Monday, June 4, 2018

Critiquing Clichés in the Classroom


Maya Aphornsuvan recently graduated with a BA in Religious Studies and Political Science from Elizabethtown College. Working with Richard Newton, she explored social theory in the study of religion. To conclude her coursework, Maya created a short video series companion to Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin’s Stereotyping Religion. She tells us about the project in this guest post.



Maya Clare Aphornsuvan
Elizabethtown College

For the past semester, I have been working on my own video series titled Maya Clare Cares About Religion. It may seem strange to many that a Political Science and Religious Studies double major is interested in doing work in the world of media, but this video series has been a project in my mind long before this academic year.

I have always held the media up in high regards, and I most certainly agree with people being critical of what we consume. However, I believe the media reflects what is valuable in society, and it is clear to me that we now live in a time and age where data, science, and statistics matter more than concepts and theories that invisibly run how we function and how we relate to one another. A problem I encounter with the media is that we continue to talk about topics we don’t consider to be as important as things we can create charts and graphs for, so when we come across the topic of religion in discussions, for example, we simply say that religion is a personal matter, and therefore, everybody can discuss it on television freely. Take John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight as an example. What makes Oliver’s show addicting is that he manages to go in-depth into an issue and offer extremely detailed notes, as well as craft a well-rounded understanding for viewers while keeping people glued to their screens with his sense of humor. I am a fan of Oliver’s show, but when Oliver comes across the topic of religion, I find myself disappointed. And this is not only with him, but I find this in a wide range of successful and opinionated television and radio hosts. The show becomes a 20-minute-long session of roasting religious leaders, poking fun at those who follow religious teachings, and criticizing the irrationality behind people’s decisions.

What Oliver and many other news presenters and personalities fail to even attempt to understand is that “religion,” as we understand, is not a “problem” only certain people come into contact with, nor is it a way to distinguish fools from the bright ones. Those who are clearly religious, as I aim to point out in my series, are perhaps similar to those who claim to be against religion yet live their lives doing religious things without realizing it.

We, the public, ignore the importance of understanding our relationship with “religion” but we are so quick to giving our two cents on it. I find it fascinating that no news outlet would bring on a commentator with no knowledge of international politics to explain current world affairs, yet the discussion of religion and myths surrounding claims regarding religion are thrown around liberally.

This brought out frustrations in me. The media is responsible for doing their research before presenting a topic, and the public is responsible for critically analyzing what they take in. But this relationship between the media and the public does not seem to exist the same way conversations about politics or economics do when it comes to religion. Therefore, I decided to try to tackle some of these frustrations and create a video series that would debunk certain ways we, the public, talk about religion.



Last semester I had the opportunity to use Malory Nye’s Religion: The Basics (Second Edition, Routledge 2008) as my guide in class. It was through Nye’s guidance that I was able to articulate my definition of religion as follows: religion describes the ritualized activities and resulting experiences that define a common group, and they take it as meaningful while others would call it out of the ordinary.

Through my understanding of religion, I then use Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Cliches (Bloomsbury 2017) to analyze and understand each chapter more thoroughly, and I decided to create videos that correspond to the different chapters in the book.









The common understanding of religion as something that exists in its own lane does not apply to me; as a Buddhist from Thailand, I have often struggled with separating my Thainess from Buddhism, and it has resulted in nothing but more confusion. Therefore, In the creation of my videos, I make sure to always keep this in mind and use my “Thainess” and “Buddhistness” in presenting the content. I value presenting information in a humorous way and it is my goal to bring the topic of religion closer to the public, as well as create a more “user friendly” guide to how the media and the public can perhaps change their relationship regarding the topic of religion. My video series is only my first attempt at doing so, but my goal is to continue on finding ways to bring more thought into the presentation of religion in the media.






Monday, March 26, 2018

What are we looking for when we look at 'religion and popular culture'?

Malory Nye
University of Glasgow


This post originally appeared on Malory Nye’s Religion Bites blog


I recently taught some classes exploring issues of religion within the study of culture — particularly popular culture.

I have tried to do this in various ways in the past, and the question always comes back to a basic issue of methodology: if we are exploring religion in culture, then how and what do we talk about as religion?

This is a question that goes across much of the contemporary study of religion, and impacts on it in various ways — not only in particular religious and culture contexts, but also very noticeably in the idea/approach of ‘material religion’. It also highlights issues that I left relatively untouched in a paper that I wrote twenty years ago, on the idea of religion as practice, or religioning.

In short, if we want to explore ‘religion’ within particular cultural locations — such as religion in a book (e.g., Harry Potter) or a film/s (e.g., Star Wars) — then can we say that religion is a thing to find or a ‘manifestation’ of something (such as ‘the sacred’)?

My straightforward answer to this is a definite ‘no’: religion is not a thing, it is not an it.

Neither is religion an essence that becomes manifest.

When I talk of religioning, I am suggesting that people are doing actions. But they are not doing these actions with religion, they are deploying and acting on discourses and ideas (and ideologies) that they think of as religion.

Thus, we are skewing our analysis to rush towards a conclusion that religion can be found there in culture. Indeed such a conclusion involves theologizing an analysis that I would prefer to keep separate from such theology.

For example, we can analyze C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and point out that Aslan is being presented as an implicit allegory for Christ. This is no accident, of course, and so this is not an issue of ‘finding’ religion in culture. We need to recognize that when the author (Lewis) constructed this text, he was specifically doing things with certain ideas that we call ‘religious’. And additionally, there are also the many ways in which readers of the book associate Aslan with ideas and discourses that they may call ‘religion’ (or ‘spirituality’).

One way of describing this is Ian Cuthbertson’s (at present unpublished) discussion of the process of ‘religionization’. This avoids us rushing to talk about finding religion in culture, or of sacred embodiment, hierophany, or whatever. Instead, we are exploring the ways in which discourses related to important categories of identity and practice (particularly ‘religion’) are worked out in certain contexts (such as books and films) by certain cultural creators and the audiences who engage with their work.

And so, in Cuthbertson’s words:
‘religionization describes the ongoing discursive processes involved in constructing religion as a separate sphere of human activity, one modeled on an inherited Western distinction between religion and the secular’

Religionization is quite simply the processes of ideas, values, and imaginations (fantasies?) of the category of ‘religion’ being worked out in certain cultural contexts.

In his discussion of religious groups based on fictional works, Markus Davidsen describes how fantasy can work like a set of ‘metaphorical binoculars’ (p384) through which certain aspects of the world becomes visible (as the really real, possibly). This process can very often be interpreted as being about religion (i.e., it is involves certain forms of religionization). Or it may make specific reference to concepts, categories, narratives, or organizations that presume aspects of the work to be labeled as ‘religious’ by the author and/or reader

I still have another issue with this, though, since it somewhat begs the question of what sorts of ‘things’ do we decide should come within this category of religion? This becomes especially important when we move away from books or films which are specifically, consciously presented as being Christian. Thus, what are the ways in which we can talk about religionization in the Star Wars series? Where do we start?

This comes back to my class this week. I tried to stand back from a direct methodologizing of the approach I was taking, particularly as I had a considerable amount of material to explore and I had previously discussed ‘theory and method’ with much of this same second year undergraduate group last semester. But the one point I stressed in the first class was the following, which for me is the primary starting point for any study of religion (and culture):

What can we learn here through exploring categories of race and gender?

I follow this up with a subsidiary question, which is related to the primary one. That is,

How has history (particularly colonial history) helped to cause: (i) what we are looking at, (ii) how we talk about what we are looking at?

For me, this is a much more useful starting point to any that relies on a process of looking for something we call religion within popular culture.

If we explore and analyze categories of gender and race, then within this analysis we will very definitely bump into and subsequently need to analyze the many different layers of what the author, the reader, and the scholar/student may talk about as religion.

Such religion in culture will be gendered, it will be racialized, and will be part of an ongoing history that is largely produced by colonial history. Or, to go back to my earlier use of Cuthbertson’s idea, the processes of religionization by all who are involved will be made more clear by an intersectional analysis of such gendering and racialization. (And for more detail on the many useful texts and authors who can contribute to such an intersectional approach, you may find my online open access syllabus of interest.)

At this point, I think it is worthwhile to conclude. I would like to come back to this issue at some point and explore particular case studies, particularly of the gendered and racialized ways in which the category of religion can be made to work in various ways in specific forms. As starting points, though, I can point towards two discussions I have previously written on specific dramas. One is of Martin Scorcese’s 2016 film Silence and the other is on the ongoing Australian TV drama about racialization, othering, and Indigenity called Cleverman.

In both instances, I argue that the search for religion within such cultural representations is not a simple matter of pulling a thing out of the narrative and calling it religion. Both of these dramas are about gender and racialization, and through those categories it is possible to understand ways in which the writers/producers are exploring a category that they understand as religious. That is how they are both religionized, in their different ways.







Cuthbertson, Ian Alexander. n.d. “Preaching to the Choir? Religious Studies and Religionization.” In Method Today: Redescribing Approaches to the Study of Religion, edited by Brad Stoddard. Sheffield: Equinox. (forthcoming 2018)

Davidsen, Markus Altena. 2013. “Fiction-Based Religion: Conceptualising a New Category against History-Based Religion and Fandom.” Culture and Religion 14 (4). Routledge: 378–95. doi:10.1080/14755610.2013.838798.

Nye, Malory. 2000. “Religion, Post-Religionism, and Religioning: Religious Studies and Contemporary Cultural Debates.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 12 (1): 447–76. doi:10.1163/157006800x00300.






    Tuesday, February 20, 2018

    How do you Teach a Course on Ancient Religions?


    Vaia Touna
    University of Alabama

    In the Fall of 2017 I proposed a new introductory course on ancient religions that I will teach for the first time in the Fall of 2018. Among the objectives of the course is to introduce students to different “ancient religions” but most importantly to introduce them to those recent scholarly debates which have been very critical on using the term “religion” to describe the ancient world, given that there is no equivalent term in those societies. So, although it may sound like a straightforward course to teach there are several issues that I had to think about.

    There are different positions on how one should approach the topic. On the one hand, there are those who suggest that students need to have enough descriptive information about a specific culture before they start thinking critically about issues of definition, classification, description, etc. On the other hand, there are those who suggest that having students think critically about the concepts we are using to describe the ancient world should be the starting point. Although I think that there is value in both positions, one should also take into account the students who will attend the class. Most likely they’ll be first year students who are not necessarily majoring in Religious Studies, and who take the class to fulfill their humanities requirements and therefore not likely to take another class in the field. I want those students not only to learn something about the ancient cultures that we will be looking at but also acquire some knowledge and skill that will be transferable to the other courses they are taking.

    And I think that, in the case of my new course, that skill has something to do with self-consciousness.

    So the question is how do you teach a course on ancient religions when there has been so much critique over the anachronistic use of religion to describe features of the ancient world? It’s a critique that sometimes meets with a sincere anxiety from scholars who study ancient religions and who therefore understand such a position to undermine their work.

    Despite everyone’s agreement (whether one is a religious studies scholar, classicist, historian, anthropologist, etc.) that religion was not the same in the ancient world, at least in the way that we understand religion today, both the term religion and its application to describe ancient societies persist. Every year numerous books and articles, on some ancient religion or its aspects (i.e., myths, rituals, etc.) see the light of publishing, and most of the times they uncritically use the term religion. That alone begs for a course on “ancient religions.”

    So, despite the fact that I belong to those scholars who have been critical on the use of the term “religion” to describe the ancient world, I still think there is great value in teaching a course on “ancient religions,” but with a certain shift of approach—a shift that provides an opportunity to draw tools and assumptions to our students’ attention. So it’s a course that will not examine what is ancient religion but why, when, and by who religion became a tool to describe and analyze the ancient world and towards what effect.

    Instead of describing the various elements that are often considered to imply, explicitly or implicitly, religion (namely myths and rituals), as a general introduction to the academic study of ancient religions the course will first examine how scholars defined “ancient religion” and then how they were able to understand ancient cultures (from ancient Greece, to Rome, to Egypt, to Mesopotamia, etc.) by means of that descriptor. The course will focus in detail on the problem of defining ancient religion, and the practical implications (that is, social, economic, political) of defining it in this or that way.

    So, although it will be an experiment (and something to report on again in a future post) I hope students will learn that the same analytical and critical skills—such as an awareness of how we do what we do—that can be applied in other courses. And I also hope they’ll be on the look out on the effects of describing cultures (whether near or far both in time and space) with our particular concepts.




    Sunday, February 4, 2018

    Teaching Discourse Analysis as a Practical Tool



    Tenzan Eaghll
    College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University

    This semester I am teaching half a PhD seminar on ‘Contemporary Approaches to the Study of Religion.’ I am sharing the seminar with one of my colleagues and my half of the course is titled ‘Discourse Analysis.’ I chose the topic of discourse analysis over a myriad of other possible options because it seems to me like the elemental contemporary approach to the study of religion. It doesn’t matter what a students area of specialty or their methodological preferences, if they don’t know how to perform a basic discursive analysis of a particular topic they will not be able to understand the current gaps in the field or situate their work in relation to other scholarship. Admittedly, there are many other contemporary approaches that might be more flashy and exciting to cover, but without discourse analysis a student can’t weigh the significance of any literature within the field. After all, discourse analysis is more than a mere literary review of a particular topic―it doesn’t simply list previous scholarship on a particular issue―but is an analysis of how the central categories of any topic have been defined, classified, compared, and interpreted. It lays bare the intellectual and contextual scaffolding of concepts, and in my opinion, is a practical research tool that every graduate student―regardless of whether their primary methodology is abstract philosophy, ethnography, or even one of the hard sciences―should learn to do effectively.


    To look at discourse means to look at both the object of analysis, the text, culture, speech under study, as well as the way in which the scholarly analysis itself is put into discourse. Tim Murphy, The Guide, p. 396

    The primary text for the seminar is The Guide to the Study of Religion, edited by Willi Braun and Russell McCutcheon. I chose this text for two reasons: it is the only handbook for the study of religion with an actual chapter on ‘Discourse,’ and because the first four chapters of this volume are specifically titled ‘Definition,’ ‘Classification,’ ‘Comparison,’ and ‘Interpretation,’ respectively. Of course, the subject analyzed in these latter chapters is ‘religion,’ so the authors are not discussing discourse analysis in general, but the chapters provide students with specific examples of how to perform discourse analysis in relation to these four critical categories, which makes them perfect for the class.

    The objective for the class is largely practical. Although teaching this subject inevitably requires me to discuss some discourse theory and the way that French thinkers like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault have influenced scholarship in religious studies, my primary goal is to get students to apply discourse analysis in their own research. I want each student to use the chapters from The Guide as a springboard to think about how the central categories from their own areas of study have been defined, classified, compared, and interpreted in previous scholarship. Each week the students are required to read one of the aforementioned chapters beforehand, and then we use the class time to discuss the underlying logic/progression of the authors argument and how it applies to their own proposed thesis topics. This not only gives the students specific examples of how to interrogate ‘religion,’ but provides them with the kind of questions they need to ask when doing research. For instance, Will Arnal’s chapter on ‘Definition’ teaches them to not only think about different ways their topic has been defined by scholars, but to expose the underlying tensions and assumptions hidden within these definitions. And J.Z. Smith’s article on ‘Classification’ encourages them to think not only about how their area of study has been classified internally as a system of knowledge (i.e. what sort of things and actions get classified as ‘Buddhism’, ‘ritual,’ etc.) but objectively in relation to other systems of knowledge (i.e. how has ‘Buddhism’ or ‘Hinduism’ been classified in relation to other ‘religions’).

    In this manner, I am not using the class to read selections from the history of discourse theory or even to read lengthy genealogical works by religious studies scholars. The goal of the class is not to turn the students into post-structuralists or devoted discourse theorists. In fact, I don’t even care if the students agree with some of the theoretical conclusions of the chapters we read together from The Guide. Rather, my goal is simply to teach the basic questions of discourse analysis and to provide a class where the students can critically apply these questions in their own research areas. It is for this reason that I have purposively made the readings in the class rather light―after all, assigning one chapter a week isn’t exactly heavy PhD reading―because I want the students to spend most of their study time actively applying discourse analysis. To this end, the students assignment each week is not to write a response paper―which is the typical grad school weekly task―but to actively use the tools learned in each chapter to research how their topic has been defined, classified, compared, and interpreted, and then to share their findings during class discussion. The end result of this process for each student will hopefully be an extensive bibliography of previous scholarship on their respective topics that they can use to write the final paper for the class. Of course, I am also hopeful that they use this research to write their dissertation proposals, introductions, and chapters, but that will be up to them and their supervisors.

    In sum, I think there is immense value in teaching discourse analysis as a practical tool for all graduate students, regardless of their primary research methodology. I think discourse analysis should actually be a required course for all religious studies graduate students―and perhaps even the humanities and human sciences in general. Though I am personally a fan of discourse theory and all the insights that come with it, I don’t think it is necessary for us to turn students into lovers of Barthes and Foucault to get them to think critically about the various discourses and analytical categories being used in the field, and it is the latter capacity that will have a real impact upon their research.



    Monday, December 11, 2017

    Lights, Camera, Action

    Russell T. McCutcheon
    University of Alabama

    I recently posted, over at our Department blog, about a new class assignment that I tried out to end his semester: having students, in groups, make a video in which they somehow dramatize one of the chapters in the new book that Aaron Hughes and I co-edited for Equinox, Religion in 5 Minutes. I know some other people decided to use the book, since it came out just in time for the Fall semester, and so did I too, but I reserved it for the end of the course, and decided that it provided a chance for my students to be a little creative.


    The rules were straightforward: (i) there could only be two speaking parts, it needed some sort of narrative arc, and it had to be filmed on campus but everyone in the group had to somehow also appear; (2) it could be no longer than 3 minutes and had to dramatize one of the brief chapters in the book (a volume comprised of scholars answering a wide array of commonsense questions that a non-specialist might have about either religion or the study of religion. And (3) everyone in the group had to play a role in writing the script, scouting a location, filming and editing the video.

    Oh, and they had to have credits.


    It was a large class—with about 95 students, all receiving a Core curriculum credit (what others might call Gen Ed)—and the students all come from a wide variety of majors (in other words, we only had one REL major in the class). We had about 20 groups taking a couple class days to work on them and then the last day of class was their chance to premier their work. One by one each group went up to the front of the lecture hall, logged into their gmail account or plugged a memory stick into the classroom’s multi-media system, and introduced their video.


    What was interesting (apart from the number of times our campus’s stadium appeared or our football team was mentioned—the “Is sports a religion?” question was indeed a popular option), was how I could see bits and pieces of the semester’s work weaving their way throughout what they filmed, e.g., the importance of definition, different ways to go about defining something as worth talking about, the causes for human behavior being not always apparent at first, or a court case we once discussed to illustrate the contestability of all this.



    The videos they made were pretty good, and this post is just a sampling (students knew that they also had to turn them in and that their productions might see the light of day); we laughed a fair bit and, watching the faces of the presenters, you could tell that many were rather proud of this thing they had created. Sure, there were some technology glitches (when aren’t there?) but it was probably illuminating for students to see what’s it like when that happens while you’re standing alone on the business end of a podium in front of 100 people. But we also learned a thing or two—such as having a chance to elaborate on a group that tackled the topic of snake handling or another asking what made the bible seem to be a special sort of book.

    I’m not sure about the long term effect of the assignment—come to think of it, what content from my own undergrad degree do I recall today? But it did give them a chance to think about, and then practice, talking to someone about religion in a way that’s likely different from how they might have talked about it back in August—back when my main pedagogical goal was to defamiliarize the subject for them. For, unlike most of their other courses, many of our students likely come to their first class in the study of religion already thinking that they’re the expert, since we’re part of a group where being religious (whether one is or not) is a pretty commonsense thing. So getting students to recognize that they’re the experts while simultaneously demonstrating to them the limits of their expertise is, for me, the opening move in a course such as this. I don’t do it by quizzing them on arcane facts from the bible but, instead, by asking them, through a series of either fun or unexpected e.g.s, to entertain that calling this or that religious isn’t a self-evident thing but is, instead, the act of specific groups in specific places and times—all in hopes of piquing their curiosity about how it is that we name and organize our world as we do.

    And, judging by the videos that they produced, it seems to have worked.






    Tuesday, November 21, 2017

    Rethinking Classic Texts/Theorists: Huston Smith



    In this series, Practicum asks scholars to consider how classic texts or theorists can be critically re-thought for use in religious studies classrooms.

    Textbook As Artifact
    Russell T. McCutcheon, University of Alabama



    Which classic text are you using and in which course?

    Well, if you don’t mind me tweaking your question, I can say which I’m not using: the late Huston Smith's The World’s Religions. Now, to some readers that might read as an uninteresting or uninspired response, but given that the publisher reports that the 1958 book (originally entitled The Religions of Man, a book that has been lightly edited and updated and repeatedly re-published over the years, with the current edition simply reproducing the 1991 edition with a few tangential pieces added at the end) has now sold about 3 million copies, with what I’ve learned to be half to two thirds of annual sales for course adoptions, it means that there are many classes still using this so-called classic book as their introduction, making the choice not to use it stand out somewhat. (Though who knows how many are using it today because they are required to, as I was in my very first semester teaching a world religions course, back in 1993-4—I’d read it the year before but only became familiar with using it because of that requirement.)


    What is the basic argument of the text and how has it traditionally been employed in religious studies classrooms?


    That all religions are vehicles for the expression of an inner, universal (dare I say transcendent, as Smith would surely have) meaning, and thus that they ought to be studied empathetically, starting with the orthodox stands of elite practitioners, thought to somehow be representative of religion on the ground (as some now say) and thus in people’s lives, all of which can be accessed through the experiences and expressions of the people under study (what he called religion’s exoteric aspects, such as rituals, traditions, etc.—we see here the old inner/outer and primary/secondary distinctions so common to our field). But, if we’re trying to be descriptively accurate, saying “people under study” really doesn’t capture what Smith’s book is all about (its based on a 1955 public television course, in case readers don’t know that). For he’d likely have preferred to see himself and the people with whom he spoke as conversation partners, maybe even fellow travelers, all trying to sort out issues of meaning in their lives via these so-called wisdom traditions.


    Why is this text important or relevant for contemporary religious studies students?

    As Hamlet said, “Ay, there’s the rub!” For I have no doubt that the vast majority of users are reading the text as an accurate representation of what Hindus and Buddhists etc., believe and do, with those choosing to adopt it preferring his approach for its ability to build bridges and provide a window onto what unites us all despite the apparent differences—not much different from the world religions genre as a whole, of course. And with so many sold, the publisher can of course offer the book pretty affordable ($2.99 for the ebook version), which may also account for its popularity (who doesn’t want to save their students some money?). But despite this use, which presumes it is still relevant, the book instead remains really quite important for me, though not for that reason; instead, as I argued in a paper at an American Academy of Religion session yesterday afternoon, a conference from which I’m returning as I write this very text (at my gate: Delta 981 at 12:20 to ATL and then on to BHM), the book provides a snapshot of our field 60 years ago, back when Formica table tops and saddle shoes were around. The curious thing, though, is that hardly anyone likely sees the book as a primary source, as an historic artifact, but, instead, it continues to be used as an authoritative introduction to the study of religion—remember, hundreds of thousands of copies are sold per year, presumably, and who knows how many more used copies that don’t even register as sales with the publisher). For, if you think about it, it’s pretty tough to name a 60-year-old book in any other field that still sets the table for newcomers—I can’t even imagine a chemical engineering degree or a sociology or geography course starting off as if such a book was still relevant for telling students how they ought to be doing what they’re training to do, as opposed to establishing a reference point to make evident how far their field may have come. And that’s precisely how I think we ought to be using the book—sure, recognizing that it surely played an important role in the early years of the field in North America, when studying religion in a non-judgmental way was pretty novel for a lot of people. But that the field seems not to have moved, at least for those opting to use this book (the current edition, based on the 1991 text, has illustrations and suggested readings 30 years out of date) is something worth thinking about, I’d say.


    How are you using the text to expand upon, subvert, or challenge traditional interpretations?


    I think that’s pretty apparent from the above answer—rethinking how we use the text is the key. What should be apparent, I hope, is that I’m not critiquing Smith—he was scholar of his time (as we all are!) who, yes, made an important contribution to the field’s pre-history (Religious Studies wasn’t even a field in the US back then). I’m not debating that. What I’m suggesting is that the prominence of the book today tells us everything about us, the ones using it and still reading it. So, if you like, it’s a classic inversion to reader response theory, in which we let go of the idea of the author as the intentional and thus authoritative source and, instead, see the text as an artifact that has utility in the present, for the reader, who makes it useful or meaningful or important in this or that way, all based on their interests, situation, etc. It’s a pretty mundane move for some, sure, but in the study of religion—e.g., at this conference you continually heard people talking about what Xenophanes meant or what Paul said, and none of these disclosures were pitched as theoretical shorthands for, for example, “what the Pauline redactional tradition has conveyed to us…”—it’s still pretty radical and, for many, unthinkable, since we seem among the last places where the intentional, meaning-centered self still reigns supreme (it does in law too, of course). After all, the premise of the field for many—including the world of H. Smith, to be sure, but they’re hardly alone—is that pristine internal states and dispositions are only secondarily projected outward into the world, and, if decoded in just the right way, we’ll arrive at knowledge of the universal self, which goes by variously names but is often just called the human condition or human nature. After all, if you read carefully, you’ll always see that social context merely shapes and does not cause this thing called religion, even for the so-called new materialists in the field. So turning all this on its head, studying not just the material history of a text, such as his textbook, but also its contemporary uses and the situations in which it read, seems to me not just a novel approach but one very much needed today.


    If you have already used this text in the classroom, which specific learning activities did you organize?


    Like I said, I used it 25 years ago, because I had to (and, yes, I used it as a typical introduction to the field, but it soon after made its way into my first book as an example of how not to study religion and I stopped using it as soon as I could). So what comes to my mind, as I referenced in my AAR paper, is my colleague Steven Ramey, and how he uses such books in his own introduction to world religions—a course that, over the course of a semester, moves students to the position of becoming interested in the book as their e.g., asking why the author did what s/he did in organizing and writing it. So, ultimately, it’s a course on classification and its practical effects (what a great general education course, right?), using scholars as the object of study but, being a 100-level intro, it does this gradually, strategically, taking great care in how to move students to a position to not just take what their books (and their professors?!) say at face value. It’s the sort of thing you’d hope every single university course does—but, yes, we know few probably do—since authors and professors are people too. Now this doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about the world (I’m so tired of that response to any sort of self-reflexive critique in our field, something Craig Martin’s recent NAASR paper focused on in great detail) but it does mean that our talk about the world is part of the world and, sooner or later, as legitimate an object of study as any other.

    So the moral of the story: texts are artifacts, and not just when they’re called scriptures.




    Wednesday, November 8, 2017

    Interview with the Editors: Stereotyping Religion


    Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés (London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017)
    Interview with Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin


    What is the main argument in this book?


    CM: In a sense, this book is the exact opposite of the “Religion for Dummies” or “The Idiot’s Guide to Religion” sorts of literature. Whereas those books are designed to tell us what “religion” basically is, this book suggests that “religion” is not basically anything.

    BS: This book takes some of the more common cliches about religion as its object of study. Each essay addresses one of the ten more common cliches (religions are belief systems, religion makes people moral, religions are bullshit, to name but a few) where it discusses the cliche’s history, assumptions, and political work that the cliche performs.


    What motivated your work?

    CM: Much of my teaching involves un-teaching, in the sense that I have to fight against popular cliches about religion. Frustratingly, they come from multiple directions at once: some liberal students assume religion is somehow essentially oppressive, while some conservative students might assume that religion is essential to morality, etc. Perhaps above all else is the assumption that religion is in some way a fundamentally private or spiritual thing; for some this means that religion does not or ought not have public consequences, and for others this means that religion concerns an individual’s relation to a world above--what both views have in common is that “religion” is not seen primarily as a social thing, or only secondarily a social thing. Since I tend to be very Durkheimian in my approach to the subject matter, this kills me!

    In addition to wanting a text that would help with un-teaching, I wanted a text that I could recommend to friends outside religious studies who are confused about what is it we do in our field. No, we’re not studying “faiths” or “belief systems.” No, we’re not teaching students about the nature of the divine. And, perhaps most importantly, no, we’re not promoting religious tolerance and ecumenism. Some of my liberal friends seem to assume--on the basis of the fact that I’m left-leaning--that what I do in class might best be represented by those “co-exist” bumper stickers. But no!!! We’re historicizing discourses and ideologies!


    What theory or theorists inform your method and methodology?

    CM: I think poststructuralist anti-essentialism lies behind the book as a whole. While there are clearly differences of opinion across the contributors, all of them accept that any attempt to offer a “here’s religion in a nutshell” narrative is destined to be greatly problematic.

    Secondly, I think the authors also widely assume that the historicization of the use of the concept of “religion”--by scholars such as Russ McCutcheon, Tomoko Masuzawa, and Tim Fitzgerald--are crucial to our work. The modern invention of “religion” was thoroughly imbricated with colonialism, imperialism, and Euro-centirsm, and we must be continually vigilant regarding the normative baggage our discourses carry.

    BS: Building off Craig’s answer, critical theory lurks in the background of every essay, although it’s rarely evoked explicitly.


    How might the book be used or how has it been used in a classroom?

    CM: I haven’t had the chance to use it yet, but I’m anxious to give it a try. We’ve designed it to be accessible to 18 year old college students--we demanded a lot of revisions for clarity from the contributors!

    BS: We imagine the book can be used in any RS class, but it’s best suited for an intro class or any class that addresses method and theory. Each chapter is free from jargon and should be accessible to any undergraduate.


    How do you think students would most benefit from your book?

    BS: Some students might read this book and assume we’re critiquing specific cliches, but that some unexplored cliches about religion might be more relevant or insightful. In the book’s intro, we make it clear that this is not our goal. Instead, we argue that students can apply the book’s methodologies to interrogate any and all cliches about religion. Ideally, students will use this book as an opportunity to question some of their basic assumptions about religion. Who would most benefit from this book? Anyone who claims to have a universal theory about religion or who hasn’t thought about the history of a particular cliche or about the partisan interests it serves.






    Wednesday, November 1, 2017

    Omissions: #MeToo, Critical Identity Theory, and the Religious Studies Classroom

    Photo credit: https://www.cio.com/article/3234464/careers-staffing/stopping-sexual-harassment-ready-for-a-witch-hunt.html


    Leslie Dorrough Smith, Avila University

    As a person who teaches gender theory courses in addition to the usual religious studies regimen, I was prepared for having the #metoo conversation about systemic harassment and prejudice with my students last week. While that happened, perhaps the most unexpected feature of the conversation was the student who mentioned that she’d like to talk about the #metoo movement but wasn’t sure that it was apropos to our religious studies class. She knew that we spoke a lot about gender, race, sexuality, etc., but could we bring up that topic “in here”?

    This conversation got me thinking about how we often fail our students in a religious studies setting by focusing too much on traditional conceptualizations of religion (that is, one grounded in beliefs and worldviews) even when we claim to take a critical approach. To be perfectly clear, by “failure,” I do not mean that we fail to indoctrinate students to take a particular position on various social issues. Rather, what I mean here is that we employ a highly-compartmentalized treatment of gender, race, class, and the like, wherein such topics are addressed with some finality (often once, in a particular week, later on in the semester), thus implying to students that religion is only sometimes about these most common methods of social power and categorization.

    In fact, taking seriously that religion is a rhetorical strategy by which one group authorizes its claims over others means that we are always already talking about the various social modes of persuasion and habituation used to justify our classification practices. Under this more critical reading of religion, religious studies is about how human power strategies are deployed (via the very rituals, beliefs, ethics, and other “classic” categories that often populate our discipline’s syllabi) specifically in the name of regulating social groups; race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. are simply the names we give to our most popular forms of regulation.

    From this perspective, the question then becomes whether humans consistently make transcendent appeals to justify the power relationships that they forge. This was the very question I asked my student when that #metoo conversation proceeded, for I hoped to help her understand that whether religious groups use the words “sexual harassment” or make moral claims against it is largely irrelevant if their role in their respective cultures involves endorsing the very power relationships that makes sexual harassment possible. With that said, we then talked about the power arrangements that sexual harassment both creates and endorses (misogyny, patriarchal authority, locating women’s worth and identity in their sexuality, etc.), and then asked whether we could find examples of religious groups that promote those same principles. Focusing on our own culture, we were then able to see how many major American religious groups promote such power differentials even when they simultaneously condemn harassment’s many forms.

    As is often the case when studying culture, that opened up another conversation about what it means when a group actively says it promotes one thing but through its behaviors contributes to something entirely different (another post for another time, perhaps). But what I hope she came away with was the ability to re-hone her own inquiry such that she is able to ask the more etic question regarding whether transcendent appeals are ever used to justify strategic world-building activities rather than the more emic approach that uses religious insiders’ own claims (“Sexual harassment is a disgrace to God”) as the measure of their social engagement. For in the end, failing to ask questions in this way is a failure to ask about the various ways that humans constitute culture. And as I hope we know by now, if you’re not talking about culture, you’re not talking about religion. 



    Wednesday, October 25, 2017

    Rethinking Classic Texts/Theorists: Ninian Smart



    In this new series, Practicum asks scholars to consider how classic texts or theorists can be critically re-thought for use in religious studies classrooms.


    Revisiting Ninian Smart’s Call for Worldview Studies

    Ann Taves, University of California, Santa Barbara


    Which classic text/theorist are you using and in which course?


    I am going to return to Ninian Smart in a doctoral seminar on “Rethinking the World Religions Course” that I will be offering this winter.


    What is the basic argument of the text/theorist you are using and how has it traditionally been employed in religious studies classrooms?

    At this point, I think Smart is probably best known for his textbook, The World's Religions, which exemplifies his dimensional approach to the study of religion. The second edition, published in 1998, is still in print and still used in introductory courses. He taught for many years at Lancaster University and, later, also at UC Santa Barbara, and played a leading role in the development of the secular study of religion in the UK, the US, and beyond. He published a prodigious amount, including many books that were oriented toward the classroom, and a few more theoretical works, such as The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge.[1]

    Smart’s dimensional approach to the study of religion emerged from his family resemblance view of religion. As he stressed, viewing religion in terms of family resemblance placed it a continuum with other phenomena. Here is a typical quote:

    The study of religion is without clear cut boundaries, for it is not possible or realistic to generate a clear-cut definition of religion, or, more precisely, any definition will involve family resemblance, as indicated by Wittgenstein. Such a definition would involve listing some typical elements of religion, not all of which are to be found in every religion. It is a natural consequence of this that there will be some phenomenon which bear a greater or lesser resemblance to religion.[2]

    In reviewing Aspects of Religion, a festschrift honoring Smart, Russell McCutcheon compared him with Eliade, suggesting that they represented “two different and possibly competing approaches.”[3] In criticizing those who denied there was a continuum between religion and other things as seeking “to partition off religion … so it can have its own norms and be sui generis,”[4] Smart certainly sounds like he was contrasting his approach with that of Eliade. Indeed, in contrast to Eliade, who emphasized the sharp distinction between the sacred and the profane, Smart sought to apply his dimensional analysis to systems that, as he said, are “commonly called secular: ideologies or worldviews such as scientific humanism, Marxism, Existentialism, [and] nationalism.”[5]

    Yet it is probably his openness to continuity and his inability to establish a clear distinction between religious and secular worldviews that has generated the most concern. Thus, while acknowledging Smart’s many positive moves, Brian Rennie notes Smart’s reluctance to characterize secular worldviews as religions, his uneasiness when it came to specifying what made religions distinct, and at the same time Smart’s claim that “the washing away of a fundamental distinction between religion and secular worldviews enables us to ask more sensible questions about the functions of systems of belief.” “Try as he might,” Rennie concludes, “it seems he cannot effectively maintain a distinction between a religious and a non-religious worldview.”[6] Although it is easy enough to ask people whether they consider their worldview religious or not, establishing a theoretical distinction between secular and religious worldviews requires scholars to stipulate a definition of religion. Smart sometimes stipulated a distinctive feature (i.e., contact with an invisible world), but then undercut himself, creating contradictions that he never resolved.


    Why is this text/theorist important or relevant for religious studies students?

    There are, as most of us are aware, longstanding complaints regarding stipulative (2nd order) definitions of religion, chief among them that (1) they vary so much that we can’t compare what one scholar says about “religion” with what others say and (2) they tell us more about scholars’ views than about the views of people on the ground. The latter problem is most acute in relation to cultures that don’t have a term for religion and in relation to “religion-like” groups that claim to be “non-religious” or “secular.” Smart struggled with the problem in the latter context. Although I have been an “anti-definitionalist” for some time when it comes to defining religion, I didn’t see the importance of a identifying a broader term until I was invited to write a blog post on method for the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN). Thinking about methods for studying so-called nonreligion highlighted the craziness of studying nonreligion or secularity or atheism without specifying some sort of wider rubric, such as worldviews, for conceptualizing our overarching object of study.[7]

    It is in this context that I find Smart’s call for repositioning what we are doing as scholars of religion under the broader rubric of worldview studies highly relevant. His most visionary formulation of Worldview Studies (or Weltanschauungswissenschaft, as he sometimes called it) appeared not in his textbooks, but in an article titled: “The Philosophy of Worldviews, that is, the Philosophy of Religion Transformed.” There he argued not only that “the philosophy of religion should be extended to be the philosophy of worldviews,” but also “that [the philosophy of worldviews] should be the upper story of a building which has as its middle floor the comparative and historical analysis of religions and ideologies, and as a ground floor the phenomenology not just of religious experience and action but of the symbolic life of man as a whole.”[8] As Rennie’s critique indicates, however, his way of implementing worldview studies generated contradictions. In starting with an idea of religion, however vaguely defined, and using it to analyze worldviews that he wanted to characterize as either religious and secular while remaining reluctant to identify what distinguished them, he remained suspended between religious studies and a more fully realized worldview studies. The alternative is to take worldviews that people on the ground characterize as religious, secular, spiritual (or whatever) as our object of study. Doing so requires us to define “worldviews” but not “religion.” Although Smart used his dimensions to analyze worldviews, he never tried to define what he meant by a worldview.


    How are you using the text/theorist to expand upon, subvert, or challenge traditional interpretations?

    I am using Smart to get at our difficulties defining our object of study and to critique our desire to subsume the study of worldviews and ways of life that insiders do not consider religious under the heading of religious studies. Rather than characterize those worldviews and ways of life as religious, I think we should just call them worldviews and ways of life and, following Smart’s lead, shift our focus to a more broadly conceived object of study. If we shift our focus to Worldview Studies (or, as I’d prefer, the Study of Worldviews and Ways of Life), then worldview (and ways of life) are the key concepts we have to define, not religion. We need to so, however, in an even-handed way that does not privilege one type of worldview over another. Smart’s dimensions, since they are derived from the study of religions, may or may work equally well for both religious and secular worldviews. Even if they do, his dimensions, as just noted, don’t define a worldview any more than they do a religion.

    I think, though, that defining what we mean by worldviews and ways of life is actually easier than defining religion and that there is existing work that we can draw on to do this. In preparing my blog post for NSRN, I discovered the research on worldviews coming out of the Netherlands, particularly the work of Andre Droogers, a cultural anthropologist at the Free University in Amsterdam, and the interdisciplinary Worldviews Research Group founded by Leo Apostel in Belgium.[9] I have argued elsewhere,[10] I think their definition of worldviews in terms of “big questions” provides a more neutral starting point for comparison across cultures and time periods that can be fleshed out in terms of many of Smart’s dimensions. Justifying such a claim takes us into the problems surrounding comparison, where like William Paden,[11] I think that an evolutionary perspective can help us to identify basic panhuman processes, such as “worldmaking,” that we can use to ground our comparisons. While Smart doesn’t provide a definition of worldviews or ways of life, his work (and the contradictions therein) help us to understand why we need to conceptualize and define a more expansive object of study.



    _________________________________


    [1] Ninian Smart, The World’s Religions, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); idem., The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973). For a full bibliography, see John J. Shepherd, “The Ninian Smart Archive and Bibliography,” Religion 35 (2005), 167-197.

    [2] Smart, Science of Religion, 9, emphasis added.

    [3] Russell T. McCutcheon, “Review of Aspects of Religion: Essays in Honor of Ninian Smart,” Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion 34, no. 3 (1995), 414-415.

    [4] Ninian Smart, “The Philosophy of Worldviews, that is, the Philosophy of Religion Transformed,” Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie, 23, no. 3 (1981), 217.
    [5] Smart, The Science of Religion, 22.

    [6] Bryan Rennie, “The View of the Invisible World: Ninian Smart’s Analysis of the Dimensions of Religion and of Religious Experience,” CSSR Bulletin 28, no. 3 (1999): 66, quoting Ninian Smart, “Theravada Buddhism and the Definition of Religion,” in The Notion of Religion in Comparative Research, ed. Ugo Bianchi (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschnider, 1994), 604.

    [7] Ann Taves, “On the Virtues of a Meaning Systems Framework for Studying Nonreligious and Religious Worldviews in the Context of Everyday Life,” at 
    https://nsrn.net/2016/10/04/methods-series-on-the-virtues-of-a-meaning-systems-framework-for-studying-nonreligious-and-religious-worldviews-in-the-context-of-everyday-life/

    [8] Smart, “The Philosophy of Worldviews,” 217.

    [9] Andre F. Droogers, Methods for the Study of Religious Change: From Religious Studies to Worldview Studies (London: Equinox, 2014); C. Vidal, Wat is een wereldbeeld? (What is a worldview?), Nieuwheid denken: De wetenschappen en het creatieve aspect van de werkelijkheid, ed. H. Van Belle and J. Van der Veken (Leuven: Acco, 2008).

    [10] See Taves, “On the Virtues”; Ann Taves and Egil Asprem, “Scientific Worldview Studies: A Programmatic Proposal,” in A New Synthesis: Cognition, Evolution, and History in the Study of Religion, ed. A. K. Petersen, I.S. Gilhus, L. H. Martin, J.S. Jensen, & J. Sørensen (Leiden: Brill, 2018); Ann Taves, Egil Asprem, and Elliott Ihm, “Psychology, Meaning Making and the Study of Worldviews: Beyond Religion and Non-religion (Invited submission under review for a special issue of Psychology of Religion and Spirituality).

    [11] William Paden, New Patterns for Comparative Religion: Passages to an Evolutionary Perspective (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016); idem. “Theaters of Worldmaking Behaviors: Panhuman Contexts for Comparative Religion,” in Comparing Religions: Possibilities and Paths? ed. T. A. Idinopulos, B. C. Wilson, and J. C. Hanges (Leiden: Brill, 2006). 






    Monday, October 23, 2017

    Explaining a Religious Studies Degree Part Two: Elevator Talks



    We recently asked educators to weigh in on a problem some students face while completing their religious studies degree: figuring out how to explain to parents and friends that their degree does not mean they are entering the ministry. 

    Q: Students sometimes ask how they can explain to family members or friends that their decision to complete a degree in religious studies does not mean they are pursing a career in ministry. Have you responded to these concerns before? If so, how did you frame your answer?


    Russell T. McCutcheon

    Elevator Talks

    A few years ago, members our undergrad student association had the idea to host a bit of a competition making elevator talks—you know, that few minute spiel about something, or yourself, such as describing what it is that the study of religion is or what a scholar of religion does.

    For I think it safe to say that many of us—depending what sort of scholar of religion we are, that is—have had the experience of someone not quite understanding that we’re not here to become a priest. (Perhaps you’ve seen the ongoing series over at the Bulletin blog on this very topic?) Sure, some (many?) scholars of religion do things that the general public might easily understand, such as those academics who try to figure out which form of this religion is more authentic and which type of that religion is more dangerous; if you look around the field you’ll quickly realize that such normative scholarship is hardly reserved for theology. But if you make the critical shift to study the way normative claims function, the way identities are negotiated, or the way that discourses on authenticity can be far more curious than simply assuming something can be purer than something else—and then adding religion to the mix—well, it might be a little tougher than you realize to describe one’s work to others.




    Especially if you’re an undergrad, surrounded by friends and family who today often seem to assume a direct link between university and a life-long profession. For one studies accounting in order to become an accountant, no? And why studying engineering if you’re not going to become an engineer? So why study religion if you don’t want to be ordained? What do you even do when you study religion at a public university?

    Looking back on these elevator talks, it’s clear that these questions still occupy our students—and for good reason. For although some may wish to further their studies after their undergrad degree, and become scholars of religion themselves, many more will go into who knows what all different fields, such as all the teachers and business people who are out there working right now, not to mention the doctors and lawyers, who all once sat in our classrooms, took our seminars, and majored in our Departments. That means that after they left our classes they’ve each probably sat in front of an interviewer, let alone a whole committee or even multiple committees, and fielded the inevitable question, “What has the study of religion got to do with X?”—where X means whatever carrer the student hopes to go into.




    And, in our experience, answering that question is a real challenge if you define the field by its objects of study—such as seeing its relevance as directly linked to studying, say, the Bhagavad Gita or the Gospel of Mark; for it might be a bit of a stretch to connect either of them to fields outside Gita or New Testament studies. Thus the field, when defined in this way, can appear as arcane and out of touch.

    But if you understand the study of religion as a place where one acquires skills, that just happen to have been used reading certain sorts of texts, or studying certain sorts of people and institutions—skills like definition, description, comparison, interpretation, and explanation—well, at least here at the University of Alabama we tend to think that those students will be in a rather strong position to someday convey to others what it is that they do and why it might matter to a profession, far afield from our content, but where those tools can come in handy.

    So, like I said, a few years ago, some of our students had a little fun with all this (but there’s a serious topic just beneath the surface, of course)—we all got together one night, ordered some pizza, premiered the videos that they had made, and enjoyed how they met the challenge of giving a brief talk on what it is that a scholar of religion does.




    Thanks to former majors Emily, Catie, Anna, and Jared
    for producing these timeless classics.



    Friday, October 13, 2017

    Explaining A Religious Studies Degree



    We recently asked educators to weigh in on a problem some students face while completing their religious studies degree: figuring out how to explain to parents and friends that their degree does not mean they are entering the ministry. 

    Q: Students sometimes ask how they can explain to family members or friends that their decision to complete a degree in religious studies does not mean they are pursing a career in ministry. Have you responded to these concerns before? If so, how did you frame your answer?


    Brad Stoddard, McDaniel College

    As an historian (of American religious history), I suggest that my students stress the historical aspects of their work (when describing it to parents, family members, or even their peers). They can choose a historical event like World War I and use it as an example. One can study the causes, the results, and the motives of people who participated in World War I without having participated in it themselves or even without taking sides in the war. 

    Now apply that logic to a religious event, group, or person, and perhaps the parent can understand the academic study of religion as we teach it at McDaniel. This is short and pithy response, but students have found it useful when they describe their studies to mom and dad.


    Ian Alexander Cuthbertson, Queen's University

    I sometimes take a similar approach to the one Brad uses and explain to students that one needn't be a communist to study communism (or a manatee to study marine biology, for that matter) and so one need not be religious to be interested in studying religion. 

    I also sometimes position myself as an atheist (which I am, though I often resist inhabiting this label) and use myself as an example of someone who is very interested in 'religion' while having no religious commitments of my own. 

    But the structure of the full-year intro course I've taught at Queen's for the last few years is such that by January most of my students realize that we're not actually studying religion but rather the processes according to which some institutions, practices etc., are labeled religious and others are not. This means that (for me at least) the academic study of religion is less about understanding religion that it is understanding how and why we split up the world into 'religion' and 'not religion' and the consequences of this splitting. 

    I don't know if any of this helps students explain that they don't want to become ministers to anyone else, but I hope it helps them frame religious studies in their own minds as a field that is (at least sometimes) interested the practical consequences of categorization rather than the mystery of god or how various religions are similar to or different from one another. 


    Richard Newton, Elizabethtown College

    I work solely with undergraduates, so you might say that my job depends on my ability to provide a response to this question. And it is a case that must be pressed in other parts of my institutional ecosystem. College applicants, their caretakers, enrolled students seeking general education requirements, and the bureaucratic entities that approve my department are asking this too. To date, my answer to the question comes in three parts.

    Part I: Establish what we do.


    The first has to do with establishing that we study "religion" as a human activity. Given that the particular name has a history and is used to cover a wide range of expressions and effects, our enterprise is to make sense of what is going on in and around this activity. Given all that our disciplinarians have gleaned, we can also examine instances of human activity that appear comparable to what we have studied--even when the term "religion" is not being used to describe it by us or our objects of study. Though titles like “the history of religion” or “the science of religion” are less fashionable than they once were, I find that it actually helps create points of reference for those inquiring. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, declared “the world [his] parish.” I need people to understand that in religious studies, the news is our Petri dish.

    Part 2: Tell them what is it good for?

    We have to recognize that people want to know their kids are getting "the goods. " A pre-med program is not intrinsically better at professional outcomes because of the subject. It just looks that way because of program development and the premium our society places on institutional medicine. There's no religious studies industry to subsidize our work. But I think we can equip students with skills and content knowledge such that they become attractive to a number of industries. I've tried to advise undergrads to start working now--in internships, web-publishing, professional research, journalism, etc. I want them leaving with portfolios that constitute the first step to where they want to go. This is part of the impetus of my student-scholar collaborative website, Sowing the Seed. When I can tell prospective families that my students have had these enviable experiences and that my program is dedicated to helping students chart a path, the "what are you going to do with that degree" changes to "I want that, and I want it for my kid." It's a long game to be sure, but I think there's a bright future for religious studies programs that commit to getting students into the creation of knowledge in communicable ways.




    Part 3: Help make their dreams come true.

    Lastly, students need to commit to thinking for themselves about what their program has equipped them to do, what they wan to do, and what they have yet to do to manifest those dreams. This is the heart of my junior/senior capstone. Instead of insisting on a traditional thesis, I have them create something that will signal to potential employers/benefactors that they are already doing the job. It could be a literature review or a research proposal for the graduate school-bound, but it could be a pilot for a political satire that knows there are deeper critiques to be made about religion in public life. Maybe it will be volunteering at a community organization or NGO. I want my undergrad students to have the confidence of an MBA, the fortitude of an MD, but the hustle of a graduate from the school of hard knocks.