January News

Welcome (or Welcome Back) to Engaging Religion!

This month features blog posts by Daniel Santiago Sáenz (Concordia University) on religion and contemporary art, David Emory (McGill University) on Canadian secular schools, Queen’s alumnus Dr. Russell T. McCutcheon (University of Alabama) on unseen intentions in religion and politics, and a new 175 words post by Ruth Chitiz considering the Christian origins of secularism.

As always, check back later this month for more updates and send along blog post ideas or completed posts to qsrblog@gmail.com.

Is Secularism a Form of Christian Proselytization?

Ruth Chitiz
School of Religion MA Student

Secularism involves separating governmental institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious ones. Within a Western context, secularism works because of Christianity: the Protestant Reformation was central to the development of both the nonreligious state system and Western legal traditions. Secularism has become synonymous with modernization and progressivism and this insulates secularity from critique. This false notion of a universal secularism has caused the West to demand other parts of the world to follow suit.

The problem is that secularism does not make sense in parts of the world that were not historically Christianized. The fact that secularism is not necessarily compatible with Islam, for instance, in the same way as it is with Christianity suggest that the Middle East’s hesitance toward and occasional outright rejection of secularism has less to do with an anti-Western mentality and more to do with a rejection of Christianity. Because secularism’s ideological tenets are directly incompatible with the union of religious Islam (shari’a) and political sovereignty in the Muslim world, perhaps secularism is in fact Christian proselytization.

The Heart of the Matter

Russell T. McCutcheon
Chair, Department of Religious Studies, University of Alabama
B.A. 1983, M.Div. 1986, Th.M 1987

UntitledThose following US politics may know about an exchange back in January, between Trump spokesperson, Kellyanne Conway, and CNN’s Chris Cuomo, concerning what some still interpret as Trump’s mocking of a handicapped reporter during last fall’s campaign. The episode came up again because of Meryl Streep’s recent speech at the Golden Globes, back in early January, in which she commented on how:

the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life.

All along Trump and his team have denied that he was mocking the man, of course, but what stood out for me in their recent efforts was the manner in which an inner, unseen world of intention has been invoked.

Give Conway’s reply to Cuomo a listen (from the 2:10 point if you want to get straight to the example I have in mind):

You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart…

Now, what I find interesting about this move is not that his spokesperson made it—after all, the distinction between inner and outer, unseen and seen, private and public, is a strategic “divide and conquer” move that social actors have long used. Think of the proverbial rebellious teenager retreating to her room and slamming the door (complete with a “Keep Out” sign on it?), and turning up her music, all in order to deal with disagreements with her parents or siblings—the faux privacy of the room providing an escape from public conflict. Or, again, think of the rise of the discourse on conscience in the 17th century, as a way to manage dissent—so long as one only disagrees inwardly, and behaves as required by the sovereign, then dissent is tolerated and you won’t be burned at the stake.

So it’s not the move that’s interesting but, instead, it’s the response to the move that should attract our attention. Consider this Washington Post article, for example:

UntitledFor the ease with which her distinction between words and intentions, or between public action and private meaning, was derided differs sharply, I’d argue, from how most of us respond to this distinction when others use it; after all, the foundation of the academic study of religion has much to do with the longstanding, and still widely shared, presumption that scholars have no choice but to study secondary, symbolic manifestations or expressions of some prior, unseen thing.

Almost no one sees that as laughable.

It’s the basis of the comparative method, in fact; as our 19th century predecessors thought, and many still do, we need to find cross-cultural similarities in narratives, behaviours, and institutions in order to infer the unseen universal.

So when we hear participants—or, for that matter, colleagues—talking about such things as faith, or belief, or experience, or feeling as if they are all intangible and actual inner states that are, in some subsequent step, projected outward into the world, in some coded fashion, few of us listen with the sort of critically-minded ears that Conway’s response seems to have elicited. Instead, many of us listen reverentially, take many of the people talking that way at their word, and then go so far as to try to understand such things as how those inner states determine action—e.g., it’s not tough to find the pollsters trying to figure out how religious faith impacts voting trends.

Moral of the story? What’s supposedly in some people’s hearts is therefore not just seen by most of us as real but also as deeply valuable, primary and causal; whereas when some others talk that way…? Well, we immediately hear their claims as a sly rhetorical move.

I think back to a colleague who once told me about a shift he made in his work on the Reformation, while completing his dissertation—when he came to understand that, regardless what they themselves may have thought, social actors from that period who were writing about faith could be read as using the term as a rhetorical devise, to create the impression of a privileged zone free of social influence and governance—not unlike the effect of that teenager’s closed bedroom door.

Free of judgment, contest, and consequence too.

So it’s not that I’m defending Conway’s usage—far from it. Instead, I’m asking how scholars know when to hear such claims as substantive and when to hear them as rhetorical? For few of us read John Wesley’s classic claims about his “strange warming of the heart” as a rhetorical move that a social actor, in a specific circumstance, used for practical effect. No—we mostly see it as a metaphoric attempt to put something real, that defied (maybe even pre-dated?) language, into language. But what if we did? How would the field be reshaped if we listened to all of the people we study—and not just those with whom we may disagree—as situated, strategic social actors, all trying to do things with words, rather than hearing just some as neutrally, even naively, reporting on self-evident matters of the heart?


Russell T. McCutcheon, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama, works on issue of classification in the history of the study of religion. He also earned a B.A., M.Div., and Th.M. at Queen’s university in the 1980s, prior to going to the University of Toronto for an M.A. and Ph.D. in the academic study of religion.


Religious Cultures and the Elusive Secular School

David Emory
MA Education and Society, McGill University


Secularism, when considered in relation to education, seems to be one of those terms that means completely different things depending on who you are talking to. To some, it represents the idea that schools can be open places, neither favouring nor disregarding any one specific faith. To others, it is equated with atheism or even represents a threat to all religion, not just in public spaces, but personally. Again, to others, it is the absolute removal of all spiritual elements from learning and schools. Many academics have worked to explore this concept in relation to the modern, western world but in spite of the growing library of academic writing and research on secularism, the concept itself remains elusive to many Canadian teachers. Speaking from experience as a substitute teacher in several public schools in suburban Montreal and a student teacher in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, I can attest to a wide variety of interpretations and understandings of secularism. In Quebec, public schools are considered to be secular spaces where students’ guaranteed rights to freedom of religion are respected.

15227969_10153901384021640_1258036755_nNo one religion is meant to be privileged above any others, but it is still considered important that students are exposed to the different tenants of various world religions and spiritual perspectives. Religion is not to be removed from the curriculum, but explored from a neutral stance. The document that governs (for lack of a better word) a teacher’s approach to religion and spirituality in the school is the ERC (Ethics and Religious Cultures) program, which expects teachers to “be discreet and respectful, and to not promote their own beliefs and points of view.” The three competencies of this program are that students reflect on ethical questions, demonstrate an understanding of the phenomenon of religion, and engage in dialogue. Teachers are expected to step away from their own religious perspectives when teaching any subject area, but religion is not to be absent from schools in Quebec. It is to be explored and reflected upon.

Even with our professional obligations towards the ERC program, many of the teachers that I have spoken with seem to skip over the second competency and focus primarily on the first and third in the small bloc devoted to ERC each week. In some cases this is an act of rebellion from a teacher of the old guard, still clinging, however weakly, to the catholic or protestant school system that they grew up and were trained in. For the most part, however, I do not believe this to be the reason why religious cultures are ignored. One of the justifications for the religious cultures aspect being often left out is that there is a concern for misrepresentation. Teachers are afraid to discuss something like religion, particularly a religion that is not their own, for fear that they will misinform their students, and many opt to avoid the topic altogether rather than risk making a mistake. Another reason for its omission is that religion might seem to come with the potential for controversy. I do not know if this is related to schools being secular spaces, coupled with a misunderstanding that secularism = no religion, but it’s very possible that this idea is looming over the hesitation. In some cases, the degree to which religious cultures are explored is directly related to the diversity of the school population. In a homogeneous community, some teachers are less likely to explore different religious cultures simply because it seems less relevant to their student population.

Having a document that outlines expectations towards religion in relation to secular schools puts Quebec a step above many other provinces, where schools are secular in that religion is absent from the curriculum or even avoided outside of, in some cases, an optional world religions course. Much of the confusion over secularism in Quebec schools might come from the lack of clarity towards it in other provincial curriculums, and a simple lack of exploration on behalf of the teacher, but in spite of the existence of a document that emphasizes the understanding of religion without privileging it, there is a struggle to foster such an environment in many Quebec schools.




Religion and Contemporary Art in the Canadian Context

Daniel Santiago Sáenz
MA Student, Art History, Concordia University


Discussions of religion in the art history classroom are often confined to survey courses, as well as Early Christian and Early Modern topics. More specifically, it appears that religion and spirituality have all but disappeared in art since the 1960s. In the Québécois context, some may refer to the Quiet Revolution as the reason for this disappearance and some others may uphold the infallibility of the secularization thesis to this effect. In the past few years, however, there has been a renewed interest in the histories of religious art in the modern and contemporary context. I am thinking particularly of Hillary Kaell, Loren Lerner, Adrian Gorea, and Nicola Pezolet, whose research and teaching pay close attention to the visual and material cultures of religion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

In the past few years, I have had the pleasure to encounter student artists who are, in creative ways, reinvigorating the fields of religious studies and visual arts by bridging the aforementioned gap. As an example, I would like to introduce you to two Concordia University students: Étienne Camille Charbonneau (BFA, Painting and Drawing) and Louis-Charles Dionne (BFA, Sculpture and Art History). I encountered the work of these two artists when I curated a show for the Art Matters Festival titled The Body: Religious and Sacrilegious (2016). Although their body of work is more extensive than I give them credit for in this piece, I will focus here on some of their ‘religious’ (and more precisely, ‘Christian’) works.

lcd2016trousse02-1First, then, let us consider Dionne’s Trousse de secours / Emergency Kit (2015). A rather tongue-in-cheek sculptural work, it nevertheless captures important aspects of Catholic piety and devotion that have been and continue to be an integral component of the French Canadian identity. We have, for instance, prayer cards to St. Jude (patron saint of lost causes), St. Anthony of Padua (patron saint of lost things), devotional candles, holy water, a rosary, matches, and so on. In short, anything a Catholic may need to invoke the Catholic of their choice in, as the title suggests, an emergency. In this case, Dionne brings our attention to the banal emergencies for which saints are invoked, such as misplacing your keys. By presenting this devotional paraphernalia through the lens of the ready-made, Trousse de secours / Emergency Kit examines the combination of Catholic piety and the supernatural with more popular, perhaps even secular aspects of everyday life, resulting in the superstitious. These objects, then, seem to become devoid of their original supernatural nature and instead adopt a mundane one. The artist, therefore, draws from a long history of devotionalism and veneration of saints in the Catholic Church but, through his deployment of humour, conveys this history through a critical lens.


The critical examination of Christian histories is also present in Charbonneau’s work. One of his most recent works, Le voile de Sainte-Véronique (2016), is case in point. Many of us are familiar with the iconography of Saint Veronica who, according to Catholic tradition, was so moved by the sight of Christ carrying his cross that she offered him her veil. After holding it to his face, Jesus’ face remained imprinted on what came to be known as the relic of Veronica’s veil. More precisely, Charbonneau’s retelling of the story calls to mind Baroque painter Mattia Preti’s painting of the same subject. As such, Charbonneau’s work draws inspiration from a historical period that was particularly significant in the development of Catholic spirituality (the Counter-Reformation) and the history of art (the distinct chiaroscuro of the European Baroque).


There is, moreover, what seems to be a deconstruction of these histories. What is imprinted on the cloth is not the face of Jesus, but rather the over-the-top make up that we often associate with drag queens. Is the artist perhaps alluding to what some theologians have described as the Queer Jesus? Is the artist tending to a queer martyr? This détournement is further emphasized by the fact that the artist himself, sporting a rather full beard, poses as Veronica. The photograph may be read by queer people of faith as the artist’s attempt to cast divinity in his image, some others could read it as a blatant attack on religion, but I will limit my analysis to the fact that Charbonneau and Dionne, like other contemporary artists who are not named here, are revisiting religious imagery and traditions in creative and refreshing ways.



Louis-Charles Dionne, Trousse de secours / Emergency Kit, 2015, Plastic, Paper, stickers, wax, wood, metal, glass, matches, water. 18 cm x 25 cm x 8 cm. Image used with permission of the artist.

Étienne Camille Charbonneau, Le voile de Sainte-Véronique, 2016. Inkjet on paper. 15″ x 20″ (4500 x 6000 pixels). Image used with permission of the artist.