In the Weeds with David (S.) Pumpkins: Sociophobics and the Social Breakdown of Horror

by Natasha L. Mikles

It’s my favorite time of year—when everything is draped in orange and black, skeleton décor abounds, and little children dressed as superheroes run amok in big-box stores. During the month leading up to Halloween, we welcome into our lives all sorts of frights and fears. Since last year, however, Halloween has seen a new face enter our holiday repertoire—David S. Pumpkins. The character is the result of a Saturday Night Live sketch featuring a couple going on a scary “100 Floors of Terror” ride. While the first few floors feature known and identifiable horror tropes—a deathly bride, a cannibal—soon the doors open onto a bizarre figure played by Tom Hanks in a brash, jack o’lantern-speckled suit with two skeleton sidekicks. Rather than scream or yell, the figure proclaims, “I’m David Pumpkins, and I am going to scare the hell out of you,” before dancing in a ridiculous manner with the two skeletons. He re-appears on floor after floor as the couple becomes increasingly confused about what exactly the nature of this creature is and why they should be scared. At one point, they argue with the figure, ask who he is, and explain that he is not scary, to which he simply replies, “I’m David Pumpkins!” Eventually all the other horrifying figures on the ride become enveloped in the mythos of David Pumpkins, who appears in front of them and inspires distinctly un-terrifying impromptu dance parties.

The sketch is, in some ways, inexplicable. In a recently published interview, Vulture spoke with the three writers who created the character, and they themselves seem a little uncertain how the idea came together. Perhaps there is something that is just fundamentally funny about three men dancing around with funny voices and silly moves, especially in a situation where frights and terrors are expected. However, the sketch reveals more than that—it speaks to how our ideas of horror are shaped by the social world around us.

Douglas Cowan’s idea of “sociophobics” states that “what we fear, why we fear, and how we manifest and resolve our fears are socially constructed, culturally conditioned, and integrally connected to who we are as communal animals.”[1] Our fears, rather than expressions of primal forces, are actually as socially constructed as our ideas of humor. The tale of Mae Nak—which details the story of a man coming back from war to his wife and child, only to find out that both are ghosts—is one of Thailand’s most terrifying ghost stories; for Americans, however, the story of living with one’s true love after their death is the plot of the romantic film Ghost. “Sociophobics” lets us think about what is revealed about Thai and American society respectively from this difference—namely different feelings on ghosts, on romantic love, and on the appropriate form of post-mortem life. We are scared of that which we have been taught is scary, that which is essentially “knowable.” In Sacred Terror, Cowan examines the 1973 film The Exorcist, and argues for taking seriously that it terrified Americans in the 1970s because of a socially prevalent fear of supernatural evil and what it might make one do. I maintain that this fear of the supernatural was not mitigated, but rather heightened by individuals’ decreasing religiosity; a 1973 viewer might not believe in the demons portrayed, but The Exorcist played on the fear that such beliefs did not matter if the demon wanted to possess them. This same impulse is evident in Robert Orsi’s History and Presence, where Orsi admits that—despite now being a secular, areligious Catholic—he is still unable to watch the film, despite his personal disbelief.

What Cowan discovered in the positive, the SNL writers proved in the negative—the joke behind the David S. Pumpkins’ sketch is exactly a breakdown in this social formation of horror. Before Pumpkins appears, the couple are scared by several identifiable horror tropes that have a place in Americans’ social imagination of horror—the wedding suicide, the cannibal waiter, the deathly child, the escaped mental patient. But when Pumpkins appears, the man watching him states only, “I’m just trying to wrap my head around David Pumpkins. Are we supposed to know who that is?” Pumpkin’s catchphrase—“Any questions?”—recalls his essential obscurity; there are so many questions, because the viewer is lost and without any social or cultural guide.

The sketch also challenges an assumption that has been claimed by horror writers going back to H.P. Lovecraft. The bellhop who accompanies the couple at one point makes an effort to explain the pumpkin-covered figure to his confused passengers, stating, “the scariest thing to the mind is the unknown.” But this is not quite true. Lovecraft’s entities, and even Stephen King’s Pennywise, represent not only the unknown, but the unknowable. To the extent that the audience understands the fundamentally alien nature of these beings, they possess a quality that Rudolf Otto called “the wholly other.” As for Pumpkins, as an entity totally disembedded from any narrative context, we do not even know whether or not he is knowable. When questioned about his nature and purpose, Hanks states only that David Pumpkins is “his own thing,” while the skeleton sidekicks are defined only as “part of it.” Pumpkins is neither “wholly other” nor “unknowable.” He is a figure within our grasp, but still, somehow, completely apart from it. Any questions?

[1] Douglas Cowan, “Horror and the Demonic,” The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film, (New York: Routledge, 2009) 403-419. 408.

Natasha L. Mikles teaches Tibetan and Chinese religions at Texas State University. She is beyond excited for Halloween festivities.

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Civility, Barbarity, Conspiracy: Critical Theory and Conspiracy Theories

By David G. Robertson

In Discourse on Civility and Barbarity (2007), Timothy Fitzgerald argues that the modern category of religion emerged in the meeting between (Christian) colonial powers and the subjugated Other:

far from being a kind of thing or an objective and observable domain around which an industry of scholarship can flourish, religion is a modern invention which authorises and naturalises a form of Euro-American secular rationality. In turn, this supposed position of secular rationality constructs and authorises its ‘other’, religion and religions” (Fitzgerald 2008: 6)

Significantly, Fitzgerald points to the power relations that define one or another way of thinking about the world as “religious” or “non-religious”:

from our own postcolonial standpoint, it should be easier for us to question the idea that, whereas other, less-advanced peoples are permeated with ritualism and therefore with a ‘religious’ world view, we in Anglophone cultures do not ‘do’ ritual, except minimally in church. I ask, rhetorically but with serious theoretical intent, why should the legal procedures and taboos surrounding our courts and ideals of justice, our separation of the branches of government, our concept of private property, the practices of the stock exchange and the capital markets, the traditions of the civil services, be considered ‘nonreligious’, but the practices of divination, or the Islamic sharia, or the generic potlatch of various indigenous American peoples, or Buddhist meditation be assigned to the ‘religion’ basket? … Is the queen of England, who is supposedly head of a secular state, but who is also head of a national religion, to be treated as a religious or a secular functionary? (ibid, 38)

Conspiracy theories remain “stigmatised knowledge” in scholarship. This is illustrated perfectly by the observation that there is no scholar of conspiracism who is openly a subscriber of conspiracy theories as many religious studies scholars are of their religious backgrounds are, or queer studies of their sexuality, etc.

A critical turn in the study of conspiracy theories would require us to examine why certain versions of rationality are set apart and denied further investigation by scholars, but not others. If we challenge some non-scientific worldviews, but not others, in whose interests are we acting? We must question why some epistemological positions get a ‘free pass’—like Christianity—but others do not—like conspiracy theories. In terms of sheer numbers, such popular views may have more support than the ‘real religions’; for example, a little over 1% of the US population are Muslim, whereas according to a 2013 Pew survey, 4% believe in Reptilians. Only one of these is considered worthy of serious consideration, however.

The category ‘conspiracy theory’ can be seen as part of this same discourse on civility and barbarity. It emerged at a time where consensus was the prime concern in political discourse, and the parties moved increasingly towards the centre, and each other. Perhaps the clearest example of this rhetoric at work is George Bush’s statement following 9-11; “Let us not tolerate outrageous conspiracy theories…” Why not? Why should we not want to hear from those who disagree? The reason is that conspiracy theories are that which we are not permitted to think—because We, by implication, are the civilised, rational ones. Yet other non-scientific ideas go unchallenged, even constitutionally defended, such as the notion that a deity incarnated part of itself in order to be killed and thereby remove “sin”, or that the constitution of a particular country is inviolable, or that all humans have a universal set of rights, etc.

When scholars look at conspiracy theories without a critical lens (here or here, for two examples just from this week), in many respects we are doing what Tylor, Muller, Frazer and the other armchair anthropologists did in the 19th century when they encountered the Other—romanticising themselves against colonial rationality. We strive to explain why they think differently from us. We seek to explain their ideas symbolically, or explain them away as a result of deprivation, lack of critical ability, lack of cognitive faculty, etc. Above all, we stress that they ‘believe’, while we ‘know’—beliefs being knowledge we don’t approve of. We describe the primitive minds of the periphery back to the sophisticated, discerning minds of the colonial centre. Perhaps all that has changed is that in the globalised world, the primitive periphery and the sophisticated centre co-exist in the same physical space.

As social scientists, should we continue to uncritically position white, Western, male rationality as intrinsically superior to other epistemologies? A truly critical turn in the study of conspiracy theories would mean us moving away from studying the content of conspiracy theories and instead examine the context in which such claims are being made, and by whom. It would mean that rather than examine why some people hold unusual views, we would need to ask for whom are such views unusual or extreme. Why these views only, and not other such illogical or unfalsifiable views? If we cannot do that, then we are not disinterested scholars, but are taking a side in the modern discourse on civility and barbarity.

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Theses on Professionalization: Emily D. Crews


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

by Emily D. Crews

Thesis #10. Whether working at a publicly or privately funded institution, professors are comparable to self-employed entrepreneurs inasmuch as they can increase their social capital (i.e., reputation) by seeking out new books to read and review, unique topics on which to research and write, novel and timely courses to develop and teach, and different professional service opportunities to provide them with additional experience as well as new national and international contacts. Graduate students are in much the same position and the additional qualifications that result from their entrepreneurial pre-professional activities can serve to distinguish one job applicant from another. Documentation from such activities, as recorded on one’s c.v., communicate to the hiring committee that one is already skilled at participating in the many aspects of the profession that will surely be required of a tenure-track Assistant Professor.

In #10 of his “Theses on Professionalization” Russell McCutcheon writes that the young scholar entering the job market may distinguish herself from her peers by making evident that she possesses “additional qualifications that result from” her “entrepreneurial pre-professional activities.”

For many graduate students, advice of the type offered in Thesis #10 is both helpful and frustrating. It is immensely useful for us to have any lamp in the dark of the academic job market, particularly one that clearly points us to a course of action. However, to some this particular course of action sounds eerily similar to the unrealistic suggestion shouted down from the ivory towers of our institutions: “Do everything and be good at it all.” I know very few graduate students and early career scholars who are not already engaged in a dizzying array of more-than-dissertation activities. Many of us are teaching, advising, publishing, and working while also applying to fellowships and serving as workshop leaders or conference organizers, all as part of our professional development and in spite of a common pressure to reduce the overall time it takes us to obtain our degrees.

Thus, the advice in Thesis #10 can, for many, incite an overwhelming fatigue: “This again. How can we possibly do more than we already do? And how can we possibly be good at everything in a field that’s littered with speed-reading, twelve-language-knowing demi-gods?” What’s more, many might suggest that it is yet another example of a tenured faculty member perpetuating the crippling indentured servitude of academia through willful ignorance of the toll taken by such demands for hyper-involvement. I understand the impulse to approach recommendations of this type with a defensive posture, and am sympathetic to the perspective that academia continues to suffer from a multitude of crises.

However, I think that to read McCutcheon in this way misses the real point of his suggestion. Instead, it would be helpful to consider that McCutcheon has spent much of his career at large state schools, often serving as a department chair; at Alabama he has been responsible for the growth of a robust undergraduate program in religious studies in an era where many of its kind have shrunk or disappeared entirely.

It is out of this context that McCutcheon offers Thesis #10, which I would argue points us not toward a “do more, be more” philosophy, but instead toward the importance of using our graduate school experiences to indicate that we have been and will continue to be productive members of a community. As university budgets are slashed and the Humanities continue to take heavy fire, it is more crucial than ever that new hires are able to help overburdened departments tackle growing workloads. When there are dozens of things that any given department must be able to do—offer courses; advise students; produce original research; organize job searches, conferences, and publications—asking to join the team means that we must be willing and able to shoulder part of the burden. Candidates who are unprepared or uninterested in doing so would, I assume, be unappealing as future colleagues, and thus less likely to land a tenure track position.[1]

McCutcheon’s thesis leaves me wondering, however: are all types of preparation created equal? If not, what types of preparation are most valuable? What indicates that we are “already skilled at participating in the many aspects of the profession that will surely be required of a tenure-track Assistant Professor?” Conversely, are there types of preparation that are a waste of time? Further, from the perspective of members of a hiring committee, where is the line between diversification and distraction? Which types of activities or contributions make candidates seem well-trained and which make them seem unfocused? In the Sophie’s Choice of graduate school, where every moment is precious and each new commitment means the loss of another hour of sleep, what is the wisest investment of our time?

Take, for example, this very exercise. Were I to cite it on my c.v., how would a hiring committee view my having participated in this discussion? Does a relatively casual post in an online forum say much at all? If so, what? Could it read as time I have wasted when I might have been working on my dissertation (suggesting, perhaps, that I might go off course on the road to tenure)? Does it indicate that I am interested in being an active part of a rich community of people and ideas (and that I would be an asset to a department for this reason)?

Or another example: book reviews, an oft-debated topic in my own program. Are book reviews a service to the academic community and an indication of our expertise in a given area, or are they lines on our c.v.’s that potential employers skip over on the way to other, more relevant types of experience? Should graduate students write them or shouldn’t we?

While there are certainly many answers to all these questions, each based on the idiosyncrasies of the particular institution and department holding the search, I wonder if some who are reading this post, particularly those who have experience on hiring committees, might be able to provide a general set of guidelines for reference.[2] This includes a hope for further suggestions from Professor McCutcheon who, both in writing his “Theses” and in so many other ways, has been immensely helpful and generous to early career scholars.


[1] It should be noted that McCutheon’s advice, written before the economic crisis and the dramatic shift in the landscape of the academic job market, is specifically geared toward those who are applying to tenure track positions. How this advice might have changed or lost its relevance in light of the increasingly limited availability of such positions is well worth further discussion, which limited space has prevented here. On this topic, however, I will offer one question: does it make sense to prepare so thoroughly to be part of a department when most of us—well over 70%, according to recent statistics—will end up in jobs that might not even not come with an office, much less full membership in the faculty body?

[2] For instance, I’m sure that the needs and priorities of a large, elite research university differ significantly from those of a small liberal arts college.

Emily D. Crews is a PhD candidate in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her dissertation examines the religious lives of African immigrants in the United States, asking what role religion plays in the process by which Nigerians create homes in new geographical and epistemological places/spaces. Emily is also the editor of the Religion and Culture Web Forum and an editorial assistant at History of Religions.

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Unpacking the Baggage of “Indigenous Religion(s)”

Antique luggage and trunks stacked high

by Stacie Swain

A couple of weeks ago, the Religious Studies Project (RSP) released a podcast entitled “What Do We Mean by Indigenous Religion(s)?[1] Considering critiques of the World Religions Paradigm that the category in question relates to, I’m interested in thinking about an alternative formulation of what Religious Studies scholars, in particular, are studying when they situate their work in relation to the category of “Indigenous Religion(s).”

In the RSP podcast, interviewer David G. Robertson speaks with Bjørn Ola Tafjord and Arkotong Longkumer, two members of the Indigenous Religions project (INREL). Describing the episode, the RSP identifies “Indigenous Religion” or “Indigenous Religions” as an ancillary category of the World Religions Paradigm (WRP).

To be relatively brief, the critique of the World Religions Paradigm in relation to “Indigenous Religion(s)” has a few main thrusts, and the question of how to study “indigenous” and “religion” is undeniably not a new one. As Malory Nye recently and emphatically states, “There can be no doubt that the academic study of religion emerged out of European colonialism.” This statement references the work that scholars such as Talal Asad, David Chidester, Richard King, Timothy Fitzgerald, Tomoko Masuzawa (perhaps most comprehensively), and other fine scholars have done to trace how the concept of religion, the World Religions Paradigm, and the academy have been implicated within processes of imperialism and colonialism.

Within such processes, colonial era Europeans often characterized non-European societies as “primitive,” or lacking “religion” qua Christianity and thus civilization; the territories that they inhabited was therefore terra nullius, empty land available for “discovery.” After occupying various territories for many years and despite the lack of a correlating native concept, Europeans and Euro-Americans also eventually “discovered” what became known as “Indigenous Religion(s)” in the areas in question. Such “discoveries” most often operate(d) through a logic of comparison to Christianity, and relative to the amount of control that colonial governments exert(ed) over Indigenous populations. While these events might seem like years ago, important questions remain: both with respect to the claiming, rejection, appropriation, and protection of what gets classified as “Indigenous Religion(s)” in local, institutional, and legal contexts, as well as whether and how to “decolonize” Religious Studies, as Nye asks.

Of course, the co-founders of the RSP and other scholars do question how Religious Studies scholars might proceed following this much-critiqued yet still-operative paradigm. The RSP episode takes these critiques on board, at least to some extent. Tafjord speaks of the “language games” involved in labelling Indigenous practices as “religion,” although he is also interested in focusing attention upon the term “indigenous.” Although also interested in how groups co-opt the idea of indigenous religions, Longkumer notes that he himself is interested in, “how indigenous peoples understand or practise this thing called religion.” However, because these practices vary according to context, “the category indigenous religions is not a primary factor.” Rather, what the people who identify/are identified as “indigenous” are doing with this thing called “religion” is what catches the scholar’s interest.

This latter characterization strikes me as interesting for its step towards destabilizing “religion” and yet a continued grasping for and to “actual” religion. It also strikes me as somewhat different from Tafjord’s approach. Tafjord makes a nod to the arrival of “religion” or at least the language of religion in 20th century Talamanca, Costa Rica. He therefore locates his interest in when and why the Bribri began to refer to their own practices as “religion” rather than how they “actually practice” whatever that happens to be. While both Tafjord and Longkumer are anthropologists, they work in different contexts and of course it is reasonable that their approaches might differ, as might where they situate their work with respect to current debates about “indigenous” and “religion.”

Robertson, Tafjord, and Longkumer also discuss how scholars utilize the category ‘Indigenous Religion(s)’ “to kind-of play the game of the field a little bit, in order for our work to fit in and be understood anywhere.” Given the aforementioned critiques of the WRP, it would be appealing to see more pushback against the structure of the field, and a push to range beyond those bounds when necessary and useful. While Tafjord’s suggestion that those who do fieldwork might offer the whole field an openness otherwise lacking when students are sent out looking for “religion” (and therefore find “it”) is valuable, I am also interested in how the subfield can engage critical Indigenous Studies scholarship.

For example, on a panel entitled “But We Do Theorize! Indigenous Scholarship and Sociology” at this year’s Canadian Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Critical Race and Indigenous Studies scholar Eve Tuck, (perhaps best known for her article “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” with K. Wayne Yang), made a point that struck me as extremely relevant to the category of “Indigenous Religion(s).” Tuck contended that all too often scholars claim to study Indigenous peoples, when what they’re really studying are the effects of settler colonialism upon a wide range of individuals and groups who define themselves in highly variable ways.

While Tuck primarily refers to the Canadian context (as a settler colonial state such as the US, Australia, or New Zealand), the subfield of “Indigenous Religion(s)” strikes me as just the sort of study that ought to consider Tuck’s contention. If one takes critiques of the WRP as valid, the study of “Indigenous Religion(s)” is contingent upon the exportation and spread of the concept of “religion” to locales where social actors might lack or disavow the concept as often as they claim it. In effect, studies of “religion” as paired with “indigenous” must address the dynamics of each term within the context in question – as effects of imperialism, colonization, settlement, and perhaps globalization as well. As signifiers, both terms come with at least a truckload (once a train or steamship load) of baggage that must be unpacked. In short: the terms “indigenous” and “religion” are words that imply travel and often trauma, which are tied to specific sorts of worlds.

The categories of “indigenous” and “religion” together can be a high-stakes “game” and a gamble, as can claims around indigeneity, secularity, and the sacred. There are those whose lands, lives, and livelihoods depend upon the deployment of these categories for protection. Given the entanglement of “indigenous” and “religion” with discourses on historical injustice and contemporary sovereignty, critical interrogations in the subfield of “Indigenous religion(s)” may gain even more relevance in the years to come.

[1] In the interest of supporting graduate student scholarship and academic dialogue, check out a response to the “Indigenous Religion(s)” episode by Liudmila Nikarovna via the RSP. And, thank you to Helen Bradstock for the transcription of the episode in question.

Stacie Swain is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Victoria, specializing in Canadian Politics and Indigenous Nationhood. She is interested in how discourses on religion and spirituality structure and mediate Indigenous-Canadian relations in political, legal, and legislative contexts.

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“…But What Do You Study?”: NAASR Workshop on the Job Market

Alongside the AAR/SBL this year in Boston, NAASR will host its third annual job market workshop. This is a great opportunity for early career scholars to receive feedback on their application materials from senior scholars with experience navigating the job market.

This year we’ve split the workshop into two sessions: a workshop (for small group feedback on application materials) and a general Q&A. You are welcome to attend either session for as long as your schedule allows. For more information, please see below.

If you’re interested in registering for this no-cost workshop, please e-mail me (grazmike [at] gmail [dot] com) by October 15.

NAASR Job Market Workshop 

This session proposes to explore the employment challenges facing early career scholars through both a discussion and workshop. This session addresses issues important to junior academics (notably, but not exclusively, ABDs now entering/about to enter the job market) by demonstrating how a professional organization can provide a practical and strategic forum for job-market advice.

The following activities will take place during the session:

I. Workshop (1:00-2:50pm Sunday, November 19)

In the first half of the session, participants will break into small groups, each led by a more senior scholar. Within their groups, participants will discuss in focused ways how they might best represent themselves, their work, and their scholarly interests on the job market. The smaller setting will allow for more “hands on” advice, taking as examples the CV and cover letters the organizers will have pre-distributed among participants. Simply focusing on what one says in a cover letter’s opening paragraph, for example, or how one orders a C.V., will provide the way into larger questions of representation in these small group discussions. Participants should be ready to share and discuss their CV and sample cover letter with fellow group members (though hopefully all will have some familiarity with the materials in advance to facilitate a more focused workshop).

II. Open Discussion (3:00-4:50pm, Sunday, November 19)

With the issues and questions from the small-group workshop in mind, the second half of the session will be devoted to an open discussion. The group leaders will begin by providing brief introductory remarks on what they each see as constructive and strategic advice for early career scholars who are navigating the academic job market, aimed initially at how applicants can be strategic not only in trying to ascertain a Department’s needs but also in negotiating potential theoretical and political landmines in the field. A discussion will follow in which participants can talk about these issues in an informal atmosphere and share information. This guided discussion will focus on four central questions related to how might early career scholars interested in theory and method:

  • represent themselves strategically on the job market?
  • apply to calls for general positions, fitting themselves to broad departmental needs?
  • shape their cover letters and CVs to appeal to a wide range of departments?
  • respond to critiques that they have no “specialty,” “content,” or “area of study”?
  • The discussion is designed to reflect different opinions regarding the place of theory & method in the job market, as well as in the study of religion more generally.


Scholars of all concentrations within the field of Religious Studies are welcome to join the workshop—whether a NAASR member or not—though preference will be given to early career scholars, particularly those at the senior ABD stage (i.e., those already on or going onto the job market). Shortly before the workshop, but once the participants have been identified, each participant will be invited to share with the other members, via email or a closed social media group, their academic focus/dissertation topic, level of teaching experience, their level of experience with the job market as well as their own current position (e.g., PhD Student, Postdoc, Instructor, etc.) in order to ensure all participants come to the meeting somewhat familiar with the diversity of experience in the workshop. In addition, as stated above, each participant will be invited to provide a sample cover letter and CV for the organizers to pre-distribute. These materials will then be workshopped within their small groups. More details will follow after the participant list has been finalized.

Space is limited to 25 participants in this NAASR workshop, and participants can stay for as long or as little as they like. To register, please e-mail the organizer, Michael Graziano (grazmike [at] gmail [dot] com) by no later than October 15, 2017. In this request to register please include your current degree or professional career stage.

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European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR) Conference in Leuven, 2017

by Teemu Taira and Suzanne Owen

The annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR) took place in Leuven, Belgium, in September 2017. It was organized by BABEL, the Belgian Association for the Study of Religions. With more than 500 participants, it was the largest EASR conference ever. The meetings have become bigger year after year, with Liverpool (2013), Groningen (2014) and Helsinki (2016) each larger than the last (in 2015 it was the quinquennial conference of the IAHR in Erfurt, Germany).

One of the entrances to the Groot Begijnhof in Leuven (S. Owen)

The location of the conference at a teaching hospital on the edge of Leuven was a little disappointing, but the conference pack did include a bus pass to enable us to go into town and visit some of the sites, if we wished, such as the Groot Begijnhof, once a Beguinage community, with the majority of houses dating from the 16-17th centuries, now used as university accommodation.

This year’s conference theme was “Communicating Religion”. Usually EASR meetings have quite a general theme to enable most scholars of religion to participate. As was the case in Leuven, the theme was more visible in keynote presentations than in the sessions.

Communicating, Educating

There were different ways to understand the theme: communication as a necessary concept for studying religion, communication as an exchange of messages between humans and gods, communication as transmission of tradition by oral and literary means and so on. However, there was a strong emphasis on thinking about how to communicate about religion in educational contexts, whether in schools or universities. There were four keynote presentations in the conference, delivered by distinguished scholars: Jenny Berglund, Jan N. Bremmer, Guy Stroumsa and Ann Taves. Three of the keynotes focused on education more or less directly. Although education is a crucial topic to discuss and study extensively, it was slightly surprising that none of the keynotes addressed the media as a site for communicating religion.

Session Highlights by Teemu Taira

From the sessions I shall highlight two themes that I found particularly interesting. The first of them related directly to the conference theme and dealt with communicating, educating and teaching about religion.

In a couple of sessions, including the one in which I presented, the focus was on the World Religions Paradigm (WRP) and how to avoid the most problematic parts of it in religious education (RE) and university teaching. It became obvious that the WRP was still present in the educational structures of different countries. However, scholars could have their say as committee members, textbook authors and public voices when it came to re-organizing school curricula and the content of RE in various countries. While my own paper explored the Finnish educational system from the point of view of a scholar who had recently been involved in writing an RE textbook for high school/upper secondary school, it was particularly refreshing to listen to papers that gave examples of their University undergraduate courses on how to convey the complexity of traditions and practices, rather than presenting selected religions as autonomous and homogeneous systems.

A good number of ideas were discussed; for instance, an option to use (religious) biographies as data instead of teaching the core beliefs and practices of religious traditions, having students compare textbooks about a particular religion, or exploring religious traditions in a particular locality or area. Some of these suggestions aimed to convey the complexity of beliefs and practices and fluidity of boundaries between religious traditions in particular contexts, while others focused more on the representational nature of textbooks (i.e., that textbooks are the results of selection processes and their comparison makes their selective nature visible while still providing information about selected religious traditions). What I would like to add to the list is the importance of thinking about religion and world religions as categories that include some and exclude others. One practice I have used in my teaching is in the first meeting students have to compile a list of religions that they think should be covered in the course. Then we compare the lists that usually include the ‘big five’ and a few others that vary and discuss why certain groups or traditions should or should not be part of the course. This is how we begin to contest the categories and make the selection process more reflective.

The second theme I found interesting related to the category of religion and its constructions. In a session “Religion as and beyond construction” short opening statements were followed by a panel discussion that included questions and comments from the audience. While “religion as construction” was, at least for me, not a controversial theme in itself, I was curious to hear how some participants might have argued in favour of “beyond”. Hubert Seiwert did so in his opening statement, saying that because Daoism and Buddhism had often been classified within the same category in Chinese Encyclopaedias, prior to the introduction of the term ‘religion’ to China, it provided a good case to suggest that there was religion beyond construction, without the concept. There was no time to explore the case in detail, but this example was not enough to convince me. One should demonstrate that the reason to classify Daoism and Buddhism in the same category – whatever the term used for it – is the same as to why the modern world has begun to classify them and a few other traditions or systems as religions. The example was interesting as such, but it was questionable whether it told us more than a local habit of seeing certain similarities between Daoism and Buddhism and classifying them in the same category (perhaps for some specific purposes that were not sufficiently discussed). In any case, this was a good example of what a more thorough defence of “religion beyond construction” could look like.

In her talk Paula Schrode argued that Islam was best conceptualized as a religion, rather than something else. In this short panel I missed why she thought this was the case, but one of the examples she discussed was related to the Arabic term dīn, currently translated as faith or religion. Although it was impossible to provide a full justification in a panel discussion, I felt that this was too hasty a conclusion, given that seventeenth century English translations of the Quran did not use ‘faith’ or ‘religion’ for dīn but ‘law’, and in many ways the earlier translation makes more sense. I would like to propose that scholars should not take the current translation as the best in all contexts. Instead, it might be worth taking it as an ideological claim approached with some scepticism.

“Soft constructionism” was how Robert Yelle identified his position. He was well aware that religion as a term was a historical construct strongly related to the Protestant reformation, but in addition to these historical limitations religion was limited, according to Yelle, by human nature. He argued for the importance of historical genealogies but insisted also on the need to do cross-cultural comparisons, which, he suggested, do not annul each other. While I have no reason to oppose what Yelle called the “project of anthropology” that searches for universal or quasi-universal regularities, I am not convinced that it had to include the concept of “religion” in its toolbox.

Session Highlights by Suzanne Owen

Like Teemu, I gravitated toward sessions that grappled with the study of religion itself in some way. One of these was “Revisiting European History of Religion”, with Kocku von Stuckrad regarding “Europe” as a discursive space. One of the terms bandied about the conference was “entanglement”, not least the promotion of the journal Entangled Religions at the conference, as if religions somehow became entangled, or that a religion was entangled with something else, implying “religion” was a separately-existing entity that needed to be untangled from its surroundings. A couple of the speakers also employed this term in this session. However, I found Jorg Rüpke’s contribution interesting because he shifted the view of Europe to a Mediterranean perspective, with the African continent on one side and Europe on the other. We are usually imagining Europe as centred around Germany, perhaps, but viewing it from the sea reminded us of where ideas about Europe emerged. Most of my notes on the session concerned the discussion afterward. Rüpke said “pluralism” implied pre-defined units (much as I would argue that “entanglement” does, and in the audience Taira whispered to me that Jim Beckford regarded pluralism as normative against diversity). Referring to publishing constraints, Rüpke also said a book with the title “religions” in it will sell many more copies than one with “religion”. During this session, I began to wonder why the US had “religions in America” as a popular specialism, while there was no such specialism in Europe for “religions in Europe” (at least not that I was aware of).

One other session I will mention is the one organised by Claire Wanless on “Seekership”, a term stemming from Steven Sutcliffe’s studies of the “new age”. In his paper he connected Colin Campbell’s idea of seekership to Bourdieu’s “habitus”. Another speaker, Marcus Moberg, offered “scene” as an alternative model, taken from Kahn-Harris to refer to a geographic-discursive space. In the discussion Moberg agreed that “scene” could include virtual spaces.

Ann Taves, keynote address: “Communicating about Religion/s and Other Worldviews in the Classroom: Updating the Legacy of Ninian Smart” (S. Owen)

Lastly, I would challenge Ann Taves’ suggestion in her keynote, which resurrected Ninian Smart’s idea of “worldview” as a way of going beyond the WRP in the classroom. This appears to be another “big tent” approach to the study of religion, which does not challenge the basic problem of the WRP, but only expands it to include, well, everything – if it fits some pre-defined criteria in order to be worthy of inclusion as a religion or worldview.

EASR and the European Academy of Religion

One of the hot topics at the conference was the EASR’s relation to the recently founded European Academy of Religion. The EASR’s leadership had sent out a statement earlier criticising the new initiative and was fully supported by national associations. Now that the European Academy of Religion is established, individual scholars of religion are of course free to decide whether to attend its meetings. The EASR proposed no new decisions in relation to this situation, but the discussion was lively in the meeting of the EASR’s executive committee meeting and elsewhere during the conference. The overall view was that there was no real reason to see the European Academy of Religion as a threat to the EASR, although its rather pretentious rhetoric claimed it as the leading European association for the study of religion.

Three things were emphasised in Leuven. First, there is not that much overlap between the EASR and the European Academy of Religion. In the first conference of European Academy of Religion, there were not many scholars of religion present and even fewer of those who would generally attend the EASR. However, there were plenty of scholars studying religion in other disciplines and fields of study. Second, some of the standard approaches and areas of study were not strongly represented at their conference, such as sociology of religion, psychology of religion and anthropology of religion. In that sense, the EASR has a different emphasis, although the difference is not best conceptualized as being between confessional and non-confessional study. Third, although this situation is a good reminder for the EASR to sharpen its public visibility beyond national associations for the study of religion, it is also the task of the EASR to make sure politicians, scholars in other disciplines and fields of study and the general public knows what the EASR is about and what it does.

The next annual EASR conference in June 2018 will be held in Bern, Switzerland, with the theme “Multiple Religious Identities”. The following EASR in 2019 will take place in Tartu, Estonia. In 2020 there will be the quinquennial IAHR World Congress in New Zealand.

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What’s in Your Religion Syllabus? Ian Alexander Cuthbertson

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

Creative Projects

by Ian Alexander Cuthbertson

For the last four years I have taught RELS 161: Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture at Queen’s University. RELS 161 is a large full-year course that usually attracts between 150 and 180 students. I have already written about this course elsewhere but have never described one of the more successful and rewarding components of the course: creative projects.

I first introduced a creative project option, somewhat reluctantly, in 2014. Previously, the final project for the course asked students to observe a ritual and then analyze the ritual using theories and approaches discussed in class. I had considered replacing this project with one that I’ve subsequently used (with mixed results) in a course on religious fundamentalisms that I teach at Dawson College in Montréal. The replacement project I considered asks students to create a single image, infographic, or one minute video that explores and explains a key term or concept from the course to a general audience. But the more I thought about this new project the more worried I became: Could I really require first year students to make images or videos? How would I evaluate these?

I vacillated all summer, writing and re-writing the syllabus as I drew ever closer to September and the start of term. I liked the idea of mobilizing students’ artistic talents but was uncomfortable requiring and potentially evaluating artistic skills that I did not teach in class. I take seriously the dictum that evaluations should only evaluate actual student learning: unless I teach students grammar, grammar should not be something I evaluate in student assignments. A day or two before my syllabus was due I finally decided on a compromise: I kept the ritual analysis project and included an optional creative project.

Basically, the creative project invites students (either individually, or in groups) to demonstrate their mastery of one or more of the course learning objectives however they want to. The format is open. Although I suggest possible project formats (essays, images, videos, short stories, interpretive dance…), students are free to suggest their own. Similarly, there are no set requirements for length or duration. The benefit of this open format is that it allows students complete freedom to imagine new ways of demonstrating learning that match their interests and abilities. The risk is that students will attempt to complete projects that are not feasible, that do not actually demonstrate mastery of course learning objectives, or that I am ill-equipped to evaluate. How, for instance, would I evaluate an interpretive dance? The guidelines for the creative project, which have remained unchanged since I first included it in the course, are structured to address and manage these risks. The creative project option has three components:

  1. Proposal

Students who decide to pursue the creative project option are asked to submit a formal proposal in February in which they describe their project’s format and size or duration; provide a detailed timeline to show the project can be completed by the April deadline; imagine potential complications that might arise along with solutions to these; explain exactly how their proposed project will demonstrate mastery of course learning objectives; and finally propose how I will evaluate whether or not the project actually demonstrates this. While the proposal is an essential component of the larger project, its real purpose is to structure the face-to-face meeting I have with students to discuss their proposals. In this meeting, the student(s) and I talk about the format and scope of the project and work together to determine whether the proposed project actually fits their interests and goals, whether it is feasible, and whether I will be able to properly evaluate their mastery of course learning objectives. Often, this meeting necessitates partial or complete revisions of the proposed projects as the student(s) and I work together to imagine a project that fits their interests while providing me with material I can effectively evaluate.

  1. Project

The project itself is submitted in April. Given the freedom this option allows, student projects are unique expressions of student engagement with course materials and learning objectives. In the last four years I have received videos, slam poetry presentations, short stories, one act plays, formal research papers, paintings, drawings, poetry, sculptures, musical compositions, and yes… an interpretive dance.

Typically, students submit additional materials that explain their projects and link their work directly to course learning objectives. Sometimes these explanations are brief. But students sometimes surprise me with the attention they pay to these. Grace Hart, for instance, who recorded herself and other dancers interpreting liminality, submitted a recording of the dance piece she choreographed along with a detailed breakdown that tied each movement back to liminality. This breakdown allowed me to evaluate Grace’s understanding and interpretation of liminality rather than the choreography itself. Grace also submitted a hand-written creative journal in which she recorded her artistic choices concerning music, choreography, lighting, and costume along with her rationale for these choices and for the revisions she eventually made.

  1. Reflection

One week after the projects are submitted, I ask students to submit a short reflection in which they consider whether or not their submitted project met their expectations. Sometimes, when the projects are successful, reflections are cursory. When projects do not turn out as originally planned, reflections provide students with an opportunity to explain how the material they submitted still demonstrates their engagement with and mastery of course learning objectives and allows them to revisit evaluation criteria to ensure I am still able to evaluate the project they actually submit to me.

The creative projects I have received have nearly always been brilliant expressions of student learning. Sometimes, these projects are later presented outside of the classroom. Grace Hart, for instance, submitted her choreography to a peer reviewed blog hosted by the University of Toronto and Kaitlyn Hollander submitted her drawings to a larger exhibition of creative expressions of teaching and learning at Queen’s University. Receiving these projects has been a highlight in my career as an educator. I am routinely amazed by the talent and deep understanding these projects exhibit. Although I was hesitant, at first, to include this option in my syllabus, it has proven to be the most effective and rewarding evaluation situation I have ever used in the classroom. Typically, somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of students choose to submit creative projects. But I suspect that even if the entire class chose the creative project option, I would be eager to meet individually with all 180 students to determine how they might best mobilize their talents and interests to creatively demonstrate their grasp of the key terms, core concepts, and central ideas we explore together in RELS 161. Below are three examples of creative projects I’ve received along with comments from the students who submitted these.

Defining Religion by Kaitlyn Hollander

Kaitlyn’s project consists of three large images, each of which depicts two contrasting definitions of religion. In the image above, Kaitlyn contrasts Freud’s view that religion is the product of psychological needs with the sui generis view that religion involves some special contact with ‘the sacred.’ Her piece is interactive: each separate image is only visible when viewers put on coloured lenses.

I asked Kaitlyn to reflect on her experience completing the creative project in RELS 161:

“Making a creative project for my religion class was exciting, though at times challenging. To start, I thought about what had the most impact on me during the course; how religion cannot be monolithically defined. To my first-year brain, the idea was revolutionary because I learned more broadly that definitions are fluid rather fixed concepts. I spent a great deal of time researching and understanding each scholar’s definition to make sure I could make a piece where both the viewer and myself could clearly understand these definitions. It was wonderful having the opportunity to expand my range of conceptual topics in my fine art work as well as create a piece to display outside the walls of the studio.

Visual Notes for RELS 161 by Rhiannon Allen-Roberts


Rhiannon’s project consists of a very large banner on which she drew interpretations of multiple course topics. The project is a visual map of the entire course. Rhiannon also submitted a detailed explanation of her project that connected the concepts she explored to one another. Below are a few photos of specific segments of the larger whole.

I asked Rhiannon to reflect on her experience as well:

“My experience with the creative project was probably the best academic experience I had in my first year. It really allowed me to engage with the material and that made it personal to me, ensuring that I didn’t just memorize the material but actually learned it. I still find myself referencing topics and readings from that class. It really helped me to understand and engage with the learning material. I’m still really proud of the project and believe it was the most rewarding academic achievement I had in my first year.”

Becoming by Grace Hart

I described Grace’s project above. The video she submitted can be viewed here. I also asked Grace to reflect on her experiences:

I loved doing the creative project. It helped me to engage with the material more that I would have in written format. And I wanted to. To this day, it has been the project that I have been the most passionate and involved in throughout my four years at university. And doing it in first year made all the difference. I thought of university to be this scary, academic institution, but in doing the creative project I was able to put myself into my education and really run with – and looking back now that’s what I would consider what university is supposed to be at every moment but unfortunately under all the readings and essays it doesn’t always get to be. 

It was such an effective way to engage with the material. I could still tell you what Liminality Theory means, but still have trouble explaining the neoliberalism, realism and constructivism – and I’m a politics major! It gave me a way to contextualize – and through dance, visualize – the theory in the broader scope of the course. I still struggle to read academic articles and I get nervous speaking up in my fourth-year seminars and but had I been given more opportunities to do creative projects that allowed me to engage with course material in a way that appealed to the way I learn, I think I would have retained much more information from my courses and felt more confident in my understanding of course materials. 

I was so proud handing in this project. I worked so hard on it and dedicated so much time and energy to speaking with my professor, doing the research and putting the project together that I felt like I really accomplished something – more than just the A grade that I got. It really motivated me to want to engage with course material in this course and others, and to really take every learning opportunity – academic and otherwise – that university had to offer. I will always remember this course and Professor Cuthbertson for giving me the opportunity to do my creative project, but even more so the drive, commitment and hard work that I put in to this project and how rewarding, both academically and personally, it was to complete.

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson is a Flora Jane Postdoctoral Fellow and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Queen’s University. He is also an instructor in the Humanities department at Dawson College in Montréal.

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