Live from Cambridge, its Ways of Knowing: The 4th Annual Graduate Conference on Religion at Harvard Divinity School!

As I’m typing this, I’m sitting in the Braun Room at Harvard University’s School of Divinity.  It’s Saturday morning, the 24th of October.  Later this afternoon I will be presenting one of my post-thesis research projects in a paper titled, “An Atheist Gospel: The Quest for the Fictional Jesus and the Gospel Novel as Atheist Discourse.”

Though I gave a very similar paper at the BASR annual conference last month, a few things have changed.

Firstly, I’ve shortened a bit, for the benefit of the audience.  As well, a more complete description of this project will appear next week.

Secondly, I’ve learned a few more things this week about stereotypes.

While I’ve written about stereotypes before, and though I accept that they play a very large role in ethnographic work, I was once again surprised at how my learning about a ‘foreign’ culture provided a number of challenges to the normative assumptions I had established about Harvard, Boston, and the people who occupy both.


Let’s begin with Boston.

Those of the more fictional-minded, such as myself, might have constructed some assumptions about this city via the numerous depictions over the years presented to us by artists such as Martin Scorsese, Ben Affleck, and his writing partner, Matt Damon.

In fact, let’s take these three perspectives as examples.

Scorsese’s film, The Departed, won four Academy Awards in 2007: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  In it’s opening weekend, the film earned over $25,000,000.  Worldwide, it earned roughly $290,000,000.  The plot of the film involves an insightful look into organised crime in South Boston.  Here’s a description from its IMDB page:

In South Boston, the state police force is waging war on Irish American organized crime. Young undercover cop Billy Costigan is assigned to infiltrate the mob syndicate run by gangland chief Frank Costello. While Billy quickly gains Costello’s confidence, Colin Sullivan, a hardened young criminal who has infiltrated the state police as an informer for the syndicate is rising to a position of power in the Special Investigation Unit. Each man becomes deeply consumed by their double lives, gathering information about the plans and counter-plans of the operations they have penetrated. But when it becomes clear to both the mob and the police both discover a mole in their midst, Billy and Colin are suddenly in danger of being caught and exposed to the enemy-and each must race to uncover the identity of the other man in time to save themselves. But is either willing to turn on their friends and comrades they’ve made during their long stints undercover?

As well, here’s the trailer:

With The Town (2010), directed by Ben Affleck, we get yet another insight into the crime world, this time focused on Charlestown, which, as the film tells us at the beginning, is the centre of bank and armoured car robbery not just in the United States, but in the world:

One blue-collar Boston neighbourhood has produced more bank robbers and armoured car thieves than anywhere in the world.

Here’s a description of the film, once again from its IMDB page:

The Charlestown neighborhood of Boston is renowned for churning out a high number of armed robbers, generation after generation. These robbers never leave their Charlestown life on their own volition, the neighborhood where there is an unwritten code to protect that lifestyle. Such robbers include friends Doug MacRay, James Coughlin, Albert ‘Gloansy’ Magloan and Desmond Elden. Doug and James in particular treat each other like family, as the Coughlins have realistically been as such to Doug since Doug’s mother ran off and Doug’s father, Stephen MacRay, was sent to prison. James’ single mother sister, the drugged out Krista Coughlin, and Doug have a casual sexual relationship. The foursome carry out a mostly successful bank robbery, but due to circumstances take the bank manager, Claire Keesey, hostage for a short period before releasing her physically unharmed. They find out that Claire lives in Charlestown, so they want to ensure that she did not see anything that could incriminate them if they were to ever run into her. As such, Doug begins a personal relationship with her to find out what she knows and what she’s told the police and the FBI, who have taken charge of the investigation. He learns that she has kept some information from the authorities for her own protection but information that could identify James in particular. But Doug slowly falls for her, as she does for him. Ultimately, Doug dreams about leaving his Charlestown life to be with Claire anywhere but there. But Doug has to try and keep his true identity from her, and keep the fact that he is seeing her from his colleagues. But leaving is not as easy as he would like as he and the gang are tasked with a big job by a local gangster named Fergie whether Doug likes it or not. And Adam Frawley, the FBI’s lead investigator, comes into evidence that links the foursome to the bank robbery and a subsequent armored car heist, so is on their tail for evidence that will send them away dead or alive.   

Here’s the trailer:

Lastly, Good Will Hunting, which won two Academy Awards in 1998 for Best Supporting Actor (Robin Williams) and Best Original Screenplay (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), presents a dichotomous look at the differences between the distinct world of higher education and the working class.  With this representation, not only do we get an insight into these differences, we also discover how an individual raised in one context struggles to accommodate his identity when he is placed within the other.

Here’s a description:

A janitor at MIT, Will Hunting has a gift for math and chemistry that can take him light-years beyond his blue-collar roots, but he doesn’t realize his potential and can’t even imagine leaving his childhood Boston South End neighborhood, his construction job, or his best friend. To complicate matters, several strangers enter the equation: a brilliant math professor who discovers, even envies, Will’s gifts, an empathetic shrink who identifies with Will’s blue-collar roots, and a beautiful, gifted pre-med student who shows him, for the first time in his life, the possibility of love.

Here’s the trailer:


So how do these three films play into my assumptions about Boston?

As I argued in a previous post, fictional representations, particularly in film form, can be useful data, as long as we use that data in a responsible way.  That is, we need to accept that as ‘fiction,’ these representations are the product of artifice, which also means they were designed with a specific goal in mind.  Given the three examples above, we might thus assume that the goal intended was to provide the viewer a glimpse into the class differences within Boston, that tend to shift toward organised crime.  

While this might be a valid conclusion for anyone who views these films, it’s not necessarily the case for those who actually walk the streets of the neighbourhoods represented.  Which is what has happened so far in my case.

During my week here, I’ve witnessed no crime, nor have I found myself within the context of any of these films.  However, I might also responsibly accept that my experiences have been isolated to the specific time I’ve been here, as well as to the locations within which I’ve chosen to spend that time.  Additionally, I might equally add that the reason I’ve not not witnessed the sort of events depicted in these films is because I’ve not actively looked for them.

My conclusion, then, is perhaps best made via the following thesis:

Our depictions of culture, either fictional or ethnographic, are isolated representations that, though we may emphatically defend as authentic, are unique to our own perceptions, and thus can never truly be so.  That is, even when we try to ensure that our representations honour our subjects with as much authenticity as possible, we can never truly grasp the reality of a place and its people because, no matter how hard we try, our representations are, by their inherent nature, the products of artifice.

We should keep this in mind.

After all, I came to Boston expecting The Departed, The Town, Good Will HuntingThe Boondock Saints, Gone Baby Gone, and Mystic River.  What I got was something entirely different: my own perspective.

It’s sort of like how before I came to Edinburgh, I expected Trainspotting, only to have found my assumptions both pleasantly challenged, as well as validated.

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I Know It When I See It

A few days ago, we said farewell to two American friends who are moving back to the United States after living here for two years.  To celebrate their departure, a group of us met at a local bar, where we drank heartily and, as might be expected of inebriated academics, engaged ourselves in loud and non-sensory debates about the definition(s) of religion.

At one point, I interrupted a colleague, well into his animated defence for some sort of non-normative stipulation concerning the acts and actions of the religious individual, with a rather slurred (and, so I thought, final) argument:

‘Religion’ is like pornography.  I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it! 

A day or so later, I was reminded of my impressively theoretical comparison of ‘religion’ with ‘pornography’ whilst watching an episode of Parks and Recreation.  Throughout the episode, Leslie Knope, the kind-hearted, passionate, and frighteningly meticulous protagonist of the show, finds herself defending a painting, within which a female centaur (that happens to look like her) is shown topless.  Because the painting is to be placed within City Hall, there is an almost immediate objection to the art as ‘pornography.’

Here’s an important clip from the episode:

So, aside from the fact that in my drunken brilliance I had, rather than determine an astute means of defining ‘religion,’ merely plagiarised a hilarious television show, I still think there is some value to my comparison.

Here’s what I mean.


The origin of Justice Potter Stewart’s expression, “I know it when I see it,” comes from his concurrent opinion on the 1964 Supreme Court case, Jacobellis vs. Ohio.  The case itself dealt with the conviction, and fining, of Nico Jacobellis, the manager of the Heights Art Theater in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  Jacobellis had played a film, Louis Malle‘s The Lovers, which both the Cuyahoga County Court, as well as the Supreme Court of Ohio, had found to be ‘obscene’ and ‘pornographic.’

Here’s the trailer of the film, for those curious:

While the United States Supreme Court reversed the conviction, and thus found the film, and Jacobellis’ showing it, to be protected under the First Amendment’s permission of free speech, they struggled to present a definition of ‘pornography,’ against which they could determine the obscene from its opposite, whatever that might be.

In his short concurrence, Justice Stewart tried to sum up, as simply as possible, his reasoning for the decision.

He stated:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

In a curious backstory, shared to Yale Law School librarian, Fred Shapiro, by fellow alumnus, Ray Lamontagne, Justice Stewart’s claim that he would ‘know it when he saw it,’ actually came from his clerk, Alan Novak:

You might be interested to know that the Potter Stewart quote was actually provided to him by his law clerk, Alan Novak ’55, ’63 LLB. Justice Stewart was a great justice and I do not want to take anything away from him. But he was stuck on how to describe pornography, and Novak said to him, “Mr. Justice, you will know it when you see it.” The justice agreed, and Novak included that remark in the draft of the opinion. 

Regardless, Stewart’s simple test became somewhat standard, until the 1973 case of Miller vs. California, when the Court created a three-pointed test for gauging obscenity:

  1. The average person, applying local community standards, looking at the work in its entirety, must find that it appeals to the prurient interest.
  2. The work must describe or depict, in an obviously offensive way, sexual conduct, or excretory functions.
  3. The work as a whole must lack “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific values.”

So, what does all this have to do with my conversation at the bar?

Part of our debate that night picked up on the old standard argument about not only what religion is, but how we might determine the difference between something religious and something that is not religious.

We did the rounds of the usual theoretical conclusions: the biased failures of substantive approaches, the broad implications of functionalist definitions, the trouble with comparisons when categorising, and the de facto determination of just about anything as religious when considering the dimensions that make up one’s religious beliefs and actions.

After concluding our short journey through the standard method and theory syllabus, we ended up back where we started: how do you tell the difference between something that is religious (religion), and something that is not (secular)?

How, we might have phrased the question, do we tell the difference between the ‘sacred’ beliefs of someone who is sitting in a church, speaking to their ‘God,’ and someone who is sitting in a stadium cheering on their local team?

My answer, thanks to the confidence one finds after his or her second pint, was:

I don’t know how to tell the difference, but I know it when I see it.

Is this a bad answer?

It’s leans perhaps a bit too precariously toward the substantive side of the debate, essentially arguing that what I think is religious is defined as such for no other reason than my own convictions, yet it’s also rather clarifying in its simplicity.

Yes, while I do indeed accept that my opinion on the matter is biased by my purview, I also believe there is definite value in the fact that what I think is ‘religious,’ by means of knowing it when I see it (a young boy reading the Torah vs. a young boy attaining the rank of Eagle Scout), dismisses much of the ambiguous, dare I say, often unhelpful, discourse on which we tend to focus perhaps a bit too much of our time.

That is, while deconstructing and theorising the limits and layers of the two rites of passage listed above, it’s rather obvious that these are not identical things.  One is religious, and one is not.

In other words: while my argument here that we might simply ‘know’ the difference between these two rituals isn’t perfect, and though it is biased by means of its dependency on one’s opinion, at least it isn’t mired in years and years of theoretical debate.

After all, just like how I might be able to determine something as ‘religious’ when I see it, this methodological approach seems to me that much better than the theoretical discourse of the last century, merely because I know it is.

Perhaps the Most Logical Vote is a Write-In

For over four years now, I’ve been living in Edinburgh Scotland, which, as google tells me, is a distance of 5,161 miles, or a cozy 15 hour flight with British Airways, from the town in which I grew up.

One thing that distance has provided is a sense of perspective, particularly of the cultural sort.  This has especially been the case thanks to the UK Home Office’s constant reminders.

That being said, I thinks it’s safe to say that I knew I was an American before I came to Britain, just as I knew that though Americans and Britons share a common foundation, they are, in fact, two uniquely different cultural groups.

More on this below.


This month (in the US, at least), Kaya Oakes published her The Nones are Alright: A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between.

To be fair to her text, I’ve yet to read it, and thus cannot pass any judgment on it.  Which is not my intention here.

Instead, I’m using her recent publication due to the terminology she has chosen to both use, as well as to which she has devoted her time and skill.  Specifically, I’ve cited her text here because of her use of the term: ‘nones.’

In my opinion, this term signifies something of a contentious concept.

First appearing in 1968 in Glenn M. Vernon’s aptly titled: “The Religious ‘Nones:’ A Neglected Category” (Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1968), the term was coined in order to determine a type of ‘independent’ un-affiliation, a category he argued had been highly neglected within the social scientific study of religion.

Comparing the term to one’s political affiliation, he described his association of the category with a type of ‘independence’ as such:

By way of contrast, the social scientist classifies as “independent” those who do not report affiliation with a particular political party. The use of the “independent” label suggests that the lack of political party affiliation does not mean that one is apolitical or has no political convictions. He is still viewed as a political person. Perhaps this is because the act of voting serves as the primary validation of political participation. There is no comparable religious phenomenon, no clearly recognized religious behavior other than membership, attendance, or other identification with a formal religious group. Thus, “none” is used in religious research, designating no religious affiliation, but also adding the gratuitous implication of a nonreligious person.

After his usage, the term was adopted by other sociologists, used in fairly the same way.

For example:

While the term’s usage, and thus it’s perpetuation within the discourse on religious affiliation, particularly in the U.S., has proven useful in categorising a large group of individuals who identify within the context of a survey form as ‘un-affiliated,’ there is an underlying issue concerning accuracy that I feel greatly diminishes the value of using this, and similar, relational terms.

This is perhaps best represented by two graphs, the first taken from an article on the results of the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study:

pew

Under the ‘un-affiliated’ section here, we are provided with three options: ‘Atheist,’ ‘Agnostic,’ and ‘Nothing in Particular.’  These three terms encompass the ‘none’ category that, according to their findings, constitutes the ‘second largest’ faith-related group after ‘Christians.’  Which, of course, is a category divided into six options.

The second graph gives us a bit more detail about the ‘nones’ themselves, sourced from an article that provides us a ‘closer look:’

pew2

While this article provides an interesting insight into the gender and age differences between those who ticked the ‘un-affiliated’ boxes, the commentary here also provides an intriguing look into the precariousness of the term ‘none’ itself.

As the author of the article (Michael Lipka) states:

Not only are the “nones” growing, but how they describe themselves is changing. Self-declared atheists or agnostics still make up a minority of all religious “nones.”

[…]

In addition to atheists and agnostics, another 9% of Americans say their religion is “nothing in particular” and that religion is not important in their lives. At the same time, however, a significant minority of “nones” say that religion plays a role in their lives. Indeed, about 7% of U.S. adults say their religion is “nothing in particular” but also say that religion is “very” or “somewhat” important in their lives, despite their lack of a formal affiliation.

This is the genesis of my issue.

Where we might be talking about the ‘nones’ as an un-affiliated category, we are also talking about individuals who tick the box ‘Atheist,’ ‘agnostic,’ or  who identify as individuals for which religion is important or unimportant, leaving a rather large discrepancy about how they actually define themselves, and about the terms they use to do that.  Granted, this overt ambiguity does indeed provide for leeway between identities that differentiate from one another, either in small or large ways, it also means that we are left with a very large umbrella under which a great deal of individuals religiously reside.

This is the major problem I see not only in using such ‘relational’ terms, but in this sort of sociological research.

While I do agree that this type of approach provides useful percentage ‘buzz phrases,’ such as “the ‘nones’ are the second higher religious affiliation in the U.S.,” they don’t actually provide us with any value.  After all, aside from the fact that the actual number of individuals surveyed in order to create that percentage in no way represents the actual number of U.S. citizens, the terminology, which we’ve chosen, doesn’t actually describe the way people actually define themselves.

Instead, it’s merely a useful buzz phrase.

Of course, one might conversely argue that the alternative leaves us with as many types of identifying terms as there are people who use them.

I accept this.

However, I’d still argue this presents a much more beneficial, if not more fair, means of assessment.

As such, and for the sake of fun argument, here’s a comparison that, I concede, will likely only lead to disappointment.

The use of these types of relational terms is like imagining the early Christians simply decided to call themselves the ‘non-Jews.’  After all, is this not a relational term?  Did they not define themselves in relation to their association with the Jews of the time?  Sure, they had the term ‘gentile,’ but that essentially meant anyone ‘not Jewish.’  No, they instead defined themselves as ‘Christians,’ as they were followers of ‘Christ.’  Rather than using a relational term, they chose a signifier that described who they were, not who they weren’t.

The term ‘nones,’ and with that any terminology that has adopted the prefix ‘no’ or ‘non,’ thanks in great part by sociologists attempting to embody how individuals define themselves in relation to the religions of others ‘broadly conceived,’ seems like an attempt at defining what we can only presume is a large and growing group of like-minded individuals by simply describing them by what they aren’t.  Which, in my opinion, seems incredibly unfair.

After all, I’m not ‘non-British,’ I’m an ‘American.’

To call myself the former is just silly, and, really, doesn’t seem all that useful.


So here’s my suggestion:

Rather than provide an individual a number of boxes to tick which, let’s be honest, is really just us telling that person how they should identify themselves for the sake of useful percentage data (we give them the terms, after all), lets do away with the choices altogether.  Or, to borrow from Vernon’s metaphorical association with the ‘politically unaffiliated,’ let’s get rid of the options, and simply supply a ‘write-in’ section.   Perhaps something that says:

“In the space provided, please describe how you identify religiously, using the terms you prefer.”  

That way, we spend less time finding ways to determine new or emerging categories, and more time actually recording the ways in which people identify themselves in their own words.

More objective, less subjective.

More recording, less dictating.

More listening, less defining.


***I openly admit that I might be wrong about the ‘none’ category, and the relational terms related to it.  Thus, here are some interesting articles about the ‘none’ phenomenon, provided here for those who might wish to know more beyond just my opinion.***

There’s A Revolution Going On In Religion. Faith Groups Better Listen Up.”

Church without God.”

Building Better Secularists.”

How The ‘Nones’ Can Find A Sense Of Community Outside Of Religion.”

Millennials and the ‘Nones’: Why 40 Years of Religion in US Elections May Change in 2016.”

An Insight into the Real Me

Here’s what might be the the most accurate, albeit fictional, representation of how I construct my theoretical positions on what is ‘real,’ what is ‘fictional,’ and what is ‘non-fictional.’

In fact, it’s perhaps so good, it doesn’t need additional commentary.

Well, except for this.

Of course, that also depends on whether or not this constitutes commentary.

Which it might.

It’s hard to tell.

Narratives can be complex things.


*The Speech,” Season Three, Episode Four, The IT Crowd, Dir. by Graham Linehan and Richard Boden, 12 December 2008