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The Power of Perspective at the Fringe of “Religion”

Panel Chair: Nathan Fredrickson | Tuesday, August 25, 1:30-3 p.m. | Venue

This panel consists of three papers from PhD students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the first elaborating on J.Z. Smith’s familiar claim that “there is no data for religion” to argue that being anti-paradigmatic invites an endless plurality of perspective-based productions of knowledge. The second and third papers demonstrate how specific perspectives shape the study of religion as well as religious phenomena themselves, the second using Sperber’s epidemiological understanding of cultural transmission to help account for the propagation of countercultural representations within what Colin Campbell terms the “cultic milieu,” and the third responding in the affirmative to the question, “Are All Religious Traditions Invented?” particularly through an engagement with Markus Davidsen’s recent interpretation of the “fiction-based” Tolkien religion as having arisen from the religious or spiritual milieu Tolkien created.

Jed Forman

No Data for Religion? The Interdependence of Method and Object and the Possibility of Multi-Paradigmatic Approaches

Some take Jonathan Z. Smith's claim that “there is no data for religion” as disparaging the field of religious studies, that without a data set that is naturally religious, religious phenomenon will be explained away by other disciplines. This paper argues that this reading misunderstands Smith's imperative. No discipline, from physics to religious studies, has a “datum of intrinsic interest,” for only in reference to methodology does data become pertinent. Smith does not implicate religious studies alone: legitimizing any field based on the existence of phenomena that are particular and unique to its domain is not only unnecessary, but problematic. Rather, the phenomena are created in the act of investigation. This anti-ontology creates incredible power: no singular paradigm is ultimately privileged over any other, nor will any finite set of paradigms be exhaustive. Within and across disciplines, knowledge becomes cumulative instead of contradictory, and Truth gives way to truths.

Kevin Whitesides

An Epidemiological Approach to the Cultic Milieu: Representational Clusters and Transformative Hermeneutics in Countercultural Networks

This paper attempts to reconsider and, to some extent, revivify analytical interest in Colin Campbell's (1972) notion of the 'cultic milieu' by reframing its conceptualization in terms of Dan Sperber's 'epidemiology of representations' model of cultural transmission. Where Campbell's rather descriptive conceptualization sees the cultic milieu as comprising the cultural underground of a society - the sum of its 'deviant' beliefs and practices, inclusive of its avenues of transmission - Sperber's cognitive/naturalistic model of how cultural representations propagate and transform through chains of public and mental representations provides a fruitful explanatory framework through which the improvisational combinatory acts of counterculturalists can be modeled and analyzed. Specifically, Sperber's model of cultural attractors (which contrasts the more well-known meme-theory) allows us to consider the ways in which information deemed countercultural (or heterogeneous to some perceived hegemonic authority structure) tends to cluster in some ways among some groups of individuals and not in others.

Nathan Fredrickson

When Scholars Christen New Religions

Are religions invented? This paper argues yes, that religious studies scholars are often actively involved in inventing religions and that Markus Davidsen’s recent dissertation on the fiction-based, Tolkien religion participates in a consistent tendency, perhaps inaugurated by J.Z. Smith’s designation of “religion” as a scholar’s category, to defend the religious character of New Religious Movements, especially those based on fictional works. This tendency, present also in Cusack’s treatment of “invented religions” and Possamai’s “hyper-real religions” may be traced not only to Smith but also to a liberal move to counteract the excesses of the counter- and anti-cult movements. It responds to this apologetic tendency by invoking Ann Taves’s call for scholars of religion to stop attempting to intervene in first-order, on-the-ground debates about and attributions of what counts as true “religion” and instead to adopt a more general, second-order perspective where one attends to cultural “building blocks.”


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