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.

Thesis for Ants

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

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

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

This discussion represents a particular bias, or rather, a particular discursive perception of the concept ‘PhD,’ and how the public might perceive of that concept as something more predominately associated with the sciences, rather than the humanities.  

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

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

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

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

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

People trying meditation for the first time get aroused.

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

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

My experimental drug does NOT cure addiction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, more than anything, perhaps it reminds us that though there are differences between these two fields, the level of importance between a thesis that tests the accuracy, or even existence, of a Higgs-Boson, and a thesis that argues that all writing, from ethnography to a novel, is fictional by means of its ‘artificial’ nature, is in itself a fictional differentiation established by our discursive perceptions, and perpetuated by the language of random sample data.

Understanding how that works will largely influence both the future of the humanities, as well as the future of education worldwide.  After all, how can we be expected to promote and describe our research, if we can’t even control how those descriptions fit into the discourse on what it means to have a ‘PhD?’

A Stereotypical Post

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

Here’s how I can tell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because that’s the stereotype.

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

Here’s some pretty good examples.

This definition from Urban Dictionary:

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

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

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

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

There’s also these ‘meme’ images:

latte latte 2 latte 3

These are stereotypes, and stereotypes are interesting things.

Sure, they can tell us a lot about ‘other’ people, about their customs and culture, and about the way they define themselves.  In this way, they even represent a type of discourse: language used by individuals that we perceive in a particular way, and thus the language we use to describe those ‘others’ in a way that makes sense for both their context, as well as for our description itself.

Yet, they also tell us a lot about ourselves as well, not just in how we perceive those ‘others,’ but in how we might thus be stereotyping ourselves in the process.

After all, if identity construction is all about projecting an image we want to be seen by others, which is then validated by an external entity (that other person), and vice versa ad nauseam, then aren’t we constantly being stereotyped as we stereotype others.

This is something we should all consider, particularly concerning the type of terminology not only being used in Europe at the moment concerning the difference between a ‘refugee’ and an ‘immigrant,’ but about how we perceive others on a day-to-day basis in our interactions and conversations with other human beings.

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

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

The Spiritual Menu: An Alternative Solution to the World Religions Paradigm

Over the weekend I came across this image on the internet:

spiritual menu

It comes from the Hotel Preston, in Nashville Tennessee.  According to a number of sources the menu on the right (though the pillow menu looks pretty nice too), is the brain-child of Howard Jacobs, the chief operating officer for Provenance Hotels, the owner of the Hotel Preston.

Among the spiritual and pillow menus, amenities of the hotel also include a pet goldfish, as well as a ‘pet spiritual menu:’

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 13.02.54

While this is a very clever (and more than likely quite successful) marketing scheme, the Spiritual Menu might be helpful in another way, particularly concerning how we approach and study ‘religion.’  My intention with it, then, will be to use it as an alternative methodological approach to researching and teaching ‘religion’ beyond the limits of the normative ‘World Religions Paradigm.’  To do this, however, I need to first provide some background on the latter.

The World Religions Paradigm 

When I decided to ‘return’ to school after a few years working full time, one of the first courses I took was an ‘Intro to Religion.’  Though it would become the subject to which I would devote my scholarly energies from that point on, I was a bit anxious about this course.  I had a fairly poor experience the first time I tried to attend university, and one of the first courses I took then was also on the ‘World’s Religions.’  In this version, the instructor spent most of his time showing pictures of himself standing in front of Buddhist Temples.  I ended up failing the class because I stopped attending.  My second experience was much better.  In fact, I might even go so far as to blame this course for the route that my academic interests would take.  smithFor this class we were assigned a single text: Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions.  I loved this book (and still do).  I was enthralled by Smith’s narrative, by the way he introduced ‘religion’ via stories, summarising a millennia of beliefs and practices into short and practical explanations.

The text is simple: a somewhat reflexive introduction followed by a Chapter each on Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Primal Religions, and a Conclusion about the interrelatedness of religious belief told through narratives and stories across thousands of years of human cultural development.

For me, the text’s simplicity was ideal for my introduction to religion.  Here were the ‘world’s religion,’ in simple prose, presented as they occurred in the real world, almost progressively, like an evolutionary system of socio-cultural belief leading toward some sort of conclusion.

A few years later, when I was working on my first Master’s degree in Religious Studies, I was introduced to Ninian dimensionsSmart’s Dimensions of the Sacred, which also introduced me to his own The World’s Religions. world religions While the former introduced me to a theoretical world of functionalist approaches to the ‘meaning’ of religion, the latter seemed a rather more complex version of Smith’s World’s Religions.  I didn’t think much of it, but it did indeed assist me in growing my knowledge about the subject.

In fact, the trend of presenting ‘religion’ in a ‘world’s religion’ category has carried on for some time, the most recent addition being the Norton Anthology of World Religions nortonedited by Jack Miles, with contributive ‘chapters’ by Wendy Doniger, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., James Robson, David Biale, Lawrence S. Cunningham, and Jane Dammen McAuliffe.  The anthology itself is split into two books, with sections devoted to Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism (Volume One), Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Volume Two).  As described by the publisher, this is a “landmark work in which the six major, living, international world religions speak to readers in their own words.”

Again, this seems like a fairly straight-forward text, offering primary source ‘voices’ with which to tell the story of these ‘religions.’  However, and as I too came to realise over my years of studying religion, this is not without its faults.  For example, while this makes the job of teaching about religion slightly easier (if not more marketable), it also quite simplistically isolates the concept of ‘religion’ into a particular six-to-seven part typography.  Likewise, this presents the issue of a normative or ‘western-centric’ perspective, so that ‘religion’ is thus defined here by our isolating it to these particular cases.  This becomes even more problematic when we begin to study ‘religious beliefs and practices’ that might not fit into these typographies, such as Scientology or ‘New Age.’  Which, as we might argue from the outset, moves us outside of the realm of strict objectivity by underscoring our intentions with preconceived notions about what ‘religion means’ before we’ve even had the chance to discuss it.

This argument is made much better by others.  For example, Suzanne Owen published an article a few years back that I think quite nicely addresses the issues inherent in using the World Religions Paradigm.  First, her description:

For comparative purposes, scholars have placed the different manifestations of religion into various categories separated according to criteria chosenbeforehand. The divisions could be decided along historical lines, e.g. ‘primitive,classical, living’, or geographically. The most popular typology dividesWorld Religions from other religions. The World Religions generally includeBuddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, with many lists includingSikhism and also Zoroastrianism and Baha’i, organized first geographicallyand then historically in textbooks and most modules covering them. Otherreligions include various New Religious Movements and the indigenous traditionsof Africa, North America, China, Japan and so on.  [Suzanne Owen, “The World Religions Paradigm: Time for a Change” (Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2011), 254.] 

To support this description, she cites Suthren Hurst and Zavos (2005):

This model conceptualises religious ideas and practice as being configured by a series ofmajor religious systems that can be clearly identified as having discrete characteristics.These systems are seen as existing alongside each other in a common space in the globalfields of cultural, social and political life. They apparently compete, have dialogue witheach other, regenerate themselves or degenerate within this space; a series of systems,then, with their own historical agency.  [J. Suthren Hirst and J. Zavos, “Riding a tiger? South Asia and the problem of ‘religion” (Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2005), 5.]

As she then points out, while the World Religions Paradigm seems to be surviving the number of criticisms it has received over the last few years (decades, even), it is still thriving (exemplified by the Norton Anthology).  He are some great examples of the criticism and discussion about it that I think are worth a listen:   

A podcast interview with Jim Cox, a renowned phenomenologist discussing the use and issues of the paradigm:

A roundtable discussion about the paradigm including Suzanne Owen and Jim Cox, alongside a number of academics who are quit critical of its usage:

Another roundtable, though perhaps not as ‘professional’ as the one above, where a group of us met a few years back to discuss it from the perspective of those in the process of working toward the PhD:

As well, the brilliant minds behind the Religious Studies Project (David G. Robertson and Christopher R. Cotter) have a forthcoming text on the subject set to be released in the very near future.

To conclude here, then, and thus move on to my use of the Spiritual Menu, I return once more to Suzanne Owen’s conclusion, as I think it might do a more concise job of summarising both the departmental and discursive issues in using the paradigm to teach religion:

On the whole, religious studies departments are still constrained by theWorld Religions paradigm for various reasons, such as the expectations ofstudents and institutional concerns. This affects recruitment, as they continueto advertise posts for specialists in a particular religion rather than for someonewho is a specialist in the study of religion. University undergraduate coursescontinue to teach descriptions of particular religions in turn, divided accordingto historical and geographical criteria. However, departments these dayscannot afford to have a specialist in each of the World Religions, especiallyif they have to share the department with a dozen theologians and biblicalscholars. Several departments are trying to find alternative approaches, but theWorld Religions paradigm is still growing vigorously in primary and secondaryschools and thus continues to inform the non-specialists who inhabit themedia and political arenas.  [Owen, “The World Religions Paradigm: Time for a Change,” 266.] 

As she states here, not only does it cause issues concerning the way that ‘religion’ is presented in the classroom, and is thus perceived by students (such as myself), using this paradigm also affects the discourse beyond the classroom.  In the British case (the context within which she is writing) this translates into a public perception that further normativizes the notion that ‘religion’ is something that consists of an ‘us vs. them’ binary.  What this further produces is a somewhat inherent bias that not only raises certain ‘religious beliefs and practices’ above others, but that equally denigrates others that don’t fit into this sort of typography.    

The Spiritual Menu

While the Spiritual Menu appears to be yet another example of the World Religions Paradigm, I think it also provides an outlet from the issues that arise in using it.  Here’s a quick description of my argument:

While on the surface it appears to divide ‘the spiritual,’ which we might translate as ‘religion,’ along similar lines of the World Religions Paradigm’s promotion of ‘popular religions’ (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Scientology), it is doing so by means of textual narratives, such as we see in the Norton Anthology.

This is similar as well to the use of narratives in Smith’s and Smart’s World Religions.

In this way, ‘religion’ is presented via narrative representations, much like Smart’s dimensions in regard to the ‘mythology’ or ‘doctrine’ that underscores a definitive aspect of religious belief and practice.

Said otherwise, these are presented via particular discourses.

Thus, rather than seeing the texts offered in the Menu as furthering the notion that the best means of presenting ‘religion’ is done though a typography divided by the World Religions Paradigm, they can instead be reflective of particular discourses pertaining to how individuals might define themselves ‘discursively’ via myth and doctrine.

What I might also argue from this line of thinking is where the contributors of the Norton Anthology might have ‘gone astray,’ beyond the idea that the religions they present have the bizarre ability to “speak to readers in their own words,” is not so much found in their using discourse as a means of allowing the ‘subject’ to speak for itself, but in their isolating this discourse within a paradigm at all.

The ‘Menu’ is thus nothing more than a discursive sampler: texts used by individuals that represent, on one end, the discourses we might see as ‘underscoring’ a ‘religion,’ that on the other are used by individuals identifying with that ‘religion.’  In the same way, these texts are not the religion itself.  The Bhagavad Gita is not Hinduism.  What is Scientology is not Scientology.  Rather, they are narrative representations filled with language used by individuals in their processes of identity construction.  Therefore, unlike where the Norton Anthology uses similar ‘primary sources’ to describe how a religion might ‘speak for itself,’ the use of the menu here gives us a much more clear and nuanced look at how individuals might use a similar source in order to shape the language they use to describe themselves ‘religiously.’  In other words: a Scientologist might use What is Scientology to describe him or herself as a Scientologist; the book is a discursive tool, not the discourse itself.

Thus, again, while the means with which those who use the World Religions Paradigm is not inherently problematic, their doing this within the confines of a paradigm that provides a normative and biased position on the meaning of ‘religion’ confuses their intentions by turning their attention to the religion describing itself, rather than the religious individually describing themselves from within the context of that religion.  This is, as well, quite contrary to the objectivity necessary of religious scholarship.


To conclude here, I will borrow and amend an insightful statement made by Niki Leondakis, the chief operating officer with the Kimpton Hotel chain based in San Francisco, which has equally adopted the Spiritual Menu: “offering a menu that includes as many philosophies and beliefs and spiritual perspectives was much more in keeping with the culture of our company.”

Or, as I might argue: by translating the mythological and doctrinal narratives that are used by individuals in the process of their ‘religious identity construction’ as a ‘menu,’ through which they isolate their own discursive understandings of ‘religion,’ we can form a much more complex and varied person-to-person perspective on how individuals use, and thus define, the concept for their own intentions.  Which, I believe, seems much more in keeping with the culture of religious studies.

Origin Story

Texas is huge.  Of all the stereotypes, that is perhaps the most accurate.  Actually, that’s not quite true.  They’re all pretty accurate, depending on who you talk to, where you talk to them, what you talk about, and the current political climate, both in the US and worldwide.

I was asked recently, as I am often asked, how I ended up in Scotland.  To answer that question I needed to first tell the story about Texas, or at least about my time in Texas.  Without that story, the other one seems less fulfilled, less complete.

We ended up in Texas because my parents retired there, like many other people fleeing California’s waning economy, and we were curious why they would make such a horrible mistake.  We flew to Austin one weekend and found ourselves loving the city.  It was different, and ‘weird,’ and seemed like a fun change of venue from the California we had grown up in.  I ended up at Baylor by writing an email to the then chair of the American Studies program requesting information about their Master’s program.  He returned an email a few days later stating that he liked my interests and that, if I wished, I could begin in September.

The master’s program at Baylor, at least for the American Studies department, is equivalent to a ‘taught masters’ in the UK.  Along with a short dissertation submitted for an oral defence in the Spring of your second year, you also take a number of required courses (up to a specific number of units, in specific areas).  I attended lectures on American history and, most importantly, on Church-State relations.  These latter courses were quite intriguing.  I had not really familiarised myself at this point with the mysteries of Civil Religion, how the Supreme Court’s decisions shaped a particular discursive means of defining American religion, the role the President played in shaping that discourse, and how this all contributed to a larger sense of religion in the American context.

I finished that first degree in one year, and was asked if I might consider joining the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church State studies for a PhD.  I quite excitedly agreed.

One of the main reasons I was asked to join their department was due to my interests in Atheism, a 1/3 aspect to the topic of my dissertation (the other two parts being Fundamentalism and New Religious Movements).  Likewise, because I was a foreigner (not Texan), and because I was, for whatever reason, not shy about diving right into controversial subject matters, I was asked to be the ‘Devil’s Advocate‘ during seminars, the voice of opposition meant to challenge the opinions of the others involved.  I was, of course, not always the only person in the room who disagreed with everyone else, but on the occasions that it did occur, it was quite fun.  Additionally, I found that the other post-graduate students in the department were wonderful debaters, and our conversations and camaraderie is something I will cherish for all time.  Eventually, however, the fun came to an end, and while my eventual demise at Baylor is it’s own story that will likely appear in here one day, it’s not something worth focusing on at this moment.  For summary purposes, I’ll just say that I was not permitted to complete the doctorate.  When I asked whether I might write up another dissertation and receive a second Master’s degree, permission was granted and so I did.

The tacos were terrible.  I was told I wouldn’t be permitted to finish the PhD at a terrible Tex-Mex restaurant in a terrible part of Waco, Texas.  Which is a terrible city.  It was rumoured for some time that the department would be undergoing some changes, and this confirmed much that I had assumed would happen.  It was refreshing in a way, finally knowing the truth.  Equally, it gave me the opportunity to make decisions, to plan accordingly with full knowledge about my future.  In all honesty, I had no idea what to do next.  The terrible tacos add a sensory addition to this memory, a feeling of nausea and uncertainty that would not have made it as meaningful were it not for how bad they were.

I drove back to Austin (we would not have lived in Waco) and started thinking about options.  I contacted a previous supervisor who made the ridiculous suggestion that I look at Universities in the UK.  I had never thought of that.  Moving to Texas was a big move.  Moving to ‘Europe’ was even bigger.  Where would we live?  How would we live?  How could we afford it?  How different would our lives be?  Would we return the same people who left?  Would we return at all?

I applied and accepted an offer to the University of Edinburgh.

My topic would be Atheism.  This was, in all honesty, a bit of a mistake.  Then again, so was religious studies.  I wanted to study Art History.  Religious Studies happened because I took a class I really enjoyed and read Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions.  It was like a novel, about real people, in real places, in real time, being religious.  Then I got involved with some Ninian Smart phenomenologists and the deal was sealed.

The Atheism thing only happened because it was what I was studying at Baylor, and I felt just moving on from there would be easy.  I wasn’t entirely correct.  However, it did lead me into the world of Atheist and, dare I say, ‘non-religious’ studies.  Which then led me to fiction, and a sort of return to my original plan: using aesthetic media (art, fiction, film) as a discursive source of Atheist identity construction.  I’ll get into more detail about ‘Ethnographic Criticism’ in a few weeks.

This also led me to become a part of the discursive world in Britain on the study of Atheism/non-religion.  This included conference presentations, roundtables, and blog writing.  For example, for a while now I’ve been struggling to write a post for the Non Religion and Secularity Research Network’s blog, not because I didn’t know what to write, but because I was unsure about how to write it.  Mostly, because of my criticism about the term, I didn’t want to take the opportunity they were offering me to exact some sort of ill-determined attack on them.  Not only did that seem pointless, but petty.  It all has something to do with the bizarre ownership I think we all feel about our subjects.

Instead, I took the opportunity to write about my own approach, about the way I have used to the term ‘Atheism,’ and how I might use my ‘Ethnographic Criticism.’

I don’t like definitions.  In my experiences studying religion and Atheism I’ve come to dislike definitions.  This is not some sort of post-modernist idea that nothing is defined or, even worse, that everything is fiction.  Rather, my dislike of definitions stems from the inevitable and troubling notion that we need to define the terms and concepts we use in a general or abstract way.  This is what I mean by ‘definitions.’

In my post for the NSRN I tried to explain this a bit more.  In fact, the post itself is a miniaturised version of my Thesis, which is itself a culmination of my research at Baylor and the subsequent interests I have been studying here in Edinburgh.  Within it I can trace the roots back to the origins of my interests all those years ago, and my writing it, as well as their posting it, seems like a sort of sub-Chapter break in my own story about Atheism.

For this, and other reasons, I implore those interested to not only read my post, but the others there as well.  They are, I believe, not only an excellent source of the particular discourse we have created with our individual approaches, but are equally stories linked back to origins just as fictional as my own.

My post:  

The blog in general:

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

In 1992 the Fantoft Stavkirk in the borough of Fana in Bergen, Norway burned to the ground.  Originally erected in the mid-12th century in Eastern Sognefjord, and then transported in the 19th century to its present location, it was the first in a string of church burnings to take place in the early 1990s.

A stavkirk, or ‘stave church,’ gets its name from a type of medieval construction that consists of a timber-framed post and lintel design.  Once found throughout northern Europe, the majority of those still in existence are only found in Norway.  The term ‘stav’ refers to the load-bearing posts that hold the structure in place.

Though rebuilt, the Fantoft Stavekirk still shows signs of its destruction, particularly the chain link fence that surrounds the structure and the warning signs about alarm systems and closed-circuit recordings.

In 1994 Varg Vikernes (born Kristian Vikernes) was convicted for burning, or attempting to burn, the Åsane and Storetveit Churches in Bergen, the Skjold Church in Vindafjord, and the Holmenkollen Chapel in Oslo.  He was also sentenced for the murder of Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth.  burzum_aske_burning__Fantoft_Stave_ChurchHe was found not guilty of burning the Fantoft Stave Church, but has been connected to the arson both for his support of the act, as well as for the image of the burnt structure used as the cover of his album, ‘Aske’ (‘ashes’ in Norwegian).

Accusations of Satanism as the reason for these burnings have been generally established.  This derives heavily from the type of ‘Theistic Satanism’ espoused by the members of the early Norwegian black metal scene, such as that promoted by bands such as ‘Mayhem,’ ‘Emperor,’ ‘Thorns,’ and Vikernes’ ‘Burzum.’  Also known as the ‘Black Circle,’ this group of individuals established an ideological discourse of misanthropy, an inverse Christianity that focused more on promoting ‘evil,’ rather than on any sort of Satanic philosophy.

Admittedly, this discourse is not something I know all that much about.  In fact, for anyone interested in this topic, I would highly recommend these sources:

  • The work of Asbjørn Dyrendal in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.
  • The doctoral work of Cimminnee Holt at Concordia University, Montreal.
  • Michael Moynihan’s book on the subject, The Lords of Chaos.
  • The work of Jesper Aagaard Petersen in the Programme for Teacher Education at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.
  • The work of Titus Hjelm at the University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
  • The 2008 film ‘Until the Light Takes Us,’ which chronicles the black metal movement’s ideologies. 

As well, it is not the focus of this post.  Rather, my interests herein have to do with a comment made in passing with a friend about the Stave Church and the fact that it was burned by a ‘Satanist.’  When discussing the burning and the black metal scene in Norway, this individual, knowing I research Atheist discourses, and perhaps feeling it might be interpreted as a compliment to Atheism, stated: ‘Hey, at least he was a Satanist, not an Atheist.’

While there is much to be said about the accuracy of this casual assurance, regardless of the intricate discursive details that could support or refute its simple categorisation, it reminded me of a theory I put forth a few years ago in a paper presented in a seminar at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

As occurred on occasion during this time, and a bit over the years since, I have found myself unwittingly defending Atheism against accusations of seemingly bizarre connections.  One of these, which does not happen often, but still with enough occurrence that it warrants a bit of a chuckle, is the idea that Atheists believe in/worship/support Satan/Satanism.  In their defence, these individuals’ ideas are likely the result of discursively combining what they deem as ‘evil’ into a singular abstraction.  For them, Atheists have denied God, and are thus evil, just as Satanists have taken up with God’s opposite, and are thus equally evil.  Regardless of the fact that an individual who denies the existence of God might still believe that God’s opposite might then still exist is a bit logically absurd, this sort of thinking is more about categorising an individual as an opposite of oneself, rather than constructing any sort of accurate description.

This got me thinking, partly because I was asked to be the contrarian in the room for these seminars, the voice of opposition or devil’s advocate that might inspire more passionate discussion.  Is there a connection between Satanism and Atheism, beyond the shared similarity of ‘evilness’ in the eyes of certain individuals?  That is, is there a connection beyond this sort of generalised stereotype?  So, I looked at two origins of each term: the first derived from a particular means of defining a particular discursive example of Atheism, and the second from the context of its usage in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.


As I’ve written about previously, the concept ‘Atheism’ is one that is not easily determined, regardless of the fact that we might perceive it as such due to the inherent nature of it being the ‘belief (or absence of belief) in the existence of God.’  In fact, the history of its definition is one of abstraction and creativity, demarcated by historical representations and theoretical stipulations.  What this equates to is a discourse that is not altogether cohesive.  Which is neither a bad thing, nor is it in any way detrimental.  That is, of course, as long as we are not set on defining the term in a manner that might be representative of any and all types, uses, and iterations.  If this is our goal, then this becomes quite an issue.  Which might explain why we have so many additions to the latter, theoretical, category.

Instead, if we focus our attention on the historical definitions, that is, the definitions of the term based on real people in real places and at real times, either called ‘Atheist’ or who identify as such, then we turn toward discursive interpretations.  These are ‘definitions’ that are neither ‘right’ nor ‘wrong.’  Instead, they simply exist as examples, as contributions to a larger discourse about what we mean when we talk about Atheism.

Within this category we find examples of what has been demarcated as ‘ancient Atheism,’ labeled as such in regard to the way it differs from ‘modern Atheism.’  While this is a discussion that will likely re-occur throughout this particular discourse on the subject, to summarise, this differentiation is made by two specific actions: imputation and self-description.  In cases of the former, Atheism is a term used to describe an other, particularly an other who, through his beliefs and arguments, has acted against the status quo of the state.  These individuals are deemed ἄθεος.  In etymological terms, they are ‘without god.’  Now, this takes on a number of different types of ‘absence,’ from Socrates’ corruption charge for turning the youth of Athens away from worshipping certain gods, to Milesian philosophers like Prodicus of Keos who used philosophical logic to argue that the gods were in fact, as Euripides’ Sisyphus also argues, created by man to make sense of one’s day-to-day needs.

One of the underlying themes of this ‘ancient Atheism’ is a sense of doubt.  This doubt, likewise based on the individual expressing it, fluctuates from mere hesitation in believing something outright, to more direct rejection or disbelief.  We see this evinced by philosophical arguments that we might, from a modern perspective, deem ‘Atheistic.’  For example, consider Anaxagoras’ argument that the sun, heliosrather than the god Helios moving across the sky, is in fact just a molten ball of iron.  Or the naturalistic arguments of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes who defended the idea that nature and the natural world could be understood without an allegiance to mythology.  These are unique types of doubt, reflective of individuals who questioned the prevailing or popular beliefs of their time.

As discursive examples of ἄθεος these illustrations of doubt lead us to the notion that Satan, as a concept itself, embodies a particular type of Atheism.


In its Biblical manifestations the notion of ‘Satan’ is, in many ways, as difficult to clarify as Atheism.  For summary purposes here, we might distinguish different discursive examples, designed and determined by the way the term is used.  This, we might even further resolve, is divisible between ‘Satan-as-concept’ and ‘Satan-as-character.’

Beginning with Numbers 22:32, the term ‘Satan’ (שָׂטָן) meant ‘opponent’ or ‘adversary:

The angel of the Lord asked him, ‘Why have you beaten your donkey these three times?  I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me.

This continues in 1 Samuel 29:4, in reference to David amongst the Philistines:

But the Philistine commanders were angry with him and said, ‘Send the man back, that he may return to the place you assigned him.  He must not go with us into battle, or he will turn against us (opponent, שָׂטָן) during the fighting.

Again, this notion of ‘Satan’ as ‘adversary is repeated in 2 Samuel 19:35 (“This day you have become my adversaries!”); 1 Kings 5:4 (“But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side, and there is no adversary or disaster.”); 1 Kings 11:15 (“Then the Lord raised up against Solomon an adversary”); and 1 Kings 11:23 and 11:25.

While these examples represent an adversarial or oppositional position, in the Book of Job, the term is not only embodied by an individual (Satan-as-character), it is also imbued with the overall sense of doubt that becomes commonplace with the concept itself.  In this manifestation שָׂטָן becomes a necessary entity for God, a position of Devil’s advocate, without whom God would not be able to prove the fealty of His creation.

One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them.  The Lord said to Satan, ‘Where have you come from?’

Satan answered the Lord, ‘From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.’

Then the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.’

‘Does Job fear God for nothing?’ Satan replied.  ‘Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.  But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.’

The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.’

Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord. (Job 1:6-12)

Once again, ‘Satan,’ though embodied as an angel (son of God) presenting himself before God, is the representation of an adversary, an individual who, when presented with certain facts, responds with doubtful criticism.  This occurs, almost in an exact manner, in Job’s second test:

On another day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them to present himself before him.  And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Where have you come from?’

Satan answered the Lord, ‘From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.’

Then the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.’

‘Skin for skin!’  Satan replied.  ‘A man will give all he has for his own life.  But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.’

The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.’

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. (Job 2: 1-7)

In the Gospel narratives, this doubtful characteristic becomes something more personal and direct, a character (known here also as ‘Devil’ or ‘διὰβολος’) who exists in order to once again present a pragmatic challenge, the resolution of which assists in directing the narrative itself toward a certain conclusion.

In Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13 Satan (σατανᾶ) directly tempts Jesus in the desert, a necessary evil in order to further determine Jesus as the Christ, an act of identity formation wherein a certain individual is defined by his interaction with an opposition.

Later, this same sort of oppositional necessity is depicted by Luke 22:3 and John 13:27 in the act of Satan ‘entering’ Judas, thus causing his betrayal.  In this way, Satan acts as a conceptual entity, the notion of Judas here enacting a necessary deed in order to fulfil the prophecy of Christ as a sacrificial lamb.  Though this appears as the ‘work of Satan,’ we might also see it as the work of doubt or opposition.

As a narrative device, the notion of ‘Satan,’ a title that functions as a pun, creates a dichotomous relationship between certain characters.  Almost mimetic of metaphorical or allegorical character development within a milieu prepared and designed for such formational interactions, the idea of Satan is one of narrative utility.


In combining the lexical process of being deemed an ἄθεος (scepticism, doubt, critical debate) with the doubt, opposition, and adversarial nature of Satan (שָׂטָן; διὰβολος) we might confortably conclude here that Satan is, in fact, a representative sort of Atheism.  Which brings us back to the Fantoft Stave Church, its demise at the hands of ‘Satanists,’ and my friend’s assurance that ‘at least he was a Satanist, not an Atheist.’  In this sense, my friend was in fact incorrect.  Etymologically speaking, or even conceptually speaking, Satan is an Atheistic character, designed for the sole purpose of driving along the narrative toward a particular conclusion.  Satan is, in this manifestation, not only an Atheist, but a necessity as well.

My theory, then, might be summarised as such: as a discursive concept, and when interpreted from within the context in which it was established, the notion of ‘Satan’ shares enough of the characteristics that we might find in certain discursive manifestations of Atheism.  In this way, Satan was an early Atheist.  Does this make any sort of modern Satanist an Atheist?  No.  After all, discourses are plastic things, and they change and alter over time.  Just as ‘Atheist’ has come to mean a number of different things to a number of different people over the millennia, Satan has as well.  Of course, I might argue on the side of the illogically absurd notion that since these two concepts, when isolated within the borders of certain Western monotheistic milieux, originated from similar sources, and are thus inextricably linked to a distinct genesis.  Then again, that might just be me playing devil’s advocate again.


Jan M. Bremmer, “Atheism in Antiquity” in Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Michael J. Buckley, “Introduction” in Michael J. Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

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

David Ferguson, “Atheism in Historical Perspective,” in David Ferguson, Faith and Its Critics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Donald E. Hartley, ‘HEB 11:6—A Reassessment of the Translation ‘God Exists’ (Trinity Journal, 27, 2, 2006).

Charles H. Kahn, “Greek Religion and Philosophy in the Sisyphus Fragment” (Phronesis. Vol. 42, No. 3, 1997).

John Navone, “Satan Returns,” (The Furrow, Vol. 26, No. 9, 1975).

Elaine Pagels, “The Social History of Satan, the “Intimate Enemy”: A Preliminary Sketch,” (The Harvard Theological Review, Vol.84, No. 2 Apr., 1991).

Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

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

T.J. Wray and Gregory Mobley, The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

The Bible: The New International Version.