Whose Story is it Anyway?

Ok.  So up at the wall Jon Snow is dealing with this election thing to decide who will be the new Lord Commander, cause the guy who was in charge before was killed at Craster’s and then Jon had to kill all those guys and get his wolf back.  Anyway, so there’s an election, and its between this one guy whose been there for like eighty years or something, and this other guy who was sort of in charge and was really mean to Jon Snow, and kept making sure everyone knew he was a bastard and hated him cause he knew Jon was a better fighter.  Just as they’re about to do the election, Samwell Tarly steps up and points out all the great things that Jon has done and all the other Night’s Watch guys cheer and agree so they add Jon’s name to the election.  When they finally do vote, it comes down to a tie between Jon and the mean guy who hates him, but it’s decided by the old blind guy that used to be a Targaryen prince or something and he votes for Jon so he becomes the new Lord Commander.  But, see now he has to deal with the fact that one of the people who thinks they’re the King, Stannis, is there, and he wants Jon to help him lead an army south to take back Winterfell, but Jon wants to stay at the wall.  And then there’s the Boltons who have moved into Winterfell, and in the book Ramsay, the son of the guy who killed Robb Stark, marries this girl who they disguise as Jon’s sister Arya, in order to create some sort of political claim to their ownership of Winterfell, but Arya is actually in Braavos learning to become an assassin.  But in the TV show they change that to Sansa to keep the actress in the show, cause the books haven’t gotten to that point.  So that’s why they’re changing all the plot-lines and stuff.  

The above is a paraphrased answer that I gave to someone yesterday who began our conversation with: “I’ve heard there’s a lot of changes between the books and the TV show, what’s a good example?”

Regrettably, for her, my explanation kept going for quite some time.

For those entirely ignorant of current popular culture, the television show Game of Thrones premiered the first episode of its fifth season on Sunday (or, for those who don’t mind pirating, the first four episodes, which were leaked online).  This season, as admitted by those producing and writing the series, differs more in content front the story-line in the books than the previous four seasons.  This means that a number of characters have been dropped, and that certain story-lines have been amended or altered, including the ‘Sansa’ details mentioned above.  This has, expectedly, raised the hackles of a number of fans, to the point that names like Lady Stoneheart and Coldhands have become signifiers of anger and rage-filled disappointment.

lady stone heartcoldhands

Here’s a good example: http://gotgifsandmusings.tumblr.com/post/115991793402/unabashed-book-snobbery-gots-10-worst

While not a devoted adherent to the idea that an adaptation must remain as accurate as possible to the source material, the conversations I’ve been having with friends and colleagues (including the illustrious Beth Singler, who quite helpfully pointed me in the direction of some of these sources), have indeed piqued my interests concerning the precarious notion of who gains ownership over stories, when those stories get told and re-told by different people in different ways.

This likewise brings me to a passage from Clifford Geertz’s Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author, that I think might make some sense of this issue:

But perhaps the most intense objection, coming from all quarters, and indeed rather general to intellectual life these days, is that concentrating our gaze on the ways in which knowledge claims are advanced undermines our capacity to take any of those claims seriously.  Somehow, attention to such matters as imagery, metaphor, phraseology, or voice is supposed to lead to a corrosive relativism in which everything is but a more or less clever expression of opinion.  Ethnography becomes, it is said, a mere game of words, as poems and novels are supposed to be.  Exposing how the thing is done is to suggest that, like the lady sawed in half, it isn’t done at all. (Geertz, Works and Lives, 2).

While Geertz’s argument here is pointed at the issues we might find ourselves confronted with were we to consider the ‘literary aspects’ of ethnographic construction (everything is fiction?), I think his statement also speaks to the issues some people are having with the choices being made by the creators of the TV show.

The show is an adaptation, which also means that it is an artifice of an artifice.  It’s the interpretation of two individuals designed for the purpose of presenting a story through an entirely different perspective.  Yet, this is not something unique to just the differences between the show and the books.  In fact, because each and every individual reading of Martin’s novels is in itself an adaptation, and since no two minds are mirrored images of each other, each time someone reads the texts (or watches the show), we get an innumerable number of adaptations.  This is demonstrated by my description above.  While in my mind I can see the episode, and remember the way the texts are designed, when I précis this into a description, I have adapted the story to suit my own story-telling purposes.

I would argue that this is like revealing the ‘magic’ of the magic trick involved in any sort of story-telling, from ethnography, to fiction, to the stories we tell each other about our day-to-day existence.  Seeing how the lady is sawed in half, or rather, seeing how the illusion makes it look as if she might be sawed in half, is the same as realising that all stories, by their inherent ‘artifice’ nature, are adaptations.  In this way, there is never, nor can there ever be, a genuine ‘truth,’ an original ‘source,’ or a ‘right’ way of telling a story.  This is perhaps even more apparent when a story is an adaptation of a story.

For these reasons, I would further argue that the adaptation provided by the TV show should be seen as nothing more than just another adaption, and therefore should not be understood as different from our individual readings of the novels.  The TV show is just another way of trying to tell Martin’s story, which is also just an adaptation of the story within his own mind.  While the TV show might look different than the novels, the novels likely look different than what’s in his mind, which is something we will never see.

This is a reminder.  It’s something that we can relate to when we consider the stories we hear from others about themselves, about others, the ones we tell about ourselves, and the ones we tell about them.  In a world where everything is fiction, or rather, where everything is artifice, the notion that an adaptation is telling a story incorrectly is rather moot.  Even when the ‘original’ author might agree.  In the end, all stories are adaptations, even when they are initially told.  Which also means that all stories, just like looking at the discourse that gives meaning to a word, rather than just defining it, are neither right, nor wrong, by the mere fact that all stories are nothing more than re-tellings of a story none of us will ever see.

‘Statistics can prove anything’ (and other fictions used by New Atheists)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been spending my time recently trying to find video clips that might represent a ‘New Atheist discourse.’  This week, I selected a few examples in order to demonstrate how one might do bad scholarship.  In fact, this post is perhaps just a continuation of my previous one on locating New Atheism within a discursive boundary demarcated by an ‘asshole’ mentality.  Does this mean I think ‘bad scholars’ are ‘assholes?’  Maybe.  It varies from day to day, and from scholar to scholar.

Let’s begin with Richard Dawkins.  In the following clip Professor Dawkins is listing off a number of ‘religious things’ that offend him.  Or, rather, that should offend us.  While we might all ‘generally agree’ that these are certainly things that we should be offended by, were we to specify them as actions outside our own contextual boundaries about ‘ethics’ and ‘morality,’ the way that he shapes his argument is what shines through for me.

In the clip, he displays horrible atrocity after horrible atrocity while deftly (or, as he says it, ‘logically’) associating these things with ‘religious thinking.’  Then, he casually moves his argument toward a quote from Martin Amis, a rhetorical question about what a ‘secularist’ would shout when ‘cutting off an infidel’s head.’  To answer this question, he cites a ‘critic’ of Amis’ book, who responds: “they shout ‘Heil Hitler.'”  Now, his argument is about Hitler, focused on whether or not he was an ‘Atheist,’ to which he easily declares that he was a Catholic.  Or, at least his soldiers were.  Likewise, he adds, even if he was an Atheist, that shouldn’t matter.  He was also a vegetarian.  He asks: “Does that suggest that vegetarians have a special tendency to be murderous, bigoted racists?”  To which the audiences giggles at such audacity.

From here, he easily slides into his conclusive point:

The point is, that there is a logical pathway leading from religion to the committing of atrocities.  It’s perfectly logical, if you believe that your religion is the right one, you believe that your God is the only God, and you believe that your God has ordered you through a priest or through a Holy Book, to kill somebody, to blow somebody up, to fly a plane into a skyscraper, then you are doing a righteous act.  You’re a good person.  You’re following your religious morality.  There is no such logical pathway leading from Atheism and secularism to any such atrocious act.  It just doesn’t follow.  

Based on the evidence he provides, his argument appears sound.  Of course, were we to test his argument against historical facts, not only would much of what he says be logically unsound, it would also be questionable on a vast number of theoretical points. For these reasons, we might ask, why did he not supply more evidence?  Or conflicting evidence?  Why would he use Hitler as an example, if the association of Hitler to ‘secularism’ is a “truly outrageous thing to say?”  As well, could we not simply take his argument about the ‘logical pathway’ leading from ‘religion’ to the committing of atrocities and relate it to another evidential example, such as the State Atheism (Communism) of Albania, China, and Cuba, or the ‘secular revolutions’ of France and Mexico?  Of course, to do this, we might be forced to define, via discursive and lexical examples, how those ‘Atheisms’ might represent some sort of ‘Atheism’ that we could then relate to that found in Britain or the United States.  Then again, this takes work, to which, for logical reasons, I doubt Professor Dawkins is willing to commit.  When it comes to this subject, he is a bad scholar.

I would argue that this is another trait of the ‘New Atheism’ presented by Dawkins, Harris, and a few others, such as Bill Maher.  While Maher has been an Atheist advocate for some time now, his discursive alignment with the Atheism representative of Dawkins, et al. is not only established but their shared argumentation, but by their bad scholarship as well.

Here’s a handy example.

In an interview with Charlie Rose in 2014, Maher presents his position on religion (‘they’re all stupid’), and then turns the conversation (with the help of Charlie) toward religious violence.  The essential point I will be focusing on here is a citation he makes to support his statement that Muslims, in general, ‘condone violence.’ When asked by Charlie, “how do you know that,” he states:

There’s a Pew Poll of Egypt done a few years ago, 82 percent I think it was, said, uh, stoning was the appropriate punishment for adultery.  Over 80 percent thought, uh, death was the appropriate punishment for leaving the Muslim religion.  

This statement is made at the 2:23 mark.

This citation returns a bit later on his own show on HBO, Real Time with Bill Maher.  His guests for this episode are Sam Harris, Ben Affleck, Michael Steele, and Nicholas Kristof.  Again, the discussion is on religious violence, predominately about ISIS, and the way that ‘liberals’ are failing to control this sort of ‘fundamentalism.’  The section of this clip that I will focus on here comes toward the end of the debate after Ben Affleck attempts to convey his own argument that Maher and Harris are simply being racially insensitive, and stretching their ideologies beyond reasonable limits.  In reaction, Maher states:

No it’s not.  It’s based on facts.  I can show you a Pew Poll of Egyptians–they are not outliers in the Muslim world–that say like 90 percent of them believe that death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion.  If 90 percent of Brazilians thought that death was the appropriate response to leaving Catholicism, you would think it was a bigger deal.  

The specific statement occurs at the 8:02 mark.

While many of the rejoinders to Maher’s and Harris’ statements here about their ‘caricatures’ of religious individuals, as well as connections of this sort of language to ‘white racism against blacks’ in the United States, are indeed poignant responses, it is the statistics that Maher is using to defend his position that I think stand out the most.

On two occasions, when arguing that Muslims (or ‘Islam,’ since he tends to refer to the religion, rather than to religious individuals) are inherently violent, he has done so based on ‘facts.’  This is, of course, a good means of argumentation.  It gives credence to one’s position, and grounds the statements made in a foundation of ‘truth.’

Of course, this only tends to work when those ‘facts’ remain details without any further elucidation.

With this in mind, and in considering that he has based his argument that ‘Islam’ is violent because a Pew Poll stated that a vast majority felt a certain way about using violence, let’s turn now to those facts themselves.

The poll cited was a part of a Pew Forum report on The World’s Muslims: Religion Politics, and Society conducted in 2011.  The section Maher is referencing is Chapter 1: Beliefs about Sharia.  In the first clip, he references the results about stoning as a punishment for adultery.  Here is an image of that data:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 22.09.34In the first and the second clip, he refers as well to the punishment that should be given for leaving the Muslim faith.  Here is that data:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 22.11.07While he is incorrect about the exact percentage, he is still fairly close to the actual numbers.  Nevertheless, here is quantitative data, ‘fact,’ that he can use to support his argument.  From this, we might agree that, yes, it seems that up to 80 or 90 percent of Egyptians believe the death penalty is the appropriate punishment for adultery or leaving the faith.  He would be correct, then, in saying that, as an example, this supports the idea that ‘Islam’ is violent.

However, his statement begins to turn into a ‘caricature’ when we look at the actual numbers polled.  Here is an image taken of Appendix C: Survey Method that gives the specifics about the data itself:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 22.15.17

Likewise, here is an image of the sample size that make up the data:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 22.16.11

As we can see, the data itself is representative of a sample size, meaning it should not be used as a representation of all people in Egypt, let alone all Muslims.  Furthermore, this is data based on face-to-face interactions over a single month.  It would be impossible in that time to actually poll the roughly 79,000,000 people who lived in Egypt in 2011.  As well, the two responses concerning the death penalty for adultery and leaving the faith are based on individuals who ‘say sharia should be the law of the land.’  These details do not support his argument in the way that he has made it.

I should add here that this is not meant as a critique of this sort of data, nor of the utility in gathering and using such quantitative information.  Rather, I’d argue it provides a bit of a caveat about mis-using it.  This is evinced best, I think, by how Maher does exactly that.  That is, if he were to re-word his statement, the resulting conversation might be a bit more effective.  Perhaps something like this:

Of the Egyptian people polled in 2011 who thought Sharia should be the law of the land, 80-90 percent of them stated the death penalty was an appropriate response to actions we here in America might find unethical because of our differing political context.  While this is merely a sample size and should not be considered a representation of the 79 million people living in Egypt, let alone the billion Muslims worldwide, I still think it provides an interesting entry point to a discussion we could have on the way this sort of discourse might influence how Islam is perceived, both in and out of the context in which these answers are given.   

Instead, he chose a different approach:

It’s the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book (6:40 in the third clip).

Again, this is bad scholarship.

The caricatures created by both Dawkins and Maher in these examples reflect a certain type of discourse.  This is, I’d argue, a result of the way they use ‘data’ and ‘facts’ to support their argument, rather than the other way around.  Which, additionally, damages what they have to say.  Instead, they come across as equally fundamentalist in their thinking as the people they are arguing against, using bad scholarship to support their opinions.  In this same way they are telling a particular story about themselves, and about how they construct their discourse, much in the same way the individuals who responded to the Egyptian poll have provided a certain story that we might, were we so inclined, use to interpret them in an equally general (and incorrect) manner.

Comedic Criticism: A Discursive Source of Atheism

In our tutorials for Atheism in Debate this last week we discussed Feuerbach.  The week before that was Strauss, and before that was Hegel.  Understandably, its usually around this point where the energy of the course begins to wane.  In order to try and remedy this, I tend to use video clips, usually of one of the four ‘New Atheists,’ to break up the monotony of just talking about the reading.  For this round of clips I tried to find ways to connect the ‘anthropomorphism’ of Feuerbach’s deconstructive theory about religion being ‘human nature reflected, mirrored in itself,’ with the way Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens diminish religion to infantile self-creations.  For those interested, these are the clips that I chose:

As I was searching for these I came across this interesting video:

Here was a listicle of ‘Generation Xero Film’s’ “Top Ten Anti-Religion Comedy Routines.”  This got me thinking.  What is the difference between these ‘comedy routines’ and the statements being made by the ‘New Atheists?’  Are they not equally ‘scripted’ critiques of religion?  Do they not function the same way as the rhetorical use of the ‘Atheist discourse‘ being presented by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens?

I thought I’d look into this a bit more.

I came across the work of Patrick McKearney at the University of Cambridge who, for a few years, was the ‘Atheist comedy guy.’  Aside from the four conference presentations he gave on the subject (“Public Belief and Civil Society: A Case-Study of Contemporary Anti-Religious Stand-Up Comedy;” “The Ridicule of Religion in Contemporary British and Irish Stand-Up Comedy;” “‘What are you laughing at?’ The Role of Ridicule in Non-religious Identity Formation;” “Methods for Investigating Non-religiosity in Stand-up Comedy”), he also participated in a BBC 4 discussion on Comedy and Religion, and published two articles on the subject in The Guardian (“Heard the One about the Pope?”) and Varsity, the independent student newspaper for the University of Cambridge (“Slap in the Faith“).  The latter is focused on issues of comedic criticism and the reactions we might see in fundamentalist religion striking back (such as we saw with the attacks against Charlie Hebdo a few months back).

Likewise, my good friend Katie Aston deals with this a little bit in her Doctoral Thesis.

So how might these comedic criticisms present a useful example of an Atheist discourse?  I believe the answer lies in some specificity.  For pragmatic reasons, then, I will be using two methodological points made by Norman Fairclough in his Analysing Discourse (2003).

First, in consideration of the utility of discourse analysis in the study of texts, let’s broaden our conception of that term itself:

“written and printed texts such as shopping lists and newspaper articles are ‘texts’, but so also are transcripts of (spoken) conversations and interviews, as well as television programmes and web-pages” (Fairclough, 2003, 4).  

In this way, these video clips, as edited versions of the stand-up comedian’s routine, are texts, filled with, and exemplary of, particular ‘language in use.’  In other words: ‘discourse.’

Second, let’s specify how we might more directly consider these texts via a three-part interpretation:

“the production of the text, the text itself, and the reception of the text” (Fairclough, 2003, 10) 

In this way, we can be a bit more specific about the discourse being used, as well as establish a contextual boundary within which it emerged, was presented, and subsequently received.

These things established, let’s look at three examples, two of which were also on ‘Generation Xero Film’s’ “Top Ten Anti-Religion Comedy Routines.”

The first comes from Ricky Gervais, and focuses on a critical analysis of the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark:

The second comes from Bill Maher, and focuses on examples of religion ‘doing harm:’

The third, and perhaps most famous, comes from George Carlin, and focuses on religion as ‘bullshit:’

From out of a cursory analysis of these three clips as ‘texts,’ we can establish a number of discursive specifics:

  • Each are reactionary, and thus present a criticism directed at a particular subject.
    • The first (Gervais) presents a critical assessment of the fictionality and inherent unbelievability of a Biblical myth through the lens of modernity.
    • The second (Maher) is directed at issues of morality, and the fact, as he sees it, that ‘religion’ is harmful and immoral.
    • The third (Carlin), like Maher, presents a critical assessment of the harmful and equally immoral dangers of religion/religious belief (though with the caveat that his ‘Sun Worship’ (not ‘prayer-to’) is still practical.
  • The ‘religion’ of their collective criticisms is somewhat vague, though we can presume via their language they are reacting against a particular monotheism, likely Christianity (though Maher intermixes this with critiques of Islam).
  • While seemingly problematic, these differences tell us a great deal about their contextual discursive language use.  Gervais’ routine was given in 2010, the same year as Maher’s.  Carlin’s routine comes from 1999.  So, we might concede that Gervais’ and Maher’s routines stem from a ‘New Atheist,’ or post-September 11th discourse, though that might be presuming a bit much.
  • However, simply as ‘texts,’ they do not tell us much about their ‘Atheisms.’  Yes, we might assume (or presume) that they are being inherently ‘Atheist’ by means of their criticisms, it is not as specific as, say, an informant telling us about his or her ‘Atheist identity,’ and how he or she has constructed that identity in a specific way.

So how might we use them as textual discursive sources?  By taking up Fairclough’s three-part interpretive method, we can begin to shift them from mere textual examples to more direct discursive ones.

  1. Learning about how they were produced (written) we can learn a great deal about the individuals doing the writing, the context that writing took place, the type of Atheism they themselves identify with, and the influences that shaped their texts based on that type of Atheism.
  2. Then, our cursory analysis (such as above) becomes a bit more nuanced.
  3. Finally, we can look at how they are received by individuals (audience or viewers) who equally identify as ‘Atheist,’ while equally deciphering how these texts assist these individuals in their own identity constructions.

By weaving these together, we begin to form a much clearer (in my opinion, at least) conception of ‘Atheism,’ such as we might use to better understand the discursive elements that influence the New Atheist clips presented above.  While this isn’t a better means of approach then conducting interviews and ethnographically shaping a textual representation, as a means of understanding the discourse that might underscore or influence the identities that make up such an ethnographic textual representation, this seems quite beneficial.  Likewise, I believe this works much better than merely speculating or theoretically stipulating what we think these sorts of things (like Atheism) mean, and is therefore a much more useful (and, to be honest, more enjoyable) means of researching precarious concepts such as ‘religion’ or ‘Atheism.’

Norman Fairclough, Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research (London: Routledge, 2003).

*As an extra bonus, here is an animated version of Louis CK (who is not an Atheist) talking about ‘God as a shitty girlfriend,’ and the oddity of ‘saying Jesus Christ with a shitty attitude.’

Tell me about your mother, Mr. Hubbard.

For some time now, I’ve maintained the ridiculous notion (fiction?) that I’ve never been, nor ever will be, a ‘good academic’ because I tend to approach my subject with a bit more creativity or invention than one might presume of the common or proper academic.  I refer to this as ‘ridiculous’ because many of the researchers I’ve come to know over the years are just as equally creative.  For example, consider the digital anthropology of Beth Singler, the conspiracist demythologisation of David Robertson, Venetia Robertson‘s research on human-animal relations, the ‘invented religions’ of Carole Cusack, and Vivian Asimos‘ research on folklore, myth, and video games.

I am, by all means, not unique in my creativity (even when I argue that ethnography and novels are equally ‘fictitious‘ by means of their shared literary qualities). However, this does not mean that my creative approach hasn’t warranted a few truly bizarre interpretations (such as my recent takes on New Atheism or the Secularization Thesis).

In fact, while I was recently thinking about my attempts to push the boundaries on academic creativity, I suddenly remembered a paper I submitted years ago for a course on the Method and Theory in the Study of Religion.  This was, in memory, a rather unorthodox paper, and the more I thought about it, the more I asked myself it if was as crazy as I was remembering it.  Sure, the memory of the topic seemed sort of ridiculous, but could it have been that bad?  I passed the course, after all.  It must have had some merit to it, or, if nothing else, I must have been at least marginally successful in touching on the important points required of the assignment.

After some digging around, I found the paper and read through it.  Not only was I appalled by the horrific work that I had submitted for a grade, I was equally dumbfounded that I actually passed.  The ‘creativity’ was, though based in good intentions, less creative than it was inane.

Yet, a part of my subconscious came to my own defence.  It argued proudly for the logic behind the correlations I was making, so much so, that it began to win.  I read through the paper again.  Suddenly, somewhere within the conclusion, it struck me: this paper isn’t as bad as I had originally thought.  Rather, when I wrote it, I was simply unconscious of the role stories play in determining how we might perceive things wholly separate from each other as connected by a narrative bridge.  This post is a short defence of that notion.




Our assignment was to discuss two of the scholars of religion we had been studying throughout the semester in the context of their notions about the origins, and/or uses, of a particular religious system.  For my paper I chose Freud and Durkheim.

However, rather than simply do the assignment as asked, my ‘creative’ approach tried to use Freud’s psychoanalysis to make sense of Durkheim’s sociology (though I’ve come to realise through hindsight that this would have worked much better with Weber and his father issues).  The religious system I chose was Scientology.

While the paper I eventually wrote did a fairly decent job breaking down how the theories espoused by Freud and Durkheim tried to ‘make sense’ of religious belief, my approach to Scientology (the majority of which leaned more on the Freudian perspective than the Durkheimian one) was a bit more specific.  In essence, I tried to relate Freud’s ‘Psychic Apparatus’ (Id, Ego, and Superego) to L. Ron Hubbard’s equally tripartite notion of Body, Mind, and Thetan.

In brief, here is a précis of each:

Id: the unconscious, functions on instinct, and seeks pleasure regardless of any sort of consequences

psychic apparatusEgo: an intermediary between the Id and the rational world, it translates reality in the Id’s search for pleasure; like a man (ego) on horseback (id), the ego “has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse” (Freud, The Ego and the Id, 15).  

Superego: Constructed by one’s social context, it regulates the impulses of the Id; consisting of the ‘conscience’ and the ‘ideal self,’ it dictates and causes guilt, as well as establishes goals and aspirations.  

Body: The body is the organized physical composition or substance of Man, whether living or dead. It is not the being himself.

Mind: the mind, which consists essentially of pictures.

thetan body mindThetan: Of the three parts of Man, the thetan is, obviously, most important. Without the thetan, there would be no mind or animation in the body. While without a body or a mind, there is still animation and life in the thetan.

(These definitions come from Scientology.org, and the video they provide about these three elements does a much better job at describing this than I do.)

If there was a correlation to be made here, I argued, it might perhaps be found somewhere between Hubbard’s description of the Thetan’s ability to use its mind “as a control system between itself and the physical universe” (‘Thetan,’ Scientology.org), and Freud’s notion that the Ego and Superego function as two different sorts of filters through which the individual might maintain the desires and impulses of the Id.  Or, perhaps there might be a connection between the Body and Mind of Hubbard’s system and the unconscious of the Id and conscience of the Superego.  Or perhaps a myriad of other correlations.

This is where my paper seemed to get a bit sidetracked, mostly because (as the person writing this would tell the person who wrote that) finding correlations like this are not really all that necessary.

Rather, what I’d likely tell myself, were I to talk to that individual, is that though these might seem relatable in a number of ways, and though the direct criticism Scientologists direct toward ‘psychology’ would definitely present an ironic sort of correlation (“Psychology, for instance, had worked itself into a dead end. Having no concept of the existence of an animating factor to life, it had degenerated into a practice devoted solely to the creation of an effect on living forms.”), these might be better understood were ‘we’ to merely see them as two similar sorts of stories used by two men in their attempts at making sense of their worlds.

That is, while it might be ‘creative’ or even ‘clever’ to interpret Hubbard’s tripartite via Freud’s, the outcome would likely only provide a solution inherently built upon an opinion of either man’s system.  Which, to me, doesn’t really seem very creative at all.  Instead, as narrative devices, as stories that tell us something about how these men interpreted their world, and thus in turn tell us something about them personally, they function on an entirely different spectrum of criticism.  Thus, rather than merely trying to connect dots that might creatively lead us to some sort of conclusion, using these narratives to make sense of the individuals who told them, as well as the individuals who use them, becomes that much more useful than even the most pragmatic attempts at comparing like with like.

The Zombie Apocalypse Secularization Thesis

In 1967, Peter Berger published The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion.sacred canopy  In 1968, George A. Romero released his film, The Night of the Living Dead.  Night_of_the_Living_Dead_afficheWhile these two pieces of cultural insight might not seem linked in any sort of comparative way, an argument can be made that they do, in fact, share similar discursive perspectives concerning the theory of secularisation.  The intent of this post is to discuss, as well as defend, those similarities.

The Secularisation Thesis (in brief)

The idea that religion would eventually wane in social importance as humanity moved closer and closer to ‘modernity’ has its roots in the theoretical conclusions of Freud, Weber, and Durkheim.  Arguing that religion would eventually lose its social significance by means of modernisation, there eventually arose a Theory (or, rather, Thesis) concerning secularisation.

Heavily determined by the notion of ‘differentiation,’ of the divorce between religious/state cohabitation, this thesis is perhaps best be summarized by Casanova (1994), who defines it thus:

the conceptualization of the process of societal modernization as a process of functional differentiation and emancipation of the secular spheres—primarily the state, the economy, and science—from the religious sphere and the concomitant differentiation and the specialization of religion within its own newly found religious sphere [Casanova, 1994, 20.]  

Adding to this definition the equally essential sub-theses of ‘decline’ and ‘privatization’—the idea that ‘secularization’ would eventually lead to a ‘progressive shrinkage’ of public religion until it ultimately disappeared—Casanova’s is merely a contribution to this particular discourse, linked back to a mid-twentieth-century re-conceptualization.

As Berger (1990) states, its original significance was to signify the “removal of territory or property from the control of ecclesiastical authorities” (Berger, 1990, 106), such as in the wake of the Wars of Religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, or more specifically, the “return to the ‘world’ of a person in orders” under Roman canon law (Ibid.).  Under the influence of academic criticism, the term has come to embody a number of differing ‘types’ of secularization, all inherently anchored to a ‘modernized’ resolution of societal differentiation from religious authority.

As a central voice in this discussion, Berger’s (1967) early definition, “the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols” (Berger, 1967, 107), has often been considered the foundation for the thesis in general, and has thus been amended on a number of occasions.

For instance, by citing the term’s reliance on ‘modernism,’ Bruce (2002) defends the thesis’ validity by pointing out the modern value bestowed upon certain ‘non-religious roles and institutions,’ which he sees as equally signaling the ‘declining importance’ and ‘social standing’ of religion, particularly in the extent to which people ‘engage in’ or ‘display’ their beliefs publically (Bruce, 2002, 3).  Additionally, and in localizing this discourse into a more specific ‘Christian’ context, Smith (2010) and Martin [(1969)1978] remove the concept of ‘secularization’ from the more general framework of ‘religion.’  Smith offers a more theologically-centered insistence, to the point of stating that secularization is nothing more than the “latest expression of the Christian religion” (Smith, 2010, 2), so that what we perceive as the differentiation or decline of ‘religion’ is merely a representation of what he calls the ‘fluid,’ and ‘evolving’ identity of “Christian ethics shorn of its doctrine” (Ibid. 7).

Martin, whose conception might be considered just as ‘foundational’ as Berger’s, offers a more general theory, framed within what he refers to as a ‘Christian ambit’ (Martin, 1978, 2).  Built upon the results of certain antecedent processes or ‘crucial events’—the English Civil War (1642-60), the American Revolution (1776), the French Revolution in 1789, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 (Ibid. 4-5)—this ambit forms a type of ‘continua’ that, with respect to individualism, pluralism, and modernity, he marks as being uniquely influential on later thought systems “most central for the secularization process” (Ibid. 8-9).

Taken up in later discussions pertaining to cultural issues beyond just significant ‘shifts in mood’ (see Davie, 1994, 4) concerning the place of religion in people’s lives, such as gender-specific discursive changes about the roles played by men and women in relation to ‘piety’ (Brown, 2001, 9-10), or the inherent ‘double burden’ between in-, and out-of-home female labor (Woodhead, 2008, 189), this discourse has substantial social scientific roots as well.

Zuckerman (2007) aptly summarizes this influence, which I believe is worth citing in full:

Norris and Inglehart (2004) found that 39 percent of those in Britain do not believe in God. According to a 2004 survey commissioned by the BBC, 44 percent of the British do not believe in God. According to Greeley (2003), 31 percent self-identify as ‘atheist.’ According to Bruce (2002), 10 percent of the British self-identify as an ‘agnostic person’ and 8 percent as a ‘convinced atheist,’ with an additional 21 percent choosing ‘not a religious person.’ According to Froese (2001), 32 percent of the British are atheist or agnostic. According to Gallup and Lindsay (1992:121), 29 percent of the British do not believe in God or a ‘Higher Power’ (Zuckerman, 2004, 49)[3]

Secularisation is thus perhaps best described by Martin (2005) as a “semantically rich, contradictory, and paradoxical” concept (Martin, 2005, 58).

For my rather playful use of it here, let us pretend that the Secularisation Thesis is a means to decipher a discursive shift from the ‘religious’ to the ‘secular,’ that in this particular context signifies a transition from ‘myth’ to ‘science.’  Now, to the zombies.

Zombie Narratives (films)

My citation to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead above is not by accident.  First, as a film it marks the sort of narrative I have chosen to focus on herein.  This does not merely ‘dismiss’ any other sort of narrative example, such as novels or other media, but determines my conscious choice toward specificity.  Second, because this film was released in the late 1960s it equally demonstrates a liminal stage in the transition I have chosen to focus on in using zombie narratives as representatives of the Secularisation Thesis.

Prior to this film’s release, zombie films were quite ambiguous about the term itself, to the point that we can isolate two specific categories:


Creature with the Atom Brain (1955)

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

Invisible Invaders (1959)

Astro-Zombies (1968)


White Zombie (1932)

King of the Zombies (1941)

Voodoo Man (1944)

Voodoo Island (1957)

Zombies of Mora Tau (1958)

The Woman Eater (1958)

I Eat your Skin (1964)

While the former category appears to be the result of discursive influences concerning UFOs and Aliens (see David G. Robertson’s work for everything UFO based), the latter seems heavily influenced by an almost orientalist interest in the ‘unknown’ beliefs and practices of Haitian, Creole, and Caribbean religion.  For more on this, check out Sheller’s Consuming the Caribbean.

What stands out, then, with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is that the zombies are never exactly explained (though we might also add here that they are ‘living dead,’ rather than merely under some form of mind control).  That is, even though in the film an emergency broadcast tells us that there are a number of assumptions about their origins, including a theory concerning radiation from outer space, it is never made apparent.  In fact, this lack of explanation carries on throughout Romero’s ‘Living Dead Series:’ Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2010).

These films are liminal examples, representing a point between the myth-based films wherein the zombies are the result of either alien or religious practices, and those that have been produced more recently.  Moreover, we might even trace this transition to a single origin, out of which has spawned a whole new (secularised) genre characteristic.

In 2002, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later re-invigorated the zombie genre, while at the same time infected the narrative with an explanation of zombiism in distinct medical terms.  While not a ‘zombie film’ in the sense that the creatures hunting the ‘living’ are infected with a significantly violent strain of rabies, rather than being ‘undead,’ the use of a viral infection as the source of the quasi-zombiism shifts the discourse from mythical to scientific.

Now, terms like ‘plague’ or ‘outbreak’ are used to describe the ‘zombie apocalypse,’ and epidemiology is often used as a narrative device as survivors search for a cure.  After 28 Days Later, this discourse embodies nearly every single zombie film: Resident Evil (2002) and its many sequels, though it was based on the video game first released in 1996; Shaun of the Dead (2004); REC (2007), as well as its American re-make Quarantine (2008); and World War Z (2013) which was based on the phenomenal book of the same name.

In fact, even remakes of older films adopt this discourse: I am Legend (2007), which was based on the book by Richard Matheson and the films The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971), finds Will Smith’s Robert Neville a lone virologist trying to ‘cure’ the disease plaguing the mutated, seemingly zombified, remnants of humankind; the 2008 ‘loose’ remake of Romero’s Day of the Dead in which a viral outbreak has created ‘zombie-like’ creatures; and, perhaps most importantly, the incredibly popular The Walking Dead series, based on the graphic novel of the same name.

The latter is an important addition here, not just because of it’s massive popularity, but because of its longevity.  Unlike the films cited here, which are given a limited amount of time to tell their stories, The Walking Dead has had five seasons, and is scheduled for a good deal more.  It even has a spin-off, set in Los Angeles, that has begun shooting.  What this equally means is that the show, which quite occasionally veers away from the source material, has taken the opportunity to explain, in detail, just where the ‘zombie disease’ came from, and how it affects us all.  In the first season finale, “TS-19,” the zombie virus is revealed to us via an explanation from a lone CDC medical technician working tirelessly to cure the disease, to no avail.  He gives us vivid details about it, even showing us how it works, using scanned footage of his wife’s brain as she died, and then re-animated.  The name of the virus gives the episode its title.  The website Nerdist.com has even provided a scientific explanation beyond the limits of the show’s dialogue, which can be viewed here:


With these examples we can trace a very distinct discursive shift, from mythological to empirical, a shift that, via zombie narratives, provides for us a unique perspective on the manner with which secularisation might manifest itself.


Perhaps more than anything else, I chose the playful nature of this post as a symbol of the utility of discursive perceptions.  Just as we might perceive the influences that shaped the Alien and Voodoo-based categories prior to Night of the Living Dead as stemming from very specific sources, the shift from mythological to scientific in the zombie narratives after that latter film gives us an equal lens through which we might make sense of the secularisation thesis’ notion about the weaning away of religion in the face of modernity.  This is perhaps not a perfect example, but it is apt.

To summarise: zombie narratives, once predominately based in mythical discourse, shifted to more scientific and medical language in reflection of cultural modernity.  Now, though the idea of a horde of dead humans roaming the earth and feeding on the living is scientifically preposterous, the origins of such an apocalyptic vision are no longer justified by myth.  Rather, science has stepped in, a symbol of our cultural shift from mythical explanations to empirical ones.  These zombie narratives reflect our own shift, fiction representing our fact.

Which brings us back to everything is fiction.  Using fictional texts as discursive sources balances itself quite precariously on the nexus between what we might determine as fictional (entertaining and made-up) and factual (designed and made-from).  Yet it also gives us freedom to grow, experiment, and translate our ideologies via different sorts of thematic languages.  Zombie narratives and the Secularisation Thesis might not, on the surface, seem like relatable subjects, but the discourses that shape them are nonetheless malleable when we try hard enough.


[3] Norris and Inglehart, Sacred and Secular, 2004, 186-191; Greeley, Religion in Europe and the End of the Second Millennium, 2003, 190 and 205; Bruce (2002), 192-194; Froese, “Hungary for Religion,” 2001, 251-268; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/wtwtgod/3518375.stm (accessed 24 February 2015); and http://www.peace.ca/gallupmillenniumsurvey.htm (accessed 24 February 2015).

Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1967).

Peter Berger, “The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview” in Peter Berger, ed., The Deseculariaztion of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999).

Callum G. Brown, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000 (New York: Routledge, 2001).

Steve Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2002).

Jose Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Grace Davie, Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing without Belonging (Oxford: Blackwell 1994).

Graeme Smith, A Short History of Secularism (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010).

David Martin, “Notes for a General Theory of Secularization” (European Journal of Sociology, Vol. 10, Iss. 2, 1969).

David Martin, A General Theory of Secularization (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978).

David Martin, On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005).

Linda Woodhead, “Gendering Secularization Theory” (Social Compass, Vol. 55, No. 2, 2008).

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

In our course on New Atheism this week, we discussed Bertrand Russell, who could likely provide enough philosophical material to span the entirety of a course of his own.  His early twentieth-century arguments establish quite a foundational platform upon which much of modern/contemporary/New Atheism has been built.  So, when it came time to discuss his ‘Atheism,’ which would orbit around a debate on ‘The Existence of God’ between Russell and F.C. Copleston in 1948, we had much to talk about.  For those interested, an audio recording of the debate can be found below.


At the time of the debate, and even identified as such, Russell argues from the point of agnosticism, a position of pragmatic and expressed ‘lack of knowledge,’ derived from both the etymological foundation of the term (the alpha privative ‘A’ combined with ‘γνῶσις:’ ‘without knowledge’), as well as that coined by Huxley as a ‘method,’ rather than a ‘creed.’  In the latter, we might benefit from a more direct and primary description.  For example, let us consider the story of how Huxley coined his term, from the man himself:

When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain “gnosis”–had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.


 Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, ‘Try all things, hold fast by that which is good’; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him (Huxley, Agnosticism, 1889).

This, we might concede, is a different sort of position than the more devout Atheism that we find in the arguments of Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens.  In fact, we might even concede that the Atheism we find discursively represented by these four individuals are, themselves, different from one another.  In fact, we might further conclude that, definitively, each of these voices offers a different type of Atheism.  Which would be lexically, and thus contextually, incorrect.  For this reason, when we discuss these individuals in our tutorials, we do so looking less for ways to use these discourses as means to construct a definition.  Instead, we use them to try and understand how each of these individuals discursively contributes to their own interpretation of the larger notion of ‘Atheism,’ from within their own contexts and specialised usages, and in order to shape their own particular identities.  It’s a fine line, but it’s an important one.

Russell eventually shifted his own position from agnostic to Atheist, a shift that provides us with an interesting insight into how the leading argument that inspired this change came to influence a truly interesting type of discursive Atheism.

In 1952 he wrote (though it was not published until later) a short piece titled, “Is There a God,” in which he put forth the following argument:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time (Russell, “Is There a God,” 1952).

This argument pushed Russell from agnostic to Atheist, or, as he himself stated later:

I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely [Bertrand Russell, “Letter to Mr Major,” in Dear Bertrand Russell: A Selection of his Correspondence with the General Public, 1950 – 1968 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969)].


Not only has Russell’s teapot inspired an entire discourse of Atheism, the logic of doing so has equally led to a position with which to structure this discourse, what we might call ‘the argument from fictionalisation.’

First, we see very distinct influences in later arguments, such as Antony Flew’s “Presumption of Atheism:”


What I want to examine is the contention that the debate about the existence of God should properly begin from the presumption of atheism, that the onus of proof must lie upon the theist. […] In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels ‘positive atheist’ for the former and ‘negative atheist’ for the latter [Antony Flew, The Presumption of Atheism (London: Elek Books, Ltd., 1976), 13-14].

This, then, seems to infect the arguments made by individuals like Jack David Eller, who argues that Atheism is not only humankind’s inherent position, but that it is our ‘natural’ starting point:


Humans are natural atheists—not in the sense of attacking god(s) but in the sense of lacking god(s).


What would happen if a child were never told a word about any of these religious concepts? It is unlikely that he or she would spontaneously invent his or her own religious concepts, and astronomically unlikely that he or she would reinvent Burmese village Buddhism or Lakota religion or Christianity. No human is born a theist. Humans are born without any god-concepts. Humans are natural atheists.


There are two fates that a natural atheist can follow. If she is never exposed to the idea of god(s), never urged to ‘believe’ in any god(s), she will retain her natural atheism—even if it is tainted with other religious but nontheistic notions. […] But under the pressures of a theistic milieu, the great majority of natural atheists will have their natural atheism replaced with an acquired theism, that is, they will be turned into or converted into theists. Some of these learned-theists will, for various reasons, come to question, ‘doubt,’ and ultimately reject the theism thrust on them and will ‘deconvert’ into ‘recovered atheists’ [Jack David Eller, “Chapter 1: What is Atheism?” in Phil Zuckerman, ed. Atheism and Secularity–Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010), 4-5].

We see this same sort of argumentation in Baggini’s Very Short Introduction on Atheism, albeit told through a humorous metaphor:


However, some people believe that the loch contains a strange creature, known as the Loch Ness Monster. Many claim to have seen it, although no firm evidence of its existence has ever been presented. So far our story is simple fact. Now imagine how the story could develop.


The number of believers in the monster starts to grow. Soon, a word is coined to describe them: they are part-mockingly called ‘Nessies.’ (Many names of religions started as mocking nicknames: Methodist, Quaker, and even Christian all started out this way.) However, the number of Nessies continues to increase and the name ceases to become a joke. Despite the fact that the evidence for the monster’s existence is still lacking, soon being a Nessie is the norm and it is the people previously thought of as normal who are in the minority. They soon get their own name, “Anessies’—those who don’t believe in the monster.


Is it true to say that the beliefs of Anessies are parasitic on those of the Nessies? That can’t be true, because the Anessies’ beliefs predate those of the Nessies. The key point is not of chronology, however.


The key is that the Anessies would believe exactly the same as they do now even is Nessies had never existed. What the rise of the Nessies did was to give a name to a set of beliefs that had always existed but which was considered so unexceptional that it required no special label [Julian Baggini, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 8].

Likewise, we might also consider Carl Sagan’s famous construction, the invisible fire-breathing dragon that lives in his garage:


“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage”

Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle–but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floates in the air.”

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so [Carl Sagan, “The Dragon in my Garage” in Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Ballantine, 1996), 171.]

This leads us to a truly intriguing sort of argumentation, an attack on certain ad-hoc hypothesising, and what shall henceforth herein be referred to as ‘Troll Religions.’

Religions constructed for the sole purpose of representing a type of satirical criticism, which have also been defined as ‘Parody Religions’ or ‘Invented Religions’ are beginning to get the academic attention they deserve.  For those truly interested, see the work of Beth Singler (University of Cambridge) and Carole Cusack (University of Sydney).  I shall refer to a certain of these herein as ‘Troll Religions’ in order to demarcate a boundary between those constructed for Atheistic purposes (and thus for reasons of criticism) and those constructed by individuals who identify with these religious constructions for their own personal benefit (inward, rather than outward usage).  As representations of the latter group, consider Jediism or Dudeism.

As representations of the former, we might consider those who worship the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The Invisible Pink Unicorn, a paradoxical goddess that embodies both invisibility and colour, acts, like Russell’s teapot, as a device used to question, as well as discredit, the idea that God maintains the same sort of essence.  The IPU even stands in for God in arguments about the inherent ridiculousness of Theistic belief.  For instance, by replacing the word ‘God’ or ‘Lord’ in Biblical accounts with ‘Invisible Pink Unicorn,’ the sacred nature of these texts transmutes into farce:


I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the [Invisible Pink Unicorn] in the land of the living. Wait for the [Invisible Pink Unicorn]; be strong and take heart and wait for the [Invisible Pink Unicorn]. (Psalm 27:13-14

This, as adherents argue, reveals the nature not only of religious belief, but of the way this sort of belief might misguide individuals into believing nonsensical (and thus, empirically disprovable) ideas.

Originating out of internet discussions (alt.atheism) in the early to mid 1990s, the IPU, as defined by Steve Eley (who refers to himself as the ‘Chief Advocate and Spokesguy’ of the religion itself), exists through the same sort of belief that gives meaning to ‘God’ or other deities:

Invisible Pink Unicorns are beings of great spiritual power. We know this because they are capable of being invisible and pink at the same time. Like all religions, the Faith of the Invisible Pink Unicorns is based upon both logic and faith. We have faith that they are pink; we logically know that they are invisible because we can’t see them (Steve Eley, cited in the Quotable Atheist, ed. by Jack Huberman).          

As a satirical device, the IPU thus equally exists as an Atheist device, a discursive signifier used to establish, argue, and defend an Atheistic position.

In similar fashion, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who’s adherents are called ‘Pastafarians,’ consists of analogous satirical language.  fsp1Perhaps much more ‘religious’ than the religion that orbits around the IPU, the CFSM has come to embody ritual components.  This likely stems from the political basis of its origination.  The creation of Bobby Henderson, the FSM was conceived in order to argue against a decision being considered by the fsp2Kansas State Board of Education concerning the teaching of Intelligent Design as a counter position to biology and physics.  In an ‘open letter‘ to the Board, Henderson made his case for the equal acknowledgement of the FSM’s role in creating the universe.  He later published a sacred text.

The ritual aspects of the church not only involve wedding ceremonies wedding(usually overseen by an individual in Pirate regalia, as Pirates are considered ‘absolutely divine’ and the first ‘Pastafarians’), but religious garments.  The latter consists of colanders, which equally represent the political origins of Henderson’s argument, in that they tend to be worn in order to defend the idea that one religious permission (such as the Muslim Hijab or Jewish Yarmulke) should allow for all religious permissions.  Some examples include:

collander Christopher Schaeffer, newly elected to the Pomfret town Board in New York.

canuelObi Canuel, an ordained minister in the CFSM, who fought to keep his driver’s licence, colander and all.

nikoNiko Alm, an Austrian Atheist who was permitted to wear the colander for his licence.

jessicaJessica Steinhauser, formerly known as the adult film star, Asia Carrera, also wearing the colander.

All these things combined, including the satirical mockery of Christian prayers and invocations (akin to the IPU), blend into a ‘religion for Atheists.’

hail pastaour pasta noodles in the sand

Bertrand Russell’s hand in all of this can be found in the fingerprints we might find smudging the edges of the logical arguments each of these examples provide.  Moreover, each of them contributes an intriguing insight, not just on how we might use them to make sense of the identification going on ‘under the surface,’ but on how they have been influenced by related, but altogether different, sorts of discursive sources.  I might conclude here, then, with the notion that understanding the who, how, and why concerning these discursive examples is inextricably linked to the logical arguments that came before.  This is not, of course, the same as saying Russell’s teapot is the same as the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Invisible Pink Unicorn.  Rather, this is more akin to locating the roots of the former reinforcing the beliefs and practices of the latter.  We might also consider how these representations might equally alter our conceptual understandings about religion and religious identity.  When troll religions become religions, how then might we make sense of these identities when they’re Atheistic, and thus antithetical to our normative ideas about what might constitute ‘religion’ or ‘religious?’

Tourist Trap Sacred Space

A few months back, I was copied into an email correspondence between a friend and the host of a workshop she had just attended on Religion and Peace Building.  It seemed that the research group that was hosting her event was putting on a similar workshop on Atheism and Literature in Barcelona, and my friend thought that I might be a great addition.  Not only was I truly honoured to receive the invitation, but it served as yet another lasting testament to the truly wonderful character of this individual, ensuring that I, if nothing else, was made aware of this event.  Then again, she has always shown herself to be that sort of genuine person.  Even now, as she makes the transition from academia to the life of a postulant with the Congregation of Jesus (CJs) in London, she has offered to share her experiences so that we might get a special glimpse at the process.

I attended the workshop a week or so ago and had an incredible time.  Everyone involved was engaging and interesting and the experience was truly wonderful.  Here is a brief video of the event, in which I feature a little.

At dinner, and in and out of conversations in English, Spanish, and Catalan, I asked if there were any suggestions about things to do and see in and around Barcelona for the time I had left to explore.  A number of suggestions were made, which I noted.  I ended up seeing a few of these, but not all.  At the top of the list, which I had added myself, was Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia.  There were a few giggles, and ‘well of course’ glances.  Someone said something in Spanish, which was translated into English as ‘tourist trap.’  I didn’t think that this was that surprising of a description.  After all, to avoid standing in line (as suggested by the website) I purchased my entrance ticket online.  To do so, however, I had to choose a specific day and time window of when I wanted to visit.  The options were limited, so I chose 12:30-12:45.

The next morning I took the metro from my hotel.  The L2 line to the Sagrada Familia stop.  I joined a small crowd heading up the escalator and watched as almost every person ahead of me turned, as if in sequence, and began taking pictures as they entered the sunlight.  I waited until we got to the top, stepped away from the crowds, and took this picture.sagrada1

Later, and after waiting in a line filled with very anxious tourists (including myself), I eventually had my ticket scanned and was permitted into a second line.  After a bit more waiting, and after I had unpacked the contents of my bag at a security desk, I made my way up the stairs and inside.  There must have been some specific detail about the interior columns on the audio guides everyone was listening to (I opted to wander without a guide), because everyone, and I mean everyone, stopped and tapped, rubbed, or slapped the columns, just at the entrance.  I later learned that Gaudi had designed the columns to mimic tree trunks.  Why this inspired the tapping, rubbing, or slapping, I’m still not quite sure.sagrada4

I took a few pictures, avoided the larger crowds and groups, failed to avoid being in the background of innumerable selfies,sagrada5 and eventually found a chair.  I had about fifteen minutes to enjoy the interior until my scheduled appointment to ascend the tower on the nativity side of the church.  As I sat there, cold and basquing in the surreal green, orange, and red light, I reflected on the oddity that is the tourist trap sacred space.  After all, as we moved along in our line outside I couldn’t help but relate the anxiety I felt about ‘getting in’ to the almost unbearable excitement I used to feel every time we drove into Disneyland.  It was almost as if the church itself had become a novelty, a destination that just had to be checked off a list, but only after stepping through the doors.

This got me thinking.  Was this still a sacred space?  Sure, a crucifix was hanging front and centre over an altar,sagrada2 and the Bose surround sound speakers attached to the tree trunk columns were playing organ music.  Yet, people were on their cell phones.  They were talking loudly, and laughing.  A young boy sitting a few chairs away was playing Angry Birds.  Even I was reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.  When I was in Madrid and stood in front of Picasso’s Guernica, the atmosphere seemed a bit more reverent.  People spoke in hushed tones and politely obliged the no photography rule.  It was as if they were standing before some sacred object.  Or, perhaps it was nothing more than my misinterpretation of museum etiquette.  Then, what about the etiquette of this church?

Here’s my thesis for this post: when a sacred space becomes a tourist attraction, does it transmute into something less sacred, or does it take on a polysemous identity that encompasses both sacred and profane?

As I thought about this, a few caveats came to mind.  First, is Sagrada Familia different in some way?  With its design and connection to the culture of Barcelona and Catalonia, is it more than just a church?  In other words, is it religious, religious art, or just art?  Second, in comparison to the Barcelona Cathedral, does this distinction become more clear?



In my travels, I’ve often found myself a visitor of the tourist trap sacred space.  It seems, when one spends this much time studying religion, these sorts of pilgrimages occur without much prompting.  So this then got me thinking again: is my association of these cites as ‘attractions’ merely the product of my training?  Because I view these places through the lens of a pragmatic objectivity, have I transmuted them for my own intentions?

I quite fondly remember the feeling of sincere apprehension and discomfort when I was required to not just attend a Sabbath service, but participate as well.  Likewise, I can recall a number of occasions being the odd phenomenologist in the back of the group not willing to ‘take part’ whenever our classes would visit local churches, temples, or synagogues for ‘field analysis.’  Even worse, I remember the infuriating frustration of having to ‘actively engage’ a monastic lifestyle for a course on monasticism.  Though I took it as the University of California, Riverside, it seems the instructor still gives this course elsewhere:



Needless to say, I happily broke every single rule.  Dr. McDaniel and I made an agreement, though.  Here we are enjoying a beer I made for the class, the only acceptable mendicant role I was comfortable playing.


To return to my thesis, beyond my own perceptions, do these sorts of sacred spaces become something extra-sacred when individuals like me, or individuals who perceive these cites as nothing more than mere attractions, transform them via their own specialised interests?  Additionally, does this in any way infect those who use these cites for religious purposes?

When I walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem I found myself amongst pilgrims leaning their bodies against the walls or kneeling with severe penitence at the Tomb of Christ, while at the same time tourists in khaki shorts and polo shirts followed cartoonish maps and sipped Coca-Cola through straws bought at market stalls with American currency.

via1 via2 via3 via4 via5 via6 via7 via8 via9 via10 via11 via12 via13 viaxixiixiii

I’ve sat in the back of the St. Giles Cathedral here in Edinburgh reading novels by Ian McEwan while secular choir groups practiced singing hymns alongside the organ.  Likewise, I’ve attended festival events at the Cafe Hub just up the Royal Mile.


Perhaps out of all of these examples, the most interesting was taking a tour of the Mt. Carmel Centre in Waco, Texas.  Though not much remains after the joint FBI and ATF siege that took place in April 1993, the land itself still maintains a sense of sacredness.

carmel1 carmel2 carmel3

Is the tourist trap sacred space a sacred space?  Yes and no, it seems.  Then again, I’m not sure I’m the proper authority to answer that question.  After all, I am just as guilty in transforming these spaces, and thus just as guilty in treating them as attractions; evinced by the fact that I felt the need to include the pictures I took, or that I took pictures in the first place.  Then again, a keen reader might have noticed that I failed to include pictures of Picasso’s Guernica, perhaps my favourite painting in all the world.  Or of the beautiful Reina Sofia Museum in general.  ‘Of course,’ I might respond.  I didn’t take pictures that day.  It seemed inappropriate to do so.

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: http://blog.nsrn.net/2015/02/13/discourse-analysis-and-the-study-of-atheism-definitions-discourse-and-ethnographic-criticism/  

The blog in general: http://blog.nsrn.net

Especially Our Snipers

During our two years in Texas, the bumper sticker pictured above was one of the many sort of ‘stereotypical’ images we saw stuck on car bumpers or blown-up in large print along the highway.  These were little reminders that Texas was a very different sort of place than the Southern California we had grown up in.  In current retrospect, this is as equally true now that we’ve lived in Scotland for almost half a decade.  Seeing similar images recently also reminded me of a long-forgotten story.

Years ago, when I was still in my undergrad days, I took a course taught by the Chaplain of the University I was attending who despised bumper stickers like this.  They were not, as he would argue, just poorly worded propaganda, they were pragmatically one-sided as well.  Quite appropriately, he referred to the statements made on them as ‘bumper sticker arguments,’ opinions or beliefs tightened up into a few words for the sole purpose of making a proclamation about the person who fastened them.  These were not the sort of affirmations one makes in the company of colleagues or respected rivals.  These were not arguments made with intellectual debate in mind.  Rather, as he would tell us, these were the sorts of arguments that come from individuals who’s minds are already made up.  People who attach these things to their cars were announcing something.  These were the sorts of people who did not want to debate or discuss the content of the sticker, but would rather you know, simplistically, that this is what they believe.

Looking back, I would argue that this is only slightly true, mostly because while I agree that these sorts of statements do in fact represent the opinion of the individual who attaches them to their vehicle, I also believe they harbour a narrative quality as well.  That is, not only are they a summarised position, a guide-post signifying for the reader what the attacher believes about something, they are equally a way to isolate for that latter person a conceptual part of their identity.

In recent months, and in a similar manner, there has been a great deal of discussion and debate about one of the films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards.  american sniperSpecifically, it seems the discussion has been about the validity, or even ‘truth,’ behind the story of Chris Kyle’s experiences in Iraq and the United States between 2003 and 2013.  American Sniper tells the story of Kyle’s four tours in Iraq, touching briefly on his life leading up to his first deployment, his relationship with his wife, Taya, the reputation he gains as the most ‘lethal sniper in US history (160 confirmed kills out of 255 probable), as well as the hardships he suffers during his time in combat, and the emotional scars left after returning home.  It concludes, with a somber and subdued tone, with images of his memorial at Cowboy’s Stadium in Dallas, Texas.

Based on an autobiography that Kyle co-authored with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice, the film depicts him as a haunted, kyleyet determined ‘American patriot,’ portrayed quite remarkably by Bradley Cooper, who has equally been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar.  Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film takes a number of liberties from Kyle’s story so as to create a narrative not only told in distinct parts, but that clearly determines a dichotomy between protagonist and antagonist.  In the latter, a character called ‘Mustafa’ is entirely conjured in order to depict Kyle’s mirrored counterpart; an equally lethal sniper that haunts (and hunts) Kyle throughout his time in Iraq.

For these reasons, we might even argue that the film is a story of a story, an adaptation of an individual’s own adaptation of events based upon his own recollections.  This is, perhaps, where much of the controversy about this film seems to arise.  That is, since Kyle’s murder in 2013, and because films tend to transmute ‘true stories’ into mythologized tales, the facts tend to become somewhat blurred.  For instance, and what seem to be the focus of much of the debate about him, there are three specific stories that seem to have invoked the most criticism:

  1. Kyle shot and killed two men attempting to steal his truck in 2009 and was excused of all charges (a police report was not even filed) because of an intervention by the Department of Defence.
  2. Kyle shot and killed ‘at least 30’ armed looters from the top of the Super Dome in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina.
  3. After a verbal altercation in a bar in San Diego, Kyle punched and ‘knocked out’ former Minnesotta Governor, and fellow Navy Seal, Jesse Ventura.

For more detail on these stories, see the article on Kyle on Snopes.com, and the well-written piece for the New Yorker, “In the Crosshairs,” by Nicholas Schmidle.  Or, at this point, and thanks to the film’s popularity, simply google Kyle’s name.  Something will come up.

While this controversy is indeed something worth discussing, and while Kyle’s life is indeed an interesting story, it is not the focus of this post.  Rather, my intentions herein are about the narrative of Kyle’s story, and how we so easily seem to shift these sorts of stories into concepts, overlooking, or even pragmatically ignoring, facts for the sake of legend.

Kyle’s story, or at least the one re-imagined in Eastwood’s film, works as a narrative concept for individuals on both sides of the discussion.  On one end, he depicts a national hero, a patriot who willingly gave his life for his country, protected his fellow troops, defeated the enemy at all costs, and who died trying to assist his fellow soldiers suffering from the physical and emotional scars left by the tragedy of war.  On the other, he is an example of violence begetting violence, a man obsessed with proving his masculinity, who equally depicts the religious zealotry exemplified by the war in Iraq.  But again, I would argue that separating his character into these two depictions once again overlooks the fact that his story is merely a narrative interpretation, one narrative interpretation, of a single point in history.  Whether it is true or false, it is a narrative, a story built with and from discourse.  Even when mythologized, even when we find ourselves leaning in either direction between promotion and criticism, his story is just a story.  His narrative is just a narrative.  It is, in each of these interpretations, a conceptual representation, both bumper-stickered and debatable.

Perhaps a better way of making this argument comes from another of Clint Eastwood’s films about war.  The leading narrative in Flags of Our Fathers tells the story about how the iconic image of six US soldiers raising a flag on Mt. Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima was in fact a construction, or if nothing else, a mythologized image used for the advantage of boosting stateside morale.  A fiction in the sense that it depicts a second raising, the film chronicles how the image was used by the US Government and promoted by three of the surviving soldiers captured within.  No more than three minutes into the film Col. Dave Severance (played by Harve Presnell) makes the following statement:

What we see and do in war, the cruelty, is unbelievable.  But somehow we gotta make some sense of it.  To do that, we need an easy-to-understand truth.  And damn few words.  And if you can get a picture … now, the right picture can win or lose a war.  

iwo jima

Whether or not there is any sort of truth to the myth, whether the facts depict a truth that we might quantify in any sort of ‘real’ sense, we need narratives.  Even if they present material that for some of us is outrageously fictional, narratives are just as essential to the individuals who use them to define themselves, as they are for us in our own means of self-definition via the ways we interpret them.

In this way, when we see ‘bumper sticker arguments,’ perhaps the better response is not an immediate reaction, such as the Chaplain above seemed to have promoted.  Rather, when we see these sorts of images, perhaps we might be better off simply understanding that they represent a narrative, a means with which certain individuals define themselves, either for or against the statements made.  Whether we want to simply believe them as true, research the facts within, or work to disprove them, they will always be stories.  After all, Chris Kyle now lives solely in legend, but only because he now exists solely as a character within a story; a fate that awaits us all in time.  For pragmatic reasons, then, the stories others tell, the stories we tell about them, and the stories we tell of ourselves, work as identifiers, assisting us in making sense of life in our determined search for meaningful fictions.

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.