Authority & Objectivism in The Things We Study

(Photo: The North American Association for the Study of Religion)

Some of us here at Culture on the Edge are prepping for The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) annual meeting that kicks off tomorrow. Part of the meeting is dedicated to “The Things We Study When We Study Religion.” Three sets of panels address what counts as data and how that data is handled — specifically tackling the objects, subjects, and the role scholars in our scholarship (find more info on the NAASR site). At the same time, here on the blog we’ve been reading Rogers Brubaker’s trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities. In light of the topics being addressed at NAASR, there’s a quote from Brubaker that I find to be relevant and worth mulling over:

“Yet recourse to objectivist language is not simply strategic; it also reflects the deep appeal of essentialist understandings of identity outside the academy. Objectivism is further nourished by the cultural authority of biomedical science.”

While Brubaker goes on to discuss biological research in the study of transgender identity, the above quote is rather apt and quite useful in the broader scope of identity studies as well. Though, there may also be a need to address the essentialist notions of identity that are taken for granted within the academy itself and how authority itself is constituted. In recognizing how authority is constructed it can help remind us to be cognizant of the power that resides in making identity claims to begin with, essentialist claims that nourish objectivism, often taking on a life of their own adding to a broader objectivist language, both inside and outside the academy.

 

Creating Neutrality

Crucifix displayed in Quebec National Assembly

By Ian Alexander Cuthbertson

On Wednesday October 18, Québec passed a controversial new law that bans residents from wearing face coverings while providing or receiving government services — including public transportation. Neutrality has become one of the key talking points since the law was enacted. While the law itself is framed as “an act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality,” Québec Premier Philippe Couillard and Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée have both defended the law against accusations of religious discrimination by emphasising that the law bans all face coverings, and not only religious ones. These assertions of neutrality are, however, more complicated than they at first appear.

While many Québec residents are outraged at the anti-Muslim implications of the new law, I want to consider how this law neutralizes some apparently religious expressions while prohibiting others along with the rhetorical strategies the government has employed to solidify its apparently neutral stance. Continue reading “Creating Neutrality”

Articulating Dinosaurs & Religions (The Story of Us)

Photo of Animated Triceratops at Universal’s Island of Adventures, Orlando, FL

What do the dinosaurs of the past have to do with us today?

The first time I remember thinking about what really makes a dinosaur, was watching Steven Spielberg’s academy award-winning picture Jurassic Park (1993), where dinosaurs are brought back to life through the magic of DNA cloning. In the film, the small island of Isla Nublar is the home to a theme park built from the imagination of John Hammond, a billionaire philanthropist who spares no expense.

Adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel, Jurassic Park is a wildlife park of cloned dinosaurs that escape their enclosures and start hunting the humans. In one of the film’s most iconic scenes we find siblings Lex and Tim trapped in a kitchen by two raptors. As can be seen in the picture below the raptors tower over the children seeking out the siblings in a terrifying game of hide and seek.

Photo Copyright Universal Studios, Film Stills: Jurassic Park (1993)

But according to Jurassic World’s palaeontology consultant, Jack Horner, the horse-sized beasts with fangs and claws that dawn the screen as raptors, have not been portrayed accurately as discussed Continue reading “Articulating Dinosaurs & Religions (The Story of Us)”

Everyday Theory

If you’re watching the Netflix series Master of None (starring the comedian Aziz Ansari), or if you’re a scholar of religion on social media much, then you may know about season two’s episode entitled Religion. Continue reading “Everyday Theory”

Inertia, Broken Windshields, and the Boundaries of “Religion”

By Craig R. Prentiss

A decade ago, I was driving with my family on a highway in Tennessee when our windshield was hit by a stone. My focus soon shifted from the fresh crack in the glass to the signs on the back of each vehicle in a convoy of gravel trucks reading: “Stay Back 300 Feet: Not Responsible for Broken Windshields.”

Furious, I wailed, “How is it possible that they’re not responsible?!” I searched the trucks for a telephone number as I passed, to no avail. Reaching for an (absurd) analogy, I yelled, “What’s next? Serial killers wearing t-shirts saying ‘not responsible for accumulating corpses’?” I was quite proud of the analogy, but my family was more concerned about my rage than the $200 it would eventually cost to replace the windshield.

I thought about that windshield this fall when a former student shared an invitation she received from the Governor of Missouri to “The Thirtieth Annual Governor’s Student Leadership Forum: Faith and Values in Leadership.” Only the top students in the state receive the invitation, so she was rightly honored to have been selected. A description of the three-day event in Jefferson City was enclosed. It explained: “Each January, student leaders across the state gather with leaders in politics and business to discuss the servant leadership philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth . . . . The forum is not religious. We seek participants of all faiths . . . .” The forum is subsidized by the annual Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. Selected students pay a fee of $350 to attend, and no tax dollars directly fund the forum. Continue reading “Inertia, Broken Windshields, and the Boundaries of “Religion””

Manufacturing Fast Food Founders

By Jason W. M. Ellsworth

Who founded McDonalds? The film, The Founder, tells the history of Ray Kroc as the founder of McDonald’s. It even opens, like many other Hollywood biographical films, with a simple set of words written in white letters set to a black backdrop — “based on a true story.” But, not everyone agrees that the credit should go to Kroc. The film’s title and focus on him gives the impression of a simple enough story, but, as the study of religion demonstrates, origins and founder narratives are usually highly contested with much at stake.

The Founder stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, a traveling milkshake appliance salesman in the 1950s. Unsuccessfully pedaling machines one at a time to various drive up diners, Kroc is curious about one restaurant in California requesting eight of the appliances. When Kroc arrives, he finds a well-oiled diner that runs like a Ford assembly line, one where every burger is consistently of the highest-quality and served lightning quick — “orders ready in 30 seconds, not 30 minutes.” Mac and Dick McDonald are the architects of this highly stream-lined kitchen where no stone is left unturned in the name of efficiency. They originally opened their first McDonald’s BBQ in 1940, and then reopened their newly improved McDonald’s in 1948. Continue reading “Manufacturing Fast Food Founders”

The Privilege of Being Unremarkable

Merrick_Garland_speaks_at_his_Supreme_Court_nomination_with_President_ObamaThe reporting surrounding President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland as Supreme Court justice both reveals and complicates the concept of privilege in an intriguing manner. Many of the articles, such as this Politico piece, were notable for what they refrain from stating, that he is a white male. This contrasts with the emphasis on ethnicity and gender in earlier pieces about those being considered for the position, such as Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Judge Sri Srinivasan. After the Garland nomination announcement, one article noted Garland’s judicial experience and legal training and specified how he would not add diversity to the Supreme Court. The article continued, referencing Justice Sonya Sotomayor as Latina and Srinivasan as both Hindu and Asian-American. The choice not to relate Garland’s racial, ethnic, and gender identifications reflects the privilege of a white male in the United States. Continue reading “The Privilege of Being Unremarkable”

Making Meaning

6d61b38dff59187fb1a03b5c4cdccc0fThis semester I’m teaching a course on the uses of anachronism in the study of the ancient Greek world, one such anachronism being the concept of religion itself (for it is hardly a local term in the ancient Greek world). Last week, just before class, I happened to stumble across an article that made the rounds on Facebook entitled “Mysterious Chimpanzee Behavior May be Evidence of ‘Sacred’ Rituals.” The title of the article was enough to catch my attention: “mysterious” along with “sacred rituals”? Definitely this was something that I could share with my students. Continue reading “Making Meaning”

Now You Have Taken It Too Far

herodotusThis semester I’m teaching an introductory course on the Study of Religion, that is, looking at scholarly definitions and scholarly approaches to the study of religion. We’re exploring among other things, together with my students, questions like what is the study of religion? What is at stake in naming/defining/classifying things in this or that way? Although this early in the semester one question that prevails is: Continue reading “Now You Have Taken It Too Far”

The Sun Never Sets on the Study of Religion

Picture 7Lots of scholars of religion are focused these days on studying such things as implicit religion, the Nones, or almost any other so-called worldview that people might be said to work with or inhabit (e.g., many are hot on the trail of secularism). What I find interesting about all this is the way in which a professional identity is being recreated, by those who work in this field, in the face of twenty year’s worth of critiques of the category religion itself (pretty obviously the field’s primary organizing concept); for it seems that the more the term is criticized (as being a Latin-based signifier that was exported in the age of colonial contact, making it hardly the universal designator that it was once thought to be — see here for a good primer on this argument) the more data these scholars seem to have to study. Consider the so-called Nones — those who answer a few questions on a survey, about belief in God or attendance at church, and who are now thought by many to comprise a cohesive social, political force: scholars of religion are intent on studying them despite their adamant denial that they’re religious. What’s curious is that while many such scholars criticize those of peers who fail to take the insider’s viewpoint seriously, as they might say, yet here, in the case of the Nones, people’s refusal to identify as religious is hardly a barrier to eager scholars of religion. Continue reading “The Sun Never Sets on the Study of Religion”