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Big News & a Note about Summer 2011 31 May 2011

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Some big news: I received word on Friday that I was granted tenure and promoted to the rank of Associate Professor. So I’m officially no longer on the tenure track. I’ve been working toward this for so long, I’m not really sure how I feel about it. Relief, surely. Like many people on the tenure track, I had let my personal life suffer and have become more or less a recluse over the past few years. So my biggest hope is to bring some more balance to my life.

I received a small research grant to finish a paper I’m writing about people who leave Mormonism, so I don’t have to teach this summer for the first time since getting my job at SJSU. For a professor with a 4/4 teaching load, this is huge. I will actually be able to move forward on some writing projects that have been languishing, finish up my current project, and start working on applications for sabbatical and grants for the 2012-2013 school year.

I also have the notion that over the summer I will be blogging more regularly. One of the things I’m most excited about is to actually be able to read. I mean, read stuff I want to read. Read stuff I’m interested in. Not just read for teaching. I plan to post 1-2 times a week about what I’m reading as a way to work through ideas and have a pseudo-conversation about it.

First up:

Martha Nussbaum. Upheavals of Thought:  The Intelligence of Emotions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.


Stimulating Nuggets from Midwestern (and other) Sociologists 26 March 2011

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It has been a few years since I have been able to attend an academic conference. They have many social and cultural functions, among them mini-vacation from teaching, party and drinking, professional networking, etc. For me this month, having attended two conferences and having presented two pieces of my current research on ex-mormons, it has re-energized and motivated my “life of the mind” in unexpected ways. I have felt intellectually stunted the past few years, and like I’ve “fallen behind” or “out of touch” with intellectual conversation, scholarship, and what is for me personally, my life’s blood.

So here are a few key ideas, nuggets really, that sparked interest, provoked connections, gave that whoosh or excitement and energy as I’ve been listening to papers this weekend, in no particular order. It should be obvious, but these ideas belong to the scholars that presented them, and I cite their name and institution following my encapsulation of what I found stimulating so that if you want to explore further you can contact them directly and/or go to their published work:

1. Political moderation needs to be re-theorized as a political assertion, with concomitant political acts and power flows, in and of itself, rather than seen as merely splitting the difference between the two poles or as a wishy-washy fence-sitting. This was one of the conclusions drawn from studying Mainstreet Coalition in Johnson County Kansas, working to prevent or depose right-wing, religious Republicans with moderate, secular Republicans in state government.

—Alexander Smith, University of Huddersfield, UK

2. In a talk on a national organization for LGBT parents of children, the notion of “queerspawn” was raised as a self-identification of the adult children of LGBT parents. The children of LGBT parents are actually enculturated into gay culture, and when they leave for college and are immersed in hetero-dominant culture, they experience a cultural and identifying disjuncture, where even though they themselves are heterosexual, they feel they do not belong there. There is a growing movement among queerspawn to maintain spaces for them within queer cultural spaces and to create a way that gayness and queerness can be expanded to include them in the definition.

—Timothy Ortyl, University of Minnesota

3. Lesbian partners of trans-men who decide to stay with their partners during and after transition undergo acute identity crises in relationship to the masculinization of their partner’s bodies. This should have been a “no shit” idea, but it was like a light bulb going off in my head.

—Megan Tesene, University of Northern Iowa

4. Discussing Dr. Smith’s talk on moderate Kansans, Bob Antonio invoked a thread in Dewey’s theory of the public and democracy, where holding a position that is open enough to consider and handle ambiguity and respond to changes in the environment is a sine qua non of a functioning democracy. But there are moments when you’re facing muscular, ideological, inflexible opponents when a militant opposition is necessary to fight them (Dewey was framing his theory against the rise of totalitarianism in Europe and the anti-New Dealers in the U.S., wherein he saw what we would today call free-market ideologies as antithetical to democratic social intercourse). In other words, political moderation as a political strategy only works in a public where the constituents remain flexible and open enough to have the dialogue and to compromise. Neo-liberalism has become the unspoken ideological basis across the political spectrum, and the cultural and social issues that the “two sides” scream about obscure the actual ascendancy and dominance of neo-liberalism in american politics.

—Robert Antonio, University of Kansas

5. In an analysis of the rise and current fall of NASCAR as a cultural and economic phenomenon, the presenter referenced Guy Dubord’s work Society of Spectacle. Dubord argues that modern societies now create massive spectacles that function by dislocating an “authentic cultural core” and disembodying it, so that it no longer has locality, temporality, or sociality (i.e., a specific social context to which it belongs). The spectacle only works if there was at some point, somewhere an “authentic core” somewhere in the past. (In NASCAR’s case, it grew out of a formalization on competitions that southern bootleggers had with souped up cars to outrun the feds in the early 20th century…who knew?)  NASCAR has successfully replaced that historical cultural core with a massified spectacle, imbricated in local economies (tracks are funded by local bonds) and serving as ideological pumps (military, government, and corporate sponsorships). So the authentic core ceases to have salience; in the end, all spectacles “look the same”. Holy Shit. The cool part was his analysis of how NASCAR is trying to maintain itself since its precipitous decline in attendance and revenues since 2007 (between 40 and 60% drop offs from track to track). But I’ll let you wait for the paper to be published for that part. Holy cow this one blew my mind.

—Dan Krier, Iowa State University [He also wrote a cool book on Enron and “speculative management.”]

6. Alienation, anomie, and the protestant ethic remain the defining characteristics of modern society. Modern society is a self-justifying and self-reproducing “force field” within which those three characteristics are reproduced and intensified from generation to generation, which makes them feel like they are intrinsic to our identities and thereby renders it painful to interrogate and criticize them, to see them for what they are.

—Harry F. Dahms, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

7. In a presentation on the rather sudden decline (yes I said decline) of the popularity of the Tea Party over the past year (according to 18 months of poll data), there was an intense (and rather humorous) discussion of the emotional and symbolic dynamics between tea party membership and adherence to tea party ideologies. There was some obvious discussion of its roots in right-wing populism and proto-fascism, but what really caught my attention were two observations: the obsession with death and violence in tea party rhetoric as a kind of necrophilia (Fromm), and the drawing out of that an explanation of necrophilia (an obsession with death and violence) as emerging out of moments or contexts where self-realization is no longer possible or is thwarted in some way. Second, a reference to Nietzsche’s ressentiment, which means not a mere resentment of those with power over you, but a hatred of that which you yourself desire as a way to explain the self-defeating politics of the populist right.

—Lauren Langman, Loyala University (Chicago)

8. The liberal imagination or liberal consciousness is undertheorized and studied. He proposed that there is a projectability to the liberal imagination that renders liberals incapable of fully groking (verstehen, in the Weberian sense) radically opposed world views. The liberal imagination tends to explain away radical opposition as a temporary effect of an emotional event, or as someone who simply doesn’t have all the facts. So the liberal is in some ways hamstrung from the beginning in a conversation with ideological opponents, because the liberal believes that there is an underlying rationality or consensus that isn’t really there.

—David Smith, University of Kansas

Teaching Religious Studies 14 October 2009

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I am teaching a bit out of my expertise this semester a course on the interaction of religion and politics in the United States. I expected conflict with believers in the course, but was unprepared for resistance from non-believers (I don’t really know why; probably because personally I come from a religious upbringing). Several of my students are frustrated with the course because we are not criticizing or evaluating or judging the beliefs and practices of the religions we are studying. I have chosen to focus the class on a social scientific course until the last couple weeks of the semester, so I have been trying to get them to understand how adherence to a religion occurs, the kinds of experiences that it produces, and then how they act in the public sphere as a result. But the frustration of about a quarter of the students is mounting, so I felt I needed to address it directly. This is a letter I sent to them in preparation for a discussion I hope to have in class next week; writing the letter forced me to think carefully about my approach and the problematics of religious studies in general, so I thought it would be worth posting to the blog.

Several of you have come to talk to me in my office, and I’ve received a couple emails about the class, and yesterday [student] bravely raised objections publicly in class.  It feels like it’s time to revisit the purpose and method of the academic study of religion and what exactly our project is in our study of how religion and politics interact in American culture. What follows is a high-level, meta-theoretical discussion; but my experience with you as a class over the past month and a half tells me that you are capable of having this conversation, if you put in a little time to work at it.


To begin, as I’ve noted in class, there are two extreme positions possible in the academic study of religion, both of which impede our ability to study and understand a human phenomenon. On one hand, believers tend to think both that there is an exterior spiritual reality and that their version of that supernature reality is the Right One and that it is True. This leads to two problems: a) believers tend to start evaluating or judging other religious beliefs and people based on their own beliefs; and b) they tend to be incapable of social-scientific analysis because they refuse to see the social, interactional origins of religion. On the other hand, non-believers have risks of their own in the social scientific study of religion, because they begin with the assumption that religious truth claims are false and therefore religion is not in itself worthy of study. This leads to a significant analytic problem: non-believers tend to get so caught up in refuting the truth claims religions make that they render themselves incapable of a detached, social scientific study of the beliefs or the people who believe them.


I feel like there are some fundamental misunderstandings going on for some of you. To clarify and address these, let me reiterate the assumptions of the social scientific study of religion:

1) Religion is a social practice, that is, it’s something that people *do*. Religion is, then, actually analogous to “politics”, “education”, “art”, etc. Each of these human practices, however, has particular characteristics that make it different from the others; these different characteristics can be both how people *do* them (their behavior), what people *believe* about them (their minds), and what people *feel* about them (their experience). To be clear, both “art” and “religion” are social practices, but they have different characteristics that push us to put them in different categories and study them separately.

2) Therefore, contrary to religious belief, the “sacred” is made by people; that is, it’s an emergent property of human interaction, a creation of human interaction and experience. The “sacred” is *not* an empirical object, thing, person, or phenomenon of any kind; nor is the “sacred” in any way exterior or beyond or different from the human minds and bodies that make it.  In this way, the “sacred” is similar to “democracy”; it is something people make and do. But as I noted above, it is also different from other kinds of social constructions, namely because it creates a different kind of mental state, which is empirically observable and measurable by neurologists and cognitive scientists. So the “sacred” is made and created by humans through their interaction with each other and the enviornment, and it produces a particular kind of mental experience. To say this differently, to study the sacred is to study how people make the sacred; to call something sacred is to name a particular, social, human practice. Saying that you can’t call human religious behavior “sacred” because it isn’t real or true is like saying that I can’t call a sculpture or a painting “art” because art is a social construction and not real or true outside of its cultural/social context.

3) There is a fundamental, eminently important, and huge distinction to be made between, on one side, the scientifically verifiable fact (what Durkheim calls a “social fact”) that human beings create religions and have religious experiences (i.e., they make the “Sacred” and experience it); and on the other side, the claims that believers make that their religion is True, and that their experience of the sacred is Real. Those are NOT the same thing.

This bears repeating: The social fact that humans create the “sacred” through social interaction is empirically true; whether or not the truth claims made by religion are true is a completely different question.


So what is the goal of a religious studies course? What is the purpose of studying religion social-scientifically? And what exactly is the object of study?

To be honest, this depends on the approach that you’re taking. For example:

a) A biologists would be concerned with evaluating the truth claims of a particular religion regarding the origins of life. That is, a biologist would be comparing the evidence available with the claims made by a religion to see if they have scientific value.

b) A humanist might study the aesthetic or philosophical value of the beliefs and practices of a religion. Are they beautiful? Are they philosophically worthwhile? Are their beliefs “true”, useful, human?

c) A social scientist would be interested in religion as a social phenomenon, as an aspect of human behavior and belief systems arising out of their interaction in and with the world.

Each of those three examples have their own advantages and disadvantages. I’m clearly a sociologist, so I’ve been framing the class in that historical/social scientific mode. But there are problems in doing so. For example, if you have a particular political value and it is contradicted by the religious actions of the people we are studying, it could feel really unsatisfying to be focused on the question of how and why they are doing what they are doing, when you want to evaluate and refute their beliefs.


Ethics and responsibilities. In social science method, there is often a discussion about what if any ethical responsibility you have to the people you are studying. Are you obligated, for example, to leave their beliefs unexamined? Is examination, evaluation, and criticism of their beliefs and practices unethical or harmful to them? But this also bleeds into other problems; If you are engaged in criticizing a people’s beliefs, are you capable of actually studying them, of fully understanding them at all? On the other hand, are there situations when a people’s beliefs or practices ethically require you to judge and refute them?

Social-Scientific Relativism: Methodologically speaking, researchers/students must acknowledge and be aware of their own values and world views, these must be brought into consciousness and addressed, or it will inevitably distort the results of your study. That is, researchers are ethnocentric, and at the base level, they must confront and, as much as is possible, lay aside their own values in order to understand people who are different from them. This should be reinforced by colleagues and experts who can often point out our biases when we are blind to them. It is, as all things are, a social process that moves toward an end-in-view that we never fully get to. But it is a worthwhile and fruitful goal to work toward.

How do you study people you don’t like or who you think are full of shit? That is really the fundamental question for some of us in this class, myself included. In the next section of the course, you see that we will be studying people who are actively involved in the political sphere attempting to keep me and people like me from full and equal participation in the American democracy. In many ways, they are my political enemies. This goes well beyond whether or not I believe in the supernatural. So the question remains: How do you study people you don’t like or who are enemies? And further, is it even worthwhile to do so?  To say this yet another way, is there any value to a detached, social-scientific approach to studying religion that we find abhorrent, wrong, or evil?


For next week: Please come to class prepared to discuss the following questions.

a) what exactly is the object of study in a class on religion and politics in America? What should be our object of study?

b) how can you maintain the distinction between social fact of religion and the truth claims that religions make?

c) what is the goal of our study? why are we even engaged in this project in this course?

d) what, if any, ethical obligations do we have to the people we are studying?