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:

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

[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.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Interview with the Editor: Religion in Five Minutes

Religion in Five Minutes (Sheffield, UK: Equinox Publishers, 2017)
Interview with Aaron W. Hughes

Tell us about the book?

First off, it is a pleasure to be asked to join the conversation at Practicum. I am a big fan of the site as it provides an important forum for encouraging us to think about the pedagogical value of our work, no matter how technical.

Religion in Five Minutes, co-edited with my colleague Russell T. McCutcheon, is a volume that seeks to provide answers to some of the most basic questions that people—be it undergraduates or interested lay audiences—have when it comes to religion. The questions can be as basic as “How Many Religions Are There?” and “Do Jews Believe in the Afterlife?” to more technical ones, such as “Can One Study One’s Own Religion Objectively?” and “Why is it Important That We Study Religion?”

The answers to these questions, though diverse, nevertheless share a similar vision, to wit, to bring the critical edge that the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) is known for in our collective field. This means that we are less interested in ecumenical answers to these questions that imagine us all standing under a big tent in the manner that, say, the AAR does. Indeed, the NAASR logo appears on the back cover, providing an imprimatur that we hope situates the book for the reader.

Many of the answers, for example, reflect as much on how problematic the question might be as they simultaneously provide answers to the actual question. So, for example, “Do Jews Believe in the Afterlife?” answers, yes, of course they do, but then turns the question back on itself by asking, why might people ask such a question in the first place (short answer: Christian supersessionism).

What motivated the work?

Russell and I thought that no book like this existed, at least not from the perspective of the critical study of religion. Certainly there are many books that seek to introduce religions to the beginning reader, but very few do so with any degree of theoretical sophistication that we seek to engage in here. With the generous encouragement and support of our editor, Janet Joyce, at Equinox, we assembled a team of experts—both junior and senior scholars—to undertake the project. The result is a volume that we are proud of and that we maintain could, and ought, to function as primer for all students entering the academic study of religion. Other constituencies include all those interested in religion and, especially, the academic study of religion.

What theory or theorists inform your method and methodology?

This is a tough question to answer. Indeed, I might spin this question a little and say that many of the contributors to the volume are some of the leading theoreticians of our day. It is an international volume with colleagues from the United States, Canada, and Europe. Since it is an edited volume, there are many different types of theoretical takes on the data, but, again, the feature that runs through the volume is that the questions had to be answered critically and self-reflexively.

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

It is important to note that this volume is conceived as a textbook meant for use in classes, both in specific religions (many of the questions are, for example, religion-specific) and more generalist classes, such as “Introduction to the Study of Religion.” It is not a technical work, but a general work written for the introductory reader. Within this context, I imagine that the entries –and there are over 60 in total—would be most successful as initial segues into larger class discussions in the academic study of religion.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part, “Religion,” focuses on the category in general. It provides answers to questions such as “Do all Religions have Miracles?” or “Why is Religion so often involved in Politics?” The second section focuses more on specific religions, and provides answers to questions such as “Who Wrote the Bible?” and “What is the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam?” The third, and final, part examines the study of religion, with answers to questions such as “Who Was the First Scholar of Religion?” and “What is the Cognitive Science of Religion?”

It would, thus, be a perfect textbook to jumpstart class discussions on many of the foundational questions and issues that surround the academic study of religion.

In addition, the answer to each question provides suggestions for further readings that will ideally enable the interested reader to read more on the subject in question. Moreover, the questions and answers cross-reference with related questions in the volume.

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

As mentioned above, students (and other interested readers) would be best served by reading the entries, reading them with the other entries with which they are cross-referenced, and, finally, reading the “suggestions for further reading” sections at the end of each question. Add classroom discussion into the mix and I suspect that this book has the potential to be a foundational introductory text.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

I Don't Study Religion: So What Am I Doing in the Study of Religion?

By Malory Nye, University of Glasgow

*This post originally appeared on Malory Nye's Religion Bites Blog

I have considered myself a student of religion for around 30 years now, particularly since the time I enrolled for a PhD programme on religion in social anthropology (back in 1988), and then went on to teach religion in various university and college contexts.

However, I am a student of religion who does not study religion.

For one thing, I don't think religion is a ‘thing’ to be studied. ‘It’ is not an entity in itself.

In particular, I study what people think and talk about as religion.

I study the spaces, places, things, objects, ideas, practices, and conflicts that can be found in particular discourses that get labelled and thought about as ‘religion’.

I study the idea of religion.

Very often this can feel like I am not studying (or teaching) about religion at all.

To study the bits of peoples’ lives that slot into the bracket of ‘religion’, it is also necessary to try to understand the ‘bigger picture’ — the bits of their lives and cultures that appear to exist beyond the ‘religion’ tag.

For this, sometimes the boundaries are clear —people can often articulate clearly where they consider ‘religion to end’ and ‘culture to begin’. This is interesting in itself, since it gives us some insight into how the idea of religion is understood.

But it does not give us any definitive understanding of whether a certain action is either ‘religion’ or ‘culture’.

Most significantly, such statements are part of what the study of religion is considering:

That is, how the idea of religion is understood. And from there, how such an idea(s) is embedded and lived out in material and discursive ways.

In saying this, I am not saying that religion is embedded and made material, since it is not a thing to be embodied in such a way. It is the idea of religion that is embedded and embodied.

Understandings of religion are lived out, on and through peoples’ bodies.
This is not so different from many other ideas and discourses that exist within the complexities of what we think of as culture.

Thus, likewise the study of race is not about any realities of differences between people that are defined by the term ‘race’.

The study of race is not about measuring intelligence or ability, or skull sizes. It is about studying the idea of race, the discourses that define differences between people, and in being embodied such ideas become very real, social, economic, and political realities.

Similarly, the study of gender is not about physical, anatomical differences — it is about the idea of gender: how such ideas are understood and put into practice. Such ideas create particular differences of gender — people talk about specific genders, such as a binary division between women and men. And then on this are elaborated many other levels of ideas of difference, which in themselves create social relations and are reproduced through such relations.

So, in short, the study of religion is about the study of ideas.

However, the word ‘idea’ seems a rather lame understatement of what is examined. It suggests a simple category of thinking that exists in a detached cognitive world, separate from the ‘real life’ of embodiment.

But the focus on ideas (the idea of 
religion, for example) leads us to an approach of understanding an ‘ideology’ — which in itself needs to be unpacked.

An ideology is not just simply a ‘false consciousness’, a deliberate misrepresentation that is imposed on a populace by force and through propaganda.

The concept of ideology is much broader than this: we all live within a world that is based on assuming certain ideas as obvious and self evident, so real we do not have to question their existence.

Sometimes these ideas can be seen as religious, but very often they are not. Ideas about the reality of race and gender are also ideological, they are the ideas that people live within to understand their bodies, and to talk about their differences.

And behind such ideas of religion, race, and gender are relations of power. They are means by which power and influence are exerted — rich over poor, men over women, white over black, and so on.

Ideas matter.

They exist within times and places. They are the basis through which people experience and live within their worlds. They are how social and power differences are understood and exerted.

This is why I study religion by studying the idea of religion.

By studying the intersections of power and ideologies of religion, race, gender, and sexualities.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Interview with the Editor: Fabricating Identities

Fabricating Identities (Sheffield, UK: Equinox Publishers, 2017)
Interview with Russell T. McCutcheon

What is the main argument in this book?

This edited book is a collection of short essays, written for a wide readership, half of which originated on the blog for the research group, Culture on the Edge; they were revised and a group of new respondents were invited to work with each chapter—not just to reply but to apply it, comment on it, even critique it. The chapters all revolve around rethinking how it is that we study identity. This has been the main preoccupation of this research group for the past several years: moving from a commonsense or folk model (in which identity is assumed to be an inner sentiment somehow pushed outward into the world and thereby understood as expressed symbolically), to a more technical and sociologically-grounded model that understands identity to be the trace of prior situations and environments, ascribed to people by others, thus making identity a social and historical (that is, contingent) effect all the way down. So I guess the main argument, across all of the chapters—and put explicitly in the book’s substantial Afterword—is that scholars normalize and authorize the social worlds that allowed group members to think of themselves as a this as opposed to a that if they don’t take seriously that to study identity means to study the settings and strategies that identify people. Simply put, there’s nothing private about identity.

What motivated your work?

This is the third volume is a book series edited by Vaia Touna (all of which have pretty much the same format), but it’s the only one so far to focus explicitly on the topic of identity—or, better put, on the identification techniques that usually go overlooked when we say someone “is Canadian” or “is single.” (The other volumes are on related topics, though, such as how we create the impression of difference or how we use discourses on origins for practical effect [e.g., “Why, when I was a kid…”]) As I said above, this is the topic of our research group since, though we’re all scholars of religion, we’ve each been frustrated by how not only religion, but also, more generally, identity, is generally assumed by scholars to name some inner element, private experience, or personal affectation that is somehow pre-social and, as I said above, only secondarily pushed into the world (in a fashion that’s prone to misinterpretation). It’s an old model, of course (think of William James’s famous definition of religion—a definition that, though over 100 years old, is hardly out of fashion among current scholars); but with advances in social theory over the past few generations (not to mention much earlier writers, like Emile Durkheim, of course), it seemed time to try to press the shortcomings of that approach, at a wide variety sites that might strike readers as familiar but which could be redescribed in a more rigorously social manner—all in order to challenge readers to rethink how they talk about identity, or at least how they, as scholars talk about it, since the commonsense model we use in day-to-day life likely plays an important role in normalizing certain identities and in managing the very real possibility that you or I could start to be something else with surprising ease. Not that it’s all based on how you comb your hair in the morning, but that often overlooked labor that we expend each morning, “getting ready for the day,” more than likely plays a key role in at least one form of identity maintenance. For anyone who has, say, changed a hairstyle (or, thinking of myself, when I shaved off my longstanding beard, unexpectedly, back in my own wintery Kingston days) knows how this can throw a curve to the world around them, one that bounced back onto themselves—my fiancé at the time (and my wife since 1985) wasn’t quite sure who I was when I suddenly popped my beardless face out of my big winter coat and long scarf that cold day when we met up with each other on the sidewalk on William St. So the larger work of our research group, which lies in the background of this little volume, was premised on a wish to complicate a seemingly simple thing, since that’s what I think scholars are supposed to do. And we aimed to do that in blog posts, but doing it in a little, affordable volume, that involves even more people, who can draw on even more examples, and doing so in a way that might be useful to novice readers in this area (whether in or outside a classroom), also seemed like a good idea.

What theory or theorists inform your method and methodology?

I’ve touched on that a bit already, I know, but, to be more specific, it was the work of Jean-François Bayart that got us going down this road—specifically, his book, The Illusion of Cultural Identity. My good friend, Willi Braun, at University of Alberta, brought it to my attention about 10 years ago, so, as a group, we decided to focus on his argument (which greatly complicates our casual saying that someone does X or thinks Y “because they’re Italian…” or some such poor attempts at causal analysis) in our effort to rethink how it is that scholars talk about identity. But other authors come in as well, of course, such as Rogers Brubaker (see his new book, Trans, for example, let alone much of his previous work) or Joan Wallach Scott (such as her still crucial 1991 essay on experience in the journal Critical Inquiry), not to mention Judith Butler, of course, and many others. So although Bayart was an important focus for us, such as his provocative statement that, “There is no such thing as identity, only operational acts of identification,” this alternative model is hardly new and hardly limited to just one or two social theorists. But we found that it is applied inconsistency by scholars—hence our scholarly initiative.

How might the book be used in a classroom?

The books in this series are all pithy, by design, which helps to make them affordable but which also precludes building a whole course around them—not unless the instructor uses them as case studies rather than as a textbook. So, as someone who has never been fond of using a textbook, and thereby ceding to someone else the authority to determine what it was I was trying to do in the class and thus what students needed to read to get there, the book’s all strike me as wonderfully useful in teaching—so long as instructors can see a way to use them, as well as other things, to get their students somewhere. So I could easily see someone putting together some readings so that students had an example of how scholars traditionally talk about identity, then moving to some of the authors named above, to provide an alternative approach, while reserving a book like ours for a final unit on application—because the chapters vary widely in the e.g. they discuss. Then students could tackle an analysis of their own as a final project. For example, in one of my own chapters I talk about nothing other than crossing my legs, and how I now realize that I’ve moved in the ways that I do it, over the years, finding myself now sitting “like a gentleman” at times, or whatever you’d call that one posture, with more tightly closed-in, cross-legs, while, as an 19 year old, I never would have sat that way. I probably would be seen it as threatening to my then developing sense of self, my sense of masculinity. So what did (and what does!) that pose do to me, my sense of who I was, the way I’m seen or treated by others when I happen to be sitting somewhere, more than likely not thinking much about it. (Though sometimes we think a great deal about how we sit, how we stand, right?) So the examples each chapter uses brings home the theory, doing so in a way that might invite a student to understand that seemingly benign actions nonetheless have effects that can sometimes be far-reaching. So perhaps the student will learn how to make data of themselves and their own taken-for-granted worlds.

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

Well, as I just said, actually: the everyday is pretty interesting if you look at it the right way. Too often, though, we pass right over it, because it’s familiar or routine, making it mundane and uninteresting. As much as we might criticize them now, we’re not all that different from our colonial-era intellectual predecessors in some ways, those who were so fascinated by the exotic “Other.” For as the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, once remarked, it’s a lot more work to make the ordinary interesting. So I think this little book, like the others in the series, tackle that very challenge.

Why did you decide to have junior scholars respond to senior ones? How might this format contribute to student learning?

Indeed—that’s another intentional hallmark of this book series. So the original members of Culture on the Edge (since the book was completed the group has expanded), Merinda Simmons, Craig Martin, Steven Ramey, Vaia Touna, Leslie Dorrough Smith, and myself, all wrote two main chapters and, as already noted, each has a respondent, who is rather earlier in their career—from still being a graduate student to people who have only recently earned their PhD degrees. So an international group, including David Robertson, Sarah Levine, Chris Cotter, Anja Kirsch, Candace Mixon, Ian Alexander Cuthbertson, Sarah Dees, Emily Schmidt, Richard Newton, Jason Ellsworth, Stacie Swain, and Matt Sheedy, took each of the main chapters in different directions, hopefully exemplifying for anyone who tackles the volume that career stage isn’t necessarily a barrier to doing interesting and innovative work in the academy. In fact, sometimes it’s people at much earlier stages that are doing the really interesting work. And if you consider the challenges now facing young scholars in the Humanities and some Social Sciences—what with declining government funding for education in many countries, and thus increasing costs and declining job opportunities—it makes a lot of sense for more senior scholars not to forget the chances that were surely presented to them, early on in their own careers, which helped them to get a leg up, as we say, and thereby become the people that they are today (again, not a bad example of the approach modeled in the book, no?). So while I’m not ready to hang up my saddle quite yet (I’ve got a couple books of my own coming out in 2018, actually, both collections of essays [one from Equinox and the other from Walter de Gruyter], plus a book I edited with Willi book due out from Oxford) this is a responsibility that I take pretty seriously. The book that I recently edited with Aaron Hughes, Religion in 5 Minutes, also comes to mind as a good example—flip through that book and you’ll see a pretty diverse number of contributors. And, again, hopefully making clear that good work is being done by a lot of interesting people in the academic study of Religion, some you may have heard of, sure, but others…? Well, you’ll probably be hearing a lot more from them in the future.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Social Functions of Obligatory Denunciations

*This post originally appeared on Craig Martin's blog

By Craig Martin

In preparation for a new course I’m teaching this fall, I’ve been reading a great deal on Islam. I’ve surveyed both scholarly and popular narratives on Islam, particularly as I hope to compare and contrast such narratives in my course. One thing that has struck me is the near-universal and apparently obligatory denunciations of “extremist Muslims,” “Islamic fundamentalists,” or “Islamic terrorism,” and of course Al-Qaeda in particular. In addition, the condemnations are presented as if obvious or common sense. It’s apparently “obvious” that the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington D.C. are “terrible” or “evil.” Interestingly, these denunciations appear even when—or perhaps because—the prose that follows goes on to historicize or contextualize the form of violence under consideration. Apparently, if one is going to offer reasons for which a group might perpetrate violence, one opens oneself to the charge that one is excusing that violence—hence the obligatory qualifications of the following sort: “before getting to the reasons behind 9/11, I want to make it clear that Al-Qaeda’s actions were evil and unforgivable.” Such denunciations, it is worth noting, appear in both scholarly and popular literature.

For all of the reasons outlined by Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida, signifiers signify only in relation to their differences from other signifiers. As such, condemnations of “illegitimate” violence are meaningful only in relation to its other: “legitimate” violence. For words like “illegitimate violence” to be meaningful, there must be a contrast—implicitly or explicitly—with “legitimate violence.”

Consequently, I would argue that these obligatory denunciations of illegitimate violence have a dual social function (and here I play off of the double [and opposite] meanings given to the word “sanction”): such denunciations negatively sanction—by decrying—illegitimate violence, but simultaneously positively sanction—by implicitly condoning, absolving, or excusing—legitimate violence. Every such denunciation is simultaneously a signal of approval.

This is why the one-sided or unidirectional nature of these obligatory denunciations are so revealing: in all of the literature I’ve been reading, I’ve not seen a single obligatory and obvious denunciation of, e.g., the violences perpetrated by the United States. Even when criticized, the actions of the United States are, at worst, complicated, lamentable, unfortunate, but never obviously terrible or evil.

So, as I head back to the classroom this fall, I’m going to think before I qualify my lectures by delivering “obvious” and obligatory condemnations of the forms of violence we’ll necessarily cover. Such verbal sanctions—especially when unidirectional—function implicitly to legitimate other forms of violence.