List compiled by Alicia Blum-Ross, “Ethnographic approaches to understanding Trump/Brexit/new rise of conservatism”
List compiled by Alicia Blum-Ross, “Ethnographic approaches to understanding Trump/Brexit/new rise of conservatism”
This is long overdue, but I’d like to highlight the achievement of Daniel Santiago Saenz, a graduate of the Department of Religion at Concordia University, and 2016 Valedictorian. I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing Daniel’s exceptional performance throughout his Bachelor degree. We share a supervisor, and his insights and critique have always impressed and elucidated. There’s enough cut-throat competition in academia to keep us all on our toes, but let’s not forget to celebrate the successes of one of our own! I look forward to his future career in academia.
Here is his speech from the graduation ceremony held in June of this year.
Dr. Robert Orsi will be lecturing at Ottawa University at the end of the month, and it is a bizarre misfortune that I have been out of town for every single one of his lectures within the past decade, and, again, will not be here for this upcoming event. Oh well, the gods, demons, and saints simply don’t want us to meet.
But you should all go. I’ve referenced his work on this blog several times.
|Speaker | conférencier: Robert Orsi (Northwestern University)|
|Location and time | lieu et heure: University of Ottawa, Simard Hall, room 125, 5-6:30pm|
|Lecture title | titre de la conférence: What is Catholic About the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis?|
From the Religion and Diversity Project website:
Abstract | Résumé
In this lecture, Robert Orsi looks at how the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by priests was specifically Catholic in its origins and dynamics, not the product solely of individual psychopathology. Orsi argues that the clergy sex abuse crisis has to do with Catholic understandings of the nature of the priesthood, Catholic attitudes towards children, the web of relationships that make up Catholic parishes, and the tension between Catholicism and the modern world, among other things. Catholicism was never the sole cause of the abuse, but the abuse was always Catholic. Understanding this also allows us to see that the consequences of the abuse for many (not all) survivors was not only social and psychological, but religious as well.
Robert Orsi examinera, dans le cadre de cette conférence, comment la violence sexuelle auprès des enfants et des adolescents commise par des prêtres est enracinée dans le Catholicisme, et n’est donc pas le fruit d’une psychopathologie individuelle. Orsi argumente que la crise de la maltraitance sexuelle par le clergé, est intrinsèquement liée à l’acceptation sociale du rôle traditionnel des prêtres au sein de la sphère catholique, les attitudes des Catholiques envers les enfants, la complexité des relations que forment les paroissiens catholiques, ainsi que les tensions entre le Catholicisme et le monde moderne. Le Catholicisme ne fut jamais le seul facteur contribuant aux actes d’agressions sexuelles, or ces actes furent toujours Catholiques. Saisir cette réalité nous permet de mieux comprendre que les séquelles engendrées par la violence sexuelle chez plusieurs survivants (pas tous) ne sont pas uniquement sociales et psychologiques, mais qu’elles ont également une dimension religieuse.
Via Open Culture:
“His work, writes Williams College professor Mark C. Taylor, can ‘seem hopelessly obscure… to people addicted to sound bites and overnight polls.'”
The following is a guest post by Josie Gallows, a Church of Satan Witch. It is an excerpt from her forthcoming book on transexuality from a Satanic perspective. Gallows dissects the notions of gender and womanhood in terms of her transition and experience. Her essay mirrors the official stance of the Church of Satan on transgenderism (it has, from its inception, considered it as but one of many forms of natural expression of identity) and is a prime example of the distinctive nature of the body of the Church of Satan. Check out her art and writings at josiegallows.com.
The consideration of womanhood, of what makes a woman, goes deeper than a vagina.
This is, of course, why there are universities with well-funded departments devoted to the study of women in particular and gender as a whole. Womanhood, while no more compelling and nuanced than manhood, has the misfortune of being a taboo subject – even today, in the midst of the most powerful iteration of feminism yet. Womanhood is not only misunderstood, it’s purposely obscured by political and religious intervention on behalf of sacred lies and fragile egos.
We can mock those academic pursuits by saying they’re useless degree paths or biased feminist indoctrination seminars. But what we can’t do, if we’re going to be honest at all, is ignore that womanhood is far deeper than a vagina. It demands study to be understood. There are factors that reach beneath the surface of blouses. In real life, womanhood encompasses a vast array of biological, psychological, and sociological characteristics that coalesce into a diverse category of people we call “women.” It’s far from radical to say womanhood is not only deeper than a vagina it can exist independently of one. Understanding this requires more than a gut-truth sort of feeling about what makes a man and what makes a woman. It requires an honest appraisal of the topics ranging from the conventional to the exceedingly controversial.
That appraisal is either unattempted or unavailable to those who simplify the feminine into either/or, black/white, and male/female.
In truth, reducing womanhood to a reproductive system and chromosomes is one of the least favorable things a would-be social critic could do to the subject of women. It’s not only a disservice to transsexual and transgender people but to women as a whole.
Not that the guilty parties will ever feel this is foul play, but in the case of women like myself the disservice looks like this:
“Women don’t have penises. There’s no such thing as chicks with dicks, only men with breasts.”
“You’re not a woman if you don’t have XX chromosomes.”
“Don’t you know basic biology?”
“There’s no such thing as a sex change, just a mutilated penis.” And what they mean is, “I once saw a South Park episode about this and that’s where I get my argumentation on challenging subjects.”
“Transgender people are mentally ill. If I identify as a helicopter does that make me a helicopter?”
“God doesn’t make mistakes.” Inversely, “evolution doesn’t make mistakes.”
“He/she/it isn’t a woman but we should be polite I guess.”
The goal of these statements are obvious: instigate an argument based on false dichotomies. If it weren’t a social cancer it might be amusing, even cute, watching philistines become hot headed defenders of what they call science. Like some sort of parallel universe where a queer-hating Richard Dawkins has an IQ of 87. But it’s not cute. It shackles minds to rudimentary concepts of what it means to be human. It influences anger and merciless torment of outsiders who, if given the chance, could provide valuable insights into pertinent questions like, “What’s it like being a woman, or a man, and what do these things mean?”
They know little to nothing of science, or biology, and if they know much at all their education ended with some intro to biology course. But bring up transsexuals and suddenly they’re arguing for the sake of science itself, battling the pseudo-science of the queer agenda.
They know little to nothing of science, or biology, and if they know much at all their education ended with some intro to biology course. But bring up transsexuals and suddenly they’re arguing for the sake of science itself, battling the pseudo-science of the queer agenda. They’re not positive what exactly chromosomes do but, sure enough, they know which ones make you a man or a woman; ignorant, no doubt, to the reality that more than XX and XY pairings of chromosomes exist in nature and such pairings don’t always result in deformity or disability.
They know what a pussy or a cock looks like when they see one but they know nothing of brain-body relationships. The self-evident diversity of sexual dimorphism (the physical differences between men and women) and gender presentation and gender performance evades them.
It sounds harsh, maybe even shrill, like I’m another angry campus feminist with an entire garage of axes to grind. But the animus is deserved.
Few of the men in these conversations know much about female anatomy and its ongoings. They’d probably be grossed out by a menstrual cycle and their conception of gendered experiences are basic at best. The women, they usually know less than their male gynecologists and endocrinologists about what the female body is and does. They themselves are mired in patriarchal evaluations of womanhood, oftentimes translated and repurposed by other women. Despite their inherent femininity the entire basis of their lived experience is a mystery explained only by myth. But hey, they’re experts at making specious arguments from “science” – and more often, reckless arguments based on God’s Will or “The Natural Order,” whatever that means. Same as it ever was. The veil of secrecy shrouded over gender and sexuality is one of willful ignorance, created through shame and concocted by demagogues. If someone or something doesn’t fit within a Black & White duality then the ensuing confusion and frustration must imply that a Satanic deformity, an infernal lie, must be to blame.
Common people’s common bullshit that they encapsulate as “common sense.”
Rarely if ever do actual experts in the matters of human complexity reduce sex and sexuality to penises and vaginas. Nor do qualified scientists argue that an animal’s condition at birth is fixed and immutable. Though the debate of transgender authenticity rages along, fighting along that particular line of battle.
So, I’ve made it simple:
I’m not a woman like your mom is a woman.
This is the nail in their coffin, not mine. Common sense objections to transsexual authenticity are the insistence that surely a transwoman is not a cisgender woman. In other words, not like someone’s birth mother. They’re right, of course. But the case for transsexual authenticity, much less transgender authenticity, has never hinged upon trans* people being carbon copies of their cis-gender counterparts. Nor could we ever be carbon copies. The case for transsexual authenticity is that transwomen are a kind of woman. There’s no delusion or mental evasion involved.
But the case for transsexual authenticity, much less transgender authenticity, has never hinged upon trans* people being carbon copies of their cis-gender counterparts. Nor could we ever be carbon copies. The case for transsexual authenticity is that transwomen are a kind of woman. There’s no delusion or mental evasion involved.
The differences are obvious.
For the time being medical science doesn’t allow for carrying a fetus in my non-existent womb, though I have no desire for either a fetus or a womb to house it. Though being barren has never stopped any other woman from getting “Female” on her driver’s license or receiving the courtesy of being called Miss instead of “Hey, you, in the women’s clothing.” What’s more, to the horror of social conservatives I can adopt a child, as I have, and I can help raise her with my wife, which I do. My womanhood is missing out on very little in the child rearing department.
I don’t have eggs, or ovum, and because I have no ovum I don’t menstruate. I can’t complain. Extended bleeding from my orifices means a trip to the emergency room, not the drug store. It’s also true I was born with a penis and testicles, as well-endowed as the average member of the male sex, and in lieu of karyotyping (testing for chromosomes) I can assume – correctly or not – that I’m “genetically male.” Though it is quite likely I’m genetically transsexual, which renders the whole phrase “genetic male” inaccurate and inadequate.
These are facts.
The seams of my pelvis fused in my early twenties so no amount of estrogen will give me those gorgeous birthing hips. Were a nuclear blast to rip the flesh from my skeleton a future archaeologist would say “and this here is a male skeleton, approximately in his thirties.” Though that archaeologist would note comprehensive cosmetic surgery on my skull to remove secondary sex characteristics, features as meaningful to biological sex as genitalia. Regardless, my adolescent body stewed in a flood of testosterone. Instead of birthing hips I’m left with what most runway models have – 6’ in height with broader shoulders and narrow hips. You lose some, you win some. And speaking of runway model glamor, tall women with sinewy muscles and angular features some trans-exclusionary feminists argue that drag queens and transsexuals create further unobtainable standards of beauty for women. Why? Because what’s appealing to the masses, that body and face types the most beautiful of runway models and transsexuals tend to have, is actually more masculine than the standard norm. Most cisgender women can’t live up to it. And let me be clear, the norm doesn’t mean the standard. The norm being shorter women with ample fat in their hips and thighs, with squishy biceps and round cheeks. So we find women buying contouring makeup kits to create harder lines in the geometry of their faces, being that a round plain face is unflattering in our culture. It’s not uncommon for women to admit that transsexual women and drag queens often make more beautiful women, though they don’t usually specify why that is. Regardless, those trans-exclusionary feminists are welcome to their saltiness and I make no apologies.
Point being, the difference between transsexuals and cisgender people are viewed as disabilities, failings, shortcomings, and perhaps these are sometimes the case. Having wider shoulders than hips may not do much for the skirt but does wonders for the blouse. When we talk about the difference between the average woman and a transsexual woman it’d be wise to remember difference doesn’t imply defect.
There are other differences between my existence and that of the average woman. During my childhood I socialized based on my preference for female companions, and was sometimes mistaken for a tomboy and cisgender girl, but I was also considered a boy and instructed in the things boys should say, think, and feel; this education was all for naught, however. I internalized exactly none of it. Though I did learn it. As a girl I learned about being a woman by watching other women, listening to them, and internalizing their views and experiences. Being perceived as a boy but being effeminate I experienced how the feminine is devalued, trampled or infantilized in male society wherever it isn’t a sex object. Being perceived as a boy I learned about men and boys as though no women were in the room.
I’m different. I’m unlike the woman your mom probably is, unless you were adopted by a transsexual woman.
Unlike your mother I had to see a psychiatrist to confirm that yes, indeed, I’m a transsexual woman and no, I promise, I’m not about to kill myself if I receive surgeries and medication. Oddly enough, this fact of transsexual life is ignored by those who perceive those underneath the transgender umbrella as mentally and psychologically defective. More than once I’ve witnessed an exchange where a trans person is told “See a psychiatrist.” The truth, and the only proper retort, is “My psychiatrist told me I’m a woman,” or a man, or as whatever gender someone identifies.
Unlike dear old mom and her birthing hips, her stash of tampons, and her spermicidal lubricants, I’ve had surgeries in all sorts of places to bring my body in alignment with my brain. I’ve taken androgen blockers to eliminate testosterone from my system, something which I no longer do thanks to surgery. I also have bottles and bottles of estrogen pills.
And unlike mom, I had to petition the state to legalize my name and gender status. So I have court orders to the effect that I’m Josie Maxine Gallows and my sex is Female.
But the differences start to dwindle around this point. Things start to go deeper than the measure of a vagina. Deep enough you’ll need an MRI.
A 2013 study by doctors from the University of Madrid and University of Barcelona found persuasive evidence that transsexual people’s brains more closely resemble their own perceived gender rather than their sex at birth. This particular study found transsexual women possessed thinner cortical areas in the right hemisphere of their brains, consistent with typical female brains, and these neurological features become more pronounced – more stereotypically female – after hormone replacement therapy with androgen blockers and estrogen. Other studies ranging from psychiatric to neurological are available at the beck and call of a search engine, especially in academic repositories of professional journals, each of them with persuasive evidence of a neurological and chemical basis for transsexuality. The false claim that transsexual people are merely delusional about their perceived gender is just that, false. As awareness of transsexual and transgender issues continues to mount we’ll assuredly see more data in the near future.
Brain sex isn’t readily demonstrable as unzipping a fly or hiking up a skirt. Though I find this a more compelling argument for my womanhood than the origin story of my vagina, whether it’s surgical or natal. Or whether I have one at all: I’m not telling, it’s nobody’s business. The very center of my personhood, my brain, is itself likely female in structure. Like mom, like your mother in particular.
That the brain has a sex is more controversial a statement than it might seem on the surface. Some modern feminist discourse is insistent that gender is merely a social construct and has no basis in biology. This is one root cause of the transgender community being perceived as delusional, as it’s self-evident that gender and biology commingle. But there’s a grain of truth here.
That the brain has a sex is more controversial a statement than it might seem on the surface. Some modern feminist discourse is insistent that gender is merely a social construct and has no basis in biology. This is one root cause of the transgender community being perceived as delusional, as it’s self-evident that gender and biology commingle. But there’s a grain of truth here. The tribe of women is constructed of psychological and social elements as much as biology, informed by nurture perhaps as much as nature. Women are taught many things that don’t stem directly from instinct. Though claiming gender is a mere construct or, worse, that “gender is over (if you want it)” is misleading and damaging to the cause of gender studies as a whole, and to transsexuals in particular. When gender is “over” so are women. When “gender is over” the transsexual person no longer exists and their dysphoria is inexplicably retroconned. Transsexual people tend to know from a young age there is a powerful disconnect between their personhood and their body’s development, with the frustration we call “gender dysphoria” skyrocketing during adolescence and turning into clinical depression, even suicidal ideation, during those would-be golden years of someone’s twenties. I know this all too well. I know it because of the controversial fact that gender is real, not make-believe. To what extent is another argument.
These ideas and findings do beg certain questions. Are transsexual people neurologically deformed? Should we be aiming to fix the brains and not the bodies of transsexual people? I would say no to both, I would say invasive brain surgery and psychiatric medication isn’t somehow preferable to gender diversity, and I’d say that’s for the patient to decide. As with all women, “her body is her body so hands off.” It certainly isn’t the purview of moral crusaders who’ve got so much advice for transsexuals. Moral crusaders who usually have a ton of invasive and unsolicited advice for what every woman should do with her body. Whatever, it would be a missed opportunity for everyone involved were gender variance deleted rather than explored. I forgot where I read it, and I’m paraphrasing, but a doctor and scientist in the field of transgender health said “To study transgender people is to study gender itself.” Those words ring true. There is occult knowledge that only transsexual people possess. Actual occult knowledge. The transsexual person is acutely aware of what life is like for both ends of the gender spectrum. Though this is an unnecessary argument here. The simplest approach is to not treat biological diversity like impurity. Totalitarianism is bad policy and it behooves us to consider what neurologically deviant people can contribute to our overall understanding of the human condition. But beyond that, if they are happy and productive who is anyone to interfere? Such arguments are now being made in the case of autistic spectrum people, since cognitively nonconforming people are overrepresented as professionals in fields of research science. Mind you, no transsexual would take kindly to comparing their gender to autism for the obvious reason that gender, in its vast diversity, never manifests as a cognitive disability that impedes overall performance.
Though I’m not and never will be a cisgender woman I’m a kind of woman. Like most women I have estrogen in my body, the fact of how I get it there is irrelevant. My ovaries are plastic medicine bottles and I’m unashamed. Like millions of women I get my estrogen from a pharmacist, for one reason or another. Like numerous women, especially the menopausal, I lack the means necessary to produce significant estrogen on my own. In a way I’m grateful for this. I’ve learned secrets. I’ve gone from a body and mind saturated in testosterone to a body and mind saturated in estrogen and, occasionally, progesterone.
Like the typical woman, maybe even the stereotypical woman, my behavioral responses and attitudes have been shaped by estrogen. Molded towards a more feminine outcome, as varied as that may be. There’s much talk about how estrogen affects the transsexual body. There’s the tanner stages of breast development and timelines for fat redistribution. Oil secretions, texture of the dermis, hair consistency, muscle mass, and bone development are readily affected by hormonal changes to one degree or another, usually depending on age. All but bone development are true in my case, although like other women I’m at greater risk for osteoporosis. What’s less frequent are serious discussions on how hormones affect the mind and what we can learn from this.
I’ve become more cooperative and diplomatic, despite being prone to cattiness in my private moments. In general, I’m more calm and nurturing than prior to transition. I’m far more sensitive to emotional stimulation than ever. I cry but I also cry tears of joy. I recoil at unproductive competition. My sexuality is more tender and psychological rather than visual and like many women and girls I prefer emotionally engaging erotic literature to hardcore pornography, though I still watch porn. Dyke porn, because soft-butch women do it for me. And on the subject of sexuality, orgasms are longer, come in multiple waves, and are a full body experience. Some might call this misogyny to qualify exactly what the emotional, physical, and sexual feminine experience entails but this is my own subjective experience as a woman. There exists common threads of femininity that may defy explanation but most certainly defy erasure from the female norm.
There’s good reason for the emphasis on physical rather than psychological changes brought on by transition. It’s hard to be objective and it’s even more difficult to measure with scientific accuracy. Above all else it’s controversial – to suggest there are notable cognitive or emotional differences in women and men runs the risk of reinforcing stale tropes of female inferiority. Though I believe it’s a relevant discussion because prior to transition I was far from having internalized male socialization. I was a sensitive artist, obviously expressive and emotionally available. So a greater comfort with myself or breaking free of male conditioning are not the default causes of my psychological and emotional changes throughout transition. I don’t, however, reject these as potential causes.
The common threads of femininity may be controversial but if we’re forced to articulate, “What makes a woman?” and we’re forced to say “A woman is deeper than her vagina,” then we have to discuss those common threads. Those threads begin with birth, in features of the brain-body relationship. They begin in a wash of maternal chemicals and hormonal receptors. They also begin after birth, in yet another wash of chemicals, and in the conscious and unconscious lessons of socialization.
In my own socialization I’ve always preferred the company of other girls. Their speed was my speed. I was always one of the girls, it didn’t need to be said. It just was. Dolls, tea parties, and having detailed conversations about life were always preferable to rolling in the dirt with boys. And it’s not that women naturally gravitate towards dolls and tea parties themselves but the type of play and character building involved in those sorts of games are, in many ways, decidedly feminine. Pink and frilly things are simply a conduit for feminine manners. This is something ideologically purist feminism tends to reject without much thought. Though I myself know exactly how pronounced the differences are between estrogen and testosterone as behavioral catalysts, because I’ve directly experienced copious amounts of both. I am my own gender laboratory and a first hand witness of my experiment.
Only until it became “inappropriate” to have slumber parties with my Gal-Pal Best Friends Forever did I give a real shot at meaningful friendships with boys. Those were disastrous times. My best friends were stripped out of my life on the suspicion that sexy times might happen.
Forced integration into the tribe of men was completely toxic despite my best efforts. Fitting in meant getting beat half to death until my heart and body became hard as stone. Sports were attempted. I reacted to organized sports like an alien visitation. All of these matching boys, all of them with this thick cloud of “Fucking destroy! My father is reliving his youth through me.” The idea of “let’s play with a ball and have fun” was never on the menu.
I expect no pity for my trials. I experienced maleness as a shape-shifting fraud and in the process I learned a great deal. Obviously, I didn’t have the expected tools for positive relationships with men and boys despite having highly masculine role models at the ready; carpenters and outlaws, real manly men. Where I didn’t have tools I made my own. It took real effort but eventually I managed to run with the juvenile delinquents, taking pages from the film adaptation of Fight Club – which had just come out and teenage boys were taking it all too serious. Bare knuckle boxing was a thing, so was throwing friends down flights of stairs, getting heads bounced off concrete, and biting until the other kid tapped out. I differ from most women in my experience of that.
Meanwhile, my evenings meant typing up the phone line with hours long conversations with my female confidants. We had those heartfelt conversations boys often fail to have until they’re older, so goes the perception that girls mature faster. And it remains the case that I prefer female socialization and environments, though I cherish my male friends. I’m comfortable in identifying as a lesbian woman and being in a relationship with a gay woman who exudes queer, not heterosexual, standards of beauty. Romantic relationships with heterosexual women were always strained by the reality that I wasn’t as advertised. Prior to transition the healthiest and most respectful romantic relationships of my lifetime had been with women whose gaydar clocked me as an anomaly. Post-transition has been no different, except that my self-actualization makes longterm lesbian relationships possible.
All of this drives home an overarching point: none of this is decidedly male. This is not the male experience, neither physically nor psychologically nor socially. The accusation that a transsexual woman is actually “male” requires ignorance and denial, and even delusion. Only a delusional person could account for all of these factors and still see MALE, written as a profane four letter word, scrawled across another’s personhood with the sole purpose of erasure.
The confluence of my life, my biology, and my medical interventions can only read transsexual female.
It never reads just “woman,” but that’s not the point is it? Besides, what is the harm when transsexual women don’t constantly place a prefix before their gender? I’ve yet to hear an argument that didn’t resort to claims of moral degeneracy or, worse, the notion that transsexual women are rapists who seek to invade and colonize female spaces for psychosexual thrills.
Add in penchant for dresses, makeup, long hair, girly tattoos, leggings, perfume, and the situation is all the more damnable. I’m a chick, whether I like it or not.
But aside from the annoyance of living a bewildered, oftentimes hostile, sometimes murderous society and being held to toxic standards, I’m happy with it.
But aside from the annoyance of living a bewildered, oftentimes hostile, sometimes murderous society and being held to toxic standards, I’m happy with it.
A recent mathematical study reported at the American Physical Society, and covered by BBC news, claims the provocative title, “Religion may become extinct in nine nations.” Those nations are mostly in modern western secular societies.
The scholars of religion, however, have seen these claims before: not a one has ever held up to scrutiny or time. Early twentieth-century sociologists also predicted the decline and inevitable extinction of religion, and well, look around you.
But the question is far more than simply “Is religion going extinct?” but actually a more nuanced discussion on religion itself. How are they defining religion? The study examines censuses from different nations, which usually asks about religious affiliation, i.e. are you part of an officially recognized, institutionalized religion, which is, without question, on the decline. But census questionnaires do not ask deeper questions. When most people check the “non-religious” box they are usually rejecting the concept of a dogmatic religion, which modern popular sentiment views as violent, divisive, and even silly. But these questionnaires do not account for the multitude of ways people then reinterpret their religiosity: atheistic religions, magical religions, UFO religions, satirical religion, or even vague notions of “spiritual” religions that can incorporate everything from astrology to yoga to homeopathy to psychology, etc.
I posit that when people check the non-religious box they are, in fact, objecting to the word “religion” itself, and its popular negative conceptual implications. It is a political statement. A statement that conveys a critique of perceived imposed religion. In modern western secular societies, this narrow view of religion is what is on the decline, but not religiosity itself.
(Better) Scholars of religion refrain from advancing a particular definition of religion, because when they try, they usually end up with a religion that looks akin to an Abrahamic, monotheistic tradition (i.e. a god or gods, a prime text, ritual, community, etc.). They are cherry-picking familiar traits from non-Abrahamic traditions in order to ease categorization (See Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth). This has a consequence of explicitly or implicitly legitimizing religions that resemble the western conceptual framework, which also, intentionally or not, has political and legal ramifications. If your religion falls outside of the rigid concept, then you (as an individual or as a group) face particular challenges. If your religion deliberately rejects the rigid concept of religion (ex.: Neo-Pagans/Wiccans have no prime text or center of authority precisely because they view these things as rigid and unadaptive*; Satanists have no concept of the divine, no main building or communal rituals, yet fully adopt the term “religion;” Raeliens self-identify as atheistic, yet ascribe to the notion of aliens as the creators of human life via cloning) then courts have difficulty making judgements on what protections you are afforded, because they first have to define religion in order to protect it, which becomes an issue if your religion is “atypical” (suggesting there are “normal” and “abnormal” religions).
So when we, the scholars of religion, read yet another study from scientists about how religion is on the decline, a psychological delusion, or has a “god” gene we react with a collective eyeroll. Studies like these assume particular premises of religion that scholars of religion not only reject, but deliberately avoid, because they are all predicated on stiff definitions of religion, instead of on the far more useful (so far) approach to defining religion based on an ever-shifting (yet admittedly more complicated) notion of political, social, religious, and even economic tensions and negotiations.
The scientific studies themselves are political statements: it denotes that scientists, funding agencies, and institutions are invested in disavowing religion, likely because religion is viewed as an impediment to scientific advancements. And religions absolutely have been, at certain times, in some places (they have also been patrons of science). The current climate in western nations is reflective of a decrease in institutionalized religion, and the reaction to this is for “fundamentalism” to embed more deeply, and vehemently reject science (such as the creationist worldview). Communities under duress amplify their confrontational and schismatic rhetoric. The scientific studies, then, are responding to this rhetoric. There is no apolitical religion or science.
* Scholars of texts argue that “scripture” has always been reinterpreted and adapted to negotiate changing societies. I agree with this view, but here I am addressing the perceived notion of text being inflexible.
This is a long-overdue response to John L. Crow’s post about Satanism and scholars of religion. And by overdue I mean by almost two years. John L. Crow (whom I met briefly at the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Conference in Atlanta last November) had written asking for my thoughts way back in December 2014. At the time I was preparing for my research trip in Norway, and then life and work got in the way, and this year I’ve been ill, and well, academics have no good excuses for these kinds things, but here we are, and I can haz ideas.
So, with apologies to John for the delay, here are my thoughts on the experience as a scholar of religion actively focusing on religious Satanism in relation to the broader context in which Satanism is discussed in popular, religious, and academic forums alike.
Allow me to begin with a relevant passage from John’s post. He writes:
Satanism is treated differently by both academics and the public at large. This point was made apparent to me a few semesters ago when a couple of my colleagues asked me to give a one day lesson on religious Satanism as part of their world religions courses. I kept the history brief, focusing mostly on institutional Satanism, looking at the atheistic Church of Satan and the theistic Temple of Set. At the end, I also talked about the ways Satanism is constructed by Christian churches and the way this construction is projected upon Satanists. To illustrate the point, I showed a portion of an interview between Bob Larson, Zeena Schreck, daughter of the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, and her husband, Nicholas Schreck, founder of a satanic school of magic called The Werewolf Order. The interview can be seen here on YouTube. What becomes apparent in the interview is that Larson’s conception of Satanism is quite divergent from the kind of Satanism that the Schrecks articulate. Numerous times Larson says what Satanists can and cannot do based on what he imagines are the rules by which Satanists live and practice. He says in satanic weddings, brides cannot wear white to which the Schrecks reply, why not? Larson claims that all Satanist believe something because it is in The Satanic Bible to which the Schrecks reply, it does not matter what it says in the book, and Satanists can do and believe what they want. Larson uses his understanding of Christianity as the basis of his approach to Satanism and he is repeatedly shown to be in error. Larson is not unlike many who approach Satanism, whether they are in the media, law enforcement, or scholars of religion. The way Satanism has been portrayed by Christianity colors the narrative, regardless of what the facts demonstrate. There are significant differences between the various kinds of Satanism but there is a scarcity of American religious studies scholars who can or will engage in any public discussion about these differences, a task that they frequently perform for other religions.
To answer this query about reception to Satanism studies in academia (specifically religious studies), allow me to begin with anecdotes.
In my department, I have received strong support from the faculty at large, the chairs, my doctoral committee and supervisor. From the early stages, way back in my undergraduate degree, I wrote an honours thesis on Church of Satan rituals. It was well-received, and I was encouraged by my supervisor, Dr. Donald L. Boisvert, to pursue the topic in graduate school. For financial and personal reasons, I stayed at the same university for all my academic degrees [barring a semester abroad at NTNU in Norway, to work with Dr. Jesper Aagaard Petersen].
As such, I can state that Concordia University has never even hinted at having an issue with my topic. The department of religion demonstrates their support by suggesting me for scholarships, writing letters of recommendations, offering teaching gigs, expressing a genuine interest in my atypical research, and a regard for my personal well-being (an undervalued asset to doctoral success). I am the recipient of three major awards: the departmental graduate fellowship, the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture (FRQSC) [in name only], and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The Concordia news department wrote a piece on my first academic publication in 2010 (Death and Dying the Satanic Worldview), which was picked up internationally. I have been a media contact for various stories on Satanism and Witchcraft, and even received a letter of commendation from the President and Vice-Chancellor, Alan Shepard [it’s framed and hanging in my office, because in moments of frustration and fatigue, it makes me feel like I’m PhDing LIKE A BOSS].
I have been fortunate. But in all of the above, the support I received was from people who know and interact with me personally—they have witnessed my work ethic, delight in teaching and helping students, involvement with graduate committees and events, and genuine intellectual curiosity. My point is that it’s not accidental support. There was already a certain amount of trust established between me and my department before I entered the PhD programme. This relationship is not circumstantial, but pivotal. It allows me to work independently (with the welcome kicks-in-the-ass) en tandem with the rigorous standards of departmental doctoral research. To be clear, my supervisor has challenged theory and methods, impressed the need to substantiate claims, and demonstrated a tough but fair approach as I proceed towards completion. But there has never been a voiced concern for the topic. If there have been objections or reservations to my research among faculty, they were not explicitly or subtly expressed to me personally.
In this sea of love, however, there have been a view sore spots.
At the dozen-or-so conferences at which I have presented a paper on Satanism, wherein I am a stranger to most, I’ve had the odd scholar behave in a combative and hostile manner during the question period, aggressively challenging me because how I describe Satanism directly contradicts their (mis)understanding. In the post-panel conversations, the objections are some version of these three things: LaVey really did believe in the devil; even if he didn’t, Satanism is by default evil and cannot be redefined; or my personal favourite, Satanism is an offensive religion and shouldn’t be studied. This type of scholar appears so repulsed by my topic, they cease all conversation. And once, even, someone refused to sit at the same breakfast table as me, declaring that Satanism was the “enemy of the church” and exposed the cross around their neck as a measure of what I can only assume was protection (against what is unclear, as Satanism does not view other religions as enemies, and instead views them as largely irrelevant—which is, perhaps, the more offensive claim).
My reaction to most of these incidents are a patient, bemused eye-roll. The rare scholar simply does not want to be convinced. The irony is, there is plenty to be offended by within satanic thought (separation of church and state; critique of theistic dogma; social-Darwinist worldviews; liberal sexual attitudes; no mandate for charity or good will towards fellow humans; libertarian(ish) political leanings; rejection of the idea of a “basic goodness” of humanity, instead viewing most humans as neutral reactionary fools, easily subject to mob mentality; etc.) if one bothered to understand it on its own terms. They object to Satanism for what it is not, instead of what it actually is. This is their failing. And more than a little lazy.
Now, lest my readers imagine that I am constantly confronted with rude academics, I must emphasize that these are small and occasional (if still consistent) occurrences, easily drowned out in the sea of overwhelmingly positive reactions to my research, wherein scholars are curious, delighted to learn something new, and be challenged on their assumptions. My personal anecdotal evidence suggests, then, that Satanism has a titillating draw, where scholars are largely supportive of the unconventional topic, taking an interest in a new avenue of intellectual pursuit, with only minor objections.
I was hesitant to even bring up these negative incidents publicly given that they are so trivial, but ultimately they are important, because they reflect the popular (which is heavily influenced by the theological) understanding of Satanism. If scholars, as John L. Crow suggests, simply make little effort to understand the nuances of popular, theological, and religious discourses on Satanism, the people that are ostensibly obligated by their very profession to be critical of assumptions and stereotypes, then perhaps is it out of an implied devaluation of Satanism as a legitimate topic of inquiry. Religious studies departments are woefully lacking in research on fringe and marginal groups and topics. One of the reasons for this is lack of support; ideally graduates interested in new religions seek out faculty that can supervise them, which drastically limits their options. When your topic is more mainstream (even if you’re doing new approaches such as feminist, queer, or race theory) you have more options. If departments of religion fail to encourage—by funding and otherwise—topics that fall outside of more standard areas of research, then it becomes a paradox: are there lack of resources because there is no interest, or lack of interest because there are not enough resources? The answer is likely not an either/or, but instead a nuanced negotiation between multiple parties: university administrations (what they’re willing to fund), graduate caution (putting the “passion project” on the back burner until they receive their degree), faculty expertise (rejecting students if they cannot offer full support, even if they have no objection to an unconventional research area), and job prospects (I often ask myself how to market my transferrable skills to other areas, as being a “Satanism Scholar” does little besides get me curious glances).
Finally, and specifically as it relates to me, let’s be honest about one thing: Satanism is weird (said with the utmost affection for weirdos of all kinds). But it’s weird deliberately. Religious Satanism is constantly negotiating tensions with its popular reputation, law enforcement, media representations, and academia. One of the manifestations of this weirdness, then, is its reception in the academy to scholars who study it.
To be clear: this is not a lament. My fantasy business card proudly reads, “Scholar of Religion—Fringe Division.” Examining such an unusual topic and its reception is a study in and of itself, and I wouldn’t change it, as being in this ambiguous space of researching a topic that makes people uneasy from inside the reputable institution of academia has offered unique insights into my meta-specialty of Things That Make Us Uncomfortable.
So if you’re considering a strange topic, I say go for it, just recognize beforehand that you will have to do some careful convincing. But it’s worth it to be among the freaks. You won’t regret it.