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.

“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. 

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

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

Dr. Simran Singh, September 26, 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senior Spotlight 2019: Juliet Duncan

481 always has such a calming, supportive, and knowledgeable atmosphere and it has never ceased to inspire me as both a student and a critical thinker. The passion for knowledge and care for students is always palpable within the religion department building and I have always really appreciated that. 

juliet duncan ’19

Why did you major in Religion?

I decided to major in religion after taking a course on Religion in Film and Television taught by Professor Andrus. I loved both sides of the course so much and it reminded me of the interest I had always hard towards those topics. I decided to continue taking film and religion courses afterwards and when it came time to choose a major I committed to both!

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I see myself working in television production in some form, utilizing the skills I gained as a religion major to adopt and critique different perspectives and be more thoughtful in the ways we both create and consume different narratives. 

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 say that a first- year student should make sure not to miss one of Professor Andrus’ Religion in Film and TV/Pop Culture classes because it relates more to your everyday life and allows you to see religious inspiration and thought in the secular world. It is a great introduction to religious studies for those that are not particularly religious or do not think they would be interested in it because it teaches you about the religious perspective while applying it to mundane/everyday actions/behaviors that you either don’t put much thought into or feel a strong connection to. It also demonstrates the power of storytelling across different medium and how those powers are mirrored in (or arguably stem from) religious tradition. 

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

If I were to write a book it would most likely be related to the social roles and influences of television in our everyday lives. Specifically, I would analyze the life expectations TV shows create for us as well as what we seek out in allowing a storytelling medium to become so intimately enmeshed in our lives. 

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

My fondest memories at 481 Main all revolve around the professors there and the religion department in general. 481 always has such a calming, supportive, and knowledgeable atmosphere and it has never ceased to inspire me as both a student and a critical thinker. The passion for knowledge and care for students is always palpable within the religion department building and I have always really appreciated that.