Intersections in the Cultural Study of Religion: an open-access syllabus

(and reading list to follow…)


This is the outline of a course that I am teaching this year at the University of Glasgow, to an honours level (years 3 and 4) undergraduate class.

I am sharing it as an open-access resource for those interested in teaching the contemporary study of religion. I would also benefit immensely if you could send me your comments, feedback, and suggestions for further resources (published, blog, or otherwise).

The course is taught over 11 weeks as an exploration of contemporary approaches in the cultural study of religion. Looking at key issues of culture — including race, gender, sexualities, history, power, agency, postcolonialism, and intersectionality — we explore how recent thinkers can help us to develop tools for the understanding and critical analysis of the concept and practice of religion/s. Examples are taken from religion/s in contemporary culture, including popular culture.


Course aims

This course will provide the opportunity to:

  • explore a range of theoretical tools for critical analysis in the cultural study of religion;
  • develop a broad understanding of the analysis of categories of race, gender, and sexualities, and the implications of intersectionality as a methodological approach;
  • engage in contemporary debates about the historicisation of the concepts of religion and religions;
  • apply these tools to an analysis of contemporary culture.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • evidence awareness and understanding of a range of contemporary thinkers in gender and queer studies, race and whiteness studies, and the application of such approaches in the cultural study of religion;
  • relate questions about postcolonialism to their understanding of religion and religions in the contemporary world;
  • describe and discuss recent debates about the concept of religion as a category and the problems with the ‘world religions’ paradigm;
  • present detailed critical study using these tools within the context of contemporary culture

Outline

  1. Introduction: Approaches and Methodologies
  2. Culture, Belief, and Discourse
  3. Religion, Ideology, and Power
  4. Intersectionality, Embodiment, and Agency
  5. Postcolonialism and Decolonisation
  6. Race and Racialization
  7. Whiteness and Religion
  8. Gender, Genders, and Masculinity
  9. Sexualities and queering religion
  10. The Category and Classification of Religion
  11. Religion and modernity(s)

SOME RESOURCES FOR GETTING STARTED:

PODCASTS:

If you haven’t got into podcasts, they are a very useful way of engaging with materials — through the spoken rather than the written word. They’re very handy if you have a few minutes of time when it’s not so convenient to read (e.g. when driving, on a bus, ironing, walking, etc.)

You don’t need anything special to listen to these podcasts, just click through the links and scroll down to ‘LISTEN NOW’. However, some of these podcasts are also on iTunes and other podcast hosts, if you prefer

BLOGS AND OTHER WEBSITES

From the Religion Bites blog (on medium.com)


COURSE READINGS


1. Introduction: Approaches and Methodologies

ALSO, listen to:


Culture

Belief

Discourse

  • Teemu Taira, ‘Making space for discursive study in religious studies’, Religion 43:1, 26–45 (2013)

3. Religion, Ideology, and Power

  • Craig Martin, ‘Ideology and the Study of Religion: Marx, Althusser, and Foucault’, Religion Compass, vol 7(9): 402–411 (2013)
  • Louis Althusser, ‘Louis Althusser on Ideology (state apparatus, ideology, interpellation), (an extract from: ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)’, Religion Bites Blog
  • Luke Ferretter, ‘The Politics of Culture: essays on ideology’, ch.4, Louis Althusser, Routledge Critical Thinkers. (Routledge 2003). pp.75–94
  • Malory Nye, Religion: the Basics (chapter 3)
  • Warren Montag, ‘“The Soul is the Prison of the Body”: Althusser and Foucault, 1970–1975’, Yale French Studies, №88, Depositions: Althusser, Balibar, Macherey, and the Labor of Reading. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (1995), pp. 53–77
  • Craig Martin, Ch.6 ‘How religion works: Authority’ & Ch.7 ‘How religion works: Authenticity’, A critical introduction to the study of religion
  • Adam Possamai, ‘Gramsci, Jediism, the Standardization of Popular Religion and the State’, Religion and the State, e. J. Barbalet, A. Possamai, and Bryan S Turner (2011)
  • Craig Martin, ‘Mystifying and making farmers’ (on Althusser and ideological state apparatus), on the Culture on the Edge blog

ALSO, listen to:

QUESTIONS FOR CLASS DISCUSSION:

  • What is ideology?
  • What did Marx mean by saying that religion is the ‘opium of the masses’?
  • Is ideology (and/or religion) a ‘false consciousness’?
  • What does ideology do for Althusser?
  • What is an Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) and how is this different from a Repressive State Apparatus?
  • How real is a world that is interpellated? And whose interests does such reality serve?

4. Intersectionality, Embodiment, and Agency

Intersectionality

ALSO, listen to: Episode 13 (Intersectionality and religion) of the Religion Bites Podcast

Embodiment

Agency

  • Kelsy C. Burke, ‘Women’s Agency in Gender-Traditional Religions: A Review of Four Approaches’. Sociology Compass 6/2 (2012): 122–133
  • Saba Mahmood, ‘Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival’, Cultural Anthropology 16(2):202–236. (2001)
  • Episode 14 (Agency and Religion) of the Religion Bites Podcast

QUESTIONS FOR CLASS DISCUSSION:

  • What is intersectionality?
  • How easy is it to separate activist intersectionality from analytic intersectionality?
  • In what ways can we extend Crenshaw’s focus on gender and race to other categories, such as religion?
  • What does it mean to say that religion is about (material) things?
  • Is it possible to go beyond making Protestant assumptions about the primacy of belief in the study of religion?
  • How does a focus on material religion change how we understand religion?
  • What is agency?
  • Is agency always a form of resistance, such as women’s resistance against patriarchy and male power in religion?
  • What are Burke’s different models or types of agency?

5. Postcolonialism and Decolonisation

  • Ania Loomba, ‘Situating Colonial and Postcolonial Studies’, chapter 1 in Colonialism/Postcolonialism
  • Morna Joy, ‘Revisiting Postcolonialism and Religion’, Australian Religion Studies Review, Vol 25/2 (2012)
  • David Chidester, ‘Expanding Empire’, Empire of Religion (2014)
  • Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions (2005)
  • Bonnie G Smith, Ch 4 ‘Global Agendas’, in Women’s Studies: the Basics
  • Brent Nongbri, Ch.6, ‘New Worlds, New Religions, World Religions’ Before Religion: a history of a modern concept (2013)
  • Aimé Césaire, ‘Discourse on Colonialism’, (Translated by Joan Pinkham. This version published by Monthly Review Press: New York and London, 1972. Originally published as Discours sur le colonialisme by Editions Presence Africaine, 1955). On Religion Bites Blog
  • Malory Nye, ‘Some thoughts on the Decolonisation of Religious Studies’, on Religion Bites Blog
  • Gurminder K Bhambra, ‘Postcolonial and decolonial dialogues’, Postcolonial Studies, 17:2:115–121 (2014)

ALSO, listen to

QUESTIONS FOR CLASS DISCUSSION:

  • What is postcolonial studies and why does it matter?
  • How does a re-examination of the history of colonialism/imperialism help us understand other cultures?
  • How does a re-examination of the history of colonialism/imperialism help us understand western cultures?
  • How does a focus on postcolonialism change how we think about religion and different religions?
  • Is the idea of religion a product of colonialism?
  • If so, does it matter? Can it be used outside western contexts?
  • What does decolonization mean?
  • Is it possible to decolonize religious studies? If so, how?

6. Race and Racialization

  • Michael Omi & Howard Winant, ch 4 ‘The Theory of Racial Formation’, in Racial formation in the United States : from the 1960s to the 1990s (1994)
  • Patrick Wolfe, ‘Introduction’ in Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (2015)
  • Steve Garner, ‘The Idea of ‘Race’ and the Practice of Racisms’, Racisms: An Introduction (2010)
  • Howard Winant, ‘The Theoretical Status of the Concept of Race’, Theories of Race and Racism: a Reader, ed. L. Back and J. Solomos (2000)
  • Patrick Wolfe, ‘Race and racialisation: Some thoughts’, Postcolonial Studies (2002)
  • Malory Nye, ‘The analysis of race in the study of religion’, Religion Bites Blog
  • Michael Omi & Howard Winant, ‘Racial Formation Rules: Continuity, Instability, and Change’, Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century. ed. Daniel Martinez HoSang, Oneka LaBennett, and Laura Pulido
  • Daniel Martinez HoSang, Oneka LaBennett, and Laura Pulido, ‘Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century’, Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century. ed. Daniel Martinez HoSang, Oneka LaBennett, and Laura Pulido
  • Edward Blum, ‘Color Of Christ’: A Story Of Race And Religion In America, WBUR News
  • W.E.B. Du Bois on trying to understand the categories of racism, race and religion (an extract from: ‘The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto’, in Jewish Life, 6 no. 7:14–15 (May 1952), published by the Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America), Religion Bites Blog

7. Whiteness and Religion

(to be added… more course readings.)


8. Gender, Genders, and Masculinity


9. Sexualities and queering religion


10. The Category and Classification of Religion


11. Religion and modernity(s)


Some notes on developing this course

Since I put this course online on 22 September 2017 I have had some excellent feedback and discussion with colleagues in the field.

For example, there has been some very interesting reflections on issues coming from a syllabus such as this by Russell McCutcheon on the Religion in Culture Blog at the University of Alabama. See in particular:

Also, one omission in the syllabus that has been pointed out (I am sure there are many!), is that there should be space for ability/disability as a further axis or category (thanks to Daniel Jones at Missouri State University). I very strongly agree with this, and I intend to incorporate this into the syllabus in some way.

I do not have any expertise in the field of disability studies, but there is a lot of good literature to help students to think through the construction of the idea of religion around the ‘normal’ /able body (and mind), nuanced by racialisation, gender, and sexuality, and of course through the lens of postcolonial studies. And similarly, vice versa: the ways in which discourses on religion also impact on and intersect with disability and the idea of the ‘normal’ body.

Of course, my main problem is the structure of the particular course I am teaching this semester (i.e., 10 weeks of teaching). In future, though, this online syllabus may be expanded to include further topics, to go beyond that 10 distinct classes.

This is very much a work in progress.


Religion Bites is edited by Malory Nye, an academic and writer who teaches at the University of Glasgow. He can be found on Twitter (@malorynye) and on his website, malorynye.com.

He produces two podcasts: Religion Bites and History’s Ink.

Malory Nye is also the author of the books Religion the Basics (2008) and There Shall be an Independent Scotland (2015).

He is the editor of the Routledge journal Culture and Religion.


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