Everything is Temporary

I’m standing at the bar in the lobby of the London Heathrow Ibis Hotel, ordering a sandwich, when the television behind the register flashes in bright red letters: BREAKING NEWS.

I hate that phrase.

Or rather, at this moment, I find myself having a deep and profound hatred of that phrase.

About five hours ago, I was sitting alone at a cafe in London Heathrow’s Terminal 2 (the Queen’s terminal), when out the window I watched as United Airlines flight 96 sped down the runway and lifted off into the air.

It’ll be about another 5-6 hours until I can stop worrying.

On that flight are my wife and dog, heading back to America.

About two weeks ago, I told my wife that there are a number of dominoes that we’ve lined up: her last day at work; the family arriving for graduation; the ceremony itself; sending our dog back to the States; our last flight out.

As of last week, we tipped the first one over.

This is the fourth domino.  Only one more to go.

So while I’m sitting here, eating my sandwich and waiting to find out if the two most important things in my life made it safely across the Atlantic while simultaneously refreshing United Airline’s flight tracker, I thought I’d take a minute and write about the temporariness that has been our lives these last five years.

When you move to another country as a student, your life becomes a temporary thing.  Right there, in your passport, your life has an expiration date.  Ours is 31 December 2015.  This is the time within which you must complete your degree, then go home.

So, though you might get a job, make friends, build a life, you know that it isn’t meant to last.  In that way, while it’s a great metaphor for life in general, it also teaches you, from early on, not to get too attached to things.

Thus, you spend your time as a marginal person.  You know, from the outset, that the things you love will have to be left behind: sitting on a particular bench in the Botanical Gardens, an odd little Mexican restaurant that has felt like home, pretzels at the Christmas Market, drinks outside on summer days, taxi rides in the rain, watching Scotland pass by through a train window, our seats at the Cameo.

That, and the people who come into your life slowly fade away.  In fact, it’s amazing how quickly those who were close friends become acquaintances, and then complete strangers.  Many of them becoming nothing more than Facebook profiles, like all those you’ve left behind.  Some, by their own doing.

What’s more, you start to realise that you’ve become a different person as well.  Sure, you’re still an American, and nothing will change that, but you’re also a bit Scottish.  As much as you’ve tried to respect your hosts by not mimicking their accents, or colloquialisms, it’s been almost five years, and things have rubbed off on you.  This happened when you moved from California to Texas.  Will these things change when you go back?  Will you find yourself adapting these adaptations to a foreign, yet inherently familiar, context?

As you might expect, within this liminal stage you guard yourself.  You protect yourself from getting too close to things, because you know they won’t last.  Interestingly, when you look back over the years and think of those fellow Americans who lived here but never really seemed to embrace Scotland, who always talked of the things they missed, of the differences between this place and ‘home,’ and who also seemed to be back in the States every Christmas or summer break, you start to realise this was their own way of protecting themselves as well.

Yet, it also isn’t just those fellow Americans with whom you find yourself empathising toward the end.  It’s people here as well.  You come to realise that perhaps those with whom your were close all this time, who have turned away from you when you needed them the most, are doing this to protect themselves from the disappointment or sadness of the reality that your relationship was a temporary thing.

The end of something is always difficult.

In fact, all in all it isn’t easy.  None of this is easy.

Yet, again, none of this is all that surprising.  It isn’t as if you suddenly, one day, realise that your time is up.  You have years to prepare.

This is the essence of ‘everything is temporary,’ and again, I think it’s an excellent lesson for life in general.  There will always be moments when things feel like they’ve become permanent, when, even against your better judgment, you might find yourself bored with the monotony of life.  That doesn’t matter, because things will change.

Which also reminds me that while our time here has been measured by a stamp in our passports, we’ve also had the luxury of knowing when that end will come.  Some, if not most, don’t have that.  For them, this realisation comes suddenly.  Loved ones die, jobs end, love fades.

At least for us, the end has come just when it said it would, and though it is sad for its own reasons, it also means we get to move on into the next temporary stage which, if it’s been anything like this one, should prove equally rewarding.




It’s All Relative

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.

Whilst they were here, we enjoyed touring the Castle, St. Giles Cathedral, Rosslyn Chapel, Mary King’s Close, the High Street, the Christmas Market, golf at St. Andrews, and a few other spots.  At each of our stops, as we passed through the gift shops conveniently placed at every exit, we spent a bit of time looking over clan tartans.

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.

He then further declared:

“Eh, it’s all relative!”




Everything is Fiction: A Discursive Year in Review

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.

I present to you, then, my year in review.

18 November 2014, Everything is Fiction

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 12.54.31

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.’

25 November 2014, Harry Potter and the Precarious Use of Fiction


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.

2 December 2014, What do you call it when a gentile writes a post about Jewishness?


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.

 9 December 2014, Rumsfeldian Atheism


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).

16 December 2014, The Bone Wars


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.

23 December 2014, Shrinkage


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.

30 December 2014, Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow


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?

6 January 2015, Everything is Fiction: A Discussion on Narrative and Reflexivity


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.

13 January 2015, A Sucker Born Every Minute


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?’

20 January 2015, Assholes: A Theory of New Atheism

not wrong

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.

27 January 2015, ‘Hey, at least he was a Satanist, not an Atheist.’


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.”  

3 February 2015, A Feeling of Ownership


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).

10 February 2015, Especially Our Snipers

bless our troops

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.”

17 February 2015, Origin Story


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/  

24 February 2014, Tourist Trap Sacred Space


Perhaps one of my all time favourite pieces of art is this painting, by Picasso, of the bombing of Guernica.  I had the opportunity to see it in person in February, after presenting at a workshop on ‘Atheism and Literature in Europe,’ put on by the Blanquerna Observatory’s School of Communications and International Relations, as part of a series of workshops on ‘Religion in the Shaping of European Cultural Identity.’  Here’s a short video of the conference, in which I am briefly featured at the end:

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.

3 March 2015, When Trolling Religion Becomes Religion; Or, Why it’s All Bertrand Russell’s Fault


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.

10 March 2015, The Zombie Apocalypse Secularization Thesis

walking dead

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.

17 March 2015, Tell me about your mother, Mr. Hubbard


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.”

24 March 2015, Comedic Criticism: A Discursive Source of Atheism


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.'”

31 March 2015, ‘Statistics can prove anything’ (and other fictions used by New Atheists)


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.

7 April 2015, Thank God for Book Reviews

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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/ 

14 April 2015, Whose Story is it Anyway?


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 Lives wherein 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.”

21 April 2015, Cheaters never prosper. Well, that’s not true. Sometimes they do.

money books

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.

28 April 2015, Based on ‘Real Life’

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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.”

5 May 2015, The Spiritual Menu: An Alternative Solution to the World Religions Paradigm

Howard Jacobs

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.”

12 May 2015, The Profitable Age 


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.”

19 May 2015, We’re All Novelists

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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.

26 May 2015, In Memoriam

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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.

2 June 2015, Fictional Anthropology: Making Sense of Observation by Looking through an Imaginary Lens


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.

9 June 2015, The Malaise


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.”

16 June 2015, Bully for Free Speech

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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.

23 June 2015, Identity Matters


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.”




30 June 2015, A Day in the (Fictional) Life


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.

7 July 2015, Nothing to be Afraid Of

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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)

14 July 2015, In Comparison a Disappointment Dwells

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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.

21 July 2015, The Expert in the Room

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My two favourite paintings a the Scottish National Gallery are these two by William Dyce:

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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:

phd all knowledge

28 July 2015, Shameless Self-Promotion

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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.”

4 August 2015, It’s the Little Differences

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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.

11 August 2015, Language Games


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.’

18 August 2015, Nothing is Real, and Nothing To Get Hung About

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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.

25 August 2015, Live from Erfurt, It’s the XXI Quinquennial Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions!


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.

1 September 2015, Vanilla English


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.

8 September 2015, Live from Canterbury, It’s the Annual Conference of the British Association for the Study of Religions


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.

15 September 2015, A Stereotypical Post

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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.”

22 September 2015, Thesis for Ants

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In September, the 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?

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?’”

29 September 2015, Close Encounters

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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?

6 October 2015, An Insight into the Real Me

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This post was short, because it it didn’t really require all that much more commentary than what I added.  Alongside this clip, which I think best describes my ridiculous thoughts about things.

13 October 2015, Perhaps the Most Logical Vote is a Write-In

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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.”  

20 October 2015, I Know it When I See It

Raquel on the cross

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:

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

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.”

27 October 2015, Live from Cambridge, its Ways of Knowing: The 4th Annual Graduate Conference on Religion at Harvard Divinity School!


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.

3 November 2015, An Atheist Gospel: The Quest for the Fictional Jesus and the Gospel Novel as Atheist Discourse

jesus muscle

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.

10 November 2015, In Praise of Polyvocality: An Early Preview


This post details the response that I wrote for Christopher Cotter‘s interview with Professor Johannes Quack for the Religious Studies Project.

The interview can be found here: http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/indian-rationalism-and-a-relational-approach-to-nonreligion/

My response can be found here: http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/2015/11/12/in-praise-of-polyvocality/

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.

17 November 2015, Everything is Fiction: A Discursive Year in Review

hemmingway 2

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.

In Praise of Polyvocality: An Early Preview

It was Wednesday afternoon, the sun was setting, my stomach was full of bratwurst, and I had just finished my second pint of German lager.

It was my third day at the XXIst Quinquennial Congress of the International Association of the History of Religions, two days after I had presented my two papers, and the end of a lovely free day where myself and a group of friends had explored the city of Erfurt.

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 disenchanting indiabegan 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.

oxford handbookIn 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.

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

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 Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeited (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 Anne Rice 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.


Discourse Analysis

Fairclough, Norman. Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research. London: Routledge,

Gee, James Paul. An Introduction To Discourse Analysis: Theory And Method, 2nd edition. London: Routledge, 2005.

Jaworski, Adam and Nikolas Coupland. “Introduction: Perspectives on Discourse Analysis” in Adam

Jaworski and Nikolas Coupland, eds., The Discourse Reader, Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Paltridge, Brian. Discourse Analysis: An Introduction. London: Continuum, 2006.

Schiffrin, Deborah, Deborah Tannen, and Heidi E. Hamilton. “Introduction” in Deborah Schiffrin,

Deborah Tannen, and Heidi E. Hamilton, eds. The Handbook of Discourse Analysis. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Taira, Teemu. “Making Space for Discursive Study in Religious Studies.” Religion, Vol. 43, No. 1, 2013.

van Dijk, Teun A. “The Study of Discourse” in Teun A. van Dijk, ed. Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction, Volume One. London: Sage, 1997.

von Stuckrad, Kocku. “Discursive Study of Religion: From States of the Mind to Communication and Action.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, Vol. 15, 2003.

———. “Reflections on the Limits of Reflection: An Invitation to the Discursive Study of Religion.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, Vol. 22, Nos. 2-3, 2010.

———. “Discursive Study of Religion: Approaches, Definitions, Implications.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2013.

The Definition of Atheism

Aveling, Francis. 1907. “Atheism” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

Baggini, Julian. 2003. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bremmer, Jan M. 2007. “Atheism in Antiquity” in Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Buckley, Michael J. 1990. At the Origins of Modern Atheism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bullivant, Stephen. 2014. “Introduction” in Stephen Bullivant and Michael Ruse, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Drachmann, A.B. 1922. Atheism in Pagan Antiquity. Chicago: Ares Publishing.

Eller, Jack David. 2004. Natural Atheism. Austin: American Atheist Press.

———. 2010. “Chapter 1: What is Atheism?” in Phil Zuckerman, ed. Atheism and Secularity–Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Fergusson, David. 2009. Faith and Its Critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Flew, Anthony. 1976. The Presumption of Atheism & Other Philosophical Essays on God, Freedom and Immortality. New York: Barnes and Noble Press.

Hiorth, Finngeir. 1995. Introduction to Atheism. Pune: Indian Secular Society.

———. 2003. Atheism in the World. Oslo: Human-Etisk Forbund.

Hyman, Gavin. 2009. “Atheism in Modern History” in Michael Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 ———. 2010. A Short History of Atheism. London: I.B. Tauris.

Kahn, Charles H. 1997. “Greek Religion and Philosophy in the Sisyphus Fragment.” Phronesis 42 (3).

LeDrew, Stephen. 2012. “The Evolution of Atheism: Scientific and Humanistic Approaches.” History of the Human Sciences 25 (3).

McGrath, Alister. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. London: Double Day.

Maritain, Jacques. 1949. “On the Meaning of Contemporary Atheism.” The Review of Politics 11 (3).

Martin, Michael. 1990. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

———. 2007a. “Atheism” in Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. New York: Prometheus Books.

———. 2007b. “Introduction” in Michael Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2007c. “Atheism and Religion” in Michael Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Masterson, Patrick. 1965. “Contemporary Atheism.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 54 (214/215).

Non-religion and Secularity Research Network Glossary of Term. 2011. Available at: http://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/nsrn-glossary-28-aprl-2011-lois-lee1.pdf

Reid, J.P. and B. Mondin, eds., 2003. “Atheism” in The New Catholic Encyclopedia. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America.

Robertson, Roland. 1970. “Epilogue: Secularization” in Roland Robertson, The Sociological Interpretation of Religion. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Smith, George H. 1989. “The Scope of Atheism” in George H. Smith, ed. Atheism: The Case Against God. New York: Prometheus.

———. 1991. Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies. New York: Prometheus Books.

Stein, Gordon. 1980. “The Meaning of Atheism and Agnosticism” in Gordon Stein, An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism. New York: Prometheus.

Walters, Kerry. 2010. Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum.


Historical Jesus

Allison, Jr., Dale C. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.

Bond, Helen. The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: T& T Clark, 2012.

Ehrman, Bart. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Poirier, John C. “Seeing What is there in Spite of Ourselves: George Tyrrell, John Dominic Crossan, and Robert Frost On Faces In Deep Wells.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2006.

Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. W. Montgomery, trans. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2005.

Witherington, Ben. The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth, Second Edition. Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997.

Wright, N.T. The Challenge of Jesus. Downers Grove: Intervasity, 1999.

Fictional Jesus

Crook, Zeba. “Fictionalizing Jesus: Story and History in Two Recent Jesus Novels.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2007.

———. “Jesus Novels: Solving Problems with Fiction” in Delbert Burkett, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Jesus. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Holderness, Graham. Re-Writing Jesus: Christ in 20th-Century Fiction and Film. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Maczynska, Magdalena. The Gospel According to the Novelist: Religious Scripture and Contemporary Fiction. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Ramey, Margaret E. The Quest for the Fictional Jesus: Gospel Re-Write, gospel (Re) Interpretation, and Christological Portraits within Jesus Novels. Eugene: Pickwick, 2013.

Tate, Andrew. “This Other Christ: Jesus in Contemporary Fiction,” in Andrew Tate, Contemporary Fiction and Christianity. New York: Continuum, 2008.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. Fictional Transfigurations of Jesus. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Jesus Myth

Brodie, Thomas L. Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, Ltd., 2012.

Carrier, Richard. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, Ltd., 2014.

Doherty, Earl. The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Ottawa: Canadian Humanist Publications, 1999.

Harpur, Tom. The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2004.

Hitchens, Christopher. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Warner, 2007.

Price, Robert M. Deconstructing Jesus. New York: Prometheus, 2000.

Thompson, Thomas L. The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David. London: Vintage, 2007.

Wells, Albert G. Did Jesus Exist? New York: Prometheus, 1975.

Gospel Re-Writes

Alderman, Naomi. The Liars Gospel. London: Viking, 2012.

Archer, Jeffrey with Francis J. Maloney, The Gospel According to Judas by Benjamin Iscariot. London: MacMillan, 2007.

Burgess, Anthony. Man of Nazareth. London: Magnum Books, 1979.

Chopra, Deepak. Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment. New York: Harper One, 2008.

Faber, Michel. The Fire Gospel. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2008.

Holmes, Marjorie. The Messiah. San Francisco: Harper, 1988.

Lagerkvist, Par. Barabbas, Alan Blair, trans. New York: Vintage, 1951.

Langguth, A.J. Jesus Christs. Los Angeles: Figueroa Press, 2002.

Lawrence, D.H. The Man Who Died. New Delhi: Rupa, 2004.

Mailer, Norman. The Gospel According to the Son. London: Abacus, 1997.

Moore, Christopher. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. London: Orbit, 2002.

Oursler, Fulton. The Greatest Story Ever Told. New York: Image Books, 1989.

Ricci, Nino. Testament. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Rice, Anne. Christ The Lord: Out of Egypt. London: Arrow Books, 2006.

———. Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. London: Arrow Books, 2009.

Toibin, Colm. The Testament of Mary. London: Viking, 2012.

Atheist Gospels

Crace, Jim. Quarantine. London: Picador, 2010.

Graves, Robert. King Jesus. New York: Penguin, 1946.

Kazantzakis, Nikos. The Last Temptation, P.A. Bien, trans. London: Faber and Faber, 2003.

Moorcock, Michael. Behold the Man. London: Millennium, 1999.

Saramago, Jose. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Giovanni Pontiero, trans. London: Vintage,

Vidal, Gore. Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal. London: Abacus, 1993.

***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.***

jesus mariachi tetris jesus jesus wobble jesus pool party jesus hang gliding jesus corn dog jesus bull riding jesus model

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s begin with Boston.

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

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

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

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

As well, here’s the trailer:

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

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

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

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

Here’s the trailer:

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

Here’s a description:

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

Here’s the trailer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

We should keep this in mind.

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

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

I Know It When I See It

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

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

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

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

Here’s an important clip from the episode:

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

Here’s what I mean.

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

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

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

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

He stated:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this a bad answer?

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the Most Logical Vote is a Write-In

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

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

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

More on this below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

This is the genesis of my issue.

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

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

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

Instead, it’s merely a useful buzz phrase.

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

I accept this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s my suggestion:

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

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

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

More objective, less subjective.

More recording, less dictating.

More listening, less defining.

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

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

Church without God.”

Building Better Secularists.”

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

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

An Insight into the Real Me

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

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

Well, except for this.

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

Which it might.

It’s hard to tell.

Narratives can be complex things.

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

Close Encounters

A few days ago, my usual museum companion and I walked over to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art for the final day of their exhibition on The Amazing World of M.C. Escher.

Though the exhibition had been on all summer, because we’ve been distracted with viva and visa nonsense, we completely forgot.  So, when we arrived at the gallery and discovered the line to get in stretched all the way out into the street, we were somewhat dismayed and saddened, particularly because neither of us felt like waiting over an hour to be shuffled along through the exhibit.

As we stood there, watching more people arrive and join the queue, we got to talking about the desire we (people) have when it comes to seeing things ‘first-hand.’  After all, just like us, all these people had arrived for one last chance to see the gallery’s exhibition; the most devout of which were happily standing in line.

Which got me wondering: why is that?

Why do we stand in line to see a piece of art that we can see online from the comfort of home?

What’s the difference, say, of seeing Escher’s “Hand with Reflecting Sphere” in person, compared to seeing it here?


Here, I can take my time with the art.  I can look at the details.  Moreover, because the internet is a swirling charybdis of creativity, I can explore more about Escher, his art, and how others have adopted, amended, and altered his work.

For instance, consider the odd experience of being ‘within’ the piece here (open in Google Chrome for optimal viewing): http://threejs.org/examples/webgl_materials_cubemap_escher.html 

So why do we stand in line to see the ‘real thing?’  Does it connect us to the work somehow?

Do we get more of a ‘genuine experience’ out of first-hand, close encounters?

These questions got me further thinking about the ‘genuineness’ there is in being close to a piece of art, and why we feel that seeing something, in person, ‘with our own eyes,’ somehow transforms that experience into something more authentic than that provided by a google image search.

Which seems even more odd to me when most people I’ve witnessed at galleries insist on taking a photo of the art itself.

Look at this image of the crowd around the Mona Lisa that I took a few years back at The Louvre:

mona lisa

That’s a swirling mess of humanity, crowding in to record, in digital imagery, their genuine experience with Davinci’s painting.

Which then causes me to wonder, perhaps being within this crowd, within that swampy room, is what makes a first-hand viewing of the Mona Lisa a genuine experience.  Perhaps it’s our perception of authenticity that’s changed.  That is, where before, simply viewing the painting was enough to create a link between the viewer and the artist, now, simply being within that crowd is what determines one’s personal interaction with the Mona Lisa as genuine.

It’s like that comparison J.Z Smith makes in his Imagining Religion between Kafka and Plutarch, and how coincidence can eventually manifest itself into ritual (53):

Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry; this occurs repeatedly, again and again: finally it can be reckoned on beforehand and becomes a part of the ceremony.

At Athens, Lysimache, the priestess of Athene Polias, when asked for a drink by the mule drivers who had transported the sacred vessels, replied, ‘No, for I fear it will get into the ritual. 

We’ve amended the experience of viewing something first-hand in such a way that it has become ritual.  Thus, no more is the experience given meaning via our mere presence amongst and in front of something that we ourselves have registered as important or sacred.  Now, the genuineness of the experience is manifested by the time we spent waiting to view that sacred thing, how long the line was, and how many people we fought in order to take a picture on our phone.

We might then ultimately conclude: no wonder it seems that our perceptions of the sacred, and mankind’s connection to that sacred, appear ‘secularized.’  Which, I’d argue, is actually a misperception.  It’s not so much that the sacred is any less sacred, or that we view it that way, it’s just that we’ve forgotten to consider how our perception of the relationship between ourselves and that sacred has changed.  That is, where in the past, the ritual was determined by a specific interaction, now it’s determined by a wholly different sort of connectivity.

We no longer find ourselves in awe just of the Mona Lisa.  Rather, we’re in awe of the time it took to shuffle through The Louvre to see it, the amount of people we fought to get close to it, and the clarity of the picture we subsequently post on Facebook.

The ritual has changed.

The leopards have drunk the sacrificial liquid, and our relationship with the sacred has merely evolved to accommodate the fact that we, on occasion, forget to check when the exhibition closes.