Field Note: Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion #CTDR15 November 20-24, 2014, Atlanta, GA, AAR


Statement of Purpose: This Group seeks to provide a forum in which scholars of religion from a wide range of disciplines can examine and question their disciplinary presuppositions. The work of this Group can be placed under three main rubrics:

Critical investigation of the categories generated and employed by the discourses on religion, such as experience, the sacred, ritual, and the various ‘isms’ that can be found in classic and contemporary studies of religion. Analysis of new and neglected theorists and works central to the critical study of religion, including those produced in cognate fields such as anthropology, political science, or literary theory. Theoretically informed examination of elided and often neglected themes in religious studies, including class, race, gender, violence, legitimation, and the material basis of religion.

The roster for CTDR’s sessions with abstracts is available as a PDF.

SORAAAD Canon & the Analytical Study of Religion   Program PDF

Friday 12:20-5:45 pm                        

Georgia State University – Location disclosed to those registered

SORAAAD wants to thank the University of Regina Religious Studies Department for sponsoring the workshop, pre-workshop refreshments, and the workshop break.

To register, place “Register” in the subject line of an email addressed to

A21-323 The Medicalization of Religion: Bodies and Brains as Loci of Control

Saturday – 4:00 PM-6:30 PM

Marriott-International 6 (International Level)

Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group and the Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group

A22-113 Empire and the Raw Materials of Religious Concern

Sunday – 9:00 AM-11:30 AM

Hilton-Grand Salon E (Level 2)

Religion and Politics Section and Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group and Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group and Religion, Colonialism, and Postcolonialism Group

A22-221 Class, Cohort, and Aesthetics in the Study of Religion

Sunday – 1:00 PM-2:30 PM

Marriott-L508 (Lobby Level)

Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group

A23-207 Sex, Ascesis, and Historiography

Monday – 1:00 PM-3:30 PM

Hilton-401-402 (Level 4)

Critical Theories and Discourses on Religion Group, Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group and Sociology of Religion Group, or STAR (Social Theory and Religion Cluster)

A23-321 Critical Perspectives on the Cognitive Science of Religion

Monday – 4:00 PM-6:30 PM

Hilton-401-402 (Level 4)

Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group and Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group

For those live tweeting the Annual Meeting, use #CTDR15

CTDR will post session announcements or updates from @SORAAADworkshop

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Violence, Religion, and the Death of René Girard

By Philip L. Tite

On November 4, 2015 the renowned literary theorist, René Girard (Stanford University) passed away at the age of 91. In an online announcement on the Stanford News, Cynthia Haven offers a comprehensive and glowing overview of the life and work of this seminal thinker of the 20th century. Girard is referred to as “the new Darwin of the human sciences” – though, I must add, a very controversial “Darwin” for those of us who study myth, violence, and religion.

Girard 1Cynthia Haven on Girard

As Haven correctly observes, or at least hints at, Girard’s work did not go uncontested. Indeed, since my own introduction to Girard’s work back in the 1990s, I have noticed that Girard’s theories tend to evoke either admiration to the point of near hagiographic devotion or disdainful dismissal by those repulsed by not only his grand theory on scapegoating and mimetic violence, but also the various subtexts of his thinking. Rarely have I found scholars or students who react to Girard without falling into one of those dichotomies. Scholars are either Girardians or anti-Girardians. There is little room for neutrality in the academy, at least with such a provocative thinker.

Girard is well known for his theory of mimetic desire leading to the scapegoating mechanism to defer the rivalry that causes social disintegration. The scapegoat, due to the social harmony evoked by the death or exile of the scapegoat, is transformed into a hero or god figure. However, the cycle continues to arise, resulting in further scapegoating – via sacrificial systems – until, so Girard argues, Jesus Christ appears and dies as an innocent victim. Christ’s death, therefore, breaks the cycle by revealing the scapegoating process. For Girard, Judaism almost got it right, but missed the mark, while Islam – despite its monotheistic foundation and chronologically following Christianity, is a problem in that it fails to recognize the importance and function of Christ’s death. Christianity, according to Girard, is the answer for the world’s problems today.

When I teach my Theorizing Religion and Violence course, I include a section on Girard, specifically while dealing with myth-ritualism and violence (we also deal with Frazer and Raglan among others). My goal is not to impose Girardian theory on my students, but rather to expose them to an important thinker who has had – and likely will continue to have – a profound impact on the academic study of religion and violence. Often presentations of Girard’s theory are highly inaccessible to the undergraduate student (and rarely do we have enough time in a general course on religion and violence to thoroughly read through his major works, such as, especially, Violence and the Sacred). So what I’ve done is to have my students watch an interview where Girard’s presents his own views on his theory:

Girard 2Interview with Girard

We use this video along with supplemental readings as our “data” to analyze. Our discussion afterwards often evokes from students surprise at much of Girard’s thought. I’m not sure how much of my own view – as a non-Girardian – influences my students (I do try to present various positions so that my students can make their own evaluations of the material studied), but several common problems arise in class discussions. Some of the key problems I see in Girard’s theory include the following:

(1) This is a grand theory and grand theories have fallen out of vogue in the latter half of the 20th century. This is the kind of theory that Daniel Pals once referred to as a kind of functionalism that “lead[s] logically to reductionist conclusions” (Eight Theories of Religion, 149); i.e., all of religion, and not just an element or aspect of religion, is reduced to a singular origin or cause, a type of totalizing reduction found in the work of Marx, Durkheim, and Freud (in contrast to Weber). Unlike methodological reductionism, such functionalism, according to Pals,

… is not just a matter of explaining one aspect of religion while other theories explain other aspects. The premise of such functionalism is that it has found what is basic and fundamental. Religion – all of religion – can be fully accounted for by tracing it to a single underlying circumstance or elemental cause: to humanity’s universal state of neurosis, to the universal claims of society on the individual, or to the world dynamics of class struggle. Such explanations reach wide to sweep evidence from all cases into the embrace of a single formula. That is the key to their appeal. (Eight Theories of Religion, 149)

With Girard, such a totalizing causal explanation covers not just the origins of religion, but of violence, culture, and group formations. Not only all of religion, but all of civilization is accounted for by his theory. Basically, everything tends to go back to mimetic desire and the rivalry it evokes. This is the single formula proposed by Girard and that formula definitely has held a strong appeal for many humanities scholars.

(2) Girard is ahistorical in his approach, even though he offers an origin (an originary moment) for religious violence. In our video, he blatantly states as much. Given that his hypothetical “first killing” or rivalry is not just symbolic, but an actual event, it would seem that a greater sensitivity to history and prehistory would be needed. It is also insightful to notice that his work is tied directly to literary sources (“texts”), as if mythology and folklore are the key to human psychology and social psychology. History and prehistory – including cognitive research into human evolution – play no part in Girard’s work. Rather, we are treated to a walk through classical literature that dances in opposition to Freudian approaches to religion and myth.

(3) The theory works too well. This critique may seem odd, but think about it for a moment. If a theory works in all cases, then might that theory be forcing data to fit into the theory with no symbiotic “check” between theory and data? This is a grand theory. Grand theories work because they are totalizing. Totalizing theory obscures the particularity of the data and thus obscures rather than struggles with and through the tension between particularity and generality. (Cf. Tite, “Categorical Designations and Methodological Reductionism: Gnosticism as Case Study,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 13.3 [2001]: 269-292.)

(4) There is a very clear Christian bias in the work, transforming an explanatory theory into a confessional statement of Christian theological superiority. Although the Christian bias is not as obvious in Violence and the Sacred (indeed, I once had to point out this bias to a specialist in myth studies while discussing Girard’s theory), it arises starkly in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (on Judaism) as well as in the video we watched as a class (on Islam).

In a sense, accounting for Judaism and Islam vis-à-vis Christianity suggests that Girard is addressing a rivalry between the so-called Abrahamic religions (might Girard’s theory now be applied to his own theory? Does mimetic rivalry between world religions, in particular Abrahamic religions, underlie this very theory of religious violence?). I’m reminded of the genealogical analysis of Abrahamic religions offered by Aaron Hughes (“Abrahamic Religions: A Genealogy,” Bulletin for the Study of Religion 44.1 [2015]: 3-11). By placing Girard within such a genealogy, Girard seems to fit less with Hughes’s third stage of interfaith dialogue and more with the first or second stage of supersessionism or an interreligious dialogue where Christianity (or an aspect or form of Christianity) remains dominant and superior.

Thus, Girard’s treatment of the New Testament Gospels, in particular, attempts to preserve and apply the soteriological significance of Christ’s death within a world split by geopolitical and ideological violence. In the end, Girard is more a Christian theologian than a social scientist or anthropologist.


There are strengths to Girardian theory, of course. One of them is the importance of desire as a psychological – indeed, social psychology could be evoked here – factor in the emergence of conflict. Girard is also one of the few who see “violence” in a positive, or slightly positive, light. Most studies of religion and violence approach violence as a negative thing, something to explain and/or overcome (e.g., Cavanaugh, Juergensmeyer, Lincoln, and Jewett all come to mind). Girard offers a view of violence contributing to social cohesion. This is one of the distinctions I’ve seen between modern approaches to religious violence and the older myth-ritualist school of thought.

From my comments, it is obvious that I do not agree with Girard’s theory. I’m no Girardian. In part, I tend to resist any grand theorizing – my skepticism is evoked even when I recognize significance and even brilliance (e.g., I love and admire Carl Jung’s work, but I totally disagree with his theory of the collective unconsciousness). I don’t really love or admire Girard’s theory of mimetic violence, though I do teach it as an object of study (much as I do cosmogonic worldviews steeped in Platonic thought), but I am sad to hear of his death. He was a giant in the field, whose impact is less in what he said (i.e., his actual theory) and more the influence he has exerted among a wide range of talented scholars over the past several decades. There are few left that we could identify with myth-ritualism studies of religion and violence. Girard’s death may mark the final closure on an approach that goes back to James Frazer.

For those of us who study theory and religion – at that meta-level of studying the study of religion – it will be fascinating to see how his influence continues or wanes in the next decade or so now that this indomitable personality is gone, to see how the literary works he has left behind will continue to shape and direct theorization and debates over the nature of religion, violence, sacrifice, desire (perhaps in relation to affect theory?), and myth.


Philip L. Tite (Ph.D. McGill University, 2005) is the editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and (with James Crossley) of Postscripts, is a specialist in early Christian studies with strong interests in method & theory in the academic study of religion, and is an affiliate lecturer in the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. He also serves on the AAR Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence steering committee and the editorial board of the Journal of Religion and Violence. He is the author of several books, most recently The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolary and Rhetorical Analysis (TENT, 7; Leiden: Brill, 2012).

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Accessibility and Complexity

Writing Tools

by Steven Ramey

Tenzan Eaghll’s post on this blog on Wednesday made a significant point. Calls for more accessible scholarly writing, which have been making the social media rounds lately, ignore the ways that critical theory often challenges assumptions, the status quo, and accepted ways of thinking, talking and writing. Not only does the challenge that critical theory presents make this work threatening to some who are comfortable with their positions of privilege and power, but the process of developing new language and ideas also can generate what some call, often dismissively, complex, even unreadable, writing.

In supporting his argument, however, Eaghll generates a problematic dichotomy. He asserts,

What this article forgets, like all others I have ever read on this subject, is that critical work in the humanities has always been ignored, at least initially, and no amount of pandering (scientific or literary) will change this. Why? Because the fields of study that cultivate critical thinking and encourage the critique of dominant ideologies will always be marginalized.

Implying that writing is either complicated and difficult to understand or amounts to pandering is overly simplistic and a false choice, as I suspect Eaghll would agree. Writing only to attract a broad public audience and measuring success of a work by the number of views or shares is problematic and limiting. However, if the ideas that develop in the critical humanities are important (and they likely can’t just be important to us), then the effort to express them more broadly, when possible, is surely useful. The pedagogical mode of communicating critical theory, which I see as an important aspect of public scholarship, is important in its own right. It is not that we will win over every person with more accessible presentations of critical theory, but my experience, most extensively with Culture on the Edge, has been that some people who are not usually counted among specialist readers will find the application of critical theory in accessible language intriguing and thought provoking. Much like the effort to engage undergraduates in the complicated works of critical theory, it is not necessarily simple to convey these ideas in an accessible fashion. While a one-time blog post is not the same as a semester-long engagement with students, of course, we do ourselves a disservice to diminish the potential of broader engagement, even as we also acknowledge the value of linguistically complicated wrestling with new ideas and language.

Eaghll also usefully highlights that many seminal, groundbreaking thinkers (e.g., Kant, Nietzsche, Derrida) had a limited audience for a decade or more, being dismissed by critics as unreadable. The selection of a few examples, though, does not prove that complex language is the only way to contribute to critical theory, even as it reminds us that complicated works can be important and that we must remain patient as they may take time to gain an audience. But it is not like these now seminal ideas suddenly became assimilated, without the significant effort of a range of scholars (e.g., editors, translators, commentators, reviewers) exploring these ideas and using them, interpreting them, applying them to engage a variety of audiences.

So while I appreciate Eaghll’s effort to highlight the value (and place) of specialized and thus complicated theoretical work, that recognition does not excuse us from putting in the effort to also engage a wide variety of audiences, in classrooms and other venues, with the explanation and application of critical theory.

Steven Ramey is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Director of Asian Studies at the University of Alabama. His book Hindu Sufi or Sikh (Palgrave, 2008) focuses on communities who identify as Sindhi Hindus and the ways they contest dominant understandings of identities, both in India and beyond. His newest project addresses the assumptions in the language of religious labels and the ways those assumptions determine research and valorize particular constructions of religions. He blogs for The Huffington Post and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and serves as the Series Editor of Culture on the Edge: Studies in Identity Formation, book series with Equinox Publishers.

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A Brief note on the Importance of Unreadable Critical Theory in the Humanities


by Tenzan Eaghll

Today I read my 500th article on why the humanities are failing. Since I began working in religious studies these articles have been published with abandon, all of them claiming that the humanities are devalued, underfunded, and destined to be fully eclipsed by science, neoliberalism―or some other boogey monster―and all of them suggesting some sort of reasonable solution to this crisis. Now, I do not want to detract from the value of these articles, or to deny the grave threat the academy faces from current austerity practices, but simply want to point out that this threat of obscurity and rejection has always been the horizon of critical theory in the humanities.

In the article I read today the author’s position was that the humanities have been eclipsed by scientific research and that this shadow of oblivion is not necessary. The author points to numerous scientific-like studies produced within the humanities that could revive it in a science driven world, or at least save it from irrelevance. “The humanities,” the author suggests, “are producing very scientifically relevant material,” and this should not be ignored. The article concludes, in a somewhat familiar tone, by calling for humanities scholars to make this evident, and to make their work accessible to the masses by engaging in “more public scholarship.”

What this article forgets, like all others I have ever read on this subject, is that critical work in the humanities has always been ignored, at least initially, and no amount of pandering (scientific or literary) will change this. Why? Because the fields of study that cultivate critical thinking and encourage the critique of dominant ideologies will always be marginalized.

Let’s face facts, as there is no point in denying the obvious, critical theory in the humanities, and the critical wing of religious studies along with it, poses a threat to the status quo. We question assumed hierarchies, gods, capital interests, white privilege, patriarchy, the predominance of mythic structures―basically, all dominant discourses―and as such, we are sidelined.

What is ignored by those who call for us to make our work more accessible, more scientific, to write more simply, or to appeal to the “public” (as if the public was some singular objective domain), is that many of our ideas stand in contrast to the (perceived) status quo, and that regardless of how accessible we make our ideas they will always be ignored by those who have a vested interest in maintaining the apparent order of things.

Moreover, what is often ignored is that the difficulty of critical work is its strength. Ideas from the humanities only take root after decades of assimilation, and even after this they are held at bay and labeled as dangerous, and it is precisely this obscurity and danger that makes the humanities so powerful.

To prove the point, simply think of the struggles faced by many of the literary and philosophical talents that humanities scholars hold in highest esteem. When Kant first published the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, barely anyone read it for almost a decade. What is arguably the landmark treatise of the Enlightenment was lambasted as hopelessly complex and filled with unreadable prose by a couple reviewers and then ignored for years. In fact, it is with Kant that the cliché of ‘bad philosophical writing’ began. The same can also be said for all of Nietzsche’s works, as almost no one read his books until after he died and to this day notable critics refer to what is arguably his greatest work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as illegible.  Harold Bloom, for instance, one of the humanities own “public scholars,” calls Zarathustra “a gorgeous disaster” and “unreadable.” In the twentieth-century this trend has continued in earnest. When James Joyce first published Ulysses in 1922 it was widely read in secret but met with outrage and disgust in public. To own a copy in Britain and the United states was a criminal offense for many years, and people had to ship it secretly through the mail just to get a copy. Or, to take an even more recent example, think of the opposition Jacques Derrida faced from other members of the academy in the early 1990s. Over 200 Analytic philosophers tried to stop Cambridge university from granting him an Honorary Doctorate in 1992 by suggesting that his philosophy is filled with “tricks and gimmicks.”

My point, of course, is not that the humanities is the domain of secret knowledge or that what we do in critical theory is so incredibly difficult that only a few gifted geniuses can understand it, but simply that we work with new ideas and new language, and new ideas and new language are often ignored and caricatured as illegible and hieroglyphic until they develop a wider audience (which sometimes takes decades). Two-hundred years after Kant wrote the Critique of Pure Reason the idea that our mental faculties determine our perception of the world is widely accepted across the sciences and popular culture. Similarly, though it is often misused and misunderstood, the term for Derrida’s philosophy, “deconstruction,” has entered the lingua franca of the modern age.

Hence, we don’t need to make the humanities more accessible or to write more simply when working with difficult ideas. In fact, I would suggest that it is precisely the illegibility and obscurity of some of our work that harbors its significance. As Derrida suggested in the wake of his controversial Honorary Doctorate at Cambridge University, when you question the rules of the dominant discourse, or try to politicize or democratize the university scene, you are bound to be attacked or ignored. Sometimes this silencing comes from within the academy itself, and sometimes it just seems as if the general public couldn’t give a damn about what we have to say, but it is precisely in this obscurity that some of the most important work in Western literature has been written―so rage on in a fog of oblivion, if you must.

In the coming years, hopefully the austerity that the humanities has faced in the past decades will lessen and we will see increased funding and hirings, but make no mistake, even if this happens the most critical work out there will always be ignored when it first arrives on the scene. For no matter how relevant our work is, the work produced in fields that cultivate critical thinking and encourage the critique of dominant discourses and ideologies will always be undervalued … at least for a time.

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Theses on Professionalization: Thomas J. Whitley


In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here

by Thomas J. Whitley

Thesis # 18: Despite being the primary, and sometimes even the exclusive, focus of candidates’ attention during the last years of their Ph.D., once hired into a tenure-track position a variety of other just as time consuming tasks compete for their attention. Learning to juggle many balls simultaneously–knowing which will bounce if dropped and which will break–is therefore an essential skill for early career professors who wish to continue carrying out original research while also teaching a full course load and serving the needs of their Departments and the profession at large.

Time management is at the heart of Thesis # 18. This is not something that all academics think regularly about; graduate students seem to be especially poor at cultivating this skill. Academics can be (read: seem) heroic when it comes to just getting done what needs to be done, not allowing evenings, weekends, or vacations to get in the way. This type of living on the edge may provide an adrenaline rush for graduate students, but it is only setting them up for failure. Yet, many graduate students, I fear, simply do not realize what will be expected of them when (read: if) they get that elusive tenure-track job. Taking three classes is simply not the same as preparing and teaching three classes. And while graduate students do understand this, even those who have only been given the opportunity to be a Teaching Assistant and have not been an Instructor of Record, their ability to realistically imagine what being a professional academic looks like is hampered by the fact that ours is a profession that holds its cards close to the chest. Very few graduate advisors talk to their graduate students about what service to the department, service to the university, and service to the field actually look like. And so graduate students prepare for a career in academia with a vision that is only as broad as their previous experience in academia, an experience that has been largely limited to the classroom.

The value in Thesis 18 can only be realized if graduate students heed McCutcheon’s advice. The best way to prepare for “juggling many balls simultaneously” is to juggle many balls simultaneously. As such, I encourage graduate students to not only learn more about time management techniques that work for them, but to get involved, as they are able, in their department, in their university, and in their field. Can you help organize a conference? Can you organize and propose a panel for your regional or national conference? Are there committees that you can serve on that will give you a glimpse into what the life of an academic really looks like?

In case you’re wondering, I have followed my own advice here. I serve on a departmental committee, I have co-directed and directed a graduate student conference, I chair a section of my region’s professional/academic society, and I serve on a national board for one of the major national professional/academic societies. All of this while being a doctoral student, writing my dissertation, writing regularly for online audiences, and working on peer-reviewed publications. While some of my (graduate student) colleagues think this is impressive, those who are already working in the field know that it is simply what life as an academic looks like. It is, as McCutcheon said, a juggling act. As someone who is currently on the market, I cannot say whether my attempts at this will help me land a job, but they have certainly helped me have a better idea of what life is like on the other side of the desk.

Thomas J. Whitley is a PhD Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University. His dissertation, “The Greatest Blasphemy: Sex, Souls, and the Carpocratian Heresy,” analyzes the “heresy” of Carpocratianism and its role as an opposing voice to what would become the dominant narrative of asceticism and renunciation in the 4th-5th century church.

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Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence Panels and Receptions, 2015 AAR, Atlanta


SATURDAY: 1PM- 3:30PM: “Children, Religion, and Violence.”

Hyatt-Harris (Atlanta Conference Level)

Chair: Philip Tite

Respondent: Sarah Iles Johnston

  1. Joel LeMon, Emory University

“Violence Against Children and Girls in the Reception History of Psalm 137”

  1. Diane Fruchtman, Washington and Lee University

“Instructive Violence: Educated Children as Victims and Aggressors in Late Antique

Latin Martyr Poetry”

  1. Paul Middleton, University of Chester

“‘Suffer little children’: Child-sacrifice, martyrdom, and Jewish and Christian identity


  1. Michael Heyes, Rice University

“‘Like an Innocent Lamb’: Accusations of Ritual Murder in English Martyrological


  1. Susan Ridgely, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh

“When Pain Becomes Symbolic of Commitment: The Practice of Spanking among

Adults and Children Who Use Focus on the Family Childrearing Literature”


SATURDAY: 4PM – 6:30PM: “Ethnographic Approaches to Religion and Violence.”

(Business Meeting after the panel)

Hyatt-Dunwoody (Atlanta Conference Level)

Chair: Michael Jerryson

  1. Ryan Williams, University of Calgary

“Islam and violence in UK maximum security prisons: An ethnographic approach”

  1. Amarnath Amarasingam, Wilfrid Laurier University

“Foreign Fighters in Syria: Understanding the Whys and the Hows”

  1. James Ponniah Kulandai Raj, University of Madras

“Communal Violence in India: Exploring Strategies of its Provocation and Resolution in Contemporary Times”

  1. Grisel Oliva, Florida International University

“The Paradox of Ordination and Religious Nationalism: Theravada Buddhist Female Monastics and the 969 Movement in Burma”

  1. Iselin Frydenlund, Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, University of Oslo

“Buddhist militarism beyond texts: the importance of ritual during the Sri Lankan civil war”



CARV is co-sponsoring a reception for the journal Critical Research on Religion at Meehan’s Public House (200 Peachtree St). Open bar and appetizers provided.



CARV is co-sponsoring a reception for the Journal of Religion and Violence at the Westin-Peachtree Imperial Suite (69th Floor).

Viennese desserts, appetizers, wine, and gourmet coffee provided.


SUNDAY: 3PM – 4:30PM: “Religion, Law, and Violence: Comparative Approaches to the Critique of Humanitarianism, Intervention, and War.”

Marriott-M106-107 (Marquis Level)

Chair: Henrik Syse

Respondent: Nathan French

  1. John Corrigan, Florida State University

“Religious Violence and American Foreign Policy”

  1. Troy Mack, Pace University

“The Atrocities of Carl Schmitt: Issues for Law, Religion, and Humanitarian Intervention”

  1. Gregory Reichberg , University of Oslo

“The Relation of Just War to International Law: Two Competing Catholic Approaches”


TUESDAY: 9am – 11:30AM: “Religion, Violence, and the Social Imaginary.”

Marriott-International 3 (International Level)

Chair: Margo Kitts

  1. Christian Green, Emory University

“Questionable Martyrdom: Contemporary Disputes over Its Nature and Scope”

  1. Kelly Denton-Borhaug, Moravian College

“Is It Sweet to Die? Sacrificial Rhetoric and Discipline in U.S. Ways of War”

  1. Sharmin Sadequee, Michigan State University

“‘Guantanamo North’: Communications Management Units (CMU) and Questions of Disjuncture and Violence”

  1. James G. Kroemer, Concordia University, Wisconsin,

“’Fight for the Cause of Christ’ -Bernard of Clairvaux’s Rationale for Sacred Violence”

  1. Elizabeth Margaret Bounds, Emory University and Georgette Ledgister, Emory University

“Priests and Practices: Religion as a Social Imaginary for War and Sustainable Peace in Liberia”

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Theses on Professionalization: Aldea Mulhern


In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here

by Aldea Mulhern

Thesis # 17: National scholarly conferences and professional associations often host on-site job placement services and publish employment periodicals. Becoming thoroughly aware of such services and resources, long before actually being on the job market, may not only assist one’s decision-making when it comes time to select an area of expertise (i.e., judging national employment trends over time may shed light on areas likely to require staffing in the coming years) but also prepare one for the eventual time when one is on the market and seeking campus interviews.

“Too many graduate students seem unprepared for what awaits them once they complete their dissertations.” [1]

So opens Russell McCutcheon’s short work, featuring twenty-one theses that aim to redress the problem stated in the opening sentence: grad students who are looking for full-time academic employment don’t know what they’re in for. And in one sense, that’s a problem that we can’t fix. Applying for that first academic job is a process of imagining the sort of scholar that we aren’t yet, but that we can be, if given the institutional support necessary to take those next steps after earning the Ph.D. It is a process of persuading a department to invest its resources in us, and to ask them to believe that together we can have, and will have, a symbiotic and mutually productive relationship over perhaps thirty years or more: assuming that we candidates are in our mid-thirties, that the average age of retirement is around sixty-five, that the first job is tenure-track, and that the first job works out. These are optimistic assumptions. Even with the help of the theses, and the other forms of advice we get from across the Religious Studies spectrum, candidates are journeying into a particular kind of uncertainty: the relational kind, that asks us to stretch toward our future selves, to bring that future scholar into being, before the eyes of a search committee, before they eyes of a department of students as well as professional colleagues; before our own eyes.

Thesis 17, which inspires my reflection here, is where McCutcheon tells us that employment information exists, and tells us to look at it, early. We should look, and look early, it is written, because doing so may help us pick a specialization that will work for the market, and prepare us, in some way, for when we are going to interview. Surely, this is sound advice. How can it hurt, to look down the road and see what’s coming? Yet there is a tension in this advice, the same tension that runs through the job application process and the degree process itself, which merits discussion: we’re still busy becoming. The trick of becoming, I think, is reaching toward what we think will be required of us, and toward what we require. Academic jobs need us to fill the departmental niche their history has grown for them, but also need us to stand on our own talents, skills, and intellectual networks in order to do that. Similarly, we need our own centre of intellectual gravity, and we also need scholarly jousting, intellectual community, and institutional support inside which to conduct the work.

A few things should be acknowledged at this point. McCutcheon wrote his theses in 2007, and intended them to be a reality-check. In 2008, the academic job market, which had been declining since the 90s and perhaps earlier, crashed when the larger economy crashed. An unfavorable market became considerably more tenuous. The employment landscape has thus undergone important shifts since when McCutcheon was writing. The AAR/SBL employment services, for example, do not currently involve a job fair by any conventional understanding of the term. Instead, job applicants, who can outnumber the positions they apply for by two orders of magnitude, pay for access to employment listings, and upload their CVs to be viewed by prospective employers. [2] Those prospective employers pay to post job ads and to use the employment center to have rapid-fire interviews with potential candidates in a dedicated area during the annual meeting. The benefits and pitfalls of the AAR/SBL employment center have been discussed by other scholars, some of whom are already visible in the Bulletin community (e.g., here, here, here, and here). I will not reproduce what these commentators have said, but rather will confine myself to two observations about the employment center, speaking as one ABD Ph.D. candidate joining the job market, at whom the center and the advice is directed: on the one hand, the center’s usefulness is limited, the costs associated with participating in it are quite significant, and many of those costs accrue to a vulnerable population. [3] On the other hand, limited utility is still utility: although only few Canadian institutions use the AAR/SBL employment center, American institutions continue to attend and conduct interviews there, and there remains an expectation that engaged scholars will already be in attendance at the meeting and will be available to interview there.

I can respond to McCutcheon’s thesis 17 in one way simply, then, by saying that the Job Fair model ain’t what it used to be, but that we’re still using it, in a particular way. The 2013-14 AAR/SBL report shows that candidates who are more than one calendar year away from graduation don’t stand a chance of getting work (of course), and given the services offered, I find it doubtful that a very young scholar would learn much from participating in the current job service, except perhaps to worry (not worth the price tag) or to avoid the problem by dropping out to look for a different kind of job (possibly a substantial net saving). The job service is much less a showing, and much more a doing: an exercise in bureaucratization that imperfectly, but still usefully, connects prospective employees and prospective employers across an atomized, pressurized, and idiosyncratic landscape of too few jobs and too many applicants.

The core of McCutcheon’s advice, though, was not that job services are in all times and places key locations of information to which we are all otherwise oblivious. Rather, I take him and other scholars to be pushing graduate students to become more aware of the water they are swimming in, and the difficult choices they will be facing. That advice is good. However, anyone who’s had an advisor knows that very good advice is sometimes impossible to follow, until you’re on the threshold of the place where you no longer need it. When Rod Stewart sang “I wish that I knew what I know now/ when I was younger” the problem wasn’t that someone had failed to tell him. The problem remains that it’s un-simple to know what you don’t already know, and to use foresight to manifest courage and grace while you stumble around figuring things out.

Ph.D. programs are advertised as four to five years long in North America, and they typically take longer than that to complete. When I arrived at the University of Toronto, Canada, a newly-minted M.A. in religion and culture who was (and is) keen for a Ph.D. in religious studies, looking at job ads offered me only the muddiest impression of what the work of a professor of religious studies might actually be. What formed me was not a sense of the job ads, things which I could hardly contextualize and which I could only view piecemeal, because the lists of job ads are multiple, and sometimes behind pay-walls, and staggered over months, and because they’re a function of the needs of independent departments and have a vexed relationship to the field as a whole. What formed me, and my project, was my network.

Above all, I was busy trying to grow into a quality academic. A Ph.D. is a credential, certainly, but it is also an opportunity to craft oneself, to practice thinking well and writing well on topics that fascinate us, and that’s why many of us undertake one. I did not come to this degree because I anticipated that San Diego would want a sociocultural anthropologist of Toronto religion to teach three classes about food politics. I came to it the same way many of us do. I had been inspired. I’d taken classes that opened me in some way. I’d read work that helped me understand the world around me in new light, and I’d met scholars who were open and erudite and who welcomed my thinking and my questions. I dimly saw that the training could sculpt me into a certain kind of person, like going to the gym for my mind. I thought I could test and grow what I was capable of, alongside people who were better than me at a craft I admired, and continue to be in dialogue with them. More than wanting a job, I wanted to become the person alongside whom members of that community would want to work.

When I selected my project, I tried hard to pick one that would work on the job market, as well as one that I would love to do. I tried to pick one that showed breadth, that would allow me to develop expertise that was demonstrable and translatable, that would allow me to go as deep as was necessary without driving me all the way into an enclave. But those goals were highly impressionistic, and impressed on me by mentors: by my committee and above all my supervisor, by my departmental directors, my upper-year colleagues and the community of advisors I’d collected from conferences, including the writer of the theses on professionalization that I read in my first year. My project came from my method and theory classes, from the books I loved and hated, from my clumsy early attempts to represent my goals to a persistently patient and faithful committee, and from their encouragement to check out the world and to do my homework, and to find a project where those two things intersected.

I am glad we talk about professionalization. It would be a waste, and cruel, not to, and it is central to the health of our discipline to mitigate the cruelty of current waste. But I am also hopeful that the discourse of professionalization doesn’t overreach the process of cultivating oneself as an academic, or as a person. [4] The need to plug in to the job market early is real, but that need is tied to a failure of the community, including graduate students, to imagine what an academic is: by definition, a member of a department and an institution of education. The job market can be read, by a novice, as asking a number of things of us (be a social scientist; be confessional; deconstruct religion as a category; reproduce religion as a category; abandon hope all ye who enter here). I think what McCutcheon and others want us to read in it is this: departments need academics who can be trusted to think responsibly, reliably, and well, who will carry out inquiry and share what they find usefully, who will cultivate learning in students and maintain productive relationships with colleagues and take care of their academic area and show up for meetings and be constructive.

By virtue of having achieved the credential, we have all demonstrated the necessary aptitude and skill. Now, the thing we’re selling is hope, specifically the hope of our future selves as scholar-colleagues. The job doesn’t go to the “best” human. The job goes to the best fit. So I think the root piece of advice to be found here is to think deeply, in an ongoing way and at every stage, about fit. Aim to be fit, look for a fit, show them the fit, and then, go where there’s a fit.

Aldea Mulhern is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. Aldea works at the intersection of food and religion, and her dissertation is a comparative ethnography of Jewish and Muslim communities’ involvement in Toronto’s food movement.


[1] From the preamble to McCutcheon’s “Theses on Professionalization” as it appears on the website of The Religious Studies Project (February 29, 2012).

The theses first appeared without preamble in Mathieu E. Courville’s 2007 edited collection of essays, Next Step in Studying Religion: A Graduate’s Guide (London, UK: Continuum).

[2] The searchable CV-hosting service used to cost the applicant, and as of 2015 is now free to applicants, but see note 3.

[3] While the CV-hosting service is now free, and while the job listings are not behind a dedicated pay-wall, these facts are deceptive. It is not sufficient to be an active paid member of the AAR or SBL to access these services: one must be a member, and be registered and paid to attend the annual meeting. This means that job seekers must register and pay for the annual meeting in order to access the online job listings and to upload a CV, even if they have not been invited to interview at the meeting.

[4] Not all of us will get jobs in this field, but we will all be people. This fact is not missed by McCutcheon, but pervades his theses, and much other good advice from compassionate and responsible academics.

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