Senior Spotlight 2020: Abe Goren

a series about our graduating seniors

“The religion department was a supportive, tight knit community that allowed me to really dig into the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the system.”

–Abe Goren
Socially Distant Abe Goren ’20

Why did you major in Religion?

In high school I was fascinated by religion both as a cultural system and as a place to find my identity. I’m very intrigued by the aesthetics of religion and religious performance, whether it be music, costumes, art, rituals or literature. I think people of my generation don’t think of religion day to day, but it’s such a powerful and immersive force. I initially was an anthropology major but switched to religion because religion had more direct intersection with my interests.

The religion department was a supportive, tight knit community that allowed me to really dig into the “why” and “how” of the system. One thing that drew me to the religion department was becoming friends with Shakir Stephen, a religion graduate (and current grad student at NYU) who really convinced me that the religion department was the way to go.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

It’s hard to say. I think I imagine gaining ground with making music. Music has been a very big hobby for me as of late, and a way for me to keep sane. I imagine that in addition to cultivating a music career, I will likely want to pursue graduate work in religion, pop culture and musical fan communities.

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

I highly recommend anything with Prof. Vicki Brennan. Her classes are hands on, informative and fascinating. To have experience with working with museum curation was excellent.

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

I really want to write an occult book/manual mocking the style of superfascist esotericist Julius Evola from a queer, trans perspective. This is not to endorse Evola, I hate the man! Rather, I think I can try to rearrange his philosophies and ideologies to be about gender transcendence, trans jñanayoga and nonbinary asceticism. I want to call it Gender Amongst the Ruins or Revolt Against the Transphobic World, and it would be a more materialist analysis of perennial traditionalism if that’s even possible. It probably wouldn’t be, but I want to use National Mysticism tropes to define trans people. I want to move away the “queer witchy vibes” that a lot of trans pagans use and onto more straightforward Theosophical ideology, that remembers the roots of modern occultism. I would throw out “root races” as a concept, of course.

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

I remember when I was in my first semester, I went from office to office, saying hi to different professors. It was a great way to randomly meet and socialize with people who knew their stuff about religion. 

COVID-19 Bonus Question! You’re finishing up in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us something about that experience!

I’ve been spending a lot of time taking walks, wondering about my gender identity and making music. In addition, I’ve been binging Parks and Rec with my mom. It’s a great way to unwind every night and a great way to bond. Parks and Rec has a lot of religious aspects to it, at least with the fundamentalist watchdog Marsha Langman, and the opportunistic Wamapoke Cheiftan, who uses white people’s superstitions about Native Americans against them.

Senior Spotlight 2020: Caleb George-Hinnant

a series about our graduating seniors

“Frequently, I considered religion classes–alongside copious amounts of coffee–to be my incredible coping mechanism during the pursuit of a STEM degree.  But they were also so much more than that.  They revolutionized my ability to write and to critically analyze all institutions of knowledge and power.”

–Caleb George-Hinnant
Caleb George-Hinnant ’20

Why did you major in Religion?

I came to UVM as a biomedical engineering major.  After spending my first semester in engineering classes, I took Comparing Religions with Dr. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst to fulfill my diversity requirement.  This class convinced me to take more religion classes in tandem with a neuroscience degree which I had decided to transfer into.  

Although understanding the brain had been a long-term goal of mine, religion classes were almost a vacation away from the hard path of studying synapses and biological processes. Religion classes were simultaneously some of my most challenging, intellectually stimulating, and motivating experiences at UVM.  

Frequently, I considered religion classes–alongside copious amounts of coffee–to be my incredible coping mechanism during the pursuit of a STEM degree.  But they were also so much more than that.  They revolutionized my ability to write and to critically analyze all institutions of knowledge and power.  I wish I could write a long essay about why I majored in religion.  However, it dissolves to a love for writing, analyzing “what people do,” and having the opportunity to share that experience the brilliant minds at UVMREL.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

This is definitely the last question any senior feels prepared to answer.  First and foremost, alive.  Maybe there will be puppies?

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

Take any and all of them.  More importantly than that, take classes that analyze issues of religion.  My two favorites were the two 200 level courses I took: African Gods/Western Museums and Religion, Nation, and State.  But more importantly, get more than one opinion, you’ll need to be comparing a lot of conflicting arguments at 481 Main.

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

A good one.  I think I would really like to write about the brain, neuroplasticity, meditation, what people find meaningful, and how experience and self-reference shape the ways in which we believe ourselves to be “us.”  Or possibly a book of opinions.  Either way, I hope it helps somebody.

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

Snack times with Professor Borchert!  Often that class did not feel like a class, rather a riveting hour in which we uncovered the hidden nature of our topics. Also all of the (previous semesters’) Reading Days, during which students from various classes came together to share in snacks and stress for final projects in the seminar room.

COVID-19 Bonus Question! You’re finishing up in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us something about that experience!

In the midst of a global crisis, barreling down the train tracks of peril, while sipping tea of calming thoughts in our couches seated in our homely homes each six feet apart on the expressway riding the curve, we look to our captain, sure that the egomaniac who is so disconnected from reality might look the other way so we may have the opportunity to steer the course straight.

Writing about global drama, systems of power, political injustice, colonialism, the neurotypical tragedies of addiction, tribal mentalities, and existential meanings of truth has never been so much fun in my comfy pants.

Senior Spotlight 2020: Ava Williams

a series about our graduating seniors

“I continued taking religion classes because I wanted to know why abstract ideologies compel individuals to think and behave in certain ways. I became a religion major because I wanted to know how individuals mobilize under their religion to effect macro-level social and political change. ”

–Ava Williams
Ava Williams ’20

Why did you major in Religion?

In the hectic midst of picking out classes during first year orientation, I found myself signing up for the religion TAP “What is the Bible.” While I originally took the class under the seemingly classic “religiously raised kid turned pessimistic atheist” guise, I soon learned the faults in my own worldview. I began to understand that religion is more than a sacrosanct dedication to the words of ones god– it is a means of building community, a way of coercing behaviors above secular law, and it factors quite literally into everything in our world. 

I continued taking religion classes because I wanted to know why abstract ideologies compel individuals to think and behave in certain ways. I became a religion major because I wanted to know how individuals mobilize under their religion to effect macro-level social and political change. 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Ask me in 10 years!

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

Arguably, the most impactful class I took in the Religion Department was “REL 196: Religion, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States.” This class challenged me to think critically of the U.S. through the lens of religion. Through looking tracing the development of religion, race, and ethnicity, we studied how these invented categories were employed to help form and maintain our hierarchical society. I recommend this class to any students who want to analyze religion in the context of U.S. politics and history. 

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

My capstone project was titled “‘The World’s Oldest Colony’: Cultural Nationhood, Political Nationalism, and Religious Activism in Puerto Rico.” It investigated how religion factored into the development of the Puerto Rican cultural nation and how religious actors mobilize within the secular politics of Puerto Rico. If I had the chance to write a book, I think that it would be tied to this capstone project because there is a wide scholarly void in understanding religion in Puerto Rico. I think that it would be quite fun to research the island on a larger scale to fill this scholarly void and to show the world how deep and multifaceted Puerto Rico truly is. 

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

Although I can’t seem to choose a favorite memory of 481 Main, I think my most fond memories revolve around the community that we built within the religion building. It was quite special to take classes with the same core group of students since freshman year– we learned, grew, and laughed together for four years. I really enjoyed our strong support system and watching my peers develop throughout our time together. 

I do not think this community could have grown without our teachers who called us by name and remembered our favorite topics of study, our best papers. They were extremely adept at balancing the teacher and friend role; I don’t think that I would be half the person or scholar I am today without their motivation to help us learn. 

Senior Spotlight 2020: Maddy Gale

a series about our graduating seniors

“[Islam & Race and Religion, Nation, & State] were rooted in scholarship that had real world, real time applicability. I left those classes with theoretical bones to pick and activism to do!”

–Maddy Gale
Maddy Gale ’20

Why did you major in Religion?

My dad, a very open atheist, always told me the Bible was the best book he had ever read. 

In high school, theology and philosophy were my favorite subjects, so coming to college, I knew it was an area of interest! After my Theater major turned into a minor and my English major wasn’t cutting it, I took Islam & Modernity with IRMF (uh, that’s Prof Morgenstein Fuerst), added a double major in Religion, and the rest was history.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Writing! Not sure in what capacity, but I’m hoping that whatever career I’m in will involve writing.

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

Ooh that’s tough. I would say it’s a tie between Islam and Race with IRMF and Religion, Nation, and State with Professor Borchert. Both classes were rooted in scholarship that had real world, real time applicability. I left those classes with theoretical bones to pick and activism to do!

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

Yikes. Maybe a collection of short stories about losing a parent as a child, but that’s heavy… or a checking-my-white-girl-privilege type of memoir!

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

Cheese, crackers and sparkling cider in my Religion@UVM mug with Professor Trainor in Religion 100!

COVID-19 Bonus Question! You’re finishing up in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us something about that experience!

Hands down, my Religion professors have been the most understanding and kind humans during this time. This sh*t sucks, but every teacher from the department has had my back 100%. Thank you, thank you, thank you.  

Senior Spotlight 2020: Conor Murphy

a series about our graduating seniors

“I also like how the Religion Department let me be in my Ivory Tower crafting theories–but, more importantly, encouraged me to really think about what’s happening on the ground, where the real bodies are at, and to be self-critical and retrospective of the words, ideas and agendas we talk about. I have not noticed this type of radical self-awareness of academia in other departments..”

–Conor Murphy ’20
Conor Murphy '20

Why did you major in Religion?

I really like people watching–looking at people’s behavior and whatnot. Why do people do the things they do while thinking about what they are thinking? How do we each construct our own realities every day that affect our actions? A big part of that reality construct is religion or these things that may or may not be religion, but definitely sometimes “religion.” 

I also like how the Religion Department let me be in my Ivory Tower crafting theories–but, more importantly, encouraged me to really think about what’s happening on the ground, where the real bodies are at, and to be self-critical and retrospective of the words, ideas and agendas we talk about. I have not noticed this type of radical self-awareness of academia in other departments.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Oh god! Still studying Chinese, maybe ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I have a lot of dreams that can’t all exist at once in the future. So I at least hope I am producing helpful knowledge and advocating cross-cultural communication. Whether it’s on a macro-scale like producing papers and research for universities or other large institutions or a micro-scale like teaching the Chinese language or helping students travel abroad. Maybe even through brewing beer! Who knows?! I sure don’t! 

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

First, everyone should take a REL course! Religion is always in the room and you need to figure out the ways colonialism has naturalized in your ideas. Colonialism is lame.     

For me, the one course they shouldn’t miss is REL 145: Religion in China. Asia and specifically China–in my opinion as a Chinese & REL double major–is an interesting location with unique problems where we see the failure of translation of the word “religion.” Also, I am a big fan of Chinese ghost stories and ghost culture which is also covered in the course. A lot of popular ghost stories and horror movies come from Asia!

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

Something about Chinese ghosts. It could be fiction or nonfiction, probably a little of both. 

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

It’s my favorite building on campus. I just love the atmosphere of the whole building. More importantly, I have had a really tough college experience: rocky waters and weak knee(s)! 481 Main street and REL classes make me feel safe and valid. All of the Religion Department profs are my heroes.

COVID-19 Bonus Question! You’re finishing up in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us something about that experience!

It blows! It is so difficult for me to work, regardless of me recovering from my second right leg surgery of 2020.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the cycle of Orientalism to emerge again. Thanks to the Religion Department I feel really comfortable navigating through and debunking xenophobic and racist discourses. As someone who has spent time in China and has done a lot of academic work about the country, it’s just a  bummer to see this stuff going on. 

Senior Spotlight 2020: Carolynn Van Arsdale

a series about our graduating seniors

“The greatest skill a student can learn in [a Religion course] is being able to debunk mass generalizations and stereotypes, which is crucial to understand regardless of what career one has.”

–Carolynn Van Arsdale
Carolynn Van Arsdale ’20

Why did you major in Religion?

One of my first classes at UVM was a TAP course with Prof. Anne Clark titled What is the Bible? I thoroughly looked forward to doing the work for the course, and the class discussions constantly “blew my mind.” During the following semester I enrolled myself in Introduction to Islam with Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst, which totally sealed the deal for me to spend a large part of my undergraduate degree on the academic study of Religion.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

What a scary, but fun question! No matter what industry I end up in… my hope is that I will be helping others, whether that be teaching, advocating, leading, etc. I am looking forward to working hard for others as well as my own happiness.  

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

Considering the fact that we live in a dominantly Protestant society, I would suggest that a first-year take Introduction to Islam. Not only did I enjoy this course, but it is most definitely a class worth taking if one wants to improve their religious literacy. The greatest skill a student can learn in this course is being able to debunk mass generalizations and stereotypes, which is crucial to understand regardless of what career one has.  

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

Save the Humanities: How the Liberal Arts can better our World 

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

In What is the Bible? our class had dinner together in the Religion Seminar Room before heading to a Medieval Christmas Choir Concert at Southwick Hall. I became closer with my classmates, and it was such a treat to eat good food in a casual setting with one of my favorite professors. I managed to find two of my best friends from that class, and I am so grateful for that awesome experience.

COVID-19 Bonus Question! You’re finishing up in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us something about that experience!

I want to say a HUGE thank you to the Religion Department for going above and beyond during this time in how we as students are being cared for. It is not in a Professor’s job description to make sure that students are safe and healthy, but Religion Professors do it anyway. This has been and will continue to be a meaning-making experience for me, and completing my undergraduate degree will be a part of that.   


EDITOR’S NOTE:
Carolyn Van Arsdale is the 2020 winner of the
Outstanding Major Award.

Challenging a Disciplined Norm: A Longform Piece

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

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

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

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

Critiquing the Norm

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

mage result for clash of civilizations map

Source

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

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

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

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

A Well-Needed Reality Check

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

[5] Hurd, Beyond Religious Freedom, 9.

[6] Hurd, Beyond Religious Freedom, 9.

Work Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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