Religion Snapshots: Reflections on the AAR Annual Conference

images-1Religion Snapshots is a new feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially those topics relating to definitions, classification and method and theory in the study of religion more generally. For a previous posts in the series, see here and here.

Matt Sheedy: Throughout my Masters and most of my PhD career I was denied entry to the hallowed gates of the AAR by virtue of my paper proposals being rejected. No paper to present meant no funding from my institution. In the last two years I have turned away from my dissertation topic to focus on the role of religion in recent social movements (Occupy and Idle No More), which has included informal fieldwork in both cases. These topics proved more amenable to the gatekeepers and I am now presenting a paper once again at this year’s conference in Baltimore on the role and classification of “Native spirituality” in Idle No More. 

Two things that were not evident to me before my first trip to the conference last year in Chicago are the importance of aligning oneself with current “hot topics,” (something that seems obvious in retrospect) as well as being aligned with particular groups within the AAR, such as the SBL or NAASR, along with working groups such as SORAAAD. These affiliations are not only important for making connections and expanding one’s knowledge, but also provide potential opportunities to appear on panels, which may be an easier way to break down those gates. 

While debates over the proper methods and theories for the study of religion are highly important and often neglected in certain camps, it is also worth considering how the politics of religious studies at events like the AAR, shape our priorities and preferences, whether we are making virtue out of necessity or the other way around.

Eoin O’Mahony: I live, study geography and work in Ireland and so the AAR/SBL is only something I have come to know remotely through my doctoral research on places of the secular and sacred in Ireland. It seems like the largest gathering of people I should be getting to know as a scholar of religious studies if I am to take this doctoral work further. But I cannot and here’s why.

In February 2012, I went to NYC for the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers. It ne’er well cleaned me out financially. Crossing the Atlantic and staying a couple of nights in downtown Manhattan was expensive enough. Eating, drinking and being merry was another thing entirely. I was supported by a grant scheme at my university but it still cost me close to E1500 for a week’s worth of elbow rubbing with the ‘names’ that I had been reading only through Web of Knowledge. To be among the 30 or so people (out of about 15,000 in attendance) who are interested in place and religion was exciting and stimulating. But I knew that flying back across the Atlantic meant that I could not network and seek out post-doctoral research opportunities as well as others could. 

The AAR/SBL seems as far away as ever. It is a 5 hour journey across the sea but at this stage (I submit my thesis in February 2014) to commit to it would be financial suicide for me. Ireland’s in a deep recession (despite the prognostications of our ‘leaders’) and my work pay has been cut. I should be there rubbing well-patched academic elbows but I also have this sense that the academic world has changed so rapidly in the last five years that a post doctoral research project might be as impossible to coordinate as it is here, despite the difference in size. 

Additionally, the AAR/SBL at a distance seems to capture everything that makes the North American study of religion more interesting than the Anglo-Celtic studies. While place remains central to my understanding of both, I get the sense at this distance that the ability to separate the confessional from the academic is easier there. In a European framework, to study the religious is to cast oneself as outside of a secular understanding that is outright hostile at worst. I imagine that I wouldn’t be told “I’m not religious but…” at social gatherings there like I am here. Am I wrong?

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