Religious Studies After COVID-19: Social Distancing, Popular Culture, and Marginalized Communities
Roy Whitaker, Vice President and Conference Program Chair
In light of the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, including the ethics of ‘social distancing’ and resultant shutting down of centers of worship, this year’s theme focuses on the various theoretical and methodological ways to analyze the relationships between religion, popular culture, and marginality in times of great uncertainty. One wonders, in the face of the disruption of daily life through self-quarantining caused by transborder diseases, what place religion has in public life today and in a possible post-COVID-19 world. To put it another way, how do major current events shape religious studies, and how does religious studies shape major current cultural debates? Is religion inherently reactionary and inextricably bound to the status quo, or are the subversive elements of religious pluralism still present in the contemporary world?
In the twentieth century, marginalized communities—such as Latinx, Black people, LGBTQI persons, women, indigenous persons, and the disabled in the U.S. and throughout segments of the world—have repurposed ‘the strange’ and ‘the unfamiliar’ into popular consciousness to question everything from the normativity of whiteness and the absence of noncanonical texts, to the lack of learning from epistemologies among the oppressed. The worldviews and physical bodies, as well as the religions and rituals, of socially disadvantaged people have been viewed as a site of otherness by those on the outside.
In the year 2020, how are these marginalized communities and other vulnerable populations (e.g., homeless, elderly, incarcerated) faring during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how will they fare after the virus has passed? What are the technologies (e.g., virtual religious services, distance learning), hermeneutical tools (e.g., Marxist social theory), and/or heuristic resources (e.g., aesthetics, folk culture) that scholars of religion need to (re)examine to (re)constitute a ‘public good’ of human connectedness? Being able to answer this question is important because religious forms of utopia/dystopia may enlighten the human imaginary in a world of chaos, one that needs healing and hope in the face of xenophobia (e.g., bigotry against Asian Americans). Yet are there or can there ever be ‘safe spaces’ of health and wholeness in the world or in the academy? More specifically, within the context of a geographical sphere, what are the post-coronavirus implications for religious studies within the American Academy of Religion in the Western region?
Regardless of the precise answers to the above queries, there appears to be, based on the lens or framework used to (re)assess the public and its problems, a need to center the visions of not only the elites but also those cultures on the margins of society.
Past Conference Themes:
2020: Religion and Rites of Passage
For our 2020 conference, we traverse the wide variety of rites that make up human cultural experience and focus on Religion and Rites of Passage. From the moment of our physical and social initiations into the world through birth, up until communal recognition of our departures from society through death, our lives are marked by a number of ceremonies and rituals that define who we are and how we will identify in that world. These rites may stem from traditional religious practices of initiation, membership or belonging related to events such as marriage, pregnancy, birth, coming of age, parenting, and death, or they may arise in the context of secular culture, as one sees, for example, in ceremonies that mark a passage into political office, sports team rituals, fraternity or sorority traditions, or graduation ceremonies. How do rites of passage provide communities with aesthetic experiences through the inclusion of dance, art, and music? What are the moral ramifications that arise in the cases of certain rites (e.g. female circumcision, hazing deaths)? How do symbolism and material culture play important parts in these rites of passage? In addition to re-examining well-established rites of passage and exploring their significance to different cultures, both historically and to the contemporary world, we wish to broaden our understanding of rites of passage and seek out new possibilities of what counts as a rite of passage in the twenty-first century.
2019: Religion & Resistance
The overall focus of the 2019 conference is Religion and Resistance. In several senses, all religion and religious expression contain forms of resistance, whether having to do with faith and particular beliefs (e.g., the very claim of revelation, or the transcendent) or their prescriptions for conduct. Beyond the theological and ethical, however, while simultaneously being artifacts of culture, religious material expression is also countercultural. We invite our colleagues to consider how might resistance best be understood within religious traditions. Where might underexplored figures, movements, and ideas be found for better understanding how resistance has worked historically and in the contemporary moment? Resistance may relate to particular acts (e.g., resistance to particular sins via violent/non-violent action), or resistance to other operative powers and principalities, or to other normative orders in relation to dominant social structures.
Religion has also expressed alternative public and private forms of political resistance. Calvin explained to the King of France that “we must not only resist, but boldly attack prevailing evils.” Buddhism came about through a realization of the need to oppose and remove suffering from the world’s normal order. Judaism and Islam were birthed amid cultural decadence and idolatry, responding to their cultures by creating new orders and ways of living in the world. And various radical dissenting groups have defined themselves by outright nonconformity. But how is this done? What does resistance look like and how is it facilitated and strengthened? How does it “rock the nation” and lead to demands like, “freedom now,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of? What is resistance ultimately for? How does religion enable its participants to overcome through resistance? What role does religion play? And should religion always be defined in forms of resistance to dominant power structures? Or is religion better-oriented in its enabling and informing of these structures? How may religion function as resistance in both contexts? How also does internal resistance (reform, disruption, redevelopment) take place within traditions?
Beyond the traditional, what does religious resistance look like today? What are various cultural norms and wider external prescriptions that various religious traditions provide antibody (or alternatives) to? And how do these work when various traditions (and their theologies) are co-opted for other ends, be they nationalistic, political, or otherwise foreign to the ontologies and close readings of a tradition’s more radical features? How do religious traditions bring together visions of collaboration with other traditions for collective resistance to larger structures that may threaten ideas of religion, or freedom of religion, and what sort of ontologies and anthropologies are these affirming in order to work? What is lost or gained in these questions of religion and resistance?
2018: Religion and Kindness
The overall theme for the 2018 Conference is Religion and Kindness. We are using this idea in its broadest terms; sometimes admiring, sometimes damning, and may be some of the times authoritative, while in all other times passionate. We are hoping to encompass difference, racism, feminism, womanism, eco-justice, gender justice, sexual orientation, classism, colonialism, neocolonialism and all other ISIMs, seen through the eyes of religious studies scholars. Within the spiral of violence, fury, public anxieties and fears overflowing our contemporary world, it might be appropriate to tweak Pablo Neruda's famous poem: "Democracy where are you?" to read “Kindness where are you?” The pursuit for kindness, and its unbridled quest for attention, is not only an individual attribute but it has weaved together a diversity of human strands and continuous conversations. It is a core dimension of religion as it reveals itself in our sensitivities and insensitivities to all sufferings of others: as there is nothing trivial about human suffering. If we consider God, or nature, or the Universal, or spirit, or dharma, and so on, as not only compassionate but compassion in itself and for itself then ‘religions are us’ and kindness is a key issue for our progress towards all aspects of the pervasive power of being human. That is the main reason we never get tired of preaching, advocating and teaching kindness with all languages through time and trying to creatively live it? As scholars of Religious Studies we would like to explore the vision and the outcome of religion and kindness, and to put that forward within human cultivation, habitation into the highest ideals in the turmoil of human life.
2017: Religion, Race, and Racism
For this year, we invite everyone to get comfortable and uncomfortable with the theme of Religion, Race, and Racism. The study of “race” has moved from theological, false biological, and natural discourses and employs a critical social-historical constructionist perspective that argues that racial categories are a human invention. Although we hope that all individuals in contemporary societies “understand” race as a historical development, racial classifications, categories, and logic are deeply nested in structures of power, privilege, and knowledge. From the 15th to mid-20th centuries, European colonialists legitimated their conquest by imposing their notions of “religion” and “race” on Asians, Africans, and the indigenous people of the Americas. Race, from this perspective, is inherently biologically determined, and determined by God. The gravest danger of “race” is that it has become “common” or rather “common sense.” Racial classification and racial meaning are not questioned, but rather taken for granted as “natural” or universally accepted means to make sense of human diversity. Critical scholarship articulate this process as “racial formation” and define “race” as a way of “making up people.” Race and religion are both socially constructed, anthropological historical categories. Both are implicated in colonialist projects, whose ideas and practices are the foundational building blocks of a racial hierarchy and apparatus that limits power, privilege, and knowledge of racialized minority communities, both historically and in contemporary society. For this year, we invite you to (re)consider, (re)think, (re)introduce, (re)mind, and (re)explore the intersections of religion, race, and racism. Are the historical linkages between religion and race dead, or do they simmer, in institutions, phantomlike, or boldly (re)purposed, (re)fashioned, (re)imagined, and (re)defined in our political, economic, social, cultural, national, international, and quotidian lives and bodies? How is religion simultaneously employed—historically and today—as an instrument of and for oppression, and resistance to marginalization and social, political, and economic domination and inequality based on “race.” We wish to excavate, expand, and examine the intersections of religion and race in other arenas of oppression and inequality, and invite scholars, students, activists, artists, and others to join us in this critically important dialogue.
2016: Social Justice
The overall theme for the 2016 Conference is Social Justice. We are using this idea in its broadest terms. We are hoping to encompass racism, feminism, womanism, eco-justice, gender justice, classism, neo-colonialism, etc., seen through the eyes of religious studies scholars. The mission of AAR/WR is to promote awareness of the importance of Religious Studies for understanding contemporary issues and we invite you to participate in this important mandate.
2015: Theme Open/None
Chairs of the twenty-four units in our region have in various ways crafted calls for papers with specific interests and themes in mind for our 2015 conference.
2014: Retrieving the Subjugated Voices and histories of the marginalized, the colonized, the out of place
As Religious studies scholars we have used many different methodologies to create space for subjugated and subaltern voices. We have used many tools and theories from queer, feminist, marxist and literary theory, to tools of the social sciences such as sociology, psychology, anthropology, material science, and archeology to retrieve voices. Are theses tools that we use to open the spaces within our field of religious studies in themselves colonizing or liberating? Where, when and how do we create the space for these voices?
2013: Religion in Public Life
For a report on the theme, visit http://nsrn.net/religion-and-public-life/.
For this year’s conference theme we take a cue from the 2008 AAR publication, “The Religion Major and Liberal Education.” That white paper tied its vision of a robust future for religious studies to the recognition on many fronts that religion is “an inescapable part” of public life around the globe. How do we in the discipline of religious studies represent that public dimension of religion?
The calls for papers from the 20+ units making up the western regional AAR take up this question in a variety of ways. Some focus on controversies related to religion and politics in the western United States (e.g. same sex marriage or immigration reform), others turn to other regions of the world (e.g. the “Arab Spring”) or to historical antecedents (e.g. the Jesuits’ entry into China). Topics raised are richly diverse, including ecology, pluralism, the current “Mormon moment,” terrorism, popular culture, among others.
The units are asking scholars and teachers of religion to reflect on how we frame questions and analyses about the ways religion plays out in various public settings. Do we, for instance, tend to privilege particular public expressions of religion as normative or paradigmatic, or even problematic? How is our work shaped by the institutions in which we teach and their calls to, for example, cultivate a critical tolerance of diverse religions or to help students form a religiously informed public voice? By what criteria do we select among traditions, texts, histories, institutions, events, and figures to develop analyses of religion’s intersection with politics? And perhaps location does matter; how do distinctive features of our region (California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii, and the Pacific Islands) inform how we approach this theme, and how should it be different from the approach developed by colleagues in other parts of this country and/or other regions in the world?
2012: Sacred Texts, Sacred Communities
We invite members to explore sacred texts, both oral and written, as repositories for the "voice" of the sacred in religious communities around the world. Particular attention should be given to how community institutions, in their many forms and roles, exercise authority over those texts, negotiate access to those texts, and ultimately shape the interpretation of oral or written sacred texts among adherents and outsiders alike.
In religious traditions and institutions, priest, imams, rabbis, monks, shamans, theologians and judges, among others, are all charged as interpreters of sacred texts, be they God's eternal Word, the oral wisdom of the ancestors, or the transcribed sermons of an enlightened Master. How such institutions and figures take shape and claim special authority, distinct from other members of their religious communities, is a source of ongoing tensions; especially in the age of the internet.
The growing availability of sacred texts, via the internet or affordable printing technologies in multiple translations, has also meant that communities must deal with the interpretations of outsiders, which may be hostile to the community's claims. How communities and their institutions maintain their authoritative positions in response to those challenges is an important area of study. In many cases, such interactions have proved to be catalysts for reform, sectarianism, or even violence.
2011: Current Religious Thinking
Previous annual meeting themes have taught us what happens when we see our field through spatial and geographic metaphors. This year we invite members to conceive of religion and its study as complex and ongoing flows. Our substantive areas are not cut-and-dried; look closely and they dissolve into each other. And our methodologies, likewise, are not merely contiguous, but constantly interfuse, blend, and add their own cross-currents to others without end. Like Heraclitus's ever-new river, religion is the living water of life.
This year we encourage proposals that celebrate and critique religion's myriad and ever-changing currents, that trace them to their sources, that plumb their mixed and maybe muddied depths. We hope to receive proposals that address questions like How do religions flow from region to region?, or How have theology or ritual deepened when new tributaries flow into traditions?, or that dive into the waves caused when scholarly disciplines clash and trouble the waters of academe.
Similarly, we hope this call opens you to new confluences in your own work. We encourage the outflowing of new studies, where your disciplinary thought streams into new channels or where you invite new disciplinary streams into your ancient streambeds.
And, simultaneously, we encourage the inflowing of collaboration, where two or more scholarly streams combine—in panels, book celebrations, symposia, etc.—to nourish the same ground in concourse.
2010: La Frontera
This year’s theme, La Frontera, calls for analyses of the various borders that exist in our world and in our lives: geographical, chronological, theological, and transformational. While La Frontera can be translated as border or boundary, it can also indicate a frontier, and in that sense the conference theme invites participants to pursue undeveloped fields of study and other topics needing research and investigation. The borderlands — social, cultural, spiritual, as well as geographical — that exist between multiple social identities can be examined. Stepping across theoretical and disciplinary boundaries is encouraged. Identifying limits and limitations, transgressing boundaries of all kinds, and exploring new frontiers — that is, what La Frontera is intended to evoke and provoke.