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.

A Feeling of Ownership

Though perhaps not as many as others I know, I have presented at a good number of conferences.  One thing that I have learned throughout the process is the utility in using these experiences to better shape my research narrative.

Like a story in itself, the thing that we research often becomes something told and retold on so many occasions that it transforms into a part of our personal discourse.  That is, our research topic transmutes into something that describes us, and vice versa.  It becomes a part of our identity.  This is, partly, why my twitter handle is twitter.com/AtheismGuy.  Moreover, at the early stage, when we are focused so myopically on the PhD Thesis, this is ever more prevalent as we begin to try and describe (and in the process come to realise) what it is that we are actually researching in the first place.  This is perhaps best reflected by a friendly exchange that recently took place between myself and two other individuals who are studying Atheism/Non-Religion.

The three of us met at a cafe in Edinburgh to discuss the possibility of shaping together a roundtable discussion for our Atheism in Debate course here at New College, which we each tutor on.  I wrote briefly about the course in a  previous post.  The locus of the idea came from Liam Fraser, who’s research on Atheism and Fundamentalism argues “that these apparently irreconcilable movements share a common intellectual structure, and derive from a common theological and philosophical source.”  Very interesting stuff.  The other in our group was Christopher Cotter, who I’ve mentioned previously, and who’s research at Lancaster University on the discourses that underly the social constructions of notions about Non-Religion and the ‘secular’ is definitely worth a read.

While Chris and I have known each other for a few years now, this was our first introduction to Liam, so our conversation, as so often happens when three individuals who study similar things meet for the first time, was focused as well on what Liam so aptly called our ‘elevator pitch.’  I’ve heard this phrased a number of different ways, perhaps the most popular of which is the ‘three-minute thesis,’ which is also the name of a world-wide competition that began in Australia.  In essence, the ‘three-minute thesis’ is as the title suggests, or as the website states: the reduction of an 80,000 word thesis into a three minute presentation.  It isn’t really that easy, despite the ease with which some are able to do it.  See, for example, this last year’s winner Megan Rossi:

   

Regrettably, I have never really tried to reduce my thesis in this manner.  So when Liam asked for my ‘elevator pitch’ he, perhaps begrudgingly, received a fairly long and detailed account of how I intend to change the academic world with my substantial and original ideas.  As I was detailing all of this to him (and Chris, who got to hear it all over again) I began to consider how this pitch not only describes what it is that I’ve done these last four years, but me as well.

This thought returned recently as I sat down to write up another conference presentation, which I will expand on a bit more later this month.  In the process, I came to realise that there exists an odd feeling of ownership to these subjects, a bizarre association with ‘Atheism’ and my name, or the way I feel as if I have some sort of hold on the notion of Atheism and fiction and Ian McEwan’s novels, the latter of which always seems to surface when I meet someone who’s read one of his books and we carry on in a special conversation only we understand.  It’s like having an exclusionary knowledge about a subject, being ‘in the know,’ or privileged in some odd way.

Whenever I find myself thinking this way I am reminded of a line Malinowski noted in his diary during his observations in New Guinea for Argonauts of the Western Pacific.

Joy: I hear the “Kiriwina” [another name for the Trobriands; more strictly the northern province of Boyowa].  I get ready; little gray, pinkish huts.  Photos.  Feeling of ownership: It is I who will describe them or create them.[1]

Though he never, as far as we might assume, intended to publish these personal thoughts, and though their publication made way for the Writing Culture debate that would follow in the next two to three decades, I would argue that Malinowski’s own feeling of ownership is not all that surprising.  In fact, because he saw himself as the translator of Trobriand culture for the Western World, his sense that he ‘owned’ it is as equally reflective of his idea that this would be his subject.  He would introduce it to the world.  He would translate their ‘imponderabilia,’ the nuanced and specific day-to-day that only one who has lived amongst his subject might be able to understand.  He would create them.

Beyond the conversation we might have about how an observer’s textual representation (or even interpretation) might in any way equal anything akin to ‘creating a culture’ (which will come up eventually, I assure you), this might better explain what i mean by a ‘feeling of ownership.’  When we undertake these sorts of research projects, we not only immerse ourselves fully into the subject, the subject begins to infect us as well.  There becomes a blurring of sorts, a consolidation of subject and object.  This might explain why, on occasion, and especially depending on the subject of one’s research, we often get confused with what we do.  This appears infrequently in religious studies.  On a number of occasions I have been asked by friends and family if my intention is to become a ‘minister,’ or if I ‘actually believe’ what it is I study.  Likewise, this might explain the jealousy we feel when we discover someone who studies what we study, but with (horrifically) a different perspective.

While this sort of thinking resurfaces from time to time, it is not something that I would argue is entirely an inaccurate assumption.  We are our subjects, because our subjects shape our research narrative.  They play an integral role in not only shaping the story we intend to tell, but the story of that story as well.  In this way, when we reduce our research into an ‘elevator pitch’ in order to easily describe it, we are likewise finding a way to describe ourselves.  Of course, and again, I do not have an elevator pitch.  Rather, I have a blog.  This is my elevator pitch.  However, the elevator is very slow, and this building has a whole lot of stories.

So, as I once again cobble together a presentation on Atheism, Atheist Narrative, Fiction as Ethnography, Atheism in McEwan’s Fiction, and Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism, I am once again reminded that, for no other reason than the obsession it takes to fully baptise oneself in a subject, when I give this presentation I will be the one who owns it.  I will be the one to describe and create it.  Of course, that does not mean that it is entirely mine.  This is just a story I tell myself, a feeling of ownership I pretend exists, to keep me from feeling like what I have to say means something beyond the boundaries of my own thoughts.

[1] Bronislaw Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, Norbert Guterman, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967), 140.

Everything is Fiction: A Discussion on Narrative and Reflexivity

It’s January.  That’s perhaps not all that surprising.  It’s also early January.  Which means, for some of us, we have entered that liminal stage between Christmas break and beginning a new semester.  This time, for me at least, is usually filled with anxieties.  There’s something about having no ‘real’ responsibilities that generates an incessant need to ‘do something.’  This, coupled with the notion that at the start of the year one must equally resolve to achieve some sort of important something within the year to follow, means planning.

For the year to come I have planned a number of what I hope will be intriguing and fun posts: an interpretation of New Atheism viewed through a unique filter; a three-part theoretical look at how disappointment assists in our development of the meaning of religion, as well as alters our means of religious identification; a correlative look at zombies and secularisation; the links between Atheism and types of ‘fiction;’ judicial definitions of Atheism as discourse; a brief look at Ethnographic Criticism and how it re-interprets our notions of authenticity and accuracy in describing ‘others;’ as well as many others.

Yet, as can be expected, there will of course be additions here that pop up unexpectedly.  Such a thing occurred this week as I was putting together a post on Ryan Bell’s ‘year without God’ (which will be posted next week).  As I began writing that up I thought instead that this week, the first post of the year, would perhaps afford a better opportunity to not only look back on an experience I truly enjoyed from last year, but also provide the chance to get a bit more nuance about what Everything is Fiction is all about.  Which, of course, begins with a story.

Just prior to my moving to Edinburgh in September 2011, I flew out for a few days the previous April to meet my supervisor and get an idea about both the University and the city-at-large.  After our brief meeting, I was invited to sit in on the final presentations of the bi-annual New College Post-Graduate Conference, which I gladly accepted.  When we arrived at Martin Hall, the last speaker had already begun, so we snuck in quietly and sat in the back.  This was my first experience listening to Christopher Cotter as he discussed his paper on New Atheism.  Later, as a few of us adjourned to The Wash, one of the local drinking establishments we have frequented religiously over the last few years (and for many years prior to my arrival), I made the acquaintance of David Robertson, a friend and colleague of Chris.’  They each have their own blogs, which can be accessed here: Chris and David.  As well, these two have successfully and graciously given us The Religious Studies Project, a one-stop shop for all things pertinent to the method and theory in the study of religion.  Each week, the RSP posts a podcast recording of an interview conducted with an academic who discusses his or her research in the study of religion.  It is, for me at least, an ideal place to access the discourse on the study of religion.

On occasion I have had the great privilege to participate in a number of these recordings, particularly roundtable sessions where a group of us discuss issues in the field of religious studies, usually whilst drinking.  One of these recent experiences, though the drinking took place after, rather than during, was held at the University of Chester after Chris and David gave a workshop on the ‘Digital Humanities,’ and David conducted an interview with Dr. Alana Vincent.  The roundtable was chaired by Chris, and included Dr Wendy DossettProf. Elaine Graham, Dr Dawn Llewellyn, and Dr Alana Vincent.  The theme was on narrative and reflexivity in the study of religion, and Chris and David felt that perhaps I might have something to contribute, given my interests in the use of fiction in the study and teaching of religion, as well as my criticisms on where we might draw the line between authenticity and authority in our use of particular textual sources.  For this I was, and am, quite thankful.

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I found the discussion not only exciting, engaging, and fun, but cathartic.  It was incredibly refreshing to have the opportunity to discuss, out loud, the topics, themes, and points I’d been thinking and writing about ever since I sat down to write my Thesis.  Not only that, but the other individuals involved each provided some excellent feedback and points to consider.  In fact, this roundtable could not have come at a more fortuitous time.  I had just finished the full draft of the thesis, and was taking a few days off before conducting the initial round of edits.  So not only was I already obsessively thinking about these topics, I was likewise in the mindset perhaps best suited for feedback.

In our discussion, my catchy catch-phrase ‘Everything is Fiction’ comes up quite frequently, which I was of course quite happy about.  As well, I think the way we discuss some of the ways this phrase might be interpreted do a bit more justice than I might do here (which is also a forthcoming post).  So, please do listen (or rather, watch) and enjoy.

To conclude this sort of New Years’ tangential look back, I am reminded again about timing.  In fact, when I really think about it, the timing of this roundtable was somewhat like my first meeting Chris and David, designed in such a way as if like the plot of some larger story.  Which, I suppose, provides even more evidence to the idea that everything is, indeed, fiction.