Better to Sell a Candle than Curse the Darkness?

Aaron Ricker
Lecturer,  McGill University

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.


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.


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.




Breaking Out Of The Guild

Dr. William Morrow
School of Religion

9780802868657My new book on biblical law has just been published: An Introduction to Biblical Law (Eerdmans). This was my first comprehensive effort to write something in my field for people who don’t belong to the guild, i.e., for more than “the twenty-five people in the world who care.”Actually, if you are schooled to the point of becoming a creature of the academy, it can be pretty hard to break out of the guild.

That insight struck me forcibly after recently giving a public lecture on the nature of the Islamic State. I used a number of theories current in the academic study of religion and violence to explain what I thought was going on. My audience, however, was not particularly interested in the theoretical perspectives I used. Q &A quickly moved to discussion of the current military and social challenges posed by ISIS. I came away from that experience wondering about the connection between scholarship and the needs of a general readership or public.

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For example, in Religious Studies we tend to spend a lot of time agonizing about the definition of religion—or whether there is one. But, I don’t think my audience cared very much for such nuances. In fact, I am sure they were confident they knew what religion was; if they didn’t like the religious vision of ISIS, they knew why. In part, I think that might be a function of the fact that I was addressing something of immediate concern. That’s one of the reasons why I prefer to discuss historical events rather than current events in my course on “Religion and Violence.” Time gives a certain kind of distance that allows for reflection and theorizing. Nevertheless, we scholars in religious studies have an obligation to speak to the publics that don’t belong to the guild.

I have undertaken that commitment in writing my new book. I am not sure what the experts will say about it, but I hope it says something to a public that needs to know how the knowledge we create can benefit them.



Dr. Ian Alexander Cuthbertson
Postdoctoral Fellow
Adjunct Assistant Professor
School of Religion

The term ‘religion’, as James Miller has pointed out on this blog, is inescapably tied to power. But decisions as to what counts as religion have consequences. These decisions cause some groups to become eligible for tax-exempt status (but not others) and some individuals benefit from constitutional protections of religious freedom (but not others).

Religious Studies presents itself as a neutral scientific investigation of a particular object of study: religion. Yet in grouping some individuals, practices, and institutions under the label ‘religion’ while excluding others, we scholars participate in a normative project. We adjudicate. We help determine which individuals and institutions merit the label ‘religion’ and which do not. In other words, the academic study of religion involves a process of religionization.

Religionization is perhaps unavoidable. I religionize each time I include a particular object, practice, or institutiojn in my syllabi. But I hope I have been successful in reframing the guiding question in my courses away from ‘what is religion?’ and toward ‘why does this count as religion?’ and its corollary, ‘why doesn’t this?’


How Liberal Are We Really?

Ruth Chitiz
MA Student
School of Religion


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?).















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?

Teaching in an Age of Islamophobia

Dr. Brett Potter
Adjunct Professor
School of Religion

Last month, a Canadian university student walked into a mosque in Quebec City and gunned down six innocent people – critically wounding five more – who had simply been there to pray. This horrific event in a place of worship followed a grim week where the United States government issued a travel ban against seven Muslim-majority countries, a decision widely condemned as religious discrimination and resulting in countless stories of mistreatment, confusion, and fear. The American Academy of Religion’s official statement on the “Muslim ban” points out the way this policy “poisons the public’s understanding of Islam in particular and religion in general.” The fact is that many people in North America, including parts of Canada, have little understanding or experience of Islam, which creates an opening for fear-based distortions and mischaracterizations – in short, for the rising tide of Islamophobia which has resulted in escalating violence, threats, and assaults against Muslims in recent years in both the U.S. and Canada.

Such stories of xenophobia, exclusion, and violence against religious minorities, particularly Muslims, are uncomfortably close to home. Especially in our generally tolerant and pluralistic Canadian context, we find these events shocking and surprising. One thing they ought to remind us of, though, is just how important teaching and learning about religion is, especially for university students. It is not too much of a stretch to say that education – learning how to think – is the best countermeasure against propaganda, which tells you what to think. A university course in world religions offers the opportunity to correct misperceptions and allow students of whatever religious or non-religious background to engage with complex spiritual traditions like Islam from a non-reductive, non-ideologically driven perspective. Religious studies is the polar opposite of the online propaganda that has “radicalized” white nationalist killers like Dylann Roof and Alexander Bissonnette to enact terrible acts of violence on faith communities – it opens up questions rather than closing young minds.

In a media-saturated world where misunderstandings, inflammatory rhetoric, and distortions of truth are ubiquitous, teaching about the diverse array of global religious traditions is thus itself a subversive act – cultivating knowledge instead of ignorance, critical engagement instead of sound bites. Exploring religion from an inclusive, integrative, yet critically rigorous perspective works against ideologies of nativism and xenophobia by exposing students to differing points of view and alternative narratives – in short, to diversity rather than narrow-mindedness.

I would even go so far as to say that the academic study of religion also helps cultivate empathy and understanding, two qualities seemingly in short supply in 2017 but desperately needed in a political situation marked by fear and suspicion. In the Religion and Social Ethics course I taught at Queen’s this past fall, we took as a central image the figure of the stranger. Hospitality to the stranger or alien is a theme common to all major religious traditions – from the Jewish imperative to treat the stranger with respect since the Hebrew people were once themselves “strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33-34) to the Buddhist emphasis on kindness and welcome to all, regardless of class or creed. Though in practice religions can and certainly have become dangerously exclusive – trading in hospitality for hostility – the majority of religious communities hold out the ideal of embracing the other, not harming them, as a central ethical tenet.

Religious studies as a discipline does not ask students to become religious, or to choose a particular religious tradition or community; it focuses on context and change rather than doctrine and law. Yet at its best, religious studies, much like the belief systems it investigates, encourages open-mindedness and hospitality, especially to the “stranger” who may act or believe differently. I have been have fortunate to have students ranging from committed atheists to just about every religious orientation – Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Mormon – a benefit of teaching in diverse Southern Ontario. Teaching and learning about religion is a means to a deeper understanding of why the world is the way it is, and why people live, love, and pray the way they do. This understanding, paired with empathy and open-mindedness, helps cultivate students of any or no faith who are not easily swayed by ideologies of hate and prejudice.

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.


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.

What Counts as Non-Religious?

James Kwateng-Yeboah
School of Religion MA Student

What counts as non-religious or spiritual-but-not-religious? Who decides the designation of these terms? Are they self-defined representations or scholarly constructs? How useful are these terms, given their largely Western and Christian-influenced heritage?

In recent years, the number of people who answer ‘no religion’ to the question ‘what is your religion?’ has increased stupendously. I do not intend to fully problematize these categories here; nevertheless, I am of the view that the terms non-religious and/or spiritual-but-not-religious (1) evoke theoretical concerns, (2) have political implications, and (3) concern matters of societal well-being. Theoretically, are the “nones” meaningfully non-religious or simply indifferent to matters of religion? Politically, who decides the meaning of these terms? The highly trained scholar with his/her linguistic and theoretical tools? Or the ordinary people, who are in touch with their everyday experiences, the very subjects of the phenomenon? Or both? From a societal concern, how does the ethos engendered in the non-religious/spiritual-but-not-religious contribute to pro-social behaviour or societal well-being? In sum, understanding ‘religion’ is necessarily incomplete if the meaning of non-religion is neglected.

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

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.