Imagine 7: A Secular Retreat – A Report from the Field, Part Two

by Matt Sheedy

  • For part one in this series of posts, see here.

Imagine 7: A Secular Retreat, which I recently attended in Toronto from June 2-4, is the seventh annual Imagine No Religion conference that was started by Bill Ligertwood and Kathy Cruickshank. This year’s conference featured such popular figures in atheists circles as Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and Laurence Krauss.

In this second of three posts, I will offer descriptions of the presenters and their talks from day two, followed by a description of concession literature, sponsors, and some theoretical analysis in part three. My aim here is to provide a first-hand account of the various ideas, ideologies, interests, and organizations coming out of this event, which I hope can serve as both a resource for those interested in studies in/on/about secularism, humanism, secular movements, non-religion, and atheism, as well as an example of the wider phenomenon of social formation.

Richard Dawkins – In his keynote address, “The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind,” the crowd swelled to over 500 participants to hear the famed evolutionary biologist and popular atheist’s latest musings. Dawkins began with examples from seagull and salamander species in order to highlight the naturally occurring spectrum of variations within these species, both today and on an evolutionary scale. He went on to note, by analogy, that it’s a mere accident that humans discovered a missing link from chimpanzees, and that if this particular species was alive today we’d likely have courts of law like they did in South Africa to determine whether or not they would pass as human. The inability to see these links as existing on a continuum (as opposed to a static binary) is what Dawkins calls the “tyranny of the discontinuous mind,” which he linked to the idea of “essentialism” in philosophy: “If you think that the essence of ‘rabbitness’ is prior to the existence of rabbits, evolution is not an idea that will spring to your mind, and you may resist it when someone else suggests it.” A series of examples of the discontinuous mind followed in order to highlight the ubiquitous nature of this phenomenon, such as how we measure poverty rates, which states (in the U.S.) are “red” or “blue,” to matters of classifying “race.” Dawkins’s point (and here he called out Plato’s philosophy for special condemnation) is that the discontinuous mind inhibits us from thinking about things in terms of intermediaries, be it the classification of people as “African Americans” with 1/8 African ancestry, or the need to obtain a verdict of 100% guilt amongst jurors in a court of law. It was at this point that Dawkins made his first analogy to religion with a slide featuring a naked Jain monk (he did not distinguish the man as a Digambara or “Sky Clad” monk) juxtaposed with a protest sign against Islam (see below) right.

These two examples, in case it isn’t ‘healing crystal’ clear, are meant to refute the claim that “all religions are equally bad.” Some religions, like Islam, are clearly worse. Dawkins then got personal by recounting an incident for which he drew a fair bit of flack, where he argued that all pedophilia is not equally bad, noting a spectrum from inappropriate touching to “repeated violent buggery.” His own experience as a young boy with the former was meant to highlight this point through a personal experience that, while uncomfortable at the time, did not lead to lasting trauma as in the case of the latter. In conclusion, Dawkins urged atheists to become activists against the influence of “idiotic ideas” influencing public policy. This includes “Islam,” which he used interchangeably with “Islamism,” stressing that Islam is a major problem, must be condemned, and that this has nothing to do with condemning every Muslim. To confuse the two is yet another example of the tyranny of the discontinuous mind.

Julien Musolino is a professor at Rutgers University in the Departments of Psychology and the Center for Cognitive Science. He is the author of The Soul Fallacy: What Science Shows We Gain from Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs. In his talk “The Soul Fallacy,” which was one of the more academic presentations at the conference, Musolino connected prevailing notions of crime and punishment in the U.S. with Cartesian mind-body dualism, which he claimed led to a libertarian view of free will that lends credence to the the idea of the soul as an “uncaused cause.” All of this was meant to highlight the fallacy of a retributivist approach to criminal justice. Advances in neuroscience (especially the use of MRIs) can get us closer to discovering how people’s intentions are largely deterministic (i.e., determined by our brain chemistry and therefore contrary to free will [see Sam Harris (2012) for a similar position in popular atheist circles]). For Musolino, all the things that people thought that the soul was responsible for can be understood in terms of neurological brain patterns, which he sees an important step forward (i.e., rejecting the soul) if we are to have a more just society.

Annabelle Gurwitch is an actor, New York Times bestselling author, and former co-host of Dinner and a Movie on TBS. In her talk “Wherever You Go, There They Are,” which she retitled for the conference, “Slouching Toward Secular Humanism,” Gurwitch provided a testimonial on her movement toward (you guessed it) secular humanism. Gurwitch recounted her early atheist identity growing up as a secular Jew in Miami, which became complicated when her parents lost all of their money in the 1980s, creating a crisis that she styled as a ripe moment for religious conversion. After moving to NYC to do avant-garde theatre, she got into “new age spirituality,” especially Nichiren Buddhism. She later found a guru who told her that their (unnamed) group were a reincarnated family from the bloodline of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, and that they had been chosen to usher in the new age on earth. Gurwitch attributed her success in the acting word during this time to what she called the “magical thinking” of putting positive thoughts out into the universe in order to get a reward (here she drew an analogy to The Secret by Rhonda Byrne). A turning point came for her a number of years back during a new age retreat in California, where the general “over the top” nature of it all—“We go into a sweat lodge and call out ‘all my relations’ in Lakota” … “Mellow calls the rocks grandpas, coz rocks are our grandpas … I’m sitting a few feet away from the sacred fire …” This tipping point lead Gurwitch back into the humanist fold, where she now speaks professionally (e.g., see her commentary on NPR) and has written several books on her experiences (e.g., You Say Tomato, I Say Shut-Up: A Love Story). The take away from all her searching, and what she hoped to impart to her fellow humanists, is the importance of community and “collective effervescence” (which she attributed to Victor Turner). Citing such atheist communities as Sunday Assembly, and The Godless Revival, Gurwitch encouraged her fellow atheists to form humanist families and to use their platforms to help others, such as refugees, which will not only forge community but also help to change negative perceptions of atheists in the United States and around the world.

Kelly Carlin is the daughter of famed comedian George Carlin, writer, and host of the Sirus/XM radio program, The Kelly Carlin Show. She addressed her talk “Living the Human-Scaled Life” to her fellow atheists, secular humanists, and curious heathens, and began by noting how she never thought of herself as an atheist growing up as her father called himself agnostic and didn’t like to identify with any “strong group” (“one that prints t-shirts” as GC put it). While Carlin now calls herself an atheist, which she views as a political act, she also identifies as a Buddhist–“the meditation kind, not chanting”–after spending many years of her life struggling for a “place to land.” For this and other reasons, she viewed this event as “more than a conference [but] a chance to become part of a family.” Carlin also stressed that she sees her role not so much as providing humour (no doubt a high bar to meet in that family), but in helping people to embrace vulnerability through mindfulness meditation in order “to feel connected to others, nature, and the awe of being in the moment.”

She then asked for the audience’s trust to let her conduct a little experiment in walking meditation (see image right). While encouraging people to leave the room if they didn’t feel comfortable (Dawkins made a beeline for the door), Carlin instructed those who had chosen to stay to walk around the room in a zigzagging pattern, stop on her call, find a person next to them, and stare into their eyes while she led a guided meditation as a point for reflection. Everyone in the room did this with 5 separate people. On one of these encounters she asked participants to take the other person’s hand, stare into their eyes, and reflect on the billions of years that it took for this to become a hand in its present form; to reflect on the (and I’m paraphrasing) wonder of evolution that came together to produce this unique hand; and to reflect, finally, on the other person’s death as well as on one’s own. In the Q&A Carlin stressed that this was not magical thinking, but mindfulness, and a direct confrontation with human suffering: “If you can sit with it all and confront the enormity of it … something shifts and changes.” She also confessed that she couldn’t quite let go of the idea of “this soul thing,” though she prefers the terms “the glorious broken human” or “the space between us.”

Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, whose books include Why Evolution is True, and Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. In his talk, “Ways of Knowing: Science versus Everything Else,” Coyne opened by telling his audience that he was going to practice “scientism” and make the claim that science is the only way of knowing the universe. Here he posed two common counterpoints to this claim: 1) “What about the humanities, art, music, math, philosophy, literature, personal feelings, and religion?” and 2) “Are there ‘Big Questions’ that science can’t answer but religion can?” Tied to these questions are three ways in which science and religion are incompatible. The first incompatibility is methodological, which Coyne summarized with the following maxim: “In science, faith is a vice. In religion, faith is a virtue.” The second incompatibility is that of “outcomes.”

Here he drew on a “Phylogeny of World Religions” (see slide) and argued that religions contradict each other on multiple fronts, which proves that religion cannot give us any truths about the universe. Science, by contrast, shows little deviation. The third incompatibility is that of philosophy or “truth.” Literary truth, for example, means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and is about feeling. It does not tell us anything we don’t already know about the cosmos. “Does Moby Dick really tell us anything about whaling? Moby Dick is fiction and it doesn’t engage in proof about the universe.” Citing his on-going debate with Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker about the role of literature, music, and art, Coyne wants to draw a strict boundary between ways of knowing vs. ways of feeling. He also stated that he rejects the claims of cultural anthropology (while admitting that this will rankle some people in the audience), calling it an “ideology,” and differentiating it from anthropology, archaeology, history, and economics.

Turning to the “Why” question, Coyne touched on the problems of morality and suffering where, in the case of the latter, he argued that suffering is a by-product of the laws of nature and that emotional pain helps us to solve problems and improve our lives. In conclusion, Coyne stressed that these ideas were provisional, and that he is still working them through.


Matt Dillahunty is a former Southern Baptist “Fundamentalist Christian” turned atheist, who was president of the Atheist Community of Austin from 2006-2013, and former host of the Internet radio show Non Prophets Radio. Dillahunty was a last minute add-on to the line up of speakers, and performed what he called a “Magic Show and Mind Reading,” calling on volunteers to demonstrate how intuition, probability, and sleight of hand works (though true to magician’s form, he did not reveal the trick) by guessing their choice of cards, objects, and celebrities in an “illusionist” type fashion. He noted that he was thinking of moving to Canada since the election of Trump, but ultimately won’t as he wants to stay and fix things in his own country.

Laurence Krauss is a physicist and popular atheist who, according to his own self-description, “joined the faculty at Arizona State University [in 2008] as Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Department of Physics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and [is] Director of the University’s Origins Initiative.” His research focuses on “the beginning and end of the Universe” and he is the co-host of the documentary The Unbelievers (2013) with Richard Dawkins. Wearing his trademark Converse and Panama hat, the loudspeakers boomed with Sinatra’s “The Best is Yet to Come” prior to Krauss taking the stage. The theme of his talk was how science cuts through the illusion of reality, confronting humanity with the brute fact that the universe was not designed for us, that we are insignificant, and that we are here by accident. Drawing on Plato’s cave analogy, Krauss said that in the world of physics he deals with “the cave” every day, and that one of the purposes of science is to make us uncomfortable, which is how we keep learning—when two disparate things are seen to be different manifestations of the same thing, that’s when progress happens in science. Krauss traced a trajectory of thinkers, from Michael Faraday and James C. Maxwell, to Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and Enrico Fermi, in order to demonstrate that science (and scientific revolutions) do not, unlike religion, do away with the ideas that came before them.

Krauss went on the discuss his own involvement working on the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, which he argued is an example of humanity at its best since it means we’re pushing forward on knowledge about the universe, despite the cost and the uncertainty of it all. Bringing contemporary politics into the mix, Krauss talked about the 20% budget cut under the Trump administration to the Department of Energy, along with the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. Concluding his talk, Krauss invoked Virgil’s The Aeneid, with the lines “release your fear,” arguing that it is science, literature, and art that make America great by allowing us to change ourselves for the better.

Stay tuned for part three!

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 and atheism, 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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Hijacked! Conference in Bonn, Germany

by Leslie Dorrough Smith

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

Hijacked!: A Critical Treatment of the Public Rhetoric of “Good” and “Bad” Religion was a conference held from June 8-10 in Bonn, Germany, at the Forum Internationale Wissenschaft (FIW) at the University of Bonn.  Three members of Culture on the Edge (Merinda Simmons, Vaia Touna, and Leslie Dorrough Smith) attended as participants.

The conference’s aim was to consider the rhetorical strategies that various social groups use to evaluate the role of religion in public life.  In particular, a group of international scholars focused on four different themes (the classroom, the media, the university, and politics, respectively) considered how rhetorics of good/authentic/”real” religion have been juxtaposed with concepts of bad/illegitimate/”fake” religion, and the sorts of political work such rhetorics have made possible.

The panelists’ pre-read Aaron Hughes’ book Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry Into Disciplinary Apologeticswherein Hughes argues that the portrayal of Islam that reigns today in the university is a largely liberalized one that, while an understandably desirable narrative to counter the unbalanced negativity that equates Islam with terrorism, is nevertheless hard to historically and critically defend when one considers the shape such arguments have taken (i.e., portraying early Islam as gay-friendly or feminist in the way we currently understand those terms).  Hughes thus demonstrates how this good/bad rhetoric is deployed to perform very specific types of political work.

As Hughes himself notes, this critique is applicable across the whole of religious studies, not just Islam, and thus our investigation together has sought to underscore how this occurs in influential social realms.  We started with a conversation about the classroom, wherein the papers discussed described everything from the content of textbooks to the different ways in which students legitimize (or delegitimize) certain conversations about religion – if not the category itself — depending  on their own cultural contexts, to our deployment of critical terms in the classroom (such as “cult”), to the role of governmental entities in determining the subject of religious education.

Next, the media group focused on CNN’s series Believer, featuring commentator Reza Aslan, which involves Aslan’s own controversial portrayal of a variety of non-mainstream religious groups.  Here the papers grappled with the capitalist and visually objectifying functions of the show’s construction (and the social domestication both create) as well as offering a comparative analysis of how similar German programs operate to reinforce the same good religion/bad religion concepts.

Our third session, centered on the university, took as its primary data the neo-conservative argument that the focus on and praise of diversity that occurs at many US universities is, itself, a type of religion (and, it is implied by its authors, a “bad” religion).  Respondents continued the discussion with related commentary on the good/bad divide in the construction of scholarship, scholarly methods, and our identification of our subjects (including specific discussions on scholarship in Buddhism, the study of those identified as non-religious, and in psychology).

Our final session, which considered the political realm, began from the premise that religion is a tool used by governmental systems to regulate social groups and justify the use (or occasional lack thereof) of governmental power, as evidenced by the willingness of certain governmental systems to tolerate religious practices that have resulted in the disease and death of its citizens.  The conversation continued with examples of Greek firewalking, the Canadian controversy over the niqab, sociological perspectives on the process of stratification, and a gendered analysis of how the boundaries of the “public” and “private” are reified to create certain social norms.

Along the way, there have been excursions, dinners, and plenty of camaraderie. Participants from Culture on the Edge would like to extend our sincere thanks, again, to the Forum Internationale Wissenschaft for their amazing hospitality.  For the conference play-by-play, check it out at #hijacked2017!

Leslie Dorrough Smith is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Avila University. Dr. Smith’s work is interdisciplinary, drawing from sociological, historical, critical, and feminist theoretical perspectives.  Her primary research is concerned with the ways in which social groups use religious language to create avenues of social influence and political power, with particular focus on American evangelicals.  More specifically, her interest in how language has shaped sex and gender-related public policy led to the publication of her first bookRighteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America (Oxford University Press, 2014), which provides a rhetorical critique of one of the nation’s largest conservative women’s movements.

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Imagine 7: A Secular Retreat – A Report from the Field, Part One

by Matt Sheedy

The very popular Imagine No Religion conference/convention and gathering for atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and non-believers of all stripes is being held this year in Toronto, the first time the yearly event has journeyed from its British Columbia origins seven years ago, said organizers and creators Bill Ligertwood and Kathy Cruickshank.

The above lines open the Convention News flyer that participants of this year’s Imagine 7: A Secular Retreat conference received in their tote bags, which I recently attended in Toronto from June 2-4. The flyer also features descriptions of the line-up of speakers, with keynotes from famed atheists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss.

In this first of three posts, I will offer brief descriptions of the presenters and their talks from day one, followed by a description of the 6 speakers from day two (including Dawkins keynote address), and, finally a brief description of concession literature, sponsors, and some theoretical analysis in part three. My aim here is to provide a first hand account of the various ideas, ideologies, interests, and organizations coming out of this event, which I hope can serve as both a resource for those interested in studies in/on/about secularism, humanism, secular movements, non-religion, and atheism, as well as an example of the wider phenomenon of social formation.

* I will save the Dawkins keynote for part two for the sake of length constrains … and as a little teaser to entice y’all to come back for more!

In his opening address, organizer and co-creator Bill Ligertwood informed the audience that they had changed the name of the conference from Imagine No Religion to Imagine 7: A Secular Retreat in order to move away from the more antagonistic or “religion bashing” tones of the past, though “Imagine No Religion” or INR was still in use in various forms. This is reflective of larger trends within atheist/secularist communities in moving toward a (slightly) ‘bigger tent’ mentality, especially in light of initiatives by popular atheists like Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali to bring what they call “moderate Muslims” into dialogue with atheists on the basis of a shared concern with “Islamism” or “radical Islam” and a shared grounding in liberal democratic values.

The Starting Line-up …

Rob Penczak is a physician, writer, and secular activist, who was the executive director of the Atheist Alliance of America and host of the Ustream TV show Road to Reason: A Skeptics Guide to the 21st Century. In his opening talk, “Setting a New Precedent for U.S. President,” which he renamed “Saved by Science,” Penczak began with a nod to two of his heroes in the audience, Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, and described his ideology as in line with that of Star Trek—no religion, with world peace as a guiding framework. Penczak then pointed to lies of the Republican Party, as embodied by Karl Rove during the George W. Bush era and Trump himself today, as an existential threat (e.g., climate change). Bernie Sanders, by contrast, was upheld as a politician that holds humanist values, including egalitarian principles (e.g., the idea that “we’re all in this together”) that he claimed went down well with many atheists. Concerns over the fate of the planet were highlighted with scientific charts dealing with global warming, the Doomsday Clock (Minutes till midnight), the Democracy Index (where the U.S. has slipped from a full to a partial democracy), along with a strong condemnation of the corporate media as not being representative of the people. As an anecdote to America’s “slide toward fascism,” Penczak encouraged a greater coming together of what he termed the “reality based community,” which he highlighted with the acronym SS-ASH (A-med) (see the slide to the right). He argued that a truly democratic media was key to this end, as well as running a president with humanist values, at which point he gave a playful nudge to participants Lawrence Krauss and Jerry Coyne to throw their hats in the ring.

Aruna Papp is a writer and public speaker that also works as a therapist with families dealing with violence. In her talk, “The Day I Stopped Negotiating with God,” Papp recounts her youth in India, where she experienced honour-based violence at the hands of her family, her lack of education in India, and her father’s role as a leader in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Moving to Toronto at the age of 21, Papp discussed her move away from the Church, from the patriarchy of her family, and towards becoming an activist for women’s rights. She represented Canada at the UN in 2012, with a focus on the difference between domestic and honour-based violence, and led the push for Bill S7-Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices. A central theme in her talk was the fear she perceived on the left of being called racist or Islamophpbic for speaking out against such practices, ending with an ironic flourish: “Let’s all become racist and say honour-based violence in not acceptable.”

Henry Beissel is a poet, playwright, essayist, former editor of Humanist Perspectives, and Distinguished Emeritus Professor at Concordia University in Montreal. In his talk, “The Function of Poetry in the Age of Science,” Beissel opens with a lament about how poetry has become redundant in our time, which he linked to the perversion of language in politics leading to “the sophistries of religion,” infantilism, increasing militarism, and, ultimately, the demise of Western civilization. For Beissel, the “age of science” has made us aware that the cosmos is incredibly violent, and that the human species will die out, as the natural world conducts a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” Darwin was the first to fully realize this brute reality, and theories of relativity and quantum mechanics have only solidified it further. Since the universe no longer has any meaning, people have become untethered and no longer know what to do. As a cautious anecdote, Beissel urges us to embrace this demoralizing reality and not to forget the value of things like music, painting, and poetry so that we may better address humans as emotional beings. While the days of religious “nurseries” are over in the West, religions still provide solace and community, and humanists would do well to include these elements if they want to become a global community and not just a “debating society.”

Christopher DiCarlo is a board member of the Society of Ontario Free Thinkers (, public speaker, and writer on topics ranging from bioethics to cognitive evolution. He has taught at Harvard, Ryerson University, and the University of Waterloo. In his talk, “Six Steps to Better Thinking: How to Disagree and Get Along,” DiCarlo lays out a program of rational dialogue with the aim of promoting discourse over hatred, and disagreeing to get along. He also discussed his involvement in The Critical Thinking Project, which has been implemented in a few schools in Guatemala, Peru, Uganda, Ghana, and the Philippines. DiCarlo also mentioned that he’s been contacted by the president of Ireland, Michael Higgins, on the possibly of introducing The Critical Thinking Project in the school curriculum in Ireland.

Tahir Gora is a Canadian-Pakistani journalist, novelist, and TV host (for TAG TV), director of the Canadian Thinkers’ Forum, as well as an inter-faith activist who is a member of the Coalition of Progressive Muslim Canadian Organizations. In his talk, he identified himself with secular Sufi traditions in Islam, and noted his past struggles with clerics imposing a Muslim identity upon him in Lahore, before moving to Canada. Gora framed his talk by arguing that religion is not going away and that it needs to be dealt with by reforming it, which he aims to do in Canada. Gora expressed concern for the recent “anti-Islamophobia Motion” in the Canadian Parliament, M-103, the accommodation of prayer rooms in public schools, and issues surrounding Muslim involvement with politics in Canada more generally. Gora fears that Muslim groups are paving the way for sharia law in Canada, and rejects claims that Islamophobia is a real problem, citing the election of 11 Muslim Members of Parliament in Canada in the recent election as evidence to the contrary. For Gora, the root causes of antagonism toward Muslims can be traced to inequalities within Muslims cultures, such as the idea that women are inferior to men, that Western culture is inferior to Islam, that a pregnant adulterer must be stoned to death, etc. Rooting out this mind-set in Western Muslims is, for him, the best way to combat this problem, while stressing the importance of affirming “Canadian values.” Gora also urged his audience to make a distinction between cultural values and religious values, stating that it is the latter that needs to be rooted out. In response to one question during the Q&A, Gora stated that he doesn’t believe in ‘left’ or ‘right’ along the political spectrum, just ‘rational’ and ‘irrational.’

Gretta Vosper is a minister at West Hill United Church in Toronto, and is featured in the documentaries Godless: The Truth Beyond Beliefand the upcoming film Losing Our Religion. She is also the author of With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe, and Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. In her lecture “Beyond Critique,” Vosper talked about coming out as an atheist in 2013, and how, despite the fact that she does not believe in God or any of the doctrinal statements that the United Church of Canada posts on its website, they’ve allowed her to stay on as a minister, although her position in the Church is up for review in the fall of 2017. The crux of Vosper’s talk focused on the crisis in the United Church and how, in her estimation, it will be all but vanished in Canada within the next ten years. Her movement away from belief in God is thus presented as a model for saving what is still salvageable in the Church—namely, building relationships with others (she invoked Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationship), with those we’ll never meet, and with the natural world. ”Religion has been a blight,” she stated, “but it has also been a place that’s offered community; the best way to find one another; to hold one another; and to call one another together into the future.” For Vosper, this also means recognizing that freedom from religion is an urgent issue (her church is currently sponsoring Ibrahim Khalil, a secular blogger from Bangladesh, to come to Canada as a refuge), as are LGBTQ rights, women rights, workers rights, and questions of environmental justice. The arch of her talk is thus meant to challenge humanists, atheists, and secular activists to recognize that religion has transmitted morality through generations, and that her church, described as “a community growing out of Christianity” can serve as a model for secularist communities (she noted that her church rarely reads from the Bible, approx. 4 lines per week, and focuses instead on literature and music) moving forward.

Seth Andrews is a video producer and former Christian broadcaster who hosts the TheThinkingAtheist/com. In his talk, “My Biggest Beef with Christianity (for the moment),” Andrews opened by telling the audience that they’re not going to learn anything today as he’s “come here to vent.” As a former “fundamentalist Christian” and Christian radio broadcaster, Andrews’ de-conversion narrative focused on the problem with religious language: “What’s the point in blessing our food? What does ‘bless you heart actually mean?” Since his experience taught him that the meaning of these terms was never stable, he came to see it as dishonest (“and a bit of a fuck you!”). Quoting John 14, Andrews rhetorically asked his audience, “would you trust a believing doctor or an atheist who knew what the hell she was doing?” Other passages were drawn upon to provide evidence of the absurdity of religious language—including Psalm 121: 7-8; Romans 8:28; Hebrews 11:1, James 1:5-8; John 20:25; John 20:20—all of which signal for him a naïve optimism as embodied in such lines as: “everything happens for a reason,” and “God never shuts one door without opening another.” He notes religious studies scholar Stephen Prothero’s survey on religious literacy in the U.S. to show how little Christians actually know about the Bible, which he illustrates with an image of a man screaming with a caption reading: “God exists because I don’t understand things.” Andrews attributes his de-conversion to discovering the work of Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne’s book Why Evolution Is True, calling them his prophets (both were in the audience), and concludes with an affirmation that he now wants to pursue evidence and “real wisdom.” In closing, Andrews praised his audience, proclaiming: “As rationalists you are making a difference. … My life as an out and proud secular person isn’t about convincing hard line believers, but it’s about me. … Giving myself permission to be a secularist.”

Ali Rizvi grew up in Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, is a former physician, and is the author of the book The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason. In his talk “Muslim vs. Islam,” he opens with the same lines that begin his book, noting how the words Allah hu Akbar were whispered in his ear when he was born, as they are for millions of Muslims around the world, which had a positive association for him growing up. With the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism (he notes the Iranian Revolution and the Saudi exporting of Salafism), this phrase, along with that of ‘jihad,’ have become associated with something bad, striking fear in many in the West. Rizvi noted that he grew up in a “moderate-to-liberal” Muslim family and was unable to understand the Qur’an until he was older. Growing up, he was told by his parents that what the Saudis were doing was part of their culture, politics, economics, and the influence of U.S. foreign policy, but had nothing to do with ‘Islam.’ He was therefore appalled when he began reading the Qur’an in translation, citing the following suras as the most pernicious: sura 8:12-13; sura 5:38; sura 4:34; sura 9:29-30; and sura 9:5. Rizvi became and “apostate” after reading the Qur’an in Urdu and began to discover the difference between ‘Islam’ (read: the Qur’an) and being Muslim as a form of cultural identity. He expressed his desire to combat the false narrative that “Islam is a religion of peace,” and was hopeful that with increased Tafsir (exegesis), and the ever-increasing availability of translations of the Qur’an on-line, a reformation will occur. Here he quotes Maryam Namazie’s sentiment: “The internet is doing to Islam today what the printing press did in the past to Christianity.” Like Tahir Gora, he rejects the narratives about Islam coming from the right and from the left, stating that the former only wants to respond with might and power, while the latter blame American imperialism as the root cause and call you a bigot if you criticize Islam. Rivzi disagrees with both of these positions, and puts forward his own distinction as a way to think through contemporary woes: Islam is the ideology codified in the Qur’an, while Muslims represent culture and people nominally grounded in the faith. To criticize the first is thus to target beliefs, while to criticize the second is to target human beings. Rizvi’s book The Atheist Muslim aims to speak to the experience of those who must identify as Muslisms, but are really atheists or agnostics, such as a his friend Raif Badawi, the imprisoned Saudi writer and activist, and Avigit Roy, who was hacked to death by a mob in Bangladesh for his activist as an atheist/humanist blogger. One further distinction that Rivzi presented for his mostly white atheist audience to consider was that between countries where Muslims are a minority vs. those where they are in the majority. In the former, ‘Muslim’ is a form of identity, while in the latter ‘Islam’ is a tool that governments use to oppress citizens. Citing the example of the hijab, and how it is often celebrated by women in the West, he notes that it is forced on people in Muslim majority countries. This is ironic and confusing, he noted, as Western liberals unwittingly find themselves protecting cultural issues that Muslims in Muslim majority countries are fighting against. In the end, Rivzi feels that “it’s up to us in the secular liberal West to change [this state of affairs],” and he views his role as an important one since he can say things about Islam as an “ex-Muslim” that most Westerners can’t. A case in point is a Tweet he posted in response to the question “Is Islam a race?” His reply was as follows: “But Islam is a race: first you hear a loud bang and then everybody runs.” Rivzi is unapologetic about such provocations and wrote a piece in the Huff Post about this phenomenon, which he calls ‘Islamophobia-phobia,’ where he argues that terrorism (or being terrorized) includes holding back from saying what you think and being ashamed of your liberal values, citing the Danish cartoons and the Charlie Hebdo massacre as prime examples.

Stay tuned for part two!

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 and atheism, 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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Defining Theology (with reference to Jean-Luc Marion)

by Tenzan Eaghll

When I went for my first academic interview in a religious studies department after completing my PhD, the first question I was asked by the hiring committee was “what is the difference between religious studies and theology.” This is a pretty basic question in our field, nothing tricky here, and I suppose I was asked it because the interviewers wanted to make sure I understood this simple distinction—and to make sure I wasn’t a covert theologian masquerading as an academic. My response was fairly conventional—at least for readers of this blog—as I said that whereas theology is concerned with the truth of religion and truth claims made by particular religions, religious studies is concerned with what people do with “religion,” how it is used to describe, cut up, and frame the world around us, presently and historically.

Now, I think the answer I gave in my interview is a pretty handy way to define religious studies and distinguish it from theology off the cuff, and it also works well when someone asks about your job in a non-academic setting, as it is fairly straight forward and easy to understand. However, another way I like to answer this question when I have more time is by pointing out how theologians often try to safeguard some particular truth claim, or aspect of religion, apart from critical analysis, whereas religious studies scholars are willing to historicize everything—to smash all the idols, so to speak. This is a more complex way of answering the same question I was asked in the interview, but I like it because it allows me to address many of the metaphysical presuppositions that a theological approach to the study of religion conceals. Moreover, it has the added benefit of pointing out that part of what we do is critique the privileging of religion as a special—or sacred—domain of inquiry.

I learned this latter way of distinguishing theology from religious studies from Jacques Derrida, who pointed out in various publications how religion is often associated with a discourse on salvation that attempts to set something “holy” apart from the everyday world of communication. According to Derrida, one common theological trope is the appeal to something “unscathed” from the alterity of the finite world—something cut-out or held in distinction from life and death. In fact, he suggested that this is how religious adherents attempt to protect and indemnify religion from the contingency of history—by setting the truth of religion apart from the movement of the world. Interestingly, this is actually one way to define the word “Sacred,” which comes from the Latin sacrere, and means “to make sacred, consecrate; hold sacred, immortalize; set apart, dedicate.”

All of the theological tropes in our field can be summarized by this move, which attempts to locate some space of excess above the living, some absolute value that is exemplary and to which humanity has some special access. It is for this reason that being able to adequately distinguish between religious studies and theology is so important, because this theological trope is often used to indemnify man, reason, God, etc., from that which is material, historical, technological, and irredeemably finite. Rather than analyzing what people do with religion and contextualizing truth claims, it is a means of guaranteeing some special place for human understanding independent of the messy world of animals, bodies, communication, politics, and death.

Another reason I particularly like this way of distinguishing religious studies from theology is because it also helps identify some of the other crypto-theological remainders that get snuck into some of the distinctions and categories we use in the field. After all, it can become kind of easy to identify religious studies from theology if all we are looking for is a distinction between theological truth claims and an analysis of religion as a historical concept. If all we do is point out the etymology of theology—the Greek words, theos (god) and logia (study)—and try to distinguish the “study of the gods” from the study of the uses and abuses of “religion,” we do little to dispel many of the covert ways that theological assumptions gets smuggled into the definitions of Christianity, Islam, Shintoism, sacrifice, myth, belief, truth, etc. As anyone who has read a lot of religious studies literature knows, sometimes a scholar with a somewhat historical and critical approach to religion can catch you off guard by the way they sneak covert theological assumptions into their work, such as the idea that religious traditions are really about peace, despite all the bloody genealogies that make up their history. Or, alternatively, with the claim that figures like Jesus, Mohammed, and the Buddha are the bearers of religious truth, and that everything that follows them is a poor derivation from the norm they established.

For example, watch this interview with the French historian of philosophy, phenomenologist, and Roman Catholic theologian, Jean-Luc Marion. On the surface, what is theological about this interview is that Marion privileges Christianity as the bearer of absolute truth. I mean, he literally says at one point that he thinks Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, is completely true—a blatant theological position. However, he also says a couple things that even some world religion textbooks will suggest, such as the idea that religious truth is independent of the “corruption” endemic to its institutions, or that a figure like Jesus was the first Christian, exposing how certain theologian tropes play a covert role in our understanding of history and culture:

Notice how he presents the real source of Christianity as a prior truth given by the revelation of Jesus, “the boss”? He is not implicating Christianity in history and noting how it is a historical creation, but presenting it as something special that is cut out from the movement of time and unaffected by the alterity of the finite world. This is perhaps best exemplified by his statement that Jesus was the first and only true Christian, and his suggestion that all later believers and saints are a derivation from this norm. What gets defined as religion here is a very sacred force that is independent of history and is able to heal the world with its power―a force that is able to indemnify life from its own contingency. Marion’s claim that Christianity is the source of the “arts,” “philosophy,” “political improvement,” “science,” “eroticism,” and even “happiness,” is an outgrowth of this claim. Marion is not merely suggesting that Christian texts and figures influence Western thought—a perfectly acceptable claim that historians make all the time—but that it is the prior source of revelation that is responsible for all the good in Western history. To take Derrida’s definition as our guide, we might say that Marion is defining Christianity as something “unscathed,” something cut-out (held in distinction) from the messy world of animals, bodies, communication, politics, and death.

Of course, Marion is a somewhat easy target because his positions are so blatantly theological, but many similar examples could easily be drawn from the work of Ninian Smart, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, or Mircea Eliade to prove the same point. There is a tendency to smuggle theological tropes into the study of religion and claim that it is the bearer of something special that is responsible for all that is good in the world, from Smart’s attempt to use religion to create an ethic of tolerance, Eliade’s essentialization of myth to study hierophany, or Smith’s universalization of faith as a means to define religion beyond abstract formulations. What is common to all these approaches is the attempt to define religion by appealing to some special domain of inquiry.

It is for this reason that I think distinguishing religious studies from theology is not simply a matter of noting the difference between the truth claims of the former and the critical power of the latter. Rather, it is also necessary to identify the theological tropes that are often used to infuse notions of peace, truth, goodness, and culture with a quality that is held in distinction from history. Sometimes, spotting these crypto-theological claims can be easy, as it often is in Marion’s work, but they can also take a more covert form.

Tenzan Eaghll completed his doctoral research at the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, 2016. He is currently a Lecturer at the College of Religious Studies at Mahidol University, Thailand. His research focuses on the intersection of continental philosophy and method and theory in the study of religion, with a special focus on contemporary French thought.

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How to Resist Christian Hegemony: Reflections on the #RAAC2017 Biennial










by Travis Cooper

Just this last weekend I had the privilege of attending the 5th Biennial Conference for the Study of Religion and American Culture held in Indianapolis. I started coming to the event in back in 2011 as a master’s student and religious studies neophyte. Although I missed the inaugural meeting, I’ve been present at every gathering since then. From the unorthodox spatial arrangements, to the high caliber emerging or advanced scholar panelists, to the typically hip hotel environs, the biennial is a happening event. For younger scholars, coming to this conference can be an exceedingly intimidating and yet rewarding experience. Where else would one get to come into such close contact with the very people whose names fill one’s comprehensive exams lists? The Biennial is like the AAR minus the oceanic crowds and miles of hurried rushing between panel locations.

For this fifth conference, each panel consisted of three short and intentionally provocative papers on themes ranging from “Religion and the State,” to “The Nones,” to “Digital Methods,” to “Diversity, Pluralism, and Secularism.” In an effort to facilitate discussion beyond traditional panel presentations followed by brief question-and-answer segments, sessions included shorter papers and extended periods of audience interaction, be it questions to the panelists, inquiries for other audience members, dissenting comments, calls for clarification, and so on. The result is a dynamic and ongoing experience in which salient themes carry over into subsequent panels and dialogues. Thanks to several attendees’ mad live-tweeting skills, social media feeds were also an important part of the discursive loop. (Do check out the #raac2017 Twitter archive. Many thanks especially to Daniel Silliman for his persistent documentary twittering.)

One such recurring theme was the question of Christian hegemony. Mike Altman broached the subject as early as the second panel, tweeting that “religious freedom’s just another word for Protestant hegemony” in one instance, and questioning if “the category ‘religion’ is itself a hegemonic Christian” concept in another. The idea of Christian or Protestant influence came up in a number of different registers during the rest of the conference. Some panelists spoke of “Christian normativity.” Others questioned “Christian dominance.” One or two discussants clarified the notion as “Christian privilege.” Still others explained the matter as a situation structured by a pervasive and sometimes dangerously invisible “Christian implicitness.” Occasionally commenters wondered whether descriptions too uncritically built upon liberal hegemonic consensus or non-evangelical boundary maintenance in the academy. At least one person attempted to interrogate the normative stance that evangelical Christianity equals “bad” religion. Altman later urged the gathering to be more specific about how it was marshalling its descriptive, value-laden terms. “We’re conflating a whole lot of stuff with this ‘Christian hegemony’ term,” he noted. Melissa Wilcox offered a working definition of the hegemonic as that which “feels natural,” a position that tracks well with the Bourdieuian concepts of common sense, the taken-for-granted, or doxa. Gauging from facial expressions and subtle body languages, I wondered if at least some people in this room made up of primarily historians were frustrated with the invasion of Antonio Gramsci into the sacred space of American religious history. I don’t think this was consistently the case, but post-panel conversations confirmed that at least some attendees were less then enthralled.

The concern about Christian dominance was arguably the conference’s most recurring subject. Khyati Joshi was the first panelist to address the issue of hegemony head on. Joshi suggested that scholars ought to study and scrutinize the hegemonic itself rather than simply essentialize about it through liberal academic assumptions. Only in studying the powers that be, she argued, can we address issues of structural inequity. On the last panel of the conference, Katie Lofton brought the conversation back by reminding the room that religious studies scholars and American religious historians are an immutable part of the hegemonic system. As institutionally appointed scholars, funded by foundations and monetary reserves each with their own ideological commitments and agendas, religious studies academics are in Gramscian parlance traditional intellectuals (as opposed to organic intellectuals). Scholars thus serve in state-sanctioned entities constituted by processes of segregation, difference, and systems of enforced prestige. By our own work, and not unlike the state, we organize humans and bodies into descriptive, normative categories. Religion scholars are hegemonic subjects; hegemony is our habitus. We conduct our actions within regimes of power that enable us to pursue our own ends but as embedded actors within systems of constraint.

To summarize Lofton, academics exist within an exceptionally “fraught” system of affairs. We are, ourselves, “figures of contradiction.” As Sylvester Johnson argued from the crowd, academe proceeds by way of privilege, which in turn operates along exclusionary processes. Academia itself is an engrained social hierarchy at the top of which Ivy League and other capital-rich institutions fabricate and control standards of “prestige.” According to Lofton, due to the wonders of privilege such institutions have more access not only to reserves of cultural and intellectual capital, but more practically to economic resources with which to fund scholarly endeavors and research projects. Lofton’s talk was nothing short of a spoken word theory of academic complicity.

Of course, ironies and paradoxes abounded. All of this discussion was from one perspective quite paradoxical given the genealogical origins of the field of “American religious history,” a school of study that emerges out of Protestant church history paradigms. In more than one #raac conference, panelists and attendees alike have nervously joked about how a significant percentage of Americanist religion scholars are disgruntled, ex-evangelicals with a bone to pick against the traditions of their upbringing, traditions they now identify themselves in contrast to. Lofton’s “fraught” descriptor is appropriate and extends as equally from the fact that academics gather at the fanciest hotels in the city to discuss things like power and prestige, to the ironies that I (as a white, male academic) am writing herein about things like privilege and hegemony. In previous #raac biennials, in panels on American diversity and issues of pluralism, contributors bemoaned the predominance of studies written on Christianity, white Anglo-Americans, and conservative evangelicals. Calls for studies of minority religions were frequent. I recall in earlier gatherings in 2013 and 2015 feeling a wave of dismay tinged with guilt and anxiety. As an ethnographer studying evangelicals, had I chosen the wrong subject? How would my dissertation add anything new? Have Protestants been over-studied? Then there were the pressures we endure as resentful (yet consenting) neoliberal subjects: What about an eventual publisher of my dissertation post-defense? Who wants to read yet another monograph on white American evangelicals? Why hadn’t I chosen something cool or trendy like American ritual esotericism or new religious movements? (Or Buddhism?)

As an Americanist who does critical theory, I find Joshi’s call to study hegemony particularly lucid. Is it correct that, as I’ve heard it suggested, scholars ought to refrain from studying conservative Protestants and take up the study of minority groups? Let’s be crystal clear about a few things: Studies of non-Christian religious formations in the Americas are certainly needed and necessary. And as one commenter pointed out, and segments of my own research confirms, not all Christianity is hegemonic. But I want to challenge (or at least nuance) the claim that in order to pluralize and diversify American religious history we need to showcase alternative, minority voices by putting dominant religious expressions on a back burner. My concern is that such a strategy of concealment—i.e., ignoring or pretending that the Protestant-centric model of American sociocultural formation is not present—would counterintuitively underwrite, extend, reinforce, or more rigidly normalize Christian hegemony. How does taking Christianity out of the limelight, effectively shielding it from critical analysis, help to speak to issues of power and dominance? What we need are not more poorly construed, quasi-autobiographical conjectures, liberal biases, or assumptions about the colonializing effects of American conservative Protestants. What we need, rather, are sustained, analytical, and quantitatively and qualitatively thick studies of dominant forces and their practices, artifacts, structures, ideologies, and rituals.

So, to conclude, how can scholars resist hegemonic forces? What do we do with these heavily Christian-centric academic genealogies? How can university professors get beyond serving as mouthpieces for Christian hegemony? What is the role of the scholar of religion in an age of Trump? How can we survive with any last shred of intellectual integrity given neoliberalism’s persistent encroachment into the domains of the academy?

The conference ended on an unsettling and ambiguous note. As Cara Burnidge tweeted, “#RAAC2017: you are in a position of power, how will you use it?” There are no easy answers to these questions. But to take a clue from social theory, I find it a somewhat consoling reminder the fact that we exist as both subjects and agents. We act within structures of power and prestige but might in small and steady ways exert changes in the overarching system over time. The biggest take-away for me personally was the confirmation from other scholars that to address structures of power you have to actually study them. We can’t simply pretend the structures don’t exist. And we may have to use the institutions’ own resources to study the institution.

What are your thoughts? Do any of these conference proceedings resonate with you? What is the place of religious studies scholarship in American culture, politics, economics, and society? Leave feedback below.

Travis Cooper is a double PhD candidate in anthropology and religious studies at Indiana University and lecturer at Butler University. His research interests include method and theory in the study of religion, discourse analysis, social media, critical ethnography, digital anthropology, and social theory. He’s currently dissertating on the boundary maintenance strategies of emerging evangelical communities after the New Media turn. Read more about his publications and research at


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The Six-Day War and 21st Century Religion in the Public Sphere

by David Tollerton

5-10 June 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, a fleeting but crucial conflict in the Middle East which saw Israel militarily defeat its Arab neighbours and the basic contours of the now familiar land-disputes, settlement-building, and violence set in place. This period will see prominence given to the testimonies of witnesses, and renewed (if most likely also melancholy) assessments of the intractable-seeming tensions of the Israel-Palestine conflict. But for scholars of religion the anniversary is also an opportunity to think through the legacy of the war for 21st century patterns of public faith and political activism.

As early as 1999 Rodney Stark was warning that “it seems time to carry the secularization doctrine to the graveyard of failed theories,” and, viewed from the present, the notion that religion’s role is declining in public spheres now seems long defunct when viewed globally. The roots of this change are myriad and could of course be debated at some length. In his much-discussed 2014 book Strange Rebels Christian Caryl argued that 1979 saw the crumbling of socialist ideologies and rise of variously capitalist and religious revisions in the form of the Iranian Revolution, invasion of Afghanistan, elections of Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher, and beginnings of Chinese economic reform. “It was in 1979,” he writes, “that the twin forces of markets and religion, discounted for so long, came back with a vengeance.”

We might concede markets to 1979, but with regard to Abrahamic religion I suggest that 1967 can give 1979 some pretty stiff competition. The short conflict in June 1967, a war itself named with reference to the six days of creation, sparked a range of politically-active religious fervours that shape our public discourses to this day.

Perhaps the simplest example comes with the discrediting of Arab nationalisms that had sought to infuse governance of Muslim-majority societies with reverence for European brands of modernity. The spectacular defeat of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan punctured the confidence of such thinking and sharply invigorated a renewed Islamism. In language that would not seem out of place among biblical responses to defeat by the Babylonians, Hasan Ma’mun of the al-Ahzar Institute in Cairo concluded that “God has punished us that we might go back to him. He has afflicted us that we might return.” The Islamisms that, in the 21st century, have so dramatically entered into Western consciousness were empowered and fuelled by an aftermath of the Six-Day War in which the certainties of secularising political elites appeared woefully misplaced.

A second mode of religious fervour that would also come to have major political influence arose in the United States. Talk of Israel’s ‘miraculous’ victory inspired feverish excitement among Christian fundamentalists, with L. Nelson Bell, the Executive Editor of Christianity Today, reflecting that the Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem “gives a student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible.” Nowhere is the influence of this fervour more apparent than in Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth, a book that proved to be the most successful non-fiction work of 1970s America, and one that profoundly impressed Ronald Reagan. Through a course that variously tracks Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell’s ‘Moral Majority’ movement, and the Left Behind books, the excitement that grew out of the Six-Day War would evolve into a major force in American politics.

With regard to Judaism we can look to the war’s aftermath both regionally yet also further afield. In Israel itself the staunchly secular state envisaged by Theodor Herzl was for a time overwritten by an outpouring of religious feeling at the capture of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In one recently published account, former paratrooper Yitzhak Yifat speaks of the awe of physically encountering the ancient Temple foundations: an “exciting moment” of witnessing “the huge stones after 2,000 years of waiting.” Regardless of how richly this fervour remained in place within wider Israeli society, the period after the war saw religiously conservative settlers building in the West Bank, and an eventually pivotal role for their political backers as successive coalition partners in Israeli governments.

Looking further afield, in his survey of global Jewish responses to the Six-Day War Eli Lederhendler concludes that “[o]ne consistent finding is that, as a result of the war, Jews of various kinds crystallized their ideas about ‘the right to be different’.” In the United States, for example, the 1950s ideal of social acceptance moved into a narrative of public particularity, with the twin pillars of Holocaust memory and loyalty to Israel (the latter married to fear of a new Holocaust) moving toward the centre of Jewish-American identity. Occasionally traditionalists would complain that this altered mode of identity departed too radically from their understandings rabbinic Judaism, but for the most part, as Jonathan Woocher put it, a new form of Jewish-American ‘civil religion’ took hold.

In sum, the Middle Eastern conflict of June 1967 variously sent shockwaves through Islamic, Christian, and Jewish communities across a range of locations. The phenomena laid out here are wide-ranging and generally not brought together into a single frame, and their impacts and trajectories into the 21st century are messy and complex. But the anniversary of the Six-Day War is not merely remembrance of a stubbornly-unhealed regional wound, but an event that set in train some of the reasons why we are now so reticent to speak of religion’s departure from public discourse around the world.

David Tollerton is Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Contemporary Biblical Cultures at the University of Exeter, UK. His research interests include religion and Holocaust memory, modern receptions of the Bible, and concepts of public sacrality and offence. He is currently especially interested in public Holocaust memory in Britain, especially plans for the construction of a new memorial next to the Houses of Parliament in London.

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Laying it All Out: On Moving from Dissertation-to-Book Series: Leslie Dorrough Smith


In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars who have published in the field to share some insights on the dissertation-to-book process–what to do, what to avoid, to put it all together. For other posts in this series, see here

“Let Me Entertain You!: Entertainment Value and the Scholarly Book”

by Leslie Smith, Avila University (Kansas City, MO, USA)

Many of us who produce scholarly literature inevitably realize that the people who read our books often expect to suffer in the process. Put differently, scholarly work has the (sometimes accurate) reputation of being boring and jargon-laden, rendering it, for some, a necessary evil that one must endure on the road to furthering knowledge or critical thought.

The good news, of course, is that those of us writing books have some control over this, but it requires some forethought. When I first started to shop around my book manuscript at the AAR several years ago, I was surprised that more than one acquisitions editor asked if the revisions I had done included things like adding a catchy story at the beginning of each chapter, having engaging examples, pinpointing a well-defined thesis statement per chapter, and other “basics” of good writing.

If I am being honest, I was taken aback by this line of questions. This is not because I thought these were ridiculous things to consider, but because I did not think that reader engagement would be so important that it would be among the first things I would be asked after I managed to blurt out my name. And if I am pushing the honesty envelope further still, I must also admit that I thought that I had already done those things (because it was interesting to me!). Only after closer inspection did I realize that, while my book manuscript was different than my dissertation (in that it was a heavily revised version of it), without some intentional action on my part it would not necessarily pique the interest of a wider group of people.

What I can very clearly see in retrospect, then, is that all of those acquisitions editors were asking questions to see what I thought “dissertation revision” meant, and as Aaron Hughes has suggested, this means much more than just taking out the literature review. It is a process of creating not just a technically excellent and intellectually stimulating piece, but also about creating audience engagement and relatability that signifies part of the transformation from dissertation-writer to author that Hughes discusses.

Before those of you who write about obscure and esoteric topics start sobbing into your hands, let me reassure you that not only is it possible to engage audiences on virtually any topic, but that focusing on audience engagement is an important part of your own intellectual development and that of the marketing of your book.

To accomplish this, the first thing that I would advise is to remember that your readership is larger than you might imagine. You will be read not just by other academics, but often by non-scholarly individuals and groups with many different reasons for arriving at the topic you have expounded. Frequently, those interactions with wide audiences can lead to a variety of interesting and fruitful interactions. In my case, I have been invited by a number of different organizations (scholarly and otherwise) to talk about my book because one of their members had randomly picked it up and liked it. Those speaking experiences (a.k.a. marketing moments, in some cases) have been incredibly rewarding and stimulating.

A second consideration is that your ability to speak to this wide audience means that you will have to speak differently. In the early stages of my transformation from dissertation-writer to author, I did not have the foresight to imagine an audience other than my scholarly peers, if in great part because I spent considerable time worrying about how I would be rejected by them. That was (quite obviously) my insecurity talking, but it did keep me from focusing on how word usage, explanations of technical information, attention to memorable examples, and – most of all – a focus on the pertinence of my work to some sort of wider cultural context would create an all-around better manuscript. To be clear, I am not advocating that you dumb things down. On the contrary, if you can’t explain to a diverse group why what you write about matters in some sort of context outside of your own narrow interests, then you are making a very poor case for the book’s publication. This is why I often asked educated non-scholar friends and scholars outside of my field to read a chapter here and there, just to make sure that my work was meaningful outside of narrow disciplinary constraints.

A final consideration in thinking through engagement is that your book is much more likely to be picked up as a course text by other scholars if you have some catchy content, for this makes it appealing to students. Don’t be afraid to use pop culture references, humor, and other relatable moments, so long as they are tasteful and have enough critical purchase that the audience will understand the reference. And when you make those references, keep in mind that they will age as the book ages, so providing explanatory context of any cultural events is important. My friend and colleague Craig Martin does this exceptionally well in his introductory textbook, A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (2012), wherein he relates all sorts of philosophical and sociological theory to everything from 80’s rock bands to children’s toys. My students consistently report that this is among the better textbooks they have ever read if, in part, because they feel like it was written for them.

Becoming an author who creates engaging work, then, is much like teaching in the sense that both involve engaging a diverse audience in a novel way on a particular topic within particular time constraints. Central to both exercises is relatability. In part, this starts with the assumption that “challenging” and “interesting” are not mutually exclusive adjectives when it comes to writing a scholarly book.

Leslie Dorrough Smith is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Avila University. Dr. Smith’s work is interdisciplinary, drawing from sociological, historical, critical, and feminist theoretical perspectives.  Her primary research is concerned with the ways in which social groups use religious language to create avenues of social influence and political power, with particular focus on American evangelicals.  More specifically, her interest in how language has shaped sex and gender-related public policy led to the publication of her first bookRighteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America (Oxford University Press, 2014), which provides a rhetorical critique of one of the nation’s largest conservative women’s movements.

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