Templeton and the Dalai Lama

By Craig Martin

The AAR just announced that the Dalai Lama will be speaking at their 2012 Annual Meeting in Chicago as part of a Templeton event:

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader whose long-standing engagement with multiple dimensions of science and with people far beyond his own religious traditions has made him an incomparable global voice for universal ethics, nonviolence, and harmony among world religions, is the 2012 Templeton Prize winner. The Dalai Lama will deliver an exclusive video presentation to the Annual Meetings in conjunction with a dialogue with Dr. John M. Templeton Jr., President and Chairman of the John Templeton Foundation, and Dr. Richard J. Davidson of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin.

As a member of the AAR I am embarrassed by this decision, and I know that I am not alone. To allow an overtly theological group such as Templeton to have a booth at the conference is one thing; to highlight the institution by allowing them what looks like a keynote lecture is quite another. In addition, to invite the Dalai Lama, whom they describe as a “spiritual leader,” strikes me as crossing the boundary between “being religious” and “studying religion” that many of us strive to maintain. The Dalai Lama may be a great social or political leader, but he is not an academic scholar in the study of religion. Indeed, one of his recent books—subtitled The Convergence of Science and Spirituality—claims that we must approach “reality” through multiple perspectives, including “spiritual” inquiry. To me, inviting “his Holiness”—a title that might imply he carries an authority that goes beyond the human realm—to talk about science and “spirituality”—a term that is as loaded as the word “cult”—strikes me as clearly problematic.

This is, more importantly I think, embarrassing for me as a member of the AAR because it signals to the public that in religious studies we are religious. At my institution—which, it’s worth noting, claims to have a Catholic heritage—students avoid religion classes because they think the classes will be religious. Some of my students tell me that they already know everything about religion from twelve years of Catholic school. Every semester I struggle for weeks to convince my students—who are initially resentful that they have to take at least one religion course to graduate—that I’m not going to try to convert them either to Christianity or to some sort of generic religiosity (“classroom religion,” as some call it). They never believe me until we’re weeks into the semester and my teaching method and treatment of the material becomes clear. Many times administrators have recommended to me that I partner with the campus ministries program to increase enrollment in religious studies courses. Like with many other institutions, a number of our courses are taught by adjuncts selected from the local clergy.

However, why would anyone think it should be any different? The leading academic institution for the study of religion in North America invites religious leaders to speak at their annual national conference. The signal we send with such choices is that of course the study of religion and being religious go hand in hand. No wonder the Huffington Post thinks that the AAR and the SBL are “religious organizations” whose members are “professors who train the next generation of religious leaders.”

Such choices on the part of the AAR create barriers between me and my students and misunderstandings between me and my peers in other disciplines—ultimately making my job harder than it should be.

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8 Responses to Templeton and the Dalai Lama

  1. James C says:

    Not wanting to make matters worse, how about this (among several others thanks to the TBFF)…

    Tony Blair Faith Foundation ‘Faith and Globalisation Workshop – How to Teach Faith and Globalisation’
    Friday – 6:00 pm-7:00 pm
    Room Assignments Available Only to Members Login
    “While globalisation is inexorably bringing the world closer together, the role of religion in shaping and informing a multitude of globalisation processes is becoming increasingly complex. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s “Faith and Globalization Initiative,” a partnership between Yale, McGill, Durham University, Tecnológico de Monterrey, Peking University, University of Western Australia, National University of Singapore, and University of Sierra Leone – Fourah Bay College, is committed to exploring a wide array of issues relating to this intersection through collaborative teaching, research and public events.

    Are you interested in developing a Faith and Globalisation course at your own university? Would you like to learn more about this new interdisciplinary topic? This workshop will include presentations led by professors from several of the Faith and Globalisation Initiative’s Lead Universities detailing their different pedagogical and research approaches.”


  2. Scott S. says:

    If I may offer a different approach to the Dalai Lama speech: One of the world’s most well-known religious leaders is preparing remarks to the world’s largest gathering of religion scholars. Shouldn’t this be properly seen as a research opportunity? I think if Pope Benedict were to give a speech to our community we’d publish one, if not several, edited volume about the event. The other Holiness deserves no less of our attention. I agree that at least one article should be devoted to critical self-reflection, for surely the invitation reveals something about the theological commitments of our organization, if not all of our members. The possible research avenues are manifold. Let’s not ignore them.

  3. Ian Brown says:

    Thanks for this, Craig. I agree completely and, as a member of the SBL, am well aware of the issues (or dangers, or fundamental confusion of categories) of conflating “being religious” with “studying religion.” They are (or should be), to the academic mind emphatically different.

    I have a some reservations, however, about the statement that the Dali Lama is, “not an academic scholar in the study of religion.” He certainly is not in the sense of the North American and European academy (to which the AAR predominately caters), but does this not move us dangerously close to asserting western hegemony for the study of religion?

    Just a thought, like I say, I’m with you in seeing this as embarrassing, but it does bring up some questions as to how we western academics have constructed the academic study of religion in the first place. Also, disclaimer, I am definitively NOT calling for some sort of cultural relativism, just pondering our discipline.

  4. Amod Lele says:

    Christian theologians give talks at the AAR all the time, including some of the keynotes. I hope you regularly say the same thing about them. Taken just by itself, this post helps foster the very worst systemic colonialism that has been all too endemic in the study of religion: being a Christian is accepted, being from any other tradition is not.

    If we assume the best (i.e. that you do say this sort of thing about Christians all the time), I do still have a problem with this approach, related to Ian’s. The very idea of being “not religious” is a Western construct, since it’s parasitic on the Western construct of religion. The study of religion as an academic discipline is a Western construct too, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that; everything has its own particular history. But I do think that breaking out of that parochialism may well be best served by breaking down the barriers between “religious” and “secular”, to the extent that those barriers were ever really up in the first place. It often seems to me that those barriers are above all a function of the American context, where people who are not fundamentalist Christians (or Muslims) are terrified – often for good reason – of those who are. But a distinction that’s important for politics is not necessarily one that’s helpful for scholarship (and vice versa).

  5. Craig Martin says:

    Amod, I would reserve the same judgement for Christian theologians. This event deserves special attention, however, due to the high profile it will manage to have. This is like inviting the pope.

    I have a number of publications in which I suggest that drawing lines between “religion” and “not religion” is not analytically useful. Here I’m using the usual (although obviously crude) phrases “studying religion” and “being religious” as shorthand for something more complicated. Some of us are in the interest of reflexively demystifying and denaturalizing social worlds, discourses, and ideologies. Others are interested in using discourses and ideologies to naturalize a social world that is of interest to them. The Dalai Lama is for the most part doing the latter, as far as I can tell from any of his work that I’ve read.

  6. For the reasons Amod Lee brought up, I’m not comfortable with the notion that the AAR should be outright uninterested in hearing what someone like the Dalai Lama has to say. But the Dalai Lama should be informed about the conversation to which he’s been invited. I’m fine with any cleric coming who is truly willing to be subject to critical inquiry. Thus I concur with Craig Martin’s continued scrutinizing of the religious/secular and confessional/critical dyads. Yet this reflexivity leads me to wonder to what extent the AAR subjects itself to demystification and denaturalization. As students of religion, we know all to well how easy an institution’s criteria for erudition can elide into practices less benign.

  7. Amod Lele says:

    Sure. I don’t think I would disagree with any of that – it depends on how you’re defining your terms (especially “naturalize”), but prima facie it seems like a fair description of the situation. The question then is just why a denaturalizing study should be given institutional privilege over a naturalizing one.

  8. Pingback: The AAR’s Religious Values? | Bulletin for the Study of Religion

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