In Praise of Polyvocality: An Early Preview

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

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

It was also the eve of my return home to Edinburgh.

As I watched excitedly at Religious Studies Project celebrity and expert on phenomenology, Dr. Jonathan Tuckett, capture wasps under a plastic cup, Christopher Cotter cheerily entered into our adolescent little tableau.  As he sat down next to me, glancing unfavourably at Jonathan’s growing collection, he told me that he had just concluded a podcast interview with Professor Johannes Quack.  Without hesitation, I immediately responded: I need to write that response.

I first met Johannes a few years back at the 2012 Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network’s conference at Goldsmith’s University, where I critiqued the term ‘non-religion’ via a discussion of dinosaurs.

I’ve also been a rather big fan of his work, his ethnographic study of rationalism in India, aptly titled Disenchanting India, being one of the first books I read when I disenchanting indiabegan research for my PhD.  Of all the individuals whom I have encountered who work within the boundaries of ‘non-religion,’ his usage has seemed, to me at least, to be one of the most practical, even though I still quite critically disagree with his notion of the term as a ‘relational concept.’

As well, I also had the great pleasure of having him as the session chair for my presentations at the IAHR, despite his adamant repetition and use of the term non-religion in a panel on ‘Current Perspectives of Atheism.’

Nonetheless, his presence, and counter position to my criticism, proved quite beneficial.  This is especially the case as I’ve begun spreading my argument about the idea that our different theoretical and methodological approaches are, in fact, a boon to the study of Atheism, rather than a hinderance.

This is the central thesis that I put forth in my response to his interview with Chris, which should be published this week.  I’ll post it here once it comes out.

In the meantime, I’m going to take the next 100 words or so to both summarise my argument, as well as present what I mean, free of any sort of filter I may have added for the benefit of the Religious Studies Project’s listeners.

oxford handbookIn his Introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Atheism, Stephen Bullivant argues that the scholastic plurality of the term Atheism (such as can be found within the pages of the handbook itself), would, by sheer means of theoretical disparity, lead to a ‘Babel Handbook of Atheism.’  While his point is indeed valid, particularly in the context of his role as editor, it also reflects what I argue is perhaps a rather beneficial issue:

when viewed as a cultural unit, in the same way we would objectively assess the subjects of an anthropological examination, the polyvocality of this discursive field becomes a collective of individual identities conforming into a group one.  Thus, rather than the result being the “frustrating morass of contradictions and cross-purposes” (13) that Bullivant predicts, our different theoretical approaches to Atheism/non-religion/un-belief/ir-religion becomes a useful cultural unit with which we might, from a third-level perspective, make sense of the field itself. That is, if we step back and look at ourselves just as objectively as we look at our subjects, our differences transform from an atonal mess of scholastic disagreements, into a more discursively valuable cultural system.  

This is, in essence, the argument I put forth in my response.

As well, when we add this to my previous argument that the study of Atheism is, in fact, essentially the history of the study of religion, writ small, this moves our discourse away from the centuries of theoretical debate that have mired that particular endeavour, into a more practical arena.

Thus, when we view ourselves objectively, and therefore examine our own discourse, that is, our own language use, as we would the discourses of those we intend to study, our disagreements become a useful conglomerate with which we might determine a unique identity: the study of Atheism, via the different voices that give it meaning.

As I concluded my response, and as I will conclude this short little preview, a Babel handbook need not be seen as a problem, if we simply consider that though we might not be using the same words, we are all still speaking the same conceptual language.

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

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

spiritual menu

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 13.02.54

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

The World Religions Paradigm 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spiritual Menu

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

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

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

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

Said otherwise, these are presented via particular discourses.

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

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

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

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


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

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

Everything is Fiction: A Discussion on Narrative and Reflexivity

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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