What’s in Your Religion Syllabus? Natasha L. Mikles

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 Natasha L. Mikles

A colleague in Islamic Studies and I recently were discussing the fact that we come into classrooms facing opposite problems: he finds students who generally hold a unilaterally negative view of the subject matter at hand, while I—in Buddhist Studies—find students who are already convinced that Buddhism is a wholly positive, and therefore “good,” religious tradition. The majority of my work as an educator is designed at introducing complexity into this unidimensional system. It is tempting to simply undermine this rosy view of Buddhism by giving students pictures of machine-gun toting Burmese monks, descriptions of the horrible deformities Buddhist believe await you for sinful action, or hagiographic stories detailing the foulness of women’s wombs and the subsequent need to prevent the contamination of Buddhist sacred beings while in utero. However, this strategy seems to miss the point slightly; not only do two wrong (understandings) not make a right (understanding), but this further perpetuates the idea that there are either “good” or “bad” religions, and Buddhism merely switches sides from one to the other. Rather, I design my classroom to explicitly foster students’ understanding of Buddhism as a rich, diverse, and multidimensional tradition by selecting readings and planning classroom activities that encourage them to think like Buddhists—i.e. understanding the multidimensional Buddhist responses to quintessentially human problems—rather than about Buddhists—i.e. Buddhism is one thing or the other.

As an example, one pedagogical exercise that I utilize in my Introduction to Buddhism class that helps students think about how Buddhists think through Buddhist ideas is my “re-creation” in class of the Buddhist monastic code. Prior to class, students read several selections about making the Buddhist monastic code from John Strong’s The Experience of Buddhism. Unlike other religious leaders, the Buddha did not initially delineate the protocols and activities of a monastic community. Rather, the rules for monks and nuns arose in a rather ad hoc fashion—as a problem became apparent the Buddha added a new rule for monks and nuns to follow to ensure that the problem would not again arise. To give students a taste of the difficulties of this particular style of monastery management and what it might mean for contemporary monastic communities, I make students think through the same issues as early Buddhists and develop their own “monastic code.” After selecting a few brave volunteers, I nominate one student to be the Buddha, and one each to be the plaintiff and defendant in an actual sixth-century BCE situation the Buddha supposedly handled, as well as any other notable persons in the narrative. Based on cards I give them explaining their character’s personal concern, the students act out the situation, and the Buddha has to make a new monastic rule while also giving his or her reasoning behind it. Everyone changes places and the process is repeated until we have created a set of monastic rules as a class. We then discuss what was difficult or easy about the activity, as well as how the decisions of our “Buddhas” were the same or different from those actual rules created by the historical Buddha in response to the same situations. Through this exercise, students are given the opportunity to understand how early Buddhists thought through Buddhist ideas and made real-world decisions that affected the whole community.

This idea of having students encounter and work through problems in ways similar to Buddhists spreads throughout my Introduction to Buddhism syllabus. After our first half of the course—where we lay the outlines of Buddhism in India—we spend the second half of the course discussing different controversies that arose within Buddhist communities throughout Asia. Mid-semester presentations done by the students on the history, practice, and philosophy of Buddhism in countries outside of India lay the foundation for student understanding of each country-specific tradition of Buddhism, allowing them to focus instead on the details of how Buddhist practice and thought transformed in each country. Students have the opportunity not only to understand how Buddhists marshaled Buddhist ideas to create solutions to the various “problems” or “controversies” Buddhism encountered in Asian countries, but also to give their own reactions and potential solutions to the problem in light of the Buddhist thought and historical constraints at their disposal.

In China, my students consider the interactions between Confucian ideas of filial piety for one’s own parents and Buddhist ideas that every being has been one’s mother and should be treated accordingly. In Thailand, they debate the use of Buddhist amulets as a deviation or logical extension of Buddhist practice. In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, they consider how British colonialism created a toxic situation of imported labor and local nationalism that led to contemporary Rohingya Muslim and Tamil Hindu oppression. While exhibiting only one single controversy per country risks flattening the history of Buddhism in that country, the benefit gained from presenting students with a complex, contentious, and composite Buddhism outweighs these risks.

My style of pedagogy where students consider explicitly the diversity of the Buddhist tradition and controversies within Buddhist communities naturally leads to questions of what sorts of textbooks I assign for my students. While I am generally suspicious of textbooks by nature, I find that Donald Mitchell and Sarah Jacoby’s Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience serves as a good foundational text for students to get the outlines of Indian Buddhist thought in the first half of the course. It remains a resource students can consult in their Mid-Semester Presentations and the second half of the course, though I elect to assign primary source readings for those weeks. The second book I assign for students is John Strong’s The Experience of Buddhism. Having a resource of primary sources is critical to my style of teaching, as I want students to hear Buddhist voices in disagreement with other Buddhist voices. While its $150 price tag ($73, if purchased on Amazon) is not only regrettable, but in my opinion bordering on criminal, students have assured me that plenty of more inexpensive used copies are circulating, and I allow students to use either the second or third edition as a way to ensure every student can find a used copy for their study.

While the problem of identifying what is and is not “Buddhist”—or any other religion for that matter—is certainly an important matter of concern, my classroom operates under the auspices of Talal Asad’s concept of “discursive tradition.” Roughly, this means that Buddhism can be identified as those things using the same set of authoritative sources from which to argue and working towards the same end goals with reference to the same set of practices in the present-day. Introducing my students to Buddhism as an explicitly contentious tradition full of controversies, competing arguments, and diametrically opposed voices—but ones arguing with a shared authoritative past for a similar goal—ensures that they leave the classroom aware of the rich multidimensionality of Buddhism discourse both historically and in the present-day.

Natasha L. Mikles (PhD) recently graduated from the University of Virginia, and has been teaching at Texas State University. Her research centers on Tibetan epic literature and the Nyingma school in late nineteenth-century Tibet.

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Theorizing Religion in the Age of Trump: 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 proposed 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

Part III: Public Truth and the Pragmatic Critique of Religion

by Matthew Baldwin

Andrew Sullivan’s recent New York Magazine piece “Is Intersectionality a Religion?” responds to a March 2nd, 2017 incident at Middlebury College, in which vocal protestors stopped a lecture by Charles Murray, violently drove him from campus, and injured Middlebury Political Scientist Alison Stanger.

The first installment of this essay discussed the discursive context of Sullivan’s unusual argument, and the second installment demonstrated that Sullivan’s classification of these student protestors as “religious” relies on an implicit prototype theory of “religion”.

This final installment examines the way that Sullivan, by framing his criticism of “intersectionality” in terms of “religion,” draws on a classic approach to “religion” which sees it as incompatible with secular public reason. But the ironies of Sullivan’s argument reveal contradictions which may be inherent in policing the acceptable boundaries of public conversation.

  1. Sullivan’s Account of “Intersectionality”

As I suggested in Part I, recent debates about progressive politics frequently contain references to “intersectionality.” As a concept, “intersectionality” emerged from feminist and critical race theory, but over the past two decades, the term has taken on a life of its own. Feminist Philosopher Anna Carastathis has maintained that in many cases popular uses of the term are “flippant or vague” (Carastathis 2016: 3). Sullivan’s use of the term in reference to the Middlebury incident seems to be a case in point. For it appears that he not only uses the term idiosyncratically, but also that he lacks a reasonable warrant for using the term in the first place.

If one researches the Middlebury incident looking for references to “intersectionality,” a striking feature emerges from the data: the term seems virtually absent. Before Sullivan used it, almost no one else had mentioned “intersectionality” in connection with the event. In the first place, the term will not be heard in the (admittedly difficult to hear) text of the statement which students read aloud in unison during the event, a protest action which Sullivan characterizes as “ritual,” “liturgy,” “exorcism,” and “ceremony” (see from minute 19 of Wil DiGravio’s video). No mention of it is made in DiGravio’s report on the event for The Middlebury Campus (3/2/2017). The term appears in none of twelve related documents DiGravio links, including letters signed by over 600 students, 450 alumni, and over fifty Middlebury faculty.

It is absent in reporting on the event by Inside Higher Ed (3/3), the Boston Globe (3/4), and Vice (3/8). It was not used by Eugene Volokh in The Washington Post (3/4), Peter Beinart in The Atlantic (3/6), William Deresciewicz in The American Scholar (3/6) – on Deresciewicz’ essay, see the Postscript, below). Nor, days after Sullivan’s essay was published, was it used in the New York Times by Frank Bruni (3/11), or even in Alison Stanger’s plaintive response to the attack she suffered (3/13).

In fact, I could find only one instance of the term used in connection with the incident prior to the publication of Sullivan’s essay. It appears in a collection of short interviews published March 7th by the New York Times, when Middlebury Senior Edward O’Brien is quoted as stating that “we need to complicate our truths—whether we use the language of intersectionality or the language of traditional American values.” Of course Sullivan gives no indication that he had read this report; in any case O’Brien’s words barely resemble Sullivan’s claims that Middlebury students at large are beholden to doctrines of “intersectionality.” Sullivan appears to have brought the term into play himself.

“Intersectionality,” a noun form of the adjective “intersectional,” refers classically not to an institutional “-ity” (like the prototype “Christianity”?) but to a descriptive theory of complexity in cultural identity. An intersectional analysis of sexism might, for example, stress the difference in experience between two women, both of whom may face discrimination, but who might have qualitatively different experiences due to their race or class positions (Crenshaw 1991). Sullivan, however, glosses the concept as a conviction that “social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity… but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power.” This sloppy definition lets him use “intersectionality” as a symbol for all that is wrong with left-wing academic culture. The left allegedly connects all forms of oppression indiscriminately. But this isn’t Crenshaw or Carastathis’ “intersectionality,” it’s Sullivan’s straw theory.

Sullivan describes the concept as a “neo-Marxist” and an “academic craze.” Borrowing an ominous phrase from Orwell, he suggests that “in practice” this “social theory… operates… as ‘a smelly little orthodoxy.’” The comparison to “religion” begins with this line. Like the prototype, “intersectionality” has “orthodoxy,” but this comparison carries negative freight. While Sullivan might perhaps agree that the prototype’s orthodoxy could be described more generously, say, as “fragrant” and “capacious,” this “orthodoxy” confines and suffocates.

Drawing on further descriptors with negative valence, Sullivan compares “intersectionality” to “Puritanism” because it allegedly “controls language and the very terms of discourse, [and] enforces manners… and virtue.” Intolerant of those outside the “orthodoxy,” “especially if you are white or male or straight,” it condemns those who do not renounce privilege as “sinners” and “heretics” subject to a “damnation” right out of “Dante.” Closed to reason and debate, it regards all “arguments and ideas” as tied to “white supremacy.”

In support of this tendentious characterization, Sullivan offers dubious readings of the joint statement which the Middlebury protestors read aloud at the event. Sullivan hears the undergraduates state that “in this world today there is little that is true ‘fact.’” He focuses on a line in their speech which intones that “science has always been used to legitimize” the oppression of subaltern populations, and on their dramatic finale in which they repeatedly shout aloud: “who is the enemy? white supremacy!” Rather than seeing the students’ statement as a perhaps clumsily worded complaint about their chosen academic home giving a space to racist pseudo-science, Sullivan extrapolates. He argues that “intersectionality” must reject any “idea of free debate, science, or truth independent of white male power.”

The students drive Murray from the stage, shouting “Sexist! Racist! Anti-Gay! Charles Murray Go Away!” In this they wrongly, Sullivan explains, attribute sexism and homophobia to his acquaintance. (Sullivan does not attempt to defend Murray from charges of racism.) Rather than blaming the intellectual laziness of students or the inflexible metric demands of a protest chant, Sullivan suggests that the students falsify Murray’s views because intersectionality can only attribute all sins to every sinner. Yet in focusing on these errors, Sullivan hopes to distract from their more legitimate points. Murray’s past work on race, ethnicity and intelligence is widely regarded as abetting the social ill of racism. For instance, similar concerns to those of the Middlebury students were voiced by the faculty of Columbia University prior to Murray’s speech on that campus, which took place almost three weeks later, on March 23rd, without incident. (Maybe they haven’t heard of intersectionality at Columbia.)

  1. Religion in American Public Life

“Shut it down!” the students shout, over and over, at the end of the event. Sullivan characterizes this conclusion of the video as “a frenzied, disturbing catharsis” … “like something out of the Crucible.” Here again he invokes Puritanism, this time making reference to Arthur Miller’s well known play of 1953. This is revealing. Miller used the Puritan witch hunts of the 17th century as a symbol for critiquing a 20th century national shame: McCarthyism (Popkin 1964). The Crucible works because it relies on a very American tradition of arguing that “religion” threatens the public sphere of a liberal democratic society because of its tendency to enforce ideological conformity through violence. Under this account, “religion” is closed to reason and argument, unfriendly to science, hostile to difference, and, if allowed access to power, incompatible with liberty.

This critique has roots in the 17th century (think European “Wars of Religion” and Rhode Island’s Roger Williams). It is found in the disestablishmentarianism of the late 18th century, when it became politically expedient for modern nations to draw bright political lines separating “church” from “state.” In this process, “religion” was increasingly spoken of as essentially a matter of individual feeling or belief. Thomas Jefferson’s “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” (1786) defines religion essentially as private opinion, protecting it from public coercion. In Post-Enlightenment liberal societies, collective forms of religion (“churches”) were reconceived as private and voluntary associations outside of the realm of political power.

The critique embodied in these ambiguous ideas about “religion” reached full flower in American Pragmatism. For example, Charles Sanders Peirce, in his classic epistemological essay “The Fixation of Belief” (1877), discusses the oppressive “method of authority” used in “religions” (and other institutions) bent on enforcing conformity of doctrine. This he contrasts to the only sure alternative path to fixing community opinion on the truth, which is the free use of “scientific investigation”—in a public, social and fallibilistic mode.

Yet the Pragmatic critique of “religion” is perhaps most well known in the form it assumes after the anti-metaphysical turn in American philosophy. The neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty famously described “religion as a conversation stopper” (Rorty 1994 [1999]). Writing in response to Stephen L. Carter’s Culture of Disbelief—a call for Americans to embrace “religious arguments” in “the public square”—Rorty laments Carter’s apparent rejection of the “happy Jeffersonian compromise that the Enlightenment reached with the religious” (1999: 169). Rorty defines “religion” as absolute commitment to non-verifiable metaphysical presuppositions; he regards it as essentially incompatible with the pragmatic public reasoning which is necessary to good policy making and all conversation. For the “pluralist and democratic state” which holds a “monopoly on violence,” its “moral decisions” must be justified in a “public discussion in which voices claiming to be God’s, or reason’s, or science’s, are put on a par with everybody else” (1999: 172). Instead, appeals to “religious arguments”—appeals to privileged or transcendent sources of “moral knowledge”—shut down discussion and end debate; they stop conversation. They are inherently illiberal.

In the final paragraphs of his essay, Sullivan reveals that his concerns go beyond denouncing the illiberal tendencies of left academia. His concern echoes Rorty’s defense of secular public reason. Sullivan argues that:

reason and empirical debate are essential to the functioning of a liberal democracy. We need a common discourse to deliberate. We need facts independent of anyone’s ideology or political side… [but if] reason must be subordinate to ideology even [in universities], [then] our experiment with self-government is over.

Sullivan laments the epistemological challenge posed by the “age of Trump,” in which “lies,” “dishonesty,” and “contempt… for fact” seem “designed to erode the very notion of empirical reality.” The Middlebury students, with their religious “intersectionality,” ironically collude with the illiberal tendencies of Trumpism, conspiring to kill the Republic, or perhaps even truth itself.

A potent sign of the times. This week’s cover of Time Magazine revives the design of its classic cover of April 8th, 1966.

Classification is an inherently political act. And in Sullivan’s characterization of “intersectionality… almost as a religion” we have a salient example of a larger pattern in those ongoing cultural wranglings over who gets to talk about truth, and how they get to express themselves. Of course, we must decry those who resort to violence instead of using their words. A few students at Middlebury took protest and objection way too far. But we should not lose sight of the ironies in this case, because they are illuminating. Sullivan, the devout Catholic, applies a “pragmatic critique” of “religion” as incompatible with public reason. And yet the genealogy of this discourse can be found in a largely Protestant effort to carve out a “secular” world over and against authoritative traditions that were inherited from pre-modern Europe, and can be seen in various permutations down into liberal atheist objections to conservative Christian discourse in the public square. Sullivan thus repeats a well-worn socio-rhetorical strategy which has served any number of agents in the past, coming from all sides of the socio-political polygon. This critique is a powerful tool of delegitimization. It is this very fact that ought to raise for us all the larger question of how the category “religion” functions in our cultural discourse.


Unfortunately, I had nearly completed this essay before I became aware of Deresciewicz’ essay through the commentary of John Warner at Inside Higher Ed (3/13). Warner rightly links Deresciewicz’s essay to Sullivan’s and responds to these acts of classification by (a) equating Deresciewicz’ “political correctness” and Sullivan’s “intersectionality” — I think this equation is more or less correct — and (b) by using a rhetorical reductio ad absurdum to minimize these acts of classification. Warner does this by comparing past student riots and unrest over football, beer and sex on college campuses to religion. While I myself find this commentary entertaining, on target, and politically expedient, my own analysis obviously proceeds in a different direction and with different theoretical aims. I do think Deresciewicz’ act of classification is a salient second example of exactly what Sullivan’s argument is doing. The coincidence of these two responses to the Middlebury event, especially when compared to Rachel Fulton Brown’s response to the Berkeley Riots as an example of a “crisis in religious thinking,” suggest that rhetorical criticisms of academic leftism as a “religion” is becoming a trope of right-wing analysis. This is not an especially encouraging trend.

Bibliography for Part III

Carastathis, Anna. Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons. Expanding Frontiers: Interdisciplinary Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Archived at http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1fzhfz8/

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

Peirce, Charles S. “The Fixation of Belief” Popular Science Monthly 12 (1877), 1-15. Available at: http://www.peirce.org/writings/p107.html

Popkin, Henry. “Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’.” College English 26:2 (1964): 139-46. Archived on JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/373665

Rorty, Richard. “Religion as a Conversation-Stopper.” Common Knowledge 3 (1994) 1–6. Reprinted on pages 168–174 in Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin, 1999).

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A Warm Welcome to a New Addition to the Bulletin’s Staff: Stacie Swain as New Co-Editor of the Blog

We are delighted to welcome Stacie Swain to the editorial board of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. Over the past year, Adam Miller has been working with Matt Sheedy to oversee the daily work on our blog and we are very thankful for his hard work and dedication. Adam will be moving on to help us develop the Bulletin’s new book review section, an exciting new development at the Bulletin! In his place, Stacie has agreed to come on board to work with Matt. I believe that Stacie will bring a new and exciting perspective to the blog. I wanted to introduce Bulletin readers to Stacie and her current work.

Stacie is an MA student in Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa and currently serves as a Councillor for the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR). Her interests center on interdisciplinary theories of concepts and categories such as religion, spirituality, culture, and identity, particularly in relation to politics, law, governance, states, and nations. Broadly speaking her work brings critiques of “religion” in liberal pluralism into conversation with critical scholarship on settler colonialism and indigeneity. Her current thesis work examines the incorporation of indigenous ceremonies and symbols into Canadian political, legal, and legislative contexts. In her own words, Stacie summarizes some of her current research:

I’m interested in what goes on at the interface of what we might call “two political cultures” (to use Bayart’s phrasing), in terms of interactions between those who identify as ‘Indigenous’ and others identified as ‘Canadians’, ‘settlers’, or the state. Through discourse analysis (broadly-defined), my work argues that since key events in 1990, the eagle feather has come to represent a claim to an inherent and resurgent Indigenous sovereignty that is problematic for a contemporary Canadian nation-state understood as ‘settler-colonial’. To highlight the settler-colonialism underlying Canadian sovereignty, I consider the ceremonial mace used in the House of Commons. I contrast the mace with performative statements made by Indigenous peoples by holding or presenting an eagle feather. Legal, legislative, and political contexts have become discursive occasions for the contestation of Canadian sovereignty, ones in which the state must either repress or recognize Indigenous claims to authority. At the same time, common sense understandings of religion, spirituality, secularism, and politics are the semantic matrix through which the eagle feather gets classified, or materializes. To think about how the eagle feather gets classified, I’ve performed a media survey of Canadian mainstream media between 1990-2017. The way the media construes the feather, in a sense, reveals the utility of it – in the sources that I’ve surveyed for example, it gets compared to both the Bible and the Canadian flag. This allows me to think through the ways a specifically ‘Indigenous’ sovereignty might be constructed in contrast to the sovereignty of the state.

Although she qualifies this as “a work in progress, for the record”, I think what she is doing is fascinating from a theoretical perspective on cultural and political power relations; relations situated within discursive moments of not only identity construction through symbolic and religious discourse or performance, but also counter-identity constructions in the maintenance of such relations. Her focus on indigenous and Canadian political sovereignty offers a glimpse into the political implications of “religion” (and “culture” among other identity labels) for social actors engaged in establishing normative “memory” through symbolic expressions.

As Stacie takes up the reins of her new editorial duties, I am confident that she will bring a unique perspective and dynamic energy to the blog. And I am also very grateful to Adam for not only his hard work on the blog, but also for his enthusiastic agreement to work with us in developing a new section of the Bulletin (more on this development in a future post!). The Bulletin continues to move forward as a dynamic space for theoretical, methodological, pedagogical, and professional debates and reflections on the academic study of religion.


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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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