Texas is huge. Of all the stereotypes, that is perhaps the most accurate. Actually, that’s not quite true. They’re all pretty accurate, depending on who you talk to, where you talk to them, what you talk about, and the current political climate, both in the US and worldwide.
I was asked recently, as I am often asked, how I ended up in Scotland. To answer that question I needed to first tell the story about Texas, or at least about my time in Texas. Without that story, the other one seems less fulfilled, less complete.
We ended up in Texas because my parents retired there, like many other people fleeing California’s waning economy, and we were curious why they would make such a horrible mistake. We flew to Austin one weekend and found ourselves loving the city. It was different, and ‘weird,’ and seemed like a fun change of venue from the California we had grown up in. I ended up at Baylor by writing an email to the then chair of the American Studies program requesting information about their Master’s program. He returned an email a few days later stating that he liked my interests and that, if I wished, I could begin in September.
The master’s program at Baylor, at least for the American Studies department, is equivalent to a ‘taught masters’ in the UK. Along with a short dissertation submitted for an oral defence in the Spring of your second year, you also take a number of required courses (up to a specific number of units, in specific areas). I attended lectures on American history and, most importantly, on Church-State relations. These latter courses were quite intriguing. I had not really familiarised myself at this point with the mysteries of Civil Religion, how the Supreme Court’s decisions shaped a particular discursive means of defining American religion, the role the President played in shaping that discourse, and how this all contributed to a larger sense of religion in the American context.
I finished that first degree in one year, and was asked if I might consider joining the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church State studies for a PhD. I quite excitedly agreed.
One of the main reasons I was asked to join their department was due to my interests in Atheism, a 1/3 aspect to the topic of my dissertation (the other two parts being Fundamentalism and New Religious Movements). Likewise, because I was a foreigner (not Texan), and because I was, for whatever reason, not shy about diving right into controversial subject matters, I was asked to be the ‘Devil’s Advocate‘ during seminars, the voice of opposition meant to challenge the opinions of the others involved. I was, of course, not always the only person in the room who disagreed with everyone else, but on the occasions that it did occur, it was quite fun. Additionally, I found that the other post-graduate students in the department were wonderful debaters, and our conversations and camaraderie is something I will cherish for all time. Eventually, however, the fun came to an end, and while my eventual demise at Baylor is it’s own story that will likely appear in here one day, it’s not something worth focusing on at this moment. For summary purposes, I’ll just say that I was not permitted to complete the doctorate. When I asked whether I might write up another dissertation and receive a second Master’s degree, permission was granted and so I did.
The tacos were terrible. I was told I wouldn’t be permitted to finish the PhD at a terrible Tex-Mex restaurant in a terrible part of Waco, Texas. Which is a terrible city. It was rumoured for some time that the department would be undergoing some changes, and this confirmed much that I had assumed would happen. It was refreshing in a way, finally knowing the truth. Equally, it gave me the opportunity to make decisions, to plan accordingly with full knowledge about my future. In all honesty, I had no idea what to do next. The terrible tacos add a sensory addition to this memory, a feeling of nausea and uncertainty that would not have made it as meaningful were it not for how bad they were.
I drove back to Austin (we would not have lived in Waco) and started thinking about options. I contacted a previous supervisor who made the ridiculous suggestion that I look at Universities in the UK. I had never thought of that. Moving to Texas was a big move. Moving to ‘Europe’ was even bigger. Where would we live? How would we live? How could we afford it? How different would our lives be? Would we return the same people who left? Would we return at all?
I applied and accepted an offer to the University of Edinburgh.
My topic would be Atheism. This was, in all honesty, a bit of a mistake. Then again, so was religious studies. I wanted to study Art History. Religious Studies happened because I took a class I really enjoyed and read Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions. It was like a novel, about real people, in real places, in real time, being religious. Then I got involved with some Ninian Smart phenomenologists and the deal was sealed.
The Atheism thing only happened because it was what I was studying at Baylor, and I felt just moving on from there would be easy. I wasn’t entirely correct. However, it did lead me into the world of Atheist and, dare I say, ‘non-religious’ studies. Which then led me to fiction, and a sort of return to my original plan: using aesthetic media (art, fiction, film) as a discursive source of Atheist identity construction. I’ll get into more detail about ‘Ethnographic Criticism’ in a few weeks.
This also led me to become a part of the discursive world in Britain on the study of Atheism/non-religion. This included conference presentations, roundtables, and blog writing. For example, for a while now I’ve been struggling to write a post for the Non Religion and Secularity Research Network’s blog, not because I didn’t know what to write, but because I was unsure about how to write it. Mostly, because of my criticism about the term, I didn’t want to take the opportunity they were offering me to exact some sort of ill-determined attack on them. Not only did that seem pointless, but petty. It all has something to do with the bizarre ownership I think we all feel about our subjects.
Instead, I took the opportunity to write about my own approach, about the way I have used to the term ‘Atheism,’ and how I might use my ‘Ethnographic Criticism.’
I don’t like definitions. In my experiences studying religion and Atheism I’ve come to dislike definitions. This is not some sort of post-modernist idea that nothing is defined or, even worse, that everything is fiction. Rather, my dislike of definitions stems from the inevitable and troubling notion that we need to define the terms and concepts we use in a general or abstract way. This is what I mean by ‘definitions.’
In my post for the NSRN I tried to explain this a bit more. In fact, the post itself is a miniaturised version of my Thesis, which is itself a culmination of my research at Baylor and the subsequent interests I have been studying here in Edinburgh. Within it I can trace the roots back to the origins of my interests all those years ago, and my writing it, as well as their posting it, seems like a sort of sub-Chapter break in my own story about Atheism.
For this, and other reasons, I implore those interested to not only read my post, but the others there as well. They are, I believe, not only an excellent source of the particular discourse we have created with our individual approaches, but are equally stories linked back to origins just as fictional as my own.
The blog in general: http://blog.nsrn.net