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: http://www.iahr2015.org/iahr/2992.html


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.

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

  1. Pingback: Vanilla English | everything is fiction

  2. Pingback: In Praise of Polyvocality: An Early Preview | everything is fiction

  3. Pingback: Everything is Fiction: A Discursive Year in Review | everything is fiction

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