Self-Flagellation as Islamic Ritual

Madeleine McNamara

13mim2@queensu.ca

An Afghan Shi’ite Muslim participating in self-flagellation during an Ashura procession in Kabul[i]

In the modern Western context, pain is appropriate or acceptable only when it is restricted to specific realms, such as body modification (i.e., dieting, working out, and cosmetic surgery) or sport.[ii] Outside of these realms, society has been hesitant to encourage encounters with unnecessary pain as it can hint towards mental illness or self mutilation, both of which remain heavily steeped in stigma.[iii]

The ritual of self flagellation in Islam developed from the commemorative rituals of the Twelver Shi’i‘Āshūrā’, which venerated the third Shi’i Imam, Karbalā’ of al-Husayn b. ‘Alī.[iv] This practice is mainly held by Shi’ites and takes place during the holy month of Muharram to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein.[v] Although self-flagellation during Muharram is an act of commemoration, this ritual is also suitable during times of mourning.[vi]

Traditionally, self-flagellation is performed by groups of young men under strict supervision of their seniors (called Pinault). There are many levels of intensity that this ritual can take, from hitting cheeks, forehead, chest, and lap with the palm of the hand, to striking the back with chains, to the most intense blood-flagellation. Various tools can be used, also affecting the severity of the wound inflicted. Blood-flagellation is the most painful of these forms as it utilizes dangerous tools such as knives, daggers, swords, and razor blades attached to chains to inflict bloody wounds.[vii]

Self-flagellants using swords as they take part in the festival of Ashura in Najaf[viii]

In order for pain-inflicting rituals to be socially sanctioned or accepted, they must possess specific characteristics. The most important of these is that the ends to the means of self-harm must be rational and in line with social norms.[ix] Although self-flagellation does not constitute the social norm in the West, it can play a big role in other societies that have been shaped by religions other than Christianity. Thus, a conflict arises between contemporary Western society –embedded with Christian beliefs and values – and people of different cultures, religions, beliefs, and values who have migrated to the West. We are faced with the question: despite Western society’s claims of diversity and equality of all religions, cultures, and creeds, is there space for ritualized pain?

This is an interesting question, especially considering that self-flagellation remains a relevant practice in Shi’a Islam today. Although still prevalent in Islam, the history of self-flagellation is not limited to Shi’ites – it was previously observed by early Christian martyrs. The martyrs used similar tools and had similar aims to Muslims practicing today. Early Christians flagellation mainly to demonstrate humiliation and devotion to God and to attain salvation through His mercy, while Shi’ite flagellants use this practice to demonstrate their indifference to pain and their willingness to endure any pain and suffering for Allah.[1] However, Christianity has moved away from this practice and over time.

Arguments that Islamic religious scholars have made against blood flagellation in particular protest the damage caused to the body (darar), the interpretation of the ritual as an innovation (bida’), and the negative impression of Islam that is presented and perpetuated (Ende).[x] However, despite the resistance, practitioners of self flagellations hold strong to their belief that their actions are a respectful expression of mourning for the martyrs at the battle of Karbalā’. Moreover, flagellators believe that their ritual can reap benefits by calling upon the martyrs for divine intercession with God, and blessing both their life and afterlife.[xi]

According to scholar Ariel Glucklich in his article “Sacred Pain,” pain falls under two broad categories: hallucination “beliefs”, which minimizes somatic input and expands the sensory characteristics of the experience, or “dis”-hallucination, which minimizes sensory characteristics of mental experience and expands somatic input.[xii] Within these categories, pain can take various forms; it can act as punishment, penance, medicine, test, and more.[xiii] Thus, when considering the example of self flagellation within the Shi’ite tradition of Islam, one can understand it to be a “dis”-hallucination of ritual, in which the practitioner can use the ritual as a test of faith, penance or even medicine. The great Indian poet Mirza Asadullah Ghalib stated, “When pain transgresses the limits, it becomes medicine.”[xiv]

In closing, it is understood that in modern Western life, self-flagellation as a religious ritual is not generally accepted, especially when it is practiced in public. However, when considering this ritual for its healing, medicinal purposes – as many scholars and Shi’ites understand it – it seems unfair to deny the ritual its public place in society. This insights criticism of Western society for the welcoming attitude and emphasis on representation it claims to possess.

 

About the Author

Madeleine is a fourth year undergraduate student at Queen’s University and has a great interest in religious practices around the world, and how religion and its rituals interact with local politics. Outside of the classroom, Madeleine can be found spending time with her two Irish Wolfhounds, Noula (4) and Minnie (1), or in a yoga class.

[i] Omar Sobhani, REUTERS, November 14, 2013, Kabul Afghanistan.

[ii] Chris Shilling “Saved from pain or saved through pain? Modernity, instrumentalization and the religious use of pain as a body technique” European Journal of Social Theory vol. 13, no. 4, 2010, p. 524.

[iii] Ibid., p. 523.

[iv] Ingvild Flaskerud,“Flagellation (as a religious ritual)”, in Encyclopaedia of Islam THREE, Edited by: Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, Everett Rowson. Brill Publications, 2015. <http://dx.doi.org.proxy.queensu.ca/10.1163/1573-3912_ei3_COM_27156>

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Alaa Al-Marjani, REUTERS, Najaf, Iraq.

[ix] Chris Shilling “Saved from pain or saved through pain? Modernity, instrumentalization and the religious use of pain as a body technique” European Journal of Social Theory vol. 13, no. 4, 2010, p. 525.

[x] Ibid., 532.

[xi] Ingvild Flaskerud,“Flagellation (as a religious ritual)”, in Encyclopaedia of Islam THREE, Edited by: Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, Everett Rowson. Brill Publications, 2015. <http://dx.doi.org.proxy.queensu.ca/10.1163/1573-3912_ei3_COM_27156>

[xii] Ariel Glucklich, “Sacred Pain and the Phenomenal Self” The Harvard Theological Review vol. 91, no. 4, 1998, p. 410.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

Is Seeing a Dead Body Comforting?

Ally Craig

14amc16@queensu.ca

Is seeing the dead body of a loved one a good way to start mourning them? Within Catholicism, the traditional death ritual is to display the deceased body at the visitation service via an open casket. Growing up I didn’t give a second thought about seeing an open casket at a wake. It wasn’t until my best friend passed away in October 2017 that I became more fascinated with the traditional Catholic death rituals. My friend had a Catholic funeral, yet she was cremated and not buried. This got me thinking, why have I been programmed to assume that I would see my best friend’s body at her wake? Why is this normal in the Catholic tradition? These questions have been bothering me since October, and I’m hoping this blog post will give me some closure.

The funeral process within Catholicism is considered a rite of passage. It is the final passage that a Catholic person goes through.   Within Catholicism, the death ritual highlights the transitional period from the physical world to the spiritual world and the body’s final resting place. This rite of passage goes through these three stages: separation, liminality and reincorporation.[i] The separation stage occurs when a person leaves behind their social identity.[ii] In this case, their identity of a living person. The liminality stage occurs when a person is between two identities.[iii] The body connects the living and dead society through its presence. The death ritual or funeral must occur for the body to transition from one identity to the other. Finally, reincorporation is when a person enters the new society.[iv] The body is then socially recognized as dead by the society and the remains are set in a final resting place. These three stages show that the open casket marks the transition of a person from the physical world to their physical final resting place and spiritual end in the afterlife.

I wanted to start by learning why the Catholic death rituals include an open casket at the vigil. A vigil, also called a wake, is the gathering of friends and family to pay their respects to the deceased where the open casket is present. At the visitation service, attendees often pray in front of the open casket. For many, hearing that people go to a funeral home to kneel a metre away from a dead person to pray may seem strange. Yet, this is found within the Code of Canon Law, as declared by the Pope of Rome. Under the section titled “Church Funerals” the canon commands that a Catholic person’s body be buried for the mourning of the living. This is seen through the act of the open casket at the vigil.

So, you may be asking, how does this give the living people the comfort of hope? In a way, the act of having an open casket is very comforting to practicing Catholics. The body is being honoured by being put on display. This shows the importance of a body as being a vessel for their spirit that is no longer within the body. I decided I would ask my Aunt, who is a practicing Catholic, why she sees value in having an open casket at a funeral. In her words, “Most often people prefer to see a body to say a final farewell, it makes me feel like I get to say a real goodbye”. You can see that the practice is not ‘crazy’, but something that is comforting for a mourning person.

Another Catholic belief is the idea of a deceased person as just ‘sleeping’ until the second coming of Christ or the rapture. For Catholics, this idea can be found in within biblical verses. The belief is that Christ’s soul and body met again and so will his followers. This may be a foreign idea for some, but for many Catholics, it brings a sense of comfort that their loved ones’ bodies are ‘sleeping’ as they wait for the second coming of their saviour.

For an open casket to be displayed, there must be preservation of the body through the act of embalming. Embalming is the practice of preserving the body to slow down the process of decomposition. In other words, embalming is pumping a deceased body with multiple chemicals so your loved one can look like themselves a little bit longer. Embalming did not originate in Catholicism. It was used to allow families of those who died in the Civil War to see their family members one last time. There are even schools for people to learn how to care for a dead body as seen in this National Geographic video.

Despite what the Code of Canon says, Catholics might turn away from having an open casket because of the cost associated with embalming. Not only do you have to pay for the embalming, but also the dressing of the corpse and any cosmetics that are added. As well, the eyes and mouth need to have a glue-like substance applied to ensure they stay closed for the wake. Adding both the embalming practice and the cosmetic additions to the funeral cost can be upwards of 800 dollars. Despite the cost, for some people seeing their loved one again looking like themselves in a beautiful outfit may give them a sense of peace. For those who are not interested in embalming, The Catholic Church has become more welcoming to the idea of cremation within the death rituals, which allowed for families to make the best choice for them.

Even though I did not get to see my best friend’s body at her funeral, I think that this blog has allow me to get a better understanding on why I felt like I needed to. We have normalized traditions that can be abnormal or strange to others. Growing up familiar to this ‘strange’ rite of passage has made Catholics want to see the body at a vigil. This is what is normal and therefore often comforting in their tradition which aids in the mourning process.

No matter the way your death rituals were conducted, I hope you found peace Katie.

 

About Ally Craig

Ally is a third year Religious Studies major in the Concurrent Education program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She is interested in how religious upbringing affects adults and the cultural relevance of religion within the 21st century.

[i] Oddie, M. (2018, February 26). Week 7 – Rites of Passage. Lecture presented in KINE 103, Queen’s University, Kingston.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

Keeping it Intact: Circumcision in Ritual and its Objectors

Olivia Dumas

14omd@queensu.ca

Circumcision: not always the most palatable topic of conversation for first dates or dinner parties, but a practice which remains rife for examination within ritual studies. Circumcision is somewhat unique as a ritual in that it is a religious rite that has also transcended its sacred origins to become a relatively common procedure in Western society. As a medical treatment, it is believed to have preventative benefits, and an estimated one-third of males are circumcised.

Utilizing flesh and blood to perform the sacred is a recurring theme within ritual, but circumcision as a practice in both a religious and secular context has attracted its fair share of objectors. Most of these arguments hinge on ethical concerns of consent, given that it is a practice usually performed on infants at the discretion of their parents. Namely, there is concern that the normalization of circumcision produces conditions whereby people feel pressured to conform or face social alienation. This is interesting if we think of how ritual works to connect people and provide a common identity within a community – for circumcision, the religious meaning can be omitted by those who practice it, but it can still cause those who remain “intact” to face pressure or alienation.

As a religious obligation, mainly those within Judaism and Islam practice circumcision as a representation of an individual’s relationship to God. In Judaism, circumcision is an externalization of one’s covenant with God, as first made by Abraham. While Judaism prioritizes the symbolic function of circumcision, within Islam it is associated with bodily cleanliness, as the practice is called tahera, meaning “purification.”[i] Both within Judaism and Islam, infants are circumcised and thus the pain of being cut is eliminated from their consciousness as they grow older, unlike other rituals where pain is rendered at a time where it can truly be felt and thus “makes the message more immediate and permanent” as Ariel Glucklich argues in his book Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul.[ii]

Objectors to circumcision problematize religious obligation as a justification for circumcision: “Nearly all Muslim and Jewish boys around the globe are circumcised for “religious” reasons — as if faith and religious conviction could be carved into a baby with a knife… the true reasons that these parents allow their sons to be circumcised are based on fears of social ostracism and expulsion from the community[iii]

This remark implicates the importance of circumcision as a ritual that contributes to community structures within religious societies, while harshly condemning religiosity as a force which promotes what is thought to be mutilation. A justification which uses religion is seen as a deflection for the real issue, which is that it reinforces a social standard that improperly harms individuals. Conversely, in the context of Judaism and Islam, circumcision promotes social unity – the authors’ analysis dismisses the symbolic function of circumcision and role within cultural identity.

What makes circumcision a particular source of scrutiny for many is how it transgresses the boundaries of an intact body, particularly the male body. The word circumcision itself comes from the Latin circumcidere, meaning “to cut around.”[iv] To be cut, especially an area of the body that one is particularly compelled to protect, creates discomfort even for those who accept circumcision. Circumcision, when framed as a “penile wounding”, places the site of danger and instability within the same value system which perceives the ideal male body as clean and intact. This is in contrast to the female body, which is framed as one that is porous and open. A blurring of these boundaries is offensive and holds connotation for emasculation.

Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) take these perspectives to severe and sometimes bizarre conclusions, and have begun touting anti-circumcision rhetoric within their agendas. These self-proclaimed “intactivists” describe circumcision as “male genital mutilation” that not only causes Oedipus and castration complexes but is a result of “misandrist oppression.”[v] It is ironic that MRAs borrow from psychoanalysis, in that we may read their paranoia using the same lens as resulting from repressed sexual frustration. The act of circumcision threatens the genitalia and thus the site of masculinity, as the act involves a “wounding” that may render the male body “woman-like” in that it is no longer intact.

The danger of the body becoming unnatural or lacking in boundaries appeals to specific forms of fear that have been undertaken in various ways by those who object to circumcision. The religious meaning of circumcision is dismissed as illegitimate, so we may think of how this practice has become secularized while retaining elements of its ritual function, in that it can still be used to determine inclusion within a community.

 

Olivia Dumas is a 4th year Gender Studies and Religious Studies student at Queen’s University. She lives in a haunted house and is probably watching Seinfeld as

[i] The United Nations. “Male Circumcision: Global trends and determinants of prevalence, safety and acceptability.” Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. Last edited in 2007. http://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/media_asset/jc1360_male_circumcision_en_2.pdf

[ii] Glucklich, A. Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.

[iii] Denniston, G.C. et al. Bodily Integrity and the Politics of Circumcision: Culture, Controversy, and Change. New York: Springer, 2006.

[iv] O’Grady, J., and Taugher, C. “Circumcision: Ritual and Surgery.” The Global Library of Women’s Medicine. Last Modified January, 2008. DOI: 10.3843/GLOWM.10144 https://www.glowm.com/section_view/heading/Circumcision:%20Ritual%20and%20Surgery/item/144#5901

[v] (author). “The Circumcision Complex: The True Name of the Castration Complex.” Circumcision Complex. Last edited (DATE). http://www.circumcisioncomplex.com/the-true-name-of-the-castration-complex/

Unconventional Methods of Healing: Treating Sexual Trauma Through BDSM

Caitie Annear

c.annear@queensu.ca

When my older sister asked what schoolwork I had to do over reading week, I admit my answer was probably not what she had in mind. BDSM as healing for sexual assault survivors? There is indeed a concerted academic interest in the psychological value of BDSM play, I managed to convince her. Scholars like Pitagora note that an ASC (altered state of consciousness) can be achieved through reaching subspace. “This state is often characterized by activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the release of epinephrine and endorphins, and a subsequent period of non-verbal, deep relaxation.”[1] As an interaction ritual concentrated on the body, BDSM uses physiological reactions to pain to reach mental and emotional relief. The pain administered is at once physical and emotional – the sensation of being whipped or bound is a way to feel humiliation, for example. Relaxation is considered a typical product of a successful BDSM scene, to such an extent that some dominants consider themselves in some respect as taking on a therapeutic role, as in this video. Part of that therapy or catharsis comes from a loss of control by the sub.

Though rituals are the most efficacious when everyone involved is enthusiastically consenting, there is always an element of giving up one’s immediate agency so as to be guided by another to a state of transcendence. In religious rituals, that other is a spiritual leader or the deity itself. In body modification rituals, it is the tattoo artist or piercer. In the context of BDSM, it is the dominant or top. This is the defining feature of subspace: a relinquishing of control that results in a “psychological reprieve from the pressures of postmodern life,”[2] such as maintenance of public and professional personas, large amounts of responsibility or the urge to quash desires that may not be acceptable to mainstream society. Much writing in this field explores BDSM’s ability to take someone out of their self/ego in an emotionally or even spiritually productive manner.

However, there is much less academic material exploring BDSM as a treatment method specifically for sexual trauma. It was online that I found the most comprehensive outlines of the ways in which BDSM allows practitioners to experience healing and to reclaim agency. Sexual assault support website Pandora’s Project details the methods, reasoning and outcomes to survivors engaging in BDSM to treat their trauma. The article articulates that there is more than one way that a survivor can ‘rewrite’ or reinterpret their sexual trauma. Some totally flip the power dynamic and assume the role of the dom, so that they can physically be in control of the sexual situation. Others will participate as subs in scenes of consensual non-consent, reenacting their trauma in such a way that they regain agency: during a scene, they can say “no” and stop at a crucial moment, the thing they did not have the power to do during their actual assault. “Mains argues [role-playing] often plays on the themes of buried or frustrated emotions and can function as an enabler to heal emotional wounds.”[3] Acts or sensations associated with trauma can thus be relearned as positive, pleasurable and safe. Indeed in BDSM, as with many rituals, fully understanding and discussing the boundaries and actions of the ritual is necessary before engaging in it. It is easy to see why this focus on informed, enthusiastic consent and a clear threshold between reality and fantasy would be attractive to survivors. The key is that they have control, regardless of if their role is one of passivity, and that their partner respects them and the boundaries of the ritual.

A “cheatsheet” on the differences between BDSM and abuse from Domina Jen.

 True, destructive shame can be removed from the sexual equation by performing shame in a way that forefronts trust and inclusion: the literal acts may be the same as their assault, but the context is completely different.

Buenting does argue that BDSM has both the potential to “contribute to the eroticization of violence … [and be a] release of sexual energy and power dynamics.”[4] There is a danger of survivors using BDSM – and sexual activity more generally – as a self-punitive measure, which of course is not cathartic but deepens the trauma and can enhance feelings of responsibility and shame. Psychology Today describes the difference between negative and healing usage of BDSM as trauma reenactment vs. trauma play, respectively. Again, context – the interplay of understanding, meaning-making, intimacy and intent – is everything.

There is still much research to be done concerning BDSM as a treatment method for survivors of sexual assault and abuse, both in terms of its ethics and efficacy. It’s research that I believe is pertinent and could provide relief and hope for individuals affected by this kind of violence.

 

Author Bio: Caitie Annear is an undergraduate student at Queen’s University studying Film and Media. Outside of cinema, she is interested in the different methods of treatment for sexual trauma and the ways in which survivors frame their experiences.

[1] Dulcinea Pitagora, “No Pain, No Gain?: Therapeutic and Relational Benefits of Subspace in BDSM Context,” Journal of Positive Sexuality 3.3 (2017), 46.

[2] Charlotta Carlström, “BDSM, Interaction Rituals and Open Bodies,” Sexuality and Culture (2017), 10.

[3] Ibid, 2.

[4] Julianne Buenting, “Rehearsing Vulnerability: BDSM as Transformative Ritual,” ATLA Serials, 46.

The (Ir)relevancy of Religion in Black Mirror

Lauren Strumos
MA Student, School of Religion

Netflix’s anthology series Black Mirror features fictional stories of innovative technologies that are used to inflict pain and suffering on human beings.  It is a series of ‘technology gone bad,’ so to speak.  There are no episodes that feature an explicitly religious storyline, yet nonetheless, it offers a reflection of religion in Western society today.

Take “Black Museum” (2017) from season four, which contains a ‘life after death’ narrative.  While on death row for murder, a black man named Clayton Leigh has his entire consciousness transferred to a lively virtual hologram that becomes activated post-execution.  The transmission is carried out by Rolo Haynes, a former neurologist and founder of an American crime museum, in which he stations Clayton’s consciousness.  Confined to public display as a main attraction, Clayton is subjected to excruciating pain by paying white visitors who electrocute him for their own amusement.

According to Haynes, Clayton’s sustained consciousness allows him to be the first person to survive his own execution, despite lacking a physical body and resultant human agency.  Does this mean that Clayton is alive, dead, or somehow both?  It is a puzzling question evoking thoughts of Schrödinger’s cat.

No matter how the viewer may answer this existential question, it is done without a scene that features a travelling soul, heavenly realm, or cycle of reincarnation, yet Clayton still finds a form of ‘life’ after bodily ‘death’ through the preservation of his ‘reborn’ neurological functions.  Although a viewer may question what happened to Clayton’s spirit, or if he will reach heaven or hell, the storyline itself is comprehendible without any religious context – and this is what is so significant about “Black Museum.”

Although Black Mirror is a science-fiction series about technology, it relies upon the real-life capability of its viewers to conceptualize a ‘life after death’ narrative without employing religion.  Viewers can watch this episode and understand how Clayton is kept alive after his physical death without any sort of religious occurrence or intervention.  Of course, this understanding is also due to our ability to comprehend complex and inventive technology, but it nonetheless requires the power to approach life after death scenarios without any explicit religious framework.

One could claim that this is characteristic of what Charles Taylor calls our ‘secular age.’  In relation to our Western society, the term ‘secular’ for Taylor denotes, “[A] move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”[i] ‘Secular’ does not necessarily indicate a society that has witnessed the disappearance of religion, or even its decline, but a shift in how religion is conceived.

For instance, an individual can identify as either Catholic, Hindu, Mormon, ‘spiritual but not religious,’ or any combination of the diverse beliefs that exist today, but there is also the option to not hold any belief at all; indeed, having disbelief in lieu of belief is not only commonplace, but even understood by those who are religious.[ii]  During our secular age, there are many options to choose from, but most importantly, all of these options are conceivable.

Whereas in Medieval Catholic Europe life after death would have carried with it an automatic religious grasp, our society is able to interpret “Black Museum” without Christianity, as we are able to conceive of irreligion.  We can separate a person’s consciousness from his dead body without requiring a religious explanation.  Religious belief is no longer the automatic and overarching worldview of our Western society, and as a result, it is unrequired to grasp the life-and-death stories of Black Mirror.

Taken altogether, “Black Museum” implicitly presents our contemporary society as one that operates without necessitated connections to external, transcendent forces to generate meaning and understanding.  Perhaps Taylor would claim this is characteristic of our immanent frame, in which our ‘buffered selves’ as part of our “social and civilizational framework”[iii] operate as free agents outside the existential influence of supernatural powers.

Clayton’s transfer of consciousness and pain in Haynes’ museum is able to be solely attributed to an earthly, scientific explanation by the show’s ‘buffered’ viewers, who do not need to blame a deity for Clayton’s agony.  Rather, Haynes becomes God-like himself, taking Clayton’s consciousness into his own powerful hands, but does so within the irreligious and non-transcendent Black Mirror world.  Everything about “Black Museum” can be interpreted devoid of religion and credited to this-worldly causation, thus depicting, through its very plotline, the immanent frame of our contemporary secular society.

 

 

 

 

[i] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 21.

[ii] Taylor uses a personal example to depict this ‘understanding,’ stating, “I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my [Catholic] faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith …” (emphasis added; Ibid., 2-3.).

[iii] Ibid., 239.

Running A Religious Studies Tutorial

Alissa Droog
MA Student
School of Religion

_2109_OVERVIEW2

Teaching is a creative enterprise, and if there’s one thing I learned about it this year, it’s that you have to be willing to try a variety of methods that may or may not work. This year I had the opportunity to run a tutorial for RELS 161 Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture. Students were introduced to topics like defining religion, religion and modernity, fundamentalism, new atheism, ritual studies and new religious movements and I, having a more traditional education in Christian thought and culture, learned along with them.

The most valuable learning experience from teaching this tutorial was about how to nurture an environment for discussion in which students felt comfortable participating. When I started the tutorial in September with a couple of discussion questions, I was met with nervous glances and the “don’t pick me” look. As a result, I had to scale back on the amount of discussion I planned in my tutorials and slowly added it back in when my students were ready.

obi-canuelIn my final tutorial, I am happy to report that we had a semi-structured discussion which my students largely led for 45 minutes. The topic that week was new religious movements and we debated whether members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster should be allowed to wear a colander on their head for official photographs. The discussion ended up going for 20 minutes and I had to cut it off so we could move on. It was amazing to see how far my students had come. They took turns, they didn’t talk to me but to each other and came up with some strong arguments for and against the colander. While that discussion may have been a lucky moment, I’d like to believe that it was the result of a variety of strategies that I tried to create an inviting classroom for discussion.

With that said, here are some of the teaching strategies I used to invite discussion:

  1. Making participation count: I made discussion participation worth almost half of my students’ tutorial participation grade. As students left tutorial each week, they reminded me if they had participated in discussion and I marked it down on an attendance sheet. This created accountability for the students to speak.
  2. Talk to your neighbour first: Before starting a whole class discussion, I asked students to discuss the question with their neighbours. This allowed students to share their ideas in a low-risk setting. It also developed and validated their thoughts, making it easier to share them with the class when I opened the question to the whole group.
  3. Brainstorms: I used brainstorms to get my students to think of the key terms and arguments for different course readings. I would only explain a key term once it had been added to the brainstorm so the onus was on the students for doing their readings and adding to the discussion. Adding a key term to a list is also an easy way to participate.
  4. Group Activities: These can take some time to organize, but the photo below shows the setup for a group activity that I ran one day. I created 5 charts with key terms and discussion questions on topics we covered that week. Each group got about 5 minutes to fill in as much as they could on the chart before passing it to the next table. I spent each 5-minute increment with a different group which allowed me to answer questions and gauge how well the students knew the material.

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How Liberal Are We Really?

Ruth Chitiz
MA Student
School of Religion

manipulatedcartoon

Scholars have presented a variety of theories as to why religion persists in the current Western world. Classical theories of secularization underestimated the extent to which religiosity would prove salient in contemporary societies and political arrangements because, let’s face it, the Western world is still very religious. This seems to be a contentious fact given the current liberal-conservative schism that continues to take place in the Western world, as has been most poignantly demonstrated in the recent American election. This polarization of worldviews has resulted in what appears to be all sorts of fundamentalisms, both secular and religious.

One solution to this schism scholars have proposed is the notion of postsecularism, that bearers of both secular conceptions and religious worldviews would start taking each other’s contributions seriously through a process of complimentary learning. This concept implicitly rests on the presumption that both secular modernity and religious traditions are capable of self-reflexivity. Western modernity has always prided itself on being an ongoing process of self-critique and has juxtaposed this ethos of rational criticism with religion’s frozen and incontestable nature. I want to suggest that the reason a postsecular society seems like an improbable cognitive enterprise may actually have more to do with a general unwillingness from secular individuals to reform their worldviews than their religious counterparts. The pervading secular narrative consistently presents religiosity as an intellectually inferior and therefore regressive mode of thought, making religious worldviews incapable of penetrating and potentially aiding Western self-reflexivity. It seems that secular dispositions are only self-reflexive in so far as they continue to be critically evaluated based on internal presuppositions. In doing so, they limit religious paradigms of thought by defining religion (and its worldviews) as oppositional to the glory of Enlightenment ideals through systematic dispossession and subjugation (sounds a bit like intellectual colonialism, no?).

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It seems to me that by disallowing religious worldviews from having a seat at the table of public discourse, Western secular ideologies make it increasingly difficult for a dialectical, complimentary learning process to occur. Is it possible that the secular epistemic disposition has become a form of secular authoritarian discourse purveying the ethos of a second wave Enlightenment where those with religious convictions can be educated out of their worldviews once they understand liberal convictions, and will thus, inevitably, disappear? It seems that religious individuals in the West do not make such claims about their secular counterparts. I guess the real question is—how ‘liberal’ is Western society really? Or rather, are Western societies liberal so long as those with dissenting views start playing by their rules to fit within a secular normative framework?

Even Stephen: Islam vs. Christianity

Amelia Walsh
First Year Undergraduate Student, Arts and Science

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In today’s world of media entertainment, comedians and programs often satirize religion and religious practices in comedy skits and routines. Although malicious elements sometimes appear in these media pieces, the use of satire more commonly presents as a tool to relieve tension, ridicule stereotypes, or educate an audience. In Comedy Central’s skit, Even Stephen: Islam vs. Christianity from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the TV personalities, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart along with actor Steve Carell, perform a skit that reveals the hypocrisy and lack of sense that triggers conflict between religions.

In the skit, Colbert and Carell act out the roles of a Christian and a Muslim respectively, and hold a debate over which of their religions is the one, true religion. In order to increase the comedic quality of the sketch, many of the arguments that are presented involve circular and backwards logic and serve to ridicule certain aspects of religion such as life after death, origin stories, and ‘smiting’. At the end of the segment, Colbert and Carell come together to bond over their mutual dislike of Jon Stewart who represents Jews.

This comedy skit puts religion into a fairly negative light through its emphasis on hypocrisy within religion and its apparent criticism of Christianity and Islam. Despite these initial impressions, however, most of the satire in the skit holds a double meaning that educates the audience on logical fallacies that appear in religious arguments and attempts to argue for the pointlessness of arguing over which belief is “right”. At one point in the skit, Stephen Colbert presents an example of these logical fallacies through a somewhat exaggerated statement arguing the truth of Christianity:

“It’s not my logic, it’s god’s logic, as written in the Bible, every word of which is true. And we know every word is true because the Bible says that the Bible is true, and if you remember from earlier on in this sentence, every word of the Bible is true.”

While this is evidently a faulty argument designed to ridicule certain elements of Christianity, the presentation of it in a satirical sense allows for a second, ironic side to show through. The irony emphasizes the point that while many elements of religion don’t necessarily follow logic, they do consist of faith and belief, two concepts that are indisputable and unarguable because of their subjective nature. This argument is especially essential to today’s world as a result of the number of wars being fought on behalf of religion. While the Even Stephen: Islam vs. Christianity comedy sketch does not directly address these disputes between religions, the final lines of the skit do convey the idea of inherent conflict between religions fairly clearly when Stephen and Steve find common ground over their mutual dislike of Jews. These lines could even be further interpreted as a jab at Christianity and Islam and their perceived history of anti-Semitism.

In an effort to maintain comedic effect in Even Stephen: Islam vs. Christianity, many serious topics relating to religion are not discussed at all. These include genuine beliefs, reasonable arguments for religion, and traditions of each religion. This presence of irony and satire also makes it difficult to tell whether the portrayal of religion is actually balanced or biased or both. While there is at least a small part of this skit that is biased towards atheism, the fact that the skit was presented through a comedy channel indicates that there is a lack of seriousness in their words and that perhaps there is more balance beneath all of the satire and irony. Additionally, by using visual media rather than a paper format, the actors are able to convey sarcasm and insincerity in their voices.

Although the role of religion in this media portrayal is mainly to entertain and provide comedic relief, the use of satire helps to provide a double meaning to many of the concepts that are presented. This double meaning allows networks such as Comedy Central to educate its audience and send out deeper meanings of inherent issues of religion into the world. In this sketch specifically, these deeper meanings refer to the ridiculousness of dissent between religions over “right and wrong”.

Omar Mateen and the 2016 Orlando Nightclub Shooting

Chayce Perkins
First Year Undergraduate Student, Faculty of Arts

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As modern Western society has continued to progress through the processes of modernity, technological advancement has caused the media to become the most effective means of conveying information to the public. As a result, the media and many news outlets in particular generally include a variety of different views and outlooks on current events. Many contemporary issues have been interpreted in a variety of different ways by the media, as well as by those who choose to read or watch it. For example, the recent shootings and terrorist-considered attacks in America have been portrayed by the media in a multitude of ways. Some individuals believe that these attacks should be considered terrorist-based violence, while others have concluded that they stem from core differences in religious belief. In particular, the recent Orlando nightclub shooting was scrutinized as an event which was perpetrated due to religious hatred and prejudice.

In June 2016, 29 year-old Omar Mateen committed what is now considered the deadliest shooting in American history. After entering a nightclub that supported and catered to the LGBTQ community, Mateen shot and killed a total of 49 club patrons, while wounding another 53. Directly prior to this attack, he had sworn allegiance to the the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. He also claimed that the shooting was “triggered” by the recent killing of Abu Waheeb, a leader of ISIS, perpetrated by the U.S military. Mateen admitted that the American-led intervention within Iraq and Syria triggered his attack, and that he believed the United States had an obligation to stop bombing ISIS. Because of this, most media outlets portrayed this event as a religious hate crime and a terrorist attack.

Although the media depicted Mateen’s actions, as well as the grounds on which he based his actions, as constructed from bigotry, different theories as to why he committed the attack have also been introduced. His portrayed affiliation with Islam was presented by many media outlets in a fashion that was synonymous with stereotypical Islamophobic rhetoric which gave the general public a reason to believe his actions were those rooted in terrorist activity. This popular portrayal was promptly derived from the idea that there was a connection between his affiliation with ISIS and his claimed hatred for the LGBTQ community. Moreover, Mateen being previously described by those who knew him as being extremely racist and homophobic added to the media’s main consensus as to why the crime was committed.

While some of the aforementioned reports about Mateen’s character may be true, the common rhetoric of the attack excluded all discussion on other potential motives and didn’t leave room for critical analysis. Most of the portrayals failed to mention that preliminary reports suggested Mateen had previously attended the same nightclub as a patron himself, and had used dating apps and websites that suggested homosexual behavior. However, this exclusion can be justified due to the fact that there had been no credible evidence to validate these claims. Moreover, there was correspondingly a lack of evidence to suggest that Mateen had any legitimate ties to ISIS.

After critically reflecting on the media’s main portrayal of the attack, it is clear that religion was presented in a negative light. Mateen’s actions supported the generalizations and negative connotations already associated with Islam. Furthermore, the attack also supported the stereotypical generalization that all members of the Islam community are against the LGBTQ community, which is a false representation of their beliefs. By analyzing the main rhetoric of the media’s representation of Mateen’s actions it is obvious that thoughts and opinions are meant to do nothing but encourage Islamophobic thoughts and opinions. Therefore, the portrayal of the shootings provides a biased account of religion in general, as the opinions based on the causation behind Mateen’s decision gives the majority of the Western audience support in believing that Islam can be continued to be associated with terrorism and violence.

vunjq1nde60lvekryh8co-rvqqkumlb5-xlargeThe main authoritative sources that the portrayal refers to included religious officials or representatives. Immediately after the event occurred, many of these figures apologized for Mateen’s actions on behalf of religion, expressing their concerns as to how events such as this force religion to be deemed as harmful or damaging to society. In particular, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee claimed, “violence of this magnitude belongs to no religious, racial or ethnic group.”

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is recognized as a terrorist organization by the United Nations, and thus a contemporary problem in religion and culture. Mateen’s decision to perpetrate the shooting coupled with his supposed allegiance to ISIS suggests that he must have considered following extremist and Islamic fundamentalism more imperative than following the laws of his country. As modernity and our current context of the world continues to progress and change, Islamophobic views remain prominent in modern day society. Events such as the Orlando shootings remind modern day Westerners that cultural hegemony and the belief that certain cultures or religious views should be considered more dominant, and thus more valuable than populations considered non-dominant.