Challenging a Disciplined Norm: A Longform Piece

As an undergraduate student at the University of Vermont (UVM) my academic career has taken quite a few turns, to say the least. I came into the University as a Political Science student, who aced her AP Government and Politics Exam in high school, and who totally “felt the Bern.” Looking back on what I wanted, I thought that I would now have two political internships and months of campaign work under my belt, ready to be a staffer for some big, up-and-coming name in American Politics. Who knew that a class called “What is the Bible?” (of all things) with Professor Anne Clark would change this.

What I aim to discuss in this context is how the Liberal Arts “saved me,” or—to make it less dramatic—challenged me to learn differently. What I mean by this, is that taking this singular class that discusses arguably the most popular book in the world’s history opened my eyes to a new way of learning that I never found in my Political Science courses. I am not saying that one field is better than the other, but actually that they bolster one another to give me rich, foundational, and holistic knowledge on issues I deem important.

As I have advanced in my academic career at UVM I have taken a wide range of courses, which include international relations, political ideology, Islam’s place in modernity, as well as the nexus of religion, the nation, and the state. The topics I just listed have been taught in both of the departments I am currently in: Religion and Political Science. However, the messages and methods to go about learning these topics was dependent upon whether or not it was a Political Science or Religion class. I did not realize this until I reached higher-level courses, which allowed me to better challenge the knowledge thrown at me rather than simply absorb it. During one of our classes in “Religion, Nation & State,” Professor Borchert said something that stuck with me: “our disciplines make us blind to certain things.”

Within the field of Political Science, I have become quite interested in the topic of international relations. In Religion, I have spent much of my time and energy on the study of Islam(s). Here, I aim to discuss these two topics and how they are constantly intertwined, as well as how they have been made to have this type of dichotomy with one another. If I only studied Political Science, I would have never come to terms with how Islam is consistently homogenized, racialized, and even seen as a “foreign policy concern,” which will be better understood once Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Cemil Aydin are brought into this discussion later on. If I only studied Religion, I would not have been able to put the pieces together to discern why U.S. Foreign Policy in particular has been failing when it pertains to topics involving Islam. This personal example of mine is exactly why interdisciplinary thinking is essential for tackling the world’s most complicated and multifaceted problems. Therefore, in the rest of this blog post, I aim to demonstrate how interdisciplinary thinking when used in international relations, specifically in relation to Islamic studies, has the potential to make a real-world impact that is positive and ever-lasting.

Critiquing the Norm

I remember the first time I was taught Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations?” piece in my Middle Eastern Studies class in high school. My teacher showed us the map that portrays Huntington’s thesis, which uses a ‘cultural’ approach to understanding the world’s divisions, and therefore carves up the world into a set of “civilizations.”[1]

mage result for clash of civilizations map

Source

When I got to college, this same map and thesis was explained in my Intro to International Relations class, to showcase what the state of our world was after the end of the Cold War. Then, I entered into my Introduction to Islam class, which did not focus on his thesis in a fundamental way at the beginning of the semester, like other courses. Rather, his argument was brought up later in the semester to further denounce the notion that Islam is a monolith civilization, among other critiques. Finally, in my Political Islam course, Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization’s?” was the first academic work listed in the syllabus.

What exactly am I trying to prove here? The consistent importance, precedent, and normalization of a scholarly work, which has been detrimental to the lives of people all over the world as a result of its rhetoric.

There is a plethora of academic works that denounce and thoroughly critique the thesis that arguably made Huntington the most prominent scholar in his field. To begin, Cemil Aydin, a historian, questioned in his book titled The Idea of the Muslim World, “Why has the idea of the Muslim world become so entrenched, despite the obvious naïveté of categorizing one and a half billion people, in all their diversity, as an imagined unity?”[2] The entire purpose of Aydin’s book is to debunk Islam as a monolith, and especially as a “civilization,” as Huntington puts it.[3] This homogenization of an entire religion leads to stereotyping, among other more detrimental consequences. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political scientist who studies religion, emphasizes in Beyond Religious Freedom that we need to “understand the world that is being created when the category of religion is privileged as a basis for developing foreign policy.”[4] This is another unfortunate outcome of the ways in which the power given to Huntington’s thesis has deeply impacted how we think of the global community and the factions within it. Having “Islam” and the “West” juxtaposed as civilizations that oppose one another encourages foreign policy to base its actions off of gross generalizations and assumptions. All in all, it’s quite obvious just from these two examples that the “Clash of Civilizations?” is problematic and unhelpful in fostering good policy and ideologies.

This poses my next question: why? Why did several of my classes cite Huntington in their syllabi, and spent time during lecture discussing his argument? This is not just a trend among UVM courses, but this is a nationwide, American expectation that Huntington be used in syllabi when Islam and politics are intertwined. Take for instance the American Political Science Association (APSA), which claims that it is the “leading professional organization for the study of political science.” The APSA recommends that whenever international security and terrorism are taught, that Huntington’s piece should be cited and used. This is dangerous, to be quite frank. It is not enough to cite Huntington, and spend an entire class period debating on whether or not he should be credited for his thesis. Including “The Clash of Civilizations?” as the first academic work on a syllabus gives it power, prominence, and makes it to be seen as fundamental to the course being taught. Students in such classes will continuously cite his work and will think that his name is worthy to remember.  This only reaffirms the several consequences as stated above.

A Well-Needed Reality Check

I would have never been able to come up with such conclusions if I had only stuck to Political Science courses. I would have never realized how fundamentally wrong Huntington is if I had just taken Religion courses. Hopefully it can be seen as to why I spent several hundred words denouncing “the Clash of Civilizations?”—to showcase what the Liberal Arts is capable of doing: provide interdisciplinary ways of thinking that challenge the norm. It’s because of this that I am better able to raise my hand in lecture and push back on what is being taught to me. It is because of this that I am able to look at syllabi in a critical manner. It’s because of this that I am a worthwhile candidate for the work force once I graduate—because I understand the value of a Liberal Arts education.

Let’s take this a bit further, and expand upon what should be fixed to recover from the mistakes that have been made in U.S. Foreign Policy. To go back to Hurd’s thesis in Beyond Religious Freedom, she cites that we must use “three heuristics” to go about how we discern religion in an international context. These are “expert religion, lived religion, and governed religion,” and each emphasizes “a different set of themes and topics that are important to the argument as a whole.”[5] In my opinion, most of what we discuss in international relations focusses on expert (religious leaders, academics, and other professionals speaking about religion) and governed (state officials, heads-of-state, and representatives) religion. Therefore, what gets missed is probably the most important viewpoint of all: the lived lives of everyday people. Lived religion is characterized as being “practiced by everyday individuals and groups… to navigate and make sense of their lives, connections with others, and place in the world.”[6] If I ever enter into a foreign policy career, my advocacy and attention will hold this concept to the highest standard. Decision-making at the highest level tends to focus less on the individual and more on the entirety of a nation-state. Proper training in the Liberal Arts can thus offer holistic approaches to how we should handle international dilemmas.

Do I have faith in the notion that most other 2020 college graduates will have the same realization about their education? Not quite. The Political Science Department is one of the biggest at UVM, while Religion is one of the smallest. Also, other Universities such as the University of Connecticut do not offer a Bachelor’s degree in Religion, which I easily could have gone to being a Connecticut resident. The access as well as the choices I have made throughout my college career have allowed me to advance my knowledge in this subject. I have no doubt in my mind that my path would have been immensely different if I had never become a Religion Major.

What is at stake here is plain and simple: the inability for those such as myself, who are wildly passionate about international policy and conflict, to comprehend what sources of knowledge are sustainably damaging. This is a cyclical issue that feeds into higher systems of power and influence, which have real-world consequences. Cohorts of undergraduates that get placed into work forces that directly work with relevant topics should understand what I am understanding. The means of critically assessing knowledge must be made more accessible, as well as digestible. Shorter books such as Hurd’s that are made purposely for experts in relevant fields, blog posts and other short mediums of knowledge production; can hopefully bring about more critical reasoning in the field of foreign policy, such as my own realization of Samuel Huntington.

To put the cherry on top of this discussion, I would like to thank the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Vermont for encouraging me to take that class about the Bible my very first semester at this institution. Three years later, and I can say that I actually learned something.


[1] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (1993), 23

[2] Cemil Aydin, The Idea of the Muslim World: a Global Intellectual History, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), 2.

[3]Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” 31.


[4] Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Beyond Religious Freedom: the New Global Politics of Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), xii.

[5] Hurd, Beyond Religious Freedom, 9.

[6] Hurd, Beyond Religious Freedom, 9.

Work Cited

Aydin, Cemil. The Idea of the Muslim World: a Global Intellectual History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Bucar, Elizabeth M. Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-77, edited by Colin Gordon. 

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (1993): 22–49.

Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman. Beyond Religious Freedom: the New Global Politics of Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Kurzman, Charles, and Carl W. Ersnt. “Islamic Studies in US Universities” in Middle East Studies for the New Millennium: Infrastructures of Knowledge. New York: New York University Press, 2016.

Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: the Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Morgenstein Fuerst, Ilyse R., and Zahra M. S. Ayubi, eds. The Muslim World; Special Issue: Shifting Boundaries. 4th ed. Vol. 106. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2016.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Religious Literacy Panel Reflection: The Last Religious Literacy Month Event!

On Monday, November 4th, the Religion Department held their final Religious Literacy Month event. The month was topped off with a great panel of faculty, answering questions ranging from religious literacy, to the age of Trump, and even job and internship opportunities for Religion majors at UVM.   

The event started off with the faculty introducing themselves and a broad statement on what religious literacy means to them. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst opened with literacy as a social justice movement. She discussed how there’s many forms of literacy, including pre-literacy. She then went on to state that training people about religion as always being in the room is extremely vital. Then, Anne Clark noted that we must study religious past and history in order to make religious literacy more relevant in the present, thus creating a space of awareness and comprehension. Erica Andrus noticed in her large intro level classes that many students come in with barriers about religion, including that they only know that religion is about belief— but we learn that that is not the case. Tying these statements together, Kevin Trainor questions— what happens when religion is approached by what people do rather than what they believe? To wrap up, I think Vicki Brennan’s statement is also really important when approaching the subject of religious literacy. She states that learning about religion is about making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. In order to learn and grow, we must knock down some preconceived notions and stereotypes of religion.  

Then the event moved onto a question and answer session, which lasted for the majority of the event. To include a few, one person from the crowd, a UVM writing staff member, questioned if the religion department will see a decline in students because religion is declining in America. Professor Morgenstein Fuerst hopped onto this question fast, stating that saying religion is disappearing is a white idea, just because white American Christians are leaving religion, doesn’t meant anyone else is.  

A recent UVM Religion grad asked: how do we facilitate a discussion in religious literacy without confusing people or upsetting them? Professor Morgenstein Fuerst notes that sometimes religious literacy discussions need to be used with a “velvet club.” Meaning, we should be gentle, understand where the other person is coming from, and help them to better comprehend. But of course, in toxic situations, a quick shut down on racist remarks is completely necessary.  

Lastly, one student, a senior majoring in religion, says she feels empowered with her knowledge of religious literacy and she’s ready to share it with others. Empowerment like this can really make a huge difference.  

So, even though Religious Literacy Month is over, we will keep learning and educating others on religious literacy. Because for some folks, religious literacy is a matter of survival. Like Liz Kineke said in her talk this month, religion is always in the room.  

“Religion is Always in the Room:” A Reflection on Liz Kineke’s Presentation on the Prevalence of Religious Literacy

On Monday October 28, Liz Kineke delivered a talk that discussed her overall work in the news and journalism industry with an emphasis on how “Religion is Always in the Room.” During her presentation, she went over her origin story and how she got involved in reporting on religion and what she has learned. She mentioned that she learned that religion is not about what people believe, it is about what they do and how they act, which ties directly into my REL031: Introducing Hinduism class’ overarching theme of analyzing the behaviors of Hindus and understanding how Hindus use and react to their texts. 

After going over the start to her career, Kineke got into some of the more prevalent topics in her work, namely religion and politics. Kineke made sure to emphasize that in the case of politics, religion is always in the room, and that it’s impossible to have one without the other. She led with the point that although religion is deeply embedded in our culture, and is our first and most important freedom, our country lacks religious literacy. She said that four years ago religion was a white noise hum, but today it is a blaring siren, linking that fact to the idea that our country’s religious illiteracy results in violence and “micro-aggressions” towards religious minorities and an increase in white supremacy. Kineke’s allusion of the white supremacy linked with Trump’s administration relates directly to our class on Thursday where we discussed the Hindu nationalism that is associated with Ram and the Ramayana. Trump’s political views have led to an uprising in White Nationalism in the country, inspiring the narrative that white Christianity is the religion of this country, and that religious minorities are dangerous, specifically that Muslims are terrorists. In South Asia, many Hindus have used the Ramayana and Ram’s leadership as the “rightful” leader of India to jump to similar conclusions about Muslims, leading to violence and discrimination.

Kineke showed us a piece she did called Faith on the Frontlines about the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, through the eyes of the clergy. The clergy pointed out that the white nationalist groups gathering in Charlottesville preach ideas that add to the oppression of minority religions in addition to supporting radical right-wing Conservative principles. By narrating the story through the perspectives of religious leaders, Kineke drove home the point that it is impossible to separate religion from politics, and that many of these acts of terrorism are attacks on religious minorities and a violation of our First Amendment rights. The footage she showed of the Charlottesville rally was similar in effect to the pictures we saw in class of mobs tearing down the Babri Masjid with their bare hands and then posing in front of the burning ruins with their hands in fists and large smiles on their faces. The destruction of a mosque in the name of Ram supports Hindu nationalism and claims to draw evidence directly from sacred Hindu texts, specifically Ayodhya being the birthplace of Ram as described in the Ramayana. How can the violation of someone’s sacred space be validated in the name of the most Dharmic man in all of India? How can it be allowed for the president of the United States to inspire acts of white supremacy? To adequately analyze either of these acts of terrorism, an understanding on religious beliefs and prejudices must be understood. “Jai Shri Ram” is just as much a political chant as it is a religious chant, and saluting Hitler or dressing as Klansman is just as much a religious act as it is a political act. 

I liked that in her presentation Kineke emphasized the importance of education in the improvement of our country’s religious literacy and how although it may not solve all the problems in our country, it will help educate the public on how their actions can be discriminatory or ignorant. We discuss this a lot in REL031, specifically in the context of how we have to be aware of how white people colonized and invaded India and invalidated a lot of the culture that already existed there and how our point of view effects how we learn about Hinduism. Recently, in the Halloween season, we have been talking about how often Hindu practices and gods get disrespected because people don’t know how offensive it can be to dress up as someone else’s god or hang a poster of a Hindu god up on their wall. The more we learn about Hinduism, the more discrimination and offensive acts we can erase from our daily lives.

Kineke drew my attention to the way in which religion is around us all the time, and the more we know about it, the more prepared we can be to address religious acts of violence and political ignorance. 

Religious Literacy Month: Liz Kineke

On October 28, we hosted our fourth event in our Religious Literacy Month slate of events! Liz Kineke, a producer, journalist, and director on the “God Beat” joined us to talk about how, as a journalist, she sees religion as always in the room!

At her talk, Ms Kineke walked students through how being able to read religion in the room–a religious literacy issue–came later on in her career as a journalist. She said, “while 4 years ago I would have said religion is a white noise hum, today it is a blaring siren,” and warned students that religion and freedom of the press are tied up, literally, in the first amendment. In her view, freedom to think and write are the bedrocks of democracy; she quipped that if students wanted to become journalists, they need a first amendment scholar on speed dial, but if students wanted to write about religion they need two.

Ms. Kineke also–perhaps obviously–showed the audience clips of documentaries. She highlighted Faith on the Frontlines, a piece about the prominent role of clergy in the Charlottesville, VA anti-racism, anti-fascism demonstration that left one dead. She also spoke about Religion & Identity in Young America, a documentary that follows three young people from minoritized religions and attends to them not as victims but as protagonists dealing with increased religious-racial scrutiny.

The talk was attended by about 100 students, faculty, staff and community members and wrapped up with a panel discussion featuring Ms. Kineke, Dr. Vicki Brennan, and Dr. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst.

Reflection on Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt’s Lecture

Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt gave an intriguing lecture at UVM on Tuesday for the Religion Department’s month(ish) of lectures and panels for Religious Literacy. Her lecture, entitled “Catholic Young Adults and Pro-life Teachings: A Bellwether for the U.S. Catholic Church” pinpointed on ideas of how college-aged Catholics felt about the Roman Catholic Church’s pro-life teachings, and how the pro-life teachings of the church have come to only translate to the argument of “abortion” (even though the church has an expansive assemblage of what “pro-life” means).  

Dr. Pratt’s lecture started off with discussing why she got into this work, which I believe is the most amusing part. Her main “hustle”, she describes, is systemic racism and the Catholic church. But she states that no one would even touch her work, let alone publish it, because it was “too edgy.” So, she decided to take a more conventional and boring path (in her words not mine), pro-life teachings of the Catholic church, thus creating her “side hustle.” I love her use of the term hustle here, mostly because I’ve never heard a scholar call their work this, and it’s always more entertaining when a lecturer can gather a laugh when talking about a serious topic.  

Throughout her research, Dr. Pratt noticed that the buzzword “pro-life” lacked usage in peer reviewed articles and studies, which seems strange because how can they be discussing pro-life without actually using the term? Until she stumbled upon Dr. James R. Kelly, who had published a mile-long list of public scholarship writing on pro-life related issues and the movement itself. This included an article from 1987 that discussed how the HIV/AIDS epidemic was a pro-life issue, which was monumental for the time. She joked, though, for students 1987 might as well be 1776.  

Her main focus of her lecture was on Catholic young adults, for which she included her methods and results of her research. As a sociologist, her study heavily relied on focus groups. She asked these groups about their feelings of pro-life issues, the church, and other specifics as well. Dr. Pratt’s discoveries included that abortion was overwhelmingly focused upon, and nothing else was getting through the “sieve” (she used the metaphor multiple times throughout her lecture). Her evidence gathered that most of the people in the studied agreed upon a “live and let live” mentality, meaning that they wouldn’t get an abortion themselves, but they believed the option to have an abortion should be available for those who seek it. Although, when Dr. Pratt asked about the death penalty, she was met with a contentious debate. The question here is why are other facets of pro-life messages from the church being lost in translation? Dr. Pratt presents that young adult literacy is limited because the teachings itself are limited. The more prolific issues, like capital punishment, murder, war, stem cell research, were simply not sticking with the public.  

What I found quite funny was that the disaffected Catholic youth weren’t mad about the church’s issues, but instead were mad about their personal childhood experiences. Dr. Pratt humorously stated, “They were mad about things that happened in second grade!” Which was indeed true, her study showed that these folks were angry that religion was forced upon them by their parents, and that they had to go to mass as punishment. So, what Dr. Pratt found was that the Catholic youth wanted civil courtesy and felt more connected to Pope Francis rather than local leadership, due to his statements of support for the LGBT community. 

 But the problem here, according to Dr. Pratt is that the Catholic church is a global religion, which is lived locally and can only thrive when there is local engagement. Dr. Pratt contended, that in order for the Catholic the church to continue to see people in the pews in the future, they must adapt to the ideals of the younger generation. If these catholic young adults are seeing mass as a punishment, then they’ll be less likely to bring their own families to church in the future. She stated that the expanded language around pro-life must move past just abortion, not only for political expediency, but for the survival of the church. Overall, Dr. Pratt’s talk was insightful and gave a new perspective in religious literacy regarding the Catholic church.  

Religious Literacy Month: Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt

On October 22, we hosted our third event of Religious Literacy Month! Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt, a sociologist of religion and scholar of systemic racism and Catholicism, joined us for a talk titled “Catholic Young Adults & Pro-Life Teachings: a Bellwether for the US Catholic Church.”

In her talk, Dr. Pratt talked about how “pro-life” has come to only mean “abortion,” despite Church documents, leaders, and theological orientations having a far more expansive understanding of what “pro-life” includes. She talked about how for young Catholics, this collapsing of issues is a problem–for them and for the Church. As a sociologist, Dr. Pratt approaches these issues institutionally: how have institutions made choices? how do those choices impact the members of those institutions? what is lost or gained in such translations?

Dr. Pratt pointed out in her talk that moving into public-facing scholarship–that is, research and writing aimed at a mass audience, rather than a paywalled, University-library audience–is a new feature of her research, and perhaps even part of her ongoing thinking about religious literacy. Here are some examples of this work:

You can find Dr. Pratt’s reflections on writing about Black Catholicisms here.

And as Dr. Vicki Brennan pointed out in her introduction, a really moving piece reflecting on Toni Morrison after her death here.

Dr. Vicki Brennan (right) introduces Dr. Tia Pratt

Religious Literacy Month: Abenaki Spirituality and Religion

As but one session of a day-long event celebrating, honoring, and reflecting upon Indigenous Peoples’ Day, our second Religious Literacy Month event was “Abenaki Spirituality and Religion.” Dr. Vicki Brennan presided and moderated a panel led by Nulhagen Abenaki Tribe Chief Don Stevens and Dr. Frederick Wiseman, Director, Wôbanakik Heritage Center.

Dr. Vicki Brennan organized the event in conjunction with the larger, UVM-wide Indigenous Peoples’ Day Celebration.

Unlike our other Religious Literacy Month events, this panel featured practitioners–on purpose. Part of Religious Literacy, as well as the study of religion, is coming to understand how some voices have historically been marginalized, ignored, oppressed, and–importantly–seen as incapable of being experts on their own traditions. 

from left to right: Chief Don Stevens, Dr. Frederick Wiseman, & Dr. Vicki Brennan

In this event, we sought to center practitioners, as a way to prioritize Abenaki voices when, far too often, non-Native scholarly (or governmental) voices have dominated the discourse around Native/Indigenous histories, religions, practices, and, yes, spiritualities. Similarly, we sought to center practitioners as a way to round out our work on religion, religious literacy, and reading these lectures.

The event saw over 100 people–and had even more breaking fire code and sitting in the aisles. Event photos thanks to Dr. Tom Borchert.

Image
Packed house in John Dewey Lounge

Religious Literacy Lecture Reflection: Abenaki Spirituality

Yesterday I attended the second lecture in the religious literacy series that centered around the recent celebration of Indigenous Peoples day. The talk was led by two experts on Abenaki life and spirituality, Dr. Fred Weisman and Chief Don Stevens. Dr. Fred Weisman began his segment outlining the different types of Abenaki spirituality, distinguishing various traditions and elements of Native religion from each other. He went through the Way of the Animal Spirit, explaining the concept of animism to the attendees. Dr. Weismann wove central themes of native religious tradition throughout his talk, making clear that a connection between nature and mankind is at the core of Abenaki life. He labeled this concept “concentric ecology,” a relationship in which mankind is taken off a pedestal and a mutual relationship of responsibility if fostered between man and the earth. He spoke of different events ceremonies such as Forgiveness Day and Summer Solstice. In the way he spoke of the various ceremonies, Dr. Weisman embodied this spirit of wonder and awe that he described as coming from the traditions. He mentioned that at one event “it was as if our ancestors were there.” Ancestry, natural connection and upholding of traditions seemed to be at the core of his description of Abenaki spirituality. 

Chief Don Stevens entered the discussion as not a scholarly religious expert, but a lived expert. Being the chief of his tribe, Stevens scholarship is personal and activist in nature. He spoke about the religion of the Abenaki people as a “connection to the source,” concluding that when one loses their connection, they lose touch with the spirit of life. He touched on the Abenaki creation stories and mentioned the names of their central God and spirits. I found it interesting how a lot of his reference had to be put in Christian analogies; whether intentional or not, this need to “christianize” all native references spoke to me as a product of colonialism and backlash still faced today. Chief Stevens also tackled the mental side of his tribes spirituality. He spoke of the blessings a child is given before they leave their mothers womb, hammering the point of intentionality of life to the audience.

I found one of the most interesting parts of the lecture to be the discussion of climate change and its entangled relationship with indigenous people. Chief Stevens implied that Mother Earth is going to adapt and change, with or without humans. Without explicitly saying his personal position on climate change, I felt that Chief Stevens had maybe come to terms with the inevitability of a changing earth and humans destruction of it. This surprised me, but it seemed that Stevens work was more focused on the internal spirituality and less on the external world. Another thing I noted was his emphasis on expertise and “knowing.” He shared that he was imbued with the knowledge that allowed him to become a leader in his tribe, as if by magic. He stressed the importance of upholding tradition and protocol, seemingly discrediting those who practice publicly without “proper” knowledge and training. This talk was fascinating in light of my classes study of tradition, offering me a new perspective on what religion is for a community of people.

A Reflection on Dr. Simran Jeet Singh’s Religious Literacy Talk

On September 26th,  Dr. Simran Jeet Singh joined us at UVM to discuss religious literacy. Dr. Singh’s talk entitled “Turbans, Beards, and Hate: How Experiencing Racism Made Me a Scholar Activist” was enriched with deeply personal experiences of racial profiling, institutional racism, and sprinkles of dad humor.  

Dr. Simran Singh, September 26, 2019.

As a Sikh, activism was brought into Dr. Singh’s life at a young age. After experiencing racist remarks as an elementary school student in southern Texas, his parents –who were immigrants from India- had decided to do a workshop with fellow parents at the school. They brought homemade food and discussed their cultural background, which was obviously a lot different than his white classmates. 

He states that for his parents this workshop wasn’t about education, but survival. This is where Dr. Singh’s thesis, which he stated multiple times throughout his talk comes into play, “For people on the margins, religious literacy is a matter of survival.” Dr. Singh emphasized how you cannot always control how people treat you, but you can control how you respond to they way you are treated.  

After 9/11, Dr. Singh and his family had faced a new reality. Because they wore turbans, they were hyper visible to the rest of the world, but yet as Sikh’s, they were completely unseen. After continuous racial profiling after 9/11, Dr. Singh states that, “it didn’t matter how they saw themselves, but how other people saw them.” Sikhism is the 5th largest religion, but most Americans cannot recognize what Sikhism is, or what the people who practice it look like. With the lack of proper understanding of religious literacy in America, a lot of harm can be done, whether it is intentional or not. 

To Dr. Singh, activism is all about the power of community. Upon my reflection of this, a religious literacy activist has a commitment to social justice through both the study of religion in academic settings, while maintaining moral responsibility for said religious communities. 

So, why is religious literacy important? It gives us the opportunity to change people’s perspectives, which for some, is an incredibly meaningful experience to have.  

As a student currently studying religion, religious literacy, awareness, and advocacy work is really important to me. At the same time, it is important to note that intellectual interest in religious literacy, especially for a white university student like me, is a position of privilege that marginalized people may not have or even have the option to have.  

When I think about my position, I question how I can return my privilege in a way that is both helpful and respectful, while at the same time not overstepping any boundaries. As religious literacy advocates, we need to create a community that demonstrates activism and raises the voices of marginalized people and their beliefs.  

Religious Literacy Month: Simran Jeet Singh, Ph.D.

Join us on Thursday, September 26 for our kickoff event of Religious Literacy Month!

Dr. Simran Jeet Singh is a scholar of South Asian Religions, Islamophobia, race/racialization and religion, and Sikh traditions. He is also a noted activist, applying scholarship to social justice issues around race, racial profiling, anti-Muslim and anti-Sikh hatred and violence.

He has taught at Trinity University, Columbia University, Union Theological Seminary, and New York University. Dr. Singh’s public writings on religion, race, Sikhi, and Islamophobia have appeared in major news outlets (including the Washington Post, CNN, Huffington Post, and Religion News Service, where he is a regular columnist); he has appeared on television and documentary programs; and he serves the Interfaith Advisory Board Committee of New York State. In 2014, was invited to address President Obama and other members of government about Sikhs; in 2015, he similarly was invited to address the Pentagon.

His list of awards for this work is impressive:

In 2018, Dr. Singh won the Harvard Divinity School Alumni/Alumnae Council selected him as a 2018 Peter J. Gomes Memorial honoree, an award which “recognizes distinguished HDS alumni whose excellence in life, work, and service pays homage to the mission and values of Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 and Harvard Divinity School.”

In 2018, he was named a “faith leader to watch” by the Center for American Progress; in 2017, he was named Educator of the Year by the Dialogue Institute for the Southwest.

In 2016, he won the  Walter Wink Scholar-Activist Award from Auburn Seminary, which “recognizes courageous individuals who dedicate their lives to advocating for justice and peace in our world.”

Dr. Singh’s scholarship and activism demonstrate how and why religious literacy is necessary. We’re so honored to have him help kick off our month of events!