Alumni Spotlight: Shakir Stephen ’15

INTELLECTUAL JOURNEY LEADS TO NYU*

Shakir Stephen was born in Montreal and grew up in Southeast London, and his intellectual journey reflects a broad set of interests and potential career paths. After working in as an academic coach in Burlington for three years after graduation, he is bound for New York University where he begins an M.A. program in religion.

Stephen was a talented science student, and his interests in high school seemed to lead him towards the STEM disciplines. “The educational system in the UK is different: the choices for undergraduate study are narrower, and you need to make a decision about your path for studies at a pretty young age, around 16.”

Stephen declared physics as his major upon entering UVM, but something was tugging him  towards the humanities. In his first year at UVM he took several liberal arts courses and found his home in the religion department.

“I took a course on the bible with Anne Clark and she really focused on writing, which I was OK at but because I was concentrating on the sciences I was a little rusty,” he recalls. “She emphasized how important writing was for success in college and beyond, and that really resonated with me.”

Stephen discovered that religion was an ideal prism that brought together perspectives from other disciplines that interested him, including history, philosophy,  sociology and anthropology. At the same time he developed critical thinking, reasoning, writing and presentation skills important for any post-graduate undertaking.

Stephen works as an academic coach at Mansfield Hall in Burlington, an organization offering academic support to college-aged students with learning differences and executive functioning challenges. “These are often high functioning people with executive challenges who need help building skills that set them up for success sin higher education,” Stephen explains.

The job draws on Stephen’s broad educational background, and he’s discovered that he’s a talented teacher. He sought out religion department members Kevin Trainor and Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst for advice on graduate programs and he settled on NYU. He received a fellowship that covers tuition and fees for the two-year program.

“If it feels right I’d consider going on to get my PhD. Eventually I see myself in the education field in some capacity.”

See a post Shakir Stephen wrote before he left UVM for NYU!

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Simeon Marsalis ’13

GRAD PLUMBS UVM EXPERIENCE, HISTORY IN DEBUT NOVEL
– By Tom Weaver, Vermont Quarterly, Spring 2018

Simeon Marsalis arrived on the UVM campus in 2009 focused on playing varsity basketball. Though he stepped away from the game after his sophomore season, Marsalis stayed at the university to earn his degree in religion in 2013 and had the rare opportunity to sit among his fellow graduates for a commencement address from his own father, famed musician Wynton Marsalis. Post-graduation, Marsalis has lived in cultural capitals New York City and New Orleans, but Burlington’s hooks remained set within the creative center of his mind. Last year, Catapult Books published Marsalis’s first novel, As Lie Is To Grin, which follows a protagonist named David on a nonlinear journey from his home in New York City to the University of Vermont, and back again.

Between the writing required in his courses and the journaling and fiction he tackled in his free time, Marsalis was well on his way as a writer by the time he graduated. “My work with the Religion Department was essential to my growth as a writer,” he says.

photo: Chris Buck

Post-graduation, Marsalis has lived in cultural capitals New York City and New Orleans, but Burlington’s hooks remained set within the creative center of his mind. This past October, Catapult Books published Marsalis’s first novel, As Lie Is To Grin, which follows a protagonist named David on a nonlinear journey from his home in New York City to the University of Vermont, and back again.

After leaving Burlington, Marsalis found himself frequently returning to study the architecture on campus. The book includes beautifully detailed descriptions of some of UVM’s most notable buildings. Marsalis also spent many hours combing the university archives to research the school’s blemished racial past, which plays a central role in protagonist David’s character development.

“It is about a freshman in college who questions the reasons why he has arrived at that particular university,” the author says, discussing the book’s plot. “He begins to research his own reasons for attending that university, and discovers an alumni ritual with a deeply personal resonance. The campus itself is its own character within the novel. I couldn’t have written this novel if I had not gone to UVM.”

Marsalis’s family roots, surrounded by musical artists, helped instill the confidence and work ethic to pursue a career in writing. “Watching my father and grandfather and uncles all those years allowed me to see the amount of work it takes to make it as an artist,” he says. “It helped me see art not as an abstract pursuit, but as an approachable entity. I had a very real connection to the amount of time it takes to hone an art. I didn’t see it as something that was foreign and unapproachable. I saw it as a distinct language that you had to learn, but once you learn that language, that’s where the freedom and play comes in.”

Spending weekends at his father’s house growing up, Marsalis also saw the amount of work required to make a living off of one’s art. “My father practices obsessively, it was all day,” says Marsalis. “There was always something to work on, whether it be the next piece, refining an old piece, or anything else. As an artist, it can be maddening because there is something you could be working on literally every second of the day. Seeing him and that work ethic, it originally really had an impact on the way I played basketball, because it made me see my goals in that sport as an attainable thing that had to do with work more so than something esoteric like talent or luck. More recently, I place my belief in work and work ethic as a way to develop my writing talent and to cultivate some of my own luck as an artist.”

Between the writing required in his courses and the journaling and fiction he tackled in his free time, Marsalis was well on his way as a writer by the time he graduated. “My work with the Religion Department was essential to my growth as a writer,” he says.

Since the book’s release, Marsalis has traveled widely—Seattle to Austin to Boston and many points between—to promote his novel at readings and festivals. The book has been well-received and got a cover-blurb boost from noted UVM poet/professor Major Jackson. “There are so many people at UVM who have been a big help to me,” says Marsalis. “Obviously Major Jackson, but also Sean Witters and so many people from the Religion Department, like Vicki Brennan and Kevin Trainor.”

Lectures in Religion and Law

This Fall, Prof. Thomas Borchert has arranged a truly impressive speaker series–one that boasts academic rockstars and timely topics. The Lectures in Religion and Law Series, “Interrogating Religion Freedom in the US and Abroad,” features four talks between October and November 2018; two of which center on Asia and two on North America.

Prof. Borchert gave the first talk in the series himself! On October 3, he presented “Bloody Amulets and Punitive Disrobing: Reflections on the Legal Environment Governing Monks in Contemporary Thailand.” The talk was a CAS Full Professor lecture, a series sponsored by the College to honor and share the work of newly-minted full professors. We assume you may know his work already, but if not: Prof. Borchert writes about religion, nationalism, and Thailand.

Prof. Winnifred Sullivan is the second speaker. Renown scholar of law, religion, and the United States, Prof. Sullivan’s talk, “Banning Bibles: Death-Qualifying a Jury,” will be on October 11.

Next, we welcome Prof. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political scientist who focuses on law, religion, international relations, and the concept of religious freedom. Her talk, “Religion and Politics after Religious Freedom,” will be held on November 2.

Finally, Prof. Jolyon Thomas joins us a lecture titled “Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan” on November 13. He is a scholar of definitions of religion, religious freedom, religion and media, Asian religious traditions, and religion and law. This talk is also the Lintilhac Seminar in Asian Studies.

Recent & Upcoming Faculty Speaking Events

Our faculty are on the move, offering public lectures on their varied fields of expertise around the country. See below for details!

In February, Prof. Erica Andrus talked about science fiction, Battlestar Galactica, and religion at The Ohio State University’s Symposium on Religion, Narrative, and Media.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In early March, Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst will be part of a panel at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Later that same week, Prof. Kevin Trainor will be in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. He will be a guest speaker in a major event on relics and reliquaries titled Sacred Access.

 

 

 

 

 

And, at the end of March, Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst will be at Duke University as a keynote speaker. Her talk is titled After the Rebellion: Religion, Rebels, and Jihad in South Asia.

New Series: The Reading List

Hello and Happy New Year! We are excited to announce a new series on the REL@UVM blog: The Reading List. We thought that our colleagues, students, alumni, and anyone else who happens to stumble upon this site might be interested in hearing more about what faculty in the Religion department are currently reading. We will highlight texts that we are grappling with for classes, books that shape our research agendas, and articles that we think offer an interesting perspective on current events. We will also talk about what we are reading for fun!

Responding to the 2016 US Elections

The outcome of the 2016 Presidential election was shocking to some, and a surprise to most. However, it is probably not a surprise to anyone who knows us that the REL@UVM faculty have things to say about the election and the way that it impacts our research, teaching, and broader work with campus communities. What follows are links to short comments and observations from a handful of our faculty, with the promise of more analysis and questions to come in the near future.

Trump 2016: The View from Islamic Studies
Professor Ilyse Morgenstein-Fuerst 

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The UVM Interfaith Center & UVM’s Post-Election Future
Professor Kevin Trainor

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Pan-Indigenous Pipeline Religion
Professor Todne Thomas Chipumuro

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What now? Scholarly Work in the Wake of Trump’s Election
Professor Vicki L. Brennan

 

What now? Scholarly Work in the Wake of Trump’s Election

By Professor Vicki L. Brennan

In the days following the election I felt as though I were in a fog, upset about what seemed to be a validation of the role that misogyny and racism had played in the election, anxious about what a Trump presidency would mean for the United States and the world more generally, and unsure about what I could or even should do to respond to and act on any of this. I joined the ranks of many who made donations to nonprofit organizations. I vowed to make my own political commitments more clear and also to avoid the insularity and negativity found on social media sites. But still, I wondered (and still do): What now? What role do we as scholars have to play in Trump’s America? These questions seem especially vital given both the nature of our expertise (see my colleagues comments above for evidence of that) but also due to the fact that our expertise seems less valued and respected than ever before in a supposedly “post-fact” world.

Scholars of religion are responding in a number of ways. What follows are links to statements, op-eds, and analyses that have appeared in the weeks since the election that provide some answers to the question: “What now?”

Disciplinary Resolutions and Statements: The annual meetings of scholarly organizations most relevant to my own research and teaching interests took place soon after the election; the American Anthropological Association meeting from November 16-20; the American Academy of Religion from November 19-22; and the African Studies Association from December 1-3. I decided to stay home this year, so I viewed the meetings from a distance, via text messages from friends, live-tweeting feeds, and blog posts made by those in attendance. Based on these observations, it seems that for many these meetings were sites for the building of solidarity and plans for action.

A number of the scholarly associations with which members of our department are associated issued resolutions or statements in response to the election:

Op-Eds, Blog posts, and other Analyses: Scholars of religion have also been publishing their takes on the election in a variety of venues. These are just a few of the things I have found useful for understanding the role that religion played in the election, the impact that a Trump presidency might have on religious communities in the United States, as well as possible answers to the question: What do we do now?

Omid Safi writes about how to respond to hatred with love at On Being, and uses the iconic film Star Wars as a potential guide to our action:

Somehow our means and our ends have to be consistent. We can’t hate our way out of Trump. There is still the need for love, for love to move into the public spaces. There is still the need for that love to be called justice when it is public, and for that same love to be tenderness when it moves inward. In confronting the Dark Side, let us never turn to the Dark Side. Let us not become the very quality we so despise.

In the days since the election, various lines from Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon have been echoing in my mind–certainly his observation that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, the second time as farce”–but more crucially his reminder that we live in a world that has already been shaped by historical forces:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

Historians have much to offer to our understanding of our own time, how we got here, and how we might move forward. For an example of how historians of religion are responding to Trump’s election see: Kelly J. Baker in the NY Times on the alt-right, the KKK, and white-collar Supremacy. The bloggers at Religion in American History have also made a number of posts on the election, including one by Elesha Coffman on conservatism in the 1980s and how it relates (or doesn’t) to the current moment and another by Janine Giordano Drake on the Federalist papers and the electoral college.

With the nod to Marx we might also note the need to fully comprehend the role that economics–and particularly the rise of inequality globally–played in the US election. Cornel West writes on the end of American neoliberalism:

What is to be done? First we must try to tell the truth and a condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. For 40 years, neoliberals lived in a world of denial and indifference to the suffering of poor and working people and obsessed with the spectacle of success. Second we must bear witness to justice. We must ground our truth-telling in a willingness to suffer and sacrifice as we resist domination. Third we must remember courageous exemplars like Martin Luther King Jr, who provide moral and spiritual inspiration as we build multiracial alliances to combat poverty and xenophobia, Wall Street crimes and war crimes, global warming and police abuse – and to protect precious rights and liberties.

For those of us who want to integrate these historical lessons into our classes, Savage Minds includes a link to the Trump 2.0 syllabus in their round-up of materials on how to teach the current moment.

As scholars we need to be able to speak to the questions of truth, facts, and reason that have emerged in the wake of Trump’s rise. I hope to write about this issue in more depth in the future, since questions of religious “truth” and cultural forms of knowledge lie at the center of my research and teaching. For now, here are links to two articles that I find thought-provoking at this time: First, Biella Coleman discusses politics, performativity, truth, and lies in a post that offers a possible role that scholars who analyze religion might play in addressing our current crisis

Fake is only fake if you’ve bought into a notion of the real. And the question of what is real is even more urgent and vexed today. But theory and scholarship won’t get us out of this predicament. What we need is a pragmatic practice that recognizes the centrality of fantasy, emotions, fiction, performance, and myth for politics and political messaging.

And finally, Chimamanda Adichie reminds us that “Now is the time to talk about what we are actually talking about” on the website for the New Yorker:

Now is the time to counter lies with facts, repeatedly and unflaggingly, while also proclaiming the greater truths: of our equal humanity, of decency, of compassion. Every precious ideal must be reiterated, every obvious argument made, because an ugly idea left unchallenged begins to turn the color of normal. It does not have to be like this.

Guest Post: Professor Emeritus William E. Paden

By William E. Paden

Thanks to Kevin Trainor for calling my attention to the fine departmental blog and inviting me to contribute. I enjoyed reading about what everyone is doing these days.

I retired from UVM and the Religion Department in 2009—after 44 years! When I started in 1965 Burlington was scarcely the vibrant town it is today; and as for the department, there were just three of us religion professors trying to more or less cover the whole field.

9781474252119I certainly miss the students at 481 Main St. and my colleagues, but academic writing goes on as though it were an extended sabbatical. Blog readers might be interested in my new book, which came out last month, New Patterns for Comparative Religion: Passages to an Evolutionary Perspective (Bloomsbury Academic), and I’ve linked here to the front matter and complete Introduction as that gives the best overview.

Essentially the book is an intellectual autobiography in three parts: reformulating some of the basic concepts (‘world’, ‘sacred’) and figures (Durkheim, Eliade ) in comparative religion; reconstructing the concept of comparison and the idea of universal human-level behaviors; and suggesting linkages between comparative religion and what I call ‘evolutionary perspective’. The 13 chapters had been published in various places over the last 20 years, but brought together here because they show the steps on my path toward the overarching theme of the book. I have added the Introduction and Epilogue.


**Editor’s note: Prof. Paden’s work on New Patterns for Comparative Religion earned the recognition of a University of Vermont Retired Scholars Award for the 2015-2016 academic year.

 

“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. http://www.lionsgate.com/tv/orangeisthenewblack/

From the Lionsgate website for Orange is the New Black. http://www.lionsgate.com/tv/orangeisthenewblack/

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 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.

Images

https://pennmindsthegap.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/when-meditation-met-mri/

http://www.npr.org/books/titles/373965266/waking-dreaming-being-self-and-consciousness-in-neuroscience-meditation-and-phil


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.