Is Academia a Religion?

theological-hall
Dana Sidebottom
Cultural Studies MA Student
Queen’s University

…I find holy redemption
When I put this car in drive
Roll the windows down and turn up the dial

Can I get a hallelujah
Can I get an amen
Feels like the Holy Ghost running through ya
When I play the highway FM
I find my soul revival
Singing every single verse
Yeah I guess that’s my church

Marin Morris, My Church

I have often joked about something that I call “The 4am Miracle”. It is that moment of inspiration that strikes suddenly and unexpectedly after hours of staring at a blank entre. It is the moment that the words flow uninhibited, the ideas focus and align, and the insights are profound. In the morning, I read over the work from the moment of transcendence, and it is always my best writing. Despite the feeling that I am not the one controlling the work, that the work is simply using my body as a vessel, it is always the most elegantly written, the most thought-provoking, the most engaging part of my essay – it is as though, in that moment, the Spirit of the Academy has possessed me for the sole purpose of articulating a point worth making.

This weekend, I attended a lecture given by a neuroscientist who studies the eye/brain connection and the processes used in our perception of the world. He closed his talk saying, “…managing the miracle of human sight”, and I was struck by his use of the word “miracle”. Miriam Webster dictionary defines miracle as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs”. Divine. A scientist described the phenomenon he has spent his life investigating as a product of divine intervention. And so too have I described my academic moments of inspiration as a miracle, as a divine intervention. And so now I wonder… Is academia a religion?

When I wake up, press the button on my kettle, and sit down in front of my computer every morning – am I going to church? Am I entrenching myself in a unifying worldview shared by millions of others, and trusting an institution and its set of ethics and principles to watch over me and guide my life? Inarguably, the answer is yes. I came to academia a supplicant (they called me an applicant, but the connotation is the same), and upon acceptance was initiated into the academy.

For four years I was a Novice, learning from those who have completed their training and moved up the ranks of the institution. I was made to feel guilty for my sins of not studying, partying too much, and falling behind, and I was judged by the Higher Powers each time I turned in an assignment. If being accepted to university can be compared with being Christened, turning in a paper was like going to Confession. Graduation was my Confirmation – my declaration that I was a member of the institution always, that I would carry the knowledge of my degree with me throughout my life, that I would forever be branded as a “university graduate” and therefore a full member of this community.

I have returned now as an Apprentice to an Adept or a Master, and in returning and ascending the ranks, I have accordingly been given greater responsibility and greater freedom. I guide my own small class of novices now, and I have been entrusted with more of the wisdom that the hallowed halls of the Ivory Tower hold sacred. I am even permitted to add to that knowledge in my own small way, carefully guided by my superiors.

I started thinking about this idea while sitting in my Community Based Research course. The course is looking at emergent research methodologies and is critical of the harm done by academics that have not traditionally been concerned with the communities they have studied. The critiques are valid and the new methodologies are interesting, but I am quick to defend the institution. As with all religion, there are things that change and adapt with time, there are moments when our highest earthly authorities come together and agree to adaptations of earlier doctrines, but there are some things that are dogma. Sources must be cited. Knowledge must be recorded and preserved. And the institution must persevere.

The big question, of course, is one of belief. Do I believe in the Academy? I love the Academy, and I believe in its ability and its desire to do good. I believe that the members of this community seek to expand and share knowledge, and to safeguard that knowledge for future generations. We comment on, critique, analyze, and offer insight into socio-political issues. We hunt for new cures, we research new surgical procedures and new energy sources, we create space to question authority and assess the state of the world. But I also have faith in the 4am miracle. I have experienced transcendence in the carrels of libraries, and I have felt the touch of the Spirit of Knowledge guiding me to answers that I did not have before.

Is academia a religion? I don’t know. But I think it’s my religion.
Bless me professor, for I have sinned. It has been many days since I worked on my thesis…

 

 

Better to Sell a Candle than Curse the Darkness?

Aaron Ricker
Lecturer,  McGill University
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Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was broadcast in 1980, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson (NDT) starred in the Cosmos reboot of 2014. Both shows were wildly successful (by the standards of educational TV), and in tandem they build a good-cop/good-cop image of science as a source of moral authority. Here’s how: Cosmos 1980 and Cosmos 2014 a) cultivate an ideal of science being in the wonder business. They then b) claim a moral authority rooted in its cosmic revelation. They c) stress the idea of a pressing global choice between life and death, and d) assert that the perspective offered by sciences like astronomy can help us make the right choice. In this way, they e) position “spiritual but not religious” and “scientific but not scientistic” science promoters like Carl Sagan and NDT as moral authorities.

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a) One way Cosmos (1980) promotes a wonder business mood is its use of literally astronomical numbers. In Episode 1 alone, I counted 50 millions/billions/trillions/quadrillions (about an illion per minute). This insistent invocation of inconceivably grand numbers positions Cosmos as a source of infotainment wonder, rightly administering the marvels of science to the people. Sagan is no cold scientistic egghead, you see? His science is passionate and “deep.”

b) There’s a moral authority that flows from this wonder, since Cosmos offers – in the words of co-writer Ann Druyan – a message of cosmic belonging through the “spiritual high” of its “revelation” (Introduction to Episode 1). As Sagan explains, such healthy wonder works best when it’s channeled by good teachers (Episode 13).

c) Cosmos stresses that science necessitates and informs global life-and-death choices regarding nuclear war, climate change, etc (Episode 1). The series’ grand finale opens on this note, in a literally biblical tone: “Behold, I have set before thee life and death,” with Sagan expressing his hope that we’ll accept from sciences like astronomy the cosmic “perspective” we’ll need to survive (Episode 13).

d) Slash-and-burn forestry is, for example, done by people who are “heedless of the beauty of our cousins the trees, and ignorant of the possible climactic catastrophes” (Episode 4). Science education is therefore a moral force, and literally a life-saver. “Science is not perfect,” Sagan says, “but it’s the best tool we have” (Episode 13).

e) Science replaces older (“religious”) ways of engaging wonder, and does it better (Episode 7), identifying and answering life-and-death decisions with humbling, soaring perspectives. The people who teach science properly are therefore moral actors in positions of great power and responsibility.

3

a) In Cosmos 2(014) it’s clear that science is still in the wonder business. The world revealed by science is marvelous and staggering. “Imagination alone not enough – The reality of nature is far more wondrous than anything we can imagine” (Episode 1). Science is the legitimate heir of territories previously claimed by older (“religious”) systems of meaning (Episode 13), including the functions of providing “humility” and “soaring spiritual experience” (Episode 2). NDT is, like, Sagan, scientific but not coldly or narrowly scientistic, you see. The bogeyman of scientism is banished, and the terrain of humane wonder is claimed for science.

b) The moral authority that flows from this includes in Cosmos 2 a claim to apostolic succession, and NDT’s frankly maudlin personal story about how “I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become” (Episode 1) drives the flag of Cosmos science deeper into the terrain of humane magnanimity.

c) Cosmos 2 also repeatedly stresses the planetary dangers of nuclear weapons and climate change (Episode 12, 13), and repeats the claim that the perspective gained from science can help us see and make the right choice, because it delivers on wonder and humility, as opposed to older anthropocentric (“religious”) systems of meaning (Episode 2, 6, 13).

d) NDT explicitly repeats (twice) Sagan’s admission that science is not perfect, along with Sagan’s insistence that it’s still humanity’s best bet (Episode 9, 13).

e) If the “cosmic perspective” offered by science is the only thing that can save the world (Episode 1, 13), NDT is accepting a moral mission when he inherits Sagan’s mantle, and repeats Sagan’s Christlike invitation “Come with me” (Episode 1).

In Cosmos 1 and 2, then, authorities like Sagan and NDT are moral authorities. They rightly divide the dauntingly astronomical numbers of the word of truth. They correctly administer the TV episode sacrament of wonder. To be clear: I’m not slamming them! They did great work and made great points. Engaged Religious Studies scholars are bound, though, to reflect critically about the ways in which pop culture giants construct authority with reference to issues flagged as “religious,” in a world where (as Jeremy Carrette and Richard King point out in their book Selling Spirituality), “spiritual but not religious” is a major demographic and its muscle is most demonstrably flexed in pop culture marketplaces.

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What Holiday Is Next?

Andie Alexander
MA Student, University of Colorado, Boulder

15338631_10209539852425782_4957821200466599305_nThe other week (about mid-January), I was having coffee at Starbucks with a friend when I noticed that they gave me one of this year’s controversial red holiday cups. (Don’t worry, this isn’t another Starbucks red cup diatribe.) But it initially struck me as odd that I would be drinking coffee out of a holiday cup in mid-January, long after the so-called “holiday season” had passed. Though, there was something kind of nice about getting this red cup—it made me feel like the holidays weren’t quite over. This was a nice change for me because my family, like many people where I’m from in Montgomery, Alabama, tend to take down all of our holiday decorations in the days following Christmas (and certainly before the new year!). I’ve always wondered why there was such a build up to the holiday, only for all of the festive decorations to come down almost immediately after.

Both where I live in Colorado and where I’ve lived in Alabama, there is at least one designated holiday music station on the radio that starts playing holiday tunes the day after U.S. Thanksgiving, and it plays only those until Christmas. But as soon as Christmas is over, i.e., December 26, these radio stations go back to playing their regular music, and in a moment, this month-long holiday build up is over. Christmas is done. Move on. Now, of course, many people may have another day or two off of work (depending on what day of the week Christmas falls), and folks may still be celebrating with friends and family, but all of the social signifiers telling us it’s Christmas, e.g., songs on the radio, store decorations, home Christmas décor, etc., are all put away. Stores have big sales to get rid of their holiday decorations and the excess of goods that weren’t purchased before Christmas.

So why is it that in most parts of the United States there is no dénouement to transition out of the holiday comparable to the build up we see beginning, just following Thanksgiving? Now whether we should start playing holiday music immediately following Thanksgiving is not the issue—though the abrupt change there, too, is also curious. But let’s stick with Christmas… This immediate move away from Christmas that I’ve experienced, strikes me as somewhat peculiar. Apart from the month-long build up, many places, both within the U.S. and North America and certainly other parts of the world, continue to celebrate the holidays well after the passing of December 25th. For people in these places not only continue their celebrations, but also tend to leave their Christmas decorations up until January 6th, or Epiphany. Epiphany, the twelfth day following Christmas, is celebrated in the Christian traditions as the baptism of Jesus and also the revelation of Jesus as God. This holiday is celebrated around the globe in many Christian traditions and considered the culmination of Christmas in ways.

But growing up in the American south, I was never aware of this feast day or continued Christmas celebration. As far as I knew, the holiday was done and the decorations came down. If you were to wander into a store on December 28th, you’d be hard pressed to see the lights and Christmas decorations still hanging up—instead, they’d likely be in the sale section and the store would have signs and decorations up for either New Year’s or Valentine’s Day or they’d have all the foods and decorations one might need for a Super Bowl party.

Perhaps it’s that desire for more of a transition that made me appreciate getting that mid-January leftover red Starbucks cup. After all, I always bug my parents about wanting to keep the Christmas decorations up longer. But what really made me consider this sort of liminal period of the holidays was not just that I got this red cup, but that not two days later when I walked into Target to pick up a couple of things, they already had their Valentine’s decorations, cards, and heart-shaped and –themed items on display.

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This has become the standard procedure for many department stores in recent years, it seems. I often joke that I have to go to Target to find out what holiday it is. Now, I don’t mean for this to sound overly cynical, of course, but I do wonder what prompts this immediate transition out of Christmas—is it an economic issue? I’m not sure. But in learning about this feast of Epiphany and differences in holiday celebrations, it strikes me as a question worth exploring more—and not only because I want to keep our decorations up longer. I’m not suggesting that we should be celebrating in a particular way, but seeing the quite drastic differences in the winding down of the holidays certainly prompts me to ask what sort of interests are driving that abrupt change and how those interests shape our varying understandings of holiday celebrations and practices. Until then, enjoy those few lingering red cups while you can.

 

Andie Alexander is an M.A. student at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on identity construction, discourses on classification and boundary construction, the practicality of definition, and public/private discourses with regard to issues of social group formation and nationalism in the U.S. She also contributes to the Studying Religion in Culture Grad blog. Read her posts here.

Religious Cultures and the Elusive Secular School

David Emory
MA Education and Society, McGill University

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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

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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.

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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).

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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.

 

Artworks:

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.

 

Adolescent Perceptions and Experiences of the Hijab: a Qualitative Canadian Study

Emma Funnell-Kononuk
Faculty of Education Student, Queen’s University

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Wearing a hijab is a visual marker of Islam and instantly identifies a girl as Muslim. Muslim females regularly experience Islamophobia, a dislike or prejudice against Islam and Muslims, due to this visual association. Canadian girls frequently feel the effects of Islamphobia; girls have been expelled from school and barred from sports such as tae kwon do and soccer. A 2015 hate crime in Toronto, Ontario left a Muslim woman beaten and robbed after attackers tore off her hijab, punched her, called her a “terrorist,” told her to “go back to [her] country,” and stole her money and cellphone. The event occurred just outside a public school; it was 3PM and she was headed to pick up her children. Media representation and political commentary has incited debate about what veiling means and what locations (if any) should permit veiling. This conversation is largely based on an association of veiling with patriarchal values. For instance, in March of 2015 then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that wearing the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women” and that it is “offensive” for someone to cover their face using clothing like a niqab during the citizenship ceremony. Veiling is a highly debated topic within modern Canadian society, and these opinions effect Muslim Canadian women and girls.

hijab-girlIn 2012, nine-year-old Rayane Benatti was not allowed to participate in her team’s final soccer game in Gatineau, Quebec because her hijab was deemed ”unsafe” and she refused to remove it.

Due to recurrent debates and disagreements, qualitative and quantitative research regarding Muslim women’s veiling practices is a growing field worldwide. However, the perspective of adolescent girls is not often considered. It is important to include perspectives of youth with regards to any religion, as their experiences regularly differ from that of adults. I completed an Undergraduate Summer Student Research Fellowship (USSRF) this summer to explore the experiences and perceptions of Muslim adolescents regarding the hijab in a midsized Ontario city. I collected data through a focus group of four Muslim girls and two Muslim boys aged 12-15. All of the female participants wore a hijab when they went to a mosque, but at the time of the focus group, two of the four girls self-elected to wore a hijab to school (hijabi) and two did not (non-hijabi). They shared their experiences regarding hijabs in a public school environment, and described occurrences involving peers, teachers, and expectations. Sample questions included: What does the hijab mean to you? Do you feel like your teachers treat you differently when you are wearing a hijab? Coding the data led to eight distinct categories and two higher order concepts: 1. Reasons that adolescent girls choose to wear or to not wear the hijab and 2. The recognition that the hijab is a representation of Islam, and concern that Islam is misunderstood by those around them and by the media.

Findings suggested that adolescent girls consider a variety of factors when choosing whether or not to wear a hijab, such as practicality and their individual sense of style, along with more internal reasons. Both hijabi girls believed that people, Muslim or not, viewed, and should view, their hijab solely as a piece of clothing. As one of the girls put it, “A hijab is just an extension of your clothes. It does not make you any different in here [gesturing to her heart]; it just makes you different out here [gesturing to her face and body].” Another said that the hijab is “just a scarf on the top of your head” and does not change anything about who you are as a person. She continued, “I don’t say to some person, hey you should not wear short shorts. Oh you should not wear a crop top. So why should they tell me not to wear a hijab?” All participants agreed that everyone has the right to choose how to dress without fear of judgement or insults. One participant said her hijabi friend was asked questions by classmates that she deemed annoying and this discouraged her from wearing a hijab at school. She said people’s questions, such as “Do you shower with that, do you sleep with that, do you ever take it off?,” were “insensitive” and that even if they didn’t intend to be rude, it is important to “respect people’s differences in class.”

When I asked what the most important thing I should take away from our conversation was, every participant said something related to the diversity found amongst Muslims and their concern that Islam should be represented accurately. Discussion surrounding the hijab sparked an underlying discussion about what it means to represent Islam. They all recurrently shared fears that the act of one Muslim or Islamic group would be considered an accurate representation of all of Islam. They felt they needed to prove to friends, teachers, and other non-Muslims that Muslims are different from what is shown in the news. One of the male participants said people need to remember that if members of ISIS say they are Muslim, then “they might still be Muslims, but they are not good Muslims.” They explained that within Islam there are a wide variety of interpretations, beliefs and experiences. They felt that this diversity was part of what connected them to their faith.

The importance participants placed on acknowledging the diversity within Islam holds weight within the field of education. Teachers must have background knowledge regarding religions and the variety of meanings behind religious behaviour. This knowledge is critical in preventing stereotyping or unintentionally holding bias; uninformed teachers create an uninformed learning environment, which may influence the understandings of other students. Teachers should be aware of the reasons a girl in their class may wear a hijab and the concerns they may have. This learning will help them better understand their hijabi students’ views and requirements. Should teachers’ learning inspire questions about hijabs or Islam, participants found it easier when a teacher asked them a question about their beliefs rather than a student because they knew teachers “actually want to know…how to make you feel more comfortable as a student.” They also suggested that if non-Muslims had questions about Islam, a great way to find answers is to speak to someone at a mosque, as opposed to listening to the media. Mandated public school curriculum should include components on a variety of faiths, thereby mandating conversations that can help to encourage empathy and understanding within schools. Finally, it is incredibly important that the voices of youth be heard within the academic study of religion. My hope is that this work inspires further research surrounding Muslim youth and the hijab in a school context and highlights why it is important to include the experiences of young people in the conversation.

 

Is Bernie Sanders “Spiritual But Not Religious”?

Galen Watts
Cultural Studies PhD Student, Queen’s University

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Watching the current American election from Canada is like watching a hurricane from a seemingly safe distance, and hoping (perhaps even praying), that it doesn’t come any closer, and that it ends soon.

There have been many theories proposed by media pundits and scholars to make sense of what seems to be a growing polarization between camps in contemporary American (and more broadly, Western-European) politics: populist masses versus cultural elites, nationalism versus internationalism, cultural pluralism versus nativism, support for political correctness versus the allowance of unfettered freedom of speech, the breakdown of traditional ideological structures, Angry white people versus, well, everyone else. Let me say, I think there is some truth to most, if not all, of these proposals, however, I want to here focus on a set of factors (not entirely separate yet nevertheless distinct) that were mentioned quite often early on in the election—at least during the time when Sen. Bernie Sanders was still a possible (however unlikely) contender for the Democratic nomination—and which, I believe, hold interesting insights for scholars of religion. Those being: millennials versus boomers and spirituality versus religion. It’s true that these factors do not explain the polarization entirely—and some might argue they really only apply to divisions on the Left—but nevertheless, I think their further investigation might help us to make sense of an important shift in values and discourses that are taking place in North American culture.

Early in the race for the Democratic nomination, it was often touted that one of the greatest predictors of support for Bernie Sanders was if one was between the ages of 18-34. No doubt, Sanders’ appeal to the millennial generation has to do with a number of things. For instance, many young people in America (and Canada) are deeply frustrated because they find themselves saddled with historically unprecedented amounts of student debt while at the same time facing poor job prospects. Others feel the political establishment ultimately doesn’t serve the interests of the young, and are therefore happy to see a somewhat disgruntled and disheveled old man who self-identifies as a “socialist” railing against those whom they feel don’t really care about them. Moreover, university-educated young people are less likely to associate “socialism” with the Cold War in the way their parents might, and have been (rightly) taught by their Liberal professors that unfettered capitalism is not the social and political panacea that Reagan and Thatcher once suggested. Finally, research has shown that millennials value, above all else, authenticity (or at least what they perceive as “authenticity”). They view any kind of fakery, or skullduggery, as revealing a lack of integrity. They want a person who is true to themselves, not some polished politician who knows how to read a teleprompter well. Sanders seems to them the “real deal.”

Indeed the reasons are multiple and diverse, however, I want to reflect on a possible reason that has not garnered as much media attention as I think it deserves: could it be that Sanders is, despite his not actually articulating it, “spiritual but not religious”?

Research has shown that many millennials self-identify as more “spiritual” than “religious” or “spiritual but not religious.” For my Master’s thesis, I conducted interviews with twenty Canadian millennials who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” in order to gain a better understanding of what contemporary spirituality is; that is, what kinds of beliefs and practices it entails, what moral logics (if any) it espouses, and ultimately what the social and political implications its recent popularity among millennials across North America might be. Of course, millennials in the U.S. and Canada differ in important ways, and therefore will likely hold differing understandings of what “spirituality” without “religion” is, but nevertheless, I would argue, as others have, there are more similarities than one might think. In any case, an interesting observation garnered through my interviews was that the vast majority of my interviewees preferred Sanders to the remaining Democratic and Republican candidates, and I think this is revealing. My argument is that, among other reasons, Sanders appeals to millennials because he speaks the language of “spirituality” and because he embodies, in certain ways, what it means to be “spiritual”—at least to my research participants.

When asked during a CNN interview what his “spirituality” was, Sanders replied, “we are all in this together.” Asked to elaborate, he responded, “Every great religion in the world—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism—essentially comes down to ‘Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you’…. The truth is, at some level, when you hurt, when your children hurt, I hurt … and when my kids hurt, you hurt…. I believe that what human nature is about is that everybody in this room impacts everybody else in all kinds of ways that we can’t even understand. It’s beyond intellect; it’s a spiritual, emotional thing.”

There are a number of ways in which Sanders echoes what many of my SBNR interviewees articulated. For one, he makes no reference to the existence of a God, or gods. His spirituality is thoroughly immanent—meaning, this-worldly. Nevertheless, he does not positively deny the existence of a higher power. Instead, his “spirituality” is left theologically open to speculation; he suggests that whatever “human nature is about”, is beyond human understanding and therefore cannot be comprehended simply by means of rational or scientific methods of analysis. Second, Sanders stresses that what is “spiritual” is also, in some sense, “emotional”; the truth of his conviction must be on some level felt. Similarly, my interviewees often spoke of how “spiritual” knowledge had to be attained through lived personal experience. Third, Sanders has no problem boiling the “great religions” down to one single principle—essentially, the Golden Rule. Many of my interviewees, although holding different metaphysical justifications for their view, similarly saw all world religions as ultimately teaching this basic idea. They also, in line with Sanders, saw this aligning them with predominantly Liberal, that is, Leftist public policies. Finally, Sanders seems to gesture towards an understanding of human beings as fundamentally interdependent. It’s difficult to know whether he was referring to a purely material interdependence—for instance, the way in which a Canadian’s large carbon footprint might negatively effect the life of a Fijian by means of climate change, or, say, the way in which the winner of the American election will effect the global order—or if he also meant the way in which we are interdependent on a more immaterial (perhaps “spiritual”) level (i.e. via energy levels or spiritual forces). Either way, it seems clear that Sanders’s view is certainly not what most would call “religious” today.

America has never had a president that did not self-identify as “Christian” or “not religious.” Perhaps Sanders’ appeal to those who prefer to be called “spiritual” is one more reason why his being elected would have been revolutionary (and was therefore unlikely). Nevertheless, his resounding appeal among the millennial generation in the U.S and Canada suggests that discourses on “spirituality” as distinct from “religion” are, although perhaps not yet in vogue, becoming more acceptable in American politics. And resultantly, they may come to shape future elections, and North American culture, in important and enduring ways.