God of the (Consciousness) Gap: Religious Experience between Waking and Sleeping

by Adam J. Powell

This post first appeared on hearingthevoice.org.

What if I told you that last night I was visited by an angel whilst lying in bed? What if I could provide specific details, like that there were diffuse light and a sense of euphoria accompanying my encounter with the angel? What if I said that he beckoned me to approach and that, when I obliged, it seemed that I was only approaching in spirit; I could see my physical body still lying in bed? If it was not a dream, what was it?

Depending on your personal religious beliefs, epistemological commitments, cultural context, and sundry other variables, you may respond with an accusation of fabricating a tall tale, of being mentally ill, or of having had the privilege of enjoying a bona fide spiritual encounter. Ultimately, your response will have much to do with your expectations and, likewise, with your understanding of the available plausible options. In this way, our presumptions shape our conclusions (an inevitable force often strongly resisted by academics as they strive to push the cart of human knowledge ever forward).

Even so, my recent work with Durham University’s Hearing the Voice project – analysing accounts of religious experience in 19th-century America – indicates that an individual’s (or group’s) philosophy of mind shapes both the interpretive categories and descriptive terms used to recount unusual experiences. On the surface, this may not seem particularly noteworthy. Yet, it has ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ implications for the study of religious experience. On the modest side, this means that when an experience is identified as ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ and described (as they very commonly are in 19-century texts) as a ‘vision’ or ‘dream’, such language and interpretation may result from overly limited conceptual options.

Specifically, my research suggests unfamiliarity with a ‘third way’ of human consciousness – that between waking and sleeping – amongst the 19th-century religionists who chose to record their unique experiences. Consequently, many accounts from this period use ‘dream’ and ‘vision’ interchangeably or, contrastingly, attempt to distinguish between the two based on a tacit assumption that dreams are mundane sleep phenomena and, thus, visions are something special – even when the latter occur at night in bed.

In contemporary psychiatry and psychology, however, the set of hallucinoid phenomena that occur at night in bed, but that are not dreams, have a name: hypnagogia. These multimodal (visual, auditory, haptic, and emotional) experiences take place in transitional stages of consciousness between waking and sleeping, or sleeping and waking. In other words, they do not constitute either sleeping dreams or waking hallucinations (nor are they tall tales). They may include hearing one’s name called, feeling a presence in the room, feeling fear, or enjoying a sense of euphoria accompanying an out-of-body experience. They are also relatively common – estimates range between 30% and 70% of the general population.

The ‘hard’ significance of this, then, is that my 19th-century cases not only exhibited confusion over appropriate language (was it a ‘dream’ or a ‘vision’) because of an unawareness of the continuum of consciousness, but also may have been deemed special (therefore, religious/spiritual) precisely because of that unawareness. Those who saw an apparition in their room as they retired to bed or who ‘floated’ away from their bodies were very likely experiencing the ‘third way’ of hypnagogia, but with no conceptual space for such a liminal state there was only room for invocations of the supernatural. Indeed, based on a comparison with recent phenomenological studies of hypnagogia, I estimate that 32% of the 65 historical cases I have studied fit the definition of hypnagogic (between waking and sleeping) and hypnopompic (between sleeping and waking) hallucinations.

Of course, this sort of retroactive application of contemporary categories risks being reductionistic and misleadingly anachronistic, but let’s not ignore that ‘hypnagogic hallucination’ was coined by the French psychiatrist Alfred Maury in 1848, the very midpoint of the century on which I am focused. What is more, his fellow Frenchman Alexandre Brierre de Boismont also discussed this liminal state of consciousness (‘hallucinations in dreams’) in his 1853 book, Hallucinations. So, emerging 19th-century categories for attendant 19th-century phenomena…

In the end, this hypnagogia hypothesis contends that the terms ‘dream’ and ‘vision’ were used inconsistently during this period because phenomena comprising hypnagogia, and the state of consciousness they represent, were unknown to those trying to make sense of their experiences. They, too, wanted to know, ‘If it was not a dream, what was it?’

For the whole argument, look for ‘The Hypnagogia Hypothesis’ to be published soon, or you can simply email Adam with questions and comments (adam.j.powell@durham.ac.uk)


Further Reading

Boismont, A. (1853) Hallucinations; Or, The Rational history of Apparitions, Visions, Dreams, Ecstasy, Magnetism, and Somnambulism. Philadelphia.

Cook, C. (2013) ‘The prophet Samuel, hypnagogic hallucinations and the voice of God – psychiatry and sacred texts,’ The British Journal of Psychiatry 203/5: 380.

Jones, S., Fernyhough, C., and Meads, D. (2009) ‘In a dark time: Development, validation, and correlates of the Durham hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations questionnaire,’ Personality and Individual Differences, 46: 30-4.

Jones, S., Fernyhough, C., and Larøi, F. (2010) ‘A phenomenological survey of auditory verbal hallucinations in the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states,’ Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 9: 213-24.

Mahowald, M., Woods, S., and Schenck, C. (1998) ‘Sleeping Dreams, Waking Hallucinations, and the Central Nervous System,’ Dreaming, 8/2: 89-102.

Maury, L.F.A. (1848) ‘Des hallucinations hypnagogiques, ou des erreurs des sens dans l’etat intermediaire entre la veille et le sommeil.’ Annales Medico-Psychologiques du système nerveux, 11: 26-40.

Mavromatis, A. (2010) Hypnagogia: The Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep. London: Thyrsos Press.

Ohayon, M., Priest, R.G., Caulet, M., and Guilleminault, C. (1996) ‘Hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations: pathological phenomena?’ The British Journal of Psychiatry, 169/4: 459-67.

Ohayon, M. (2000) ‘Prevalence of hallucinations and their pathological associations in the general population,’ Psychiatry Research, 97: 153-64.

Powell, A. (2017) ‘The Place of Identity Dissonance and Emotional Motivations in Bio-Cultural Models of Religious Experience: A Report from the 19th Century,’ Journal for the Study of Religious Experience, 3: 91-105.

Waters, F., Blom, J., Dang-Vu, T., Cheyne, A., Alderson-Day, B., Woodruff, P., and Collerton, D. (2016) ‘What is the Link Between Hallucinations, Dreams, and Hypnagogic-Hypnopompic Experiences?’ Schizophrenia Bulletin, 42/5: 1098-1109.

Adam J. Powell is a junior research fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University and a recipient of Durham’s International Fellowships for Research and Enterprise. He has published on Mormonism, patristic theology, sociological identity theories, and bio-cultural models of religious experience.


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What’s in Your Religion Syllabus?: Joshua Patterson

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.

by Joshua Patterson

Whether they are short or long, the goals we include in our course syllabi project a certain sense of who we are as teachers, and our identities as scholars of religion. Additionally, the statements given on departmental webpages signify particular priorities for that department and are meant to paint a picture of the collective identity of that faculty. As a doctoral student in higher education, with degrees in religious studies, one of the ways that I am researching religious studies in higher education is by analyzing learning goals. There is a strange relationship that exists between the goals we share with our students and those we hold in our own minds, and as I undertook research on learning goals, I knew from my own teaching experience that my own syllabus goals only scratched the surface of the care and intention I had for designing every aspect of my course.

To conduct this research, I began by scrolling through the syllabi collected through a joint project with Wabash and AAR, which is a fantastic resource for teaching and for data on trends in the field. This joint project continues to grow and has collected nearly 1,000 voluntarily submitted religion course syllabi. Currently there are 54 intro course syllabi available. While this is a remarkable resource, for the purpose of research design, I decided to take a more focused approach and use multiple syllabi from intro courses in only four religion departments along with statements from the chair on their webpages.

These learning goals were a petri dish for many of the most controversial topics in the field today. The influence of issues like vocationalization (or the trend to relate humanities coursework to common job skills), theological versus scientific approaches, the world religions paradigm, tension between student and faculty goals, and broad assessment pressures were all readily apparent. Patterns emerged and I was able to tie some of the most hotly debated issues in the field to data points, and test many of the prevailing theories. At a recent conference presentation I shared various graphics that are too clunky for a blog format, however, the following findings were the most fascinating.

First, this work validated the research that Barbara Walvoord conducted for Teaching and Learning in College Introductory Religion Courses. Unsurprisingly the most common goals for students entering religion courses, which center around exploration and development of their own spirituality did not appear as goals for instructors in their syllabi. While this is not shocking, given that the four departments studied were either at public institutions or privates without a strong religious identification, what Walvoord terms the “Great Divide” between student and instructor goals in religion courses is something that merits our attention. We cannot only take advantage of students’ interest in spirituality to maintain enrollment, if we do not consider the implications of those interests on how they learn in our classrooms. Walvoord’s research, along with the work of higher education researchers have shown that while the current generation of students are increasingly not affiliating with a religion, they are increasingly interested in the topic of religion. Additionally, this research has illustrated a desire on the part of students to engage and develop their own spiritual worldviews, despite their non-affiliation. These trends have tremendous implications for higher education and specifically in religion courses, and run counter to the narrative that our discipline is becoming irrelevant in light of the advent of the “nones.” It also means that whether religion professors are willing to engage their students spiritual identities or not, students are exercising their own agency to make their own meaning of what we teach, and as teachers we must decide how we will respond. This conversation among religion scholars will hopefully continue.

Next, certain institutions were more likely to trend towards what some might characterize as a theological approach, but the results would not have been predicted by simply looking at whether the department was at a public institution. This illustrates the continued tension in the field between the more traditional “theological” or developmental teaching approaches, which may (in agnostic form) be in high student demand, to the more theoretical, social scientific, or self-described “academic” approaches to teaching religion in colleges and universities. The distinction between theology and religious studies continues to be a huge concern within the field, and a difficulty with how our departments relate to others across campus. Additionally, while I believe learning goals can give discerning readers hints about the dispositions of departments, there still are not reliable ways to categorize different approaches. This ambiguity makes discussions of the appropriateness of approaches that much more difficult as scholars become more skilled at avoiding being painted into any particular corner.

Finally, the impact of accountability and assessment as a broad trend in higher education is evident in a widespread attention to employment applications and outcomes for religion coursework. In the current Neo-Liberal higher education environment, the discipline of religion is faced with serious debates about how much it will bend toward these vocational pressures, and the risks involved with refusing to “play the game.” Each of the four departmental pages I studied and multiple of the syllabi made explicit statements about the benefits of religion coursework to the modern global workplace. We need to continue to have conversations about the limits of appealing to this impulse and the methodological integrity of our approaches. How can we make our courses practical and applied and maintain academic and theoretical rigor? Several of the syllabi featured in this blog series provide thoughtful examples of engaging this tension. What’s at risk if we do not address popular concerns about job applicability? Many institutions have already seen serious drops in the number of majors, and job concerns for students is a common explanation. In light of these trends, religion departments are seeing more pressures from their institutions, receiving fewer resources, and being forced to rely more on non-tenure track faculty as a response to lower resources. Data from the Humanities Indicators Survey has noted both the decrease in majors, and the increased reliance on non-tenure track faculty.

In addition to these three patterns, the study also revealed that departments have vastly different curricular offerings, structures, and requirements. Even finding an introduction course of similar content to compare across institutions was quite a challenge given the variety of course offerings and major/minor requirements. These differences in offerings and structures warrant their own detailed discussion and debate as all of these factors influence how and what students learn. The Religious Studies Project, a site that puts out both writings and podcasts, has produced a lot of materials concerning the “world religions paradigm.” The prevalence of the paradigm is easily discernable from these data, and future conversations around this topic should continually engage with practices and realities on the ground.

The study utilized many syllabi that were available online as public documents, and there are many more available through the Wabash and AAR syllabus project, but given the vitriolic nature of some of these debates in the field, it has been important to me to protect the identity of the institutions involved. As someone who taught religion courses for several years, I can admit that my learning goals, especially early on, were not detailed or well developed. I have attempted to conduct this research in a way that is sympathetic to the experiences of religion teachers given my own experiences. A religion professor of mine once said that interpreting scripture for an audience is like undressing in public, and I think talking about our learning goals and syllabi can feel the same way. I hope that this work sparks discussion about different approaches within the field, and reminds of us of the key challenges we face as carriers of and advocates for the academic study of religion in colleges and universities.

Josh Patterson is a doctoral candidate at University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education conducting research on the intersection of religion and higher education. Specifically, current work focuses on the discipline of religious studies, its history, current status, and relation to broader conversations around the mission of higher education, liberal arts, and the humanities. Additional projects are exploring the relationship between philanthropy and religious studies, and students’ identity formation during college.

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Claims and Constraints: The Category of Religion in the SCC Ktunaxa Nation Decision

by Stacie Swain

NB: This post adapts and expands comments that I made during a panel discussion hosted by the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Law.[i]

On 2 November 2017, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) released their decision in the legal appeal, Ktunaxa Nation v. British Columbia (Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations). In this post, I suggest that the court defined the category of “religion” to deny the Ktunaxa Nation’s attempt to (re)claim contested and unceded territory by way of religious freedom. In my reading, the court did so to preserve Canadian sovereignty and jurisdiction over territory, which the Ktunaxa’s claim called into question.

In the appeal, the Ktunaxa Nation Council and Kathryn Teneese on behalf of the Ktunaxa Nation object to the building of permanent buildings and overnight accommodation for a ski resort on Qat’muk, a mountain considered sacred. The Ktunaxa claimed firstly, that the building of the ski resort infringes upon the Ktunaxa’s constitutional right to freedom of religion under section 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and secondly, that a government minister’s decision to allow the resort to be built breached the Crown’s duty of consultation and accommodation.

Before making the claim, the Ktunaxa expressed some concern about translation and the (mis)comprehension of their relationship to the mountain and land. The 2009 Qat’muk Declaration, for example, “Recognizes that the Ktunaxa language does not translate well into other languages and consequently our spiritual relationship with Qat’muk may not be fully understood by others.” And as Ktunaxa Nasu?kin (chief councilor) and storyteller Joe Pierre stated in an interview in August 2017, this was a concern that he had from the beginning of this particular appeal (the conflict stretches back thirty years):

When I was asked to talk to one of the lawyers when we were first approaching the court cases as a Nation, one of the very first things that I said to that lawyer was, “I think the things that I have to tell you are just not going to be heard, or listened to in the courts. I just don’t believe that our court system can even fathom or understand the information I am about to give to you.”

This failure to hear, listen, fathom or understand, unfortunately for the Ktunaxa Nation, appears to have been borne out by the court’s decision. This failure, however, might also be interpreted as a refusal, particularly when it comes to actually listening rather than fathoming or understanding.

Nicholas Shrubsole, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at last year’s CSSR/SCÉR, wrote a fine piece in which he argues that the SCC decision – both the majority and dissenting opinions – evidence, “the impossibility of Indigenous religious freedom.” This impossibility is based on the the court’s failure to understand the nature of Indigenous religion. Shrubsole argues that the court prioritized the notion of “belief” according to a Christian-centric concept of “religion;” this privileging disadvantages Indigenous claims to religious freedom, and could potentially force them to conform to culturally-specific, Euro-Canadian concepts of religion. As Shrubsole puts it,

Privileging and focusing on belief is… a culturally locatable act because the way in which religion is popularly understood (even by the courts) is identifiably, if only residually, Christian in nature. Legally protecting belief, rather than religion, does not adequately address the depth and complexity of religious experience.

Because the majority decision relies upon a definition of religion based upon “beliefs,” the court is able to separate what the Ktunaxa believe from what the court calls the “object of worship,” which is Grizzly Bear Spirit and Qat’muk itself. The majority decision seems to evidence the failure of the court to comprehend or fathom the fundamental interconnections between belief, practice, and place for members of the Ktunaxa Nation.

The dissenting opinion, in contrast, contends that the court must address the unique nature of Indigenous religions, in which “the divine” flows from the land itself rather than what is built upon it, such as a church or mosque. As a result, the dissenting opinion does conclude that the building of the ski resort is a substantial infringement of the Ktunaxa’s religious freedom. Regardless, both decisions declare that the minister’s decision to allow the building of the ski resort was justified, given the Crown’s duty to protect “public interest” – a point that I’ll return to below.

I appreciate the argument above insofar as it problematizes the legal construction and assimilatory force of religion within and through Canadian law. However, I do want to push back upon the idea that the matter would be solved if the court could just understand the nature of Indigenous religion(s) or religious experience. And in fact, perhaps the court did fully comprehend the implications of what they refer to as the Ktunaxa’s “absolute claim.” After all, the majority decision contains this unexpected caveat:

We arrive at these conclusions cognizant of the importance of protecting Indigenous religious beliefs and practices, and the place of such protection in achieving reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous communities. (Para. 10)

In the decision, the judges are quite clear in stating that “beliefs and practices” constitute a religion; and beyond this, they are quite clear that they have no doubt that what the Ktunaxa believe and do constitutes a religion, even when the Ktunaxa call it something else. In para. 89, the court clarifies that they, “employ the term ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’ only because this term was used by the parties in their submission… there is no issue here that the Ktunaxa’s system of spiritual beliefs constitutes a religion.”

In stressing that the Ktunaxa are making a freedom of religion claim under section 2(a) and thus “the Ktunaxa stand in the same position as non-Aboriginal litigants,” the court not only brackets out Indigeneity and compares the Ktunaxa’s concerns to a residually-Christian, Euro-Canadian concept of religion, but also constrains the Ktunaxa’s claim through the recognition of “religion.” And it’s not just what is recognized, it’s also what that act of recognition precludes. I interpret the SCC’s recognition of religion as precluding Indigenous nations’ use of the category of religion to (re)claim sovereignty and jurisdiction.

Firstly, as Shrubsole also notes, by placing the Ktunaxa in the same position as non-Aboriginal litigants with religious freedom claims (and I would add, in defining spirituality as the same as religion), the court sidesteps the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is another way to contain and circumscribe the Ktunaxa’s claim. As Mark Rifkin argues,

Notably, the Declaration does not present ‘autonomy of self-government’, ‘political…systems’, ‘institutional structures’ as categorically distinct from ‘spiritual and religious traditions’, ‘customs and ceremonies’, or ‘philosophies’, indicating that all equally mark potential expressions or forms of Indigenous peoplehood that fall within the right to self-determination as a political claim – as against the superintending authority of settler-state sovereignty. (345)

The 2009 Qat’muk Declaration asserts the Ktunaxa’s “inherent and preexisting sovereignty over [their] land and [their] lives thereon,” in addition to UNDRIP rights. It is this sort of claim that the court refused to hear or listen to in order to preserve the status quo, Canadian authority over unceded territory classified as Crown or public land.

Additionally then, if the Ktunaxa’s claim is made comparable to those made by other sorts of groups recognized by the state, then they are subject to the conditions and limitations placed upon those groups. In Naomi Goldenberg’s work on “religion” as a category of governance and technology of statecraft, one of the limitations applied to groups recognized as “religions” is the ceding of sovereign authority to the state in exchange for limited jurisdictional powers and privileges. Building on this, while religion and associated terms can be “privately-held,” “subjective,” and “spiritually meaningful” (see para. 51, 71), the realm of the “public,” “objective,” and the “political” belongs to the state.

Not unlike the separation of Grizzly Bear Spirit out from beliefs and practices, the court’s definition of the Ktunaxa’s claim as “religion” allowed the court (the majority decision especially) to separate the Ktunaxa’s claim out from the land that it was grounded in. The court’s recognition of religion enables a circumscription and containment of the Ktunaxa’s claim in a way that protects the Canadian state’s sovereignty and jurisdiction, which gets clothed in the language of “Crown land” and “public interest” in the conclusions of both the majority and the dissenting decision.

To return to the point about “public land” introduced above, in para. 131, the dissenting opinion characterizes the majority approach as being at “risk of excluding Indigenous religious freedom claims involving land from the scope of sec. 2a protection.” In my interpretation, that is exactly what their definition and recognition of religion enables the court to do – to separate matters of belief and practice out from questions about territory and property.

In the Ktunaxa case, the categories of religion and property construct a discursive legal framework through which to contain and refuse the Ktunaxa Nation’s claim to unceded territory. The court, in spite of being cognizant of and thus understanding the implications of their ruling, can refuse to listen to Indigenous claims. Rather than the impossibility of Indigenous religious freedom, it may be the impossibility of Indigenous sovereignty when the state claims territory in the name of the Crown and the Canadian public.


[i] I offer my interpretation of the SCC decision from the perspective of a settler scholar interested in deconstructing “religion” in Canadian law and governance, particularly in light of critiques from Indigenous, settler colonial, and religious studies.

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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Call for Papers: Ethics in Comedy

Edited by Steven A. Benko

What makes a joke right or wrong? When is it good or bad to laugh? The rights and wrongs of a joke can be expressed in political terms: a joke is politically incorrect or it exploits a marginalized group of people. Alternatively, a joke can be inappropriate or mean-spirited. A joke can make someone feel bad about their race, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, body, gender identity, and the list can go on and on. Laughter can hurt someone’s feelings, reveal that the laugher lacks manners, or maybe holds to racist, sexist, or other offensive views. The same way that a joke can make a person feel self conscious about an aspect of their self, laughter reinforces in-group/out-group dynamics and can make a person feel excluded, isolated, or alone.

These negatives are balanced against the good that jokes and laughter can do: when they punch up, jokes and laughter can diminish the power that others hold over us. Comedians can be the sharpest of cultural critics, using irony, satire, and parody to reveal hypocrisy, speak difficult truths, and skewer social attitudes and biases that marginalize and oppress individuals and groups.

But how do we speak of an ethics of comedy? The difficulty of an ethics of jokes and laughter is that so much of what makes humor work — and much of the work that humor does — is based on transgression. This edited volume seeks contributions that attempt to formulate an ethics of comedy. When is a joke right or wrong? Is it wrong if it offends, or right if it offends in the right way? How are we to determine the moral rightness or wrongness of laughing at one moment but not the next? Are there jokes that ought not to be told or punch lines that ought not to be laughed at? And how are we to know when this is the case?

The collection should be accessible to upper level undergraduates. Essays should articulate a general approach to jokes and laughter and then apply that approach to specific examples. Examples can be drawn from any medium (stand-up, television, movies, internet, etc.). Essays that deal with comedians, topics, or ethical theories that undergraduate students would encounter in other courses are encouraged.

Please submit proposals for essays of 6,000-8,500 words that explore the ethics of comedy:

  • –  Frameworks for an ethics of humor, jokes, and laughter
  • –  Normative ethical theories and humor, jokes, or laughter
  • –  Ethics and superiority, relief, and incongruity theory
  • –  An ethical analysis of a specific comedian
  • –  How a particular ethicist, philosopher, or theologian addresses the moral rightness or wrongness of laughter
  • –  The ethics of jokes about a controversial social topic, e.g. abortion, body shape or size, sexual violence, illness, etc.
  • –  Historical approaches to the ethics of laughter: what was the moral status of humor, laughter, and jokes in the past?
  • –  Evolving social standards, ethics, and humor: what jokes used to be funny and are not appropriate any more?
  • –  Politics vs. ethics in humor

    Send your questions about the book or submit your short description to Steven A. Benko at benkos@meredith.edu . The chapter proposal should consist of a short abstract (275-350 words), chapter title, and a brief biography. Collaborations are welcomed. All proposals must be received by January 7, 2018. Final manuscripts of 6,000-8,500 words should be submitted in MLA style by August 20, 2018.

  • Image courtesy of boredpanda.
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”Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”: Reflections on the European Academy of Religion

by Teemu Taira

Have you seen the recent conference announcement by the European Academy of Religion (EuARe)? If you haven’t, I would strongly suggest that you have a look at the list of announced keynotes for the conference that takes place in Bologna in March 2018 and think what it might tell us about the scholarly profile of the organization. If you have, I assume that your reaction depends on which disciplinary area you identify with. I happen to work in the Study of Religion and reading the conference announcement made me write this post.

So far there are seven announced keynotes for the conference. I visited the webpages of all seven presenters who are said to give lectiones magistrales and the result was not surprising. They are experts in different areas, but none of them can be said to be a scholar in the Study of Religion. They represent the following areas: Systematic Theology (two keynotes), Islamic and Interreligious Studies, Medieval History, Historical Theology and Theology / Ancient Christianity. In addition, one of the keynotes is Theologian and Metropolitan of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. More information about the conference and its lectiones magistrales is available here.

Let me be clear: I am in no way suggesting that the invited keynotes are not excellent scholars. They may well be in their own areas; it is not up to me to evaluate. However, none of them have much to do with the Study of Religion, neither on the basis of their institutional affiliation nor on the basis of their publications. Given this situation, it is confusing that Alberto Melloni, who is the mastermind behind EuARe, is, or pretends to be, surprised about the less than enthusiastic reaction of Study of Religion scholars regarding the European Academy of Religion.

The relationship between the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), founded in 2000 and dominated by scholars of religion, and recently founded European Academy of Religion has not been a love affair. The leaders of the EASR published a statement in May 2017 in which they made clear that the EASR does not support EuARe. At the most recent annual EASR conference in Leuven, Belgium, in September 2017, the EuAre was widely discussed. I wrote earlier about that with my colleague Suzanne Owen in a conference report, so I won’t repeat it here.

What to make of this? Should scholars of religion be invited to have a visible role in EuARe conferences or is there something in this situation to be happy about?

On the one hand, getting involved in EuARe and its annual conferences might be a good opportunity for Study of Religion scholars to demonstrate their worth in an organization that gathers academics from selected areas, particularly theologians, and apparently has contacts with politicians and other interested parties outside academia.

On the other hand, the absence of Study of Religion scholars may be a good thing in the long run. At least it signals that what the EuARe does has very little to do with the scholarship done in the disciplinary area of the Study of Religion (whatever the exact title of the department and no matter whether you wish to call Study of Religion a discipline or a field of study).

Whichever option you prefer, the challenge for scholars of religion, particularly in the European context, is that they should make them seen and heard in public and demonstrate beyond their own disciplinary area and even beyond academia how their work is relevant.

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When White Supremacists Come To Town

by Rebekka King

Editor’s note: While this post initially appeared on October 26, just prior to a white supremacists rally in both Shelbyville and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, its on-going implications remain as relevant as ever. In this post Rebekka King reflects on how to address such events in the classroom as they come to increasingly dominate the public conversation.

Like Teresa Delgado I’ve composed and deleted several versions of this post. My first draft, started several weeks ago, reflected on how we talk about race, violence, and nationalism post-Charlottesville. I wanted to add my voice to the many inspiring people who have found ways to incorporate discussions of xenophobia, violence, and white privilege into their courses. In that post, I attempted to address the types of questions and frameworks that our students naturally employ in the aftermath of tragedies. Specifically, I was interested in the ways our students personalize these experiences by asking each other “What would you do?” We all hope to be the people who do something in the face of hate.

If I hadn’t fallen behind in the wake of a hectic fall semester that would be the blog post you would be reading. This week, however, I’ve been tasked with a different question. Not what would you do, but rather, what will we do? I write not from the perspective of post– but the perspective of pre-.

The League of the South (along with several other white supremacist organizations) are planning a rally next weekend in both Shelbyville and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. According to a spokesperson for the organization, the group is not rallying around the preservation of statues this time because the state’s Heritage Act already makes it quite difficult to remove confederate monuments. Instead, their stated topic of contention is refugee resettlement (an issue which happens to be close to home for me; I volunteer as a translator for a local refugee family).

Right now there are several groups mobilizing in opposition to these rallies. Both local organizations and ones from out of town are coordinating resistance activities and counter-protests. Across social media and at various public forums, citizens of Murfreesboro are divided as to what the appropriate response should be. Some people are firmly resolved, others are uncertain, and many are afraid.

Coincidentally, in my introductory Religion and Society class, my students are in the middle of a unit examining religious codes and systems of ethics. Last week, we looked at Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion that explores how ethical decisions are filtered through Bourdieu’s notion of habitus. That seemed like as a good a place as any to think about the different possible actions that one might take against a white supremacist rally.

So here’s what I did, pre– an event like Murfreesboro/Shelbyville 2017.

I began by reflecting on the fact that we’ve had more conversations than usual about current and political events this semester. From Puerto Rico to Las Vegas; from nuclear threats from North Korea to a church shooting in the town next door; and from the epidemic of sexual violence against women epitomized by Harvey Weinstein to the movement inspired by Colin Kaepernick to expose systemic racism. Over the past two months there has been no shortage of current events for our students to assess or debate from the position of “What would you do?”

I went on to say that I wanted to have a different type of conversation. Rather than describing or offering their own opinions, I would be asking them to do a higher level of analysis. Description, I told them, is an important part of what we do in religious studies, but that’s not all we do. I called on the students who are also enrolled in my Jesus class to explain how in that class we’ve undertaken a discursive analysis wherein we’re not interested in what the texts say (and certainly not in whether they are right or wrong), but instead are interested in what they do (and what the doing does).

I printed off conversation threads from four different public Facebook events/pages that are making plans in opposition to the white supremacists’ rally. The different options presented by these pages are:

  • Do nothing (ignore them, don’t invite conflict)
  • Hold a family-friendly rally in a different location (a protest of sorts without direct confrontation)
  • Have a counter-protest and call on citizens to stand against white nationalism, Nazis, and the KKK (a protest with direct confrontation but the avoidance of physical violence)
  • Take part in an Antifa-style protest (direct confrontation with anticipated violence) [1]

As we worked our way through the four sites, I asked the class to read the language closely for evidence of how each group describes themselves, the white supremacist group, and other planned protests. We discussed how they legitimated their perspectives and where they placed their authority (in the case of the first three, each claimed to have the best interests of Murfreesboro at heart and worked to establish their local identity via connections to different community groups and networks). From there we sketched out a basic conception of how all four read the moral position “white supremacy is wrong” through different lenses provided by their habitus and with very different consequences.

The activity seemed to work well. I wanted to have a conversation that did something different than simply reiterating the students’ own viewpoints. While those types of conversations can be helpful because they provide an opportunity for students to practice speaking about contentious issues, this particular discussion is more urgent. Often I find classroom discussions devolve into each student waiting their turn to state their case and figure out who is “on their side.” My hope was that by working together to analyze the discourses and social locations of the different groups rather than evaluating each other, the boundaries that sometimes emerge in these conversations would dissolve. I also hoped that they might come to better understand their own perspectives and how they are shaped by social factors. Finally, and most prominently, I hoped they would be able to more fully understand these events as embedded in cultural systems, rather than independent, chaotic occurrences.

By way of a conclusion, I offered myself as a case study and asked them (based on their assessment of my own identity, values, and habitus) to offer evidence for and against my participation in each of the four counter activities. I told them that I was uncertain about which of the options I wanted to participate in and that I would take their advice to heart when deciding what to do. They made passionate cases for and against each position with a level of perceptiveness and concern that exceeded my expectations.

Previously, when I’ve thought about how I teach current events in the classroom it has focused on reflection as reaction. I’ve invited students to consider the facts of what “actually happened” and to delve into the nuance of context. In those cases, I have taken on the role of a guide, helping them articulate and expand their understanding. Here we don’t completely understand because we don’t yet know what will happen. There’s an ambiguity in addressing something that is uncertain and has yet to occur, especially amid the elevated risks that accompany a situation like this. In this case, I made them play the role of the guide, instructing me on how to understand and articulate my own perspective.

As I write in a moment that feels like a calm before the storm, this ambiguity and liminality feels important – which is why I wanted to write this post before the event itself occurred. As faculty we’re good at having answers. Assessment and evaluation are second nature. But both with my students and on the Wabash Teaching Religion and Politics blog, I see value in capturing the uncertainty, inviting my students and you into the process of considering the question what will, as opposed to what would, you do.

[1] For obvious reasons, I was unable to find anything on public social media forums making specific plans related to Antifa or similar groups so we read an article describing their perspective and activities.

Posted in Pedagogy, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SORAAAD 2017: Appropriation and the Analytical Study of Religion

Schedule:  Appropriation and the Analytical Study of Religion SORAAAD 2017
11:00 am – 5:00 pm –  Full Program PDF

I. Introduction

Appropriation, Human Behaviors, and the Study of Religion & an Overview of Workshop Themes
William Arnal, Sean McCloud, Jamel Velji, Jennifer Knust and Ipsita Chatterjea

II. Case Studies: Appropriation, “Amnesia,” Narrative, Plunder, and Erasure

(Re)narrativizing Origins: the Case of Coffee
Jamel Velji

The Bible as Plunder The Theft of Codex Bezae and the Problem of                      Provenance
Jennifer Knust

Endogenous Appropriation: Gendered Labor and AME Women
Ipsita Chatterjea

III. Analytical Frames: Appropriation, Taking, Territoriality, and Identity

What’s in a Word?  Appropriations, Bricolage, Syncretisms, Hybrids, and Combinations in our Teaching and Research
Sean McCloud

Identity before and after ‘Cultural Appropriation’: Test-cases from Christian Origins, Jewish-Christianity, and Jewish-Christian Relations
Annette Yoshiko Reed


American popular culture has always been enamored with blue-eyed soul, rewarding it to the detriment and exclusion of the very black artists who pioneered these musical traditions.

Dr. Brittney Cooper – Rutgers University, cosmopolitan.com on Adele’s win of Album of the Year for 25 over Lemonade by Beyoncé

I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it,
I twirl on them haters, albino alligators.
Beyoncé “Formation,” Lemonade

In year seven, SORAAAD will focus on appropriation. How is appropriation defined with respect to power and consumption? How is appropriation considered an act of interpretation and exchange? How are appropriation and its contestation meaningful for those we study?  What do instances or ongoing acts of appropriation tell us about  the politics of representation and classification? In this workshop we will consider the implicit and overt acts of exogenous and endogenous appropriation deployed by the subjects of our research, as well as those that we deploy ourselves when designing qualitative research. We shall look at appropriation as a function of exchange, agency, erasure, classification, and power. Jamel Velji, Annette Yoshiko Reed, Sean McCloud, Jennifer Knust, and Ipsita Chatterjea will address the erasure of the Islamic origins of coffee, Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity,  avenues for assessing mixing and power in new religious movements, plunder, archeology, and the Bible,  and the endogenous appropriation and erasure of Black women’s labor. Finally, we will discuss how we as scholars cite, borrow, and adapt from other scholars.

Religious studies is an interdisciplinary field. But does its status as such justify our sometimes undisciplined mechanisms of “borrowing” – methodological, topical, conceptual, or otherwise – from other fields? We routinely witness scholarly acts of appropriation that silence points made by other scholars and also ignore their standards for substantiation. To move beyond our own acts of appropriation by name-dropping, can we begin to talk about what we owe to other religion scholars and scholarship in other disciplines by way of disciplined adaptations? Can we justify our borrowings such that they might be viewed as sensible adaptations and complementary or logical extensions by those from whom we have borrowed?

Participants and panelists in this year’s workshop will explore questions crucial both to their areas of specialization and to religious studies as a discipline. How can we track the varied and dynamic ways that ‘appropriation’ morphs as an assertion of hegemony across space and time?  How do we relate event specific studies of relatively small populations to larger discourses without distorting particular expressions as either definitively representative or dismissible as insufficient evidence? Who gets to appropriate without stigma?  How do we track and contextualize fixations on specific narratives, persistent erasures, and outcomes? To what end and with what pivots can we productively compare observed appropriation and scholarly appropriation? In the case of the latter, how can we self-check a tendency to invoke theories and other disciplines developed in other contexts without clarifying the context of exchange and carrying out the methodological labor demanded by these approaches? How do we continue to integrate research that demonstrates how appropriation has warped our study of religions both in- and outside a “Western context,” e.g., by privileging some forms to the detriment of scholarly understandings of factionalisms, esotericisms, indigenous religions, fictional religions, and new religions?

“Appropriation and the Analytical Study of Religion” will be of interest to scholars who already enact social science and critical humanities research methodologies; to those who want to develop techniques to denaturalize appropriation and examine the nature of acquisition and deployments of culture where exchange over looks power imbalances; and to anyone who wants to rethink how appropriation manifests, functions, and is used to normalize activity within specifically heterogeneous power structures.

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

SORAAAD at the University of Regina Religious Studies Department
Northeastern University Philosophy and Religion Department- Institutional Sponsor
Wellesley College – Religious Studies Department.
Texas State University – Philosophy Department

To register, please send an email to William[dot]Arnal[at]uregina[dot]ca. Place “registration” in the subject line, and include your name, indication of rank (independent scholar, graduate student, professor, etc.), and institution, if applicable, in the body of the email. You might wish to review the SORAAAD Workshop Ethos.

Registration is free, but required. Lunch will be provided.
SORAAAD thanks its sponsors for making this possible.
Participation Limit: 40

SORAAAD’s committee would like to thank Sean McCloud, Tim Jensen, David Frankfurter, Megan Goodwin, Matthew Sheedy, Stacie Swain, The Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, Christopher Cotter and David Robertson for their ongoing support of the workshop.

Social Media
#SORAAAD2017 is the official hashtag for “Appropriation and the Analytical Study of Religion.”  For news about the workshop, analytical scholarship in religion and cognate fields, the latest from our partners and your peers, and issues facing higher education please follow:  @SORAAADWorkshop.  SORAAAD is also on Facebook, and  LinkedIn

Posted in Academy, Ipsita Chatterjea, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment