So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Charles S. Preston

Jesus-facepalmIn this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link.

Mistaken Identities, Teachable Moments, and Phantoms of the Academy

by Charles S. Preston

In the world’s myths and religious literature, the theme of mistaken identity appears frequently, and as a student of religion, my experiences with the “so you’re going to be a priest?” question have often felt like moments of mistaken identity. Usually the mistake does not lead to much plot progression or any epiphany, and it rather seems like the inquirer is merely trying to place me into some easily-understood category in response to which either I have to reveal my true identity and explain the academic study of religion, or merrily go along pretending to be someone I am not in order to avoid conflict or conversation. As I want to suggest in this short essay, however, perhaps my attempts at avoiding conflict through false identities have been misguided and resulted in missed opportunities.

In my early days as a student of religion, I had to contend with two variants of what I will here call, for shorthand, “the priest question.” Having grown up in a predominantly Christian neighborhood, some friends and neighbors assumed I was becoming a priest. Meanwhile, a few of my Jewish relatives presumed I was becoming a rabbi. In contrast, I was actually most interested in South Asian religions, and never for any reasons of personal spirituality. In fact, as an atheist, being a priest of any variety was always furthest from my mind. But the easy presumption that interest in religion equates to spiritual interest is hard to combat. It is, itself, a form of mistaken identity.

In general, those earlier problems have been resolved with family and friends as I have explained myself to them, but problems persist and I continue to compile humorous anecdotes. To cite a favorite, once on a date some years ago, I mentioned that I was working on my PhD at the University of Chicago Divinity School. In response, my date immediately asked me the priest question with concern and confusion because she assumed a priest would be celibate, and thus she could not figure out why we were on a date to begin with! This was a woman with an advanced degree in the sciences, thus exemplifying how little even the well-educated know about religious studies as a discipline. Meanwhile, my being in the Divinity School has generated some other misunderstandings based on the stereotype, held by some at University of Chicago, of Divinity School students as rabid atheists. At a Hillel function, I was once asked, “What is it like to be a believer in the Divinity School?” The question was another instance of mistaken identity, and it revealed quite a bit more about the faulty logic and assumptions of the questioner than it did of me.

My experiences researching in India have also brought up a few instances of this misunderstanding in ways that are both useful and problematic. One fellow American whom I happened to meet in India asked me if I was studying to be a Hindu priest. While certainly I was not, I have found that being willing to grant some truth and value to Hindu religious ideas can be a boon when working in India. While I am upfront about my intentions with my research work, while touring temples and experiencing other aspects of Hinduism, it can be useful for my own growing understanding and for avoiding conflict to go with the flow, and to nod and agree. Indeed, spend enough time there and you might start to want to worship Ganesh to help remove obstacles, and I have done so on many an occasion. Certainly being very respectful, too, does not in any way compromise my scholastic work, and I would venture to say a respectful approach is critical to the study of religion.

Yet the presumption of my being Hindu has become something of a mixed blessing in recent months as I am currently engaged to a Hindu woman and her family is planning a Hindu wedding for us. While she and her (atheist) father understand my academic approach, her mother has, based on my knowledge of the tradition, begun presuming that I am even more orthodox than my fiancée! I have been willing to participate in all sorts of traditional practices for the wedding (I have always been open to trying any and all religious practices as a participant observer, and to worshipping anything from Allah to Zoroaster), and my future mother-in-law has begun using this not only as proof that I am acceptable but also as a bargaining chip with my fiancée to force her to be open to more traditional components of the wedding ceremony. Suddenly, I am presumed to be the Orthodox Brahmin in the family, and while perhaps it is presently useful, it is far from the truth, and problematic to refute. Sometimes our mistaken identities do get us into trouble.

But there is another intentional mistaken identity that I have adopted in response to the priest question in order to avoid the question entirely. Over the past five or six years, my elevator speech about what I do has been simple: I study Indian literature. And this is no prevarication as indeed my dissertation was on twentieth-century Sanskrit literature. Since so few people in the U.S. know what Sanskrit is, I usually avoid that word altogether. In India, I usually say I am a scholar of Sanskrit, and given that the study of religion in India is generally a theological or confessional matter rather than the religious studies model of the Euro-American academy (although there are some notable exceptions in a few universities), this works quite well to avoid the question, although my future mother-in-law and some in her family have conflated even knowledge of Sanskrit with religious orthodoxy, thus revealing a chink in this Sanskrit-studies armor. In some respects, this answer reflects my own identity crisis in the academy as a scholar of religion whose dissertation looks somewhat more like an area studies project, and while my interests have always been more in the religious aspects of these modern texts, they are not limited to issues of religion alone. Sometimes, I do not quite know my own disciplinary identity.

But the escape into area studies hides a deeper problem, and one that I thank the Bulletin’s editor, Adam Miller, for making me think about by giving me this prompt. (Indeed, it is the sign of a good question that it makes the questioned rethink a position.) Backing up a little, the inevitable question that one gets when one answers the priest question in the negative, and especially the question one gets when saying one is doing a PhD on Sanskrit literature is always the same, and is often uttered with a strong hint of incredulity and/or sarcasm: “What are you going to do with that degree?” The answer is always to become a professor and to teach. But until the prompt for this essay, I had not realized that a better answer to the priest question lies in the answer to the second question. It is here where the problem of my evasion becomes clearest.

The priest question, it now seems to me, is a teachable moment: a chance to teach strangers, friends, and family what the study of religion is about and to provide an alternative model to the usually assumed priestly vocational approach. As I make the leap from PhD researcher to professor, it seems all the more imperative not to shirk my pedagogical duties. As an introvert who generally avoids conversation with strangers, the area studies evasion has been useful, but it is also, I now see, an avoidance of my new responsibility as a professor of religious studies to talk with anyone, not just students, about religious studies in its non-confessional avatar. It is time to own up to my true identity, and to make the most use of it, and that is the moral of this story of mistaken professional identity. By challenging the mistaken identity of scholars of religion as priests-to-be, we challenge entrenched presuppositions about religion as a whole, and open students and even people we meet by chance, anywhere from airports to zoos, to new ways of thinking.  Indeed, just as we try to correct our students’ mistaken assumptions about religion and mistaken and harmful stereotypes about specific religions, we might simultaneously challenge their ideas of scholarship, education, and even ourselves. I have on occasion offered myself as an example, with good results, to help my students question their preconceived ideas about religion and its study. The same process can work at cocktail parties.

Yet then the question remains: what is religious studies, how do we explain it to those outside the discipline, and why is it important to do so? There are sharper scholars who can speak to that question in many more pages than I wish to take up here, there are minds who would do so far more astutely, and there are critics who would rightly question the enterprise altogether. But I might give a short answer that relates to the theme of mistaken identity. One of my professors, Christian Wedemeyer, once explained (at a department party in 2007 or so) that his passion for religious studies arises from the fact that the scholar of religion can wear many hats. While the object of study is always religion, one can approach it through literature, ritual, material objects, anthropology, historiography, philosophy, politics, etc. This description immediately resonated with my own initial attraction to the field, and expressed my own interests in religious studies more clearly than I had before (see: teaching can happen at cocktail parties). Given the centrality of religion in the daily lives of human beings and in modern political discussions, it is understandable that religious studies might and certainly should overlap with and be approached through multiple other disciplines and methodologies. One might then be doing “area studies” work – on postcolonial Sanskrit literature, for example – but with an ultimate interest in the role of religion in that material. Thus it is natural and even imperative that the scholar of religion might be mistaken for a scholar of some other discipline, and indeed, the opposite can and should occur. I would argue that fluid disciplinary identities might be conducive to more creative approaches to religion by breaking down disciplinary boundaries, to release the study of religion from the priestly confines but also from religious studies itself.

That said, one might reasonably suggest in response that if the study of religion consists of just an amalgam of approaches to religion, and if indeed religion is just the product of the West, as many have argued, or of the scholar’s imagination, as J. Z. Smith famously proclaimed, then why hold on to the discipline at all? Why even bother explaining what religious studies is? Why not keep the other fields and give up the “religious studies” disguise? These are questions we must face if we are to discuss seriously with students and even strangers the constructed nature of “religion” as a category. While I concur with this skeptical and critical line of inquiry with respect to “religion,” the best answer I have found comes from a verse in Alice Notley’s feminist poetic epic The Descent of Alette. I have quoted that verse here including the poet’s somewhat confusing but distinctive use of quotation marks for metrical purposes:

“‘But they are phantoms,” “only phantoms!’ I cried” “‘They can kill now,’
said the men” “‘We have created them” “& they are real” “They can
harm now” “They can harm now” “We can do nothing” “but herd them —”
“Or they” “will turn on us’”[1]

The context of the poem makes it clear that the phantoms are divine beings, but it is also evident that the phantoms are the ideologies and structures that humans create. They have not only been mistaken for being real (a case of mistaken identity), they have become real: they have been mistaken into existence. If religion as a category is the creation of scholars, it has surely become real, and that bull has escaped the academic farm and run amok. It cannot be mistaken for a mere scholastic phantom, but has real implications for governments and identity formations. This is certainly not to deride religion as merely a lethal force, as certainly it has served many salutary properties in human experience from the psychological to the artistic and beyond. But when multiple phantoms (religions) collide, creating tensions of different scales and degrees (from great wars to immigration policies to interreligious marriages), some herding is in order.

Most people assume that religion is to be herded by priests, but scholars of religion, too, help in their own way to herd these phantoms. Priests might care for and feed the phantoms, but I might say that scholars have a different job on the farm. By studying religions critically and from various perspectives, by knowing them to be phantoms, and by trying to understand their behavior in the world as they are continually created and recreated by human endeavors, we scholars of religion perform an important role in intellectual husbandry. We shirk our duty as trained scholars if we merely cast off religion as a mere phantom to be ignored, or to be feared or despised, or to be diffused into other disciplines. I have erred in pretending to have a different job and missed out on chances to own up to my identity as a scholar of religion, to show that there are other ways of studying, appreciating, and critiquing religion. Indeed, by suggesting different approaches to religion (and indeed different religions themselves), we might perhaps make some headway toward herding the phantoms, the mistaken identities and identifications, that haunt our students, our readers, and yes, even the occasional stranger.

[1] Alice Notley, The Descent of Alette (NY: Penguin Books, 1992), 94. My thanks to Shanna Carlson for introducing me to this book.

Charles S. Preston completed his PhD in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School barely more than a week ago. His dissertation is about modern Sanskrit plays and poems written by the prominent twentieth-century scholar V. Raghavan. He will be a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Northwestern University during the 2016-2017 academic year.

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So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Randi R. Warne


In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link

Religious Studies as Confundus Spell

by Randi R. Warne

“Religious Studies” is a term of great power. I have observed grown men reduced to shouting, spitting frustration in debates over what it is or is not. All aspects of the phenomenon being (allegedly) studied are contested, even, it seems, its very existence. Size, shape, territory – does it have a single, all-seeing eye, or has it many eyes, on all parts of its body, and if so, how many are close to its anus? Is the creature pliable or friable? Are there any others like it, or may it mate with like, albeit not identical creatures, and if so, is it truly unique? And so on, and on, and on.

One thing upon which there is agreement is the stupifying effect the term “Religious Studies” can have upon its hearers. “Religious Studies” is like an academic Confundus spell. Upon its utterance, otherwise reasonable people seem to be able to leap to the most bizarre conclusions. Overt cultural markers are ignored; clearly articulated statements become opaque and meaningless. Fear and anger can stir; the flight or fight response in the face of an unknown potential danger is triggered, until the counterspell is found in those dreadful words: “Are you going to be a nun?”

Allow me to relate an anecdote about how “Religious Studies” may have saved my life. I don’t mean this in the metaphysical sense, much less the spiritual, but in a very practical way. It was Winnipeg, the winter of 1974, and I was hitchhiking…[cliche alert]. I was living out in an old farmhouse on St. Anne’s Road, near the Perimeter Hwy. Everything was still open fields, no development, and the city bus line ended about a mile from my home. I attended the University of Winnipeg, a small downtown institution with a storied social activist history, and a stomping ground for the weird, the intellectual, and the otherwise eccentric. It was freezing – really freezing the way only a dry cold can freeze, nostrils iced to near closure, eyeballs stinging and lungs endangered – a black, crisp twinkling night. Every step crackled. Now I was prepared for this – wearing my mother’s old 1950s muskrat coat, my baba shawl from Mitchell’s Fabrics on Main Street, double-knitted gloves (for the uninitiated, two sets of gloves, one sown inside the other for warmth) – but it was a looong walk, so I decided to hitchhike.

People did that then, and though the traffic was minimal out there in the sticks, I gave it a shot. Now bear in mind through all of this that I looked like a polarized Janis Joplin, complete with crazy hair, granny glasses, and army boots (real army boots, 12 bucks, from the Army Surplus across the street from U of W. I swear they could kill, if I could maneuver myself to lift my feet out of the way of my coat and kick). So I felt pretty safe when, lo and behold, there was actually a car heading my way. I stuck out my mitten and hoped. The car slowed down, and the driver asked if I needed a ride. Well, yes I did! I was going to the farmhouse just up the road, and if he could drive me towards where the lights were vaguely flickering there in the distance, that would be terrific.

Let me say at this point that I was no naif. I knew hitchhiking had its dangers. A few years previous, I had had to jump out of a car and roll myself down an embankment, to escape a truly weird, metal rod wielding driver, who was forced to drive away from me down the highway when the light turned green. But this guy, the beige and brown guy who was saving me from frozen eyeballs, seemed relatively ok. So I got in. About two minutes later he started to tell me about his wife, and then things got tense. He was unhappy, she wanted a divorce, and I was not liking at all where this was going. The guy was getting more and more nervous. He asked me if I lived alone (which I took to mean, does anyone know where you are right now?) Oh no, I lived with other students, who were waiting for me… Boy my shoulder bag was heavy. It was filled with books, I was a student, you know, poor and struggling, stream-of-consciousness terror babble, when he asked the killer question: “What are you taking in school?” “Religious Studies,” I said proudly. “Oh!” he said, shocked: “Are you going to be a nun?”

I don’t know if he would have killed me (you never do know in these sorts of situations, and I kind of figured he wouldn’t, though he might mess me up a bit), but I am certain that the Confundus spell of “Religious Studies” went a long way that night to saving me from a whole lot of grief. He experienced cognitive dissonance; he probably thought he was picking up some loose hippie chick, and here he had this whacko who talked about Julian of Norwich and St. John of the Cross. He dropped me off at the side of the road fairly close to my home, told me I shouldn’t be out hitchhiking late at night, and then sped off towards the highway.

What is the takeaway here? Obviously, have an escape route planned when you’re hitchhiking, but other than that, after decades of being “in the field” in the academy, “Religious Studies” appears to be incomprehensible. You would think that academics would be bound by some code of professional honour to have at least some idea of what other, (neighbouring!) disciplines are about, but it appears not. This can lead to horrendous administrative “solutions” like marrying an analytic philosopher with a gender critical cultural analyst and then blaming “the woman” when it didn’t work out. “Well, you both talk about God, right?” Right.

However, these folks can hardly be blamed when even those who make a living at doing it can’t agree on the reality (or not) of what they are studying. I am not only talking “theology” here – surely it could be possible, in theory, that there is some reality beyond the purely material that could/might/just maybe be open to solid intellectual inquiry. Yet after decades of method and theory, what “Religious Studies” does remains deeply contested. The Chicago School has now been superseded by the Toronto School, perhaps to no one’s satisfaction.

So, what ought someone like me do? I am a Religious Studies “lifer”. I got my BA in Religious Studies in 1974, from a department that began in 1969. I graduated from the inaugural class of the Graduate Centre for Religious Studies at U of Toronto with my MA, and was the first U of T. Ph.D. graduate in the field of Religion and Culture. I joined the CSSR in 1980 and served on the executive in almost every position, including President.   I taught my first Religious Studies course in 1984, over thirty years ago. However I am starting to think the time of Religious Studies may be coming to an end. “Religious Studies” had its uses – it was not (supposed to be) theology; it was not (supposed to be) Christian; it was supposed to be a member of the liberal arts/social sciences enterprise that would analyze difference in theory and neutralize it in practice. In that sense, Religious Studies was useful as a Confundus spell – it stopped people for a second, made them ask (sometimes ridiculous) questions, but it had the capacity to make space for intellectual conversation that moved beyond conventional boundaries.

Some would argue it has achieved that goal. Others may look with disparagement upon the all too vigorous remnants of its Christian theological origins. For my part, however, I am finding the internal debates about the proper definition of “religion” does not address my questions, especially as (if? ) they persist as an apparent firewall to (to me) crucial debates about power, including gender and its performances in a world of real life social struggles that need to be addressed. I wish that the academic rosters are filled with culturally critical social activists whose insights serve as resources for derailing global inequalities. However, in my experience as a late full-time hire into a rapidly aging professoriate, that’s not the landscape I’m (fore)seeing in these economically strangled and troubled times. And that’s one reason why I am casting my lot more and more with Cultural Studies. It has its own problems and pretentions, to be sure. But it does understand ideology, margins, creativity, and outliers; it’s all “culture” and that is as real as it gets.

With luck, Cultural Studies may serve as a remedy to Religious Studies tangles much as the theory of a heliocentric solar system was to Ptolemaic epicycles. It’s not perfect, as an academic environment or as a perspective, but it has the advantage of moving the ground sufficiently so that the “odor of sanctity” that drives the more materialistically minded to apoplexy is rendered ordinary, just part of the mix. In Cultural Studies, the margins are rightly attended to, as essential parts of whole cultural systems. “What the priests say about women”, for example, carries the same weight as “what the midwives say about priests”, or anything else for that matter. It’s all part of the game. And it’s not news. Lots of Religious Studies folks have been using these tools for years. No one discipline owns a thinker; indeed, I wish that some of “our own” were better known in other circles.

This being said, the Confundus Spell of Religious Studies was and is indispensible to my intellectual formation and its growth over time. It gave me breathing space to ask my (apparently unorthodox, abnormal) questions about how this whole human mess works. Its diversionary power has likewise proven to have definite practical application, as my story about hitchhiking illustrates. It also holds a peculiar power within the academy, much like red kryptonite had for Superman. But that’s a set of stories for another time.

Randi R. Warne is a professor of Religion and Culture in the Department of Philosphy/Religious Studies At Mount St. Vincent University, Halifax. She is also a founding member of MSVU’s Cultural Studies program, one of the three free-standing Cultural Studies programs in Canada. Her research interests include religion and culture, gender theory, and the politics of knowledge. Recent publications include “‘Gender’; Making the Gender-Critical Turn” and a two volume co-edited work New Approaches to the Study of Religion (with Armin Geertz and Peter Antes), published by Walter deGruyter.

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So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Alexander Rocklin








In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link

by Alexander Rocklin

I was on an airplane back home to Chicago from Trinidad and Tobago last summer, after a layover in Miami. Summer is the only time during the year I have to read for pleasure and I was enjoying Mat Johnson’s 2011 novel Pym. In order to avoid distraction on planes I typically listen to music while I read. However, this is often not an effective deterrent to interruption. We were about halfway through the flight when I noticed that the woman sitting a seat away from me was gesticulating and mouthing in my direction “Oh wow! What is that?” She was gesturing toward the inflight entertainment. I removed only one ear bud and holding it up I told her the program was NBC’s obstacle course extravaganza, American Ninja Warrior. She used this moment of at least one unblocked ear canal to start up a conversation, asking the what do you do question.

I don’t typically give much thought in my reply to this question because in my experience people have not shown much interest in what I do (on airplanes at least, not while doing research in Trinidad, where people are curious and confused by a white guy from the US studying things East Indian). When I told her I was a historian of religion who studies Hinduism and Islam in the Americas and was going to start as a visiting professor in religious studies her eyes lit up. She told me she was coming back from a summer mission. Our discussion meandered between her work, American Ninja Warrior, and the book I was reading. I shared with her my plans to go on the job market in the fall and all of a sudden I felt a jolt as she grabbed my arm with one hand, put her other hand on my shoulder, and began to pray over me. She asked her god to help me with my move to Oregon and with my coming job search. I awkwardly thanked her.

When I told her I was coming back from doing research in Trinidad, she said was coming from the Dominican Republic and that she had been to Mexico the year before; that there was a lot of work to be done in the field in Mexico. She informed me that many of the people there had given up Jesus and eternal life to worship Death and Satan! I asked her if she was talking about the Catholic folk saint Santa Muerte. I explained that most devotees of Santa Muerte identified as Christian and did not see themselves as worshiping death. She was for many just another saint, if a particularly responsive but unofficial one. She looked at me as I spoke, but transitioned without comment to tell me about her work in the DR. As she was talking the calendar app on my phone began to buzz. I absentmindedly took the phone out of my pocket and dismissed the reminder. As I did so my seatmate’s eyes went wide again as she saw the background on my phone, an image featuring a glaring demon with protruding fangs from the cover of a late 19th century book on “obeah,” popularly defined as African Caribbean magic.

Obeah image

She immediately went back to her ninja warriors. I looked over at her for a moment and then went back to Pym.

At the level of the airplane conversation (at the least), given how cursory they often are, I wonder how much control we really can have over how our seatmates identify us and understand what we do/say (and vice versa). And our desires and intentions (when/if those can be consciously and coherently articulated and determined) only take us part of the way. Our projects of identity confection are hardly the only things that make us. There are things and bodies beyond what we would call ourselves that get caught up in making us “who we are” in a given context, despite how we construct ourselves. The novel Pym’s protagonist is Chris Jaynes, a college professor who identifies as Black. However, he has very light skin and is identified as white—and his African American associates are taken to be his slaves!—by [spoiler alert] the novel’s titular character. Initially, in Jaynes’ case, it was his skin that Pym assumed told him something important (given his antebellum point of reference). But also the Victorian explorer interpreted him in relation to Jaynes’ travel companions in order to make sense of him. We and our flightmates have a variety of frames that order our interactions, constrain but also make possible some sort of understanding of the world and where we might fit in it. But the various elements can change and shift. I went from anonymous neighbor to fellow worker in the Latin American missionary field to likely worshiper of Death and Satan (!) in the span of little over half a dozen minutes. Or at least that was my take on our interaction. Different people will situate us differently using different things—different bits of our bodies, who and what we associate or are associated with, in their work of identifying us. The information I provided but also the background image on my phone helped to shift the ways in which I was legible for this woman, in apparently startling ways.

Though neither missionary nor obeahman, I will take whichever of these identifications affords me the most quiet time for reading.

Alexander Rocklin is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Willamette University. He completed his PhD in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. His research interests include colonialism and the politics of the category religion, religion and race, and histories of Hinduism, Islam, and Afro-Atlantic traditions in the Americas. His work has appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Comparative Studies in Society and History, and the New West Indian Guide.

Posted in Pedagogy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Ruminations, Scholarship on the Road, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Scripting Acts of Violence: Intersectionality and the Orlando Shooting



By Philip L. Tite

At 2 a.m. this past Sunday morning in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida gunshots were heard by patrons. The nightmare that they experienced did not end until 5 a.m. when police killed Omar Mateen, the alleged shooter who had been holding hostages from the club for nearly three hours. With 50 people murdered and over 50 more injured, the nightmare has only begun for many who were there, or who personally knew people at the club, or who, like myself, read about this horrific event through various media channels on Sunday morning.

When faced with acts of such brutality, people often turn to the media – or, more often these days, social media – to make some sense of what strikes us as senseless violence. Over the past few years I have designed and taught a course on Theorizing Religion and Violence. Although we deal with various aspects of violence, a central topic is religious terrorism (largely working through the theoretical contributions by Mark Juergensmeyer, Bruce Lincoln, and William Cavanaugh among others). The first time I taught this course, the Boston Marathon Bombing occurred. That bombing became data for my student to theorize, almost as a type of grief processing. One thing I hate about this course is that whenever I go to the news I keep finding fresh data for the course. It can be depressing to teach a course where we study how and why people murder other people.

Like with Boston, the Newtown shooting, the Aurora shooting, or the San Bernardino shooting, this weekend’s Orlando shooting evokes a series of scripts. What follows is a brief reflection that originally arose from a post I made on Facebook in response to a former colleague’s concern that, by being described as a terrorist attack in the media, the gay and Latino aspects of the Orlando shooting (though certainly mentioned in news outlets) have been obscured.  His comment got me wondering about how scripts function to direct our attention away from and toward certain arenas of public concern; specifically, in how such scripts tap symbolic or social capital for ideological and moral ends. Such discursive (re-)directing often obscures the complexity of such acts (and the reception of such acts by us, the viewer) in order to contain and control chaos – and thus transform such “chaos” into “events” that we can explain and process in moments of anger, grief, and shock.

As a scholar attempting to better explain the world around me – i.e., to “make sense” of the power dynamics and processes of reality-making that are at play within moments of violence (including those moments labeled “religious” violence) – I think that a more useful analytical model would be to explore what I’m calling intersectional violence (I don’t know if anyone else has used this terminology, but I hope it is useful in guiding our theorization of such acts).

We talk about intersectionality of identity in other areas of analysis, challenging the homogeneous identities that typify certain discussions of diversity or identity, especially such homogeneous treatments of identity prior to the 1980s. Today we are accustom to talking about the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, age, and sexual orientation (among other aspects of identity, including religion). But I think that this model is helpful for discussing what we could call intersectional violence. Often the “narratives” evoked for addressing moments of violence flatten identity, rendering the acts (and motives, etc.) to a singular explanatory framework. Certain narratives arise when a shooting or bombing occurs, at least within the North American context(s). Three of the most prominent ones that I’ve observed are: (1) this was a foreign terrorist attack (thus, the “Other” – often a Muslim from the Middle East – intrudes into “our” civilized society and their “barbarity” needs to be repelled), (2) this was done by a domestic terrorist (evoking images of Timothy McVeigh and the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building; here the narrative situates the attacker(s) as an internal “Other” bent on destroying the progressive and pluralist advances of “our” society due to anti-government racism); and (3) the mentally ill narrative (such as the shooters at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Aurora theater, who are presented as pathological and thus not “us” but an aberration in society). These narratives tend to flatten the identity of the attacker/shooter, reducing the horrific event to a singular characteristic or set of narrative characterizations.

Such flattening, of course, has a functional role; i.e., it contains the violence, reaffirms social stability, and directs discussion/debate (the “now what?” question). Violence (and especially “religious” violence) is disruptive. It is often designed to be disruptive, to shatter perspectives of safety, orderliness, and (perhaps most importantly) cultural and moral superiority. Mark Juergensmeyer (in his Terror in the Mind of God [3rd ed.; Univ. of California Press, 2003]) has documented such disruptive moments in regard to two audiences: primary impact (those at the site of the attack as well as first responders; for Orlando this would include those in the club and then the police and medics who responded to the shooting) and secondary impact (those, like myself, who heard about the attack through media outlets). Sometimes members of a group committing such acts of violence are the main audience (what Juergensmeyer calls “silent terror”, when no group takes public credit for an attack but instead uses the attack to reinforce intra-group adherence to the leadership by reinforcing the ideology or worldview of the group).

Responses to violent acts, however, are also coded. But instead of functioning to disrupt, responses often are designed to reestablish order. Narratives help people to grasp the horror they are facing, to “make sense of it” and then to “effectively” respond to that horror. Narratives, therefore, contain and thus control acts of violence. Furthermore, whatever narrative is utilized will direct further debates and discussions (e.g., do we now engage in a debate over gun control, or international military action, or mental health reform, or systemic racism?). Even our political and social disagreements are bounded by a shared conceptual set of parameters (what might be called “place” by cultural geographers). In a sense, such containment offers us comfort and security. And the most effective way to offer such containment is to reduce the motives, acts, and responses to a limited, flattened set of identity components.

But such flattening also obscures the complexity and nuance of such acts. This shooting, based on what I’ve read online, seems to intersect various narrative options. Although some of this intersectional diversity is being raised in the media, often what we are seeing is less an acknowledgement of intersectionality and more a set of contending identities and identity politics from which to select for further discursive engagement.

An article in the Washington Post, for example, effectively engages various scripts no less in its very title, “Gunman in Orlando pledged allegiance to ISIS; at least 50 killed in shooting rampage at gay club” (by Hayley Tsukayama, Adam Goldman, Jerry Markon and Mark Berman) (June 12, 2016). Here we find the juxtaposition of Islamic terrorism with hate crimes against the LGBTQ community. Other aspects of identity arise in the article itself, such as the Latino-themed night at the club, domestic violence (reported by the shooter’s ex-wife, who also claims that he had not been overly religious) (perhaps evoking pathological scripts?), and the legal purchase of firearms by the shooter (with an extended discussion of the weapons). The shooter’s “motive” is left nebulous in the article, allowing various scripts to arise and contend with each other. This presentation is less a matter of intersectionality and more of an à la carte offering for narrative consumption.

Let’s look at some of the elements involved in the Orlando shooting. The shooter allegedly made a 911 call claiming allegiance to ISIS. As reported in the Post:

The gunman, identified as 29-year-old Omar Mateen, made a 911 call on Sunday identifying himself and declared allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State, according to U.S. law enforcement officials who asked not to be identified to discuss the ongoing investigation. Mateen, whose family is from Afghanistan, also cited the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon during that call. Officials said the call was made during the attack.

The article goes on to compare Omar Mateen with Tamerlan Tsarnaev of the Boston bombing, raising questions as to whether this fits the foreign or domestic terrorism script (note the mention of Afghanistan). In some news coverage, the Orlando shooting was praised by but not claimed by ISIS (e.g., according to CNN’s correspondents  Ralph Ellis, Ashley Fantz, Faith Karimi and Eliott C. McLaughlin, “Orlando shooting: 50 killed, shooter pledged ISIS allegiance”; June 12, 2016: “There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack on jihadi forums, but ISIS sympathizers have reacted by praising the attack on pro-Islamic State forums”), whereas in the Post the Islamic State-linked Amaq News Agency is reported to have claimed Mateen’s attack as one of their operations or at least by someone that they claim as one of their own (i.e., it “was carried out by an Islamic State fighter”) (though the connection is still being investigated by federal law enforcement).

From the American side of a geopolitical/religious conflict (Cavanaugh’s Myth of Religious Violence [OUP, 2009] comes readily to mind!), the threat of international terror becomes both a mobilizing and morally justifying script. Note, for example, the comments by Hillary Clinton reported in the Globe and Mail (“50 dead in Orlando shooting; Obama calls attack ‘terrorism’” by Joanna Slater and Jana G. Pruden; June 12, 2016):

Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, released a statement calling to redouble efforts to defend the country, including by working with allies to go after international terror groups and countering recruitment attempts. She also called to keep guns out of the hands of “terrorists and violent criminals,” and expressed solidarity with the LGBT community.

“Hate has absolutely no place in America,” she wrote.

The symbolic capital of such an attack is being “cashed in” in various ways by social actors that see potential value in this event for furthering their own ideological interests.

The location was also a gay bar with a strong Latino-friendly atmosphere. Here we find an intersection of gay rights and ethnic identity, though the article in the Post does not go far in exploring how gay rights and Latino ethnicity intersect the Islamic connection. Instead, we find here and elsewhere a strong evocation of a “hate crime” script, situating the violence within debates over gay rights and racism in America. Although the Post raises such concerns by comparing the Orlando shooting with the arrest of “a heavily-armed man” in Los Angeles in the shadow of preparation for the Pride Parade, perhaps it is the coverage by the grassroots media outlet, Remezcla, that we find a far more extensive utilization of the “hate crime” script (intersecting race and sexual orientation) in an article entitled, “Worst Mass Shooting in US History Takes Place at Orlando Gay Club on Latino-Themed Night” by Yara Simón (June 12, 2016). Simón writes:

… Pulse describes itself as “not just another gay club,” and providing a safe space for the LGBTQ Latino community is proof of that.

Amidst speculation that Mateen was motivated by Islamic extremism and renewed conversations about gun control, the media has failed to report that this attack targeted LGBTQ communities of color. A 2012 report on hate violence against the gay community found that LGBTQ people of color were 1.82 times more likely to experience physical violence. In 2012, 73.1 percent of anti-LGBTQ homicide victims were people of color – with black/African Americans accounting for 54 percent and Latinos for 15 percent, according to Colorlines.

Former Pulse dancer Marco Di’Costa told the Miami Herald that the club attracted people of all backgrounds, and that Saturday’s Latin nights often drew many Latinos.

Many in the Latino community are speaking out about the lack of attention being given to violence against LGBTQ communities of color, and at the same time, they are striking down Islamophobia.

Similarly, another account was reported, for instance by NBC News, highlighting Mateen’s homophobic attitude: “The father said his son got angry when he saw two men kissing in Miami a couple of months ago and thought that might be related to the shooting” (“Orlando Nightclub Shooting: Mass Casualties After Gunman Opens Fire in Gay Club,” by Matthew Grimson, David Wyllie and Elisha Fieldstadt; June 12, 2016). And the Globe and Mail coverage juxtaposes Clinton’s call for international defense with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s focus on the LGBTQ community:

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a statement expressing shock and sadness.

“We stand in solidarity with Orlando and the LGBTQ2 community,” the statement read. “We grieve with our friends in the United States and Florida, and offer any assistance we can provide.”

Vigils were being planned across the country.

Here the scripts collide (or conflate) in order to raise awareness of what is viewed as an underappreciated aspect of the shooting; i.e., that this was an act of homonegativity or homophobia and racism. The effort to distance or even dismiss the Islamic connection strikes me as a rhetorical attempt to (re-)direct attention back to the Latino gay community impacted by the shooting. The issues and subsequent debates would be very different than those taken by a “Muslim extremist” or “foreign terrorist” narrative. Again, the symbolic capital is being claimed for a specific set of concerns.

The shooter is also presented in various media outlets as a lone shooter. In part such a qualification offers reassurance that the crisis is over. As the Post puts it, “…officials had not found any indications of outside help or another suspect, and added that they were confident there were no additional threats.” Such a statement by law enforcement certainly goes far to contain and reestablish a sense of safety for the public. It also opens up the incident for other scripting, such as the mental illness and gun control scripts. Again, the Post offers a helpful illustration when it presents claims of domestic violence:

Mateen’s ex-wife said in an interview Sunday that he beat her repeatedly during their brief marriage, and said that Mateen, who was Muslim, was not very religious and gave no indications that he was devoted to radical Islam.

This section of the article is immediately followed by a discussion of the guns used in the shooting, quoting Orlando Police Chief John Mina and Trevor Velinor of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The handgun, AR-15 assault rifle, and extra rounds were all legally obtained. By juxtaposing accusations of domestic violence with legally acquired weapons inevitably opens the door for a debate over mental illness and gun control. Within such a narrative, Mateen fits into a “pathological script” (often the lone shooter is presented as mentally ill – in the case of Mateen, the accusation of spousal abuse reinforces such a view, as he is presented as a violent and unstable individual – and thus an aberration in society rather than a representative of a given demographic or ideological group). An even more pointed utilization of the pathological script was published by ABC News under the article entitled, “Orlando Shooter’s Ex-Wife: ‘This Was a Sick Person’” (by Carol McKinley and Sabina Ghebremedhin; June 12, 2016):

The ex-wife of Orlando shooter Omar Mateen said today she was shocked by her former husband’s attack, but she recognized something deeply wrong with him years ago.

“He would be perfectly normal and happy, joking, laughing one minute — the next minute his temper… his body would just [go] totally the opposite,” Sitora Yusufiy, 27, told ABC News. “Anger, emotionally violent and that later evolved into abuse, to beating.

“After being abused and after trying to do that and see the good in him, I can honestly say this is a sick person. This was a sick person that was really confused and went crazy,” she said.

Pathological scripts are useful. They allow us to create distance between social actors who commit horrific acts of violence from “the rest of us”. Social stability is reaffirmed. Mateen and others like him are not the norm (most people are not “crazy”) and therefore our sense of safety is reaffirmed (where the secondary impact of such an incident shatters any sense of safety; cf. Juergenmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, 120-21, 123, and esp.132). Acts of violence are often empowering for those doing or affirming such violence and disempowering for those targeted by that violence (either through primary or secondary impact) (see, again, Juergensmeyer, especially his discussion of performative violence and “warrior’s power”; chapters 7 and 11). By presenting Mateen as mentally ill, the sense of disempowerment through chaos is reversed or at least countered. Mateen was not “us” and he’s not typical of the people we walk past on the street each day. We can continue, therefore, to live our lives in the midst of such horror. Symbolic capital is again being directed toward reestablishing social stability.

A further “counter-script” that I’ve seen arise in a tweet by Lauren Chief Elk. I actually ran across this tweet on a colleague’s Facebook page, who added the comment, “Only certain pasts count as legitimate….” Here is the tweet:

Tweet Image

By evoking the Wounded Knee Massacre, where about 300 Lakota natives were killed by American troops in South Dakota on December 29, 1890, and thereby redacting the Associated Press statement, Lauren Chief Elk (re-)directs an emerging gun control debate toward other, historical and colonial conflicts that have recently gained increased public attention in North America (e.g., the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report).

Here the symbolic capital of the Orlando shooting allows us to raise questions over whose history has legitimacy, what legacy has colonialism given (even in a postcolonial era, or perhaps due to a postcolonial era) for the further empowerment of those benefiting from colonial domination and genocide. What is countered in this particular counter-script is not the motivation of the Orlando shooter, but rather the discursive location of that shooting within broader American identity politics and memory. This is an important critique, as it highlights for us how we use trajectories and genealogies to shape various violent “happenings” into “events” that fit our own need for significance, understanding, and social stability. When we analyze how a violent incident is located (e.g., set alongside other civilian mass shootings, hate crimes, international terrorist attacks, wars between nations and empires, etc.) we may gain insights into the values that are being attached to that event through narrative association. Furthermore, we gain a glimpse into what is obscured by such acts of location. The “place” (to evoke cultural geography once again) where we locate such events is important for seeing the places not being created or even being dismantled in the process. Who gains and who loses in such discursive moves? And when we look at Lauren Chief Elk’s tweet, we can ask what new types of containment are being promoted over against other acts of containment?

Each of these scripts (and likely any others that we may discern) may convey important facts. I’m not contesting the factuality of these narratives. Rather, what I am suggesting is that we could engage in a more fruitful analysis of the violence that erupted in Orlando (and elsewhere), thereby giving us greater insights into the power dynamics at play not only by such people as Omar Mateen, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Adam Lanza, James Eagan Holmes, Syed Rizwan Farook, and Tashfeen Malik (i.e., as a way to explain the acts of violence), but also within the responses to such violence by media outlets, social media exchanges, and political and religious figures (as part of the secondary impact and counters to secondary impact). Intersectionality may offer an important key to such analysis.

Intersectionality is one of the most significant contributions that feminist theory has made to the social sciences over the past thirty years. Leslie McCall offers a succinct definition of intersectionality: “… the relationships among multiple dimensions and modalities of social relations and subject formations” (McCall, “The Complexity of Intersectionality,” Signs 30.3 [2005]: 1771-1800, see 1771). Rather than reducing identity to flat surfaces, where one modality of existence is essentialized and thereby rendered normative for defining a give social actor or set of actors, intersectionality highlights the relationship and power interactions of various modalities of existence. In the 1980s and ‘90s, such insights were applied to the generic category “Woman”, as if all women could be subsumed under the same classification without considering the role of race, ethnicity, economic status, geographic location, age, and religious or other ideological outlooks. McCall offers a typology of three methodological approaches in intersectonal studies that stress complexity over simplicity:

(1) anticategorical complexity (a rejection of fixed categories because, “[s]ocial life is considered too irreducibly complex—overflowing with multiple and fluid determinations of both subjects and structures—to make fixed categories anything but simplifying social fictions that produce inequalities in the process of producing differences”; p. 1773);

(2) intercategorical complexity (“requires that scholars provisionally adopt existing analytical categories to document relationships of inequality among social groups and changing configurations of inequality along multiple and conflicting dimensions”; p. 1773);

and (3) intracategorical complexity (“falls conceptually in the middle of the continuum between the first approach, which rejects categories, and the third approach, which uses them strategically.… tend to focus on particular social groups at neglected points of intersection … in order to reveal the complexity of lived experience within such groups.”; pp. 1773-74).

Regardless of the typology (or a combination of these types) adopted, intersectional analysis (in my opinon) highlights the following:

■ A recognition that bounded categories obscure rather than elucidate complex social relations.

■ Social actors (individuals) and sets of social actors (groups) carry various identity markers that affect identity and social interaction.

■ Identity markers intersect and affect each other, allowing certain identities to emerge over others within a wide range of hybrid products called “the self”.

■ Social conditions affect the suppression, conflation, emergence, and modification of identity markers so as to respond to such conditions (real or imagined). Conditions are the “triggers” for identity formation and utilization.

■ Social or symbolic capital is generated and “cashed in” through alignments of identity markers. Along with such an exchange, power dynamics are always at play.

■ Constricting or expanding complexity are both acts of empowerment and/or disempowerment for various social actors within moments of interaction.

To apply this model of intersectionality to violence, including of course religious violence, would lead us to recognize and explore some of the dynamics being played out within initial reactions to the Orlando shooting. We should ask how the various scripts “fit” together and, perhaps  just as important, how do these scripts contest each other? The focus of such an analysis is not just on the shooter and his motivations or the influences that brought him to commit such a horrific act. Intersectionality certainly comes into play here, but it also plays a role in our analysis of the “secondary impact” scripting and counter-scripting that we see (and even participate in) through news outlets, political statements, online social forums, and in general conversations over this shooting. We’ll be seeing intersectional moves of constriction and expanding complexity being played out in the weeks ahead. Yet in looking at the Orlando shooting as intersectional violence, we also need to recognize the hybridity of such markers. When I first read the news Sunday morning, I was struck by two major elements: Islamic “terror” and the anti-LGBTQ factor. Later, other things came to my attention, notably the Latino factor (= ethnicity) and the domestic factor (= mental health).

The questions that came to mind were: Does the affirmation by ISIS (or representatives of ISIS) inform the homonegative position (is this a specific instance of the intra-Muslim debate over gay rights; in this instance being played out through violence against the LGBTQ community)? Does the location of a dance club play a role (perhaps evoking Lincoln’s distinction of maximalist and minimalist views of religion vis-à-vis secularization and moral debates; see Lincoln, Holy Terrors [Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003], especially 3-5, 8-15)? Are domestic and foreign violence being intersected or contending? What memories are evoked and ignored within national identity and colonial legacy? Does “religion” intersect narratives of pathology or mental illness? And how might colonialism intersect these various other questions?

This kind of analysis is what I am calling “intersectional violence” (which I hope is helpful as a label for theorizing this and similar events). When I enter the classroom again to teach Theories in the Study of Religion, I will have to ask my students (and myself!) to look at how violence plays out on various levels, levels that connect, inform, conflict, and (mis-/re-)direct discourses of identity, morality, religion, and violence. I will want to push away from narrative flattening, except as one of the rhetorical moves played out by social actors.

So I think that we could more effectively make sense of this horrific shooting if we avoid narrative flattening and instead begin discussing intersectional violence.


Phil Picture 2016 1Philip 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, including co-editor with Bryan Rennie of Religion, Terror and Violence: Religious Studies Perspectives (Routledge, 2008).

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Aesthetics and the Analytical Study of Religion SORAAAD 2016 Friday, November 18, San Antonio, Texas


by Jens Kreinath, Ipsita Chatterjea and the SORAAAD workshop

The coherence without apparent intention and the unity without an immediately visible unifying principle of all the cultural realities that are informed by a quasi-natural logic … are the product of the age-old application of the same schemes of action and perception. (Bourdieu 1990: 13)

Taste classifies, and it classes the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar in which their position in the objective classification is expressed or betrayed. (Bourdieu 1984: 6)

I … cannot directly perceive a worshipper’s experience of beauty, nor can he describe the actual feeling of beauty to me, but we can talk about the things that makes something beautiful for him. In addition, as a participant observer, I myself can experience something as beautiful and compare notes, as it were, with him about what made it beautiful; I can then use ethnographic writing to try to transmit not only the interpretive worldview but also my own grasp of that beauty to the reader. (McRoberts 2004: 200)

In its sixth year, SORAAAD, in partnership with the German Arbeitskreis Religionsästhetik, will focus on aesthetics as an analytical concept – and the deployment of sensory data – in the study of religion. We do so with two valences in mind. First, we ask: More than thirty years after Bourdieu’s statements on schemes of action and perception, and on taste as a classifier of social subjects, how does aesthetics function as an artifact of power and social designation? Second, in keeping with McRoberts’ assertion that aesthetics and sensation need to figure into our accountings of religious experiences: How do we deploy aesthetics as a valance of research design on religion? How do we broaden the capacity of social scientists to observe, analyze, and represent human sensation? This year, Birgit Meyer, Alexandra Greiser, Jason Bivins, Josef Sorrett, Annette Wilke, David Feltmate, Deborah Green, Michael Houseman and Jens Kreinath will address aesthetics as both data and lens for the study of: religious pluralism and conflict, race and sexuality, ritual, dance, sound, jazz, animation, and media.

Centering on the scholarly direction of the Arbeitskreis Religionsästhetik, the 2016 SORAAAD Workshop presupposes a fundamentally revised understanding of aesthetics, which is not confined to a philosophy of art or an elite ideology of beauty, but is rather conceptualized in holistic terms by referring to the Greek notion of aesthesis or sensory perception (Cancik & Mohr 1988). While coming to terms with the politics and cultural impacts of the legacy of aesthetics in various turns in the study of religion, the aesthetic approach to religion engages with semiotic and sensuous proposals and challenges theories of human agency and perception (Taussig 1992; Gell 1998). Elaborating on the methodologies and results of different disciplines, including literary studies, mimetic theory, and art history (Iser 1993; Gebauer & Wulf 1996; Belting 2003), it offers a more systematic, comprehensive, and inclusive framework for studying how religion is based on the sensory design of the human body and how different religions cultivate and discipline the ways in which humans perceive, evaluate, and make sense of their life-worlds. The scholars presenting at the workshop will explore: the history and theory of the aesthetics of religion; the study of sound and sight in the aesthetics of religion; aesthetic study of genres in transmission and commemoration of religious traditions; somatic approaches to the aesthetics of ritual efficacy; and media, emotion, and imagination in the aesthetics of religion.

In the study of religion, a field still occupied with texts and centered on logocentrisms, this workshop asks how we can forge a more holistic approach to the aesthetics of religion that could systematically integrate aesthetic notation in ethnography, the collection of sensual data in structured interviews, visual analysis in sensuous scholarship, and perceptions of religious experiences mediated through discourse analysis. How can instances of reproducible visual, sonic, or even gustatory data sets allow us to develop parameters for critical analysis through comparison and contrast? How is aesthetic creation, imposition, and contestation meaningful for those we study?

Participants and panelists in this year’s workshop will explore questions crucial both to their areas of specialization, corollary fields, and the study of religion as an analytical discipline. We will discuss the understandings of aesthetics we deploy in designing research as well as at the impacts of such depictions, representations, and classifications.

“Aesthetics and the Analytical Study of Religion,” based around exemplary case studies, will be interest to scholars who already enact social science and critical humanities research methodologies; to those who want to develop techniques to denaturalize aesthetics, or open up their work to recognizing, observing and communicating aesthetics components of the people, settings, and elements of their research; and to anyone who wants to rethink how aesthetics materialize, function, and are used to normalize specific power structures. The workshop will be particularly relevant for graduate students and scholars working in the following areas of research: history of religion, comparative religion, anthropology of religion, l’histoire des mentalités, conceptual history or historical semantics, art history, anthropology of the senses, ritual studies, spatial studies, museum studies, and gender studies.

Through this interactive work, we want to build bridges between the analytical study of religion and the aesthetics of religion. Re-energizing long standing concerns about research design, we aim to join the analysis of sensory data with the sorts of questions the workshop has asked in years past with respect to canon, comparison, norms and values.

The SORAAAD Workshop Committee David Walker, William Arnal, Jens Kreinath, Ipsita Chatterjea Rebecca Raphael, Randall Styers, Emma Wasserman and Ed Silver.

The SORAAAD workshop is underwritten by the University of Regina Department of Religious Studies. We thank William Arnal, Head of Department, for his and his Department’s support since 2014.

SORAAAD’s committee would like to thank Matt Sheedy and The Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog for their ongoing support of the workshop.

Registration Opens Monday June 15, 2016. Please send an email to Place “registration” in the subject line, and include your name, indication of rank (independent scholar, graduate student, professor etc.) in the body of the email.

Registration is free.

Registration Limit: 50

SORAAAD is on Social Media

As some of the suggested readings are posted on this network by the authors, we encourage all participants, panelists and those interested in the topic to use and to list Study of Religion as an Analytical Discipline as a research interest.

This announcement is available as a PDF, all updates including the final program will posted to the same URL. We recommend downloading the PDF for smart phones and tablets.

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Ignorance strip’t bare: Rodney Stark and triumphalist historiography

ConFrieze7by Richard K. Payne

I remember being struck many years ago by the question underlying Joseph Needham’s massive project Science and Civilization in China: Why did China not follow the same line of progress in the development of science that the West had? Or, as he expressed it in his Conway lecture of 1947 “the question of why modern science and technology developed in Europe and not in Asia” (“Science and Society in Ancient China,” London: Watts and Co., 1947; p. 5). This question builds on the intellectual presumptions deriving from Comte’s three stages of socio-intellectual development and Hegel’s progressivist system of religious history. The fundamental presumption is that there is a single linear course of progressive development, which is evident in the history of Europe and America. That linear development is taken as the norm to which all societies are expected to adhere, and any divergence then is the exception requiring explanation.

In a critique Robert Wardy has summarized this historiographic preconception, noting that what dominates in the study of Chinese philosophy

is the perceived contrast with the West. Sometimes this takes the form of a trial, the Chinese being seen to have diverged from—almost inevitably to have fallen grievously short of—some Western achievement, and the question then is, why so? But such studies, whether they plead for the defence or for the prosecution, always impose investigative patterns which Chinese material is made to fit, usually by distortion, at best by omission (Robert Wardy, Aristotle in China: Language, Categories and Translation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000: pp. 1–2).

The idea of a single developmental sequence for all societies was the basis of a field of “modenization studies,” which while prominent in the 1960s and 70s, was severely critiqued for not considering the unique historicality of each society, as well as for overlooking the role of individual agency. These and other critiques were part of the intellectual background that led to the valorization of multiculturalism and religious pluralism.

It would seem, however, that the Hegelian conception of monolinear social development remains strong in triumphalist religious historiography—perhaps returning to favor not only as a consequence of neo-liberal ideas of globalization, but also of the feeling that Euro-American culture is under attack. The idea of a monolinear progressive history leading to the institutions of modern Western society—science and capitalism, democracy and reason—compared to which other societies only fall short has apparently been given new life in an atmosphere in which the other, the outsider is a source of fear and needs to be explained not just as different, but as inherently inferior. In the hands of Rodney Stark, the unique characteristic that has led to the supremacy of Western society, its triumph over others, is Christianity.

Stark opens his Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), one of a series of related expositions, by saying that the work

explores a series of developments in which reason won the day, giving unique shape to Western culture and institutions. The most important of these victories occurred within Christianity. While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guide to religious truth (p. x).

Noting that this emphasis on reason is inherited from Greek philosophy, he then simplistically distinguishes Greek philosophy from Greek religions, saying of these latter that they

remained typical mystery cults, in which ambiguity and logical contradictions were taken as hallmarks of sacred origins. Similar assumptions concerning the fundamental inexplicability of the gods and the intellectual superiority of introspection dominated all of the other major world religions (ibid.)

In the framework then of a triumphalist history in which Christianity led Western societies to their present status as a pinnacle of cultural development we find it supported by generalities about the failings of “all of the other major world religions.” In addition to noting the underlying historiographic conception that modern Western society represents the norm against which others are to be measured and found wanting, we should also consider two aspects of the claims just cited, which are given in support of the preeminent role of Christianity in that development. First, what kind of claim is being made and second whether it is true.

I have found it useful to distinguish generalities, which are ungrounded general statements, from generalizations, which have evidentiary basis. The former can often be identified by being prefaced (either explicitly or implicitly) by the phrase: Everybody knows that…. A relatively trivial example would be “Everybody knows Buddhists are vegetarians.” In contrast a generalization would be “Most Buddhists seem to be vegetarians, at least all the ones I know.” In the latter we are told the sample—“the ones I know”—that forms the basis for the generalization.

Probability theory usually quantifies from evidence to generalization, being more specific. “I’ve met 23 Buddhists, and they are all vegetarians, so it seems highly probable that most Buddhists are vegetarians.” This can also allow for predictions—the next Buddhist I meet will probably be a vegetarian. Or if 15 out of 20 Buddhists have been vegetarians, then there is a 75% chance the next one will be too.

Stark’s claims as quoted above are not only generalities, but are universals–they claim something to be true of all members of some set. There is a trivial sense in which most universal claims are false, which is the existence of counter-examples. Anyone who thought that all Buddhists are vegetarians, upon meeting one who wasn’t would know that the claim is false, and that the category “Buddhist” requires some reconsideration. Although, as with other instances in religious studies scholarship, there is the possibility of saying that the non-vegetarian is not really a Buddhist after all. One can thereby preserve one’s preconcieved categories, and remain undisturbed by evidence.

Less trivially, a generality like Stark’s that only Christianity embraced reason as the “primary guide to religious truth” is falsified by considering two alternative constructions of religious history. While rational theology has certainly had an important historical role in the history of Christian thought, and may have contributed in some ways to the character of modern Euro-American society, it is not the only form of understanding religious truth valorized in the history of Christian thought. The rich tradition of Christian mysticism claims an alternative approach to religious truth, while dogmatism insists on the acceptance of some particular interpretation without critical reflection.

The second is the centrality of logic and sensory evidence in much of the Buddhist tradition. While there are some figures who reduce the number of reliable sources of belief to just those two, even those who add the source of authority—of either a text or a teacher—generally include those two as evaluative criteria of the claims of an authority. Other instances could no doubt be given for other traditions as well. Another dimension of the relation between reason and religion is the arbitrary dichotomizing of the example that Stark himself gives—the distinction between Greek philosophy as rational and Greek religion as “typical mystery cults.” This only works on the basis of an artificial distinction, one at best supported by circular reasoning: “If adherents promoted reason, then it was philosophy; if they didn’t, then it was a mystery cult. So, Greek philosophy is rational, and Greek religion a collection of mystery cults.”

Stark’s claims evidence a profound ignorance of other traditions—in the literal sense of ignoring them. His universal generalities are deployed simply for rhetorical rather than informative ends. They resonate with popular prejudices, both positive toward Euro-American culture and negative toward the religion of the feared other. They prepare the reader’s expectations in such a fashion as to accept the claims of the central role of rational Christian theology in the rise of modern Euro-American civilization. As the unique pinnacle of human achievement and norm for a monolinear conception of societal development, Euro-American Chrisitian culture sets the standard in comparison to which any other society necessarily fails. This is, in other words, triumphalist propaganda, the argument for which is based on and therefore promotes ignorance of other religious traditions.

Richard K. Payne is Dean and Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley. The IBS is affiliated with both the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, and Ryukoku University, Kyoto.

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So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: James Dennis LoRusso


In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link

by James Dennis LoRusso

No. I am neither a priest nor have I ever considered entering some form of professional ministry. In fact, most of my friends and family will probably tell you that I am wholly irreligious. While I did suffer from a few sporadic bouts of “spiritual seeking” during my twenties, the closest I ever came to taking religion “seriously” was a fleeting fascination with monasticism after a high school field trip to Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Georgia when I was fourteen. Yet, rather than a devotion to Catholic teaching or belief, the holy orders likely appealed to me because it suited my introverted disposition and seemed a feasible escape route from an awkward adolescence. It was never a serious consideration and within a few days, I had put the idea to rest.

No. I am not a priest, but I do find religion a topic of inquiry worthy of pursuit professionally. Yet, like many others, I am routinely confused with priests, ministers, theologians, or some other properly “religious” pursuit. As I recall, these experiences began almost immediately upon my entry to graduate school. Coworkers, extended family, or just about anyone inquiring about my line of work could threaten with some iteration of “Oh, are you planning on entering the ministry?”

The question came from faces that expressed a number of reactions, from shock and bewilderment to genuine curiosity and excitement. However, I have to admit that during these early moments of my graduate studies I was neither surprised nor troubled by the question. It was a sensible mistake that anyone could make, including myself. After all, at some point in our lives we were all outsiders who somehow came to embrace our profession. Because I was an undergraduate history major, my only exposure to religious studies was the single course on “Philosophy of Religion” in which I enrolled during my senior year, and several years of life and work would intervene between this singular experience and my ultimate decision to pursue an advanced degree in the field. My point is that, upon entering graduate school, even I was somewhat unsure about the assumptions of the profession. Perhaps I still am.

Whereas I once thought little about these moments of misrecognition, they have come to play an increasingly important role practically. For instance, I have developed and experimented with numerous strategies for responding to the question, and even avoiding it altogether. When conducting fieldwork with evangelical business people, I find that overtly introducing myself as a “secular historian of American religion” leaves little room for ambiguity, even if the label exclusively (and incorrectly) associates me with the discipline of history. During other encounters with outsiders, I might even refer to myself with the utterly sanitized moniker of “researcher,” through which I might circumvent the disciplinary discussion completely and simply describe the general focus of my “research.” Such tactical avoidance helps me to deal with the discomfort I experience with the religious question.

The fact is that, as Matthew Baldwin so aptly noted, the academic study of religion remains relatively obscure and it should not surprise us that people regularly confuse us with our data. Yet it is also true that our exchanges with outsiders are more diverse. I can recall numerous instances where my interlocutors never broached the religious question or indicated they mistook me for a theologian. Occasionally, outsiders will even correct me from assuming that they don’t understand the distinction.

Given the wide range of actual experience that I suspect we have as scholars and students of religion, these misrecognitions reveal more than the assumptions of outsiders (although I do find it interesting how, almost exclusively in my anecdotal experience, “religion” seems to function as a signifier for “Christian” forms of religious leadership—minister, pastor, priest, theologian, etc.). It also exposes how we imagine ourselves and contours of our professional identity. Certainly, most of us have heard of or have read the mythic history of our intellectual origins. In the nineteenth century, so the story goes, Max Müller advocated for a religionswissenschaft, a proper “science of religion,” taking the first steps towards the field of Religious Studies. Notably, at least according to the myth, it was his break-away from theology that made Mueller’s contribution so novel, and consequently (and this is the mythic part) continues to justify the academic study of religion today. (I like Eric Sharpe’s somewhat dated but effective rendering of the tale in Comparative Religion: A History)

Where we locate this line informs how we imagine our field. Some of us consider even the whiff of normativity, the hint of assumed privilege, or implied ethical assessment to be a deviation into the theological and a transgression of our professional boundaries. Others of us view religious authorities as distinct, yet legitimate conversation partners. Regardless of where you might fall on this spectrum, both extremes nonetheless rely on the persistence of an arbitrary boundary between “scholar” and “priest.”

As I stated above, these misrecognitions initially troubled me little, but now I have undergone socialization into a community that leans on these differences. Although it may aspire to a world where outsiders no longer think of us as religious, I suspect we need these opportunities (such as this series of blog posts), not to educate but to reinforce the integrity, from time to time, of who we are. Today, when an outsider remarks, “so, you’re not a priest,” I have learned to experience discomfort, to practice surprise, and offer a rehearsed response because these actions perform necessary identity work. In the end, the “priest” question demonstrates how the distinction between theology and religious studies is more than a vestige of our genesis as a field; it remains integral to our very possibility.

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