Thesis for Ants

A few weeks back, the reddit user (‘redditor’) /u/FaithMilitant posed the following simple question to the subreddit, /r/AskReddit:

PhD’s of Reddit. What is a dumbed down summary of your thesis?

While the resulting discussion proved rather intriguing, for my interests here, and by using it as discourse, I formed the following 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.  

Let’s begin with how this discussion has been disseminated.

Shortly after it took place on reddit, the ‘click-bait’ website,, published a collection of the top twenty comments.  While their version is easily accessible, I thought it might be best to list the one’s they’ve chosen here:

Does music express emotions or just elicit them? Read the next 200 pages to not find out. 

Girls take birth control. Girls then pee out unmetabolized estrogens from birth control. Pee goes to water treatment plant, estrogens not treated, male fish become female fish.

Nanoparticles are weird and I accidentally made a bomb and electrocuted myself.

People trying meditation for the first time get aroused.

When I get rid of this gene, it messes the brain up. A lot.

Computer AI systems can learn to operate a warp drive and automatically build an instructional system to train people how to do it. My dissertation is probably the only one in existence to reference the Star Trek technical manual.

My experimental drug does NOT cure addiction.

Making new magnets from old magnets because we’re running out of magnets.

Inpatients with schizophrenia are happier and socialize more in the context of a music listening group. It was obvious before we began the project and we learned nothing.

Little things stick together. Here’s a slightly easier way to calculate their stickiness.

There are amoebas living in volcanos, but I never captured Bigfoot on film (I tried).

We can take random pieces of bacterial DNA from beaver poop and put them into other bacteria to discover new things, like how to break wood down into biofuels. Yes, I had to dissect dead beavers and handle their poop.
/u/Geneius (account seems to have been deactivated, and the original comment has been removed)

This protein looks like it might contribute to asthma. Oh, turns out it probably doesn’t.

I crunch numbers using a supercomputer in the hopes of ensuring a fusion reactor in France doesn’t get fried on the inside.

Two proteins touch each other in a specific place in the developing heart. No idea if it’s important for anything.

I can make models of galaxies in a computer, but I can’t explain why they don’t act like real ones. Even if I bash them together or stir them around.

People sometimes think about animals as if they’re people. People like those animals a little more than regular animals. Except when they don’t. I can’t believe they gave me a PhD.

Sand washes away, don’t build important stuff on it

Why does a coffee stain looks the way it is, and how you can use it to make anti-laser glasses.

You can make antimatter move in strange ways if you set your equipment up wrong.

Aside from the interesting diversity of each of these ‘dumbed down’ Thesis topics, they all stand out as predominately science-based, from computer science, to biology, physics, engineering, mathematics, chemistry, zoology, psychology, and neuroscience.

So, then, how do these comments reflect a discursive perception beyond how they have been disseminated by this article?  To understand that, it might be necessary to explain a bit more about how commenting functions on reddit.

Most of these comments, chosen specifically by the author of the article (Zainab Coovadia), are what are known as ‘best comments.’  That is, within the context of a reddit discussion, since every comment made can be ‘down-voted’ or ‘up-voted,’ these comments have each amassed a large number of up-votes.

Now, if we keep in mind that each up-vote correlates to a single individual, as a user can only up-vote or down-vote a comment once (bearing in mind individuals might have more than one reddit account), then the number of up-votes for each comment equals the number of individuals who read that comment.  In the case of these ‘best comments,’ this equals out to a couple thousand individuals.  In fact, /u/Bear_Ear_Fritters‘ comment (“This protein looks like it might contribute to asthma. Oh, turns out it probably doesn’t.”) has, at the time of this writing, 8178 up-votes.

While the notion that over eight-thousand people have seen this comment points out the rather interesting manner in which the internet, and sites like reddit, assist us in presenting our research to the ‘general public,’ it also provides an intriguing discursive look at how signifiers, such as the term ‘PhD,’ are filled with meaning by large groups of people.  After all, while Coovadia may have chosen these twenty dumbed-down thesis descriptions based on their popularity on reddit, their popularity itself determines the fact that, in the context within which they exist, the notion of a ‘PhD’ is tied almost exclusively to the sciences.

As well, though this somewhat stereotypical assessment is, of course, open to a great deal of interpretative questioning (such as, is the average redditor more science-minded than humanities-minded?), as pure data, it would not be unreasonable to hypothesise that perhaps this popularity reflects a publicly perceived notion that a PhD is something usually related to research in the sciences.  This is especially so when we consider that there are a number of humanities-based comments that did not receive the same level of up-votes/views.

As further evidence of this, we might equally cite the number of news articles published recently that share a common thematic headline: ‘the humanities is an endangered species.’

Here we find a discourse crystallising the reddit discourse, though perhaps not directly.

Where with the reddit one, the meaning of the term ‘PhD’ is determined by its research within the sciences, established by the fact that the ‘best comments’ are predominately science-based.  Then, with the discourse arising out of the articles cited above, that meaning is solidified by the fact that the humanities is ‘in crisis,’ thus perpetuating the notion that a ‘proper’ PhD has something to do with the sciences.

In this way, though they are thematically unrelated, the two discourses feed into each other, further establishing the idea that a science PhD somehow carries more weight, or ‘meaning,’ than its counterpart in the humanities.

While this analytical conclusion might tell us something about the relationship between the public’s perception of a concept and the way that perception is organised and determined by the language used by sources such as the news media, it also tells us something about the efforts we must take in both describing our research, as well as how the public’s opinion might change via that description.

This might, then, equally explain the growing popularity of humanities programs that are designed to look like science programs (the cognitive science approach to the study of religion, for example), in an effort to counteract the notion that the former is something easily dismissed when school budgets are cut.

Or, 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?’

A Stereotypical Post

It must be fall (that’s ‘autumn’ to my British-minded friends).

Here’s how I can tell.

The weather here in Edinburgh has changed.  Our one day of summer (it’s customary to say that there’s only one day of summer here) has ended and we’re back to the cold, wet, raininess that Auld Reekie is known for.

There were a few days where you could walk down any main street without either:

  1. Being struck by an individual walking backward, quickly, while looking in a completely different direction, likely gesturing to someone else about how to get somewhere in town, or where the closest Starbucks is located.
  2. Being handed a flyer for a free one man show or free stand-up comedy routine, neither of which would, in the end, be worth the price of admission.
  3. Being inundated by a chorus of different sounding ‘musical’ instruments.
  4. Having to avoid walking too close to some poor idiot in a predator costume, or an alien costume, or pretending to be a statue, or that annoying one where there’s a guy sitting on the ground holding up another guy on a pole.  People go nuts with that one.  Why?  He’s holding a pole that is balanced on the ground and the guy on top is just sitting on a board!!!  It’s not that incredible, people!!!really?!?
  5. Finding yourself in someone’s picture; or, more accurately, finding yourself in everyone’s picture of some building pretending to be the ‘birthplace of Harry Potter’ (being hit with a selfie stick is included here).

In fact, for those few days, everything seemed nice and quite and lovely.

That’s changed a bit.  The end of the Edinburgh Festival has given way to the start of a new semester.  Now, rather than thousands and thousands of tourists, it’s hundreds and hundreds of bright-eyed, nervous-looking new students.

Not only is this evinced by the influx of people you see wearing brightly coloured windbreakers and comfortable walking shoes (likely hiking boots), as they’ve been told to wear in ‘European Cities’ by experts like Rick Steves, but by their parents, loud and heavily accented, holding up the self-check out line at Tesco, buying as much ‘Scotch’ as they can fit in their luggage.

As well, it was rather obvious the other day when I had to run over to the Main Library to print off yet another form for our visa extension application.  On the way, I passed by a Starbucks, noticing a rather large line.  I normally avoid establishments like Starbucks, not because I’m one of them ‘down with capitalism’ types, but mostly cause I don’t fancy gallons of caffeinated sugar water.  When I approached the line, I also noticed something rather particular about the clientele: they were mostly young, excited, women.  Was there some sort of event?  Was it aimed at women in particular?

In fact, and as I soon discovered, the event in question was the first day that Starbucks was serving their famous Pumpkin spice Latte.

Starbucks-Pumpkin-spice-LatteSo why all the women?

Because that’s the stereotype.

For a few years now, the ‘internet’ (the collective term we give to the ever-shifting discourse of the digital highway) has had a love affair with stereotyping the Pumpkin Spice Latte with ‘white girls.’

Here’s some pretty good examples.

This definition from Urban Dictionary:

pumpkin spice latte
A drink from starbucks that many white girls drink during the fall while dressed in boots (typically uggs), yoga pants (or leggings of some sort), and a jacket.
There must have been a lot of pumpkin spice lattes at the university in the winter, because all of the girls were wearing yoga pants, uggs, and a jacket.
by Viscerous November 15, 2013

This article on Flavorwire, aptly titled: “White Women Love Pumpkin Spice Lattes, Declares the Internet.”

All these tweets, collected by the good people at Thought Catalog.

Here’s a few samplers:
Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 17.58.43Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 18.02.50Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 18.03.45Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 18.05.15Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 18.06.08

There’s also these ‘meme’ images:

latte latte 2 latte 3

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.

These are things you might want to think about, I suppose, the next time a barista calls you forward and hands you that pumpkin spice latte with your name written on the cup.

The cover image I used for this post comes from an instagram account set up to criticise the ‘authenticity’ of people posting images of themselves on the internet, using, of all things, a Barbie doll.  It’s really good, and is definitely worth a look:

Live from Canterbury, It’s the Annual Conference of the British Association for the Study of Religions

Well, that’s not entirely true.  This isn’t actually ‘live’ from Canterbury.

I’m actually on the train, traveling south from Edinburgh.  We just crossed the border.

Welcome to England, have some tea.

When I moved to Edinburgh, four years ago last Friday, I arrived a week earlier than necessary, as I was told that there was ‘this conference’ that everyone goes to, and that I should come along, if I felt so inclined.  Because I had never been to an academic conference before, and in all honesty had no idea where Durham was on the map, nor any idea how to get there, I declined the offer and wandered around Edinburgh for a few days.

Since then, however, the BASR conference has always been an indicator of the new Academic year, a ‘back-to-school’ sale, if you will.  It is the last and final thing we do before starting back up.  Before we begin preparing for tutorials, and before we get back into the ‘swing’ of things.

This year, it’s a tad bitter sweet, really.  While we await the judgement of the UK Home Office on whether or not we will be permitted to stick around a bit longer, for pragmatic reasons I’ve taken to think of this as my last BASR for quite some time.  It’s silly, of course, to think that I might not ever attend another one, especially when one considers the years I might still have left to live.

Thus, I suppose that even if we are kindly requested to return to our own country post haste, this doesn’t mark the end of my relationship with the BASR.

Yet, the feeling persists.  It’s the same sort of notion I found myself thinking the last time I was in Paris (embarrassingly butchering the French tongue).  This is my last Parisian baguette, my last sandwich on the Seine, my last bottle of Cote de Provence in the Jardin de Luxembourg.

Then again, perhaps this is nothing more than the result of knowing that next week, with the BASR conference behind me, there is no new semester, no more ‘back-to-school.’  School is over, and as much as its been a relief to finally cease being a student, there’s a hole there now, and it needs filling.

At last year’s BASR conference I had the esteemed pleasure of organising, and participating in, a panel titled: Discursive and Material Approaches to the Study of Atheism and Non-Religion.  With me were three remarkable talents: Katie Aston, Lorna Mumford, and Lydia Reid.

Here’s the abstract of our panel:

Since Campbell’s (1971) call for a sociological study of the ‘irreligious,’ the field of study on Atheism, Irreligion, Non-Religion, Secularism, and Unbelief has gained a great deal of footing in differing academic circles. While this has, on one hand, generated a growing ambiguity in terminological consensus, it has also, on the other, fostered a multi-disciplinary and broad spectrum of methodological approaches. Whilst we might decry the former for presenting equivocality to the subject area, the latter is essential in engendering a diverse and richly nuanced understanding of the subject matter in general. With this in mind, this panel will present four methodological approaches to the study of Atheism and Non-Religion, from different perspectives, and with a focus on discursive and material interests in how individuals are defined, and define themselves, within the category of religion, non-religion, and Atheism. By means of these differing perspectives it will act to demonstrate the value, even necessity, in approaching and viewing such a budding subject through a number of distinct lenses.

As well, here’s an excellent description and analysis of the panel by Lorna Mumford for the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network’s blog:

This year, the panel that I’ve organised is a tad smaller: only two of us this time, with a very different theme.  As before, both the theme of the panel, as well as my presentation, were heavily influenced by the research I was conducting for the PhD, this time the topic is less geared toward my obsession with ‘the Thesis,’ and more about the ‘next step.’

For this panel, I am happily joined by a good friend and colleague, Clement Grene, PhD candidate in Biblical Studies at New College.  This is our second conference together.  Prior to this, we presented at the inaugural International Association for Heresy Studies conference at NYU a few years back (where we taught a number of young Americans the benefit of the conference bar), and will be presenting together again next month at the Harvard Divinity School’s annual Ways of Knowing graduate conference.

Our theme is religion and fiction, titled: Fiction in the Study of Religion: Two Case Studies.

Here’s the abstract for the panel:

The use of fiction in the study of religion is both old and new. While fictional texts, such as novels, poetry, film, and television programs have been used in the past to discuss how authors might adopt religious discourse into their imagined worlds, how that is theorized, and then analyzed, is a somewhat new endeavor. This panel will present two case studies wherein the ‘use’ of fiction will provide equally nuanced and significant approaches to the study of religion. The first presentation, by Clement Grene, will isolate this discussion by focusing on a distinct source: the literary approaches to the ‘historical Jesus.’ By looking at the narrative qualities that underscore the search for the historical Jesus, this paper will develop the idea that even when a textual analysis is meant to interpret something as ‘genuine’ or ‘real,’ it is also influenced by the fictionalization of that topic. The second presentation, by Ethan Quillen, will develop even further from this argument by presenting a discursive examination of the ‘gospel novel,’ a truly fictionalized version of the life of Jesus, written in a particularly critical way, as a source of Atheism. By developing its focus from the previous presentation, this one will provide not only a theoretical perspective on the study of ‘religion’ in fiction, but how that medium might provide for us a means with which to further experiment with the manner in which we do that.

Here’s our individual abstracts:


The Jesus of History and the Christ of Literature: Literary Approaches to Historical Jesus Research 

The area of historical Jesus research is one of the most hotly-contested within all of Biblical studies. Ever since the boom of the late nineteenth liberal lives of Jesus, scholars have always tended to conceptualize and write about the historical Jesus in the form of a narrative. Whether they acknowledge it or not, this means that factors such as aesthetic considerations play as important a role as historical plausibility in their reconstruction of Jesus. This paper will briefly examine a number of historical Jesus texts that are notable in this regard. Among the key ones will be Gerd Theissen’s Shadow of the Galilean; Bruce Chilton’s Rabbi Jesus, J.D. Crossan’s The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, Harold Bloom’s Jesus and YHWH: The Names Divine, and A.N. Wilson’s Jesus: A Life. The thread I will be tracing between all of these is to what extent each of these writers allow personal aesthetic preferences to trump historical plausibility; to what extent they are open with themselves and their readers about the fact that they are doing this; and the way in which some use an authoritative, omniscient narrator-like voice in relating their theories, making their arguments seem stronger not because they are more persuasive but because of the narrative-like qualities of their work. 


An Atheist Gospel: The Quest for the Fictional Jesus and the Gospel Novel as Atheist Discourse 

In many ways similar to the precarious nature of defining ‘religion,’ the meaning of ‘Atheism’ is as equally difficult to define with any sort of certainty. Not only is the term described by academics in a number of various historical and theoretical iterations, those who identify as ‘Atheist’ oftentimes do not do so in accord with other Atheists. Therefore, any attempt at stipulating a broad or useful meaning of the term is usually fraught with equivocality. Instead, we might find better success in seeking out how the term has been discursively used, avoiding the hazards of term stipulation on one end, while gaining a much more nuanced interpretation about how individuals use particular discourses in order to define their own identities on the other. This paper will be an attempt at doing this, using three novels as discursive data. As such, it will be broken into three parts: an introduction of what I mean by a ‘fictional Jesus’ and how it relates to the notion of an ‘historical Jesus;’ a description of what might entail a ‘gospel novel;’ and three examples with which to test my hypothesis that these represent a unique type of Atheist discourse. In the third part, this paper will focus much of its attention on the three texts chosen for this examination—Moorcock’s Behold the Man, Crace’s Quarantine, and Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ—striking a balance between textual and discursive analysis, by focusing on both the texts and those individuals who authored them. To conclude, this paper will make a final argument that this type of analysis not only better defines how we might use fiction in the study of religion, but also how that might more clearly provide for us a source for the ‘meaning’ of concepts such as religion and Atheism.

When we finish our panel tomorrow, it will mark the end of my third BASR conference, as well as another reminder that in the future, ‘back-to-school’ will never mean the same as it once did.  That’s ok, though.  Change is useful and good for us.  Our presentation, then, will function like a transitional conduit, an embodiment of the liminal exchange from one stage of life to the next, a door open to a new life.

Vanilla English

Leaving the XXI Quinquennial IAHR in Erfurt, I stopped off at the University for one last coffee before boarding the tram’s Liene 6 (Riethe, Erfurt) to the train station (Hauptbahnhof).  On the tram, a gentleman I’d not met at the conference shouted over the noise, “English?!”

It took me a few seconds to decipher whether he meant, “do you speak English,” or, “are you English.”

It was the latter.

He had seen that my name tag, which also functioned as a free public transport pass, had the word ‘Edinburgh’ printed under my name.

I responded, “No, American,” to which he asked: “North or South?”

I told him: “North, Southern California.”

His response, in a rather heavy accent which I, embarrassingly, was having trouble understanding, was: “Is it cold in Edinburgh?  Snow?”

Our conversation then descended into the banal, yet polite, sort of back and forth conversation that people have when limited by language differences.  We talked about the weather in our countries, and the winters in Scotland and Lithuania, before he stood to exit at his stop and bid me a friendly, “Nice to meet you, enjoy English.”

When I arrived in Berlin, I dropped off my bag at a locker, and decided to ‘walk the streets,’ which really meant, walk from Central Station (Hauptbahnhof), through the Brandenburg Gate, and then the length of Unter den Linden to Museum Island and the Berliner Dom (Cathedral).

When I passed through the Brandenburg Gate, after deftly avoiding all the people taking pictures straddling where the wall once separated East and West Berlin, I entered out onto the wide expanse of Pariser Platz.  There, in the centre, intoning loudly and with sincere passion, was a bagpiper.

He was playing “Danny Boy.”

I took a picture, lamented the fact that pipers follow me everywhere now, had a pretzel, a few pilsners, and returned to the train station a broken man.

At the airport (Schönefeld, not Tegel), I squeezed into a small section of an Irish Bar, the only place to sit and eat and drink before one’s flight (Schönefeld is a terrible airport to fly out of).  I ordered a German beer, because a Guinness or a Kilkenny felt out of place.  I also borrowed a stool from two elderly travellers, who seemed rather put out to let me have it.  It turns out, they were saving it for their coats, for when their wives returned from the duty free shop.  They let me have it, of course, though grumbled in German.  After that we politely ignored each other for a few minutes.

When the gate for my flight was announced, I noticed they too began to gather their belongings.  I politely gave them back their stool (in case they needed it) and thanked them.

One of the gentleman suddenly asked, “Oh, you speak English?”  I answered him that I did, to which he responded: “Only English?  No French, or German?”  I told him a little French (Je parle un petit peu le français), and he smiled back.

“Oh,” he said, “just plain vanilla English.  Ok.  See you on the flight.”

A few minutes later, as I stood in line to board the flight, and as my new friends slowly made their way behind me with their bags of liquor and chocolate, I found myself feeling somewhat conflicted.  I was certain that his association of my language as ‘vanilla English’ was meant as an insult, likely referring to it as being bland or boring.  However, it also seemed like an intriguing thing to analyse.

First, I thought, why do we associate vanilla with something bland?  Vanilla isn’t boring.  It’s actually rather exotic.

It was originally cultivated from the Mexican vanilla orchid, which the Aztecs called, tlilxochitl, which was then introduced to Europe via the conquistador Hernán Cortés (alongside its dichotomous partner, chocolate) in the early sixteenth century.

Since then, it’s literally traveled the world, and comes from a number of equally ‘exotic’ locations: MadagascarRéunion island, and other tropical islands within the Indian Ocean (Vanilla planifolia), the South Pacific (Vanilla tahitensis), and the West Indies, Central, and South America (Vanilla pompon).

As well, the means to produce it outside Mexico have needed to adopt ‘by-hand’ pollination, as it was originally dependent upon, and could only produce, when pollinated by a particular species of bee (Melipona).  In fact, according to the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu, it’s the second most expensive ‘spice’ after saffron.

Vanilla isn’t bland.

As my ticket was scanned I continued to think that perhaps this was a perfect metaphor: to call my language ‘vanilla English’ seemed, in fact, a rather apt description.  Regardless of whether or not he meant it, my new friend at the Irish Bar in Berlin was properly describing the diversity of English, exemplified by the fact that, in an Irish Bar, in Berlin, he was using it to describe my language as ‘vanilla.’

Likewise, maybe this distinction was meant as a way of referring to the English language as something accessible to all.  After all, not only is it universally used, there are in fact a number of different types of English: from British to American, Canadian, and Australian, a whole diverse world of Anglophone speakers adjusting and amending the flavour of the language with unique vernaculars and cultural and contextual influences.

Second, this association of my language as ‘vanilla’ is yet another reminder that, as a flavour, differences of perspective should not be seen as adverse to each other, but rather as individual and unique.  When combined, then, they create something new, a discourse of flavours coming together in a melange, an immersion of both likewise and disparate ideologies that develop and evolve and become something just as, if not more, meaningful because of their blending together.

On the plane, these thoughts were mixing nicely with the free wine and peanuts.  I started to think back to my presentation, which I wrote about last week, and about the differences between those of us who study Atheism (usually more history focused) and those of us who study Non-religion (usually more social-scientific).  These are like flavours, and like the idea that vanilla and chocolate are opposite, they are in fact extremely close relatives, introduced to the ‘western’ world at the same time, and from the same ‘exotic’ origin.

Thus, our language, though different, should not be seen as wholly separate or divided, but of equal essence and quality.  As I argued last week, our differences of opinion or approach don’t represent a weakness, but rather a wider discourse, leading us to a better understanding about a subject and concept, and how those whom we study go about describing themselves in a myriad of different ways.

As such, and just as how a discursive approach to the study of ‘religion’ works to release us from the precarious and difficult task of theoretically ‘defining’ the term, I find myself once again in praise of polyvocality.

After all, who hasn’t enjoyed an ice cream cone swirled with both vanilla and chocolate?

As we made our descent into Edinburgh, and I strained my eyes to make out the two towers of New College (still tragically draped in festival banners), I noticed a fly buzzing around the edges of the window.  When we landed and they opened the rear door, I caught one last glimpse of this little stowaway as it escaped into the night air.  Later, as I approached the immigration desk, I thought to myself, do you think the fly’s first thoughts, as it exited the aircraft, were:

Was soll der unsinn?  Ich spreche kein Englisch.  Wo bekomme ich ein ticket für die straßenbahn?

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

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

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

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

Ethan Quillen

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

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

Ingela Visuri

Autism, theism and atheism

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

Stephen LeDrew

Atheism as a Secular Religion

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

Ethan Quillen

Fictionalized Identity: Narrative Representations of Atheism as Ethnographic Source

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

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

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

Presenting here yesterday felt very much like this.

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

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

I responded that I did not feel that way.

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

One final note.

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

Nothing is Real, and Nothing To Get Hung About

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

kouros 1 kouros 2

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

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

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

There are two renowned museums of fake art in Europe:

The Fälschermuseum, in Vienna, Austria.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lascaux 1lascaux 2lascaux 3


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Language Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oui,” I responded.

“Ah, George Bush.  I no like ‘im.”

It’s the Little Differences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These changes include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As he likewise states later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Anderson himself states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shameless Self-Promotion

My initial intention with this week’s post was to discuss the little differences we might imagine between cultural and national identities, particularly concerning the notion of ‘community’ in regard to the odd liminality felt by the ‘foreign’ PhD student.  That will be next week.

Today, a special edition of the journal Science, Religion, and Culture on Atheism, Secularity, and Science was published, for which I srccontributed.  Not one to let the iron cool before striking, I thought it might be useful to use this week’s post as a blatant and entirely shameless plug not only for my own article, but for the others that accompany it as well.

I first came to learn of this special issue through Tommy Coleman, a colleague at the Religious Studies Project, who has made quite a name for himself in the field of the Psychology of Religion, and its influence on the study of Atheism, secularity, etc.  He is quite the proliferate scholar, so here are some useful sources for reading about his work:

As the co-editor of this special issue along with John R. Shook and Ralph W. Hood Jr., Tommy has played an integral role in communicating and assisting throughout the process.  For that, I am quite grateful.

The issue itself (as I perceive it) is an attempt at tackling the ever-growing identity crisis within the field of Atheist Studies, particularly in reference to the fact that there are some (perhaps many) who would likely disagree with my notion that this field should be, in any way, referred to as such.  In fact, this is rather well said in the issue’s Introduction:

Where it was once typical to begin a research article, introduction to a book volume, or special journal issue such as this one, by the researcher lamenting their particular field of study for neglecting such topics, this kind of pleading is no longer tenable (Bullivant and Lee, 2012). Nonetheless, as researchers we cannot afford to rest on our laurels for very long. While studies on atheism and secularity now exist across disciplines ranging from psychology, cognitive science, sociology, religious studies, philosophy, anthropology, and many others, this provides only a theoretical and methodological starting point from which to explore the given topic. Importantly, within each of these disciplines lay multiple competing frameworks, field-specific conceptualizations, and inter-disciplinary scuffles as to precisely what secularity is, and how to study it. Typically, pre-existing frameworks developed for use in religious believing populations are modified to fit nonbelievers, as nonbelief is often presumed to be the dark shadow of whatever belief or religiosity is (Coleman and Arrowood, 2015Silver, Coleman, Hood, and Holcombe, 2014). How far this approach will go toward answering whatever questions the scholar is interested in is an open one.

While there are points and theoretical positions within the articles published here with which I find myself in disagreement (such as Jonathan Jong’s “On (not) defining (non)religion”), the issue itself makes a number of quite useful strides toward an establishment of some sense of academic identity.  Which is no small endeavour.

For years now I have been referring to this area of interest as a ‘flying dutchman,’ cast about in a sea of opposed approaches and interests, without a distinct port-of-call.  Where before I might have lamented this fact, such as we might do when presented with the myriad ways in which the very terms we use are defined, my position has shifted a bit.

No longer do I think our ‘flying dutchman’ status is detrimental to our cause.  After all, while many voices proclaiming different things might seem to some as an atonal din, for others, that might sound like a chorus.

Or, said otherwise, and as I argued in my article, rather than dismiss this discourse because it reflects many voices saying different things, why not embrace it and simply allow people to say what it is they think and believe.

It is my opinion that this special issue does just that.

For this reason, not only was I quite happy to have been considered for this publication, I am also hopeful that it might be perceived as an example of how our theoretical and methodological hodgepodge might also prove ultimately beneficial to the academy’s larger understanding of Atheism and its many cognate terms.

For the benefit of the reader, then, I’ve provided the following links:

An Introduction to Atheism, Secularity, and Science,” by Thomas J. Coleman III, Ralph W. Hood Jr., and John R. Shook.

On (not) defining (non)religion,” by Jonathan Jong

Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism,” by Ethan G. Quillen

The NonReligious-NonSpiritual Scale (NRNSS): Measuring Everyone from Atheists to Zionists,” by Ryan T. Cragun, Joseph H. Hammer, and Michael Nielsen

Atheism, Wellbeing, and the Wager: Why Not Believing in God (With Others) is Good for You,” by Luke Galen

Atheism Looking In: On the Goals and Strategies of Organized Nonbelief,” by Joseph Langston, Joseph Hammer, and Ryan T. Cragun

Explaining the Secularity of Academics: Historical Questions and Psychological Findings,” by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi

The God of Nonbelievers: Characteristics of a Hypothetical God,” by David F. Bradley, Julie J. Exline, and Alex Uzdavines

When Rabbis Lose Faith: Twelve Rabbis Tell their Stories about their Loss of Belief in God,” by Rabbi Paul Shrell-Fox

Research note: “A Profile of the Members of the British Humanist Association,” by Gareth Longden

Research note: “Simple Markov Model for Estimating the Growth of Nonreligion in the United States,” by John Stinespring and Ryan T. Cragun

Book Review: Trent Dougherty, The Problem of Animal Pain: A Theodicy for All Creatures Great and Small, by Liz Goodnick

Book Review: The New Atheist Novel: Fiction, Philosophy, and Polemic after 9/11, by Marcus Mann

Book Review: Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions, by Amanda Schutz

The Expert in the Room

In an attempt to avoid the rain the other day, I ducked into the Scottish National Gallery here in Edinburgh.  It’s a rather lovely gallery, neither too large, nor too small, with some rather impressive pieces.  Two of my favourites are “The Man of Sorrows” (1860) and “David in the Wilderness” (1860), both by the Victorian painter, William Dyce.

christ in highlandsdavid in highlands

I enjoy these paintings because they represent a change of setting, a perspective of the artist that contradicts the ‘historical record,’ wherein his subjects (Jesus and David) have migrated from the realm of the Biblical Holy Land to Dyce’s own: the Scottish Highlands.  I especially enjoy what these paintings tell us about an artist’s perception, about how a narrative might be adopted and amended to suit one’s own context.  Or rather, how as a Christian, Dyce has placed these individuals into his own geographical context, shifting them out of legend and into something more attainable.  He has, in essence, made his religion ‘Scottish.’  To me, this seems aptly similar to the way in which religious beliefs shift and translate, how they become nationalised and tied in with the civil religion of a central location, their discourses homogenised into something entirely new.

Dyce is also known, perhaps more famously, for his “Pegwell Bay–A Recollection of October 5th 1858” (1858-1860)

Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858 ?1858-60 William Dyce 1806-1864 Purchased 1894

Renowned for its association with the genre of ‘Atheist Aesthetics,’ “Pegwell Bay” depicts a discursive shift, a narrative ‘sea change’ wherein the once predominate use of ‘religious’ imagery has been replaced with that of science.  Here, families gather shells and fossils on the low-tide shore as Donati’s Comet soars overhead.  A site frequented by novice and professional fossil hunters, as well as notable theorists like Darwin, Dyce’s use of Pegwell Bay as a setting allows the image to speak on his behalf, revealing a discursive commentary about the ebbing tide of religious belief and the reality of a more science-minded perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

In his Faith and Its Critics, David Fergusson contends that this painting depicts a type of ‘wistful’ and ‘nostalgic’ Atheism, a longing for days gone by, which matches in tone the basis of certain theoretical definitions of Atheism by scholars such as Hyman and Buckley: ‘Modern Atheism’ (that which arose out of and within the Enlightenment) appears as a ‘re-emergence’ of the classical ‘rational-naturalism’ that defines our notion of ‘Ancient Atheism.’  Likewise, this is an Atheist discourse that is equally expressed in textual examples, such as Thomas Hardy’s “God’s Funeral,” or Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”  The latter even evokes a sense of tidal retreat, a poetic mimicry of “Pegwell Bay” via signifying terms like the ‘long withdrawing roar’ of the ‘sea of faith:’

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

While this is all very interesting, and is definitely worth a bit more discussion, my point with this post is actually about something else entirely, inspired by a humorous exchange that I witnessed in the ‘Impressionist’ room of the Scottish National Gallery.

I was enjoying one of Monet’s ‘Haystacks,’ standing off to the side, and a ways back.  Two gentlemen, perhaps in their late fifties or early sixties, approached the painting.  The one on the right, the taller of the two, drew his companion’s attention to the canvas.

“See this brushstroke here,” he said, “that’s indicative of the impressionist’s style, that heavy use of paint, and the way he dragged it up, and to the left.”

“Yeah, I see that,” his companion replied, a slight hint of angst in his voice.

“He had a remarkable eye for colour, and for distinguishing simple tones within the palette, most notably for his use of blue.  You should see his ‘Nymphéas’ at L’Orangerie, in Paris,” the first man said, his voice adopting a velveteen accent.   

The companion smirked slightly, then responded, as if pulling a sandwich out of his pocket and presenting it as evidence:

“I have a minor in Art History.  I’ve seen it.”

The expert is an odd character, mostly because he or she can appear anywhere.  We are all experts at one thing or another, from the utmost banal and prosaic to the select and specific.  Likewise, the expert might not only appear in the most unexpected times and places, but from the oddest of origins.

One of the great myths of the PhD is that achieving one will make you an expert.  Even I fell into this trap years ago when I stated I wanted to be ‘a world’s expert’ on Atheism and Ian McEwan.  In retrospect, I now think of that as a rather silly goal.  This is especially the case now that I’ve learned that after years of isolated study on a particular topic what you really become an expert on is the realisation that you’ll never actually know everything there is about that topic.  Or, in more colloquial terms: the more you learn, the less you know.

There’s a useful ‘illustrated guide’ for what I mean here, that I’ll happily steal from Matt Might:

When we imagine all of human knowledge as a circle, by the time we finish our Bachelor’s Degree, we’ve accumulated a rather slight ‘specialty.’  That looks like this:

With a Master’s Degree, that specialty grows a bit:
By the time we’ve reached the PhD, that specialty begins to push against the boundaries of known human knowledge.  This creates a darling little bump:
phdSo now, given that the circle on which our little bump has protruded represents all human knowledge, it’s important to acknowledge where our expertise exists within this context:
phd all knowledge

While Matt Might’s illustration here is rather useful (it’s also available for purchase, for those interested), it also quite poignantly illustrates the oddities of the ‘expert.’

Moreover, it serves to remind us, just like my story of the two ‘experts’ staring at Monet’s canvas, that as we’re all experts, then perhaps none of us are.  As we come to realise that the more and more we know something, the less we actually know in general, and therefore further accept that the expertise we’ve accumulated isn’t a substitute for the world’s knowledge, then we’re all rather ignorant.  Does this mean we’re in denial, or that our attempts at proving our expertise to people who seem to have similar expertise is a means of pacification?  Are we trying to claim ownership?


Or maybe not.  After all, clearly i’m not ignorant about Atheist discourse.  Just look at what I said above.

Clearly I’m an expert.