Atheist Exceptionalism: Religion, Atheism, and the United States Supreme Court

The following will consist of shameless self promotion.

I wrote a book recently. I isolated myself in a small little cabin on the north edge of a lake in Upper Valley Vermont, and I wrote a book that I have thought about for years, always felt was an important topic, and believe is a story about America that needed to be told.

book cover.jpg

It tells the story of American Atheism and the First Amendment. More specifically, though, it tells the story of American Atheists fighting not only for their own First Amendment religious rights, but for the rights of all Americans to live, practice, and promote their beliefs within an environment that constitutionally guarantees a separation between church and state. It tells the stories of these essential Supreme Court case decisions:

  • McCollum v. Board of Education (1948)
  • Torcaso v. Watkins (1961)
  • Abington v. Schempp/Murray v. Curlett (1963)
  • Welsh v. United States (1970)
  • Elk Grove v. Newdow (2004)
  • Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation (2007)
  • Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014)

In these stories there are remarkable characters, both men and women who faced remarkable challenges, who were isolated and outcast, not just for their religious beliefs, but because they were seen as enemies of the norm. And in their own ways they changed history. They ensured no child would feel that same isolation through forced religious education or prayer, that no American would be required to swear they believed in a particular deity in order to work for their country, and that no American would need to do the same if their personal morals restricted them from taking human life. Additionally, they challenged a number of the erroneous assumptions held by many Americans, such as the idea that ceremonial references to ‘God’ as part of patriotic rituals, like the Pledge of Allegiance, have somehow become secular by rote repetition. Or that there is no harm in the Federal Government offering financial assistance to Faith-Based Social Programs, regardless of the reality that those aren’t always founded on Christian, or even equitable, beliefs. Or that benign prayers, regardless of their content, somehow don’t tell those attending official government meetings that, unless they agree, they are not welcome as equal members.

In these ways, then, these stories also tell the larger story of the complexity that is religion in America. Of the differences and difficulties inherent in ensuring religious freedom in a religiously diverse environment. And of the constant struggle against politicians, teachers, judges, and any other person in a role of power or leadership, who might feel that the rest of the world needs to agree with what they believe, simply because they have the arrogance, or perhaps the lack of empathy, to accept that the world itself is not as they think it is, nor is as small as they would like.

So why had no one written about this before? I don’t really know. Whenever I would tell people about the book these last two years they’d get excited. Both Christians and Atheists, and everything in between, thought it was such an interesting topic. They’d ask questions like: are Atheists guaranteed the same First Amendment religious rights as other, religious Americans? Or: sure, while Atheists might be able to argue that they have been forced to practice someone else’s religion in a manner that violates the Constitution’s religious disestablishment clause, how might an Atheist fight for the right of his or her free exercise?

How do Atheists practice their Atheism? Is Atheism a religion? And if it is, how does that change any and all definitions of religion? Especially in America?

With this book I tried to address these questions.

So here I am with my shameless self-promotion (it’s an academic book, after all, so we need to do that from time to time). This book is the first of its kind. The first of its size dealing with this exceptional topic.

And while I know people always say things like ‘I’m real proud of this,’ etc., in this instance that’s definitely true. I love this book, and the story it tells, and I loved writing it. I had an amazing experience working with the copy editor, and helping collate the whole thing, and editing the index and case lists. It was more fun than it perhaps should have been. And it was, in many ways, a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I guess now I am.

Hopefully people will read it and share it and make use of it for the reasons we write these things. And love it the way I do.

Now on to the next one.

PS.

The image I used here is the one I had wished to use for the cover, but we weren’t able to.

As well, just in case, here are links to both Routledge’s description of the book as well Amazon’s:

https://www.routledge.com/Atheist-Exceptionalism-Atheism-Religion-and-the-United-States-Supreme/Quillen/p/book/9781138242418

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The Justice Potter Stewart Definition of Religion

On the night of November 13th, 1959, Nico Jacobellis, manager of the Heights Art Theater at the corner of Euclid Heights Boulevard and Coventry Road in Cleveland, Ohio, held a screening of the Louis Malle film, Lea Amants. The Lovers.

The film itself was controversial for the time, with, what some thought (particularly the state of Ohio), were graphic depictions of a sexual nature. Or, pornography.

Jacobellis was arrested, and convicted, on two counts of possessing and exhibiting an obscene film in direct violation of section 2905.34 (repealed in 1974) of the Ohio Revised Code, which stated:

Selling, exhibiting, and possessing obscene literature or drugs for criminal purposes.

No person shall knowingly sell, lend, give away, exhibit, or offer to sell, lend, give away, or exhibit, or publish or offer to publish or have in his possession or under his control an obscene, lewd, or lascivious book, magazine, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, photograph, motion picture film, or book, pamphlet, paper, magazine not wholly obscene but containing lewd or lascivious articles, advertisements, photographs, or drawing, representation, figure, image, cast, instrument, or article of an indecent or immoral nature, or a drug, medicine, article, or thing intended for the prevention of conception or for causing an abortion, or advertise any of them for sale, or write, print, or cause to be written or printed a card, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice giving information when, where, how, of whom, or by what means any of such articles or things can be purchased or obtained, or manufacture, draw, print, or make such articles or things, or sell, give away, or show to a minor, a book, pamphlet, magazine, newspaper, story paper, or other paper devoted to the publication, or principally made up, of criminal news, police reports, or accounts of criminal deeds, or pictures and stories of immoral deeds, lust, or crime, or exhibit upon a street or highway or in a place which may be within the view of a minor, any of such books, papers, magazines, or pictures.

Whoever violates this section shall be fined not less than two hundred nor more than two thousand dollars or imprisoned not less than one nor more than seven years, or both.

He was fined $500 on the first count and $2,000 on the second. If he could not pay the fines, he would be sentenced to a stint in the local workhouse until his debt was paid.

On appeal, both the Cuyahoga County Court of Appeals and the Ohio State Supreme Court upheld his initial verdict.

And then, in 1963, the United States Supreme Court voted to hear his case.

On June 22nd, 1964 in a 6-3 decision, it reversed Jacobellis’ verdict.

Justice William J. Brennan wrote the decision for the Court.

The lead question before that it considered dealt with whether the state courts in Ohio were correct in their assessment that Les Amants was indeed ‘obscene,’ and if so, whether it was not entitled to the Constitutional protections of free speech and expression, as granted by the First Amendment.

After all, the latter clearly states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

And, since the Court’s previous decisions in Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940), Everson v. Board of Education (1947), and McCollum v Board of Education (1948) declared that the First Amendment, or at least the two religion clauses of the First Amendment (disestablishment and free exercise), were federalized (applicable to the individual states) via the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, then so too would be the free speech one.

More specifically, and in direct reference to the dangerous complexity of America’s highest judiciary (which could overrule both state and lower federal court decisions) agreeing with one particular state’s definition of ‘obscenity,’ Justice Brennan, citing his earlier decision in the similar case of Smith v. California (1959), concluded:

[…] to sustain the suppression of a particular book or film in one locality would deter its dissemination in other localities where it might be held not obscene, since sellers and exhibitors would be reluctant to risk criminal conviction in testing the variation between the two places. It would be a hardy person who would sell a book or exhibit a film anywhere in the land after this Court had sustained the judgment of one ‘community’ holding it to be outside the constitutional protection. The result would thus be “to restrict the public’s access to forms of the printed word which the State could not constitutionally suppress directly.”

In other words, just because a law in Ohio decided Les Amants was pornographic, no other state would need to agree. Neither, of course, would the Federal Government.

Now, there are two aspects of the Court’s decision that stand out here as especially interesting.

First is the fact that though the  six Justices in agreement to reverse Jacobellis’ conviction agreed to do so, they could not agree, as a whole, as to why. Each had a different argument, and in fact, alongside Justice Brennan’s decision for the Court, three others were submitted as well. Not to mention the two dissents from Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justice John Marshall Harlan.

The second interesting aspect has to deal with Justice Potter Stewart’s concurrence, and especially his simplicity in how we might distinguish between that which is pornographic and that which is art.

He famously argued:

I have reached the conclusion, which I think is confirmed at least by negative implication in the Court’s decisions since Roth and Alberts, that, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard core pornography. 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.

But I know it when I see it.

Were we to replace the term ‘hardcore pornography’ here with ‘religion,’ then Justice Stewart’s following proclamation (“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”) seems an all too familiar observation of the scholar of religion.

And that’s the point I’m trying to make here.

Religion is mysterious. It is numinous and odd and alien. And we’ll likely never get a grasp on it. We’ll never define it, at least not in any accurate essentialist way that anyone, anywhere would in any way agree with. Which means defining what constitutes ‘the religious’ will likewise also be out of reach.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t try. And, boy, do we ever.

Generations of scholars have fought and fought over definitions, or worse, ways of reaching definitions, or theories of definitions. Categories of definitions. Critical definitions. Substantive. Functionalist. So on, and so forth.

And sure, while I’d agree that the debate is far better than simply sticking with one definition (let the theologians have that one, yes?), I’d also argue that there’s something a bit distracting there as well. Too often, I think, we get so wrapped up in debates about ‘unpacking’ terminology (the refrain, I’ve learned, of those scholars carrying LOTS of baggage), about the ‘politics’ involved. About making sure we stay objective and yet empathic. Dispassionate and yet ardent. Observer and yet participatory. That we stop actually doing the work. To the point, in fact, that were we to step outside and look inward, we might to our surprise suddenly view all of this as as some ridiculous pedantic circus, asking ourselves in the process: shouldn’t we take a break from all this nonsense, and just get back to work. I mean, how many times can we really discuss how our discussing things gives meaning to the things in which we are discussing? (Lots. Like, lots and lots.)

To that endeavor, I offer the Justice Potter Stewart definition of religion: I know it when I see it.

I accept that I will never know the definition of religion. Or Atheism. Or nonreligion. Or unbelief. Or any other synonymous (and yet relatable, dammit!) terminology. And I’m quite happy with that. Because I’m also confident that I’ve been trained well and have a sincere work ethic. That when I do the work I make sure that I produce quality. Detailed, heavily researched, and, yes, objective work. Work that doesn’t, in all that it does say, tell people what they should think, or how they should think, about religion. All it does is offer them information. Details. Discourse.

Because, and perhaps its the ‘theologian’ in me (or whatever) but when I see something that looks like Atheism, or religion, or something akin to either, you know what, I know it when I see it. And so do our readers. Which is why I prefer to present it that way. As discourse. As information. That way, it’s entirely up to them to decide whether or not what I have presented aligns with, or disagrees with, their opinions.

Of course, the irony is not lost on me that this, in fact, will produce the same sort of discussion that I just earlier up there decried. And that’s fine. I’m also perfectly fine with being ironic. And besides, the debates are often far too fun not to have. Right?

Fight or Flight

Donald Trump is my President.

Last Friday, we went to Burlington, Vermont.

As we entered City Hall Park we found ourselves standing (rather accidentally) amongst a growing crowd of individuals. They began to gather around the steps of City Hall. Three young women started speaking through a megaphone.

We quickly realized we had found ourselves within an anti-Trump rally.

People took turns speaking to the crowd. They varied in age and gender, and their messages, though about the same topic, were diverse.

People held up signs, pieces of cardboard with pithy statements in black marker.

Some women chanted, “pussy grabs back!”

When a young woman began her story with the declaration, “Trump is not my President,” the crowd cheered.

After that, most of the stories began the same way.

While we stood there, listening, I began to think about what I would say.

Of course, there’s no way I’d climb the steps and share. It’s not in my nature. Rather listen than participate.

And after all, we had discovered this peaceful gathering by accident. We were there to buy a sandwich.

But I couldn’t shake the thought. The crowd had succeeded in forcing my curiosity, and not just in empathizing with their fear and worry and anger. They got me thinking about what my story would be.

Whatever it might be, I know one thing is for sure.

I’d begin with the declaration: “Donald Trump is my President.”

No, I did not vote for the man.

I never had any intention to. Nor would I had, even if his central aim was to forgive all student debt (I didn’t support Jill Stein, either).

Donald Trump is an abhorrent, sexual assaulting, racist, misogynistic, asshole.

He is the epitome of contemporary evil.

A demagogue. A hate-filled child. An insecure, chauvinist, elitist, piece of human shit.

Donald Trump is my President.

One thing I love about America is the democratic process. The peaceful transition of power. The fact that we have checks and balances. We have a constitution. We have freedom. We welcome all colors and creeds. We disagree, and find value in our differences. We support one another, and fight for each other, because we are all congregants of the same civil religion.

Last Tuesday we held a free and peaceful election and the American people (via the Electoral College) elected a new President. Regardless of who that person is, or what they stand for, the democratic process worked. It did what it did.

To deny that, to reject it, is an affront to that process.

Merely arguing that the man elected is not my President, because I didn’t vote for him, is the opposite of a democracy. And while it might be cathartic, it’s mere denial.

Best to accept it.

Not blindly, of course.

Not quietly.

The other thing I love about America is my right to free speech.

My right to speak my mind when I feel the circumstance requires it.

Sure, salute the rank, not the man. But sometimes, you need to admonish the man, in order to protect the rank.

This, as much as the election last week, is democracy in action.

Why are People Mourning?

Over the weekend I thought about my story, and how I might write it, and I realized that perhaps my story is not the point. Or, at least, maybe it shouldn’t just be about me.

Sure, stories have a central character, but it’s those who surround that character that make it a story. As we know, a narrative can’t just be one sided.

My story, then, should begin with a question I’ve seen asked less with an inflection of curiosity, and more as a statement of reproach: why are people mourning?

This is often followed by an argument in support of one’s opinion that ‘mourning’ is an odd reaction. Something like, “the world didn’t end,” or “it’s not that big of a deal.”

Some have even adopted the sort of tone we’d expect from an adolescent: “Get over it, you lost.”

Regardless of the judgment in these follow-up statements, there’s a puzzlement there.

A curiosity from one perspective about how, or why, the opposition is acting so strangely. After all, this is good for us, isn’t it? America will be great again. Finally.

There’s a lack of empathy here.

And let’s be fair, it’s a similar lack of empathy as the declaration “Trump is not my President.”

Opinions have two sides, usually. An alterity, as the French might call it. A mirrored reflection of myself that helps me come to define who I am.

But good alterity needs empathy to succeed.

Without empathy we aren’t human.

Without empathy we can accomplish great horror.

We can fly planes into buildings, or be complicit in genocide.

Empathy is what gives us compassion. It makes us fair and loving people. It’s what drives us to comfort someone else’s crying child.

And it’s what I’ve seen missing the last few days.

Mostly from one side.

So allow me this divagation of sorts, with the caveat that I do indeed empathize with those who voted for Donald Trump. I’ll get to that later.

Besides, this is my story, and all stories need a narrator.

And, as we know, narrator’s tend to have their own opinions, even if they’re made up.

Laziness

Watching the election results was difficult.

Waking up the next day was difficult.

Going to the library at Dartmouth, working, avoiding the internet.

Difficult.

The people I know who are in mourning feel this way because the man we elected President is a representation of irresponsibility. Of bullying. Of racist profiling. Of raising the fears and hatred and anger of ignorant Americans toward an entire religion.

He is lazy.

He represents the normalization of sexual assault. Of empty threats. Of arrogance, built on the sand of insecurity.

The man we have elected President will set us back socially a hundred years.

He is lazy.

Lazy is a curious word.

Here’s what I mean: tolerance takes work. It’s difficult. Understanding someone else, and acknowledging them their right to express themselves, even when that expression might upset or offend me, isn’t easy.

Being a straight Christian and seeing a gay couple is difficult.

Growing up in a white, middle-class community, and seeing aspects of black culture is difficult.

Being lazy is seeing these things and hating them. Being lazy is never changing your mind. Being lazy is not empathizing.

Being lazy is the instinct to start a fight, rather than listen to the other side.

Being lazy is the opposite of being the bigger man.

We elected an individual who isn’t just lazy, he promotes laziness. He inspires it in others.

His central issues were lazy.

How, we might ask, does one actually stop an entire religion from entering the country?

It’s an asinine question.

Think about what’s required, simply in the context of international travel:

  • Do we close all international airports?
  • Do we require international airlines to put a litmus test on their websites for people buying tickets?
  • Do we click a special button that only non-Muslims can see when we purchase a ticket?
  • Do we have to somehow prove we’re not Muslims?
  • What if we’ve read or are familiar with Muslim texts? Where’s Joseph McCarthy? He had this whole thing figured out.

Or, do we instigate this ‘extreme vetting’ he was talking about?

  • What does that demand?
  • Is it nothing more than just denying entry into the United States to an individual who ‘looks’ Muslim?
  • Who polices this?
  • Who oversees it?
  • Who pays for it?
  • Who trains these people to ‘sniff’ out the Muslims?
  • Can’t Muslim people simply pretend they aren’t Muslim?
  • Can’t they just lie?
  • Should we just ban all people from entering the country who might, according to some expert, look ‘suspiciously Muslim?’
  • What about American Muslims, born here, two to three generation Americans, what happens to them if they fly to another country and come back? Do they get a free pass?
  • But wait, what about those who’ve been radicalized in America?
  • Do we extend our extreme vetting beyond the borders?
  • Do we register them?
  • Make them carry a special ID card?

This is lazy thinking, beloved by the ignorant proud.

How about the next one:

  • How does one actually build a wall that separates the border between the US and Mexico?
  • Doesn’t that require a lot of material? Perhaps the same amount of material as every interstate in the entire United States combined?
  • Who builds it?
  • Do we hire laborers?
  • What do we do about Big Bend National Park? I’ve stood there. I’ve looked out across that desert. Only an idiot would think we could build a wall there. It’s a horrific desert. There’s nothing there. That’s why it’s so beautiful.
  • How do we get a foreign nation to pay for something they don’t want? Sanctions? Threats?
  • What about the Gulf of Mexico? Do we just ignore the fact that people who are fleeing from rape and murder probably don’t mind getting their clothes wet? What about boats? Do we reposition the Navy in the Gulf of Mexico? Who pays for that?
  • What about other borders? Do we build walls on the shorelines of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, etc.? What about California, and Oregon, and Washington? What if people fly to Canada and then come down? So, two walls?

When you actually think about them, these are dumb ideas.

They’re not actionable.

And even if they were, for the sake of argument, the larger question still persists: who pays for all this? These things cost money, especially the second one. And let’s be honest, no amount of ‘deal making’ will force a foreign nation, already choking on its own debt, to pay for a billion dollar wall with money they don’t have.

We will pay for it. Just like we’ve paid for everything else.

With taxes.

These are lazy ideas, but they’re accepted and loved by lazy people who don’t think beyond the sound bite.

And it’s these ideas that make us mourn for our country.

They make us sad because they represent a national narrative that promotes lazy, hateful thinking.

When we elect a President, or any political representative, we’ve made an agreement. We’ve hired someone. We’ve asked that person to represent us to the rest of our country. To the world.

Donald Trump now represents America.

His lazy ideas are now ours.

I did not vote for him, but my country hired him, and just like how an employee represents the company at which he works, Donald Trump is the American who represents the American people.

His discourse of racism, of hatred and fear, is what will shape the civil religion of his Presidency. And as a member of that religion, I must answer for him.

When he assaults a woman and brags about it, I have to answer for it.

When he makes a racist comment, he makes it on behalf of the American people.

When he supports killing the families of our enemies, or disregards the collateral damage of innocent people killed in the name of ‘bombing the shit out of them,’ I have to defend myself.

When he shows prejudice against an entire religion because his fear of terrorism blinds his ability to see the actions of insecure assholes, rather than an entire faith, I have to say that these are not my ideas, even though they are now American.

An endorsement by proxy.

We are in mourning because we realize that the American church sits before the pulpit of the priesthood of the Presidency.

We are in mourning because we value our political system as sacred. We are proud members of this congregation, willing to fight and die for the principles provided us by men of honor, endowed by their creator with the ability to construct a government for and by the people.

And now, as the mantle is passed from one President to the next, we watch as tolerance and empathy and rational thinking give way to laziness.

The American President is America’s greatest ambassador and we’ve elected a bully, the definition of which is someone too scared not to lash out.

Think of the bullies you’ve known.

They taunt you for the way you dress, the way you look, the way you sound. They project their own insecurities onto you, and then try to beat them away. They assault you and threaten those you love.

As children we were told never to fight the bully. Don’t give in and give him what he wants. Listen to him. Understand why it is that he’s bullying. Ask him what he is afraid of? What is making him so angry?

While we might be able to empathize and listen to Trump, and try in earnest to understand what it is that drives him, the fact is we’ve chosen a bully to represent us.

And while that might look attractive to the lazy Americans who voted for him, consider again what happens when two bullies confront each other. While a playground skirmish might be benign to the average child enjoying his or her recess, imagine those bullies with guns.

Imagine them with nuclear weapons.

Maybe all of this is mere hyperbole.

Maybe my words here really are, as I’ve seen told to others, just a bitter response to losing.

Which I would accept, were we to have elected John McCain or Mitt Romney.

But those were men of honor.

I do not agree with them on many political and social issues, but they would have made exceptional Presidents.

Donald Trump is a joke.

He is a deplorable person.

He is my President.

Where is My Empathy?

It would be unfair to simply assume that half of those Americans who voted did so for less than honorable reasons, such as their laziness. Or to say that maybe they were simply bored and wanted something fun to watch for the next four years.

Likewise, it would be unfair to simply argue here that they were perhaps too ignorant themselves to realize what they’d done. To compare their actions with a clever metaphor: voting for Donald Trump is like hating property taxes so much you burn down the house, only to realize you now have no place to live, and still have to pay the tax.

It would be unfair to judge them for simply voting party. I’ve seen this argument come up a few times. It’s used as an excuse, an attempt by the user to disassociate themselves from Donald Trump. As if they might further argue that while they hate the man and everything about him, they still support their party. I mean, all judgment aside, this is an irresponsible argument, isn’t it? Voting party does not excuse one’s support of the party’s candidate. After all, to be that party’s candidate, the party must accept that person, and everything he brings with him. You can’t just say, “I didn’t vote Trump, I voted Republican,” because an aegis ‘Republican vote’ was a vote for Trump. After all, you could have written in the name of another Republican, such as John McCain said he would. At least that would have been more responsible.

It would be unfair to point out that Donald Trump represents the complete opposite of the religious right’s position on absolutely everything. It would be additionally unfair to assume, then, that he received their votes because, though he might not be a man of God, at least he hates their enemies (everyone who isn’t Christian) as much as they do.

It would be unfair to point out the ignorant futility of a white middle-class, angry at its lack of representation for the last eight years, that just elected a man whose economic plan has been predicted by experts (in all their uselessness, see below) to directly hurt the white middle-class.

It would be unfair to point out the hypocrisy of those who voted for Trump because he was the candidate who showed himself as a man who ‘supports our troops,’ especially since he thinks he knows more about military thinking simply because he successfully dodged the draft five times.

It would be unfair to assume one of the major reasons he won America’s vote is simply because, unlike any other candidate, he seems more likely the type of person you’d want to have a beer with. A clever way of saying a candidate seems more like ‘one of us,’ and less like the typical, out of touch, politician. Except that it’s a stupid qualification for President. Sure, being able to sit and chat with the man who holds the nuclear codes would be fun, but I wouldn’t want it. Look, politics is hard. It takes focus and concentration and tactical moves across a chess board of players all better at it than you are. It’s a game. A hard game. It takes training and skill. It takes subtlety and nuance. It isn’t just about showing your hand every time you think you’ve won. It’s also a job, and just like any other job, it’s not something you want the average beer drinking Joe to have, regardless of how ‘down home’ and ‘relatable’ he seems. That’s why we tend not to elect people who run under ‘nicknames’ or on platforms of free nacho night every third Tuesday. It’s because politics is serious, with serious repercussions. I would not vote for a man or woman to the Presidency simply because I felt like I could have a beer with them. Voting is a job interview, after all, and I’d want them to do the job, not hang out. Save that sort of thinking for people you wouldn’t think to send to speak on behalf of America in Iran or China.

How does this lead back to empathy?

America has its issues, and our fragile political system, with its flaws and corruption, shouldn’t be immune to change. Occasionally electing an outsider whose rhetoric and policies diverge from the path of the same old empty promises can seem like a useful remedy. The status quo can only work for so long before it begins to work against the American people.

Donald Trump fit that description well.

So did Bernie Sanders.

Now, before we distract ourselves with conversations about corruption within the DNC, and arguments about why Clinton should have accepted that she could not have won against Trump, my summoning Bernie Sanders into this rant is not meant as an endorsement, but instead as an empathic understanding of one side’s thinking.

These two candidates seem to have grown out of a discourse that demanded change. They arose out of frustration, on both sides, of a Presidency mired in ‘do nothingness.’ Out of the frustration of watching Barack Obama either act in a manner that didn’t benefit the American people at large, or constantly battling a Congress that refused to work with him.

These two candidates represented a shift, especially toward the more extremes of each party: one toward the anger and racist bigotry associated with far-right thinking, and the other toward socialism.

Were I a supporter of Bernie Sanders I would, if nothing else, better understand how Trump came to crystalize the discourse of the Republican Party. How he kept his momentum and seemed ever more resilient against each disparaging and damning fact that came out about him.

I can empathize with this.

It makes sense.

If only the Democratic Party had realized that as well, I can’t help but think (from a liberal perspective at least) that we wouldn’t have a deplorable man as President.

The New Deplorables

During the campaign, Hillary Clinton referred to certain members of Trump’s support base as ‘deplorable.’

This is an apt description, given their, well, deplorable nature.

You’ve probably seen them. I have.

They wear t-shirts that support lynching members of the press.

They wear t-shirts that in some ‘clever’ way call Hillary Clinton a bitch.

They accost protestors.

They kick the wheelchair of a child with disabilities peacefully protesting at a Trump rally because of the way he mocks the disabled (side note: where you at, Sarah Palin, with your ire over the use of the term ‘retarded’ in even a benign context?).

They take to the internet with chants of MAGA!

They spread disinformation and hate.

They feed on discord and violence, and Trump eggs them on and supports them and blames the victims for their actions. The classic, well if you weren’t such a (insert insult here), I wouldn’t have called you that.

I’ve known a lot of these types of people in my time. They used to call me a ‘faggot’ for dressing a certain way or for reading during my lunch breaks.

For going back to school.

I sat once and listened to a group of them talk angrily about President Obama with statements like, someone should just kill him, while their children nodded in agreement.

They argued for years that Obama wasn’t an American, even after he supplied his birth certificate. They kept the argument alive by denying its accuracy, or incorrectly stating that Hawaii wasn’t a state when he was born there (he was born in 1961, and Hawaii became a state in 1959).

Out of curiosity, I checked the Facebook pages of the people I knew who were like this.

They voted Trump.

Now, whether any of this is correlative to the deplorable nature of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, and whether it is (again) fair to categorize all republican-voting Americans in this list of people (it isn’t, of course), it begs the greater question: perhaps they aren’t the deplorable ones.

A majority of Americans elected Donald Trump.

Maybe the people we thought were deplorable aren’t really the deplorables.

Maybe I am?

Maybe my type of thinking, or even just my way of life, is the new deplorable?

Here’s what I mean.

Prior to this election, the academic world was in great decline. Funding for state universities has been lessening more and more, and especially in the humanities, jobs are dwindling to nothing. People are being fired and tenured positions are disappearing. ‘Adjuncting’ is the new norm. A form of teaching where we receive less than minimum wage, no benefits, and no funding for research and/or conferences. It’s actually better to simply get a full-time job and do the whole academic thing as a hobby.

As well, there persists this notion that a college education isn’t valuable anymore. But I’d argue that this stems more than anything from a misunderstanding about what an ‘education’ means. Of course it doesn’t just mean a four-year degree. An education can be gained from courses taken at a community college, courses that vary from the most basic level of the humanities to more direct vocational training. Both of which share inestimable benefits. Or even from skills learned outside the context of a college setting. But this isn’t the misunderstanding I mean here. Rather, I’m referring to the idea that an ‘education’ consists mostly of taking classes and graduating. A misunderstanding, then, about the ‘college experience’ in general. For me, college is where people discover how to deal with difficulties. Where we are faced with the challenge of addressing different subjects all at once. Where we ‘grow up.’

Here’s an example: I was terrible at math. I failed every class in High School. When I finally went back to college I had to start at the beginning. Adding and subtracting. My homework was writing out numbers. One hundred. Four thousand, two hundred, and twenty five. I hated it. I worked hard. I studied. I got tutoring. I passed every class. Asked now, I couldn’t possibly remember how to do the things I learned in order to pass. But the point is, I learned them. I forced myself to learn a task and excel at it, regardless of how much I disliked it. Tell me that isn’t the sort of knowledge that might come in handy in the ‘real world.’

Nevertheless, the nation’s mood toward academia was bad before. It’s worse now.

From inside this context I’ve seen the rhetoric on the right side of things getting more and more combative against the ‘educated elite.’ When Britain’s own end-of-the-world scenario was decided (‘Brexit’), one of the rallying cries from the ‘leave’ campaign was the notion that we’re “tired of the experts.”

Anti-intellectualism is becoming more and more normalized. It’s being filled with conspiratorial accusations, the worst of which dealing with ‘Global Warming.’ I’ve known intelligent, rational people, for whom I hold great respect, deny any and all aspects involving the pollution and direct influence humankind has on the environment with passionate claims that the whole thing is a hoax in order to get us to pay more taxes. They reject academic articles on the subject, and published scientific findings because, in their lives, they’ve known academics who were corrupt or opinionated. I myself have been asked on a few occasions what my ‘agenda’ is in my own research, a response that stems directly from a mistrust of the academic world. A mistrust, I believe, that arises from negative personal experiences. It’s sort of like dismissing scientific data about the dangerous repercussions of fracking because a lecturer once gave you a poor grade for a paper you wrote about feminist narrative in 19th century southern fiction.

I’ve also seen angry contempt over the building of wind and solar farms, punctuated by the central issue of their aesthetic appeal. I’ve found myself arguing that perhaps the ugliness they see in wind turbines and solar panels is not necessarily the objects themselves, but what they represent. In this sense, a physical embodiment of the liberal lie that is Climate Change.

Conspiratorial thinking, based on feelings rather than facts.

Donald Trump, after all, thinks ‘Global Warming’ was invented by the Chinese.

My larger point here is that I’ve seen myself and others depicted as the new deplorables. This has been especially evinced over the last few days by colleagues who have described scenes of students crying in class, or the fact that here at Dartmouth a number of professors cancelled their lectures and instead held open office hours for those who wanted to talk.

Why, you might wonder?

Because the future for academia, for creativity and exploration, and especially for rational and objective thinking, seems to be heading toward an end.

And this isn’t just because some of the things we research are so easily politicized.

As a quick example, allow me to move away from the emotions of undergraduates at an IV university in New Hampshire to my own experiences.

I finished my PhD about a year ago and have been writing articles and chapters and books to ‘boost’ my CV. In that time I’ve applied for about 20 or so teaching positions or post-doctoral fellowships. The rejections I receive tend to have the same response. Thanks for the application, you look great, we’d love to have you, but we had about 200-500 applicants and only had space for one. This is pretty normal.

It also doesn’t help me that I research something that’s kind of sexy, but not really sexy enough. That’s my own fault.

Right now the academic market is currently flooded with applicants, and there just aren’t enough jobs for us. Which is getting worse. As I mentioned above, funding for new positions is getting cut. Departments are downsizing. Current lecturers and professors are fighting just to keep their own jobs.

In America, an academic CV just isn’t what it used to be.

Which is a direct result of the sort of discourse that will find support in Trump’s America. A PhD used to mean something. Now it’s something we might be better off hiding about ourselves.

Here’s another issue: since academia seems to be losing its support, and since the outcome is the adjunct solution mentioned above, where we might have found financial and beneficial support in the past, we are now finding ourselves in the position of having to decide whether or not to dismiss ever getting the PhD in the first place.

One of the first things Trump has vowed to do as President is repeal the Affordable Care Act, removing this basic service for millions and millions of Americans. Which means those of us surviving on an adjunct basis no longer have the medical benefits our universities don’t offer us. Meaning, while we could have nominally survived a few years before finding a full-time position, that option seems impossible now. Which makes it harder to boost one’s CV, which makes us less and less qualified for a full-time position.

In other words, it no longer makes financial sense working as an academic grunt if a basic injury might send me deeper in debt beyond the money I owe for the education I got in order to be an academic grunt.

See, it’s little actions like this, seemingly unrelated, that cause the biggest effect. The Affordable Care Act, from an academic perspective, was something that supported academic thinking by making the terrible situation of finding a job that much easier. Now, I’m better off working at Home Depot.

So in the end, people like me but without the benefit of an amazing wife whose employer offers spousal benefits are finding themselves at a crossroads. Which is why, even at the undergrad level, people are worried.

Couple this with the notion that in contemporary America, and especially in Trump’s America, academics are becoming personae non gratae, and we begin to see a growing issue.

Yet, and regardless of this, some of you might find yourselves asking if academics really matter that much? Why should we support people who just think about stuff or who have circle-jerk arguments about theories? Who don’t have ‘real jobs?’

To that I’d answer: because people who devote their passions to research and study and teaching provide a service immeasurable to the benefits of society.

We thrive on furthering intellectual thought.

We study religion, and law, and science, and provide the basis on which culture not only starts, but grows.

Because we are storytellers, and the world does not exist without stories.

Because without academic thought there is no democracy.

There is no dissemination of knowledge.

Because without academic thought, ignorance thrives.

And so does laziness.

Fight or Flight

So here it is, the end of this rant.

Here’s where I wrap up the whole thing and end on a positive note.

During the campaign, and especially since it ended, I’ve seen a lot of people talking about leaving America.

I admit, last Wednesday I thought about contacting friends and colleagues abroad for advice on attaining research visas. Maybe going back for another PhD. Which I would love to do. We loved living in Scotland. We loved traveling Europe. The last year has been difficult. The reverse culture shock is only getting worse.

And for many of us, Donald Trump’s success has brought us to a crossroads of fight or flight. The nightmare we thought just couldn’t happen has happened, and suddenly we’ve come to find ourselves as the new deplorables.

We find ourselves in the minority for promoting racial equality, same-sex marriage, the separation of church and state. We support the dangers of objectivity. Of rationality. Of not being lazy.

Maybe we should just run away. Run and hide someplace where this sort of thinking is welcomed and loved. What America used to be.

When I think about these two options I can’t help but consider one of them weaker than the other. What does it say about me as a person that when faced with an orange Mussolini Presidency I immediately run away?

What does it say about me if I don’t stand and fight for the democracy I hold so dear and sacred?

The idea of a Trump Presidency is a nightmare. Not just for those of us who didn’t vote for him, but for all of us.

Empathy and fairness aside, this man is the least qualified individual to have ever attained a political position of power in the history of the United States.

And it’s our job to ensure he doesn’t destroy it outright.

For that reason, I am staying here.

For that reason, I wholly accept that I am the new deplorable.

I embrace it.

I will be the constant annoying reminder that the America I have always known and loved is still here.

That they can’t just have what they want. That America doesn’t work like that. That this isn’t a monarchy. This isn’t a theocracy.

I will remind him and his followers that the First Amendment does not promote religion. It does not quiet Free Speech. It does not deny me the right to protest.

I will remind our new Vice President, our actual President by everything but name alone, especially after Trump realizes how hard the job is, that though he may be a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican (in that order), the American people are not. I will remind them both that this is not a Christian nation.

I will remind them that the First Amendment protects religious freedom by not infringing on it. By not promoting one belief over another. By keeping it out of political decisions. By removing it from state capitols and courthouses.

That the First Amendment protects their own religious beliefs from their own machinations.

I will remind the new Supreme Court that it is its job to ensure all Americans find equal protection under the Constitution. That it does not serve to promote, protect, and defend the Americans with whom the majority of Justices agree politically or religiously. That decisions are, and should be, difficult. That they need to look no further than their own history, to the history of Judicial America, to find the foundations of equality on which decisions like Snyder v. Phelps (2011) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) have been made.

Rather than lowering to his level and insulting his ‘tiny hands,’ I will remind President Trump why American democracy is so great. Every time he tries to do something unconstitutional, I will remind him why that document exists. When he tries to gag the press because he doesn’t like how the media (or the public) treats him, I will make sure he sees it.

I will remind him that equality is better than racism. That homosexuality is not a sin. I will normalize these things by living a life that accepts people, regardless of their ‘differences’ from me.

I will implore others to empathize. To understand why people might act out with violence, and argue that responding with violence isn’t always the best approach.

I will ask them to consider the heartache someone might feel in not being allowed to sit with the person they love as they die. To hold their hand. To kiss them. To cry with them. To be with the person they love more than themselves during a moment of fear and loneliness. And then I will ask them if they think the type of sex these people have should restrict them from this.

I will remind Trump’s America that as parents of daughters, and as grandparents to granddaughters, that normalizing sexual assault is an insult to humanity.

I will remind them that children need to learn that sexual assault is a crime, even if their President does it.

I will remind them of this because they’ve elected a President who thinks sexual assault is permissible because of someone’s financial worth or fame. I will force them to justify this decision. To explain their choice to their children. To explain why they decided to normalize these actions. Why they thought a ‘strong leader’ was worth electing a sexual deviant.

I will remind them that Planned Parenthood isn’t about abortion, it’s about women’s health. It’s about offering women a place where they can responsibly care for themselves, a place to find support and treatment.

I will remind them that abortion is legal in the United States, that American women have the right to make that choice, even when I don’t agree with it.

I will remind them that though America has immigration issues, and though we have illegal immigration issues, there are better resolutions than militarily rounding up and deporting people. That this was never a part of our social and civil infrastructure. That it only breeds more hate, and this is not how I want the world to see us.

I will remind President Trump that he must now do the job. That perhaps his own worst nightmare has come true.

I will remind him that this job requires more than just making empty threats built on the foundation of ignorant fears. That it is more than just riling up hateful crowds. That he must now do more than simply wave his hands and tell people that his plans are the best, really the best, better than anyone else’s.

I will remind our new Secretary of State that feelings are not more essential than facts.

I will remind them both that they have to speak to foreign leaders on behalf of all Americans and, worse for Trump, respect them. Especially the women. I will remind him that he can’t just dismiss Angela Merkel, perhaps soon to be leader of the free world, because, as we’ve seen, he has no respect for educated, rational women.

I will remind him that he now has to make decisions. Difficult decisions.

I will remind him that his decisions might cost America billions of dollars. That his decisions cannot only benefit Republican ideals, if he even knows what those are, beyond what is told to him by aides.

I will remind him that his decisions cannot only support white, Christian men.

I will remind him that his decisions cannot simply benefit Vladimir Putin.

I will remind the baby-boomers who elected him, who lived through the Cold War, that they might have just elevated a ‘useful idiot’ to the Presidency. That we are perhaps set to see America’s involvement in, and support of, a Russian invasion of Europe. Under the guise of protecting it from Islamic terrorism. Of our becoming a part of the new Axis Powers in a third World War: Russia, Britain, the United States. Do the bad guys know when they’re the bad guys, or does that realization only occur after they’ve lost?

I will remind him that he has to make decisions that don’t cause further damage to the already weakened peace of racial America. I will remind him that in the inevitable event of another Ferguson, he cannot simply militarize the police. That in the face of racial violence, from both sides, the best solution is found in locating the source of this violence, and resolving it there.

I will remind him that when he calls the spouses and parents of soldiers killed in the service of their country he cannot disrespect them or insult them because they’re Muslim or supported a different candidate.

He can’t call them cowards if they get captured.

I will remind Republican Americans that the next time they ask me to ‘thank a sniper’ or admonish me for not properly celebrating Memorial or Veterans day by thanking a veteran, that this man was their choice. That before they demand this sort of respect from me, they should first demand it of their Commander in Chief.

I will remind Trump’s America that anger is not an option.

That fear and hate are not American ideals. They are his.

They are not mine.

I will make myself inclusive to other’s beliefs, as I always have been. As I was taught by my parents and my grandparents.

I will find commonality with people who think me their enemy.

I will show them love and compassion and empathy when they show me hate.

I will defend their right to speak freely, to protest. Even when I don’t like what they say.

I will defend our right to do this together, and I will do it peacefully.

I will invite Republicans and Democrats to join me in this, in being the new deplorables. In finding harmony in our disharmony in an effort to preserve and protect all that has been great about America. To ensure America is as great as it always has been. To keep it safe during the inevitable hard times to come.

I will defend the disestablishment of religion in America, and I will do it by continuing my research. By writing about and publishing and teaching others about religion.

Mine will be a voice of American Atheism, a reminder that regardless of our own beliefs, the sacred right of religious free exercise, even in our darkest hour, remains sacrosanct and enduring.

Donald Trump is my President, and I will proudly be the new deplorable.

 

 

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.


PRELIMINARY CONTENTS

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

Conclusion

PROPOSAL

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.

RESEARCH PROGRAMME

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism#Definitions_and_distinctions 

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

Perhaps the Most Logical Vote is a Write-In

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

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

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

More on this below.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

pew

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

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

pew2

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

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

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

[…]

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

This is the genesis of my issue.

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

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

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

Instead, it’s merely a useful buzz phrase.

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

I accept this.

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

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

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

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

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

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


So here’s my suggestion:

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

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

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

More objective, less subjective.

More recording, less dictating.

More listening, less defining.


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

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

Church without God.”

Building Better Secularists.”

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

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

Vanilla English

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

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

It was the latter.

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

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

I told him: “North, Southern California.”

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

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


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

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

He was playing “Danny Boy.”

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Vanilla isn’t bland.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Ethan Quillen

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

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

Ingela Visuri

Autism, theism and atheism

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

Stephen LeDrew

Atheism as a Secular Religion

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

Ethan Quillen

Fictionalized Identity: Narrative Representations of Atheism as Ethnographic Source

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

Here’s also a link to our panel on the IAHR program site: http://www.iahr2015.org/iahr/2992.html


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

Presenting here yesterday felt very much like this.

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

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

I responded that I did not feel that way.

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


One final note.

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

Shameless Self-Promotion

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Memoriam.

Yesterday, the United States celebrated Memorial Day, a federal holiday to honour and remember those who died while serving in the armed forces.  In order to commemorate the event each year, a number of service men and women place flags in front of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery.

flags

Image borrowed from The Washington Post.

While I have my own personal connections to Arlington, one thing that I’ve always appreciated about the cemetery itself is the way in which the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs and the Cemetery Administration have made efforts to ensure all individuals interred there are represented in equal fairness according to their religious beliefs.  While this is a somewhat new development, coming after a 2007 decision to permit the placement of a Wiccan symbol on Sergeant Patrick Stewart‘s headstone, the VA’s policy has become quite open to religious diversity.

This diversity comes in the form of religious emblems, etched into the top of each headstone, and painted black to match the name, the rank, and the campaign(s) in which the individual either fought, or that were fought during their time in the service, as well as the date of birth and death, any medals or honours received, and a short description of the individual (such as ‘father,’ ‘mother,’ ‘wife,’ etc).  Here is the Cemetery Administration’s ‘sample headstone:’

sample headstone

The religious emblems are chosen by either the interred, or their family, based on a list of approved symbols.  As well, the headstone may be placed with no symbol, or with one not on the list as long as it meets approval by the Department of Veteran’s affairs.  Sergeant Stewart’s Wicca symbol is an example of the latter.

Here are the 61 emblems currently on the list, which can be found on the Veteran’s Affairs website here:

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Some of the most recent additions are the Atheist symbol, the Humanist emblem of Spirit, the Infinity symbol, the Hammer of Thor (Mjölnir), and the Sandhill Crane.  This does not, of course, mean that these are ‘special’ or ‘different,’ but rather that they represent a further acknowledgment on behalf of the Veteran’s Affairs office of the religious diversity represented by all American citizens.  Additionally, it should be noted that these changes occur without announcement, and the Cemetery Administration keeps the details about the emblems displayed, and the individuals for whom they are displayed, confidential.  In fact, the information we do have about them comes from the families of those interred, via those more curious about their meaning.  Some of these sources are cited below.

I would argue, then, that the Arlington National Cemetery, as well as the 147 national cemeteries maintained by the Veteran’s Affairs office, provides for us an exemplary source with which to determine and research the religious diversity of the United States.  Upon each headstone is a list of identifying information, so that not only do these lasting memorials provide for us contextualizing data about when an individual lived and died, their rank, or the wars during which they were active, they offer us as well an insight into the way they defined themselves religiously.  Observing this personal insight affords us a number of routes through which to approach the meaning of ‘religion’ in the American context.  Whether that means that this particular data supports the theory of a distinct American religious economy, or that there is in fact a strict delineation between a ‘religious America’ and ‘secular Europe,’ as discursive devices these emblems represent a distinct language-use that signifies not only the identity of those for which they represent, but a revered acknowledgement that not all individuals in the United States identify as religiously similar.

Which further means, they discursively describe an identity in symbolic form, each image representing a signifier that we might utilise in order to make sense of their unique usage.  That is, each emblem is also a lasting monument to what each individual believed, which we might then use to guide our efforts in understanding how and why they believed, what they believed.  This does not mean, of course that these 61 approved emblems in any way represent a complete list of each and every American religious identity.  Nor that they represent the only emblems accepted by this aspect of the American government.  As we have seen, the list is growing, and as more and more individuals advocate for more and more diversity, it becomes a much more complex example of the various ways in which the signifier ‘religion’ is filled with meaning.

In a more theoretical capacity, then, these emblems serve to remind us that defining a term like ‘religion,’ beyond any well-determined context, or in a broad or general manner, is a much more precarious undertaking than it might initially seem.


For those interested, here is some more info on a few of the most recent additions, including the Hammer of Thor and the Sandhill Crane:

http://www.fastcodesign.com/1672968/how-thors-hammer-made-its-way-onto-soldiers-headstones

http://www.blogs.va.gov/VAntage/9906/the-hammer-of-thor-now-approved-for-va-provided-headstones/

http://www.aleteia.org/en/religion/article/what-do-you-want-on-your-tombstone-5778330569670656