Creative Projects

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson
Baker Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Religion

22278497_10159335178135587_155972462_nThis post originally appeared on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog.

For the last four years I have taught RELS 161: Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture at Queen’s University. RELS 161 is a large full-year course that usually attracts between 150 and 180 students. I have already written about this course elsewhere but have never described one of the more successful and rewarding components of the course: creative projects.

I first introduced a creative project option, somewhat reluctantly, in 2014. Previously, the final project for the course asked students to observe a ritual and then analyze the ritual using theories and approaches discussed in class. I had considered replacing this project with one that I’ve subsequently used (with mixed results) in a course on religious fundamentalisms that I teach at Dawson College in Montréal. The replacement project I considered asks students to create a single image, infographic, or one minute video that explores and explains a key term or concept from the course to a general audience. But the more I thought about this new project the more worried I became: Could I really require first year students to make images or videos? How would I evaluate these?

I vacillated all summer, writing and re-writing the syllabus as I drew ever closer to September and the start of term. I liked the idea of mobilizing students’ artistic talents but was uncomfortable requiring and potentially evaluating artistic skills that I did not teach in class. I take seriously the dictum that evaluations should only evaluate actual student learning: unless I teach students grammar, grammar should not be something I evaluate in student assignments. A day or two before my syllabus was due I finally decided on a compromise: I kept the ritual analysis project and included an optional creative project.

Basically, the creative project invites students (either individually, or in groups) to demonstrate their mastery of one or more of the course learning objectives however they want to. The format is open. Although I suggest possible project formats (essays, images, videos, short stories, interpretive dance…), students are free to suggest their own. Similarly, there are no set requirements for length or duration. The benefit of this open format is that it allows students complete freedom to imagine new ways of demonstrating learning that match their interests and abilities. The risk is that students will attempt to complete projects that are not feasible, that do not actually demonstrate mastery of course learning objectives, or that I am ill-equipped to evaluate. How, for instance, would I evaluate an interpretive dance? The guidelines for the creative project, which have remained unchanged since I first included it in the course, are structured to address and manage these risks. The creative project option has three components:

1. Proposal

Students who decide to pursue the creative project option are asked to submit a formal proposal in February in which they describe their project’s format and size or duration; provide a detailed timeline to show the project can be completed by the April deadline; imagine potential complications that might arise along with solutions to these; explain exactly how their proposed project will demonstrate mastery of course learning objectives; and finally propose how I will evaluate whether or not the project actually demonstrates this. While the proposal is an essential component of the larger project, its real purpose is to structure the face-to-face meeting I have with students to discuss their proposals. In this meeting, the student(s) and I talk about the format and scope of the project and work together to determine whether the proposed project actually fits their interests and goals, whether it is feasible, and whether I will be able to properly evaluate their mastery of course learning objectives. Often, this meeting necessitates partial or complete revisions of the proposed projects as the student(s) and I work together to imagine a project that fits their interests while providing me with material I can effectively evaluate.

2. Project

The project itself is submitted in April. Given the freedom this option allows, student projects are unique expressions of student engagement with course materials and learning objectives. In the last four years I have received videos, slam poetry presentations, short stories, one act plays, formal research papers, paintings, drawings, poetry, sculptures, musical compositions, and yes… an interpretive dance.

Typically, students submit additional materials that explain their projects and link their work directly to course learning objectives. Sometimes these explanations are brief. But students sometimes surprise me with the attention they pay to these. Grace Hart, for instance, who recorded herself and other dancers interpreting liminality, submitted a recording of the dance piece she choreographed along with a detailed breakdown that tied each movement back to liminality. This breakdown allowed me to evaluate Grace’s understanding and interpretation of liminality rather than the choreography itself. Grace also submitted a hand-written creative journal in which she recorded her artistic choices concerning music, choreography, lighting, and costume along with her rationale for these choices and for the revisions she eventually made.

3. Reflection

One week after the projects are submitted, I ask students to submit a short reflection in which they consider whether or not their submitted project met their expectations. Sometimes, when the projects are successful, reflections are cursory. When projects do not turn out as originally planned, reflections provide students with an opportunity to explain how the material they submitted still demonstrates their engagement with and mastery of course learning objectives and allows them to revisit evaluation criteria to ensure I am still able to evaluate the project they actually submit to me.

The creative projects I have received have nearly always been brilliant expressions of student learning. Sometimes, these projects are later presented outside of the classroom. Grace Hart, for instance, submitted her choreography to a peer reviewed blog hosted by the University of Toronto and Kaitlyn Hollander submitted her drawings to a larger exhibition of creative expressions of teaching and learning at Queen’s University. Receiving these projects has been a highlight in my career as an educator. I am routinely amazed by the talent and deep understanding these projects exhibit. Although I was hesitant, at first, to include this option in my syllabus, it has proven to be the most effective and rewarding evaluation situation I have ever used in the classroom. Typically, somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of students choose to submit creative projects. But I suspect that even if the entire class chose the creative project option, I would be eager to meet individually with all 180 students to determine how they might best mobilize their talents and interests to creatively demonstrate their grasp of the key terms, core concepts, and central ideas we explore together in RELS 161. Below are three examples of creative projects I’ve received along with comments from the students who submitted these.

Defining Religion by Kaitlyn Hollander

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Kaitlyn’s project consists of three large images, each of which depicts two contrasting definitions of religion. In the image above, Kaitlyn contrasts Freud’s view that religion is the product of psychological needs with the sui generis view that religion involves some special contact with ‘the sacred.’ Her piece is interactive: each separate image is only visible when viewers put on coloured lenses.

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I asked Kaitlyn to reflect on her experience completing the creative project in RELS 161:

“Making a creative project for my religion class was exciting, though at times challenging. To start, I thought about what had the most impact on me during the course; how religion cannot be monolithically defined. To my first-year brain, the idea was revolutionary because I learned more broadly that definitions are fluid rather fixed concepts. I spent a great deal of time researching and understanding each scholar’s definition to make sure I could make a piece where both the viewer and myself could clearly understand these definitions. It was wonderful having the opportunity to expand my range of conceptual topics in my fine art work as well as create a piece to display outside the walls of the studio.

Visual Notes for RELS 161 by Rhiannon Allen-Roberts

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Rhiannon’s project consists of a very large banner on which she drew interpretations of multiple course topics. The project is a visual map of the entire course. Rhiannon also submitted a detailed explanation of her project that connected the concepts she explored to one another. Below are a few photos of specific segments of the larger whole.

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I asked Rhiannon to reflect on her experience as well:

“My experience with the creative project was probably the best academic experience I had in my first year. It really allowed me to engage with the material and that made it personal to me, ensuring that I didn’t just memorize the material but actually learned it. I still find myself referencing topics and readings from that class. It really helped me to understand and engage with the learning material. I’m still really proud of the project and believe it was the most rewarding academic achievement I had in my first year.”

Becoming by Grace Hart

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I described Grace’s project above. The video she submitted can be viewed here. I also asked Grace to reflect on her experiences:

I loved doing the creative project. It helped me to engage with the material more that I would have in written format. And I wanted to. To this day, it has been the project that I have been the most passionate and involved in throughout my four years at university. And doing it in first year made all the difference. I thought of university to be this scary, academic institution, but in doing the creative project I was able to put myself into my education and really run with – and looking back now that’s what I would consider what university is supposed to be at every moment but unfortunately under all the readings and essays it doesn’t always get to be. 

It was such an effective way to engage with the material. I could still tell you what Liminality Theory means, but still have trouble explaining the neoliberalism, realism and constructivism – and I’m a politics major! It gave me a way to contextualize – and through dance, visualize – the theory in the broader scope of the course. I still struggle to read academic articles and I get nervous speaking up in my fourth-year seminars and but had I been given more opportunities to do creative projects that allowed me to engage with course material in a way that appealed to the way I learn, I think I would have retained much more information from my courses and felt more confident in my understanding of course materials. 

I was so proud handing in this project. I worked so hard on it and dedicated so much time and energy to speaking with my professor, doing the research and putting the project together that I felt like I really accomplished something – more than just the A grade that I got. It really motivated me to want to engage with course material in this course and others, and to really take every learning opportunity – academic and otherwise – that university had to offer. I will always remember this course and Professor Cuthbertson for giving me the opportunity to do my creative project, but even more so the drive, commitment and hard work that I put in to this project and how rewarding, both academically and personally, it was to complete.

 

 

Democracy Without Dignity: A Confucian Critique of President Trump

Dr. James Miller
 Director, School of Religion

img_0122This post originally appeared on the Spirituality, Nature and Culture Laboratory blog.

The events of the past week have marked the point of absolute contrast between the world’s two most important countries and their leaders. In China, President Xi Jinping has consolidated his power throughout the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), beginning with the bravura performance of a three and a half hour opening speech, during which he touched not a drop of water. By the end of the congress, he was confirmed in his position for another five years, his supporters were elected to key government positions, and his thinking established as part of the CPC’s ruling doctrine for decades to come. 

On the other side of the Pacific, witness the continuing omnishambles of the Trump administration, which seemingly stumbles from scandal to scandal, one tweet at a time. Trump’s standing surely reached a nadir this week with Senator Flake’s excoriating indictment of the president’s character. “Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior,” he declaimed, “has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.”

The contrast between the two countries could not be clearer: China enjoys dignity without democracy; the United States has democracy without dignity.

But this apparent contrast masks many areas in which the political machinery of Beijing and Washington enjoys many similarities. Both systems rely on a network of relationships and the trading of favours among the political class to get things done. The Chinese term guanxi, which denotes the culture of relationships and favours that is central to the Confucian ethos, is no less applicable in the corridors of power in Washington than in the government compound of Zhongnanhai in Beijing.

Secondly, factions in both systems resort to politically-charged investigations into corruption and lawbreaking for political gain. President Xi consolidated power through a ruthless anti-corruption drive aimed at the highest levels of government, as well as the petty officials whose venality threatened to undermine the CPC’s popular legitimacy. At the same time, the use of special prosecutors and FBI investigations is no less a hallmark of contemporary US politics. Both can have a chilling effect on the machinery of government, where government officials fear the slightest misstep could result in investigation, summons, or even jail time.

Thirdly, both systems work hard to control media narratives through techniques of propaganda, ranging from the active suppression of sensitive issues in China, to the wholesale denigration of mainstream media in America. Both administrations worry about the spread of “fake news,” or narratives that challenge the ruling orthodoxy, and both are equally adept in their employment of social media for political gain.

At many levels, the day-to-day business of Chinese and US politics is a lot more similar than one might think, given the radical difference in the two political philosophies. But there is one thread that runs through the Confucian approach to ethical government, which emphasizes a key difference between Trump and Xi: the virtue of self-control, precisely and carefully displayed by President Xi during his marathon speech at the start of CPC congress.

In Analects 16.7 Confucius says,

“The gentleman has three things to be cautious about: In his youth, when his blood and energy are not yet settled, he must be cautious about sex. In his middle years, when his blood and energy are just strong, he must be cautious about fighting. In his old age, when his blood and energy are already weak, he must be cautious about greed.”

Trump seems to embody all three types of recklessness identified by Confucius. His behaviour towards women has been roundly condemned; his warmongering words regarding North Korea provoked fear and consternation across the world; he unashamedly made his lust for wealth and power into the basis of his media personality.

Why do these moral failings matter? Because democracy needs dignity if it is not to descend into disorder. This does not mean that our leaders have to abide by some impossible standard of personal moral purity; after all, they are only human. But it does mean that in a republican system, without the benefit of monarchs to take on the symbolism of the state, it is incumbent upon the president to act presidentially.

President Trump understands one aspect of this. When people disrespect the flag or fail to stand for the national anthem, he takes it personally. But Confucius long ago understood that the authority vested in symbols of power, such as the flag, has to be properly earned. President Trump has so far failed to demonstrate that he has the dignity and the self-restraint to command the worthiness of the flag, and the sacrifices of soldiers in its name.

Dignity without democracy runs the risk of being a clanging gong that signifies nothing. But democracy without dignity is an equally dangerous formula that threatens to undermine the very legitimacy of democracy as a political system.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale is Back

Dr. Bill James
Professor Emeritus
School of Religion

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The Handmaid’s Tale is all over the place these days in a remarkable resurgence that Atwood herself declares as “weird.” It feels a bit that way to me too, as I recall the novel’s appearance in the mid-80s. I taught the book for several years in RELS 161, Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture. Its immediate referents were, as I recall, the AIDS epidemic, the Cold War, and feminism. Then and now, the strong underlying themes of religion and the state and of totalitarianism loomed.

This retrospection got me to dig up an article I had written and published in Japan in the early 90’s, “Narrative as Prayer and Politics in The Handmaid’s Tale,” which was reissued in 1994 for students in RELS 161. A scanned version is available here. I was relieved to reread it and find that it isn’t entirely an embarrassment. In fact, its focus on the narrator’s inner monologue as a form of prayer strikes me as perennially relevant. Augustine, in The Confessions, first helped us understand that one’s relation to the deepest aspect of the self is akin to the relation to the divine.

atwood1This inner monologue—which novels represent so well and which movies often fail at or ignore—disappeared as a feature of the 1990 film by Volker Schlöndorff. Though the film starred an illustrious quintet of principals, and though the screenplay was written by renowned playwright Harold Pinter, it was lamentable in many respects. Due to changes in midstream, Pinter felt the film became a “hotch-potch.” Natasha Richardson, the female lead, thought the Offred’s interior monologue would be handled by voice-over narrations, but then these were cut out, reportedly because Pinter was against them.

 

thehandmaidstale1The American television series of The Handmaid’s Tale by Bruce Miller just began airing in April 2017, in Canada on the Bravo network. The tv series is acclaimed as a visually impressive and an emotionally suspenseful drama representing the best of what television can offer. Elisabeth Moss, in the role of Offred, expresses her innermost thoughts in voice-over in assertion of rebellion against the totalitarian control and distortions of the regime. From the beginning as a viewer I felt that the novel had been restored to life.

The discussions about The Handmaid’s Tale continue in various media, usually revolving its relevance in the Age of Trump. But some of the tangential issues are fascinating too. For me it’s the revival of challenges to Atwood’s feminism as she continues a decades-long resistance against being called a feminist. An article in Jezebel recently challenged Atwood’s view that women’s rights are human rights. The Jezebel piece went on to query how Elisabeth Moss could belong to Scientology while portraying a woman living under oppression. Moss has refused to talk about the negative aspects of her religion, with the allegations of forced abortions, confinements, and various accounts of physical and sexual abuse.

Again, memories of old controversies return. It was in 1988 that I reviewed Russell Miller’s critical, though popular and unauthorized, biography of Scientology’s founder, Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard. At the time I wondered whether the religion would survive the founder’s death but here it is, still with us, and still the subject of movies and articles and investigations. Atwood’s feminism and Moss’s religion are versions of the old question of whether a bad person can produce good art. Or of literature and belief: What’s the fit between the worldview of the text and its author’s beliefs? In the Church it was the Donatist controversy: Is the Sacrament still efficacious when received from the hands of an unworthy priest? In some ways contemporary celebrity culture, which reveals all about about any public figure, augments the problem. The answer, too, may be an old one. As D. H. Lawrence said: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” Fascinating, recurring, and age-old questions.

 

 

May News

The QSR blog just doesn’t want to take its vacation…

Two more posts are up: Aaron Ricker considers Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson as moral authorities and QSR MA Student Alissa Droog reflects on running religious studies tutorials.

We’ll be back in September!

Running A Religious Studies Tutorial

Alissa Droog
MA Student
School of Religion

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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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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.

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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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Breaking Out Of The Guild

Dr. William Morrow
Professor
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.

 

Religionization

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

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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?