Live from Erfurt, It’s the XXI Quinquennial Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions!

One sure thing about traveling is it reminds you how small everything is.

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in the cafeteria at the University of Erfurt.  Yesterday I presented two papers for the XXI Quinquennial Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions.  Two papers in the same panel.  A few of us have jokingly taken to calling it the ‘Ethan panel,’ which I only partly find to be a bit arrogant.

Here are the abstracts for our panel, titled Current Perspective on Atheism.  We were quite fortunate to have Johannes Quack chair for us, and the discussion he both organised, and participated in, made the whole thing that much better for everyone.  Unfortunately, however, Stephen LeDrew was unable to attend, which was very disappointing, but we made do without him.  Likewise, the presentation by Ingela Visuri was quite interesting, and was probably the first time I’ve seen a presentation on the Cognitive approach to the study of religion that didn’t make me angry.

Ethan Quillen

Doing Away With Theoretical Abstractions: A Discursive Analysis of the Definition of Atheism and Critical Analysis of the Positive vs. Negative Paradigm

In recent years the study of Atheism has grown in popularity, leading to both positive and negative results. On one end, this has engendered a polyvocal and polyfocal discourse, garnering perspectives from a number of different methodological and theoretical approaches so as to develop a truly multi-disciplinary understanding about how Atheism is defined and how Atheists define themselves. On the other, this myriad of voices has led to an ever-broadening discordancy, an equivocal discourse that makes it all the more difficult to state with any sort of certainty what Atheism is or how Atheists define themselves. The latter issue is the result of a theoretical abstraction, a scholar-based attempt at theorizing a universal interpretation about Atheism that might pragmatically generalize the concept. Offering an analysis of this discourse, this paper will endorse a move away from such generalizations, offering instead a means with which to approach this subject more objectively.

Ingela Visuri

Autism, theism and atheism

The study of autism and religion has been neglected until recently, perhaps due to the (false) notion that all individuals on the autism spectrum would be atheists. Interest has however begun growing rapidly, and autism is foremost studied from cognitive perspectives on religion. This paper is a critique of publications aiming at establishing autism as a case of atheism, arguing that these are based on a simplified view on both autism and religion. Research rather needs to acknowledge that theistic belief and unbelief are likely the result of complex psychological and sociocultural processes. Thus, methods and approaches need rethinking in order to explore autism and religion in depth.

Stephen LeDrew

Atheism as a Secular Religion

This paper explores the question of whether the New Atheism and the groups and organizations associated with it could be understood as a kind of secular religion. The New Atheism is not only an aggressive critique of theism, but itself a belief system that promotes scientism and evolutionism as a conceptual structure that provides meaning and coherence to experience through a teleological narrative of human origins and social progress. Atheist organizations, meanwhile, provide community and transcendence through collective practice and rituals that establish the sacred authority of science. These substantive and functional aspects of religion in the New Atheism will be analyzed with reference to Auguste Comte’s Religion of Humanity, which the New Atheism mirrors in many respects. While typically understood as an intellectual or cultural movement, this paper argues that our understanding of contemporary atheism is enhanced by sociological and historical perspectives on the study of religion.

Ethan Quillen

Fictionalized Identity: Narrative Representations of Atheism as Ethnographic Source

For a number of reasons—a shortage of developed ethnography, a discordant discourse on defining the term, and a lack of group organization—Atheism as an identity is a precarious concept, and is thus difficult to ‘define’ with any sort of certainty. Likewise, and as if to remedy this issue, the predominant means of studying Atheism seems to be mired in sociological examinations. The intent of this paper is to offer a more qualitative, yet also experimental, approach. By adopting the language that underscores the methodology of Discourse Analysis, and coupling it with narrative and textual scrutiny, this paper will look at how Atheist identity construction is made available via three artistic—aesthetic—media: a novel, a film, and a painting. Presented as an introduction, this process will further support the idea that perhaps it is through the experimental where we might make better sense of certain precarious religious concepts.

Here’s also a link to our panel on the IAHR program site:

What I mean by the smallness of things is that not only does traveling remind you that there are intricate parts of the world with vast histories that you might not have known about, you’re sudden knowledge of them equally reminds you just how little you might know about the world.

Presenting here yesterday felt very much like this.

Once again I found myself amongst equally interested colleagues whose passion and perspectives on the subjects that I have chosen to focus my own research proved truly inspiring.  Hearing about their different approaches to the study of Atheism and learning about how they have focused their own research was a wonderful reminder of just how diverse and intricate this field is becoming.

For example, at the end of the panel I was asked whether or not I felt that my discursive approach might become problematic, in that as it avoids the notion that there might be a universal definition of Atheism under which our different research approaches might be categorised, it also produces a number of voices saying a number of different things.

I responded that I did not feel that way.

The study of Atheism is new, and as such I think it’s extremely similar to the early days of the study of religion, so that these sorts of conversations, of different perspectives and different approaches coming together, become not just a useful discourse, but a necessary one as well.  In this way, rather than competing, the discourse(s) that we are constructing now represents the ideal beginning, and our panel yesterday was the perfect example of just that.

One final note.

When we all registered for the conference we were given name tags on lanyards that we were told we must wear at all times.  Humorously (or perhaps even appropriately) these name tags refuse to face the right direction.  At a conference on a subject where the notion of identity is usually always a major talking point, the irony of our collective hidden identities is too enjoyable not to mention.

Nothing is Real, and Nothing To Get Hung About

In 1985, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Southern California purchased a Greek sculpture, a Kouros, for nine million dollars.  One of only twelve complete kouroi, the statue drew great attention when it was first exhibited, not just because it appeared to be an almost perfect example of an Archaic Greek depiction of a young man ‘coming of age,’ but because it was almost immediately deemed an almost perfect example of a forgery.

kouros 1 kouros 2

The story of the statue’s ‘realness’ is something of myth, to the point that Malcolm Gladwell used it to begin his book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking.  In his re-telling, though the Getty had made its final decision based on certain scientific proofs, a number of art experts soon found themselves unable to accept the piece as genuine.  ‘Something just doesn’t feel right,’ seemed the reason of choice.

Now on display at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, the description of the statue, both in the museum and online, reads:

Title: Kouros
Artist/Maker(s): Unknown
Culture: Greek
Place(s): Greece (?) (Place created)
Date: about 530 B.C. or modern forgery

There are two renowned museums of fake art in Europe:

The Fälschermuseum, in Vienna, Austria.

The Museo Del Falso at the University of Salerno’s Center for the Study of Forgery

While the former, a privately owned collection exhibiting a number of famously forged pieces of ‘priceless’ art, the latter has received a great deal of attention in the art world for the last thirty years, such as by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Smithsonian.

Both museums specialize in the forged, the fake, and the ‘not-real,’ taking pride not only in presenting falsified copies of great masterpieces, but shedding light on the notion that the leading difference between a real or genuine piece of art and its fake counterpart is nothing more than an artist’s first-hand influence on the former.

In 1983, and after a bidding war between the German magazine Stern, the UK’s Sunday Times, and the American magazine Newsweek, the Hitler Diaries, the personal account of Adolf Hitler during the war, were purchased by Stern for 3.7 millions dollars.  The diaries were quickly revealed by a number of historians to be forgeries, manufactured by the notorious forger, Konrad Kujau.

Arrested and tried alongside his accomplice, Kujau served four years in prison for the forgery, and upon his release opened a gallery of forged artwork.

Remarking in the Sunday Times that the Hitler Diary affair represented more an example of the media’s concern over a story, rather than its authenticity, Brian McArthur stated:

the discovery of the Hitler diaries offered so tempting a scoop that we all wanted to believe they were genuine. Once hoist with a deal, moreover, we had to go on believing in their authenticity until they were convincingly demonstrated as forgeries.

Discovered by four children in 1940, the Lascaux Cave offers us a snapshot of Upper Palaeolithic artwork, painted onto the walls and ceiling some 17,000 years ago.  These images tell us a great deal, not only about the people who left them, but about what they viewed as ‘sacred,’ and thus worthy of artistic depiction.  In other words, these images tell us a part of their story.

lascaux 1lascaux 2lascaux 3


Until 1963, visitors to the cave could see the images in person.  Now, the cave is sealed off in order to protect it from damage caused by carbon dioxide.

Instead, when you visit the site now, and for a small fee, you may enter Lascaux II, an identical reproduction of the Lascaux cave paintings, wherein the art on the ceiling and walls has been authentically re-made using the same techniques, pigments, and style.

A few months ago, the hit AMC television series Mad Men concluded with its final episode on 17 May 2015.

Following the exploits of Dick Whitman as he struggles to maintain the fictionalised life he stole from his superior officer, Don Draper, during the Korean War, the show was notably lauded for its quite authentic depiction of 1960s Manhattan.  The offices, cars, homes, wardrobes, vernacular, and even cigarettes used for the show made the realism of its plot seem all that more genuine.  In fact, for its authentic depiction, Mad Men won four Excellence in Production Design awards from the Art Directors Guild, the award for Outstanding Costume Design from the Costume Designers Guild of America, and five Creative Arts Emmy Awards for Art Direction and Hairstyling.

After its final episode, most of the production materials went up for bid on the online auction site Screenbid.  For a fee, an audience member could bid on, and if successful, eventually own a genuine piece of Mad Men history, such as Don’s 1965 Cadillac Coupe DeVille (which sold for $39,500), or Lane Pryce’s broken glasses, that Lane broke just before hanging himself in his office in the Season Five episode, “Commission and Fees” (which sold for $350.00).

Each of the examples listed above demonstrate something that isn’t ‘authentic.’  Yet, each of these things equally represent something made authentic, or if nothing else, made more ‘real’ by our giving them meaning in a manner perhaps completely different to their original status.

The kouros, though perhaps a forgery, is made all the more meaningful because it might be fake.

The two museums of fakes are interesting because we are drawn to false artistry, as well as forgery, just as much as we are drawn to the genuine article.  (Is not the ability to re-create a masterpiece not a masterpiece in itself?)

The falsified Hitler Diaries drew three news publications, bound by journalistic integrity, to outbid each other over a textual depiction that was almost immediately deemed a rather poor forgery, because they were so historically sexy.

In order to preserve the artwork of the Lascaux Cave, a re-construction was created nearby in order to ensure that people have the opportunity to witness and experience the artwork of their long-distant relatives without causing irreparable and irreversible damage.  (What is the difference between Lascaux I and Lascaux II, given the care and detail put into that re-creation, other than a short distance of time?)

The offering of manufactured historical items, made sacred by the artistry of a television program, has impelled people to bid and own items that, were it not for the fact that they were consecrated by fictionalised individuals with whom we empathetically came to associate in our quest for entertainment, would be lost amidst other relics strewn about antique shops.

Though each of these things are both real and fake, authentic and inauthentic, they are also examples of the way we impute meaning onto things, and thus transform them from one medium to another, from mere trinket to meaningful artefact.

As a personal example, I had a discussion with a friend recently about this very same sort of transmutation, based on nothing more meaningful than my keeping a receipt for a meaningless purchase on a day that meant something to me.

“What’s funny,” I said to my friend who asked why I’d keep something as simple as a receipt, “is that when I’m dead and gone, and someone finds this, the meaning that I’ve given to it will cease to exist.  It will return to being a simple piece of paper with some printing on it and a date.  The sacredness that I’ve given to it, unless adopted by someone else, will no longer be there.  It will simply go back to being a piece of paper.”

I suppose, in many ways, that’s very true about the artefacts that we study in our quest to understand ‘religion.’  These sorts of items, though meaningless to us, have a sacred authenticity to our subjects.  Though they might not seem ‘real’ to us, their ‘realness’ is validated by the mere fact that the individuals we study see them as such.

Of course, this is made all the more interesting when we consider that just as they find sacrality in these sorts of objects, so do we, by our shifting them from items of meaning to our subjects, to items of significance worthy of our study in the first place.

As a final conclusion, I will end here with my own sacred item, a clip from the film Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Here, our hero sits down with his adversary and nemesis, Belloq, who shares with him his theory that as archaeologists they are bound to objects of significance, to the point of killing each other, an irony that he justifies by referring to the worthlessness of a pocket watch made priceless by the passing of time.

(It’s also, according to the clip I’ve provided here, the longest single shot in the film)


As Belloq further points out, much of what we determine as ‘real’ and ‘authentic,’ and thus ‘sacred,’ is given meaning by our determining them as such, which also means that the sense we have of ‘sacred objects’ is the result of some sort of fictionalisation.  Whether that then determines everything that we hold sacred, from sculpture and art, to religious artefacts, as ‘worthless’ when it is without our intervention, is perhaps entirely up to interpretation.

Language Games

My French is rather terrible, regardless of the courses I’ve taken at the amazing L’Institut Catholique de Paris.

This has not, of course, dissuaded me from trying to speak it whenever I’m in Paris.

Last week was one example.  It had been a year or so since I was last there, and thus since I last tried to speak French, which, in all honesty, is limited to ordering drinks at cafes.

Because I was taking a taxi to my hotel, I practiced three or four times, in my head, how to say: “13 Rue Des Beaux Arts.”  I made sure to pronounce ’13’ as ‘treize,’ and that I properly pronounced the ‘liaison’ between the ‘z’ sounding ‘x’ in ‘Beaux’ and the ‘a’ in ‘Arts:’ “boze-art.’  Also, I reminded myself not to pronounce the ‘t’ or the ‘s’ in ‘Arts:’ “boze-arr.”  Likewise, I reminded myself that the ‘r’ in ‘Rue’ had a simple ‘roll’ to it, like clearing my throat, while also lifting my bottom jaw: “rrrooo.”

When I approached the taxi driver, readily prepared, I completely fumbled it.  I said something like, “roo da boze-arts,” with an emphasis on the ‘t’ and ‘s.’  He looked at me oddly, to which I simply said the address in english.  He smiled, said it back to me in perfect French, and we were off.

On the way to the hotel, with that sweet smell of wet earth coming in the open windows, I started thinking of the language game we had just played.  Perhaps not exactly like what Wittgenstein meant in his section of Philosophical Investigations, but something at least related to it.

That is, where Wittgenstein’s philosophical theory of the ‘language game’ posits the notion that the meaning of a word should be achieved via a complex understanding of the similarities that ‘overlap’ and ‘criss-cross’ the uses of that word, and thus the ‘family resemblances’ that these similarities inspire, my interests were more connected to the idea that one of the meanings of a ‘language game’ is a type of ‘play-acting,’ a ‘dramaturgical’ back-and-forth between two players.

In his The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (1959), Erving Goffman refers to this dramatical ‘vis-a-vis’ as a ‘presentation’ of one’s self.  Relating this to the pragmatic manner in which an actor will construct his or her fictional identity as a character within a dramatical recreation of an imaginary (yet, similarly no less ‘real’) person, this equally means that when we present our identities, we are just as fictionally constructing the type of identity that we wish to be seen (and validated) by others.  In this same way, we may find ourselves ‘switching’ or ‘altering’ our self-characterizations in order to fit within differing contexts.

My interaction with the taxi driver was no different.  In my hope that he would recognise this as a return trip, and not my first experience in Paris, I practiced my lines before presenting the ‘Ethan’ that I wanted him to see.  I had, in this way, constructed a particular identity, a character within our little drama, that was both the real ‘me,’ as well as a ‘fabricated’ one designed for a specific reason, that I then ‘performed’ as if on stage.

I might argue, then, that this occurs constantly, a continuous identity alteration, from context to context and indefinite in its usage.  My horrific misuse of the taxi driver’s own language was an isolated example, a tableau of the dramatical construction between two selves presenting their identities for validation, and thus embodying a type of definitional interaction.

Which got me thinking.  If I designed myself in order to present an identity that I wanted both validated and defined by an other, wouldn’t that ‘other’ be presenting itself to me as well?  Did the taxi driver construct his own presentational self for me to recognise and validate?  What was the ‘self’ that he wanted me to see?

As I was thinking this, he quite timely turned down the French pop-music and tilted his head back.

“Are you American?” he asked with a heavy accent.

“Oui,” I responded.

“Ah, George Bush.  I no like ‘im.”

It’s the Little Differences

I’ve not eaten at a McDonalds in at least ten years.

Moreover, I’ve not eaten ‘fast food’ in nearly over four years.

have eaten french fries with mayonnaise in Holland, and enjoyed a beer at a movie theatre in Amsterdam.

For four years, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of experiencing a number of things that I might once have thought odd: a heavy lamb soup (kjotsupa) at a gas station in Vik, Iceland; the last seafood risotto at a fundraiser in Venice for a 500 year old church; deep-fried baby octopus during Semana Santa in Malaga, Spain; Trdelník beneath the Charles Bridge in Prague; reindeer sausages at an outdoor stall in Bergen, Norway; currywurst served to us from an old Vietnamese woman at Check Point Charlie in Berlin; a steak dinner with an Israeli Rosé and a Palestinian Red on the roof of a hotel owned by the Catholic Church in Jerusalem; a number of ales in Damme, Belgium; hands down the most delicious chicken in the world in Geneva, Switzerland; and, on an umber of occasions, the mythical Scottish delicacy, haggis.

These have each been memorable experiences, partly because they stood out as ‘different.’  In reality, though, I might argue that these differences were actually rather small.

In fact, most of the things I’ve eaten around Europe and beyond are not all that different from the experimental foods I’ve enjoyed back in the States.  Granted there are differences here, because each and every context provides a new perspective, new ingredients, language, people, culture, etc., but there are also differences between the things that are alike.

For example, bar-b-que in Texas is quite different from the grilling one does in California.  Likewise, Tex-Mex in Texas is an embarrassment to the Mexican food you can get at any of the ‘fast-food’ stops in Southern California.

So while there are differences, there are great similarities as well.

A week or so ago, word got around that the UK Home Office, via the home Secretary, Theresa May, would soon be implementing a number of changes concerning the Tier 4 student visa a ‘foreign’ individual (non-European Economic Area) needs to acquire in order to attend university here.  While this is directed more at individuals attending publicly funded further education colleges, rather than Universities such as The University of Edinburgh, these changes still affect a number of us presently ‘living abroad.’

These changes include:

  • stop new students at publicly funded colleges from working, bringing them in line with those at private colleges (from August)
  • allow university students to study a new course at the same level but only where there’s a link to their previous course or the university confirms that this supports their career aspirations. There will be credibility interviews and sanctions against universities who abuse this rule (from August)
  • ban college students from extending their Tier 4 visas in the UK unless they are studying at an ‘embedded college’, one which has a formal, direct link to a university that is recognised by the Home Office. This will require them to leave and apply for a new visa from outside the UK if they wish to study another course (from November)
  • ban college students from being able to switch visas to Tiers 2 or 5 in the UK, and require them to apply from outside the UK (from November)
  • reduce the time limit for study at further education level from 3 years to 2 years. This brings the maximum period into line with the length of time British students generally spend in further education (from November)
  • stop Tier 4 dependants from taking a low or unskilled job, but allow them to take part-time or full-time skilled work (from the autumn)

This list was copied verbatim from the UK Government’s webpage here, and more details can be found here.

Again, while this does not immediately affect each foreign student currently studying, or who might come to the UK to study in the future, and though it seems aimed at a quite particular group of individuals not studying at an ’embedded college’ with direct links to a University recognised as such by the Home Office, the adverse effects of these changes can still be felt throughout the foreign student discourse.

For example, a friend of mine (and fellow American abroad), recently shared this Guardian article wherein the author, Adam Trettel, shared these exact feelings.  As he states at the beginning:

As an American student with a degree from an Ivy League university, on a PhD course at a Russell Group university, I can say that it feels like the Home Office also wants to niggle with me just enough to remind me that I am not really (quite) welcome in this country.  

Trettel further remarks that these changes signal an imputation of sorts, an expression of antagonism or animosity on the part of the UK Government:

There are, in fact, already a number of measures in place that make it clear to students like myself that we are actually imposters. Potential parasites on the British state. Slick little devils likely to game the system. Aliens.

As he likewise states later:

“Better make sure”. “Can never be too careful”. “Be safe”. “You never know…” More and more I am beginning to think that soporific banalities like these are the real bedrock of UK immigration policy. It is either that, or it is bean-counting dressed up as an intelligent response to a real emergency.

While I have indeed shared some of his frustration, such as the repeated in-person confirmations of my existence here, I’ve sadly (or fortuitously, depending on one’s opinion) not experienced most of the others.  This does not mean, of course, that I can’t empathise with him.  Nor that his feelings are somehow invalid.

Rather, what strikes me most about Trettel’s perspective on this is his sense of ‘not feeling welcome’ here, a feeling one derives not only from the title of his piece, but from his conclusive statement:

Such meddling undermines the mental wellbeing of young persons and mocks the vocation of people who came to this country to use its libraries and laboratories, and to learn.

Underscoring his own discourse is a missing sense of community, of feeling ‘alien’ or ‘different.’

In 1983, and in reference to a loss of cultural identity resulting from what he called ‘print capitalism,’ Benedict Anderson coined the useful theory of Imagined Communities.  To briefly summarise this idea, Anderson posited the notion that when books began to circulate in a ‘common language,’ and thus inaugurating a ‘common discourse,’ unique and geographically specific language usage soon lost its supremacy.  As such, the sense one had of his or her ‘community’ soon became based on an ‘imagined’ notion, the idea that we are bound to a group of like-minded individuals that we will, in actuality, never see.  That is, while we might believe that we exist within a community based on particular political boundaries (what Said calls ‘Imagined Geographies‘), we are, in fact, merely imagining ourselves within that community.  This does not, it should be mentioned, mean that these communities are ‘false.’

As Anderson himself states:

[…] communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.

(Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 6).

Rather, they become something like the product of a pragmatic fiction, the creation of an ideology designed to establish a sense of ‘we’ or ‘us.’

Here is where I think Trettel’s sense of ‘unwelcomeness’ arises.  Likewise, this also inspires a self-reflective notion of my own communal self.

As a ‘foreign’ student here, I’ve found myself within an odd sort of imagined community.  I have my ‘equals,’ those with whom I might empathise more than others, such as Trettel and my fellow PhD candidates from the United States.  Yet, I also have an imagined community of fellow PhD candidates who might not be from the US, but with whom I can relate on a number of similarities.

Also, having been here for four years, there are ways in which I might more closely find myself relating to a person from Scotland, now that I have adopted certain traits and cultural identifiers.  Does this mean I have become, in imagined ways, ‘Scottish?’

This also brings to mind the notion of identity construction and ‘identity types’ established by Burger and Luckmann in 1966:

[…] one may assert that an American has a different identity than a Frenchman, a New Yorker than a Midwesterner, an executive than a hobo, and so forth. As we have seen, orientation and conduct in everyday life depend upon such typifications.  This means that identity types can be observed in everyday life and that assertions like the ones above can be verified – or refuted – by ordinary men endowed with common sense.  The American who doubts that the French are different can go to France and find out for himself.

(Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, 194).

Based on this, then, I might further conclude that my identity status over the last four years has been one of a ‘flying dutchman,’ a ship adrift without an established port-of-call, a liminal stage further crystallised by my being a ‘candidate’ throughout that time.

It isn’t difficult, then, to perceive of this poly-identity as engendering a crisis of sorts, a sense of ‘not-belonging,’ made all the more obvious by discursive influences, such as the Home Office’s recent visa changes.

These sorts of things definitely infect the discourse of a number of imagined communities, in a number of ways, evinced by the fact that ‘foreign students’ now feel unwelcome, even when these changes do not affect them.

Said otherwise, it’s little differences like these that make big waves.

The title and cover photo of this post are inspired by the scene below, which might require viewing for some.

For the most accurate references, skip ahead to the 0:40 mark.