Senior Spotlight: Linda Biafore

Linda Biafore in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors

Linda Biafore ’16

Why did you major in Religion?

After transferring from art school, I decided on Religion and Classics majors because I was interested in world mythology. It was during my first Intro Comparative Religion class with Professor Morgenstein-Fuerst that made me decide to focus on Religion. In short, it blew my mind, and I was very excited and eager to learn more.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

My plans change pretty constantly. I hope to get a job at a college or university, as staff, in financial aid, admissions or advising–something that helps students with the hard parts of college and post-college life. (Bonus: this job within a college or university will help pay for a graduate degree.)

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

I would highly recommend REL196: Race and Religion in America with Professor Chipumuro. The class was engaging, intense, and introspective. You learn about the world that is right in front of you; aspects of our daily lives that we overlook every day. Every class discussion was relevant to current events, because we were learning about how religion motivates movements, traditions, and our own worldviews in our society.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

To be honest, I would write a book in the style of “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” by Horace Mitchell Miner. I love turning the lens around on our own society and analyzing the way we talk about cultures that aren’t our own.

Notes from our Classrooms

Pedagogy is a major facet of any faculty job, and it is a source of conversation–and pride–at 481 Main Street. Religion faculty have been nominated for and won teaching awards, regularly attend pedagogical workshops, run innovative programming linking research and teaching as well as classrooms and internships. We often exchange notes on best practices, ideas that worked (and flopped!), and our students’ best work. We thought we’d kick off a series in which we shared these Notes from our Classrooms.

Last semester, Prof. Vicki Brennan taught student-favorite REL103: Sacred Sounds. While many enroll thinking it is a class about sacred music, Prof. Brennan dissuades them of that on day one–this is a course committed to thinking through theories of sound, how sound becomes labeled “religious,” and how those religious sounds enter and shape public and private spaces.

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 9.07.21 AMProf. Brennan asked her Sacred Sound students to craft the Burlington Soundscape Project. This digital humanities project is an impressive collection of student work that physically and aurally mapped the sounds of Burlington. Students collected sounds (listen here) and then analyzed those sounds in the theoretical and practical terms of sound (e.g., “noise” and legal noise ordinances), the study of religion, and concepts of mapping.

Tagged topics of Islam & Modernity student blog posts

Tagged topics of Islam & Modernity student blog posts

In REL195: Islam & Modernity, Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst had students research specific geographic areas (Iran, South Asia, and Turkey) alongside concepts of modernity. Instead of producing research papers, students were asked to distill their theoretically-driven and detail-heavy work into short blog posts, meant for public readership. Prof. Morgenstein Fuerst has used blogging before in other courses, and in light of overwhelmingly positive student responses to it, repeated the assignment in this brand-new course. Students wrote about trends in modernity and Islam with respect to gender, imperialism, power, secularism, and what it’s like to learn and unlearn, among other topics. See the full blog here.




As the Spring 2016 hits its stride, we’ll have more Notes from our Classrooms to share! 

“None” is the New Faith: Gender, Religion, and Season 3 of Orange is the New Black

From the Lionsgate website for Orange is the New Black.

From the Lionsgate website for Orange is the New Black.

I recently returned from a conference titled “Gender, Media, and Religion” in Boulder, Colorado hosted by the Center for Media, Religion, and Culture at the University of Colorado. Their biennial conferences each address a particular theme within the study of media and religion, and this year’s theme of gender seemed particularly relevant to the Neflix hit show, Orange is the New Black, a show I’m currently writing a chapter about for a textbook. It turned out that at least four other people thought so, too, so I found myself on a panel with three papers addressing that show, each from a different perspective (both of the other papers were co-presented by two scholars). In this blog post, I’ll give a summary of the ideas I presented, and then reflect on the conference as a whole, and the state of the study of religion, media, and gender that it reflects.

In my class introducing the comparative study of religion, I spend some time on the concept of “ontology” and how that fits in with the idea that religions are partly made up of ideas. We focus on the ontological nature of humans in different religious perspectives: do we have souls (Christianity, Islam) or not (Buddhism)? What makes us different from animals? And most relevantly: is a “male” human ontologically different from a “female” human? To me, the show, Orange is the New Black represents in popular culture a change in the answer to this last question. Until recently, most Americans would probably have assumed that yes, men and women are different, ontologically speaking. Sex was presumed to equal gender: if you were born with male genitalia and chromosomes, you were male and the same for female. Television shows notoriously reinforced this gender binary, in shows like Leave it to Beaver or The Honeymooners. As times changed, however, so did Americans’ concepts of gender. Growing up in the ‘70s with transmedia phenomena like Free to Be You and Me meant learning that things we thought were “boy things” or “girl things” didn’t have to be that – they had no ontological or natural connection to gender – and that being a “boy” or “girl” didn’t have to always mean the same thing to everyone.

Fast forward to 2015, and our popular culture now seems divided between those who take for granted that there is no “male” and “female” inherent in a person’s identity, only “human;” and those who see this assumption of a gender spectrum as a threateningly destabilizing force promoted by minority populations bent on undermining society. In internet-speak they are referred to as SJWs (“social justice warriors”). Television shows reflect this division: in the first camp, Orange is the New Black positively portrays a wide variety of gender expressions and sexuality; in the second, other television shows seem to “double down” on “traditional” gender roles. An example of this was convincingly put forward by Rachel Wagner in her paper at the conference. She argued that The Walking Dead draws on regressive New Testament concepts of gender (taken from the later pseudo-Pauline books) that have surfaced largely as a reaction to the perceived social chaos represented by growing empowerment of people of color, women, LGBT, and non-gender binary identified people. It promotes a vision of safety embodied by clearly defined gender roles, associating men with protection and brutality, and women with nurturing and care-taking. When these roles are compromised, the community cannot survive. (An interesting perspective, but this scholar would like to argue that there are more possible ways of reading that show, including as a critique of hypermasculinity.)

In other words, Orange is the New Black celebrates the idea that a person’s gender is not a determinative part of her identity – being a woman or a man is a state of mind, a series of choices and performances, and something that you can change about yourself if you need to.

Promo materials from Season 3.

Promo materials from Season 3.

Yes, you may say to yourself, but what does this have to do with religion? Isn’t this blog supposed to be about religion?

What interested me about this topic, applied to this show, is that the flexible and indeterminate way that gender is incorporated into the show’s narrative is paralleled by the flexible and indeterminate nature of religion on the show. Where television in the past has used religious identity to help create expectations about particular characters (and sometimes subvert those expectations, but usually not), Orange is the New Black allows religion to be a vehicle for telling stories about how people change, not just socially, morally, or in other “coming of age” ways typical of television narratives, but spiritually and in terms of their identity. Religion is a process, or a toolbox for finding ways to cope, or a way to explore new relationships with yourself and others. It is not a way of categorizing “the Jewish character” or “the Catholic character” as it has been traditionally used in television.

For those familiar with the show, especially the third season, the most obvious example of this is the story of Black Cindy. Curious as to how and why a new transfer to the prison is getting better food (broccoli!) in the prison cafeteria, she discovers that the new inmate is using an old trick: claim to be kosher. (Several people of my acquaintance have brought up the question, why kosher, not halal? To which I can only speculate: not enough precedent for humorous situations – no Muslim Woody Allen to riff on?) Soon, a sizable number of inmates from across the racially organized cliques are claiming adherence to Jewish laws of kashrut, and gloating about their broccoli. At first, prison management is hesitant to call the inmates on their fraud, but eventually they do bring in a rabbi to quiz them about their commitment to the Jewish faith. As expected, most of the inmates are as religiously illiterate as a random sampling of Americans can be. (See the Pew Research Center on Religion in Public Life’s 2010 Religious Knowledge Survey, for example.) Cindy, however, decides to push ahead with her identification as Jewish, and learn as much as she can, which she does first by checking out Jewish films from the library, like Yentl and Annie Hall, but then by finding actual Jewish inmates who can coach her on their knowledge of Judaism in practice and doctrine.

Finally, Black Cindy requests another meeting with the Rabbi. She formally asks, in the presence of two other Jews and the Rabbi, to become a Jew. He refuses, and she at first takes this as the standard ritualized refusal that converts are faced with in order to determine that they are committed to the path of Judaism, and not just dabbling. But the Rabbi is unconvinced. Black Cindy is, as her nickname indicates, African American, and as one of the Jewish inmates says, this makes it hard to understand why she would choose to go from being a “hated minority to being a double hated minority.” But she explains that the Christianity she grew up with never made sense to her, and left her feeling judged and alienated for wanting to ask questions. In her new knowledge about Judaism, she feels empowered to search for answers, to struggle with her mistakes and try to fix them, and to approach God as an action or a process. She says, “As far as God’s concerned, it’s your job to keep asking questions, and to keep learning, and keep arguing! It’s like a verb, it’s like, you DO God. And it’s a lot of work.” (You can watch her impassioned conversion on YouTube if you don’t have Netflix.)

But Black Cindy is not the only inmate whose story revolves around religion in the third season of Orange is the New Black. Another important plotline exposes the religious pasts of two inmates who in some ways represent polar opposites, spiritually speaking: Leanne and Norma. Norma is a mute woman probably in her sixties, whose flash-back shows that she joined a new religious movement in her teens, at the height of the “flower power” countercultural movement. Her “guru” is presented by the show as the epitome of the “cult leader:” spouting meaningless “new age” spiritual mumbo jumbo, and surrounding himself with nubile young things so that he can “marry” as many girls as he likes and exploit them sexually, financially, and emotionally. When Norma appears, innocent and wide-eyed, and suffering a debilitating stutter, he tells her that she never has to speak again, which she seems to find empathetic and liberating, but which the audience, I suspect, finds a little creepy. She sticks with him until the bitter end, the only follower left, presumably into the twenty-first century. Ultimately, as one can surmise because after all she is in prison, things do not end well. However, in prison she continues to maintain her silence, which gives her a kind of power and mystery, attracting a group of followers who find in her presence and touch a peace they can’t otherwise experience in the dehumanizing context of the prison.

The amazing thing about this plotline is that it leads to a situation where characters in this dramedy explicitly argue about what religion is, and what it is for, usually a topic only found alluring by students of religion such as myself and my peers. One day, Norma and her followers are meeting in the chapel and another, explicitly Christian, group comes in to claim the space. When the chaplain tells them to leave because they don’t count as a religion, Leanne stands up to explain that they do have “a belief system.” The chaplain has dismissively explained that yes, Christianity was new once, too, but “after hundreds of years of private worship, several great schisms, and thousands of people martyring themselves, it became a focused belief system. With a name.” Leanne responds that they, too, have a faith, but when she explains it, the chaplain reiterates that it is a meditation club, not a religion.

This scene is a lead-in to a series of flashbacks explaining how Leanne ended up in prison. (Previously, Leanne has been a minor, somewhat comic character, largely a foil for the more forceful personality of “Pennsatucky” another meth-head prisoner who provided an evangelical figure for the first two seasons’ plotlines.) Now, we find out that Leanne comes from an Old Order Amish community, and fell into using meth during her experimental time with “the English” and then repented and was accepted back into her family. Unfortunately she had left evidence of her drug dealing, and was persuaded by the police to set up her former drug using friends, which backfired and led to her incarceration as well. Although the depiction of the Amish may not be accurate, it serves to establish at least a symbolic context for Leanne’s relationship to religion. Her background in this religious community shapes her response to Norma, and explains her urge to use her leadership role in the group to define rules and doctrines for them to follow. At the same time, Leanne’s desire to find the sacred in the material world, like the image of Norma in a piece of toast,

or the healing sensation of the touch of Norma’s finger on her forehead, speaks perhaps to a longing for a more “mystical” (even Catholic) form of spirituality than is available in the word-centered doctrine and worship of the Amish. So, in one narrative arc, Orange is the New Black gives us 1970s counterculture, Amish Americans, and a New Religion in prison, all of which – as stereotypically as they may be presented — are shown as sincere responses of good people searching for meaning and belonging in spite of their marginal position in American society.

Just as different sexual orientations or gender identifications are sources of tension, comedy, and comfort in the context of the show, religion is also shown as something that can act in ways that are destructive and constructive, creating divisions and connections, and reflecting how Americans, in the words of sociologist Robert Wuthnow, have shifted their religious attention from “dwelling” to “seeking” – looking for new combinations and new homes in religious settings that we are transforming as we adopt them.

If you watch the third season of Orange is the New Black, you will also notice an almost constant stream of religious improvisation, from the first episode, where Pennsatucky creates a memorial to all her many aborted “babies,” to the funeral held by two characters for all the books that must be burned due to a bedbug infestation.

Pennsatucky and Boo from the episode: "Mother's Day"

Pennsatucky and Boo from the episode: “Mother’s Day”

The final, celebratory scene of the season also takes on a spiritual ethos, as the show’s writers and producers use all the tools of lighting, music, slow motion, camera angles, and close-ups to evoke a moment outside of time and space, where reconciliation, joy, rebirth, and even liberation may be possible to these inmates, if only for a few, stolen moments.

Finally, my very brief thoughts on the conference in Boulder. The papers I heard there, and the many informal conversations, were inspiring and thought provoking. It seemed clear in many instances that a fourth variable was implied or necessary in this matrix of religion, gender, and media, and that was race. As a scholar, however, it is a challenge to handle the intersectionality of these cultural categories, after being trained so long and intensively in just one or two. The field of religious studies has long understood itself to be interdisciplinary on the one hand and distinctively located on the other, struggling with the need to learn the methods and theories of other disciplines while maintaining a distinctive niche of our own. This conference was one of those spaces where “experts” from across the disciplines actually did come face to face and exchange ideas, inspiration, and perspectives, and I am convinced that the field is stronger for it.

Monks, Nuns and Sons

a monk and his nephew

            a monk and his nephew

In Bangkok, there are lots of monks with sons.

This statement would seem to be provocative, something meant to begin a discussion about how troubled the Sangha is (in a period when the Kingdom is itself troubled), and how it desperately needs reform. The kind of statement that begins a discussion about monks flying in private jets, or corruption over monetary issues.

Instead, it’s an innocent observation about a situation that I had never thought of. Monks can have sons. And this leads to a wider, completely obvious, observation: monks, nuns and novices, they all have families.

In 2014, I was interviewing Thai monks about their views on their own status as citizens. This was a time of protests which ended up in a coup, and while it was a time of heightened political sensitivity (which has continued), and my questions were often directly about politics, our conversations often veered into non-political areas. I wanted to know how old monks were, how long they had been monks what kind of educational background they had. This was how I learned about the sons of monks. One day in March, while walking through Lumpini Park, I encountered a monk who was in a booth collecting money for rice farmers. Lumpini is a large green space near one of the key shopping/business centers of Bangkok, and when the protests were consolidated after the failed elections of February, they ended up in Lumpini (taking away one of the few exercise areas for many residents of the City of Angels). This was not the first monk that I encountered in Lumpini, but unlike those monks, this monk was happy to speak with me about his views on politics. He admitted to me that he was not the most knowledgeable monk around, and that I should really be talking with one of the protest leaders, Luang Pho Buddha Issara, but he was happy to chat. Perhaps it was because he also wanted to test his English; this was a monk who had lived in Texas for a few years while in the military (probably as some sort of liaison between the US and Thai militaries). He told me he and his wife divorced while he was there, and that his son had remained with his ex-wife when he came back to Thailand. We kept talking for a few minutes, and then it hit me. “You have a son?” “Of course.” I asked the monk if his relationship with his son had changed, and he told me of course it had, but it also seemed that he had not seen his son since he had ordained five years prior.

This was a revelation to me – monks with sons! And it has a perfectly straightforward explanation, not at all associated with monks fathering children. Among the 120,000 or so monks in the Thai Sangha there are many who ordain after they retire, when their spouses have either died or they have gotten a divorce. This is a normal practice within Thailand and other parts of mainland Southeast Asia, though these monks tend not to have a very high status. This is because they have become monks after they have been members of society, usually though not always with spouses, children, jobs and so forth. They have been tainted, as it were, by the world; they have not spent much time in robes, and their knowledge of the teachings of the Buddha, some of these men would tell me, is not very great.  (And of course they are in good company – the Buddha had a son, Rahula, before he became the Buddha.)

Over the next few weeks, it seemed, every time I went to a new wat, I encountered another old monk who was also a father. And I started asking these men about their children. Some were like the monk in Lumpini Park, telling me that their relationship with their children had changed a great deal. Others were far less willing to abandon the nature of their familial relationships. “Of course, it’s the same,” said one monk. “A father is a father; this doesn’t change when you become a monk.” He told me that he would see his son and his granddaughter regularly; there were no problems with this – the son would come and pay his respects to his father, making merit with him a couple of times a month. I suspect that their relationship did change – I know my children don’t regularly make merit to me – but perhaps less than one might expect.

The most interesting conversation wasn’t with a monk at all, but rather with the nun Bhikkhuni Dhammananda. Venerable Dhammananda has been at the center of efforts in Thailand to reestablish an order of nuns, part of wider efforts to reestablish this order throughout the Theravada world). Ven. Dhammananda was formerly a successful academic, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh who decided a number of years ago to take the higher ordination. She resides with a handful of nuns a couple of hours to the west of Bangkok at a wat that was founded by her mother. While her efforts have received some support from individual monks within Thailand, the Sangha hierarchy as a whole has said that her ordination is not legitimate, which puts her in something of an ambiguous state within Thailand. When I interviewed her in February 2014 (again about questions of citizenship), I also asked her if she had children, and how they had responded to her decision to ordain. She told me that her sons were adults, and that they supported her efforts, but also that her relationship with them had changed in radical ways. They too regularly made merit at her temple, but she could not be in a room alone with them anymore because of a need to maintain a very high standard of propriety (cue the comment about plenty of space for mediocre men in an institution, but none for mediocre women). She also said though that she and the other nuns at the wat loved to see her granddaughter. As proof of this, there was a picture of the granddaughter on the side of the wat’s refrigerator.

When I conducted research on Theravada, minority monks of Southwest China in 2001-2002, I was accompanied by my wife and our now 15 year old son who was one at the time. He fascinated the monks and the novices of the wat. They would play with him every day after I taught English to the novices – they even threw his first birthday party, making him cry when they sang Happy Birthday (see the picture). When I have returned to the region, even after a decade, the monks ask how he was doing and if he remembered them.

Jasper first birthday party.wat pajie

One day in spring 2002, when the abbot and I were chatting and watching the novices play with my son, he sighed and said, “Children, they are lovely…but they are dukkha,” using the term that is part of the “first truth” of Buddhism, that suffering or dis-ease is an inevitability in existence. This seemed a curious thing to say at the time, because the abbot was as likely to play with my son as the novices were (if not quite as boisterously). I don’t know why he mentioned this, but I do know that for many years, the abbot (a figure who has “left home”) supported his younger sister and her children after they had come to Southwest China from the Shan States in Myanmar. While not a father, perhaps he was feeling a little too clearly the difficulties that familial attachments inevitably cause.

The abbot’s comment is one that we have come to expect from the monastics of Buddhism. After all, it conforms with the ideal that we find in a number of Pali texts such as the Khuddaka Nikaya which talks of monks “wander[ing] alone like a rhinoceros,” or the Dhammapada: “Better it is to live alone; there is no fellowship with a fool. Live alone and do no evil; be carefree like an elephant in the forest.” (trans. By Acharya Bodhirakkhita, 1985; accessed at This also fits nicely into Weber’s influential framing of Buddhism as “other-worldly asceticism.” It is also, if not wrong, at least too limited a way of looking at Buddhist religious specialists, confusing an ideal within Buddhism with the ideal.

Why does this matter (beyond the fact that I have a bit better sense of the experience of Thai Buddhists)? There are two points here. First scholarly work in English on monastics and families has been insufficient. Gregory Schopen twenty years ago drew our collective attention to how inscriptions showed monastics dedicating merit to their parents. More recently Shayne Clarke’s (2014) Family Matters in Indian Buddhist Monasticisms reading of disciplinary commentaries tells us that family relations inside and outside the monastery were of significant concern, and there is a special issue of the Journal of Global Buddhism (released a few weeks ago) which is dedicated to the “Family in Modern Buddhism.” While this work is welcome, it is really focused on pre 20th century Buddhisms, or on Japanese forms which have a long history of clerical marriage. Indeed, with the exception of a chapter on monastic recruitment in Jeffrey Samuels’ important book on emotion in Sri Lankan monastic culture, Attracting the Heart, there has been no attention to the position of Theravada monks in the contemporary world as members of families (let alone as fathers).

This insufficient scholarship points to a problem with the way we have framed our interests in monks and nuns as actors, no doubt. But I suspect that there is a broad reluctance within the Thai world (and indeed perhaps the Theravada world more broadly) to talk about the ways that monks remain imbricated within family relations, and certainly with the ways that they could be fathers. The status of monks as sons is clear and obvious since the merit of ordination is often dedicated to one’s parents. And Thais are certainly aware that monks can be sexual beings, and were before they ordained, but that sexuality is a problem to be resolved or repressed once one has taken on robes. Moreover, structurally, monks have left the family, even if they still communicate with their family members regularly. Most of the monks I have talked to in Thailand (and indeed in China as well) are willing to answer questions about their families, but they rarely bring them up in the course of a conversation. In other words, while these “monks with sons” are nothing out of the ordinary, they are a subject about which Thai Buddhists are generally silent.

So let me modify my opening statement. There are monks with sons in Bangkok, but I don’t know if there are a lot of them, or if this is a significant phenomenon or not. However, because of scholarly inattention and internal silences, no one else does either.

Monks and Neuroscience: Contemporary Interactions between Buddhism and Science in America

With so many recent developments in the fields of quantum physics, medicine and neuroscience it’s no surprise that Science is one of the dominating domains of authority in modern American culture. Religion, on the other hand, occupies an increasingly turbulent place in the American cultural landscape and in this day and age we have to wonder how these two domains – Science and Religion – will negotiate an ever more complicated interaction.

Historically speaking, Buddhism has been involved in the discourse of Science and Religion in a particularly concentrated and easily visible manner. In the past twenty years a large volume of scholarship has been written on the historical interaction between Buddhism and Science, including works such as:

Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy (2015) by Evan Thompson, Buddhism & Science a Guide for the Perplexed (2008) by Donald Lopez, The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation (2012) by Richard Davidson, as well as numerous peer-reviewed articles. There is no denying a certain American fascination with Buddhism and how it relates to Science (Lopez, 208). A fascination so enchanting, that I chose to spend my last semester at UVM engaging in a guided research project on the topic with UVM Chair of Religion Kevin Trainor.

Naturally, it follows that it is appropriate, if not enlightening, to put Buddhist meditators in fMRI machines and see what we can learn. Quite frankly, this is one of the coolest things going on within the discourse of Science and Religion, but like any cool idea, there are problems beneath the surface that excessive enthusiasm can overlook.

“Contemplative Neuroscience,” also referred to as “Neurophenomenology,” is an exciting new field posited by many researchers that looks to reimagine the ways in which religious and scientific approaches can be used to inspect cognitive phenomena. In the article “Neurophenomenology” (2000), Frederic Peters aims to “[introduce] a new methodological approach to the analysis of religious phenomena” (Peters, 379). Peters frames this methodological revision as a relatively necessary step for the proper progression of the analysis of religious phenomena. Why? According to Peters, much of this pressure to update approaches to analyzing religious phenomena comes from modern advancements within fields of Science, particularly that of neuroscience.

It’s notoriously difficult to say, or even argue about what religion is. Definitions have been thrown into the ring that is academic religious discourse for hundreds of years, and Peters highlights the difficulty in arriving at a consensus through academic writing and debates. Perhaps in this modern day and age our scientific meandering has guided us through an approach that will enhance our understandings of religion. Although other scholars are more reluctant to assent to the kind of conclusions that Peters arrives at, Peters has no problem thinking of “religious data” as a “[property] of consciousness” (Peters, 381). From this starting point, coupled with a specific take on consciousness and brain activity informed by modern neuroscience, Peters also makes the assertion that “[recent] technical advances in brain imaging together with increased sophistication of experiments have now made it, at the very least, increasingly difficult to resist the conclusion that brain activity and mental activity are one and the same” (Peters, 389). Even without drawing the same conclusion as Peters it is clear that modern technological developments in Science are relevant to our discussions of religion and religious phenomena.

The basis of this claim pivots on a certain understanding of consciousness and the brain, somewhat reminiscent of a dichotomy between the physical and immaterial. Martin Verhoeven discusses this apparent gap in his article “Buddhism and Science: Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason” (2001). By conceding that the mind and neurological brain activity are the same thing, the argument – which claims that approaches to religious phenomena can be enhanced by a coupling with scientific experiments – loses some ground. Verhoeven writes of “the unfortunate disjunction of matter and spirit that afflicts the modern age. It can assume many forms: a split between matter and spirit, a divorce between faith and reason, a dichotomy between facts and values. At a more personal level, it manifests as a mind-body dualism” (Verhoeven, 80). Juxtaposing a radically materialist scientific approach to a culturally informed approach to religion that resists being reduced to any all-encompassing explanation of religious phenomena characterizes much of this debate. Peters writes, “Neither the radically dualist nor the radically materialist stream of philosophy has made much headway in accounting for both the obvious physiological hardware and sheer fact of phenomenal awareness” (Peters, 384-385). It appears as though there is something within this debate that demands priority over other considerations. With all of the recent developments in modern neuroscience, it seems silly to ignore the fact that there seems to be some link between consciousness and brain activity. It seems even more foolish to pretend that we can talk about religion without it.

Evan Thompson’s
book Waking, Dreaming, Being (2015) provides an excellent overview of the interaction between Science and Buddhism and takes an interestingly philosophical approach to the question, which helps us understand the arguments on both sides. Instead of hastily assuming that adding modern scientific empiricism to religious analysis will enhance our understandings of religion, it may be worth considering how religious understandings of the mind can inform and enhance scientific knowledge. In this way Thompson challenges Peters’ assertion that neuroscience can be superimposed on religious data as some kind of enhancement; instead, their mingling can be seen as a collaboration, which is mutually beneficial for both fields. There is a “gap” present in our understanding of the brain and the mind, which Thompson characterizes as an open-ended problem. Thompson writes, “The gap consists in our not understanding how something subjective or experiential could possibly arise from something that fundamentally lacks subjective or experiential properties” (Thompson, 81). For Thompson both Religion, and more surprisingly, Science, have an interpretive dimension that Science somewhat avoids admitting in claims to objective truth and an authentic access to reality.

Regardless of which view is taken there are still potential casualties and inadvertent oversights latent in the commingling of these historically culturally antagonistic fields. Francisca Cho, although focusing on the role of karma in understanding research relating to Buddhists, highlights an important aspect of what can be lost in a premature intercourse between Science and Buddhism. While a neuroscientist may be quick to dismiss karma as an unnecessary cultural “ball-and-chain” in understanding what meditation does to the brain (or mind if they are not assumed to be the same thing), Cho urges us to reconsider how entire epistemological systems influence how we perceive data, including that of Science. Cho writes, “[The] challenge of karma is not its supernaturalism but its substantial sophistication about what is real, which is far more nuanced than contemporary distinctions between the ‘wishful thinking’ and ‘fantasy’ associated with religion, on the one hand, and the ‘objective truth’ attributed to science, on the other” (Cho, 117). Adding an empirical element to the study of religious phenomena is all fine and well, but what if scientific understandings of physicality and religious understandings of physicality aren’t the same? Even sticking to a phenomenological lens which only looks what appears to be undeniably in front us doesn’t mean that we agree on what is real, what is physical, what is undeniable or what is in front of us.

Thus the debate rages on, as the logistics become more and more tangible, and the concepts more and more ethereal. If the discourses of Religion and Science seem like their intersection doesn’t allow them to say anything nice about each other, maybe they shouldn’t say anything at all. On the other hand, theoretical disagreements about what “physical” really means or if brain activity and consciousness are the same thing seem serious enough to keep debating. The cultural relevance of this topic appears as though it will only increase. As Richard Davidson writes, “[The] Mind and Life Dialogues [become] an ongoing mutual exploration of some of the most profound questions facing humanity in terms of science, ethics, and morality, such as the nature of mind, the nature of the universe and our place in it, the nature of reality, and the potential for the healing and transformation of afflictive emotions into more positive mental states, leading to greater health, harmony, happiness, and possibly both inner and outer peace” (Davidson & Kabat-Zinn, 4). For now Buddhism seems to be at the forefront of this interaction, and with all this at stake it doesn’t seem like it would hurt to keep putting as many monks as we can fit in fMRI machines as possible.

Works Cited

Cho, Francisca. “Buddhism, Science, and the Truth About Karma.” Religion Compass 8, no. 4 (2014): 117-27.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon, and Richard Davidson, eds. The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation. Oakland, CA, California: New Harbinger Publications, 2012.

Lopez, Donald S. Buddhism & Science a Guide for the Perplexed. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Peters, Frederic H. “Neurophenomenology.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 12, no. 3 (2000): 379-415.

Thompson, Evan. Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Verhoeven, Martin. “Buddhism and Science: Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason.” Religion East & West 1 (2001): 77-97.


Shakir Stephen ’15 is currently a writing tutor at UVM’s Writing Center specializing in writing for religion and philosophy and writing research papers. Shakir also works at Mansfield Hall as an Academic Coach and is hoping to go to graduate school next year to study Religion or English.

Reflections of a Summer Intern

Over the summer, I was granted the wonderful opportunity to intern at Americana Community Center (ACC) in Louisville, Kentucky. ACC is an organization that specializes in refugee and immigrant services, with programs such as GED and English classes, a sewing class for adult women, after school kids programs, citizenship classes, and taxes and computer help. Louisville is a commonly chosen area for refugee resettlement, and the services that ACC provides the city and its refugee community is invaluable. The Youth Program, which is where I spent my time, is particularly important. My primary role at the Center was to teach art classes to middle and high school students.

My first day on the job, I messed up. I messed up in a way that I never expected. I pride myself on being a socially aware Religion major, where a major part of what I’ve learned is to see and confront privilege (including and maybe especially my own). On the first day, as the students filtered in, the other interns and I were doing a get-to-know-you exercise that involved moving around the room and switching seats. While one of the other interns was explaining how the game worked, I noticed two girls on the edge of the room murmuring to each other. Thinking to fulfill my role as one of the persons in charge, I confidently decided to discreetly quiet them so that it would not be distracting to the other kids. As the murmuring continued, as well as my efforts to shush them, I became extremely frustrated. I’m in charge here, I thought to myself. Why won’t they listen? Then, I started to listen to what they were actually saying to each other—and it hit me. These girls weren’t gossiping like I expected of two middle school aged girls; one of the girls was translating what was being said for the other.

Any time you are working with kids, there are always moments of both joy and frustration, amplified in this case by the language barrier that some of the children and I experienced. Most recent statistics for ACC note that there are families coming from 99 different countries all seeking services in some form or another, and while I consider myself a culturally conscious person given my background in religious studies, it was impossible to remain fully culturally competent in a way that catered to each and every child. Our ACC training in the area consisted of a brief training session and a few handouts (as examples, the two images below).


“How is Culture Like A Car?” Handout


Brief list of nonverbal cultural norms from a handful of contexts.

I spent my time at ACC very self-conscious of my own position and point of view (me, being a white, middle class, 20-something college student), and I came to understand the full extent to which my Religion major influences the way I act in multicultural contexts. I was very careful, perhaps overly so, to be sure not to offend any of the children I was working with (especially after shushing a translating student on my very first day) and to be understanding of the hardships many of them had faced as refugees or first-generation Americans. My position as an intern, an authority figure, and my background, all became very apparent to me in this context. We all know the horror stories of scholars on anthropological missions in the world, who, quite frankly, simply did not understand their position in the grand scheme of things, or used it to further racist, eurocentric aims–you know the ones I mean: middle-aged, white, Euro-American men who traveled around “discovering” people and who used words like “orient” and “exotic.”  Studying scholarly works over the past three years (which included the mistakes and assumptions that many an ethnographer and scholar before me has made) fostered a sense of caution that I myself didn’t even realize until being thrown into an environment where that sort of caution served me well.

Navigating the changing currents and whims of middle and high school aged children, new to the cultural landscape of America, simply would not have been possible without the knowledge and sensitivity I have gleaned over the years as a religion major. Yes, I made some embarrassing mistakes while at ACC, but also learned valuable lessons in the recognition of my own position, and the difference between recognizing this in theory (sitting in a classroom critiquing others and myself) and in practice (being immersed in the lives of children of variegated cultures and backgrounds).

Reblog: Prof. Todne Thomas (Chipumuro) in the September issue of Anthropology News

New newspaper column written by Professor Todne Thomas (Chipumuro) on a black church burning in Knoxville, TN for the online September issue of Anthropology News. 

Read it here: When a Black Church Burns (But not to the Ground) by Prof. Todne Thomas (Chipumuro) Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 4.48.57 PM

Seen on campus: “Islam vs. Democracy”

Last Thursday, I received an anti-Islam, anti-Muslim flyer titled “Islam vs. Democracy” at my campus office address. I’d been mailed the same flyer during the Spring semester, as well. At that time, I responded by holding a class session in my REL096: Islam course in which we analyzed and critiqued the two-sided flyer, line by line, in the theoretical terms we’d explored all semester (Orientalism, imperialism, authenticity, categorical definitions) and compared to the definitions for Islam we’d read by scholars (like Ernst, Shepard, and Curtis, to name a select few).

It was a challenging class. Most students were horrified–one actually gasped out loud, another approached me after and apologized, having done nothing wrong, for the existence of such material. Many students expressed genuine feelings of disgust and exceptionalism: UVM is a friendly, liberal place, they said; this shouldn’t have happened here. Some asked questions about the role of open spaces and free speech on a public campus; others asked if free speech rules applied on a campus and to whom; and others still asked about the overlapping issues of free speech and campus safe spaces, accommodations, and UVM’s On Common Ground ideals. We solved none of these problems of a contemporary campus broadly or of our own.

But, in April, near the end of the term, so many of my students–even some who rarely spoke in class–offered real critique of the content of the flyer, citing theorists of religion, scholars of Islam, and critics of both. We read the flyer as a primary source to be interrogated, analyzed, and placed in its multiple contexts (what kind of literature was this? who or what was its audience? what do we do with unsigned writings? where was its information factually wrong? to what avail? & etc.).

That was my response this past spring. I scrapped a class about American Muslims in the earliest part of the 20th century so that we could instead talk about a two-sided flyer found on campus for an hour. We applied what we’d learned about Islam, the study of religion, and reading primary sources critically to a new primary source document–the flyer itself. We had an academic conversation first, but also addressed the affective responses it elicited, which ranged from thinking the flyer a joke unworthy of our time to tears, frustration, and anger.

This time the flyer surfaced, however, students hadn’t yet arrived. I sent out a call on Twitter and my personal Facebook account asking if anyone else had seen these flyers. Two colleagues responded that they had seen them in Williams Hall both recently and back in April. I’d found another set of flyers postered in Bailey-Howe Library, and a student sent a direct message on Twitter to say he’d seen them in the Davis Center, a center of student activity (and food) on campus.

Islam vs Democracy close upI won’t republish here the anti-Islam, anti-Muslim diatribes beyond this (purposefully incomplete) photo. There are lots of responses to Islamophobic content, in the broadest senses; and there are responses to those responses. There are books, journals, blogs. I am not a scholar of Islamophobia, and I am deeply aware of the various risks publishing about it can be. The broadest sense of all this isn’t the point, anyway. It is the peculiarity.

In this context, a broad post I might write about how anti-Islam, anti-Muslim rhetoric actually limits engagement on a campus by using fear is too general. It feels like a general response to a general phenomena on campuses writ large. But this wasn’t a general flyer, out there somewhere. This was a flyer on our campus, right here.

These flyers certainly speak about a vast, faceless, dangerous, and imagined Islam, but because they appear on campus, they are directed at us, the members of the UVM community–Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Moreover, because it has been mailed to me personally (but not to my departmental colleagues), I can assume I am a targeted audience for the message of the flyer, and I might further imagine this is specifically in my capacity as the professor of courses about Islam and Muslims in the Religion Department.

So, my response is this: a lament that students arrive in our classrooms today, August 31, and that my classes won’t begin until tomorrow.

Had these flyers gone up in a week, I’d have a clear sense of what my job is, what my obligations are, in terms of my campus. I’d ask students to talk about it. We’d read it, in the constructed space of a classroom which is purposefully set up for interrogation, investigation, and critique. We’d take its claims seriously, talk about where they came from, and what work they do now; we’d maybe theorize why UVM’s campus–why the library, the student-centered Davis Center, Williams Hall, and my mailbox–were imagined to be good spaces for an anonymous poster and author declare “the truth” about Islam in the form of double-sided, photocopied flyers. We’d talk about the possibilities, responsibilities, and challenges of free speech on campuses. We’d talk about reading about religion beyond classrooms, and the value of the skill sets needed to do so. We’d talk about microaggressions and safety for our classmates, colleagues, and staff who were the subject of the flyer’s message. We might even place this flyer in a conversation about Muslims and racialized religious identity–a conversation we normally get to toward the end of the semester.

My classes begin tomorrow. And my syllabus has already changed.

Some Wonder Why and Why Still: Reflections on the Charleston, SC Church Shooting

Todne Thomas Chipumuro

Cariari, Costa Rica


Yesterday, I arrived in Costa Rica to prepare for a writer’s retreat that I will attend for the next five days. As I checked my social media feed over my morning coffee, I was alarmed to discover that a white gunman shot and killed nine black Bible study attendees last night at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last night. The young white man (who is now being identified as 21-year old Dylan Storm Roof)[1] allegedly sat in on the service before nearly an hour before he voiced racist anti-black rhetoric and murdered the three men and six women present[2]. Shocked into reality, my unexamined idea that my writing retreat here could also double as a respite from the onslaught of news about anti-black violence in the United States and the anti-black citizenship discourses and Haitian deportations proposed by the Dominican Republic has quickly dissipated. Black lives here and there are being devalued by the state and its citizens. Blackness, though somehow being called into question by the scandal of racial shapeshifters, still remains an alibi for white supremacist dehumanization, expulsion, social and literal death.


The current tragedy being weathered by the membership of Emanuel AME Church and the broader Charleston community is significant for a number of reasons. As I alluded to above, it evokes a broader conversation about the virulent anti-black racism that is presently being enacted upon black bodies, visualized by technological innovations, and circulated for broader conversation and consumption. Such violence has been a steady testament to the racism that structures carceral govermentality including policing practices and has also initiated meditations on black humanity, the valuation of black lives, the in/visibility of violence against black women and black transgender people, and black theodicy—a theological contemplation about the reasons for black pain and suffering best expressed by a Charleston pastor during a prayer vigil last night, “The question is God: why? Somebody here tonight needs to know.[3]


Nonetheless, the shooting at Emanuel AME is tentatively being classified as a hate crime and is being represented by police representatives and local political figures as a heinous and grievous act, a moral tone not often attributed to the killings of African Americans by police on the part of the mainstream criminal justice establishment. Moreover, the shooting took place within the institution of the church often stably understood as the private sphere, not the public domain of the street, or the contested public/private spaces of the streets and pools of gated communities involved in Sanford, FL or McKinney, TX. The shooting of African Americans within the sanctified, private grounds of the church presumably signals a different kind of targeting, a hateful intentionality that is perhaps not associated with the other instances of anti-black violence we are witnessing in the news. Dylan Roof emerges as a “proper racist” that can be castigated by the broader body politic, a black-and-white case study of hatred that does not speak to the collective ambivalences, cognitive racial biases, and racial anxieties of post-racial racism.   Nonetheless, I would advise caution in divorcing the Charleston shooting from the broader context of anti-black violence that we are witnessing and experiencing; of decontextualizing this as an individual civilian crime; of making this an issue of the private sphere that is divorced from contemporary contemplations of the state. In the poignant conversation “Do Black Lives Matter?: Robin D.G. Kelley and Fred Moten in conversation,” Moten observes that the shooting of Mike Brown illustrates a broader impulse of white settler colonialism and the white supremacist heteropatriarchal state: the execution of black social life which is defined as an insurgent sociality.[4] It is that sociality, signified by black youth like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and the gathering of the slain members of Emanuel AME, that is othered, harassed, and surveilled by the state, state employees, and civilians who deputize themselves as protectors of white supremacist capitalism.


From a historical perspective, the shooting at Emanuel AME is also important because of the particular history of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination and of the historical role of black churches more broadly. Emanuel AME is shaped by a genealogy of African American Christian protest. The AME Church is the first black-organized religious denomination in the United States. Dating back to 1816, the AME denomination was organized by the former slave Richard Allen and his contemporaries who were disaffected with the racial marginalization they experienced in the predominately white St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, PA.[5] An extension of a critical African American institutional and religious complex that sought to create spaces of sanctuary (like the Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia organized in 1793) in which people of African descent could worship, rebel, and nourish their full humanity, the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston was founded in 1816 as well during the early days of the AME denomination. A black southern church with its own rich history that has been heavily shaped by the white supremacist plantation complex and governance, Emanuel AME Church was burned during the events and controversy surrounding the Denmark Vesey slave revolt in 1822—a revolt that was shaped by a radical anti-racist emancipatory view of Christianity. The church was soon rebuilt. Services however were forced underground when all local black churches were outlawed in 1834. The membership of Emanuel AME has thus inherited a tradition of struggle and endurance.


More broadly, black churches like Emanuel AME with its own denominational history of fostering Afro-Christian critique and institutional self-determination and other southern black churches were shaped by the moral critique fostered by the Civil Rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. It was during these times in which the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL (a key site for civil rights activism) was bombed by white supremacists in 1963 killing four African American girls. The Black Church, then, in a popular white supremacist consciousness emerged as a threat, a site of insurgency, and a strategic node for terrorism. The interplay between black churches and black protest in the times of slavery and the Civil Rights movement has generated a black civic religiosity, embodied in the senatorial career of the recently deceased Emanuel AME pastor Rev. Clementa Pinckney. Therefore, a normative reading of Emanuel AME as distinct and safely ensconced in the private sphere, of the black church solely as a space of black worship and sanctuary divorced from the state, and of the perpetrator as a civilian acting individually divorced from the state must be re-contextualized within a broader context of racist governmenality and Afro-Christian struggle.






Religion@UVM: The Class of 2015

Our Class of 2015 graduated on May 17, 2015. As we’ve come to know and love, they weren’t shy in proclaiming their success!

They are an accomplished bunch! As we featured before, Maeve Herrick won the Robert D. Benedict Award for the Best Essay in the Field of International Affairs. Kathryn Meader received the Outstanding Senior in Religion Award. At commencement, the Class of 2015–and their families and friends–learned that Joseph Oteng was a recipient of the prestigious Class of ’67 award. We are always honored to our students so visibly recognized for their hard work and achievements.

This class has impressed us throughout their careers. They’ve presented at the UVM Student Research Conference, served in our undergraduate Religion Club, served organizations across the University, and–most importantly–learned, worked, read, wrote, read more, and rewrote about religion.

This class, too, had the special distinction of helping us launch our new REL202 and REL203 sequence, which comprises a practicum for extended research and a colloquium, where one’s research is revised and expanded in the context of the graduating cohort and a faculty mentor. This year’s colloquium was led by Prof. Borchert, who took the seniors bowling, perhaps indelibly making a pin the Class of ’15 totem.

We’ve spent the better part of four years listening to these students argue, engage, and wrestle with ideas ranging from religion and pop culture in America to racialized religious formations to Theravada Buddhists in Sri Lanka to the very term “religion” itself. As their faculty, we’ve listened to their presentations and papers, read their blog posts and research, and written recommendation letters. Prof. Borchert even saw them bowl. These are animated, thoughtful students alumni, and we cannot wait to see what lies in store for them as their post-UVM lives unfold.

We don’t know what comes next, but we hope the Class of ’15 keeps in touch; we hope some of them will be featured as alumni bloggers soon; but we ask very little–only that they continue to think religion, with breadth and depth, in whatever comes next.

As is our ritual, the department hosted a post-commencement reception for our graduates and their loved ones. These are a selection of the photos; for more, visit our Facebook page here.


Prof. Morgenstein Fuerst, graduate Zach Warner, and Prof. Thomas Chipumuro


graduate Shakir Stephen


graduate Maeve Herrick, Prof. Brennan, and Prof. Andrus


Profs. Trainor and Andrus, graduate Kathryn Meader, Profs. Borchert and Brennan


The Class of 2015! Joey Oteng, Kathryn Meader, Maeve Herrick, Shakir Stephen, and Zach Warner


Prof. Thomas Chipumuro and graduate Joey Oteng