – into conversation in ways that open these terms up to new and unexpected meanings.
We are thrilled to have Drs. Ashon Crawley and Melissa M. Wilcox as keynote speakers for this conference.
Please send a 500-word abstract, along with your name, institution, and year of study to NUReligiousStudiesConference[at] by May 6, 2018.
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So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Sher Afgan Tareen


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

“What will he become?”

by Sher Afgan Tareen

On most afternoons in West Windsor New Jersey where my aunt resides, apart from grabbing a pear from the kitchen table or scanning all the family pictures in the sunroom for one more time, there usually is not all that much to do. A decade ago, the usual placidity turned tense when my grandmother broached my brother’s career. It had been few months since my brother had informed us that he will apply for graduate school in religious studies and forego his earlier plan of pursuing a career in law or finance. No one raised any concerns. But the silence from our end bespoke a curiosity that had swiftly grown into an unbearably annoying question: “What will he become?” My brother was perturbed. He beseeched everyone to stop bothering him. Back then, I sympathized with him. But as I recollect that afternoon right now, I also erred from blaming my grandmother for causing unnecessary grief. We had not really learned how to react when a college educated boy from Pakistan does not utter Doctor, Engineer, Lawyer or even Cricket player as the career he wishes to pursue. Sure, my grandmother always sounded like an inquisitor when she questioned someone but in that particular moment, she was a hiker who feared getting lost on the trail.

My grandmother had been the one who taught us how to pray and reminded us to fear pork and sexual intimacy. But she belonged to an upper middle class family. Studying religion is not a task expected from folks like us. Our study of religion consists of memorizing the Quran at home with the aid of a poor chap who enjoys the free tea and biscuits he receives in return. In addition, we also take Islamiyat, a class on Islam that elite Pakistanis only mention while recounting the number of A’s they scored in the O’Levels examination. My brother had also been one of those who aced Islamiyaat. But at Macalester College he had enrolled in an Introduction to Islam course, hoping to ameliorate the stress of taking multiple econ courses by balancing them off with a course promising an easy A. But once the semester concluded, an unfamiliar humility subdued his desire to see his grade point average closer to 4.0 than 3.0. He realized that growing up a Muslim does not guarantee an easier route to success in a class on Islam. He gained interest in theory and method of religion and the debates over normative practice of Islam in India during the colonial era. That he could authoritatively describe his research interests however did not parry the question “what will he become?”

My grandmother left us the day he had become. Nowadays, lots of brown folks study and teach Islam. Heck, even Hamza Ali Abassi, a famous actor, hosted a Ramadan television show in which he broached the question of whether a secular state may classify what counts as religion. Someone inform Talal Asad please, if he does not know it yet.

But whereas my brother had to convince his family to remain at ease over a future unknown, I caused unease by resisting the future they have inferred about me.

“A family of PhDs! Wow,” or “So it must run in the family” are phrases I have frequently heard on disparate occasions from people unknown to one another. They deduce the success my brother has had as a scholar of religion as my future. Why wouldn’t they? We share a common past; we are graduates from Macalester College who pursued graduate studies in Religion. Although I have followed his steps, I have felt differently walking on those steps.

Unlike my brother, I did not necessarily pursue a career as a scholar of religion. I was somewhat reminded of having pursued a career as a scholar of religion. During the first week of college, my brother instructed me to take religion courses in a manner as if he was asking me to walk inside a home he once used to live in. He was being nostalgic; I all of a sudden had multiple religion courses on my class shopping list. A year later, I registered for a course titled The Study of Religion or something very generic that I can not recall right now. I attended the first day of class and along my classmates proposed a research topic for the final paper. Later that day, one of my other professors approached me and very nicely suggested I delay taking that class. Only then I realized I had been sitting next to senior year religion majors who were preparing to write their capstone papers, not any final paper. The epiphany embarrassed me; how haughty my professors will think I am! That said, having taken five classes already, I had also secured a minor in religion. That I did not know beforehand either! Upon graduating, I had completed 17 religion courses, falling one short I suppose of a double major in Religion and Religion.

I then applied for a Masters in religion to various schools because applying to schools was the only kind of application letter I knew how to fill out. Two years later I applied for a PhD in religion to various schools because I had not learned how to apply for actual jobs as a Masters in religion either. My cover letter was excellent. I wrote what I wanted to study but did not belabor the specifics because I did not really want to study what I wrote I wanted to study. I did not want to do much at all. I was enjoying playing cricket and was content doing more of that, not contemplating why Harvard Divinity School paid me a monthly stipend.

Conceit, as in I was cocksure one of these programs will surely want me, and an uncontrolled libido, as in I had yet to and therefore really wanted to witness the America they represented in American Pie 2, led me to Florida State University. During the summer between Harvard and Florida State, I did nothing except play more cricket and meet a girl who I wished I had known longer. When I arrived in Tallahassee, I started sleeping on the dining room couch until my roommate grew tired of reminding me I had a room to myself and needed to purchase a bed. I saw in real life the kinds of girls they showed in American Pie 2, but I thought mostly of the olive skinned black haired girl I had met during the summer. The next semester I left school, returned to D.C, dated her, landed a gig as a supporting actor for a Pakistani drama serial, lost it because being two inches taller than the female protagonist was not masculine enough. Six months later, I returned to school. My academic career restarted. My relationship ended. I experienced acute depression and anger. I had started losing myself. I had left my body and my body was searching for me. But religious studies never escaped my grasp. If my arrogance irks people who would in such conditions struggle academically, it should. There is something not on when you do pretty well at something but you are mentally somewhere else.

Nick Kyrgios recently conceded “I don’t love the sport” despite attaining his best ATP ranking. His serve demands attention: seriously fast, but somehow so effortless and unhurried. He also plays video games before a match and once took a power nap between sets at the US Open. Over the years, his mercurial behavior has attracted tremendous criticism. Mark Philippoussis, a retired fellow Australian tennis player, suggested that Kyrgios should forsake his career if he truly does not love the sport. But Kyrgios also stated “I do not really know what else to do without it.” How do you keep doing something you do not love? You ask what else could I really do? If you are Kyrgios, you realize you cannot play for the Boston Celtics and emulate your idol Kevin Garnett. I realized I could not be a Pakistani actor, at least not yet.

Kyrgios and I go about doing what we do but we perpetually get distracted by something completely unrelated to our career and/or something threatening to unravel our careers. We display signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. What will we become?

Sher Afgan Tareen is a PhD candidate in American Religious History at Florida State University. He specializes in Islam in America. His research interests include the politics of religious pluralism and freedom, theories of space and place, and the religious history of out-of-status migrants to America.

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


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

Explaining Yourself To Others –Religious Studies and Jewish Studies

by Zachary Braiterman

Maybe it’s not a bad thing, but why is it the case that a Jewish Studies professor or a professor of Religion has to constantly explain to others what he or she does? Because of the roles, obscure and not so obscure, that religion plays in the public sphere, especially among intellectuals? Because religion permeates everything? Because people care deeply about religion, even those against it? Because of the minority status of Jews and Jewish Studies in both the public at large and in the university? If we trip on our own tongues, it’s in large part because we trade with obscure matter about which ordinary people demand clarity. But the object character of our discipline is not the half of it. There’s also the subject of Religious Studies or Jewish Studies. How do we explain not just the object of our study, and why we think it’s important, but rather the subjective character of our investment in it?

We are supposed to be critics. We are supposed to view the object of our study from a distance. That’s what we tell others and that’s what we tell ourselves. But it’s a lie, an apologetic half-truth at best. Literature professors love literature. Chemistry professor are chemists. Physics professors are physicists. Philosophy professors are philosophers. They are moved by the object of their study and participate in its dissemination. So what about us? It is assumed that if one studies religion or Judaism it is because the scholar has a special love for and affiliation with its object, or with the intellectual exploration of its object. It’s not an entirely unfair assumption.

Non-academics, usually Jews, usually older Jews, will invariably ask me if I am a rabbi. I don’t mind the question very much. No, thank God, I’m not a rabbi, and I’m not a community functionary. That’s what I always tell them, as if to cleanse myself. My ready-to-hand quip is that my late father in no uncertain terms forbade me to become a rabbi. Unreligious, my father like many American Jews who grew up in the 1930s had a strong ethnic affection for Jewish people. With other Jews, my father was comfortable, easy and loose. What my father understood was that rabbis are unfree, bound and pushed around as they are by synagogue boards and synagogue politics. In contrast, it has been my experience that academics can pretty much say what they want. This might be a naïve view and there is evidence enough to suggest that, in Jewish Studies, one has to watch what one says. Indeed, we are not autonomous agents; one always speaks in-community. But just because free speech is framed or carries a price doesn’t make it any less free. That’s just how discourse, especially contested discourse, works.

It’s one thing to explain yourself to strangers, another to explain yourself to family. To date I’ve written two monographs, one on theological and textual revision in post-Holocaust Jewish thought, the other on art, aesthetics and twentieth century Jewish philosophy. My late father-in-law gave the first one a good shot. My older brother has both volumes at home but confessed that the material is too technical, impossible to read. My younger brother couldn’t care a less about what I do and regards academic life with unadulterated contempt. My young children already think that “Jewish philosophy” is the punchline to some joke or no little eye-rolling. For whatever reason, I find it easiest to communicate with my sister-in-law, who grew up modern orthodox, and a nephew. These conversations work best when cutting across very particular segments. When I sometime succeed at explaining what I’m trying to communicate, the older brother asks me why I don’t try write in more ordinary language. Or at least he used to. I try to explain that these books are about complex phenomena the understanding of which depends upon technical terminology. So why not write a book for a popular readership? Truth be told, it comes down to pride and craft. Academic books are complex by design, and there’s a pride that comes into their creation.

Having said that, it’s also true that, well into my career, I got bored with my field. Or rather, frustrated with the concentricity of my own marginality–the marginality of Humanities professors in the larger public and the larger university, the marginality of Religious Studies in the academy, the marginality of Jewish Studies in the academy and in Religious Studies, the marginality of Jewish philosophy in Jewish Studies and Religious Studies, and the marginality of aesthetics in Jewish philosophy. So I started a blog as a way to reach out–to friends inside and outside the academy, to colleagues inside and outside Religious Studies and Jewish Studies and Jewish philosophy, to family, and to perfect strangers upon whom one regularly stumbles online. The point has been to go for the middle brow. Some posts are more technically demanding; others are not. Every post comes with a picture that I have either taken myself or stolen from other online sites. What I have tried to do at “Jewish Philosophy Place” is to systematize and record the things that I see, read, look at, and think about on an ad hoc daily basis. The only thing that holds together this miscellany of thought, culture, art, and politics is my own intention.

An almost trivial thing, the blog is relatively uncomplicated. It’s self-justifying. People will read it or they won’t, but there it is. It simply is, calling public attention to itself. Now and then my brother will weigh in on this or that post, usually those relating to Israeli politics. My mother enjoys a fan-base among a segment of my academic friends, mostly because she comments in such an arch way. It may be that because of the blog I never get a job offer from a university more prestigious than the one that currently employs me, and that’s okay. In the meantime, it has gotten me some little attention inside and outside the academy, more attention than was the case when all I did was write scholarly books and articles. As something of an extrovert, that has been the cause of much satisfaction. And while I understand that mine is a very niche presence online, it has relieved much of the isolation I felt previous to its creation.

But to academics? Try to explain yourself to a fellow academic outside the field of either Religion or Jewish Studies. They are the worst, the least ready to hear another person out, especially when it comes to religion or to Judaism. This is a dirty little secret, so dirty that we barely communicate it to our closest colleagues in the field. About lines of affiliation, here’s what I’ve never dared say to a fellow academic in so many words–that no, I’m not a community functionary or apologist, that my father forbade the rabbinate to me, and that, yes, surrounded by books and by family, that, yes, I love the Jewish textual tradition and find myself there, the synagogue and its structure, the home ritual of Judaism and its philosophical expression, that, yes, I find my place in Jewish community politics, including the “Zionist idea,” and that, yes, I can situate myself in community critically, with an eye to history and politics and period detail, which is the only way an intellectual can in good faith situate, not because these things are true, but because they are beautiful, even when they are not. Alas, I fear that this is a conversation killer, but there’s no way around it.

Zachary Braiterman is professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His work explores the interface between Jewish thought and culture, continental philosophy, aesthetic theory, and visual culture.

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So You’re Not a Priest? Scholar Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Natasha L. Mikles


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 Natasha L. Mikles

Due to a spate of research travel and international conferences, I have spent a lot of time in airports over the past year. Maybe it is because I am a woman, but people (usually men) seem to take this opportunity to speak with me, ask me about my work, where I am going, and my reasons for going there. When I explain that I am a doctoral student in a religious studies program, my interlocutors overflow with questions—not about the mundane things that occupy my time like writing papers, teaching courses, and advising students. Rather, these inquisitors generally aim higher and want to know what it means to call oneself a scholar of “Tibetan and Chinese Religions.”

I usually stumble through some answer that is surely unsatisfying, and I have come to realize that I often find myself unable to answer the question of what we as scholars of religion do because I have a hard time explaining to myself what exactly it is that I do. Of course, my colleagues and I have our areas of research which have been neatly defined as discrete sub-fields by the American Academy of Religion Program book: Buddhism Section, Popular Culture and Religion Section, or—my personal favorite—Religion and Food. We all have prepared course syllabi and personal teaching expertise. We all speak our own set of research languages, study our own core texts, and perform our own methodologies. I understand what I do in the day-to-day flow of work and I know what I do to produce research within a collaborative space with colleagues, but what does it mean at a broader level to be a “scholar of religion”? What is the difference between me and a historian or an anthropologist or even an East Asian cultures scholar? Is there a difference at all?

I recently attended the International Association of Tibetan Studies conference in Bergen, Norway; over six hundred of the world’s Tibetanists joined together to attend five grueling days of conference with eight concurrent panels ranging on everything from the economic life of Tibetan monasteries in the early modern period to the disappearing linguistic diversity of contemporary Tibetan nomads. The evenings were spent discussing the day’s papers and carousing with far-flung colleagues over glasses of wine. While it was invigorating to attend a conference where one could hear a metaphorical Tower of Babel’s worth of research languages being spoken in the hallways, I found myself—in a way difficult to put a finger on—feeling a little like a stranger, despite the obvious overlap in everyone’s topics of research. The creeping sensation of dissimilarity was made particularly pronounced one evening when a colleague working in an East Asia studies department explained her research by stating to the table, “I just want to understand the history of this one monastery!” The operative word “just” struck me as significant for revealing the difference between scholars situated in the field of religious studies and those outside of it. In an effort to uncover the truth of the matter at hand, “just” limits acceptable modes of knowledge in ways that silence historical and contemporary voices who may speak about gods, demons, ritual power, and other things one cannot prove. While scholars in other disciplines are selective in listening to voices so that they may uncover historical and cultural realities, religion scholars are interested in listening to as many voice as possible to understand the heart of the matter.

This interaction reveals that we as “scholars of religion” are not defined merely by our topic of study. This is in part because the category of “religion” is an invention of western discourse. Tomoko Masuzawa demonstrates how the idea of “world religions” as a topic of study developed only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from the stratification between local folkways and “world religions,” which featured core texts, beliefs, and a focus on individual achievement.[1] Brent Nongbri and others have built on this argument to push the relatively recent invention of “religion” even earlier as a product of European colonialism and a counterpoint to the developing notion of the “secular.”[2] Religion is a constructed category unique to the modern age with roots in western imperialism, but so is the field of religious studies itself. Bruce Lincoln traces the history of the American Academy of Religion from its birth in the National Association of Bible Instruction and has argued that among academic disciplines, religious studies is unique because it is “a discipline consciously designed to shield its object of study against critical interrogation.”[3]

Because of this constructed quality to our field and even our topic of study, scholars of religion are doing something different than historians, sociologists, or anthropologists. In thinking through my encounter with my colleague “just” studying monastic history, I contemplated the two recent books of religious studies theory that have most struck me as evocative calls to our field’s potential. On one hand is Encountering Religion by Tyler Roberts—a book that presents a model for the humanistic study of religion based upon “treating the humanities as a site of ‘encounter’ and ‘response’.”[4] Studying religion—particularly the religions of others—allows us to suspend our own deeply held convictions and for a brief period “encounter” that which is different—ultimately arriving at a perspective in which “difference is not otherness.”[5] Seemingly in opposition to the pluralistic message of Roberts, is Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars by Bruce Lincoln—a book that seeks to demonstrate how the academic study of religion must dismantle the ideology of institutional religious narratives to reveal their role in maintaining a hegemonic discourse that benefits those in power.

What the methodologies of these two books share in common—what is unique about scholars of religion—is that our research has at its foundation a form of deep listening to people and the texts, rituals, and institutions they create. It is listening to communities make statements and claims about things they could never prove, and taking them seriously regardless. Our best listening encompasses the multivocality of voiced and unvoiced statements, remembering that every speaker by necessity silences another who might have spoken. This foundational methodology naturally leads in two directions: we listen to understand and we listen to analyze. Listening prompts the sort of understanding seen in Tyler Roberts, where we seek to encounter the worldview of another and place their statements about un-provable things in contexts that reveal how they create significance for the speaker. Listening also prompts critical analysis of the sort seen in the work of Bruce Lincoln: an analytical questioning of who benefits from and is harmed by the recitation of these unprovable statements and, ultimately, how their un-provableness is hidden. Both of these methodologies rest on first inviting every voice to speak rather than—as my colleague studying Tibetan monastic development seeks to do—to shut some out as mere distractions from the “truth.”

So, for all the men in airports who talk to me and ask me what it is that I do, I’m listening—to you and your puerile theories on Richard Dawkins, to the writings of early twentieth-century Tibetans who found epic literature a particularly evocative voice in religious discourse, to nineteenth-century Chinese priests attempting to navigate a changing landscape of religious patronage. I’m listening.


[1] Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.)

[2] Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)

[3] Bruce Lincoln, Gods and Demon, Scholars and Priests. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 134.

[4] Tyler Roberts. Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism After Secularism. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) 16.

[5] Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Natasha L. Mikles is doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia researching the relationship between Chinese and Tibetan popular literature and religious reform. She is the recipient of the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship.

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