On the Usefulness of Reza Aslan

by Matt Sheedy

The launch of Reza Aslan’s Believer on CNN has, not surprisingly, garnered a fair bit of attention since its release earlier this month, from both popular websites as well as from scholars of religion. For example, The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, Variety, and Vanity Fair have all featured articles on Believer, ranging from fawning praise to cautious skepticism, as evident in the title of The Atlantic piece, “Reza Aslan and the Risks of Making Religion Relatable.”

As many readers of the Bulletin will know, this is not Aslan’s first foray into popular media, as he has been a frequent guest on Real Time with Bill Maher, and gained a fair bit of publicity for his book Zealot, including two interviews on Fox News and CNN that went viral, where he denounced simplistic depictions of Islam and asserted his bone fides as a scholar of religion (and likely attracted CNN to his market potential in the process). Several contributors to the Bulletin wrote about these interviews (see Brown on the Fox interview, and Stoneham, LoRusso, Sheedy, and Crook for the CNN feature) offering a decidedly mixed reception, where they asked–if only implicitly–what the implications might be of having Aslan as the popular face of the study of religion? With his show Believer, this question is more relevant than ever before as Aslan has now become one of the most recognizable figures associated with the field.

Commenting in a Twitter thread on the first episodes of Believer with the hastag Dis-#Believer-s, religion scholars Megan Goodwin and Michael J. Altman offer a mixed review, commending, for example, Aslan’s critique of the Trump administration’s “rhetoric about religious difference in the US” while critiquing his dated use of the term “cult.”

Likewise, in a recent blog post on the Bulletin, Andrew Henry reflects on the sensational content of the show’s opening trailer, which he notes butts-up against Aslan’s professed intention to create empathy and understanding by immersing himself within a variety of (lesser known) religious communities in order to create a product that, in Aslan’s words, is “experiential, not just informative.” As Alsan puts in an interview with Religion Dispatches:

My entire career has been built around trying to give people a better sense of what religion is—not just more knowledge about the world’s religions, but more knowledge about even how to understand religion, how to put it in its historical context. Also, how to understand the difference between what is sometimes referred to as “high” religion and low religion—the religion of scripture and temples and priesthood versus the actual lived religion that people experience in their day to day lives.

While Henry fears that Believer “may do more to exoticize than empathize,” citing Aslan’s discussion of the Hindu caste system in the show’s premiere as lacking in historical context as one example, he applauds him for bringing elements of religious studies to cable TV and encourages scholars to engage with the series, while ending with a cautionary note: “We should not ignore such a high-profile opportunity.”

This point is echoed in Ian Brown’s piece (cited above), where he argues that while Aslan’s portrayal of Christian origins in Zealot is perhaps “a little simple,” noting that his sources are “all rather conservative and/or theological historical Jesus scholars,” he points out that millions of people saw this interview and were thereby exposed to at least some scholarly ideas that they may not have otherwise encountered. This, Brown concludes, is “useful,” since it helps to garner interest in the academic study of religion despite the shortcomings of Aslan’s approach.

While this point may sound obvious to some, I’ve personally noticed a fair bit of hand wringing among scholars of religion over the very existence of Aslan’s show. To be sure, I share many of their concerns and what it could mean for popular perceptions of the field. Take, for example, one tagline CNN has used to promote the show:

In this new spiritual adventure series, renowned author and religious scholar Reza Aslan immerses himself in the world’s most fascinating faith-based groups to experience life as a true believer.

Right here, in one short sentence, we find a normative discourse on spirituality, a displacement of the object “religion” (as in scholar of religion) with the adjective “religious” (thus implying a theology), and heavily loaded assumptions suggested by the terms faith, experience, and “true believer.” But despite these problems with CNN’s promo, I share Brown and Henry’s enthusiasm for Alsan’s public presentations of “religious studies,” if only because it provides an opportunity for us to engage a larger audience on what it is that we do, and to perhaps make ourselves more relevant in an age of austerity.

By way of comparison I am reminded here of debates that took place in my own backyard in Winnipeg, Manitoba, when the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) opened its doors in September of 2014. Many academics and activists alike lamented its very existence given the (predictable) privileging of certain narratives over others, the role of the state and special donors in governing the framework of “human rights,” and the irony of the museum being built on unceeded Indigenous land, among other things. But with all its problems–from a critical/descriptive/analytic/historical as well as a political-ethical point of view–the CMHR has created space for conversations that did not exist before it arrived and has been used to garner increased attention to both historical scholarship and political issues since its inception.

With this example in mind, I suggest that we view Aslan’s show in a similar light—as an opportunity that we can draw upon to show others outside of the disciple (so, like, 99.9999 …% of the population) an imperfect example of some of the things we do as scholars of religion. For many of us without permanent positions who don’t know if we’ll ever land a job in academia in this still downward spiralling market, or even if we’ll be able to continue teaching as adjuncts amidst cutbacks in courses and paltry wages, a chance to expand public interest in the study of religion is an opportunity that should not be thrown to the wolves, who are still howling at the door despite the size of their bloated bellies.

Matt Sheedy holds a Ph.D in religious studies from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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Theorizing Religion in the Age of Trump: Matthew Baldwin, Part II

The election of Donald Trump has given rise to new kind of politics that has already increased tensions between competing groups, including religious groups over issues such as public education, science funding, and a travel ban impacting several Muslim majority countries. In this new series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars how they might go about theorizing these issues from the perspective of the study of religion.

“Stopping Conversation: Andrew Sullivan on the “Religion” of Academia”

by Matthew Baldwin

This is the second installment in a three part essay in response to Andrew Sullivan’s March 10th post in New York Magazine, “Is Intersectionality a Religion?” The first part presented the discursive context of Sullivan’s argument. Here, the second part examines the implicit theory at work in Sullivan’s the act of classification. Next week, the essay concludes by examining the ideological agenda at work in this interesting example of the discourse on “religion” in the “age of Trump.”

Part II: Classification and Criticism

Before proceeding, I want to say a word in defense of taking Sullivan’s essay seriously. For the professional religious studies scholar might indeed be tempted to ignore Sullivan’s question and argument, dismissing both as contrived and unconvincing. A professional could easily stipulate a nominal definition of “religion”—e.g. a neo-Tylorean or Spiroean definition stressing traditional interaction with superhuman forces (cf. Spiro 1966)—which would exclude “intersectionality” (on any construction of the term) as an example of “religion.” This anthropological approach would answer Sullivan’s question with “no,” arguing that he is merely mistaken. His claims are of no interest to real scholars who do real work on real religions.

Silly Sullivan, classifying religious phenomena is for scholars.

Such an approach would be unsatisfying for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that scholars of religion may justly consider any deployment of the category “religion” as a matter of theoretical interest (von Stuckrad 2013). Sullivan’s question may seem specious to some, but I would argue that it is better seen as data useful for theorizing the public “discourse on religion.” By deploying the category of “religion” in this unexpected way, Sullivan invites the religious studies professional not to answer his question with a “no,” or a “yes,” but to investigate the fact that he is is asking it in the first place. Such an investigation allows us to pursue our disciplinary interest in making better sense of how “religion” functions as a taxon, doing work for interested subjects in a cultural context.

The remainder of this essay will thus take up four interrelated questions about Sullivan’s article. This week, in Part II, we ask, first: how does Sullivan conceptualize “religion”? and second: what observations led Sullivan to deploy the category in this case? Next week, in Part III, we ask, third: why does Sullivan denominate the “religion” he sees as “intersectionality”? And fourth: what assumptions are embodied and what concerns are operationalized in this particular act of classification?

The Rhetorical Structure of Sullivan’s Text

Initially, it may be helpful to begin by describing briefly the rhetorical structure of Sullivan’s essay. Sullivan’s roughly two-thousand word text is presented in eighteen paragraphs, and divided into two main sections. In the first section, comprising thirteen paragraphs, Sullivan first reports on the Middlebury incident and Charles Murray (paragraphs 1–3) and then introduces his notion of “intersectionality” (4–5). He presents an extensive analysis of “intersectionality” and the incident “as religion” (6–11); he then transitions to a larger argument about “liberal democracy” (12–13). In the second part, divided from the first by a short, light grey horizontal bar, Sullivan concludes with an epistemological jeremiad about the challenge posed by Donald Trump’s America to notions of “truth,” “facts” and “empirical reality” (14–18).

The strategic aims of Sullivan’s rhetoric is revealed in this structure. After comparing the “deeply disturbing” spectacle of “intersectionality” at Middlebury to “religion,” Sullivan then presents this “religion” a symptom of a wider contemporary problem: a perceived crisis of public conversation in the age of Trump.

  1. How does Sullivan Conceptualize Religion?

Apart from the title, the term “religion” appears only three times in Sullivan’s article (in paragraphs 6, 7 and 8), and the term “religious” appears once (par 9). Nowhere is “religion” explicitly defined. Yet Sullivan also deploys a matrix of apparently related terms which he uses to substantiate his argument that “intersectionality… manifests itself… almost as a religion” (par. 6). (Note the hedging “almost” here, which seemingly anticipates the professional objection to his thesis that I mentioned above.) If we examine this terminological matrix, we can assess Sullivan’s conceptualization of “religion.”

Mostly appearing in paragraphs 6–11, the following battery of subtaxa are deployed in Sullivan’s comparison (to simplify analysis I have grouped them into clusters): “chanting,” “chant,” “liturgy,” “ritual,” “ritually,” and “exorcism;” “orthodoxy” and “doctrine;” “heresy,” and “heretic;” “sin,” “original sin,” “sinner/s” and “saints;” “manners” and “virtue;” “immoral” and “evil;” “confess” and “conversion;” “Dante,” “souls,” “damnation,” and “salvation;” “fundamentalists,” “Puritanism,” “The Crucible,” and finally, “zeal.”

With one exception, Sullivan relates all of the above terms to his description of the actions of the Middlebury students, and to his account of “Intersectionality.” Of course, the one exception “proves the rule.” The absence of “salvation” is used as a sort of negative confirmation of his thesis:

the only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation (par 7).

We can describe the conceptualization of “religion” found at work in Sullivan’s essay as a tacit example of “prototype theory” (Saler 1993). In a comparative project rooted in a prototype theory, the observer classifies an object of inquiry as “a religion” or “religious” when a sufficient number of its elements bear a “family resemblance” to a prototype of “religion.” Such a procedure is what we find in this argument. By deploying the terms from the above list, Sullivan reveals that for him, the category “religion” is based on a Christian prototype. We can surmise that Sullivan’s “prototype” ideal of religion stems from his well-documented familiarity with Catholicism. (Sullivan is often described as “gay, Catholic, and conservative”—a purportedly surprising trio of descriptors that he coincidentally shares with alt-right controversialist Milo Yiannopoulos). Because of its alleged resemblance to this family of elements drawn from an American and Catholic Christian matrix, Sullivan argues that “Intersectionality… appears almost as a religion.”

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Sullivan is using or applying Saler’s theory in this act of classification. Sullivan doesn’t mention what theorists of “religion” he may ever have read. Nor are these observations meant as an endorsement of Saler’s view that the category “religion” should be conceptualized “as a graded category the instantiations of which are linked by family resemblances” based on Western prototypes (Saler 1993: ix–xvi). I am, however, willing to argue that Saler’s attempt to give scholarly definition to a “folk category” winds up describing exactly how some persons—and in this case, Sullivan—actually employ the term. But instead of validating Saler’s definition, Sullivan’s strategic use of this type of argument to classify “Intersectionality” as “religion” ought to demonstrate how well prototype theory can serve the strategic interests of those who apply it to phenomena that interests them.

  1. Why See “Religion” in the Middlebury Incident?

In the fourth and ninth paragraphs of his essay, Sullivan reveals that this analysis was triggered by watching a YouTube video of the Middlebury incident. The video in question was recorded by Middlebury Campus newspaper editor and film studies major Wil DiGravio, and posted to YouTube on Mar 2nd. According to Sullivan, the video “brings the incident to life in a way words cannot” (Par. 2). Nevertheless, a verbal description of the tape is warranted.

The first nineteen minutes of the video document a restive, buoyant and vocally oppositional crowd in McCullough Student Center on the Middlebury campus. Shouting jeers and barbs, and holding protest signs aloft, they stand through short presentations by Communications VP Bill Burger (0:00–1:05), American Enterprise Institute club board member Ivan Valladares (1:06–6:47)—this is a campus chapter of the conservative DC think tank responsible for inviting AEI scholar Murray to campus—college President Laurie Patton (7:09–13:20), and finally AEI club president Alexander Kahn, who introduces Murray (13:42–18:50). These opening presenters attempt to quiet the crowd’s disorderly protests and assuage its anger. Their efforts fail.

The data in the video which Sullivan flags as relevant to him begins “around the 19-minute mark” (par 4) when Murray takes the stage. The crowd grows surprisingly quiet. As Murray starts his talk, they begin a more orderly form of protest. A large number of the students stand up, turn their backs to Murray, and begin to read aloud in unison from a prepared statement. DiGravio pans his phone camera, showing them reading together in small groups—now smoothly, now haltingly—while holding printed sheets. Sullivan describes this scene as follows:

what I saw on the video struck me most as a form of religious ritual — a secular exorcism, if you will — that reaches a frenzied, disturbing catharsis. When Murray starts to speak, the students stand and ritually turn their backs on him in silence. The heretic must not be looked at, let alone engaged. Then they recite a common liturgy in unison from sheets of paper. (Par. 9)

It seems clear from this tendentious description that Sullivan’s decision to compare the incident to “religion” must have begin with watching this video. To paraphrase J. Z. Smith, the protestor’s action was Sullivan’s “occasion of surprise,” prompting his essay in “explanation and interpretation,” accomplished “by bringing the unknown into relations to the known” (Smith 2004: 370–371). For rhetorical purposes Sullivan portrays the protestors’ unsettling tactic as something initially uncanny, the surprise of which can be reduced, and the meaning explained, by relating it to what is for him a more familiar context for a group reading text aloud in unison ( a “liturgy”).

The underlying interests that drive a critic’s observation of scenes in the world determine the path and direction of comparison. Sullivan might just as well have taken his comparison in the opposite direction, using the similarity he observes as an occasion for thinking about “liturgy;” had he done so, perhaps he might have redescribed the Catholic mass as a form of political protest against oppressive ideologies. But because Sullivan is not puzzled or troubled by Christian liturgies, and is not trying to understand his own (or indeed any other) “religion,” but is instead trying to understand what is to him a problematic social phenomenon, he does not take that route. What interests Sullivan, and “deeply disturb[s]” him, is the unified and sometimes violent opposition of left-leaning student populations to on-campus speech advocating conservative (n.b. the protestors at Middlebury would say “white supremacist”) ideas. His act of classification serves the purpose of criticizing that unified opposition.

Next week: Part III: Public Truth and the Pragmatic Critique of “Religion”


Saler, Benson. Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories. New York: Berghan Books, 1993.

Smith, Jonathan Z. “A Twice-Told Tale: The History of the History of Religions’ History.” Pages 362–374 in Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Spiro, Melford E. “Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation.” Pages 85–126 in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. Edited by Michael Banton. ASA Monographs 3. New York: Tavistock Publications, 1966.

von Stuckrad, Kocku. “Discursive Study of Religion: Approaches, Definitions, Implications.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25 (2013) 5-25.

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Theorizing Religion in the Age of Trump Series: Matthew Baldwin


The election of Donald Trump has given rise to new kind of politics that has already increased tensions between competing groups, including religious groups over issues such as public education, science funding, and a travel ban impacting several Muslim majority countries. In this new series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars how they might go about theorizing these issues from the perspective of the study of religion?

Stopping Conversation: Andrew Sullivan on the “Religion” of Academia

by Matthew Baldwin

Part I: The Context

Last week Andrew Sullivan, whom NYT columnist Ross Douthat has labeled “the most influential political writer of his generation”, contributed yet another entry to the growing list of center-right critiques of the allegedly illiberal tendencies of American academia. From an academic’s perspective, there is nothing particularly noteworthy in this genre of discourse. It is indeed an old trope of American political speech, familiar from the era of the “culture wars” and before (Smith et al. 2008). But Sullivan’s March 10th blog post for New York Magazine was published with a title which might well grab the attention of Bulletin readers; in it, he asks the deliberately provocative question: “Is Intersectionality a Religion?”

Sullivan frames his argument around a single anecdote which he labels “the latest assault on liberal democracy”: an ugly and unruly incident that occurred at Middlebury College on March 2nd, 2017. In this incident students shut down a public speech by the controversial social scientist Charles Murray, whose 1994 book The Bell Curve has been frequently described as racist and whose 2012 book Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960–2010 may be fairly described as out of step with its times. After preventing his speech from proceeding either live or in a video studio, a small mob of masked student protestors violently drove Murray and his entourage from both the campus and the town. In the process, Middlebury political science professor Allison Stanger (a self-professed liberal) was assaulted and briefly hospitalized.

In this piece, Sullivan joins many other critics before him (for example, Nicholas Kristof) in decrying an apparent pattern of intolerant and sometimes violent repression of conservative speech on American university campuses. What seems novel in Sullivan’s editorial is the frame he supplies to this familiar critique. He appears to have discovered a new “religion” among the student- and faculty-agitators who populate American universities.

Sullivan’s argument is very much a product of its time, reflecting currents of discourse (about academia, politics, and religion) which have become typical of this “age of Trump.” To understand this piece, we need to interpret it in the light of these several contextual factors.

First, it must be pointed out that the Middlebury incident comes on the heels of similar incidents involving Milo Yiannopoulos, the flamboyant alt-right apologist and “internet supervillain”, whose year-long “Dangerous Faggot” tour of college campuses has provoked numerous protests, especially (on January 13th) at UC Davis, and even (on February 1st) a violent riot at UC Berkeley. (On both campuses the former Breitbart-contributing editor’s scheduled appearances were cancelled.) In the wake of these incidents, broad criticisms of campus culture exploded all over the web, appearing everywhere from the Los Angeles Times to The Atlantic. University of Chicago Medievalist Rachel Fulton Brown caused a ruckus among Religious Studies professionals by publishing a response to the incident in the Divinity School e-zine Sightings. [Teaser: this author’s essay on RFB and Yiannopoulos (may be/is) forthcoming in the Bulletin’s Journal] President Trump even tweeted about the Berkeley riot (which probably means that FOX News had editorialized the story). These conservative criticisms of college campus culture form the first and most immediate background to Sullivan’s essay; it should not be read apart from them.

Second, an equally important context can be found in the ongoing public debate among progressives about how best to organize in response to the complex social problems that are caused by oppression along axes of class, race, gender, and sexuality. The term “intersectionality,” which stems from feminist and critical race theory (Crenshaw 1991; Carastathis 2016), and which has exploded in usage over the past twenty-six years, has frequently been invoked within these internal debates among progressives and liberals. The term appears everywhere, in debates over the role of “identity politics” in the electoral defeat of the establishment Democratic Party, or over the leadership of progressive groups like the #BlackLivesMatter movement, or in the Bernie Sanders “revolution”, or the Women’s March movement. Feminist philosopher Anna Carastathis warns that “in academic and, increasingly, in human-rights discourses and policy frameworks, flippant or vague references to ‘intersectionality’ abound” (2016: 3).

Carastathis’s words are precisely what we might say about the use of the term in Sullivan’s essay, though it possibly also applies to its usage in whatever currents of discourse Sullivan has been picking up on that have led him to ask this interesting, yet specious question, “Is Intersectionality a Religion?”

Next week — Part II: Classification and Criticism


Carastathis, Anna. Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons. Expanding Frontiers: Interdisciplinary Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43:6 (1991) 1241-1299.

Smith, Bruce L. R., Jeremy D. Meyer and A. Lee Fritscher. Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008.

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The Upside Down World: Shadows of Cold War Ghosts in Stranger Things


by Ting Guo

With Stranger Things, Netflix produced an original science fiction drama that went viral. But for me, it is also offered up a political drama that illuminated elements of our persistently divided world — and how we might save ourselves from it. Here, in what is admittedly more a series of fragmented reflections than a full account of the series and all of the ways it can be linked to the Cold War and its aftermath, are my thoughts, while watching it in Indiana, reflecting on the present moment and on how different my 1980s was from that shown in the movie and that remembered by American viewers of the same show.


In September 2016, Stranger Things was the thing in the college town in Indiana where I currently reside as a nonresident alien (term c/o US border immigration law, no irony intended). Indiana is also where the show is set. Fictional Hawkins, Indiana, seems to be a quintessential heartland locale, a “normal” American setting par excellence.

The show’s intro sequence pays homage to the ’80s with synth music typography, and other stylistic elements that evoke the era’s iconic filmmakers. They make us think of John Carpenter (of Halloween fame), Steven Spielberg, and Rob Reiner (in his Stand by Me phase).

In a series of flashbacks, the viewer sees impeccably suited government agents at a neighboring DOE facility conducting sinister experiments on a young girl known only as “Eleven” (affectionately referred to by her friends as “El”). This girl possesses the capacity for telekinesis and can reach a parallel world of alternative reality known as the “upside-down.” She escapes the laboratory and befriends a group of schoolboys, helping find their friend Will Byers who has been kidnapped by a monster from the upside-down.

The kids are the heroes of the show, despite the fact they are often bullied by the “cool kids.” They are kind, caring, loyal to their friends, dedicated to their mission and resourceful in moments of crisis. They represent the humanistic resistance that challenges and mocks scientific and technologically rooted alienation of a sort that grew pronounced in the ’70s and ’80s.


Just like the “other side,” the ’80s was a deeply fragmented world

My Stranger Things appreciation group included friends from Europe, America, and Asia now living in Indiana. They were excited about, even touched by the references to the cult movies of their childhood including ET (1982), the Halloween series, Alien (1986), and The Thing (1982).

These science fiction movies brought familiar memories to me as well, not because I remember watching them as I grew up — none were shown in China in the 1980s — but because I remember the distinctive cultural and political atmosphere of that decade in my part of the world. My memory of that time was colored in a different hue because I’m from the other side, that of the enemy, the dangerous Communist world that the scientists at the lab are working to defeat.

Despite the normalization of US-China relations in 1972, the long ideological divide of the Cold War meant that literature and dramas from Russia, other socialist countries (e.g., Albania and North Korea), as well as from nearby Japan (for different reasons) dominated our cultural imaginaries of the world for almost half a century. The “world” meant mainly just the Communist half, while the “West” was the enemy.

Hollywood productions had only very limited circulation, most viewings were only allowed to certain leaders and units, who had privileged access to what we called “films for internal circulation” (neicanpian 内参片) and “translated films” (yizhipian 译制片). Even in the ’80s, when the government decided to make certain Western films available to the general public, the masses were generally only able to watch old classics, such as Jane Eyre (1943), Waterloo Bridge (1940), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), and the Murder on the Orient Express (1974). The latest Hollywood productions were introduced in the form of carefully organized “Foreign Cinema Weeks,” and rarely did a film from the West show that was not at least a few years old.

My father told me that he could recite the lines from classic cinema. He became a college student after the entrance exams resumed in 1977. Unable to see the movies on the big screen, he practiced his memorization skills by reading the translated scripts in literary magazines. It was from those black and white pages that he constructed the stories so vividly in his colorful imagination. Whenever we watched those films together, he was always in a different universe, a different temporal-space.

Even though I was born in the mid-’80s and grew up in the era of economic reforms when the Chinese everyday ideology had shifted to capitalist, imported music of that era, for me, still meant Soviet tunes such as Katyusha and Evenings in Suburban Moscow (Moscow Nights), not Jefferson AirplaneThe Clash, or Toto. Now when I try to hum tunes from my 1980s, a stream of nostalgia embraces me. Although the source is perhaps unfamiliar to my friends, the emotions are similar to what they feel when they hear Stranger Things’ ’80s soundtrack. I remember fondly the comfort these songs once brought my parents in their youth, during turbulent years that saw dramatic social changes.

The 1980s in the U.S. (and Western Europe) was the Decade of Excess, when shiny materialism provided new horrors for science fiction, most notably how those damned by capitalism take revenge at the society that abandons them, hence themes of alienation and otherworldly exploration of materialism. It was also a decade mythologized and characterized by fabled rock stars with outsized and over-the-top lifestyles. At the same time, the U.S. involved itself in activities intended to eliminate or at least check the spread of Communism.

In China, the 1980s was a relatively open era. Following the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution, China opened to the world in 1979. To the North, Gorbachev became the new leader of USSR in 1985 and began some reform. Among those Chinese youths who enjoyed the liberal atmosphere — some took part in the 1989 Tiananmen protest — there is a common remark today that “our Eighties are like the Sixties for Americans.” They express nostalgia for the era of radical thinking, poetry writing, guitar playing, public gatherings, open debates, and above all, the possibility of political transformation.

Though still apart from the rest of the world, the young Chinese of the ’80s closely followed the news of the world, including the “dramatic changes” in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember reading award-winning school essays from the ’80s with admiration. Their student authors were well versed in international politics and current affairs, debating topics such as On Left and Right or the downfall of Gorbachev.

Mass protests demanding democratization in China flared up in 1989, only to be extinguished. Economic development took the central stage, part of an attempt to dull the memory of as well as repress the spirit for political participation.

An increasing emphasis on Strongman politics and total loyalty to the party leadership means China is drifting farther from the political systems of Western democracies. The short-lived liberal atmosphere of the ’80s has been replaced by heavy censorship and a system that materially rewards political indifference and obedience. Few students now — both American and Chinese — could believe that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” was once a slogan of Chinese students during one of the largest protests for democracy in human history.


The long divide between the U.S. and the Communist world during the Cold War inspired speculation about the technological and scientific experiments conducted in its name, especially the costly efforts by the two superpowers to develop parapsychology and mind-control weapons. The need to stay ahead of the Russians is never far from the surface in Stranger Things. The secret science experiments conducted on El are part of an attempt to create a human weapon capable of intercepting information telepathically from Russian spies.

Some information about the work conducted by the U.S. on these topics is now public. Often unethical and illegal by today’s standards, these studies formed the basis of wartime morale research and consumer behavior studies, as well as begot the ubiquitous social science tool: the focus group. The experiments hoped to build functional machines to access a person’s experiential stream of reality, with the ability to turn this stream into real-time data. Science fiction captures the scientific aims of those government-sponsored experiments to transform “the human.”

Many speculate that the Soviets had similar programs, and Stranger Things reflects such distrust and uneasiness as we wait for the unveiling of the creation of the monster and the upside-down. In doing so, it also pays homage to earlier science fictions films including The Philadelphia Experiment series (1984, 1993). That series was based on a rumored military experiment, said to have been carried out by the U.S. Navy in Philadelphia during WWII, in which the goal was to render a U.S. Navy destroyer invisible to enemy devices.


“Eleven? Are you there? This is Mike.”

As my new friends cheered the songs, the fashion and the cinematic references from their ’80s, they also reaffirmed the historical divide that still haunts our perception of the world today. We too — my old Chinese childhood friends and I — enjoyed pop music as teenagers, but “partying” was not part of life at all, as we grew up with a strict education system that instructed us to be dutiful, hard-working, and well-behaved. We also came of age grappling with a heavy load of homework that prepared us for the fierce competition for almost all kinds of resources at school and at work. Rebellion was reading Nietzsche in the library and greedily glancing at non-curricular literature secreted in the desk drawer while pretending to be doing homework. We are all subject to the historically-situated political arbitraries and embody the unbalanced power structure of the world. Global capitalism gives us the illusion that as long as individuals share the same products, fashion, and lifestyle engineered by the same companies, they are one. However, consumptive habits do not create solidarity. In that sense, it is very similar to the alienation and loneliness that I occasionally feel as a loner in the Midwest.

There is no universal historical memory. The sense of nostalgia and familiarity that Stranger Things evoked for me was the memory of the Cold War and its aftermath, rather than the ’80s, which never arrived in my teens. Even now, as I study Marxism and left-wing political philosophy in a very different light than the Marxist state ideology I grew up with, I would consciously cover the word “communism” or “Marx” when reading them in public in the U.S., worrying that they might cause unnecessary misunderstanding or discomfort to people around me — possibly out of my own paranoia.

How should we understand each other’s different experiences of the same decade? There is so much to learn about the histories through which each other’s experiences were shaped. Perhaps that would be a good point to start. Perception animates all historical imaginaries, and vice versa.

Mike’s resolution to save his friend who was trapped in the “upside down world” is the conscious decision to connect to the other side. Could we do the same? Could we escape the ghost that is haunting us — the ghost of fear and misunderstanding of unfamiliar experience, personal and collective, of history, of the other side?

Ting Guo writes bilingually and divides her time between Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei, and Cambridge, MA. She graduated with degrees in anthropology and religious studies at the University of Edinburgh and previously worked for the University of Oxford and Purdue University.

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Notes from FSU’s 16th Graduate Student Symposium


(photo: Thomas Whitley)

by Tim Burnside and Haley Iliff

With the timely theme of Religion & Conflict, and during one of Tallahassee’s scarce weekends of tolerable weather, the Florida State University’s Department of Religion hosted its 16th annual graduate symposium. One might even call it a sweet sixteen. Dutifully headed by Matt Coston, with support from Andrew Gardner, Giancarlo Angulo, and a dedicated team of graduate students, the symposium provided engaging academic discussion, with the added bonus of partying with new and old friends. Fueled equally by food, friendship, and free alcohol (despite the notable lack of tequila), this year’s graduate symposium did not disappoint.

Duke University’s Dr. J Kameron Carter delivered a passionate and sobering keynote address entitled Quantum Tongues: An Insurgent Ecstatics of the Sacred, which set the tone for the weekend. Diving deep into literary criticism, black studies, and critical theory, Dr. Carter used the poetry of M. NourbeSe Phillip’s Zong! (2011) to speak of blackness as both constituted in material—often dehumanizing and objectifying—capitalist exchanges yet dwelling beyond both the physical and the ontological. Zong! was named after the British slave trading vessel transporting Africans. When the voyage took longer than anticipated, those aboard the ship began throwing cargo overboard, including the captive bodies of black men and women stuffed below deck, to claim the insurance on the lost goods. Such secular practices of law and rationality constituted a “secular Eucharist” for Carter, a holy naturalizing of white supremacy, while blackness demanded urgency beyond the politic and beyond the essentialist ontological categories defining consumerist relations. Watching Carter masterfully use Phillip’s disorienting poetry, where sentences, stanzas, and even words themselves broke alongside the dehumanized black bodies was both disheartening and impassioning, unwavering in his look at the gruesome realities but always looking beyond the real and beyond the obvious to find resistance in the unsettling of naturalized oppression.

These deeply material groundings (always bound up with slivers of the unspeakable) typified the symposium at its best. Sher Afgan Tareen explored the affect of businesslike professionalism in religious education among Muslims in America. Seth Emmanuel Gaiters exposed the entanglement of religion, secular, and race through his reading of spirituality within #BlackLivesMatter. Christina Carter captured the de-colonizing medicinal practices of spirit possession in Venezuela. Jeff Wheatley and Andy McKee (also speaking on behalf of Danae Faulk who was unable to attend) took part in a lively Author Meets Critic roundtable responding to Finbarr Curtis’s The Production of Religious Freedom. Speaking to the limitations of freedom, both Dr. Curtis and the respondents provided a fitting end to the conference.

At a panel on “Religion and Information” (which should totally be an AAR panel soon, btw), Jacob Hicks showed the nitty-gritty of selling religious freedom to revolutionary Americans through meticulously combed newspaper advertisements. Meredith Ross spoke to the physicality of church library reading initiatives, speaking as much to the act of creating a Christian citizen as to the importance of how posters were designed. Meagan Leverage’s paper focused on Metallica v. Napster to explore Satanism as constituted by the public, scholars, and Satanists themselves. The panel typified the symposium by navigating the rocky terrain between grounded materialism and unwieldy, unspoken, discourses.

The roundtable on religion and conflict featured a diverse (one could almost say conflicting) cast of participants in Drs. Michael Jerryson, Atalia Omer, and Jamil Drake. The scholars spoke to their own understanding of conflict, namely the prevalence with which it persists, and aimed to both inspire and inform. Most striking was the conversation on messiness and the job of the scholar when presented with the conflicting rhetoric of America’s declared war on varying concepts (Islam, poverty, crime, etc.), and the scholar’s ability to clean up that mess. Dr. Drake’s words struck the most resonance with us during the discussion stating “it’s a mistake to think we can clean up [the mess]. The trash is endless and unmovable. We’re on a shipwreck.” This image of shipwreck echoed the keynote’s own poetic use of the murdered slaves aboard the Zong. The simile moves beyond reality and into the lyrical, the linguistic, the ever-contextualized discursive apparatus of academic cataloguing which points to the thing but is never the thing itself. But the trash is real, and the danger facing so many of those put in progressively precarious positions by current governmental administrations has tangible, embodied, and often devastating consequences, regardless of critical theory’s inability to capture such dangers effectively.

But, of course, the best part of any academic conference, what is uncontainable in a blogpost, was the effervescent conversation during receptions and in between panels. The words on paper (or rather text on screen) of this post may hint at what symposium was, but it cannot capture the presence of friends and scholars drinking and eating and conversing. In this tension, be it the limitations of words or the difficulty of holding both Indian food and beer, Florida State’s symposium provided the warm experience of what academic conferences should be: abstract, difficult, but always aware of the mechanisms that create such situations and the experience of what it means to be caught within them.

Tim Burnside is an MA student at Florida State University. His research focuses on religion, health, and race in the twentieth century.

Haley Iliff is an MA student at Florida State University. Her research focuses on religion, gender, and politics in the nineteenth century.

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On Reza Aslan’s “Believer”



by Andrew M. Henry

[special thanks to my colleagues and fellow premiere-goers Derek Knox and Kate Soules for their contributions to this review]

Still riding the wave of his bestselling book Zealot and a few high-profile interviews, Reza Aslan continues to push the boundary of what it means to be a public scholar of religion with his new CNN Original Series “Believer.” Marketed as a “spiritual adventure that explores religions around the world,” the first episode of “Believer” plays like a cool and edgy documentary with Aslan strolling through the Indian city of Varanasi while chatting with his audience about karma, the caste system, and Hindu cremation rituals. The premiere certainly breaks the mold of yesteryear’s documentaries. “Believer” sports top-notch production quality, pacing, and editing, a testament to what a professional film crew can accomplish. Aslan shines as the host, resembling an energetic video blogger on YouTube rather than a stuffy academic.

For educators looking for something to show to their classes, though, I should say that the series will not likely address religious literacy in the traditional sense of providing basic information about Hinduism. Although vocabulary like “karma” and “moksha” do flash across the screen for the benefit of the audience, Aslan doesn’t slow the show’s pacing with fine-grained discussions about Hindu belief and practice, focusing instead on the injustices of the caste system and his internal struggle to understand it. The show rather aims to capture a visceral sense of life in Varanasi. The camera lingers on burning cremation pyres, garbage floating in the Ganges, and people sprawled out sleeping on the streets. Interviews with cremation workers expose the hard life of the Untouchables caste in India. The audience experiences Hindu ritual vicariously through Aslan as he sits at the feet of a guru, lights candles in various shrines, and distributes food at a local school.

This approach apparently was intentional. In an interview with Religion Dispatches, Aslan states that he wanted to create a series that was “experiential, not just informative.” Although he acknowledges the public’s profound religious illiteracy, he theorizes that we will overcome religious bigotry not by teaching “facts and figures” about the world’s religions but by experiencing them through personal relationships and direct exposure to their beliefs and practices. He reiterates this purpose in his interview on the Late Show with Seth Meyers, saying that he does not simply talk with these different religions but “joins them” and “immerses” himself into their communities. The premiere succeeds at this experiential approach on some level. The episode is gritty and provocative, and though the audience may not leave the screening with much basic knowledge about Hinduism, they certainly get a taste of life in this sacred city.

If Aslan aims to build empathy between different communities, though, I fear the series may do more to exoticize than empathize. Whether Aslan intends this or not, CNN seems bent on advertising the series via sensationalism. Watch the trailer on CNN’s YouTube channel, and you will see a near-naked guru rolling around on the ground, people thrashing about during what appears to be an exorcism, and Aslan quipping that one of these ritual specialists must be “getting messages from the gods or he’s batshit crazy…” The producers crafted the trailer to showcase the most titillating scenes rather than Aslan’s more tempered commentary that I saw in the premiere. As someone who researches ancient magic and demonology, I welcome exposing audiences to unfamiliar practices like exorcisms and ecstatic pronouncements. I enjoy the challenge in helping students comprehend beliefs and practices that they immediately label as “weird” or “bizarre.” However, I do this by explaining the theory and cultural context underlying these practices. CNN rather magnifies the weirdness to the point of voyeurism.

Aslan does not exoticize as CNN does, but he does not contextualize the elements most foreign to Western audiences, especially the caste system—the singular focus of the premiere. This failure to provide context leaves the audience with more opportunities to misunderstand what they are watching rather than to empathize with the subjects on the screen. This is especially evident during the most memorable part of the episode. In this scene, Aslan sits down with a group of Aghori, ascetic holy men who purposely defy traditional views of purity and impurity by engaging in social taboos such as consuming corpses or smearing excrement on their bodies. The camera lingers on Aslan, dressed in traditional saffron robes, as an eccentric guru compels him to bathe in the Ganges, rub the ashes of cremated bodies over his face, and sip alcohol from human skulls. The scene culminates in the guru entering some sort of ecstatic state, rolling on the ground, drinking his own urine while seemingly threatening Aslan with the excrement. Aslan and his camera crew scramble away, their expletives helpfully bleeped in post-production.

After the screening of the premiere at Boston University, Aslan assured the audience that the scene was not manufactured and that his own reactions to the guru were authentic. I don’t doubt this. What concerns me is how Western audiences will leave this premiere without any context to understand what they had just witnessed. Without a more comprehensive discussion about the history and function of the caste system in Hinduism and without a better understanding of Hindu notions of purity and taboo, this scene leaves audiences with a weird and silly impression of the Aghori. To his credit, Aslan counterbalances this guru by interviewing a less eccentric Aghori leader who transcends social taboos by serving lepers in Varanasi, but even this does not so much generate empathy and understanding as much as it constructs a narrative appealing to liberal Western audiences (i.e. a marginalized group flouting the traditionalist system of “mainstream” Hinduism). I don’t doubt Aslan’s sincerity (as much as I do CNN’s) in promoting empathy between religions, but his “experiential rather than informative” approach in this episode may serve to reinforce Western stereotypes about Hinduism rather than educate the public.

The premiere of “Believer” is thus a mixed bag. We certainly need more public programming like this. When scholars of religion publish only for their insular, academic communities, we abdicate the public’s education about religion to those who are less informed or to those wielding a partisan axe to grind. I applaud Reza Aslan’s efforts to bring religious studies programming to cable TV. However, I offer a word of caution. Any portrayal of religion for the public must maintain a balancing act between attracting the largest possible audience and providing accurate, tempered information about religion that will ultimately promote empathy and understanding. I am not yet convinced that “Believer” will strike this tone, but I encourage religious studies scholars everywhere to watch and engage with this series. We should not ignore such a high-profile opportunity.

Andrew M. Henry is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religion at Boston University. His research interests include magic and demonology in Late Antiquity, particularly the material culture of magical practice such as amulets, curse tablets, and apotropaic inscriptions. He is also the host of Religion For Breakfast, an educational YouTube channel committed to raising the quality of discussion about religion on YouTube. 

Posted in Film Reviews, Pedagogy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, South Asian Studies, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What’s in Your Religion Syllabus? Lucas Johnston


In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars of religion to share with our readers what’s in their religion syllabus, from a new class or a class they’ve taught for years, reflecting on what has worked, what has been modified, and how it has proven useful for covering a particular topic in the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here

by Lucas Johnston

One of the upper level courses in my regular rotation is “Religion and Ecology,” although I’ve changed the course content with each iteration. In the most recent version, the description reads:

This course explores the complex relationships between ecosystems, religions and cultures. Human cultures and their religious production have always depended on the natural world not just for physical and spiritual subsistence, but also as a source of inspiration or veneration, for metaphors of the sacred, and for exploitation. This course will: a) utilize an interdisciplinary approach to analyze arguments for the emergence of religion as a response to ecological and social constraints; b) survey how various cultures have imagined the natural world and their ethical obligations toward it (if any), including the development of new nature-based religious movements; and c) review arguments for and against the notion that religion is evolutionarily adaptive.

As with all of my courses, I imagined a set of learning outcomes, skills that students should have by the end of our semester together. In this case, I specified that students should be able to understand the ways in which religions shape understandings of their habitats and relationships to them; conversely, that they should be able to recognize the ways in which religious expressions are channeled and constrained by their habitats; and that they ought to be able to identify and interrogate the always political deployment of religious justifications for the use, abuse, and distribution of resources.

We began the course with a popular book, Daniel Quinn’s The Story of B. Some readers may be more familiar with his earlier book, Ishmael, wherein the emergence of human civilization and accompanying religious worldviews is recounted form the perspective of a telepathic gorilla. The history recounted in The Story of B is the same, but the story is less Socratic in its presentation, and has a more gripping plotline in which a priest is sent to investigate Ishmael’s protégé to discern whether he might be the anti-Christ. To put the thrust of the book in a nutshell, the reader is reminded that history is written by the victors, and that the history of both eastern and western civilization is at bottom characterized by the overexploitation of local environments which requires the importation, defense, and distribution of resources. Quinn traces the emergence of civilizations to a shift in the mode of production toward sedentary (or totalitarian, in Quinn’s verbiage) agriculture. The archaeological record clearly illustrates that with the emergence of sedentary agriculture we almost immediately see social stratification, population explosion, the specialization of labor, and within a fairly short span, large-scale warfare. In Quinn’s reading, all of the so-called world religions, which grew from these early civilizations, are fundamentally concerned with escaping this fallen world, whether by being reborn in another (as in most Abrahamic religions), or ceasing to be born in this one (in the case of the Dharmic religions). I coupled Quinn’s book with Lynn White Jr.’s well-known article “The Historical Roots of the Ecologic Crisis,” as well as chapters from the philosopher Frederic Bender detailing anthropocentrism in the Hebrew Bible and early Christian antinaturalism.

We then turned toward a more detailed investigation of how this new mode of production, including the domestication of both plants and animals, promoted the sort of human exceptionalism that remains prevalent today. But our typical narrative about domestication imagines humans as the only entities with any agency. So in an attempt to turn that narrative on its head, I also assigned a couple of articles from the Earth First! Journal (a radical environmental rag) and the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, which suggest that the perennial grasses and wolves (and other creatures) actually domesticated humans to advance their own fitness and persistence. Articles by the primatologist Jane Goodall on “Primate Spirituality,” and animal behaviorist Mark Bekoff on “Cognitive Ethology and Social Ethics” round out this module by investigating what we might imagine as proto-spirituality in other-than-human persons.

Next (and I should add very briefly) we tackle the ways in which many now global religions are addressing environmental issues, as well as the problematic ways in which such efforts become the subject of scholars’ attention. We explore the book Faith in Conservation, by Martin Palmer and Victoria Finlay, who run the UK-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation. The book includes a host of statements by leading figures of many religious groups, typically connecting core concepts, norms, and values to contemporary environmental concerns. We explored whether the individuals who penned these chapters could be imagined as authoritative for a whole world-wide religion, or whether their chapters were idiosyncratic perspectives related to their own interests, or those of the editors. For, despite a dizzying array of high profile statements by leaders of the so-called world religions, very little seems to be changing on the ground (or in the pews). Scholarly attention in the twentieth century focused largely on these world religions, and specifically on the liberal mainstreams of these traditions, assuming that they contained glimmers of green that once recognized, would precipitate large-scale behavioral shifts. Unfortunately for us (and for the non-human world), despite documents like the Earth Charter, and pronouncements by the Pope, monks, rabbis, imams (and so on), species are disappearing at a rate of at least 1,000 times greater than the background extinction rate. In addition, violent conflicts over increasingly scarce resources and demographic displacement are on the rise, and religion is increasingly deployed as an identity marker in such conflicts. Importantly, the most obvious and efficacious green spiritualities appear not within the mainstreams of the world religions, but rather on their margins, and within new movements, which evidence a reverence-for-life ethic and a critical acceptance of scientific consensus.

The course then pivoted toward the first wave of environmentalism in North America. Students encountered the nature writings of John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and Aldo Leopold before turning toward the ways in which they influenced twentieth and twenty-first century scientists and philosophers. Specifically, we investigated the religious dimensions of problem-based disciplinary developments, such as the emergence of the fields of ecological restoration and conservation biology. These are now burgeoning academic fields grounded in normative presuppositions, and individuals’ spiritual reverence for the objects of their study (whether landscapes or large carnivores) often runs deep. Indeed, some of the founders of these scholarly fields were themselves influenced by the nature spirituality of Muir, Thoreau, and Leopold, but also by more recent radical environmental sentiments espoused by Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, Dave Foreman, and others. We analyzed the religious dimensions of their writings and movements associated with them as examples of what scholar of religions Bron Taylor termed “dark green religion.” There is little doubt that such dark green sensibilities have escaped their counter-cultural breeding grounds and have become influential in global environmental politics, and it is investigating these contemporary impacts that we conclude the course.

Terms related to “ecology,” like “sustainability” and “resilience,” are now crucial to international policy making, and have also become key identity markers in the twenty-first century, deployed both by those who seek to disrupt political and social arrangements, and by those who seek to preserve them. It is crucial that students understand the weight of such terms, and the ways in which they facilitate the formation of communities of individuals, focus desire, and channel social and exchange relations.

Lucas Johnston is Associate Professor of Religion and Environment at Wake Forest University. His research focuses on environmental and sustainability oriented social movements. His latest book project explores environmental behaviors among specific rock music and festival subcultures.

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