Looking Over and Overlooking

by Russell McCutcheon

Malory Nye’s tweet, the other day, got me thinking… So I replied:

For a while, now, I’ve had this feeling: as happens with any new and successfully reproduced social developments (or what advocates just call advances), newcomers to the group tend to normalize them. Which is a wonderful luxury, if you think about it — in fact, it’s likely among the things the earlier generation worked toward: the right of subsequent members to take things for granted that their elders could not.

“Of course we ought to have a course on theories of religion” someone might now say in our field, or, “Sure, naming something as ‘religious’ is worthwhile studying.” Why? Coz “#classificationmatters” they my tweet in reply. But the risk of normalizing such gains is that we fail to see them as the accomplishments of historical actors, in prior situations where this was not the case.

Situations which could easily return if more energy is not re-invested, i.e., if critical replies don’t chase articles that strike you as problematic.

For I’ve been in the game long enough to have clear memories of people the generation ahead of me (who are now retired or near to it) reporting how they’d lost jobs for explicitly theological reasons, or to remember the almost complete absence of courses that examined theories of religion. (Interpretations of religion — since it’s an inherently and deeply meaningful thing that defies explanation, of course — was all that counted as theory in many places.) I’m hardly unique in having these memories, of course, and I’m sure some readers could offer some of their own (hint: comments section…), but I sometimes wonder if younger generations of scholars, who might now take certain gains for granted, realize just how close we are, historically speaking, to a time when the version of the field to which they may have become accustomed was not just controversial but actually unimaginable.

Case in point: although I inherited many of the hard won gains of the generation ahead of me, I recall the the time, early in my own career, when I was privately advised to replace the word “theories” with the word “approaches,” so as not to raise eyebrows in the Department where I then worked. And then there was the time, in yet another Department, when I was told to add the late Peter Berger to my syllabus, to satisfy a senior faculty member who apparently considered his work as setting the limit for what counted as a theory in our field. These are but two moments — seemingly subtle, to be sure — where advocates for the then dominant model of the field pushed back, and did so from positions of considerable power, as compared to where I was situated at the time. Prior to that, I recall our own graduate unit declining to support MTSR in its earliest years (back when small donations from Departments and individuals funded what was then a grad student invention — find the inside jacket info from those first issues to see who did) as well as being seriously called on the carpet, once I was working, for having grad students look at the variety of intro syllabi in my own Department, as prep for the course they themselves were going to teach; I was fomenting dissent, I was basically told. I guess it was feared that I was going to turn the students to the dark side.

And if you think these are tales from a bygone age, I even know people told today that some Departments would never hire anyone who does the sort of theory work that some of us now do.

My point?

It’s easy to look over Nye’s syllabus and overlook the battles that were fought just for some of those things to be written and get into print let alone to be read and taken seriously — or added to a syllabus. That they are today is, from where I sit, great. But each of those pieces, each of those gains, needs to be historicized, I’d suggest, so that current readers who are sympathetic with this approach, and who wish it to continue and maybe even advance it a little more, understand that the baton is coming to them — in fact, maybe it’s already in their hands. For, as that last anecdote makes clear, despite a few decades of critical scholarship, all you have to do is pick up many peer-reviewed journals in the field today or browse a few publishers’ catalogs, let alone look over an annual conference program book, to realize how small those gains are when compared to the majority of work now being carried out.

After all, despite some having no time for the world religions category, seeing it as a relic leftover from the colonial era, it still dominates not just intro courses but the way in which the entire field is conceived and practiced. And despite courses on theories of religion now being out there, few are required of majors and minors, and we all know that the now ever-present method & theory courses in grad school are often seen by students as a rite of passage to endure and to just get behind you, so that you can get to the real religious stuff that you came to grad school to study.

So Nye’s syllabus is quite interesting to me, but for more reasons than might at first be apparent.

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Theses on Professionalization: Barbara Krawcowicz


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 Barbara Krawcowicz

Thesis #9. A structural element that must be taken into account is that Departmental search committees often fail to entertain the difficult questions in advance and, instead, go on “fishing expeditions” by defining their open positions far too broadly and vaguely, such as looking for “the best qualified” applicant (without ever articulating what counts as “qualified”). Making explicit their implicit and often competing preferences may strike members of a Department as being too costly an exercise. It is into this mix of unstated disagreements and longstanding rivalries that job applicants can be thrust, affecting such things as how their letters of application are read, their credentials judged, and their performance during campus interviews measured. While one cannot control such factors, when representing oneself one at least ought to be aware of their potential presence and impact.

An interesting job advert appeared not long ago on the Higher Ed website:

Untitled SS

Minimum education: no response. Minimum experience: no response. The plethora of information regarding the position contained in the advertisement took my breath away. There is no doubt whatsoever that the hiring department had spent a significant amount of time considering all the important factors before it went public with the search. Imagine those long discussions: we need someone to teach X but it would be great if they could teach Y and Z as well. We could use someone with an expertise in the field of A; that would greatly enhance our program. But it is also essential that the person we hire has experience in B and C because our department really needs that! And also… But as well… And let us not forget about…

Alright, I know, the advertisement was obviously a mistake and thus it cannot serve as an illustration of McCutcheon’s thesis #9. However, every single one of us, (i.e. of people in the trenches of what is commonly known as the job search but feels much more like one of the protracted and exhausting battles of World War I), has seen more than one advertisement that was, to say the least, vague in its description of the vacant position, required qualifications, job’s responsibilities, etc.

As a grad student at Indiana University Bloomington, I attended a workshop where several tenured faculty members shared some of the knowledge they gathered while serving on job search committees. Among many interesting things said, one in particular caught my attention. In response to a complaint that many job descriptions were formulated in such a way that it was quite impossible to decide whether or not one was qualified and should apply for the job, one of the professors replied: well, the truth of the matter is that oftentimes the search committee doesn’t really know what it is looking for. The professor smiled saying this and his words were met with chuckles among the audience. I don’t think I laughed. Somehow it did not seem funny.

On the Chronicle of Higher Education discussion board, there is a long thread entitled Apply For The Damn Job. Am I really qualified to apply for this position? AFTDJ! I’m not sure whether they’re actually looking for someone doing this-and-that. AFTDJ! The description is so broad that I don’t really know if… AFTDJ! You are never going to know for sure. So just AFTDJ if it seems that you may be a good fit. Seems. Yes, that’s all you’re going to know because, sometimes, the search committee itself does not have a clear picture of the ideal candidate.

So we apply for those damn jobs. One problem we immediately encounter is this: how can one tailor application documents to a job description if the description happens to be hopelessly vague? How can I prove that I am the best qualified candidate if I don’t know what counts as qualified (let alone best)? The advertisement says they want a person whose work is interdisciplinary. Ok, great, but what exactly does that mean? Does it even mean anything? Or is only a convenient placeholder instead of which the advert should actually say, “well, we don’t really know what we want” or “we will make up our minds once we see the applications and know who is available”?

That is not all, however.

Not long ago I applied for a job in Europe. The job description in the advertisement was surprisingly detailed. Moreover, there was an even more informative package available through the institution’s online application system. From what was called a job specification I could learn infinitely more than I ever had from any analogous advertisements in the US.

The description was divided into following sections: 1) Job Purpose, 2) Main Responsibilities, 3) Knowledge, Skills and Experience Needed for the Job, 4) Key Contacts/Relationships, 5) Dimensions, 6) Job Context and any other relevant information. The list of knowledge, skills, and experience was divided into two sections: essential and desirable. The former consisted of five points. The latter – of another three.

My goodness, I thought, could one ask for a better job description? Admittedly, parts of it did leave a bit too much room for interpretation. For example, one of the essentials was an “ability to plan and deliver excellent teaching.” One could ask, rightfully, what exactly counts as excellent teaching. Or what is meant by “high level competence in university lecturing,” but then we all know that there are things that are not easily captured within any definite rubric. Especially in a limited space of a job advert.

Either way, I thought I had all the information I needed to prepare an excellent application. And so I did. In my letter I highlighted how I met all the essential requirements and some of the desirable ones. I made sure it was clear that I am capable of successfully discharging the main responsibilities listed.

I was invited for the interview.

The last position on the list of the desirables was occupied by – and here I will allow myself to replace the actual content of the job specification with a bit of a metaphor– an ability to cook vichyssoise. Well, I said to myself, I’ve never actually made this particular soup but I am no stranger to cooking in general and to cooking soups in particular. Besides, it is the very last of the desirables. Obviously it is not as important as the others.

How surprised I was when the interviewing panel presented me with leeks, potatoes, chicken broth and whipping cream and requested that I prepare a delicious vichyssoise right there and then!

Evidently the desirables were considerably more essential than they appeared given the advertisement.

How was that possible, I wondered. Why making vichyssoise was not listed among the essentials? It clearly should have been!

Well, a knowledgeable person told me, probably the committee members were not in agreement regarding this ability’s importance. Or perhaps they changed their mind sometime between the advert’s publication and the interviews. Additionally, you need to keep in mind that in the country where the institution is located, it is often the case that the advertisement is not created by people who later serve on the committee. It is possible that the vichyssoise advocate(s) had less impact on the job description content and more on the actual interview and decision making.

It is not only that, as McCutcheon has written, “Departmental search committees often fail to entertain the difficult questions in advance and, instead, go on ‘fishing expeditions’ by defining their open positions far too broadly and vaguely.” It is also the case that sometimes they define and redefine the position as the search unfolds.

“While one cannot control such factors” as nebulous job descriptions, “unstated disagreements and longstanding rivalries,” McCutcheon writes, “when representing oneself one at least ought to be aware of their potential presence and impact.” I’m not sure how this awareness should translate into action. Unless what McCutcheon is saying is simply: AFTDJ!

Barbara Krawcowicz received her PhD in Religious Studies from Indiana University Bloomington and in Philosophy from Warsaw University. Currently, she serves as an adjunct lecturer at the Polish Academy of Sciences. She’s working on a book devoted to Jewish Ultra-Orthodox responses to the Holocaust. Her research interests include modern and contemporary Jewish thought, religious radicalism, gender and religion, as well as method and theory in religious studies.

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Religious Symbols with a Hipster-Sikh Twist

by Matt Sheedy

For those paying attention to Canadian politics these days (beyond the occasional swoon-fest over Justin Trudeau, Canada’s “super hot Prime Minister”) one of the more popular figures to have emerged in recent months is Jagmeet Singh, a representative of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, and former deputy leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party (the NDP is Canada’s national “left-of-center” party).

Singh drew widespread attention in Canada as the first credible Sikh man to run for the leadership of a national party (Martin Singh ran in 2012) when he announced his bid to head the federal NDP on May 15, 2017. Singh is also quite young (38), and has been credited with mobilizing the youth vote with his affable character, tailored suits, and hipster-esque persona, which has served to de-stabilize common associations between piety and “religious” modes of dress. Like all symbols, however, their meaning is fluid and is often used as battle-ground to hash-out other things.

More recently, Singh gained international attention after a protester at a “meet and greet” (which Singh playfully calls a “JagMeet & Greet“) got up in his face shouting “When is your Sharia going to end,” to which Singh responded calmly, repeating his campaign slogan of “love and courage.” Singh’s response gained him many accolades in the mainstream media and a bump in the polls to boot  (see here, here, and here). The heckler, Jennifer Bush, has since defend herself by stating that she is not racist (see here and here), though her membership in the nationalist, anti-Islam group Rise Canada makes this claim hard to square for many. In the aftermath of this event, Singh has become a symbol of divisions within Canada over such issues as racism, free speech, the limits of secularism, and the perceived meaning of “religious” symbols.

Earlier this week Singh became the target of Bloc Québécois leader Martine Ouellet (the BQ is a separatist party exclusive to the province of Québec), who claimed that Singh’s candidacy reflects the following trends:

  • It highlights the “rise of the religious left”;
  • It poses a threat to secularism in Québec, which underwent a dramatic separation between (Catholic) church and state in the 1960s;
  • It shows “religious values” and not “progressive values”;
  • The wearing of “religious symbols” is equivalent to the promotion of religious values.

On this last point Ouellet explains:

“Wearing religious symbols is showcasing one’s religion, and that is promoting one’s religion and promoting religious values, no matter what the religion is,” the Bloc leader added. “When you are promoting religious values, it is always the promotion of one religion, and that is always to the detriment of others.”

No religion should be highlighted more than any other, she said.

One thing that stands out for me in Ouellet’s claims is the way that she attempts to naturalize the link between so-called “religious symbols” and “religious values.”

On the one hand, it is hard to decouple Ouellet’s statements and the racialization of certain groups within the Euro-West, whose visible differences, such as skin color and modes of dress (especially niqabs, hijabs, and turbans) provide an easy symbol of estrangement. For some this is seen as a threat to “Western” (or Canadian) values (here the discourse ranges from what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation” to racist epithets), while for others it harkens the spectre of immigration (including refuges) as a tide that must be kept at bay. In Québec the niqab and hijab have been the most prominent symbols of estrangement in recent years, while Sikh turbans have remained largely under the radar, despite making an appearance in the province’s proposed ban on “religious symbols” back in 2013 (see image below).

There are many interesting threads to this story that I can’t touch upon here, including the metonymy of symbols, the slippery lines between “culture” and “religion,” and the discourse on Islamophobia, to name a few. What I’d like to focus on is the attempt to naturalize the meaning of “religious symbols” within public discourse, which I would claim is fuelled by essentialized definitions of religion that fail to account for its imbrications in culture, politics, and the like, along with its ever-shifting meaning.

Ideologically speaking, the Bloc Québécois are perhaps best known as a separatist party with social democratic leanings that tend toward a mode of cultural politics that resembles the French Republican model of laïcité. For example, both France and Québec have sought to place restrictions on the public display of so-called “religious symbols” under the premise that such displays undermine the secular character of the state and represent a thin edge of a wedge toward the acceptance of conservative religious norms (in the case of Québec, see here).

More recently, the 2013 Québec Charter of Secular Values, which failed to pass into law, proposed restrictions on the wearing of ‘religious symbols,” requiring the removal of hijabs, yarmulkes and turbans for those in positions of public authority (police, judges, etc.), as well as for most employees who work for and do business with the provincial government. Much of the political manoeuvring behind this proposed policy can be seen, in part, as a by-product of Québécois nationalism. As I wrote in 2013:

For those who are paying attention to the internal politics in this affair—which does not, it seems to me, constitute a majority of Canadians, let alone those outside of the country—it is commonly held that the Charter is being used as a wedge issue by some within the Parti Québécois, which is a separatist party with aspirations to cede from the country. Following this logic, a Supreme Court ruling against the “Charter of Québec Values” can be used as evidence that the government of “Canada” is trying to limit Québec’s sovereignty, thus bolstering the party’s popularity.

Fast forward to Ouellet’s charge against Singh, part of what distinguishes the “progressive values” of the Parti Québécois from the NDP is a form of cultural politics that is commonly traced to the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s, where the province made a radical break with the Catholic Church and its role within the state (e.g., in schools, hospitals, etc.) in favor of a strong version of secular ideology, which included a popular feminist sensibility that often equates Islamic veiling practices with a nun’s habit. This ideology contributed not only to the Charter of Secular Values, but also, more recently, to the firm opposition against the wearing of the niqab during citizenship ceremonies (see my post on this here), a recent parliamentary motion against Islamophobia, M-103, and a current proposal in Québec, Bill 62, targeting niqab-wearing women. It is worth noting here that Singh has shown support for M-103 and rejected Bill 62, which helps to explain why his turban stands-in for more than meets the eye.

What may appear to outsiders as mere racism or a bizarre conflation between symbols and values on the part of the Bloc Québécois, is perhaps better explained by digging through the entanglements of things like sovereignty, identity, and perceived difference, which provides a rather striking instance of how the identity formation of particular groups is shaped by political interests that condition “meaning” in ways that are hard to shake. What Singh’s hipster-Sikh image will churn out down the road remains to be seen, though if he continues to be in the spotlight it may be the case that this symbolic tug-of-war is just warming up.

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

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Theses on Professionalization: Jeffrey Wheatley


by Jeffrey Wheatley

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

Thesis #8: Like all institutions, academia provides a case study in the complex relationship between structure and agency; for, although there are a variety of things that one can do to increase one’s competitiveness, job candidates must recognize that there are also a host of factors of which they are unaware and which are therefore beyond their control (e.g., the unstated needs, interests, goals, and even insecurities of the hiring Department; the number of other candidates qualified at any given time in your area of expertise; the impact of world events on the perceived need for scholars in your subject area, etc.). Success likely requires one to learn to live with the latter while taking control of the former.

Most of Russell McCutcheon’s theses on professionalization provide important suggestions for how young scholars can develop their academic careers. The eighth thesis is a bit different. It suggests that we might do well to embrace on some level the vicissitudes of pursuing an academic career. McCutcheon writes that:

[A]lthough there are a variety of things that one can do to increase one’s competitiveness, job candidates must recognize that there are also a host of factors of which they are unaware and which are therefore beyond their control.

However deserving we might think ourselves to be and however much we professionalize and develop research that fulfills our particular field’s current desires, the truth is that academia in all of its institutional, personal, financial, and political dimensions will in all likelihood defy any attempt on the part of young scholars to understand the academic job market fully, much less master it completely. There are always unknowns. The academy is a game of risks.

In some ways Thesis #8 resonates with Tara Baldrick-Morrone’s response to Thesis #6. Regarding the demands of professionalization, she writes that:

[Th]is constant ratcheting-up of expectations does not guarantee us a thing, not even an interview with a third-tier institution. Performing any combination of the aforementioned tasks (or all of them, for that matter) does not equate to a job.

Acknowledging the reality of these vicissitudes does, I think, contribute to the development of a healthier realistic mentality in young scholars. To put it one way: failure to get a secure job does not indicate a failure in effort. But as I consider Thesis #8 and the Theses on Professionalization broadly, I am stuck thinking not about the “additional” skills, forms of consciousness, or exercises that will serve young scholars should they pursue an academic career (even if one of these skills is the acceptance of a lack of control), but, as Tara notes at the end of her post, I am stuck thinking about the responsibilities that the field broadly has toward young scholars. Furthermore, Thesis #8 prompts me to consider the structural forces that are more harmful and open to challenge than the examples McCutcheon provides. So, even as I acknowledge the utility and intent of Thesis #8, I want to use this opportunity to pivot towards these issues.

As a graduate student in the early stages of a PhD program, I cannot lay claim to any direct knowledge of the visceral realities of being on the job market—the ways in which the unknowns play into hiring; the ways in which the ideals of a meritocracy cannot capture the messiness of the whole process. In some ways the academic career market to me remains an abstraction, albeit one whose presence looms. Thankfully, I have been fortunate enough to have graduate colleagues and faculty members who have made frank discussions about the job market a part of academic training and central to my sense of being a member of an academic (and social) community. Furthermore, many scholars have utilized digital spaces to give priority to discussing #altac, the future of tenure, contingent labor conditions, the presumptuous privileging of those trained at elite institutions, and the ways in which gender and race structure academia today. We need to continue to examine and scrutinize these variables and how they influence our relationships, our hierarchies, and our scholarly production. Because of the efforts of these vocal scholars, I and many other young graduate students, it seems, are getting a much better sense of what awaits us and what the costs (and the rewards!) might be should we pursue an academic career.

Some of the persistent “unknowns” in academic hiring are inevitable. In truth, the phrase “the unspokens,” rather than “unknowns,” better captures what I mean in this post. We might do better to accept some of the academy’s “unspokens” as they are. The latter two examples that McCutcheon provides in Thesis #8 qualify for this treatment. However, McCutcheon’s first example—“the unstated needs, interests, goals, and even insecurities of the hiring Department” as factors beyond the control of applicantsdeserves more criticism. I think hiring institutions have a responsibility to craft pointed and relevant job descriptions that provide as transparent a view as possible to their intentions. Surely, this is a burden on these hiring committees. But I care more about the burden placed on job applicants lured by job descriptions whose authors have not disclosed (or figured out) what or whom they are really looking for. Applying to jobs is a costly and time-consuming endeavor that often occurs during a period in which many young scholars have diminishing or no support from their graduate institutions. We should question and challenge such a damaging “unspoken” variable alongside the ones I list in the previous paragraph.

I use “we” in a broad sense. I use it normatively, with the hope of drawing in scholars at all levels of academia to openly engage these issues. Young scholars have the most reason to be vocal about some of the more problematic unspokens that structure the academy today. Young scholars also occupy a position of vulnerability, which might be exacerbated if they are vocal in challenging the structures of the academy, especially if they are alone in doing so and especially if their social positionality (e.g., gender, class, race) already weakens their placement in the academy. The critique of some of the academy’s unspokens, I would like to think, should be the responsibility of our institutions, not just a burden placed upon young scholars as they navigate the complicated world of the academy. I make this claim not because I think Religious Studies is a site that, because of its objects of study (variously defined), creates a unique demand for ethical practices and responsibilities. I do not. I make this claim because I am invested in these institutions and fields. I care about the knowledges, methods, and theories we produce, and I care about the professional exercises and institutions that undergird this production.

Jeffrey Wheatley is a doctoral student in American Religions at Northwestern University. Jeff holds an MA from Florida State University. He is primarily interested in studying religion alongside politics, race, and imperialism. His current project explores the dynamics of race and religion within US colonial governance of the Philippines. Other research areas include secularism, capitalism, theory and method, and US Catholic history. He is on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

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Bulletin Book Reviews: Kunze on Altman (2017)

Editor’s note: Bulletin Book Reviews is the newly developed book review portal for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, associated with NAASR and published by Equinox. We are interested in reviewing titles of wide relevance to the academic study of religion, particularly those which themselves foreground issues of method and theory in the study of religion or from which such issues can be gleaned and discussed productively. We encourage submissions from doctoral students and established faculty alike. For more information, please visit the page linked above.

Altman, Michael. Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721–1893. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xxii+175. $34.95 (hardcover).

by Andrew Kunze

Michael Altman’s Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu turns a critical eye toward history of Hinduism in America and the nationalist, orientalist discourses of formative debates, from the Colonial era up to Chicago’s World Parliament, in order to revise the standard “Transcendentalist-Theosophist-Vivekananda-1965” trajectory (xvii). Taking a genealogical approach to his historical sources, Altman shows how ‘hazy notions’ of Indian religion variously served as discursive foils and straw-men against white, Protestant American identity. When these Americans talked about religion in India, Altman argues, they were really “talking about themselves” (xxi) and constituting their own racial, national, and religious identities (140).

Altman first unpacks the religious cargo of three loaded terms—Heathen, Gentoo, Hindoo. First, Cotton Mather dismisses of all forms of ‘Heathen’ religion in 1721 (1); by 1784 Hannah Adams’ ‘liberal’ account aspires for a more ‘impartial’ description of, what she called, the ‘most tolerant’ religion of ‘Gentoos’ (16); and in 1811 Claudius Buchanan’s ‘evangelical’ representation portrays ‘Hindoo’ religion as violent and superstitious (30–1). With several such ‘evangelical’ accounts, Altman demonstrates that missionary organizations “used representations of Hindoo depravity to foster support for the missions and to increase their institutional strength” (38).

Altman then lays bare the racial and religious hierarchies of American national culture in the mid-eighteenth century, with two main sets of sources: Geography schoolbooks and stories from Harper’s magazine. In many regards, these publications reified the national identity of white, Protestant America by rejecting its foil in India: its ‘half-civilized’ caste system, its treatment of women as ‘slaves,’ and its ‘false’ religion (53). This chapter contains one of Altman’s most important contributions—he expands our view beyond elite religious circles and gives us a glimpse of more wide-spread American representations of Hinduism during this period.

Next, Altman adds nuance to our understanding of the Transcendentalist writers and their complicated appreciation for Indian religion. Emerson maintained a belief in the superiority of the Western mind and essentialized the oriental other, but unlike the preceding racial hierarchies, he sought a balance between Eastern and Western thought, instead of outright Western dominance (78). Both Emerson and Thoreau were guilty of essentializing Indian religion and the ‘Eastern mind.’ In their ‘liberal’ publications, like The Dial and The Atlantic, Transcendentalists attempted to ‘universalize’ and decontextualized Sanskrit texts (90) and portrayed Indian civilization through narratives of decline (94).

Chapter five portrays the Theosophical Society as the mystical cousins of their Transcendental peers, and Altman brilliantly shows their orientalist assumptions suddenly challenged by contact with the Arya Samaj of Swami Dayananda Saraswati. For Blavatsky, “[t]he wisdom religion derived from India […] did not belong to Hindus” (107). Little surprise, then, that the Theosophical Society’s 1878 merger with the Arya Samaj was short lived. After a personal meeting with Dayananda Saraswati in 1880, the Theosophists agreed to separate the two organizations, and mutual public denunciations quickly followed (109). Saraswati derided Blavatsky as an atheist and a huckster, while Theosophists criticized the Arya Samaj as sectarian, dogmatic, and exclusivist (109). These voices of Indian resistance become all the more important as the book sets up its 1893 conclusion in Chicago.

It’s hard to say something new about the Parliament of World Religions, but his work in the preceding five chapters helps Altman paint a critical, Masuzawa-inspired portrait. Some ‘liberal’ organizers hoped the event would unite religious peoples in their pursuit of higher ideals (122), and other ‘evangelicals’ saw the Parliament as forum to assert Christian (and mostly Protestant) supremacy (123). Stepping into the Protestant debate, two Hindu speakers—Protap Chunder Mozoomdar and Swami Vivekananda—elicited two distinct responses. Representing the Brahmo Samaj, Mozoomdar described his ‘religion,’ and Unitarians happily claimed him as their own (131). By contrast, Vivekananda not only defended Hindu practice, but also chastised the Parliament’s organizers and the Christian West for its religious intolerance and imperial violence (133–34). His fiery critique, as well as his polished English diction, made Swami Vivekananda an instant celebrity in Chicago and around the US.

This book promises to become an important resource for studies of American Hinduism, American history, and religious studies. Packed with fascinating sources and incisive analysis, each chapter flies by in a quick 20 pages. I can mention only two small critiques, both of which are unpacked in the forthcoming print version of this review. First, the text’s liberal-vs.-evangelical framework might be occasionally overplayed in a way that suggests every religious actor of this period fits neatly into one or the other category. This excludes liberal, evangelical abolitionists like Henry Ward Beecher, or even Charles Grandison Finney. Second, the text omits Protap Chunder Mozoomdar’s 1883 tour of the US, when he spoke at many Unitarian churches, and newspapers debated his religious identity, a full decade before the Chicago Parliament. These quibbles aside, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu is an excellent history, which will help readers see the nineteenth century precedent for our contemporary politics of Hindu representation. Altman’s critical historical analysis will help both undergraduate and graduate students see the American embrace of Vivekananda in stark new light, and his powerful historical sources will drive home the nationalist and orientalist forces behind many a debate on ‘religion.’

Andrew Kunze is a fourth year PhD student in Anthropology of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He studies the Hindu diaspora, and the ways new mass media affect contemporary Hindu practice. His research focuses on American Hindu communities and their connections with Indian religious institutions.

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“Gender” in/and the Study of Religion: Introducing WoNJAR

In this series, the Bulletin asks scholars if and how they critically engage “gender” in the study of religion. Contributors consider how gender intersects with method & theory, pedagogy, professional practices, or matters of race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc., and how such intersections are handled within the study of religion. For previous posts in this series, see here.

Introducing WoNJAR

by Helen Lee and Joanna Pedder

WoNJAR stands for Women’s Network for Junior Academics of Religion, and is based in Leeds, England. Three of us – Joanna Pedder, Rebecca (Bex) Anthoney, and Helen Lee – founded WoNJAR two months ago, and each of us has various thoughts about the challenges women academics in Theology and Religious Studies face more generally, as well as personal experiences, that led to our forming this network. Here, we introduce WoNJAR and our goals for the network.

Who is WoNJAR?

Helen: WoNJAR began because two of our group wanted a project to sustain them academically between the MA and PhD. Joanna is currently working on her MA dissertation (due in December) and Bex already completed her programme back in July. Bex had also worked outside of academia for a substantial period of time between undergraduate and taught postgraduate level, so she knows what it is like to miss having an academic focus and being part of an academic community. At the start of 2017 Bex and Joanna applied for PhD programmes, which they found stressful and lonely. This links to numerous anxieties about entering the academic world and how welcoming it might be in practice, especially for us as women.

Particularly the following:

  1. The ‘inside voice’ that tells us our work is not at a high enough level to be considered for a PhD, despite grades saying otherwise.
  2. ‘Imposter Syndrome’- the feeling of not belonging and eventually being found out and rejected. I for one never cease to be amazed when tutors are excited about my ideas.
  3. Specific confidence issues related to class and family background (at MA level I am already more highly qualified than anyone in my family has ever been). There is also the fear of not securing a decently-paid, permanent position at the end of a PhD, the question of having children and when, the issues that could arise within a long-term relationship with another aspiring academic… and the list goes on. Perhaps it is the nature of aspiring academics to overthink, and especially for women, who are socially conditioned to observe with micro precision the risks of social rejection or of taking up too much space in the world.

All of the above factors have been noted by Guest, Sharma and Song in their study of women academics in TRS in the UK context (2013). In particular, Guest et al have discussed how these factors feed into an academic culture where male researchers outnumber female researchers as status increases (ibid.).

Talking about these issues together has encouraged all three of us, and has reinforced the truth that none of us are alone in this journey, which feels crazy at times, and requires massive leaps of faith when working to acquire a PhD or have an academic career. To start our venture we met with Dr. Rachel Muers, who has been very supportive of WoNJAR, and agreed that a network was probably the best approach. We also agreed to base the network in Leeds for practical reasons; all three of us live in Leeds, are Leeds alumni, and we are familiar with the university’s facilities and ways of facilitating conferences and events.

What will WoNJAR do to address the problems facing Junior women scholars of religion?

Joanna: We deliberately call ourselves a network to develop mutual support amongst Junior women scholars. In my own experience, and I think Helen and Bex can also attest to this, upon starting our MA/PGT programmes, we realised how lonely it can be as classes and face-to-face interactions are fewer and far between. WoNJAR stands against this isolating culture through a forum of mutual encouragement to speak about Junior women scholar’s own research and experiences of researching. This, we hope, promotes the representation of women who are interested in academic research on religion, so those considering further research (be they final year undergraduate, Masters, or PhD students) are not alone in their ambitions. While I am acutely aware of the gender imbalance in my own research area of political theology and am accustomed to it, I see WoNJAR as an important opportunity to break out of the predominantly male surroundings of political theology conferences.

WoNJAR plans to host conference days, which will allow for interdisciplinary perspectives on topics within the study of religion, and provide contributors the opportunity to share their own passion with other engaged researchers. This will provide the opportunity to ask constructive questions and build confidence and assertiveness, but in a setting of trust and mutual curiosity in our respective research interests. Another dimension of the conference is orientated towards career development skills and experiences. Our aim is to dedicate part of the conference day to an aspect of the academic experience, with professional input on matters such as submitting a journal article, writing books, and delivering conference speeches.

Online networking will also play an important role in WoNJAR. Being neurodiverse myself (I have dyspraxia-dyslexia in addition to anxiety and low-mood), I understand that not everyone has to contribute in the same way for their contribution to be valuable. The WoNJAR site will be opening for blog submissions (and perhaps other digital formats). The plan is to have a mixture of set topics and open contributions regarding both research interests and academic interests, similar in scope to our conference days.

Finally, to those interested in our project but who aren’t perhaps set on an academic career, do not worry! Completing a degree, be it a BA/MA/MPhil/PhD can be challenging and rewarding experience alone. WoNJAR was established to create a supportive academic environment in the study of religion specifically for both ‘pre-career’ (BA/MA) and ‘Junior academics’ (PhDs) with this in mind. The point is that we are here to take you seriously, precisely because we are not established academics. However, we have also corresponded with early-career academics (post-doctoral) regarding their potential involvement in our project. Post-doctoral academics are certainly welcome to contribute, especially with regard to mentoring. We encourage anyone interested to connect with us on Twitter and Facebook and at our WordPress Blog. Stay tuned for events and opportunities!

Joanna Pedder is studying for a MA in Religions and Theology at the University of Manchester. She researches religion and political theory, with a particular interest in Catholic mysticism and its intersection with conservatism.

Helen Lee is studying for an MA in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. She researches issues of religious identity and is currently writing about Islamophobia in the UK.

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NAASR Announcement: Editorial Appointment for NAASR Working Papers Book Series

An Announcement from NAASR: Brad Stoddard has been appointed by the NAASR Executive Council as the founding editor for the newly formed NAASR Working Papers book series (with Equinox Publishers).

The series description reads as follows:

NAASR Working Papers provides a venue for publishing the latest research carried out by scholars who understand religion to be an historical element of human cognition, practice, and organization. Whether monographs or multi-authored collections, the volumes published in this series all reflect timely, cutting edge work that takes seriously both the need for developing bold theories as well as rigorous testing and debate concerning the scope of our tools and the implications of our studies. NAASR Working Papers therefore assess the current state-of-the-art while charting new ways forward in the academic study of religion.

Congratulations, Brad!

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