This week is graduation, and since it’s the only ceremony of this type in which I have allowed myself to be forced to attend, my family graciously came to visit.
Part of the fun of family coming to visit, is you get to see the city through the eyes of first-timers to Edinburgh. Suddenly, all the places that eventually blended into the background of your mundane day-to-day, have regained the romance they had when you first arrived.
Our sudden (or maybe longstanding) interest in all things Scottish tartan came with a reason. It was perhaps quite convenient that just before my family arrived, a relative of ours discovered the following information about our Scottish heritage (on my father’s side):
The most relevant part of this new info is this:
In 1988, while researching an ancestor with Scottish lineage, I discovered that Maldred [my ancestral grandfather, d. 1045] was the younger brother of Duncan I, King of Scotland. With this discovery, twenty additional generations were added to the previous documented 29 generations, resulting in 49 documented generations in this family.
So, knowing now that we are descendants of Scottish Royalty, this last trip, with the whole family, felt extra special.
Of course, anyone slightly familiar with the content of this blog would know that I would simply write this off as a type of ‘fiction.’ In this case, however, and ever so briefly, I’ll let it slide. I mean, I do in fact look a bit like Fassbender’s MacBeth, right?
So, all hail me, Dr. Ethan G. Quillen, Scottish Royalty.
On a less ridiculous note, my family’s new info, and thus further interest in all things Scottish Tartan, got me thinking. In fact, while waiting out the long list of names called at the ceremony today, and perhaps as one last chance to consider changing my Thesis topic, I threw together this idea. I will present it here as a brief abstract, because, given the celebratory frivolity of this afternoon and evening’s events, I simply don’t have the time to expand.
It’s All Relative: An Ethnographic Analysis of American-Scottish Identity Constructions
Everyday in Edinburgh, visitors from America come to the numerous ‘Scottish Heritage’ shops conveniently placed on the Royal Mile. These individuals are, in our contemporary context, a new type of pilgrim. They are in search of a connecting thread, a symbolic link to an ancient past. They spend hundreds and hundreds of pounds purchasing clan information booklets, kilts, scarfs, and clothing fashioned from a particular woollen tartan, their tartan, a physical embodiment of their ancestral lineage. Why do they do this? This analysis will attempt to answer this simple question with four case studies, while at the same time both establish a linkage between these pilgrim’s construction of Scottish ancestry and the notion that they further an intercontinental sense of imagined community, as well as challenge the perception that one’s heritage is nothing more than a type of identity artifice, of fiction.
***One last funny anecdote from this week***
When my parents arrived, a day ahead of my brother and his family, we took them to the Christmas market. While standing at the bar in St. Andrews Square, I caught the attention of a rather sullied and drunken gentleman chatting up a young woman. He looked at me, caught her attention, and announced to all in ear shot:
“Look eh this chap, ‘ere. This is a Scotsman!”
Then to me, he said:
“I bet your name is Robert Robertson from the highest highlands!”
Back to the young woman:
“Look at him. He’s the most Scottish I’ve ever seen!”
Taking a moment to let his declaration sink in, as well as to build a rather large pregnant pause, I responded, in my most Southern California accent:
“Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m just an American”
My fellow drinkers found it rather humorous, and the drunken fellow happily hugged me.
One of the benefits of using WordPress to host this blog is it provides some rather amusing data.
For example, it keeps tabs on where each post has been viewed. This provides the excitement of knowing there are people in Nepal who’ve read something that I wrote. As well, it allows me the ability to keep track of how many Americans have viewed my blog, versus Brits.
Another thing it does is provide me alerts, such as the one I received last week, wishing me a ‘Happy Anniversary!’
So, apparently, it’s been a year.
To celebrate, I thought I’d put together a little year in review. Which then got me thinking: a blog like this, with weekly updates, is like a diary, an on-line cache not only of my obscure thoughts, but about the things that have inspired those thoughts throughout the year. Or rather, it’s like an auto-ethnographic discursive source, where I am both anthropologist and subject, so that in equal measure, the text, this text, is like a fieldwork account, a window onto my own unique cultural perspective.
With this in mind, this review is something of a look back, not just for my dear readers, but for myself as well: a short trip back in time to see not only what it is that I have done, but how those things have shaped my way of thinking about my surrounding world.
This first post was nothing more than an introduction, a foundation on which to build the theme of the whole blog. I wrote it when, at that time, I had somehow deluded myself into thinking I’d be done with the Thesis by Christmas. As such, it is heavily influenced by my Conclusion, particularly the quotes I provide concerning the use of the term ‘fiction’ and how it challenges any sort of normative understanding we might have about texts that are considered ‘true’ or ‘authentic.’
The second post came by accident. For our tutorials that week on a course called ‘Modern Religious and Ethical Debates in Contemporary Fiction,’ we had read the last of the Harry Potter novels. Our discussion for the week was on the religious implications in the book (Harry’s ‘Christian world’ in contrast to the wizarding world in which he now found himself), as well as the public’s perception of ‘witchcraft via a popular medium. One of the students in my tutorial chose to shape they’re presentation of the novel around an on-line ‘fan fiction’ called “Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles,” by a Grace Ann Parsons under the name ‘aproudhousewife.’ While we enjoyed a nice conversation about how this fan fiction represented a type of religious identity, via the language used by the author in her argument against J.K. Rowling’s own fictional representation of witchcraft, we had an even more fun chat about the precariousness of using fiction when examining identity, as I revealed the fact that though popular, Grace Ann Parson’s fan fiction was not real. It was, in fact, an example of something called ‘Poe’s Law:’ no matter how ridiculous or humorous a fundamentalist argument is, and though it might be fake, it is inevitable that someone will confuse it for real, because of his or her perceptions of fundamentalism as being ridiculous or humorous. Tread lightly, was my conclusion, as all writing, whether a novel or an ethnography, is ‘fiction,’ due to the fact that it is inherently artificial.
This post, like the previous one, was inspired by a tutorial. This time, we had just read Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, and we’re discussing the use of a novel as a source for ‘jewishness.’ The Finkler Question is perfect for this as the story it tells is of a gentile, obsessed with Jewish culture, struggling to identify himself as being ersatz Jewish. The post I wrote not only discussed the use of stereotypes within written accounts, it also dealt with ones I might have considered when I visited Israel in 2014, as well as a few humorous examples from popular media such as Seinfeld, Fraser, and Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part One. Both culturally insensitive, as well as representative, these sources proved rather useful as we delved deeper into the use of fiction as an ethnographic source.
I few years back I graciously accepted the offer to present a paper at the Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) Conference held at the University of Chester, by a friend whose research focuses (in part) on conspiracy theories. I didn’t really know all that much about conspiracy theories, aside from the few things I remembered from my degree on New Religious Movements, nor did I have a clue on how to combine that lack of knowledge with my research on Atheism. So, I cobbled together some related details, out of which emerged this theory of Atheism. In short, when we take Donald Rumsfeld‘s famous tautological reasoning for declaring war on Iraq (Known knowns, Known unknowns, and Unknown unknowns) with the philosophical foundation of the dichotomy between Theism and Atheism, we find some interesting similarities: Known knowns (Theism and Atheism), Known unknown (practical agnosticism), and Unknown unknowns (complete ignorance of both Theism and Atheism).
When I attended the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network’s conference in 2012 I wanted to present my criticism of the term ‘non-religion’ in a way that was both memorable, as well as humorous. My thinking was, if I was going to be utterly critical of the term’s usage, I might as well do that in a way that was rather funny. I focused my presentation, then, on the nominal battle over whether or not the Brontosaurus actually ever existed, as its title came from a mis-named larger sample of the Apatosaurus. The essence of my argument was as follows: in his attempt at beating his rival by discovering and labelling more specimens, Othniel Charles Marsh called the Apatosaurus something else, sort of like referring to Atheism as non-religion.
For a Christmas break, my traveling companion and I spent a few days in Bruges, Belgium. Aside from biking around the city, eating waffles, and drinking delicious ales, we also went to the Church of Our Lady to see Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. Whilst there, I noticed an oddity about the baby Jesus: he was uncircumcised. Surely, I thought out loud, in a church, after eight days as Jewish boy would be circumcised. Why isn’t this Jesus snipped. I was then reminded that Michelangelo’s David, in Florence, is likewise ‘intact.’ This blog post was about the use of foreskin as a symbol of an artist’s own influence over the factual accuracies of his or her representation. In other words, Jesus and David weren’t snipped, because Michelangelo wasn’t. Food for thought.
After it premiered, Ridley Scott’s epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings, was banned by the country of Egypt. While it was, for me, a rather innocuous action film, for many around the world, its parting ways with the Biblical narrative not only came across as blasphemous, but as threatening as well. Thus, it was banned. This got me thinking. Did this banning have anything to do with anxieties felt by some that a re-telling such as this was harmful to the sour material by reminding the audience that both are nothing more than stories? That is, if Ridley Scott can re-write the story so easily, then is the original nothing more than a template, a plastic and bendable thing able to be re-created, and thus void of what we might perceive as some sort of ‘sacred’ something? To conclude, by way of an answer, I posed the curious question: when the critically disliked and epic-looking Troy came out a few years back, with its predominant white cast and highly adapted re-telling of the Trojan war (which ‘historically’ took place around the same time as the Exodus out of Egypt), why was it not banned for its inaccuracies or insults to history? Is it because we now think of the Trojan War as nothing more than a myth?
When I first came to Edinburgh, even before I started my degree, I had the great privilege of meeting Chris Cotter and David Robertson, the two minds behind the Religious Studies Project. Since that first meeting, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to be a part of a number of roundtable discussions, one of which took place at the University of Chester on the topic of narrative and reflexivity in the study of religion. This was, in my five years in Britain, one of the most fun and rewarding conversations I’ve had on the topic of fiction, ethnography, and the use of discourse and narrative in the study of both. Below is the link to the recording, which I encourage everyone to enjoy.
When the former Seventh-Day Adventist minister, Ryan Bell, concluded his ‘year without God’ with the announcement that he no longer believed in the existence of God, it caught my attention. This post was about his conversion, and how I thought it related to the story of the Cardiff Giant, a hoax believed, and defended, by a curious and believing audience. Here’s the essence of my argument: if we were intent on understanding how beliefs become solidified, such as the way a hoax is marketed and devoured by a demanding audience, or in Bell’s case, how identity becomes constructed, is this not the ideal set of data with which to study? That is, though it might look, through a certain lens, to be something designed or formed in such a way as to inspire criticism, is it not still something worth examining? Or, is all of this once again a reminder that no matter how cautious or critical we are, there’s never really a sure way of knowing if something is a hoax (such as discourse observed), so that we must continually remind ourselves that in the study of ‘others,’ and regardless of objectivity, we might be nothing but ‘suckers?’
Perhaps the most popular of my posts, this one was once again inspired by a tutorial, or rather, by a course for which I tutored: ‘Atheism in Debate.’ While I have had my criticisms of this course, particularly concerning the fact that it was designed to bring in students interested in reading the four ‘New Atheist texts,’ only to ‘trick’ them into reading nineteenth-century theological apologetics, maybe my biggest point of critical discussion over the three years in which I led tutorials was the manner with which we compare the New Atheism with the Old. How, we were often asked, do these two groups differ? My simple answer: the New Atheists are assholes. This is an oversimplification. To make my argument, I used the ‘theory of the asshole’ as defined by the philosopher Aaron James, who describes an asshole as such: “a person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunises him against the complaints of other people.” (4-5) In order to apply this to New Atheism, I took examples where the New Atheists did just that, and thus determined them as ‘assholes.’ Which, I concluded, also made them different from their ‘older’ counterparts. It’s not a perfect description, but it is fun.
During a trip to Bergen, Norway, my travel companion and I took the tram out to the re-constructed Fantoft Stavkirk, that was famously burned in 1992. Though not convicted for this particular arson, the Satanist Varg Vikernes was found to have been connected to it when he was convicted for similar crimes, as well as murder, in 1994. In response to this information, I recalled thinking, ‘at least he was a Satanist, and not an Atheist,’ a statement I assigned to a ‘friend’ within the post itself. Aside from providing some simple background on the rise and fall of Satanism in Norway, I used this post to present a theory that, in fact, the ‘Satan’ of the Bible was the first skeptic, a foundational precursor to modern Atheism. I justified this via Biblical references where ‘שָׂטָן’ was associated with doubt, skepticism, or an adversarial position, such as Numbers 22:32, 1 Samuel 29:4, 2 Samuel 19:35, 1 Kings 5:4, 1 Kings 11:15, 1 Kings 11:23 and 11:25, 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13, Luke 22:3, and John 13:27. Or, to put it differently, examples of ‘Satan’ as a ‘Devil’s Advocate,’ such as we famously find in the Book of Job: ‘Skin for skin!’ Satan replied. ‘A man will give all he has for his own life.But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.’ (Job 2:1-7). I thus concluded: “in combining the lexical process of being deemed an ἄθεος (scepticism, doubt, critical debate) with the doubt, opposition, and adversarial nature of Satan (שָׂטָן; διὰβολος) we might confortably conclude here that Satan is, in fact, a representative sort of Atheism.”
Presenting at conferences is something that I have found, as an academic, to be a rather rewarding experience. Not only does it necessitate travel, it also gives one the opportunity to receive feedback from people about his or her work. At the same time, though, it also leads to the notion that one’s work is his or her’s property. This feeling presented itself when I met Liam Frasier and Chris Cotter briefly to discuss a roundtable we were planning for the students of our course on ‘Atheism in Debate.’ As we introduced ourselves to each other, giving the ‘elevator pitch’ of our research, I came to realise that the thing I study is a large part of my identity. In this way, I ‘own’ it, in that it is my perspective, my interpretation, my product. This sense of ‘ownership’ always brings me back to Malinowski, who himself saw his presentation of the Trobriands, and thus the Trobriands themselves, as his ‘property:’ “Joy: I hear the “Kiriwina” [another name for the Trobriands; more strictly the northern province of Boyowa]. I get ready; little gray, pinkish huts. Photos. Feeling of ownership: It is I who will describe them or create them.” (Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, 1967, 140).
Another post inspired by a film, this time in response to the debate taking place about the ‘accuracy’ of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar nominated film, American Sniper. While many of the ‘facts’ about Chris Kyle’s life have become exaggerated myths, the exaggeration is, as I argued, not unlike the ‘bumper sticker arguments’ we might see attached to people’s cars. While these might reflect opinions that are as affixed as the stickers themselves, they also represent a type of narrative statement: a story, told with few words, that reflect a facet of the individual who places them. As a conclusion, I made this argument: “when we see these sorts of images, perhaps we might be better off simply understanding that they represent a narrative, a means with which certain individuals define themselves, either for or against the statements made. Whether we want to simply believe them as true, research the facts within, or work to disprove them, they will always be stories. After all, Chris Kyle now lives solely in legend, but only because he now exists solely as a character within a story; a fate that awaits us all in time. For pragmatic reasons, then, the stories others tell, the stories we tell about them, and the stories we tell of ourselves, work as identifiers, assisting us in making sense of life in our determined search for meaningful fictions.”
For a period of time, I put off writing a post for the Non Religion and Secularity Research Network’s blog: http://blog.nsrn.net. This wasn’t because I didn’t want to, but because I was worried I didn’t really know what to write. While I’ve been critical of their term usage, doing that again seemed like overkill. Instead, I decided to write a post that presented the discursive approach I adopted for my Thesis. To get to that, though, I felt like I should tell the story about how I got involved in the study of Atheism itself. This post was a companion, then, an informative, and personal, precursor for the one published on their blog: http://blog.nsrn.net/2015/02/13/discourse-analysis-and-the-study-of-atheism-definitions-discourse-and-ethnographic-criticism/
While the worksop was an excellent and a truly great experience, because my time in Spain, and especially Barcelona, was short, I spent most of it going to ‘tourist attractions,’ such as the Sagrada Familia and the Barcelona Cathedral. This got me thinking about ‘sacred spaces,’ and the focus of this post is on the interesting balance we perform between sacred and profane when we visit such ‘tourist trap sacred spaces,’ such as I’ve done in Jerusalem, the Vatican, and even outside Waco, Texas.
In my efforts to discursively examine Atheism, one of the routes I’ve taken is following specific lines of influence from one argument to another. As such, this post presented one of these discursive threads, from Bertrand Russell, to the New Atheism. More specifically, it followed a particular philosophical discourse that originated with Russell’s argument against the belief in the existence of God, by comparing it to the belief that there exists a ‘china teapot’ orbiting in an elliptical between the Earth and Mars. By fictionalising a belief that is as equally impossible to prove or disprove, Russell inaugurated what I coined as the ‘argument from fictionalisation,’ a position promoted by a number of individuals across the last fifty years. In specific, I then compared the same usage of this fictionalisation between three ‘invented religions,’ religious organisations designed on the premise that their deity is as equally provable and disprovable (the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Invisible Pink Unicorn, and the Church of Bacon) as ‘God,’ which in turn provides for us an interesting discursive type of Atheism.
Zombies are very popular lately. Then again, zombies have been popular for quite some time now. As entities that have infiltrated a number of popular culture media, from movies and television shows, to graphic novels, the living dead have been a part of ‘horror’ for at least a century. What this also means is that the discursive influences on the writing of these outlets has changed just as much as the culture within which they’ve thrived. Do these films/shows/graphic novels tell us something about that culture? This post answered ‘yes,’ with a specific focus on the role of religion in the twentieth-century. By looking at how the origin of the living dead turned from Alien and ‘Voodoo’ inspired, to George Romero’s liminal ‘they simply exist’ era, which was then replaced with the discourse of disease (plague/epidemiology), the Zombie narrative provides for us an insight into the influence of secularisation: a transition from a discourse based on either mythical or mysterious influences, to that of the scientific and empirical.
Back in my younger, and perhaps more naive, days, I wrote a paper where I analysed the philosophy, and thus foundation, of L. Ron Hubbard’s ideas that turned into Scientology, via the deconstructive lens of Freudian psychology. In essence, I took Freud’s three part ‘Psychic Apparatus,’ and compared it to Hubbard’s notion of Body, Mind, and Thetan. While the result might have led to a criticism of one against the other, the focus of my post was more narrative driven. As I concluded: “as narrative devices, as stories that tell us something about how these men interpreted their world, and thus in turn tell us something about them personally, they function on an entirely different spectrum of criticism. Thus, rather than merely trying to connect dots that might creatively lead us to some sort of conclusion, using these narratives to make sense of the individuals who told them, as well as the individuals who use them, becomes that much more useful than even the most pragmatic attempts at comparing like with like.”
In another attempt at discursively examining Atheism, this post utilised comedy as a medium. In this example, however, I got a bit more specific about exactly how I was going to use these discourses to examine Atheism. By adopting three ‘anti-religious comedy routines’ (Ricky Gervais, Bill Maher, and George Carlin) as ‘texts,’ I then analysed them via Norman Fairclough‘s ‘three analytically separable elements:’ “the production of the text, the text itself, and the reception of the text” (10). By closely examining the language used by each individual in the three examples, I produced a number of correlative discursive elements across each. These, then, contributed to a discursive understanding of the Atheism presented within each account. When compared to three clips of the New Atheists promoting their Atheism, this sort of analysis assists us in better understanding how such relatable philosophical arguments are disseminated via different venues (genres), as well as how they are received by a larger ‘public.’ In the end, I made the following conclusion: “this works much better than merely speculating or theoretically stipulating what we think these sorts of things (like Atheism) mean, and is therefore a much more useful (and, to be honest, more enjoyable) means of researching precarious concepts such as ‘religion’ or ‘Atheism.'”
This is perhaps more of a ‘reactionary’ post. Toward the end of the semester, and thus the end of my final tutorial period on Atheism in Debate, I was looking for specific ways to approach New Atheism in a manner that both presented their arguments from an unbiased and objective, yet also critical, perspective. For this week, I chose their bad scholarship, which, regardless of whether or not someone agrees with them, is something that should infuriate everyone. Three of them have PhDs, after all. That doesn’t mean I assume anyone with a PhD should automatically be considered smart; but come on. Getting a PhD means you’ve been trained on how to do good research, how to build your arguments on solid data, and how to avoid becoming a caricature of bias and opinion. Nevertheless, what the New Atheists do is bad research, of which they are then arrogantly proud. It’s sort of embarrassing. The purpose of this post was, however, not just meant to point out their poor scholarship. Instead, it was designed as a means to assist my students in understanding how when they do good scholarship, the sort of arguments that they make can be even more meaningful than when they’re presented with the passion one might associate with the rhetoric of a zealot.
Book reviews are often considered ‘easy’ publications, something much less strenuous than an article, monograph, or edited volume. When simplified, they come across as rather simple: read a book, summarise it, tell the reader what was good and bad about it. With my first experience writing a review (on which this post was focused), I quickly learned this is not the case. In fact, the three-part story that I present in this post functions as a personal account of the lessons learned through writing this review: how the editing process works in the writer’s favour, how defending your argument (such as my capitalisation of the ‘A’ in Atheism) reminds you of why you are doing the research, and how copy-editing, or having someone re-write your work, and then arguing in favour of your version, builds a sense of confidence in one’s writing. My review itself can be found here: http://www.secularismandnonreligion.org/articles/10.5334/snr.au/
This post was inspired by the premier of the fifth season of HBO’s hit series, Game of Thrones. Specifically, it was inspired by the furore expressed by many fans that, unlike the previous four seasons, this one would be mostly the product of original writing, rather than adaptation, as the series had thus far exhausted almost all of the story published in book form by George R.R. Martin. I took this as an opportunity to discuss the perhaps disappointing fact that all writing, regardless of whether it is original work or an adaptation, is still an artifice, and is thus entirely made-up. There is, then, no such thing as an ‘original source.’ Using a quote from Clifford Geertz’s Works and Liveswherein he states that acknowledging ethnographic writing as just as creative and literary as fictional writing, is the same as realising a magic trick is, in fact, not really magic. Thus, my conclusion stated: “In a world where everything is fiction, or rather, where everything is artifice, the notion that an adaptation is telling a story incorrectly is rather moot. Even when the ‘original’ author might agree. In the end, all stories are adaptations, even when they are initially told. Which also means that all stories, just like looking at the discourse that gives meaning to a word, rather than just defining it, are neither right, nor wrong, by the mere fact that all stories are nothing more than re-tellings of a story none of us will ever see.”
Around the end of April, I began putting together what would eventually become the final draft of the Thesis. I still had a few months to go, but I didn’t know that at this point, and any full draft, once finished, felt like the final thing. As well, a colleague and close friend, Jonathan Tuckett, successfully defended his, adding to the anxiety. For these reasons, I found myself leaning (perhaps a bit too much) on distractions to break up the stress that comes with finally being finished. One of those came in the story on which I based this post: an individual on the website reddit posted a meme in which they admitted to submitting a thesis, and thus earning a PhD, that was entirely ghost written. As I sank deeper into the anxiety of polishing off one, more, draft, this story hit rather close to home, so I decided to investigate a bit more into the world of academic plagiarism. What I found was both interesting and disheartening. The conclusion I put together was a criticism not just plagiarism, but of the academy itself, an argument that as the academic world becomes more and more like a business, the more and more profit-gaining opportunities (like plagiarism) begin to make sense.
This post dealt exclusively with two examples wherein fiction and ethnography appeared to merge into a category of similar, yet distinct, types of fictional writing. The first was a New York Times article by Laura Tavares on the use of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as a source of cultural insight into the American south, and the struggle of racial violence. The second was a relatable discussion of the subtle differences between a novel as an ethnographic source, and an ethnographic description, by Thomas Hylland Eriksen. Together, these two examinations worked to further blur the line between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction,’ particularly concerning how both are products of creative artifice. As I concluded, in regard to the cover image used of the film Noah as being ‘based on real life:’ “While I am quite willing to blatantly claim that all textual representations are fiction by means of their ‘artifice-ness,’ this of course brings us into a discourse where, like the notion of ‘everything is fiction,’ we get somewhat distracted by what might be ‘based on real life’ and what might be a story assumed by some as the same. This is not equal, however, to a declaration that the story of Noah, which might be defined as both, either, or neither a myth and truth, is definitively one of these things. Rather, my point of having it here, and the point of this post in general, is a reminder that when we declare ‘everything’ as fiction because of the role that artifice plays in the creation and presentation of interpreted ‘things,’ a movie about Noah and a movie about William Wallace are equally ‘based on real life.’ In other words, the distinction between what is ‘fact’ (quantitative data about lynchings in the US) and what is ‘fictional’ (Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird) might blur into a perception where they become equal representations of some type of ‘truth.’ I, for one, am ok with this.”
The Hotel Preston, in Nashville, Tennessee, has listed on its in-room amenities an intriguing option: A Spiritual Menu. What this means is, at any time, day or night, a guest of the hotel may request a religious text brought to his or her room for some quiet reflection. For me, this led to a discussion of the World Religions Paradigm, and its limitations on the broader study of religion. While on the surface, the options provided by the Preston Hotel’s menu seem to simply further support the WRP, I argued that is, in fact, providing narrative sources, rather than theoretical interpretations. Or, as I stated in my conclusion: “by translating the mythological and doctrinal narratives that are used by individuals in the process of their ‘religious identity construction’ as a ‘menu,’ through which they isolate their own discursive understandings of ‘religion,’ we can form a much more complex and varied person-to-person perspective on how individuals use, and thus define, the concept for their own intentions. Which, I believe, seems much more in keeping with the culture of religious studies.”
Based on Bruno Latour’s Gifford Lecture series here in Edinburgh, and particularly on his notion of the ‘Anthropocene,’ this post presented my argument that we are, currently, living in what I call the ‘Profitable Age.’ I based this argument on evidence such as the ‘trilogy’ that Peter Jackson created out of Tolkien’s short novel, The Hobbit, as well as the similar film franchises based on the Fast and Furious, Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Politically, this is evinced by Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United vs. The Federal Elections Commission. Academically, this is found within not only the rising costs of education, but in the rise (and thus debt contributing) of ‘for-profit’ educations centres. Each of these equally contributed to my theory. Or, and as I stated in my conclusion: “This is a Profitable Age. Whether that is defined by film or novel franchises, by political developments, or the business of academia, it seems more often than not that the world in which we are living is dictated by profit. How this then dictates the way we move forward, and whether that might mean a diminishment of value, is something we will have to wait and see.”
At this point in my story, I had finally finished the Thesis, and turned it in. So, for this week’s post I turned that into a story itself. More specifically, I told a story about how on certain occasions life looks like the plot of a novel, with characters and sets and plots designed for some ultimate purpose. This story, the story about my thesis, was one of those examples. Mixing in my turn to fiction for the PhD, and focusing on the journey I have taken to get the Thesis written, I also took the opportunity to weave in my theory that all writing is fictional, which then led to the argument that a thesis is as equally a novel as those texts on which my research was focused. We, then, are equally novelists, as the theses we write tell, in their own way, a part of our story.
In honour of Memorial Day in the United States, this post focused on the religious diversity found within the U.S. National Cemeteries, especially Arlington. At the top of each headstone is a religious symbol, chosen by the deceased or his or her family, to symbolise the religious beliefs of the individual interred. While originally these symbols were isolated to a few types for Christian and Jewish, the symbols permitted (and thus accepted) by the United States Department of Veteran’s Affairs have grown to accept a wide spectrum of religious beliefs, including Atheism, Wicca, and Odinism. In fact, the symbols permitted and accepted keep growing, a testament, as I argued, to the religious diversity (and freedom) found within the United States.
In late May I was given the opportunity to present at the Old Religion and New Spirituality conference, at the University of Tartu. Unfortunately, our plane out of Edinburgh was delayed en route to Amsterdam for weather issues, and we subsequently missed our flight to Estonia. In order to make the best of a bad situation, we chose to stay in Amsterdam for a few nights. On our last day, we had a few hours before our afternoon flight, and given the rain, decided to waste the time in a movie theatre. We saw Mad Max: Fury Road.
While the film has proven quite successful, both with critics and at the Box Office, I decided to use it as the basis for what I called a ‘dream course,’ those classes we hear about where the instructor has created a connection between some subject and a popular medium. Here is the course I created:
Title: Fictional Anthropology: Making Sense of Observation by Looking through an Imaginary Lens
Description: When we read Malinowski’s seminal work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, the famed anthropologist describes for us the requirements necessary of a truly objective cultural observation. While this gives us a useful means of observing, recording, and writing about an other’s culture, it sometime leaves us without a practical description of how that might be done. With this course we will apply the methodology of anthropological observation to a more ‘hands-on’ experience by making sense of a ‘fictional culture.’ What this will entail is a detailed observation of the world created by George Miller for his film “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Alongside reading Malinowski’s Argonauts, we will try to determine the ‘imponderabilia’ of the culture within the film. We will take field notes, compare insights, and even construct short ethnographic representations, both empirically objective and reflexively subjective, in order to make sense of the methodological requirements demanded of an anthropologist’s job in the field. As an introductory course, those interested need not have any prior knowledge about anthropology, though students from all levels are warmly invited.
By June, I had reached the post-thesis malaise. This is that time between submission and defence where you find yourself wanting to separate as much from the damned thing, but also realise you need to prepare as much as possible for the viva. So, for this post, I wrote about it. A cathartic attempt at vocalising the anxiety that comes from suddenly being finished with the Thesis, but still having it there, in your mind. It’s like having an obsession that haunts your thoughts, whilst you sit on the cusp of the end of it all. As I stated: “To conclude, the malaise that I associate here with the post-submission mindset is in its own way indicative of a ‘crisis,’ not only in our confidence of what it is we have written, but in the loss of the obsession that is writing a thesis. It is a malaise defined by this double loss, a horrific perfect storm bolstered by a separation from that which has defined us for years, and the ultimate concern that the typo on page 137 will be the deciding factor in our inevitable failure.”
By mid-June, commencement ceremonies in both the US and Britain are in full swing, which also means individuals of merit are providing audiences with commencement addresses. One such address came from Ian McEwan, given at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. While I gained a great deal of respect over the last five years for McEwan, given that my PhD research focused on two of his novels, I found myself in sincere disagreement with the theme of his address: the defence of free speech and an admonition of those unwilling to stand beside the authors of the recently attacked Charlie Hebdo. That is, though I do agree with him that free speech is a human right for which we must always fight, I could not help but find an almost hypocritical argument within his lack of empathy for those who take such offence at certain examples, that they respond with violence. Empathy, I argued, is the ability to understand another’s perspective, so that even when we despise their reaction, we still understand why they might have reacted that way. Ironically, this thinking comes across in his fiction, though was sadly missing in his commencement address.
For a couple weeks over the summer, news outlets were seemingly obsessed with Rachel Dolezal, who had resigned as President of the Spokane, Washington branch of the NAACP after it was revealed that though she had been presenting herself as ‘black,’ she was, in fact, biologically caucasian. As ‘identity’ was a major part of my research, this of course caught my attention. By using her story as data, her use of ‘creative non-fiction’ in identifying as ‘African-American’ becomes an intriguing insight into the difference between self-identification and normative categories. As a tie-on to my previous post using stand-up comedy as a discursive source on Atheism, I presented this conclusion: “Issues of racial identity are likely to arise within nations (such as the US) wherein the ethnic and racial identities of the citizens that make up that nation’s culture come from a myriad of different origins. In response to this, comedians have attempted to address this in an equal number of ways. As I perceive it, perhaps the three best, if not most memorable, are the links below. I place them here as a supplement to my own opinion, a translation, if you will, of a heavily serious topic, textually transformed into a comedic response.”
This post came about a week prior to my viva, so I felt the best way to deal with this would be to fictionalise a normal day in my life, which I also fictionalised, for the benefit of the story. In this post I described a regular day, as experienced, by an American, in Scotland. I designed the post to make it read like an ethnographic field report, partly to support my theory that ‘everything is fiction,’ and partly because it was fun to do it.
This post came five days after I successfully defended my Thesis. I used this as an opportunity not only to share my experiences (and the idea that it was, in the end, nothing to be afraid of), but to discuss the anxieties writers feel, when writing. To do this, I used a quote from Hemingway that I think best encapsulates the perfect advice for a writer, of any type of fiction:
For Christ sake write and don’t worry about what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what. I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket. You feel you have to publish crap to make money to live and let live. All write but if you write enough and as well as you can there will be the same amount of masterpiece material (as we say at Yale). You can’t think well enough to sit down and write a deliberate masterpiece and if you could get rid of Seldes and those guys that nearly ruined you and turn them out as well as you can and let the spectators yell when it is good and hoot when it is not you would be all right. (Re-printed via www.lettersofnote.com)
In mid-July, Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchmen, was published, to mixed reviews. In particular, much of the disappointment felt by reviewers and readers alike was Lee’s description of Atticus Finch, the beloved father of Scout and proud advocate for racial equality in To Kill a Mockingbird, as an old racist. This disappointment stemmed from a shock, as if suddenly this literary hero’s true self was revealed. I took this disappointment and applied it to a similar comparison between Malinowski’s seminal Argonauts of the Western Pacific (which has been seen as the paragon of textualized participant observation), and the diary he kept, published some twenty years after his death. Like this new Atticus, Malinowski’s diary revealed a betrayal of sorts, showing readers his true opinions, his bias, and his more human (subjective) side. By comparing these two comparisons, I concluded that the result of comparison would only ever lead to disappointment.
My two favourite paintings a the Scottish National Gallery are these two by William Dyce:
I enjoy these paintings because they represent a different perspective, a contextualization of two Biblical figures (David and Jesus) into Dyce’s setting: the Scottish highlands. This post, however, only used these as entry points into a larger discussion about the ‘expert level’ people adopt when they gain knowledge about something. Likewise, this presented the opportunity to further discuss the reality that people with PhDs, whilst knowledgeable on single subjects, are not knowledgable about everything. I used some images by Matt Might to represent this, particularly this one:
This post was, as the title suggested, a shameless self-promotion. Earlier in the year I submitted an article for consideration to a special volume of the journal Science, Religion, and Culture. It was, to my surprise and delight, accepted. So, I used this post to promote it, as well as the other articles included. It’s really that simple. Here’s my article: “Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism.”
Last July, the UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that there would be major changes to the visa permissions and restrictions for non-european individuals coming to study in the UK. At first, I figured this wouldn’t affect us, and focused this post on the ‘little differences’ that make big waves for people living within cultures not their own. Part of my discussion included a Guardian article by Adam Trettel, who made many points about feeling ‘unwanted’ or ‘different’ while studying here in the UK. Though I wouldn’t know it for some time, these visa changes would indeed affect us, and cause us to feel our own sense of ‘difference’ and ‘unwantedness,’ but that wouldn’t happen for some time. A post on this will be coming soon.
In early August, we took our last trip to Paris, a city that we have come to love, not only through multiple trips, but also after I lived there for two different months to learn French at L’Institut Catholique de Paris. This post was a brief description of this last trip, and how when we (people) visit foreign countries we tend to ‘create’ selves that we wish to be seen by others. In turn, those others also ‘present’ the ‘selves’ they want us to see, a never-ending cycle of performances that contribute to an interactional back-and-forth between entities developing an identity of ‘humanity.’
This post took its focus from the idea that, without us giving things meaning, nothing means anything. I presented a number of examples where this might prove valid: a controversial Kouros statue at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Southern California; the Fälschermuseum, in Vienna, Austria, and the Museo Del Falso at the University of Salerno’s Center for the Study of Forgery; the Hitler Diaries, forged documents created and sold by Konrad Kujau to the German magazine Stern, the UK’s Sunday Times, and the American magazine Newsweek; the exact replica of the Lascaux Cave, created to preserve the delicate art of the original, which can no longer be seen in person; and the genuineness of the items available for purchase on the website Screenbid from the AMC hit show, Mad Men. By comparing these examples, I concluded that there is no difference between something that is ‘authentic’ and something that is not. The only difference is the one we give to the former, in our attempts at differentiating the two. In this way, nothing is actually real.
This post was the first of a series of ‘live from’ posts, where I was writing from a particular conference. This one came from the XXI Quinquennial Congress of the IAHR. This was an amazing conference, and something that I had been looking forward to since I first arrived in Edinburgh. The post itself was about the panel on which I presented, and how these sorts of gatherings remind us just how small the world is, via our theoretical and methodological differences. Also, side note: I wrote this with a cracking hangover.
After the XXI Quinquennial Congress of the IAHR, we all went our separate ways. My way home was via Berlin. This post told that story, specifically about a simple insult that I received from a fellow passenger just prior to boarding the flight, from which it takes its title: vanilla english. While it was a comment made in passing with an Englishman drinking beer at an Irish bar in Berlin, it also reminded me of the diversity of the IAHR (and particularly the panel in which I presented), and the incorrect labels we sometimes assume about things that might seem ‘bland’ from our particular perspective.
Shortly after the IAHR, a few of us attended the annual conference of the British Association for the Study of Religions at the University of Kent, in Canterbury. Rather than what I had done before, using the post to just describe my presentation, I took this opportunity to tell the story of the BASR conference’s role in my life in Edinburgh. Writing on the train south from Edinburgh, I described how I came to associate the BASR conference with the beginning of each new semester, and how this one, perhaps my last, would once again act as the penultimate start of my last September in Edinburgh, and the last conference I would attend in Britain.
With the start of Fall, I decided to talk about stereotypes, particularly the one that associates Starbuck’s Pumpkin spice Lattes with ‘basic white girls.’ While this, in its own way, provided a humorous route into the use of stereotypes as discursive data, it also proved rather telling about the way we develop these stereotypes and what they tell us about ourselves, and those who create them. As I concluded: “These are stereotypes, and stereotypes are interesting things. Sure, they can tell us a lot about ‘other’ people, about their customs and culture, and about the way they define themselves. In this way, they even represent a type of discourse: language used by individuals that we perceive in a particular way, and thus the language we use to describe those ‘others’ in a way that makes sense for both their context, as well as for our description itself. Yet, they also tell us a lot about ourselves as well, not just in how we perceive those ‘others,’ but in how we might thus be stereotyping ourselves in the process. After all, if identity construction is all about projecting an image we want to be seen by others, which is then validated by an external entity (that other person), and vice versa ad nauseam, then aren’t we constantly being stereotyped as we stereotype others. This is something we should all consider, particularly concerning the type of terminology not only being used in Europe at the moment concerning the difference between a ‘refugee’ and an ‘immigrant,’ but about how we perceive others on a day-to-day basis in our interactions and conversations with other human beings.”
PhD’s of Reddit. What is a dumbed down summary of your thesis?
Based on this, I focused this post on a discursive bias concerning the perception people have about what constitutes a ‘PhD.’ In essence, my argument stated that individuals tend to associate the PhD with research in the sciences, rather than the humanities, based on the higher ranked responses to /u/FaithMilitant’s question. In fact, this was my thesis:
This discussion represents a particular bias, or rather, a particular discursive perception of the concept ‘PhD,’ and how the public might perceive of that concept as something more predominately associated with the sciences, rather than the humanities.
In relation to the notion that there currently exists a ‘crisis’ in the humanities, or that the humanities is a dying art, this was my conclusion: “more than anything, perhaps it reminds us that though there are differences between these two fields, the level of importance between a thesis that tests the accuracy, or even existence, of a Higgs-Boson, and a thesis that argues that all writing, from ethnography to a novel, is fictional by means of its ‘artificial’ nature, is in itself a fictional differentiation established by our discursive perceptions, and perpetuated by the language of random sample data. Understanding how that works will largely influence both the future of the humanities, as well as the future of education worldwide. After all, how can we be expected to promote and describe our research, if we can’t even control how those descriptions fit into the discourse on what it means to have a ‘PhD?’”
This post came about after my usual museum companion and I failed to see the The Amazing World of M.C. Escher exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. When we arrived, two days before the exhibition closed, we found a line of people that stretched all the way from the entrance to the street. It was, by our estimation, at least an hour wait before we would get in. As we sat and watched these people queuing up to see a few etching by the famous artists, I started to think about how rituals change over time, and how they are influenced by new additions and generational gaps. For instance, is seeing Escher’s work ‘in person’ the reason we stand in line to see artwork we can view, in perhaps better detail, on the internet? That is, is it the ritual of seeing the work, not actually seeing the work, that becomes the important part of the experience? If so, then are sacred rituals (going to church, etc.) the same: is doing the ritual more important than what the ritual is venerating? Or, in other words, is worshiping God more important than the belief that God exists?
In this post, I took on relational terms, and in particular the term ‘nones.’ I haven’t, as evidenced by a few of the posts listed here, been much of a fan of relational terms. I feel like they don’t quite represent the individuals we study well enough, and leave far too much room for ambiguity. For this criticism, then, I chose to take on the ‘none’ category, and concluded with a useful (albeit likely disappointing) comparison: “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.” For this reason I offered this solution, a ‘write-in’ option that I think will help assuage some of the ambiguity about this topic:
“In the space provided, please describe how you identify religiously, using the terms you prefer.”
How do we define ‘religion?’ Do we focus on rituals? On belief? Do we use dimensional or categorical means to define what we think religion might be? In this post, I used a conversation between colleagues where we considered these questions to point out a means of defining religion that I thought worked best: I’ll know it when I see it. This, sadly, is not my original thought. I, in fact, borrowed it from Justice Potter Stewart’s exact expression, “I know it when I see it,” which came from his concurrent opinion on the 1964 Supreme Court case, Jacobellis vs. Ohio. The case itself dealt with free speech and the difference between pornographic material and ‘artistic expression.’ Though the Court found that the film in question (Louis Malle‘s The Lovers) did not represent pornographic material, they were unable to define what constituted the definition ‘pornography.’ In his attempt to address this, Stewart stated:
So, by applying this to the question of ‘how do we define religion,’ my response was equally the same: I know it when I see. Of course, while I do (and did) accept that this might lean “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,” I also feel (felt) that it’s equally “rather clarifying in its simplicity.” After all, as I concluded: “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.”
This was my last ‘live from’ post of this year, this time from the 4th Annual Graduate Conference on Religion at Harvard Divinity School, ‘Ways of Knowing.’ While I chose not to write about the presentation I gave (I did that the next week), I did write about stereotypes, and in particular, those about Boston. I used these three movie trailers:
Not surprisingly, the Boston that we found was quite different from that portrayed in these films. Once again stereotypes tried to influence my perception which, anthropologically, led to this 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.
This post was a proposal, a detailed description of my post-thesis research. It describes a number of details about how I will be using select ‘Atheist gospels’ to discursively analyse the Atheist arguments and philosophies found within each author’s shared re-write of the gospel narrative. Within my description I provided a chapter outline, research proposal, research program, and bibliography. Hopefully no one steals the idea. Or, if nothing else, hopefully this will act as a kind of ‘copyright’ so if they do, I’ll be able to claim ownership.
My response, as I plotted out in this post, was, in essence, this:
when viewed as a cultural unit, in the same way we would objectively assess the subjects of an anthropological examination, the polyvocality of this discursive field becomes a collective of individual identities conforming into a group one. Thus, rather than the result being the “frustrating morass of contradictions and cross-purposes” (13) that Bullivant predicts, our different theoretical approaches to Atheism/non-religion/un-belief/ir-religion becomes a useful cultural unit with which we might, from a third-level perspective, make sense of the field itself. That is, if we step back and look at ourselves just as objectively as we look at our subjects, our differences transform from an atonal mess of scholastic disagreements, into a more discursively valuable cultural system.
This brings us, then, to this post, which I have listed here to further the notion (as I’ve done throughout this year) that everything, even this blog, is fictional by the fact that it is designed, constructed, created, and imagined via my intentions. As discursive data, however, it also provides an interesting insight into those things that influenced my thoughts. Here’s to another year.
It was also the eve of my return home to Edinburgh.
As I watched excitedly at Religious Studies Project celebrity and expert on phenomenology, Dr. Jonathan Tuckett, capture wasps under a plastic cup, Christopher Cotter cheerily entered into our adolescent little tableau. As he sat down next to me, glancing unfavourably at Jonathan’s growing collection, he told me that he had just concluded a podcast interview with Professor Johannes Quack. Without hesitation, I immediately responded: I need to write that response.
I first met Johannes a few years back at the 2012 Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network’s conference at Goldsmith’s University, where I critiqued the term ‘non-religion’ via a discussion of dinosaurs.
I’ve also been a rather big fan of his work, his ethnographic study of rationalism in India, aptly titled Disenchanting India, being one of the first books I read when I began research for my PhD. Of all the individuals whom I have encountered who work within the boundaries of ‘non-religion,’ his usage has seemed, to me at least, to be one of the most practical, even though I still quite critically disagree with his notion of the term as a ‘relational concept.’
As well, I also had the great pleasure of having him as the session chair for my presentations at the IAHR, despite his adamant repetition and use of the term non-religion in a panel on ‘Current Perspectives of Atheism.’
Nonetheless, his presence, and counter position to my criticism, proved quite beneficial. This is especially the case as I’ve begun spreading my argument about the idea that our different theoretical and methodological approaches are, in fact, a boon to the study of Atheism, rather than a hinderance.
This is the central thesis that I put forth in my response to his interview with Chris, which should be published this week. I’ll post it here once it comes out.
In the meantime, I’m going to take the next 100 words or so to both summarise my argument, as well as present what I mean, free of any sort of filter I may have added for the benefit of the Religious Studies Project’s listeners.
In his Introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Atheism, Stephen Bullivant argues that the scholastic plurality of the term Atheism (such as can be found within the pages of the handbook itself), would, by sheer means of theoretical disparity, lead to a ‘Babel Handbook of Atheism.’ While his point is indeed valid, particularly in the context of his role as editor, it also reflects what I argue is perhaps a rather beneficial issue:
when viewed as a cultural unit, in the same way we would objectively assess the subjects of an anthropological examination, the polyvocality of this discursive field becomes a collective of individual identities conforming into a group one. Thus, rather than the result being the “frustrating morass of contradictions and cross-purposes” (13) that Bullivant predicts, our different theoretical approaches to Atheism/non-religion/un-belief/ir-religion becomes a useful cultural unit with which we might, from a third-level perspective, make sense of the field itself. That is, if we step back and look at ourselves just as objectively as we look at our subjects, our differences transform from an atonal mess of scholastic disagreements, into a more discursively valuable cultural system.
This is, in essence, the argument I put forth in my response.
As well, when we add this to my previous argument that the study of Atheism is, in fact, essentially the history of the study of religion, writ small, this moves our discourse away from the centuries of theoretical debate that have mired that particular endeavour, into a more practical arena.
Thus, when we view ourselves objectively, and therefore examine our own discourse, that is, our own language use, as we would the discourses of those we intend to study, our disagreements become a useful conglomerate with which we might determine a unique identity: the study of Atheism, via the different voices that give it meaning.
As I concluded my response, and as I will conclude this short little preview, a Babel handbook need not be seen as a problem, if we simply consider that though we might not be using the same words, we are all still speaking the same conceptual language.
At both the BASR conference at the University of Kent last September, and the Ways of Knowing Post-Graduate conference at the Harvard Divinity School last week, I presented the early research I’ve conducted so far for one of my post-thesis projects.
Originally, this idea came to me when I read Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and then Crace’s similar Quarantine, both of which tell different perspectives on the Gospel narratives. Having studied these authors in my research on Atheism, it struck me as rather intriguing to see how two different types of Atheists chose to represent Jesus in two different, yet still critical, ways. This then led to the question: do these novels present a type of Atheist discourse, a fictional representation of these author’s Atheism, isolated within a particular (and shared) fictional context? I then researched a bit more, and discovered that not only was the Jesus novel a genre with roots reaching back to such critical texts as Strauss’ (1835-6) Da LebenJesu, kritischbearbeited (The Life of Jesus Critically Examined) and Renan’s (1863) La Vie de Jesus (The Life of Jesus), but that it had also become a contemporary genre with examples coming from notable names such as AnneRice and Anthony Burgess. As well, I likewise found that there were in fact a few more Atheist gospels beyond Pullman and Crace’s examples.
This then developed into a (rather fun) research project.
I’ve provided more detail below, presented as it would, for the benefit of the reader, on a Post-Doc application.
Introduction: Discourse, Narrative, and the Precariousness of Defining Atheism
PART ONE: The Afterlives of Jesus
Ch. 1: The Historical Jesus
Ch. 2: The Fictional Jesus
PART TWO: An Atheist Gospel
Introduction: Fairclough’s Three Analytically Separable Elements
Ch. 3: Kazantzakis: The Last Temptation
Ch. 4: Saramago: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ
Ch. 5: Crace: Quarantine
Ch. 6: Pullman: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
PART THREE: Analysis
Ch. 7: The Atheist Gospel and Fiction as Ethnography
Ch. 8: Literary Atheism: Jesus as Myth, and the Atheism of Fictionalization
In the last decade, Atheism has become more and more publically disseminated, due in large part to the popularity of the ‘New Atheism’ of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. At the same time, the academic study of Atheism has in many ways echoed this popularity, creating a rather sundry discourse about how we methodologically approach the subject, as well as how we might theoretically define the term itself. As such, and regardless of the simplicity we might assume about its meaning, Atheism has become a rather precarious concept, to the point that we might accurately assert that there are just as many definitions of Atheism as there are Atheists. Thus, not only is constructing a definition an altogether difficult task, so is determining the philosophical foundations that underscore an individual’s identity as an ‘Atheist.’
This is partly the blame of our own academic discourse, a theoretical perpetuation of the manner with which religious scholars have stipulated or generalized the meaning of the term ‘religion.’ Perhaps, then, we might argue that a more expedient methodology would be to substitute this type of approach with one that affords the Atheists we intend to study with the opportunity to discursively define their own Atheism, and thus the manner with which they define the term, both individually, and in relation to an established religious belief. This research project will be an attempt at doing just that.
This is not, however, the only way in which this project will provide a distinct voice. In addition to the promotion of a discursive approach to the study of Atheism, the discourse chosen to conduct this research will come from sources not yet considered by previous or current researchers in the field: the ‘Jesus novel.’ Namely, this project will conduct a close analysis of four fictional texts that collectively share a common thematic interest: the story of Jesus Christ. Though for the last few centuries this genre has mostly presented apologetic accounts of Jesus’ ‘missing years,’ there has arisen an occasional text that provides not only a critical interpretation, but also a particular type of Atheist discourse. These ‘Atheist gospels’ will be my central focus, and my analysis will determine both the distinct Atheist voices used to construct these narratives, as well as how they themselves shape the meaning, and literary description, of Atheism on a larger scale.
Developing its methodology from the emerging study of the ‘Jesus novel’ (Ziolkowski 1984, Crook 2007 and 2011, Tate 2008a and 2008b, Ramey 2013, Maczynksa 2015, and Holderness 2015), this project will use these four texts as unique types of fictional ‘fifth gospels,’ novels written by Atheist authors, which present critical perspectives on the gospel narratives. What I intend to argue with this project, then, is not only that these ‘Atheist gospels’ offer a distinct contribution to the fictionalization of those gospel narratives, but that they equally provide a unique insight into the Atheist philosophies underscoring their own narratives. The result of this analysis will thus be twofold: an innovative discursive approach that will both question, as well as theoretically progress, the use of fictional narratives as sources on cultural concepts, that will likewise provide a useful insight into how such a concept can be determined by a textual representation that functions less like fiction and more like ethnography.
Though not structured as such, the research programme that I intend for this project is perhaps more easily determined by three themes: the ‘Jesus novel,’ fiction as ethnography, and Atheist discourse.
With the first theme, I will establish both a theoretical base upon which to build my own research, as well as indicate the lacuna that I intend to fill, by focusing on the dichotomous interplay between Jesus’ two leading ‘afterlives:’ the study of the ‘historical Jesus,’ and the study of the ‘fictional’ one. As such, I will be dividing this first theme into three essential parts: the Historical Jesus, the Fictional Jesus, and the novels that represent the latter. For the first, I will develop an introductory (and necessarily cursory) discussion of the Historical Jesus, utilizing early and essential sources such as Bultmann’s exegesis, Schweizer’s seminal Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), as well as a number of additional voices, such as Wright (1999), Ehrman (2011), and Bond (2012). For the second, I will likewise introduce the notion of the ‘quest for the fictional Jesus,’ relying on texts that have devoted their research to establishing this as a particular field. For the third, I will undertake a preliminary analysis (by means of an introduction) of the ‘Jesus novels’ themselves, so as to better introduce the genre, as well as further establish where within it my notion of the ‘Atheist gospel’ might fit.
For the second of my three-part thematic programme, I will turn my attention to using the ‘Atheist gospel’ as an ethnographic source. This itself will entail three specific foci: an introduction to the ‘Atheist gospel,’ how I might use these sources ‘anthropologically,’ and how they might represent an ‘Atheist narrative.’
For the first focus, I will introduce the texts themselves: Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation, Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Crace’s Quarantine, and Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. With the second, I will establish a correlative link between the literary aspects of reading and using ethnographic texts, and the use of fiction in the analysis of particular cultural identities. As such, I will trace within a number of theoretical examples (notably Clifford 1986, Geertz 1999, Eriksen 1994, and Ellis 2004) how ethnographic writing in general involves an act of fictionalization, thus giving way to the notion that even when focused on a fictionalized world, a novel can provide for us an insight into the author’s opinions and beliefs. This methodological perspective will then feed into my analysis of each ‘Atheist gospel.’ For the third focus, my examination will follow a specific discursive paradigm, which I will amend from Fairclough’s (2003) ‘three analytically separable elements’ in the study of discourse: the production of the text, the text itself, and the reception of the text. As such, it will focus first on a biographical examination of each novelist’s Atheism, determined by an investigation of their non-fiction, as well as interviews I intend (though not yet secured) to conduct with the two currently living authors (Crace and Pullman). Then, I will interpret how their Atheism has penetrated their texts, linking philosophical and cultural distinctions between their fiction and their non-fiction. This will be followed by my own ‘reception’ of these texts, wherein I will shape my final analysis around a discussion of their ‘ethnographic value.’
With the research programme’s third thematic element, my focus will center on linking the Atheism within these novels to a number of equitable sources on Atheist argumentation, from Bertrand Russell’s criticism of religious belief via his ‘celestial China teapot,’ to the critical notion that a further fictionalization of Jesus’ life not only makes the statement that the gospels themselves are ‘fictions,’ but so too is the character of Jesus as well. This third thematic discussion will likewise examine the ‘argument from fictionalization,’ taken up by contemporary Atheists such as Sagan (1995), Baggini (2003), and Dawkins (2004), as well as the Biblical scholarship that underscores the notion of the ‘Christ myth theory:’ Doherty (1999), Price (2000), Harpur (2004), and Carrier (2014).
To conclude the text, I intend to further argue how the ‘Atheist gospel’ functions as both an ethnographic description of a particular identity, as well as an example of Atheism in literary form.
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The Definition of Atheism
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***In my search this week for the perfect ‘featured image’ for this post, I came across these hilarious re-interpretations from the tumblr “Jesus-Everywhere,” which, though they present an interesting type of criticism, might likewise be viewed as just as valid in their appearance as any visual, or fictional, representation.***
Religion, Critical Theory and Conspiracism | Lecturer in Religious Studies at the Open University | Co-founding Editor of the Religious Studies Project | Editor, Implicit Religion | Bulletin Editor of the British Association for the Study of Religion.