Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power: An Interview with Donovan O. Schaefer, Part 2


The following is an interview with Donovan O. Schaefer based on his new book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power (2015), with Duke University Press. An excerpt from the book can be found here. Part one of this interview can be found here.

Matt Sheedy: Following your introduction and your first chapter, entitled “Religion, Language, Affect,” you divide the rest of the book up into 3 main categories or concepts—intransigence, compulsion, and accident—with a theoretical chapter on each followed by a case study. While there is much to discuss here (too much for an interview!), could you say something about these concepts and why you’ve found them useful in theorizing religious affects?

Donovan O. Schaefer: I wanted to introduce affect theory to religion scholars (and other humanists) but in the process of writing realized that it couldn’t be captured in a single idea—it’s a conversation, not a solo line of critique. At the same time, I want the book to offer specific conceptual tools rather than review the available literature.

In brief, intransigence is about what it means to think affects as linked to durable, semistable features of embodied life. It brings affect theory into conversation with evolutionary biology to remap the “nature-nurture” problem and solve it in a new way, emphasizing that embodied life is always a hybrid system of quickly changing and slowly changing forces. This is why the book takes the contentious line that affect is structured, rather than structureless: the particular affective template that we exhibit is a feature of the slow-moving evolutionary trajectories that have produced our bodies (and will someday produce different bodies and different affective templates) plus the fast-moving personal-cultural histories of our own experience.

Compulsion is about what it means to think of affects as sovereign in embodied life. Rather than consciously choosing to do things, bodies are moved by tissues of affects pulling in different directions. Some models of power assume that affects can put a bit of spin on power and subtly redirect it, but ultimately, at the heart of every decision, is a sovereign, thinking subject. My take would be that affects are the substance of power. To change affects is to directly alter the configuration of power.

Accident means that in the wake of the affective turn, we need to rethink the way that we analyze the “rationality” of human or animal behavior, including religion. It’s an argument against two interrelated mistakes: the quasi-Marxist social-rhetorical approach to religion that sees it as a strategy of deception designed to mask sinister political or economic interests, and the adaptationist approach to evolutionary biology that assumes that every feature of human/animal embodied life must be “adaptive” within a survival economy. Both are wrong. When you shuffle affect theory and post-Darwinian evolutionary biology together, you end up at the realization that embodied life is deeply complicated, and assessing everything according to what is “rational” for a given situation doesn’t get at that complexity.

MS: In chapter two, you talk about how affect theory enables us to re-examine older phenomenological models of religion, concerned with things like emotion and transcendence, by placing “embodied affective potentials” in relation to systems of power. Here I was particularly intrigued by your discussion of Eve Sedgwick’s “pedagogy of Buddhism,” where she talks about her own engagement with Buddhist meditation as not merely “distorting or appropriative,” following post-colonial critique, but also, potentially, as a multidimensional form of universal cognitive transmission—as you put it, “a process of coalescence driven in part by a recognition between bodies that a particular bodily practice has meaning across cultural and historical contexts.” What implications do you see this having for the study of religion?

DOS: In a way, none. We already know that bodies are disciplined in ways that shape them as subjects and as far back as the early 1970s, Foucault was already emphasizing that these disciplinary regimes need not be linguistic. The prisoner in the panopticon isn’t being read to every day telling them that they are being watched, leaving them with a sedimentation of linguistic operations that rewrites their subjectivity. They experience supervision as a force that reshapes their embodied existence. I’d say the best way to explain that reshaping is with reference to affects. On the other hand, the humanities, because so much of our work is textual, has a slight “lean” effect towards thinking of disciplinary regimes as linguistic. I guess I see affect theory as another way of correcting that lean, calling on us to do the hard work of thinking about how bodies are disciplined in ways that can’t be represented in language.

Critics of the phenomenological tradition in religious studies are rightly wary of this emphasis on the pre-linguistic. But the affective approach doesn’t deliver us to either a depoliticized or a dehistoricized understanding of religion. Bodies are always historicized—they’re artifacts of evolutionary histories, and they are really only snapshots of an ongoing evolutionary process at the genomic level. Nonetheless, Sedgwick writes that we need to be wary of “reflexive antibiologism” in theory circles. (Touching Feeling¸101) This is where I think her attention to Buddhism is productive: are there ways that certain meditation practices might produce consistent effects across cultures—even without a discursive framing? Experiential structures embedded in bodies (among humans and other animals) aren’t necessarily washed out by cultural differences. A thing that you do to your body—a discipline, in Foucault’s vocabulary—can shape subjectivity in ways that will be common across time and space.

MS: In your concluding chapter, you write the following provocative statement: “Secularization is a hypothesis of which animal religion has no need.” Could you elaborate on what you mean here in relation to your overarching theoretical approach—i.e., theorizing animal religion through affect theory—and talk about how this statement differs from poststructuralist approaches to deconstructing the religion/secular binary, as well as what it might say in response to more sociological theories of secularization that are understood (partly or primarily) to indicate structural differentiations, such as formal and legal separations between state institutions from ecclesiastical authorities?

DOS: Poststructuralist critiques of secularization theory are about the way that the categories of “religion” and “secular” are created by drawing a circle around a set of human phenomena and defining them as separate. In the Protestant episteme, behaviors like law, community, and politics are stamped as properly secular, behaviors like belief and experience are stamped as properly religious. Subtract those labels and the world is just bodies doing stuff (though of course the labels become part of the world and reciprocally influence the behaviors they were imposed on). You could start over and come up with a different set of labels, which would mean different configurations of “religion” and “secularism.”

Affect theory goes a step further. Rather than just showing up the arbitrariness of secularism and religion as categories, it specifies the mechanism by which the public/private binary dissolves. The private domain of personal affects is projected in the public domain of political systems. Those affects run through bodies and coalesce into formations of power. As I write in the book, “the phenomenological is political.” Some bodies are disciplined in such a way that they can erect a sort of barrier between their public and private selves. But even that barrier is best understood as a sluice, not a dam. Any seemingly private experience forms the landscape of subjectivity that is ultimately the arbiter of public “reason.” My next project will take this further, showing how secularisms draw on affective landscapes that are tinged or shadowed by religious affects. The New Atheism, for example, strikes me as deeply apocalyptic—watch the closing images of Bill Maher’s Religulous if you want an example—and my sense is that the apocalyptic is ultimately an affective structure. I’m interested in the ways that this affective symmetry means that secularisms and religions end up mirroring each other at the level of politics even as they diverge at the level of belief—for instance, in the way that both New Atheists and right-wing evangelical Christians end up as deeply Islamophobic.

MS: Many thanks for sitting down with the Bulletin for this interview!

Donovan Schaefer is a departmental lecturer in science and religion in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford. His research looks at the relationship between religion, emotion, and power, with particular attention to approaches embedded in evolutionary biology and poststructuralist philosophy.

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Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power: An Interview with Donovan O. Schaefer, Part 1


The following is an interview with Donovan O. Schaefer based on his new book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power (2015), with Duke University Press. An excerpt from the book can be found here. Part two of this interview can be found here.

Matt Sheedy: You begin Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power with a brief anecdote by the famous primatologist Jane Goodall, where she recounts witnessing a group of chimpanzees begin to dance and engage in a series of displays in response to a large waterfall. You go on to note that for Goodall and other primatologists “we witness in animals … forms of behaviour that, in humans, get called religion, including complex forms of sociality, ritual, and responses to death.” This idea helps to frame your argument as one that seeks to ground the study of religion in animal behavior, where the role of emotion and/or affect becomes a critical tool in addition to theories of language, knowledge, and power. Could you say a little about how you came to develop this framework for studying religion?

Donovan O. Schaefer: Thanks, Matt. The book has heavy intellectual debts to pay to the affect theorists, postcolonial theorists, and scholars of religion who I brought into this conversation. Most of those debts are right on the surface in the index. But I think there are also some less visible debts, the two largest probably being to Donna Haraway and Michel Foucault. Haraway has the most effective account, still, of how humans, animals, and cultural formations like science, politics, and relationships converge on a single plane. The biological, the cultural, and the technological are a single polychromatic continuum. A lot of my background training was in continental philosophy, but I realized that most continental philosophical perspectives are simply not up to the task of thinking about animality. It’s not until Jacques Derrida’s The Animal that Therefore I Am was published in full in 2008 that the Darwinian hybrid dynamic—the swerving lines of continuity and divergence that are species—became a concern in that tradition. Haraway’s work pushes us to track down the flaws in theories of human exceptionalism, the view of humans as what Mary Midgley calls “a distinct, unassimilable pattern at odds with all else on this planet.” (The Ethical Primate, 6) That path ultimately leads back to Darwin and post-Darwinian evolutionary biology—a body of literature that Nietzsche had some passing acquaintance with but that much of the twentieth-century philosophical tradition ignored or wished away. Locating religion on the plane of continuity between humans and animals that Haraway and Darwin describe was the goal of this project.

MS: In your introductory chapter, you highlight the work of Jonathan Z. Smith as having a central influence in shifting the discipline from models that presented religion as an “ahistorical phenomenon” and “a transcendent source of meaning arriving beyond human circumstances,” to one that took seriously how the category “religion” has been constructed and classified historically (e.g., as a “private” affair) and how it operates within systems of power (e.g., in support of colonial power). While lauding Smith’s “linguistic-conceptual method” for helping to expose the “politics of how the word religion is used,” you argue that the model that he helped to pioneer runs the risk of falling prey to a “linguistic fallacy.” Could you elaborate on these ideas?

DOS: Smith is indispensable for overturning a particular narrative of religion that feeds directly into this complex of radical human exceptionalism. Sui generis religion in scholars like Mircea Eliade was possessed by the revenant of anti-Darwinian philosophers like Martin Heidegger who wanted to locate human uniqueness in the contemplation of sacred mystery. Smith is also an important antiracist thinker, putting forward a powerful repudiation of hierarchies of classification that dealt “reasonable” religion to some and “crazy” or “primitive” religion to the rest. Contemporary religious studies wouldn’t exist without his insight that the category of “religion” is an artifact of history that is different from time to time and place to place.

At the same time, Smith is committed to what he called in “The Devil in Mr Jones” the “faith of the Enlightenment.” (Imagining Religion, 110) I think there’s a way in which Smith has a tendency to see human beings as first and foremost thinking, language-using creatures. It’s not wrong to see language as part of the human world, but I think our models of power need to move beyond both reasoning beings and the notion that religion is a language-like system. I’m not sure Smith would disagree with that, but I think the reasoning, autonomous Kantian subject is a template that casts a long shadow over his work. From the perspective of affect theory, human beings aren’t subjects, but complex systems of forces, and my argument is that the analytics of power needs to track those forces in order to understand how religions and other formations of power work.

MS: Chapter one provides an overview of the development of affect theory, which you characterize as divided by Deleuzian and phenomenological streams. For those unfamiliar with affect theory, could you provide a little background and touch on why it is relevant to the study of religion?

DOS: Ann Cvetkovich in her book Depression (2012) has a great account of this. She leads off by pointing out that attention to affect has been going on in feminist, queer, and antiracist theory for decades, and to identify affect theory as new is an optical illusion—you’re just looking at something that was already there in a different way. There are a few different strands of affect theory, as you say, and they can be typologized in different ways, but the commonality of their approaches is in paying attention to the way that power is channeled by vectors other than language. The 1970s and 1980s were marked by the “linguistic turn” that tended to turn up the volume on accounts of the emergence of identity, culture, and history that emphasized language. Affect theory builds on that turn, but also swings past it, highlighting the way that linguistically-mediated power is only one strand of a sprawling network of power that does a lot of its work outside of the register of words. This means paying attention to bodies, not as sedimentations of linguistic performatives, but as coalescences of linguistic and non-linguistic forces moving at different speeds. Or it means paying attention to materiality—the way that things like sound, color, texture, space, or other bodies elicit affects without the need for linguistic mediation. Even when we are speaking to each other, I’d argue that the micro-features of embodiment like tone of voice or the look on someone’s face shape the impact of that speech-act alongside the propositional content of the words. As I write in the book, “power feels before it thinks.”

The study of religion has always been fixated on the nonlinguistic aspect of religion. We’ve been trying to find ways to explain what moves us outside of language since the field began—whether you want to locate that moment with Müller, Schleiermacher, James, or Durkheim. But as Smith rightly points out, much of that early scholarship (other than Durkheim) conveyed us to the private affair tradition, which defined religion as a resolutely individualistic phenomenon that was unhooked from history and from power. For affect theorists, this makes no sense. Embodied affects, though they might seem to be private, are composed by histories: they come from a public somewhere and they do public things. Far from being irretrievably private, affect is part of the complex, uneven continuum of public and private forces—power.

Donovan Schaefer is a departmental lecturer in science and religion in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford. His research looks at the relationship between religion, emotion, and power, with particular attention to approaches embedded in evolutionary biology and poststructuralist philosophy.

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Who Gets to Play in the Sandbox? Debating Identities, Methodologies, and Theoretical Frameworks

BSOR Dec 2015 Cover

The following is the editorial introduction to the December 2015 issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion (the full table of contents having already been posted). We offer this editorial here on the blog in order to give readers an overview of the most recent issue of the Bulletin.


By Philip L. Tite


Every teacher in the field of religious studies is familiar with the “first-day ritual” of throwing up a series of definitions on the blackboard or, these days, on Power Point slides in response to the perennial (and for many exhausting) question: What is “religion”? The same is true of nearly every introductory textbook that is—and has been—on the market for such courses as World Religions, Introduction to Religion, or Theories in the Study of Religion. More often than not, such books and teachers will present a selection of standard definitions of religion, commonly including those from Müller, James, Otto, Freud, Tillich, and Cantwell Smith along with several others drawn from more recent attempts at defining this enigmatic term. Occasionally, these definitions may be arranged typologically—for example, as essentialist, functionalist, and “family resemblance” definitions (see, for example, McCutcheon 2005). Once students are presented with the “problem,” they are inevitably given a “solution”—albeit a heuristic solution that strives to encompass several positive features from the variety of contending definitions. The task is to find something “that works.” With such a definition in play, the course can then proceed to the real goal of instruction, i.e., the study of religion and religious traditions.

In my own course on Theories in the Study of Religion, I also begin with the definitional problem, though with a slightly different angle. Rather than resolving the problem (i.e., to come to a useful tool for studying the range of traditions that comprise the data of our field), we continually return to the construction of definitions of religion. Our goal is not to establish a working definition, but rather to explore the social and ideological influences shaping and directing our theorists’ constructive processes for such definitions. Given the historical emphasis in my course design, our study of theory is more a history of ideas or sociology of knowledge focused upon the field of religious studies—specifically comparative religion—as our data set. What emerges is that each definition of religion tells us more about the theorist than about what the theorist is studying. How one defines “religion,” as well as how one even approaches the act of defining, is an act of creating an academic discipline, of establishing the object of study along with the analytical contours deemed appropriate (and inappropriate) for such analysis. By defining, we get to determine who’s in and who’s out in the study of religion—and the “who” in question includes not only religious practitioners but also those claiming scholarly expertise. Who gets to play in our sandbox is determined by such discursive acts of definition.

This issue of the Bulletin includes a panel of articles engaging a recent and provocative essay on defining religion. In her 2014 article, “On Essentialism and Real Definitions of Religion” published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Caroline Schaffalitzky de Muckadell (henceforth: Schaffalitzky) offers a sustained argument for the value of essentialist definitions of religion. In arguing in favor of “real” definitions as analytical tools, Schaffalitzky pushes against the grain of current theoretical work in the study of religion, where discursive approaches to “religion” predominate (either in conjunction with or in place of functionalist definitions), such as, for example, in my own approach in the classroom. Schaffalitzky’s article raises important questions about how and why we use the taxon “religion,” including, most importantly, how such taxonomic debates direct disciplinary lines. It is not surprising that this article provoked strong reactions both before and after its publication. Online debates were sparked not only with regard to the specific theoretical points that she raised but also with regard to the shape and direction of our discipline (especially relevant given the place of publication, i.e., the journal for the leading academic society for the study of religion). Given the importance of this article and of the controversy surrounding it, and with an end goal of sparking further discussions, we decided to invite several scholars to respond to Schaffalitzky’s article (much like book panels that commonly appear in journals). Nathan Rein, J. Aaron Simmons, and K. Merinda Simmons offer challenging engagements with this article. We are pleased to include a response from Schaffalitzky. I encourage readers to read these articles in conjunction with the original JAAR article (and vice versa!). And I also challenge readers to consider how this exchange—indeed, this debate—over definitions tells us more about current scholarly trends than it does about “religion.”

Prior to our exchange over essentialist definitions of religion, we open this issue with an Open Letter from Kate Daley-Bailey to the American Academy of Religion on the shifting trends and difficulties faced by the growth in “adjunctification,”especially within the humanities and social sciences. Once again, we are looking at the shape and direction of our discipline, in this case with an eye toward the profession of—and not just theorization within—religious studies. Daley-Bailey’s concerns over the annual meeting raise serious questions about the power dynamics involved in our profession. Twenty years ago, to be an adjunct or contingent faculty member was a mark of transition (moving from doctoral student status to tenure-track faculty status, often seen as “paying one’s dues” or a process of “apprenticeship”), a temporary crisis (a “bump” in the career), or a mark of failure on the part of the scholar (though never on the part of the institution), i.e., candidates typically had four years to “land” the job and if they were unsuccessful, then obviously something was wrong with them. As many now recognize, there has been a major transformation in the profession, where over 70 percent of higher education instruction in North America is done by adjunct or contingent faculty. For many scholars facing the job market over the past fifteen years, adjunct teaching (p/t or f/t; at one institution or spread out over several) has become “the career,” indeed the only career option many of us have despite degrees, publications, classroom successes, academic reputations, etc. Daley-Bailey’s disturbing and thought-provoking letter to the AAR calls for a constructive dialogue over how our major professional body has (inadequately, many would say) responded to these shifts. Access to resources— financial, employment security, research material, and social capital—differ between tenured, tenure track faculty, and contingent faculty. Again, we encounter power dynamics at play in the very shaping of our field. It is my hope that by publishing this Open Letter, much needed discussions over these issues will be sparked along constructive lines.

In addition to these pieces, we are pleased to include three further works. Joe Laycock, building on his Bulletin blog post, offers an engaging analysis of the recent controversy in Irving, Texas over Ahmed Mohamed’s homemade clock, which was treated by high school officials as a bomb threat. Laycock analyzes the interplay of action and belief within the epistemological “messiness” exemplified by this case study. We are also pleased to include an interview conducted by Ipsita Chatterjea with the editors of the Practicum blog (Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin). Finally, we close with another installment of the “Editor’s Corner,” this time announcing and commenting on an exciting new subscription development between the Bulletin and NAASR members.


McCutcheon, Russell T. 2005. “What is Religion?” In Introduction to World Religions. Edited by Christopher Partridge, 10-13. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Schaffalitzky de Muckadell, Caroline. 2014. “On Essentialism and Real Definitions of Religion.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 82.2: 495-520.

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

Posted in Announcements, Craig Martin, Editorial, Interviews, Ipsita Chatterjea, Joseph Laycock, Kate Daley-Bailey, Nathan Rein, Pedagogy, Philip L. Tite, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Now Published – Bulletin for the Study of Religion 44.4 (December 2015)

BSOR Dec 2015 CoverThe December issue of the Bulletin has now been published and is available. Below is the table of contents of this issue, which includes an Open Letter to the AAR on the challenges facing adjunct/contingent faculty with regard to the annual meeting, a set of papers responding to Caroline Schaffalitzky de Muckadell’s provocative JAAR article on essentialist definitions of religion (published in 2014), along with an article by Joseph Laycock analyzing the controversy in a high school in Texas over Ahmed Mohamed’s clock, a clock which was treated as a bomb threat by school officials. We also include an interview with the editors of the Practicum blog and an “Editor’s Corner” reflecting on the new subscription arrangement between the Bulletin and members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR).

As always, we welcome submissions for future issues – including responses to published articles – from established scholars and graduate students engaged in the study of religion (regardless of discipline) for either publication in the Bulletin or for here on the Bulletin’s blog. Our guidelines for the journal are available online.

Table of Contents

Bulletin for the Study of Religion Volume 44, Issue 4 (December 2015)

“Who Gets to Play in the Sandbox? Debating Identities, Methodologies, and Theoretical Frameworks” Philip L. Tite (University of Washington) [Editorial introduction) – (pp. 2-3)

“For the Good or ‘the Guild’: An Open Letter to the American Academy of Religion.” Kate Daley-Bailey (University of Georgia) – (pp. 4-11)


“When Is a Religion Like a Weed? Some Thoughts on Why and How We Define Things” Nathan Rein (Ursinus College) – (pp. 11-19)

“A Search for the ‘Really’ Real: Philosophically Approaching the Task of Defining Religion” J. Aaron Simmons (Furman University) – (pp. 19-26)

“Worlds Apart: The Essentials of Critical Thinking” K. Merinda Simmons (University of Alabama) – (pp. 26-33)

“A Deep-Seated Schism: Fundamental Discussions in the Study of Religions” Caroline Schaffalitzky de Muckadell (University of Southern Denmark) – (pp. 34-39)


“Who Believed There Was A Bomb and When Did They Believe It? What Ahmed Mohamed’s Clock Says About Belief and Moral Panic” Joseph P. Laycock (Texas State University) – (pp. 39-44)

“‘Better Get to Know Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy’: An interview with Craig Martin and Brad Stoddard of Practicum Blog” Ipsita Chatterjea (Vanderbilt University) – (pp. 46-49)

“Editor’s Corner: NAASR Membership and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion: An Important Announcement and a Personal Reflection” Philip L. Tite (University of Washington) – (pp. 50-51)


Posted in Announcements, Brad Stoddard, Craig Martin, Editorial, Interviews, Ipsita Chatterjea, Joseph Laycock, Kate Daley-Bailey, Nathan Rein, Pedagogy, Philip L. Tite, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

If I Only Knew Then … Tenured Scholars on Professionalization: Mark Hulsether


On the heels of a successful series based on Russell
McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, where 21 early career
scholars weighed-in on a separate thesis, we at the Bulletin would
like to continue with the theme of professionalization as it relates
to mid-to-late career scholars, asking them to name one thing (or several) about
their career (in either teaching, research, or service work) that they
know now but wish they had done earlier on. For other posts in this series, see here.

by Mark Hulsether

I stayed in school through the Ph.D. level and entered an academic job market because the ideas in the books I was reading, and the debates about them in the syllabi and classrooms that have structured my life, seemed to matter. After that foundational premise was on board, I hoped that I would be lucky enough to land a job with a decent quality of life, and that even if that didn’t play out I could be happy in graduate school for a few years without blighting my future. Would I do it again today? Probably, but my answer is murky enough to merit further reflection.

An obvious reflex is to problematize: what does “matter” mean, and what is a “professional” way to approach it? I study religion, politics, and culture in US history. Studying this, it is hard to ignore how people’s choices to invest themselves in some religious practices rather than others, and to deploy their institutional or rhetorical resources toward some socio-political agendas rather than others, is often non-trivial and at times rises to a matter of life and death. Priorities take shape through multi-leveled dialogue and contestation—and under conditions in which decisions by scholars about what to study are sometimes significant factors in the contests for hegemony. Those who argue that scholarship can be neutral with respect to these contests, with no dog in the fight, often make decisions that matter in such contests anyway.

(I wish it could go without saying, although I fear it does not, that focusing on the value of setting certain scholarly priorities over others—amid the myriad things one could study and ways one could study them—does not imply compromise on the [value of] rigorous use of evidence to build persuasive arguments about the questions at stake.)

Of course the sort of mattering that I am trying to evoke was not true of every book, every day. Anyone smart enough to get into a Ph.D. program can resonate with a joke that my uncle liked to tell—where B.S. refers to bullshit and Ph.D. means “piled higher and deeper.” However, the petty conflicts, hypocrisies, and trivialities of academia did not seem worse than in other fields I was considering; in fact they seemed less decisive.

This was because (we circle back to my opening point) the ideas being fought about seemed to have substance that mattered.

Although I feel fortunate to have found a professional niche that is good in many ways, nevertheless over time I have become increasingly concerned about the shrinking size of academic spaces that matter and scholarly trends as I have experienced them. I perceive more and more deans, and increasing proportions of public discourse, reducing the purpose of education to (for students) making more money than one could otherwise make and (for teachers) rising through a career. Full stop. If a course of study toward being a prison guard is the most successful measured in starting salaries for graduates, book contracts for scholars, external grants for departments, and “consumer satisfaction surveys” (formerly known as student feedback) then so be it. The market has spoken. Prison Guard Studies should get the faculty lines of retiring religion scholars, and prisons should get even more of the tax revenues that now support prisons and education.

Pushing back against such ideologies—including their embedded assumptions about what things are legible as [valuable forms of] embodied agency—and fostering a critical understanding of the histories through which such assumptions came to seem commonsensical, is a significant public good that education still can provide. If we consider it a valid social priority to build pleasing sports stadiums and efficient sewers—although it is often exceedingly unclear whether stadiums benefit taxpayers, and surely someone is making a lucrative career out of privatizing sewers and restricting them to neighborhoods “worthy” of them—then educating a populace for critical thought about history and culture has at least an equal claim to value. But sadly I am old enough to remember when this train of thought had more traction for many stakeholders—students, trustees, voters, employers beyond academia, and faculty colleagues—than it does today. Whereas I thought I was joining a collective pursuit of work that (with appropriate disclaimers) mattered, increasingly I worry that we are losing our way.

I suppose most readers will agree with me about some of the misplaced priorities: commercialized college sports, the fetishization of business and STEM degrees, or the idea that the US can afford to take on mind-boggling levels of debt to fund criminal wars of choice while being a world historical champion of imprisoning its youth, yet cannot afford to subsidize its youth’s education. I don’t need to belabor these points here.

Rather than preaching to the choir, I will note that my disquiet also extends to some discourses that writers in the Bulletin for the Study of Religion recommend, as opposed to what we agree to hate. Quite often when I read arguments for [the implicit value of] being “value-free” or “scientific”—with the stakes including whether one is advantaged or disadvantaged in cutthroat career competitions—it seems to me that these function more to reshape the study of religion as a covert enabler of neoliberal logic than of carving out space to critique this logic. (I suppose most people here intend the [value of] critique, at least insofar as their scruples allow them to admit it.)

Not only do I grant, in fact I want to emphasize, that there are many contexts in which debunking religious value claims—especially those held uncritically—is exactly the proper priority. Nevertheless, the way I have framed my argument—appealing to many contexts and priorities but not all of them—requires a case-by-case mode of analysis that goes against the grain of some writing in the Bulletin. I suggest an approach that is more dialogical and attuned to thinking concretely about how counter-hegemonic movements take shape, and less invested in sweeping rhetoric about explanation and causation. This is not new—I have argued in this vein throughout my career—but lately I worry more that the academy as a reasonably hospitable space for such critique is being suffocated.

Thinking back, I probably would not have done much differently, knowing what I know now. I still think the academy is at least as conducive as a space to explore substantive issues of aesthetic worth, warranted truth claims, and cultural critique compared to most other spaces. I still think it is worth fighting to defend these spaces, assuming that one is lucky enough not to be utterly traumatized by the job market. In this sense it is more important than ever for scholars at all levels to take up such a fight.

Yet I do wonder if the equation is shifting, making it increasingly important for younger scholars to consider alternatives to scholarly life. I would urge them to stay centered on why they care about their work and to be prepared to say “take this job and shove it” if—usually through no fault of their own, but because of the structural qualities of today’s academy—their efforts do not work out in minimally satisfying careers. The times I have most feared that the machinery of academia was crushing my soul have been when I could see no escape. Thus I caution my students against a “college teaching or bust” mentality and increasingly use the descriptor “ponzi scheme” for graduate study and “rats fighting for scraps” for the reward you reap if (against the odds) you succeed. On many days I still glimpse the scholarly life as a satisfying space of collective work on worthwhile issues of mutual interest, with the things I have been complaining about are part of its beautiful struggle. Yet more than I expected when I began, I see us being drawn into an alienating hunger game in which focusing on how education matters can be surprisingly lonely or even risky to one’s career.

Mark Hulsether is Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Program in American Studies at the University of Tennessee, with special interests in the interplay of religion and social issues in recent United States history. He has written many articles and reviews on the course of the religious left in the US since the 1940s, various aspects of US popular religion, and issues of theory and method in the academic study of religion.   His most recent book is Religion, Culture and Politics in the Twentieth Century United States, co-published by Columbia University Press and Edinburgh University Press in 2007.

Posted in If I Only Knew Then … Tenured Scholars on Professionalization, Religion and Society, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Some Affective Economies of #bundy erotic fan fic


by Matt Sheedy

I recently came across a blog post entitled, “How About Some Oregon Militia Homoerotic Fan Fiction?” and promptly shared it with a friend, who I assumed would get a kick out of what I took, on first blush, to be a playful subversion of the sexual sensibilities of the armed Oregon occupiers led by Ammon Bundy, whose professed Mormon identity and, it would seem, right wing libertarian politics, are stereotypically aligned with socially conservative views.

The hashtag behind this idea, #bundyeroticfanfic, was started by the lead singer of The Decemberists, Colin Meloy, and includes tweets such as the following (arguably the cleanest on offer):

“It ain’t snacks I’m hungry for, Trevor.’ Ryan’s heart was beating wildly beneath the quilted flannel of his shirt.” #bundyeroticfanfic.

After sharing the article, however, my friend immediately pointed out one problem that had not occurred to me; that homoerotics was being used here as a comic trope, where, it could be interpreted, queer intimacy is cast in a negative light in order to denigrate these men.

My own initial reaction to the post and to the hashtag #bundyeroticfanfic had been much different. I had assumed that since the article appeared on a queer-friendly and queer-focused site, Joe.My.God., that it was (naturally) uncontroversial for those of a liberal disposition. After all, why would a site whose categories include: LGBT News, LGBT Culture, Marriage Equality, Politics, 2016 Election, and Entertainment (listed in that order) fall prey to a narrative that could be construed as homophobic?

Discussing these questions further, my friend and I opened up a rather interesting conversation that revolved around two main points: first, that the hashtag and articles about it were being shared exclusively by liberal-minded folk and on liberal-friendly websites, signalling the production of a type of pleasure, where their presumptive political rivals were being put in a position that we assume would make them uncomfortable (pun intended!), while drawing on queer sex as both an insult and a point of humor. Second, despite the problems with this hashtag as it relates to queer identities, and despite the (presumably) “good” intentions of its author, professed or otherwise, it is caught up within what Sara Ahmed terms “affective economies,” that are moved in multiple directions by the various sentiments they evoke, assembling and re-assembling in different configurations. As Ahmed writes:

Rather than seeing emotions as psychological dispositions, we need to consider how they work, in concrete and particular ways, to mediate the relationship between the psychic and the social, and between the individual and the collective. … My economic model of emotions suggests that while emotions do not positively reside in a subject or figure, they still work to bind subjects together. Indeed, to put it more strongly, the non-residence of emotions is what makes them ‘binding’ (“Affective Economies,” 119).

Considered on the plane of the “non-residence of emotions” that help to bind groups together, #bundyeroticfanfic is perhaps best understood not so much as a reflected proposition, presented with conscious disregard for what it may suggest about queer sex, but more as an emotional response to a chain of symbols, ideas, and sentiments—unstable and always shifting—that come together in unreflected ways to demarcate boundaries between “us” and “them.” Donovan Schaefer touches on this idea in relation to Ahmed’s work in his new book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power (2015), when he writes:

Affective economies are queer economies that are driven by the uneven circulation of pleasures and desires rather than a disembodied logos (165).

In this sense, the queering of the Oregon occupiers is not so much a logical proposition as it is an “uneven circulation of pleasures and desires” where what we do know about them—their anti-government stance, their (white male) Christian identity, and their association with an extreme version of gun-culture—connects up with a much broader affective economy, including, in this case, the idea that they must be homophobic by virtue of their other, professed beliefs and practices. To put it differently, we presume to “know,” unreflectively, that this will bother them, and if not them, then some of their supporters, while providing a point of solidarity (and laughter) for “us.”

One crucial point here, I would argue, is that this presumption is not an evidence-based claim, nor is it one that is principally concerned with the potential effects on perceptions of queer sex (and thus homophobia), but instead circulates within particular contemporary formations of American nationalism and political/cultural identity that attempt to demarcate boundaries based on what “we” proclaim we are comfortable with (e.g., talking about homoerotic love) and what “they” are not.

All of this called to mind ideas presented in Schaefer’s new book, where he discusses the documentary Jesus Camp (2006) in order to think through the relationship between globalization, media, and religion. Here he notes, for example, how the children at the camp, who are:

embedded in particular formations of nation, race, and gender teach one another how to feel, and in the process produce political subjectivities made up of reticulated affective forms. This allows for new ways of examining the intersection of religion with global mediascapes and new ways of typologizing religion according to their affective configurations, rather than their propositional beliefs (14).

Much like with the hashtag #bundyeroticfanfic, this theoretical approach argues that understanding group formations, (religious or otherwise) in a complex media landscape, requires that we move beyond mere analysis of propositional beliefs, and their rhetorical relation to systems of power, toward theories that consider the connection between identity, symbols, and the affective economies they are caught up in, which can have the effect of moving bodies and sentiments without them even knowing it, as it did with me.

Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D in religious studies at 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.

Posted in Donovan Schaefer, Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Religion Snapshots: Methodological Atheism vs. Methodological Agnosticism


Religion Snapshots is a feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially topics relating to definitions, classification, and method and theory in the study of religion.

Editor’s note: This post is based on a Facebook thread, where two scholars debate a recent essay that appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion entitled, “Must a Scholar of Religion Be Methodologically Atheistic or Agnositc?” by  Michael A. Cantrell.

Carl Stoneham: The abstract is correct that it’s neither neutral nor objective. Theology is theology, regardless of its methodological intent. Methodological agnosticism is a much more coherent position for the religion scholar, imho.

Zeba Crook: The claim that MA is not neutral is a red-herring claim. No one claims that methodological atheism is neutral. We claim that it’s simply a feature of the discipline of the academic study of religion. The study of religion is analytical/etic, it is not experiential/emic. A friend of mine puts it this way: a zoologist doesn’t ask an elephant what it’s like to be an elephant; she studies the elephant. A biologist doesn’t try to imagine the experience of a frog before cutting it open and trying to understand how it works. Religion can be studied analytically, etically, from the outside, as in other analytical disciplines. It can also be studied as a member, supporter, and practioner, honoring the experiences of one’s fellow members, and honoring the claims of authority within it. But that’s an entirely different discipline from the Study of Religion. It’s not about neutrality, but about disciplinary boundaries.

Carl Stoneham:‪ Atheism–even when employed methodologically–is not an “outside” position (at least insofar as it offers a clear answer to the question of whether God exists). The biologist does not assert that the frog has no experiences.

‪And while I’m not sure I agree that the question of methodological neutrality is a red herring, I’m with you on of the question of disciplinary boundaries. Well said.

Zeba Crook:‪ Nor does the MA scholar of religion deny that people have religious experiences! Who makes such a claim!? Of course people have experiences that they tag as religious. The job of the scholar of religion is to analyze and contextualize the claims and descriptions of those experiences (if that’s what one is interested in, which I happen not to be).

Carl Stoneham:‪ The biologist analogy doesn’t address methodological atheism well to begin with (it’s more apt to methodological agnosticism), so before I reply further, which are we talking about? The article referenced above speaks to MAtheism, but your analogies are examples of MAgnosticism (my counter-example was an attempt to bring it back to MAtheism).

I should also add that this may be a debate that boils down to nothing less than Berger’s use of the term “atheism,” which is really better-described as agnosticism. (i.e. atheism does not bracket religious truth claims, instead declaring them to be false).

Zeba Crook:‪ Interesting. Really illustrates the need to and difficulty with definitions. To my mind, MAtheism is the position that all explanations and analyses have to be carried out or arrived at *as if* there is no god. So, for example, in trying to explain why the messianic religion following Jesus survived and other messianic religion did not, “the resurrection” is not an explanation. The scholar must work from the position that dead people stay dead. That’s when we can start asking the really interesting questions: why did some people experience Jesus as resurrected; how can we understand/analyse/contextualize their experiences, and their claims; what models exist for explaining the survival of this religion but not the others; how do the claims of resurrection experiences function rhetorically, and so on. None of those questions are necessary if simply God raised Jesus from the dead. I think MAgnosticism might not be strong enough. And yes, the biologist is not “agnostic” about whether divine design explains some mystery of frog-physiology. The biologist, who may well be a Christian, probably assumes as a matter of disciplinary principle, that the explanation of that froggy-mystery lies in genetics, evolution, environment.

Carl Stoneham:‪ Those are excellent points, so let me flesh out my position a bit better than I have so far:

‪As I see it, the problem with MAtheism is that (for example) the explanation for why the Jesus-religion survived and others did not could actually be that Jesus was the Messiah and others were not. This isn’t my own position, but it’s nevertheless logically possible. What’s more we don’t have the tools (as far as I’m aware) to show that the Jesus-religion *didn’t* survive because of Jesus’ status as the actual Messiah. As a result, the religion scholar is in something of a bind when trying to explain the survival of Christianity and not, say, Maccabeism. The problem with MAtheism is that it assumes that at least one plausible answer to the question cannot be an answer to the question but it cannot prove that said answer can’t be an answer. As such, it runs afoul of the very same thing that it accuses confessional scholars of doing: proceeding from a position it cannot support through an appeal to a certain set of “this-worldly” critical tools. To be perhaps a bit too flippant, MAtheism justifies itself because… MAtheism. I think MAgnosticism takes a more honest position insofar as it acknowledges that the religion scholar is not equipped with the tools to adjudicate that sort of truth claim, so it brackets them and looks for information in other areas. MAtheism doesn’t bracket the question, but answers it quite clearly.

‪I’m not suggesting that because the theological claim cannot be disproved, it *has* to be acknowledged as a possibility. Instead, I just want to be more careful about how we treat that claim. Methodologically, atheism does not seem to be the appropriate response, especially insofar as we might one day have the tools to adjudicate these claims. Methodological agnosticism seems to be more “future proof,” if you will.

Zeba Crook: I think you’re confusing matters here, Carl. Methodological Atheism, to my mind at least, is about whether God is an explanation for things, not whether we accept all the truth claims of believers. It’s Methodological Atheism to say that we need to explain the survival of Christianity in a way that does not rely on the power of God. The claim that Jesus was not and cannot have been the Messiah is a theological claim. I think the only people who make that blunt claim are polemicists, not scholars of religion. So your point that MAtheism eliminates potential explanations (e.g., that Jesus really was the Messiah) is not an example of MAtheism.

Carl Stoneham: Again, the answer to your question could very well be the one you’ve ruled out: God. If the goal for our chosen methodology is to bracket our own beliefs as much as possible, why do we choose a methodology that inscribes one such belief in all of our scholarship. It’s effectively the other side of the same coin with which we accuse apologists: ruling out a given possibility (in their case, that God ISN’T behind everything) without proving that such a possibility cannot actually be the answer. If we can fault them for dismissing, e.g., sociological factors for the rise of Christianity, surely they can fault us for dismissing divine factors?

‪This is why I advocate for MAgnosticism. It explicitly acknowledges the limitations of our critical toolset and allows that there is always an additional possible solution that might complement/overturn our own theories. It is closer to actual science insofar as it does not rule out those possibilities that its toolset is not designed to address, and instead brackets them. I don’t see that MAtheism actually succeeds in bracketing anything.

Zeba Crook: Carl, you asked: “if the goal for our chosen methodology is to bracket our own beliefs as much as possible, why do we choose a methodology that inscribes one such belief in all of our scholarship.” That’s easy! Because it’s the job of scholarship to build disciplinary boundaries. And one of the boundaries that distinguishes the academic study of religion from the support, defense, appreciation, and practice of religion (all noble causes) is and should be Methodological Atheism. And why not? Again, biologists can be Christian (or Jewish or Muslims) but it’s not within the disciplinary boundary of biology to use God to explain biological mysteries or processes. It’s not even up for debate in any field other than Religious Studies. We spend so much time arguing about something that every other discipline takes for granted, and only because religious people get their knickers in a twist at the prospect that their beliefs aren’t accepted at face value.

Carl Stoneham:‪ [I think I’m probably going to range too far abroad on this one, but I’m going to put it up anyway.]

‪”…scholars of religion should not have to operate differently from scholars of other disciplines.”

‪True, but scholars of religion are the only ones studying subject matter that is explicitly about ‘God’ (however we want to conceptualize that) and that ‘God’s’ role in history, so surely our tools must be capable of handling that, rather than simply declaring it off-limits. If all we’re after is studying the archaeological remains of a Hindu temple, or asking how best to translate a marginal inscription in an ancient Hebrew text, we really have no need for methodological atheism, right? We already have those disciplines and they’ve already established boundaries. Whether God exists has no bearing on whether I correctly translated “ruach” or realized that this obelisk pointed East because that’s where the Sun God presumably rose. So why the need for “methodological atheism” at all? I can see how the presence of the Roman Empire, etc, etc, etc helped spread the Gospel, so on and so forth, without the need for any sort of methodological atheism. It’s not not like the question was “why was the Gospel so compelling?” The very places where we might need to employ a methodological atheism are when we tread on ground where “religious” answers carry a high degree of plausibility. As such, if we’re establishing disciplinary boundaries by drawing lines that categorize a certain subset of plausible answers as off-limits, we may instead be establishing disciplinary blinders. At least with methodological agnosticism, we acknowledge the plausibility of those answers and bracket them until such that we have the tools to consider them. (Or course, theologians say we already have those tools, but whatever).

Zeba Crook: “True, but scholars of religion are the only ones studying subject matter that is explicitly about ‘God'”

‪This is a great conversation, Carl (but why are we the only ones having it!?).

‪Here is the rub! Religious people often want Religious Studies to operate differently from other disciplines for that very reason: because it’s about God. Which is odd, because if you believe in God, you can easily claim that everything is about God: society, economics, health and medicine, the beauty of literature and music, mathematics and physics, etc. But they generally allow that disciplines associated with those things can operate differently. And, yes, translation can indeed be deeply theological. Koine used to be (perhaps still is by some) imagined as God’s unique form of Greek designed to communicate with the non-elite of the ancient Mediterranean. A great miracle had to be devised to legitimize the LXX. God is in everything!

‪But it is a claim that I wholly reject. The people I study believe that God is active in history. They possibly even believe that God favored the Allies in WWII. Surely, as a historian, I can simply reject that claim. I don’t have to bracket it politely with MAgnosticism! Those same people believe that the same God as favored the Allies also raised Jesus from the dead, which accounts for the stunning success of Christianity when other messianic movements failed. So, why is the historian allowed to summarily discount a theistic explanation for world history, but I’m not allowed to discount theistic explanations of religious history? I think it’s incumbent upon scholars of religion to fit in the academy, not to hive themselves off in some special corner of the academic world because they think their subject matter is inherently different.

Carl Stoneham:‪ “This is a great conversation, Carl (but why are we the only ones having it!?).”

‪Ha! I had it ad nauseam at Southern Methodist University, and I was usually arguing the side you’ve taken up.

‪”…they think their subject matter is inherently different.”

‪It’s not so much that the subject matter is inherently different, rather that the tools we employ may not be of sufficient scope to cover the subject matter. This may be a silly analogy, but what springs to mind is a biologist who practices “methodological a-microscopism,” choosing to study microbes using only the naked eye. I certainly wouldn’t argue that the biologist can make no meaningful contribution, but surely that contribution is hampered by an incomplete toolset. This is what I consider MAtheism to be doing. Now if the biologist said something to the effect that “microscopes just aren’t compelling to me, so I’m going to study microbes with the naked eye, but I acknowledge that I might very well be missing some important things,” I feel like a more honest approach has been articulated.

‪To be clear, I’m not saying that, as a religious historian, you have to factor in Jesus, the Really-Messiah into your work. I would push back, forcefully, against those who would demand it of you. At the same time, I do think your history should stop at the theological questions with an agnostic approach rather than an atheistic one.

‪”So, why is the historian allowed to summarily discount a theistic explanation for world history, but I’m not allowed to discount theistic explanations of religious history?”

‪If by “discount” you mean to ignore it because it lacks credibility, then it seems to me the answer is that it has not been shown to lack credibility. This is where I think the “atheism” part of MAtheism runs aground. If you chose to pass over theistic explanation because your particular toolset simply wasn’t equipped to consider them, I don’t see where you’d be much different from the biologist who doesn’t consider acceleration due to gravity of an elephant in orbit. (That was dumb, but perhaps I made my point anyway). This is what I think MAgnosticiam is doing: acknowledging that the toolset simply isn’t equipped to answer those questions, but that the explanatory scope *may* have been diminished as a result. MAtheism seems to state that there is no diminishing because theistic explanations offer no insight.

Zeba Crook: I think I haven’t been clear. That belief in God causes people to act is obvious. That belief in the resurrection likely accounts in part for the survival of Christianity is also obvious. The MAtheist doesn’t discount that people believed in the resurrection. And she doesn’t discount that beliefs among American Christians inspired anti-interventionism. MAtheism discounts the claim that God raised Jesus from dead as an explanation for why people believed in the resurrection. It’s just not in the cards. That they believed is certain, and matters. That it actually happened is fodder for theologians to explain their religion, but it’s not acceptable to explain history. Is that clearer? As a MAtheist, I don’t discount THAT people believe things. It’s the difference between “Christianity survived in part because people believed in the resurrection” and “Christianity happened because Jesus rose from the dead.” The first statement is consistent with MAtheism, and doesn’t discount people’s religious experiences. The second is theology; a fine discipline, but different from the study of religion, and by no means required to adopt MAtheism.

Carl Stoneham: That’s a helpful clarification, though I think I just accidentally rubbed my hands together in an evil genius sort of way.

‪I don’t want to play my hand just yet, preferring to sleep on your last comment. I’m still inclined to disagree that “people believed because it happened” is “not in the cards” (e.g. I believe in any number of things because they happened) and that, by denying this as a possible explanation, you prevent yourself from being able to explain why at least some people believed (or perhaps you could show it *didn’t* happen and then you’d have good reason to say that it’s not in the cards). But like I said, I want to sleep on this and revisit it tomorrow to be sure I’m going down the right path. (And if you want to head me off before I even get there, feel free to respond to my the outlines of a rebuttal I’ve just offered).

Posted in Carl Stoneham, Religion and Theory, Religion Snapshots, Theory and Method | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments