What’s in Your Religion Syllabus?: Nickolas P. Roubekas

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

In April 2017 I was invited to visit the University of Szeged, in Hungary, which has an exchange academic program with my institution. I was asked to teach a course on Ancient Greek Religion, as well as deliver a two-hour lecture on an advanced seminar running there called ‘Global Religion.’ As one may imagine, teaching a whole course to students of a different institution in less than three weeks has its numerous challenges. Considering that the course would be attended—as it did—by both undergraduates and postgraduates (including Ph.D. students) from two disciplines, i.e. Religious Studies and Classics, made the challenge even bigger.

Here’s the course description:

A survey of the religious beliefs, myths, and rituals/practices in ancient Greece, mainly covering the classical period (5th and 4th centuries BCE). More importantly, the course will examine whether ‘religion’ in Ancient Greece can be understood in the same manner as modern people conceive ‘religion,’ thus offering an intense comparative aspect to the study of Greek antiquity. Given that the word ‘religion’ was not indigenous to ancient Greece, the course will also focus on the problem of classification in the study of religion, as well as on whether and how modern people can talk about ancient Greek ‘religiosity’ by overcoming the obvious anachronism at work.

We started by discussing key problems related to the topic, from how classification works and whether one can define religion, to the insider/outsider problem in the study of religion and the issue of ‘anachronism.’ Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion offers a great discussion on how classification functions (especially chapter 2), which comprised our first reading—the students seemed fascinated by Martin’s examples and discussion. Defining religion, on the other hand—a thorny issue in the study of religion—was way more ‘controversial’ in class, since most students, especially those from Classics, had never heard of scholars like Durkheim or E. B. Tylor. To demonstrate the problem with defining religion ‘in all its glory,’ I assigned the first chapter of Tim Murphy’s Representing Religion: Essays in History, Theory and Crisis, which enlists more than twenty different definitions. The reading was followed by an extensive discussion on how definition functions and how this affects the study of ancient Greek ‘religion.’

On the insider/outsider problem, which is naturally a highly important issue when studying ancient (and dead) religions, the class read and discussed the sixth chapter of Russell McCutcheon’s Studying Religion: An Introduction, thus tackling the problem from a critical angle unfamiliar to most students. For discussing the evident problem of anachronism and the linguist barriers between ancient Greek and modern English terminology, we concentrated on the second chapter of Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, which gave many opportunities for debates.

After the lectures on ‘theoretical’ and ‘methodological’ issues—which, I must admit, came as a surprise to most students, since they were anticipating a more ‘traditional’ course on ancient Greek religion—we continued with applying the theoretical problems and issues we encountered and discussed to various sources from Greek antiquity. I relied on two works which I deem the best available ones on ancient Greek religion: Robert Parker’s On Greek Religion and Henk Versnel’s Coping with the Gods: Wayward Readings in Greek Theology, accompanied by the indispensable Sources for the Study of Greek Religion, by David Rice and John Stambaugh.

The remaining lectures, drawing on the aforementioned works, dealt with critical problems in the study of ancient Greek religion: from the lack of ‘scripture’ and the problem of ‘belief’—the former excellently discussed by Parker in chapters 1 and 2, whereas the latter is treated in a fascinating way by Versnel in appendix IV—to rituals, personal and domestic religious worldviews, and the tricky—as it has been recently argued—issue of ‘polis religion.’ Rice and Stambaugh’s work functioned as our reference source from which we discussed excerpts from the Iliad, the Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, Xenophanes’s alleged atheism, the deification of Alexander the Great, and the lives and characteristics of the Greek gods, among other topics and works of ancient authors.

We concluded the course by attempting to compare ancient Greek ‘religious’ ideas and modern ones. We primarily relied on how the Greeks conceptualized their divinities and how modern Christians understand their God. Anthropomorphism, along with immortality and excessive power, is perhaps the quintessential characteristic of Greek divine beings. So we concentrated on Albert Henrichs’ “What is a Greek God?” reaching to the (anticipated but not that given for students of ancient religions) conclusion that if the understanding of divinity is so different between ancients and moderns, so must be the understanding of ‘religion.’

As I told the students, studying ancient Greek religion is a complicated and difficult endeavour. Given the way social, political, and cultural life in toto was structured within the Greek milieu, it is perhaps more accurate to talk about Greek religions—a point made by Simon Price some time ago.

Nickolas P. Roubekas is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Vienna, Austria. He is the author of An Ancient Theory of Religion: Euhemerism from Antiquity to the Present (Routledge, 2017) and editor of the forthcoming Theorizing Ancient Religion (Equinox, 2018).

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Free Speech, Precious Snowflakes, and Religious Experience


We do not blame such an one, when he tries for himself to advance as far as he can with the help of such principles of explanation as he knows, interpreting “aesthetics” in terms of sensuous pleasure, and “religion” as a function of the gregarious instinct and social standards, or as something more primitive still. But the artist, who for his part has an intimate personal knowledge of the distinctive element in the aesthetic experience, will decline his theories with thanks, and the religious man will reject them even more uncompromisingly. – Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy

by Matt Sheedy

In a New York Times op-ed this past Monday entitled “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech,” comparative literature professor Ulrich Baer weighed in on current controversies surrounding the rhetoric of free speech in the U.S., where recent confrontations at the universities of Berkeley, Auburn, and Middlebury College have seen protests (and some violence) over the invitation of figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, Charles Murray, and alt-right poster-boy Richard Spencer. Berkeley also cancelled a talk last week by conservative provocateur Ann Coulter, prompting comedian and popular atheist Bill Maher to quip:

Berkeley used to be the cradle of free speech, and now it’s just the cradle for fucking babies.

For Baer, characterizing the students who fought to prohibit these figures from speaking at their campuses as overly sensitive “snowflakes” (a term that has become increasingly popular among the alt-right to deride anyone concerned with things like safe spaces, trigger warnings, gender pronouns, and micro-aggressions), “fail[s] to acknowledge the philosophical work that was carried out, especially in the 1980s and ‘90s, to legitimate experience—especially traumatic experience—which had been dismissed for decades as unreliable, untrustworthy and inaccessible.”

Adding some theoretical teeth to his argument, Baer draws on Jean-Francois Lyotard’s distinction between argument and experience in The Post-Modern Conditionwhere he challenges the idea that freedom of expression is the space from which “truth” emerges in public debate, and argues for a shift in focus toward the “asymmetry of different positions when personal experience is challenged by abstract arguments.” In this case “experience” is not some inaccessible realm of feeling (as with Otto’s idea of the holy quoted above), but rather a perspective that is under-represented and thus not well understood (e.g., transgender experiences).

Baer goes on to problematize the idea that unfettered free speech is a public good, citing the following concerns:

  • A university’s main goal is to produce and promote research, not incendiary views that can easily be found elsewhere, especially not those that “invalidate the humanity of some people,” which, he argues, ultimately functions to “restrict speech as a public.”
  • If free expression is meant to serve a general common good, “the parameters of public speech must be continually redrawn to accommodate those who previously had no standing.”
  • Free speech is contingent upon the ability of all members of a community being able to participate “as fully recognized members of that community.”
  • The liberal defense of “an absolute notion of free speech” fails to see that minority rights, “both legal and cultural,” are under attack and that the endorsement by universities of various public figures like Yiannopoulos, Murray, Spencer, and Coulter functions to “discredit and delegitimize whole groups as less worthy of participation in the public exchange of ideas.”

I found Baer’s argument convincing and of particular interest for my own research on the rhetoric of free speech in relation to religion (and Islam in particular) within the Euro-West, and how it functions to maintain secular liberal ideology and a Protestant-centered view of religion, which Winnifred Fallers Sullivan describes “as being private, voluntary, individual, textual, and believed.” (8) This view, among other things, circumscribes “religion” as a belief in scriptural injunctions and as a private choice largely disconnected from other aspects of a person’s identity (e.g., culture, politics, economics, etc.), which has enabled Bill Maher and others, for example to reject the charge of Islamophobia by claiming they are merely critiquing “bad ideas.”

Leaving these questions aside, what piques my interest in this article is what I take to be a rather instructive example of the insider/outsider problem in the study of religion and the rhetoric of religious experience.

Returning to the quote from Rudolph Otto that opens this post, we often find ourselves in a similar conundrum within the study of religion when it comes to fairly and accurately  representing the “experiences” of those who are deemed to be religious. For Otto, and those who endorse his ideas, one can only understand “religious experience” as an insider, whereas the second order explanations such as “sensuous pleasure” or “instinct” offered by non-religious outsiders are rejected tout court. One problem with Otto’s argument, as Russell McCutcheon points out in his introduction to Religious Experience: A Reader, is that it requires the scholar to “share in the experiences of the people under study,” (11) which McCutcheon views both as a form of theological protectionism (i.e., one can’t know unless they’ve had a religious experience), as well as a failure to recognize that there is

no direct experience of a real world, without the application of a prior, constructed map that not only exists at a distance from that which it eventually represents but, more importantly perhaps, whose use actually transforms the generic, chaotic, and thus unknowable limitless background … into a delimited and thus manageable domain that can be conceptualized and only then experienced and known … (15).

As I understand him, McCutcheon is suggesting that the rhetoric of religious experience often prevents us from analyzing the worldly (that is, psychological, cognitive, socially constructed, etc.) maps (or ideological frameworks) that condition what many claim to be an unmediated experience.

Here I’d like to suggest a parallel between the concerns that Baer and McCutcheon raise in light of Lyotard’s emphasis on the “asymmetry of different positions when personal experience is challenged by abstract arguments.” In both cases, they seem to be pointing toward the concept of interpolation, which focuses on how subjects (and their experiences) are always asymmetrical and thus shaped in relation to where they sit in the social pecking order rather than starting from some abstract universal position (be it political or theoretical) that one must either assimilate to or experience for themselves. To put it differently, one may never be able to put themselves in the other’s shoes, but they can recognize how structures of power condition us differently in order to better understand how experience is a relational process, uneven and always shifting.

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

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Now Published – Bulletin for the Study of Religion 46.1 (March 2017)

We are pleased to announce the publication of the March 2017 issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion in both online and in print formats. This issue brings together a set short presentations of current theoretical work going on in the Swiss context by a talented group of doctoral and post-doctoral scholars. This set of papers emerges from a visit by Russell McCutcheon to discuss with a group of students their current research. McCutcheon opens this set of articles with a fascinating look at the current place of “theory” in the academic study of religion. Each of these articles effectively demonstrates the advantages of applying critical theoretical lens to “religious” data and, thereby, offers us a taste of emerging theory and religion work in the European context. Anja Kirsch, who has been overseeing these various research projects, offers a closing synthesis.

This issue of the Bulletin also includes a set of responses to Kat Daley-Bailey’s provocative and timely Open Letter to the AAR (published in a previous issue of the Bulletin, along with a reply by Daley-Bailey). It is our hope that this exchange will encourage us to more effectively respond to the changing dynamics of our field of study regarding adjunct, contingent, and other non-tenure track faculty (what we might call “the new norm” in higher education).


Table of Contents

Bulletin for the Study of Religion Volume 46, Issue 1

(March 2017)

“Challenges, Perspectives, and Directions in the Study of Religion: Reassessing Theoretical and Professional Assumptions” Philip L. Tite (University of Washington) – (p. 2) [Editor’s introduction – Open Access]

“Beyond Cynicism: A Sampling of Current Work in the Swiss Study of Religion” Russell T. McCutcheon (University of Alabama) – (pp. 3-6)

“Is CAM Religious? The Methodological Problems of Categorizing Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the Study of Religion” Barbara Zeugin (University of Zurich) – (pp. 6-8)

“Siblings Veiled by Ideology? Reflections on the Epistemological Kinship between the Phenomenology of Religion and Soviet Scientific Atheism” Stefan Ragaz (University of Basel) – (pp. 8-10)

“The Guru is a Donut: Applications of Social Network Theory to the Study of Religion” Vanessa Lange (University of Bern) – (pp. 10-12)

“Preconditions of the Post-Theoretical: Periodizing the Study of Religion” David Atwood (University of Basel) – (pp. 12-14)

“Rethinking Islamkritik: Notes of a Hazy German Debate” Benedikt Erb (Bayreuth University) – (pp. 14-17)

“On Becoming a Lucid Theoretical Dreamer. Reflections on Academic Work Venturing Outside its Local Knowledge System” Anne Beutter (University of Lucerne) – (pp. 17-19)

“Failed Theory, Cynicism, and the Study of Religion” Anja Kirsch (University of Bern, University of Basel, and University of Zürich) – (pp. 19-22)

“For the Good or the “Guild”: Responses to Kate Daley-Bailey’s Open Letter to the American Academy of Religion” –  Jack Fitzmier (Executive Director AAR), Charles McCrary (Florida State University), Kerry Danner (Georgetown University), Jason Sager (Wilfrid Laurier University), Helen Ramirez (Wilfrid Laurier University), and Kate Daley-Bailey (University of Georgia) – (pp. 24-38)


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Emoji Dei: Religious Iconography in the Digital Age

by Méadhbh McIvor and Richard Amesbury

Editor’s Note: this is an abbreviated presentation of a fully developed article that will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion journal.

In September 2016, Rayouf Alhumedhi, a fifteen-year-old high school student living in Berlin, submitted a proposal to the Unicode Consortium, a non-profit corporation “devoted to developing, maintaining, and promoting software internationalization standards and data” (Unicode, 2017). Although little known outside the world of coders and computer programmers, the Unicode Consortium exerts a significant impact on twenty-first century life through its regulation of emoji – the colorful pictographs that increasingly punctuate our texts, emails, and social media posts.[1] Alhumedhi requested that the organization approve a new emoji, one that represented girls and women like her: a hijab, or headscarf, that can be superimposed onto pre-approved human characters.

By November 2016, Alhumedhi’s proposal had been approved. Hijabi-emoji – hijabiji? – are likely to appear on Apple and Android phones by mid-2017. Speaking to The Washington Post, she said: “There will be people like, ‘It’s such a trivial topic, why are you worrying about this?’ But once you wrap your head around how influential and how impactful emoji are to today’s modern society, you’ll understand. Emoji are everywhere” (Ohlheiser, 2016).

Alhumedhi is right: emoji are everywhere. There are over 1,200 approved emoji, including a number that denote or connote religion in various ways. Here we might distinguish roughly and somewhat artificially between religious emoji – i.e., emoji that express “religious feelings” or practices – and emoji that represent religions. Among the former, we count such emoji as the praying hands (left); among the latter, we include symbols such as the three-barred Orthodox cross (below right).

Whereas the expressive emoji might be said to function grammatically as modifiers and verbs, the representational ones play a more noun-like role. Indeed, in Alhumedhi’s words, emoji are “the new language” (Ohlheiser, 2016).

But if emoji are a form of expression, then what, exactly, do “religious” emoji – such as the optional headscarf – express? What does Unicode’s list of approved religiously-themed emoji tell us about the popular conception of religion as a category? How are these emoji deployed by those whose social media use is dominated (or supplemented) by religious considerations – those who’d rather sectxt than sext?

In an article forthcoming in the Bulletin, we offer some preliminary reflections on the construction of religion in the digital age. “Religious” emoji, we suggest, pose questions about both normativity – what is considered “normal” in this context – and the matrices by which religious diversity is conceptualized – that is, which “units” of (religious) diversity are represented or elided. Of further importance, we argue, are what religiously-themed emoji might suggest about the default world in which they operate; a default, we submit, that functions to affirm the normative ascendance of the secular.


Ohlheiser, Abby. 2016. ‘There is no hijab emoji. This 15-year-old student is trying to change that.’ The Washington Post [online]. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/09/13/there-is-no-hijab-emoji-this-15-year-old-student-is-trying-to-change-that/?utm_term=.9d0b14115945.

Unicode Consortium. 2017. ‘The Unicode Consortium.’ Available at: http://unicode.org/consortium/consort.html.

[1] The term “emoji” (plural: emoji or emojis) is a portmanteau of the Japanese terms for “picture,” “writing,” and “character.”

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Theory & Religion Series: Bruce Lincoln’s Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars


by Adam Miller

* This post is part of the Theory & Religion Series, where contributors are asked to discuss a current project they are working on, or a book or essay by a particular theorist that they have found useful in their teaching and research in the study of religion.

When invited to contribute to the Theory & Religion Series for the Bulletin, two works at once came to mind: Discourse and the Construction of Society and Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars, both by Bruce Lincoln (with whom I’ve recently had the pleasure of taking a course on classical theory). I’ve decided to write on the latter because it made a greater impact by virtue of when I read it. If my memory serves me, I had just completed my first year at the University of Missouri, which began and concluded (respectively) with a course and comprehensive examination in method and theory. Needless to say, I was bewildered. I wasn’t sure whether I liked what I had gotten myself into. Hell, I wasn’t even sure I knew what that even was. I was lost. I happened to pick up Gods and Demons after taking a break from reading, and something clicked. I found my niche.

Gods and Demons is fabulous from start to finish, but the essay I would like to focus on here is “How to Read a Religious Text” (5-15), wherein Lincoln uses four excerpts from the Chandogya Upaniṣad in order to illustrate/advance a critical method grounded in social theory. At the risk of being long-winded, I’d like first to summarize the four analyses he provides, then return to matters of method/theory.

Attending first to issues of maintenance, Lincoln revisits his previous work[1] on the sixth chapter of the Chandogya, a text associated with the lineage of priests responsible for the transmission of the Sāma Veda. Therein, the authors of the text homologize various sets of categories (Brilliance, Water, and Food; Speech, Breath, and Mind; Red, White, and Black) with one another, and in turn with the three varṇas (Priests, Warriors, and Commoners). In so doing, the boundary between the cosmological/metaphysical and the social collapses, thereby causing the contingent social arrangement in which these homologies were formulated to seem like a fact of nature. “When arguments of this sort are advanced, accepted, and invested with sacred status,” he concludes, “the stabilizing effects are enormous” (6).

Shifting his attention from maintenance of macrosocial order to modification of mesosocial order, he contrasts the “normative order” (7) of priests with the order put forth by the authors of the Chandogya. The former follows the typical ranking of the three Vedas: the Hotṛ priest is associated with the Ṛg Veda, the Udgātṛ with the Sāma, and the Adhvaryu with the Yajur. But the order advanced in Chandogya 1.3.6-7 differs significantly. Via an analysis of the word ‘udgītha’ (the name of an important chant in Vedic sacrifices that also happens to be the property/responsibility of the Udgātṛ priests) in conjunction with some strategic homologizing of the kind mentioned above, the authors promote both the Sāma and Yajur Vedas, relegating the Ṛg to last place. And by extension, of course, the priests associated with these texts go along for the ride. “[T]he ordinarily paramount Hotṛ priest,” Lincoln writes in lively style, “was positively pushed…into the material realm of earth, dirt, and shit.”

Lincoln then focuses on the microsocial, taking Chandogya Upaniṣad 1.10-11 as his example. This excerpt tells of a poor man named Uṣati Cākrāyaṇa who managed to weasel his way into a sacrifice that had already begun, convince the patron of the sacrifice that some of his priests were doing it wrong (even though according to the hegemonic tradition they were doing just fine), and win for himself a decent paycheck. But this series of events, Lincoln notes, was made possible by the fact that Uṣati had some food leftover from begging the day before. This point may seem trivial. But it’s not. Without having some food to contribute to the sacrifice, he presumably would not have been able to get within earshot of the patron. Further still, food is significant on the level of cosmological discourse. Because it is a gross material, Food is typically the lowest of three categories (under Speech and Breath, both of which are subtle), and is often associated with the lowest varṇa or priestly class. (It also includes the earth, dirt, and shit mentioned above.) Though not challenging this hierarchy, this section of the Chandogya shows how “[f]ood is convertible to money…via several mediations [e.g., what Lincoln calls “pretentious chatter … convey(ing) the semblance of wisdom to gullible priests and patrons”]” (12, emphasis in original), the latter of which occupies the position of highest privilege for the poor Uṣati.

Finally, Lincoln brings Chandogya Upaniṣad 1.12 to the table. In this passage, a man by the name of Baka Dālbhya (or Glāva Maitreya)—whom “the mythic genealogy of the Udgītha chant [presents] as the paradigmatic model for all subsequent Udgātṛs…an unimpeachable source” (13)—is said to have witnessed a host of dogs chanting their own version of the Udgītha. In their version of the chant, the dogs valorize Food over all else. After expressing uncertainty about the “origins, genre, or intent” (13) of the passage, Lincoln characterizes it as “striking” (13) because in its revalorization of homologized metaphysical categories it presents,

[A]n economy of consumption and pleasure, where priestly speech—and not food—is simply a means to an end … [where] the ultimate beneficiaries and ruling stratum are those whom other systems judge to be ‘animals’: those for whom material existence and bodily pleasure are not degraded and degrading, but the goal and supreme joy of existence (14).

Bookending and punctuating these explorations, Lincoln makes some recommendations regarding how historians of religion ought to go about their business. And underlying these pointers—themselves clear echoes of his well-known “Theses on Method”—is an interest in the advancement of social theory.

Observing that all texts are the products of situated human labor, Lincoln advises they be approached skeptically and critically—especially those texts he classifies as religious texts, which are distinct in that they claim for themselves “more-than-human origin, status, and authority” (5). (This conceptualization of what makes a given text religious is an extension of his definition of religion in terms of discourse, practice, community, and institution.[2]) Given this assumption, he proposes that historians of religion attend closely to the structure and logic of the texts under analysis[3]—that is, identify the categories operative therein, the hierarchical relations between the terms, how the terms are homologized with one another (forming binary or ternary sets, typically), and the reasons the texts provide for privileging one set of categories over others. And, further, highlight any subtle revalorizations within a text as it relates to a larger body of “culturally relevant comparative materials” (9). Next, he suggests that historians “[e]stablish any connections” between the world of the text and the social world in light of the text’s authorship and the material conditions surrounding its “authorship, circulation, and reception” (9).

Taking all of this together, religious texts become a fruitful data set for the investigation of the ways in which human interests “are advanced, defended, [and] negotiated” (9). Put differently—and to use some vocabulary which I almost certainly picked up from Russell McCutcheon and Craig Martin, whose respective bodies of work have come to be just as influential to my thinking as Lincoln’s—religious texts are for Lincoln (as I read him, at least) one kind of tool among others by which human beings not only construct, preserve, and modify boundaries and hierarchical relationships between/among social groups from the macro level all the way down to the micro level, but make said contingent social arrangements appear natural.

In my MA thesis, I brought (an admittedly less sophisticated understanding of) these ideas to bear on a past-life story from a previously untranslated and understudied Mahāyāna sūtra, and I intend to continue employing them in my dissertation (whatever the specifics of that project turn out to be). Additionally, my goal as an online instructor has been to get my students thinking about what people often call “religion” in social terms, and to employ the hermeneutics of suspicion when thinking about those discourses/texts, practices, communities, and institutions that people typically call “religious.”

Compelling as I find Lincoln’s work to be, however, and as useful as it is for guiding my instruction—and as Lincoln himself has noted in print and in class—there is no such thing as a purely disinterested theory of religion, and there is always room for improvement with regard to method. So, although I fancy myself a Lincolnian of sorts, I do not like to think of myself as a blind loyalist. His work has provided a solid foundation for me, and I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for any cracks as I build upward.


[1] Bruce Lincoln, “The Tyranny of Taxonomy,” Discourse and the Construction of Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 131-141.

[2] This definition has appeared in Lincoln’s Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) and in the epilogue of Sarah Iles Johnston’s edited volume Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 2004), the latter of which was reprinted as “Ancient and Post-Ancient Religions,” in Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[3] The guidelines reproduced in “Reading a Religious Text” and summarized here were initially presented in Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

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What’s in Your Syllabus? Michael Graziano

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

by Michael Graziano

In Fall 2017, I’ll be teaching “Religion and Law in America.” This is one of my favorite courses to teach, and the speed of legal changes in this area means that no two classes are quite the same. It’s a lot of fun.

Here is the course description:

Americans have long argued about the proper role of religion in public life: can the Bible be taught in schools? What about contemporary flashpoints like abortion and same-sex marriage? Why do religious groups receive special privileges and exemptions under American law?

As a class, we will consider how religious groups work alongside and against U.S. law and how, in turn, American law engages, encourages, and restricts religious practice in America. From the long-lost “14th colony” of Quebec to modern Americans who wish to consume illegal drugs as part of their religious worship, challenges and debates in American religion and law have reflected the changing nature of the people who make up the United States. We will explore these questions through examining how religion and law affects American politics, education, and the marketplace.

One of my goals in this class is to help students see the relationship between law and the stories we tell about law. I suggest one way to view law is as a “myth” in the way Bruce Lincoln uses the word: as “ideology in narrative form.” Lincoln explains that “when a taxonomy is encoded in mythic form, the narrative packages a specific, contingent system of discrimination in a particularly attractive and memorable form” (1). Approaching law from the perspective of religious studies helps highlight how law is a record of decisions about classification, each with winners and losers. Understanding why human slavery was protected and extended in the United States is a story about law, for example, but those laws drew upon stories about racial groups’ genealogical and theological origins. Myth, for Lincoln, is the struggle for control of discourse. Thinking about law as the struggle for control of stories is one way to approach law and the stories we tell about it.

To that end, here are some readings I’ve used (or am considering using):

One useful introductory essay is Steven D. Smith’s “Religious Freedom in America: Three Stories.” Smith deftly (and briefly!) presents three versions of the history of American religious freedom. Each story favors a distinct historiographical angle, resulting in different conclusions about the relationship between religion and law. Students find this unsettling, since it suggests that familiar narratives might be nothing more than a powerful group’s preferred story. Along the same lines, I like to introduce “originalism” early since this lets students think critically about history, myth, power, and claims to a true or authentic past (and it gives us a reason to read this New York interview with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, which is rich with material).

Once we’ve thought about law as narrative, we dive into theories of tolerance and pluralism. Excerpts from Wendy Brown’s Regulating Aversion (2008) have been helpful here, and I plan to use them again. It’s long, but Stanley Fish’s Mission Impossible: Settling the Just Bounds Between Church and State (1997) helps students see the contradictory nature of religious freedom rhetoric that, in Fish’s view, hasn’t changed substantially since the days of John Locke.

After this, I plan to move through several historical examples which students can use to think through these ideas. Hugh Urban’s The Church of Scientology (2013) is a text I plan to use again. Urban’s work is interesting and accessible, as well as a model for introducing non-majors to religious studies theory. Urban’s work helps the class think about difficult issues, like the purpose of tax-exemption and attempts to assess religious sincerity. Winnifred Sullivan’s Ministry of Presence (2014) is another book I plan to re-use. Sullivan portrays the modern chaplain’s position as a kind of pressure-relief valve for when an institution isn’t quite sure how to proceed with the religious-secular categorical tension in American law. My students are often familiar with chaplains from their workplaces, student groups, and religious organizations, and this seems to help the argument land.

The University of Northern Iowa, where I teach, is known for its College of Education and teacher training programs. As a result, I work with a lot of education majors who are interested in religion and law in the public classroom. Sarah Imhoff’s 2016 JAAR essay, “The Creation Story, or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Schempp is fantastic for fostering conversations about the field of religious studies, the role of the US government, and the consequences for “teaching religion” in public schools.

There are other cases studies I plan to include, drawing from Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Beyond Religious Freedom (2015) which examines U.S. attempts to project First Amendment-style understandings of religion around the world. Finbarr Curtis’ The Production of American Religious Freedom (2016) is chock-full of great case studies, including one on intelligent design and another on corporate personhood. Another new book I plan to use is Sylvester Johnson and Steven Weitzman’s recent edited volume The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11 (2017). I think this will provide students with a lot of material to think about how government surveillance and law enforcement have affected religious groups.

I hope these readings will help students see law as something more than a set of static, self-evident rules governing modern life, and instead as the product of human choices with important considerations for our present.

Bruce Lincoln, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship (University of Chicago Press, 2000), 211.

Michael Graziano teaches at the University of Northern Iowa. He’s currently writing on the relationship between the CIA and religious institutions during the Cold War.

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Announcing Bulletin Book Reviews!

The editors of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion are delighted to announce that we are launching a new book review project. Although the Bulletin has not had a traditional book review section, it has published review essays and panels of articles on significant books in the field (and, on occasion, we’ve done the same with significant articles). Given the amount of scholarship currently being published and the more critical and theoretical perspective that the Bulletin—and NAASR more broadly—can bring to bear on that scholarship, we decided to launch this exciting new online project.

Our inaugural book review editor is Adam Miller (University of Chicago), who has been working with Matt Sheedy over the past year as co-editor of the blog (and we are thrilled that Stacie Swain has now joined Matt on the blog). Adam’s experience with the Bulletin’s blog will be invaluable as we plan to first publish reviews on the blog and then, in the future, on a second Bulletin website dedicated specifically to reviews. Adam will also be working with me on developing more extensive review essays and panels on key books to appear in the journal.

The Bulletin’s online book review section will be an open access resource. Our publisher, Equinox, has furthermore generously offered to allow readers free access to reviews appearing in other Equinox journals in the field of religious studies. Thus, the Bulletin will become an access point and a repository for a range of reviews in our field—in a sense, a data collection for theorizing the field of religious studies as mirrored through not only books being reviewed but also reviews reflecting scholarly critiques of those books. Even now, readers can use the free Equinox Bulletin/Religion App to read many reviews and Bulletin articles (as well as further content and links to blogs) from the publisher. Our new review section will be working in collaboration with the new App.

We invite academic publishers, series editors, and individual scholars to suggest books to be reviewed by the Bulletin. And we encourage scholars, including graduate students, to jump in and volunteer to write reviews for us. All correspondence should be directed to Adam Miller at bulletinreviews@equinoxpub.com.



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