Why Study Religion? with Alumnus Seth Gaiters

Why Study Religion? is a video series in which the CSR asks its faculty, students, staff, and guests what is important to them about the academic study of religion and why more folks should consider pursuing it. Find out more about the Center and its initiatives HERE. To learn more about OSU’s Religious Studies Major, visit our website at THIS LINK.

Why does Dr. Seth Gaiters, a Comparative Studies alumnus, think it’s important to study religion? Shurouq Ibrahim, CSR’s Graduate Research Associate interviewed Dr. Gaiters to find out. Watch the video below for his response!

Shurouq: How would you answer the question: Why study religion?


Dr. Seth Gaiters:

I’ve been shaped and formed within a religious matrix, particularly within Black Christianity. So, even before I was born — there are stories of my mother singing hymns to me, while I’m in her womb, playing at the piano. I grew up in the thing. So then, when I realized what I’m within and the discourses that formed me and are swirling around me, I started to have questions. And so, I have a particular experience that is particularly unique; however, when I started to look more critically at the human experience in all our various particularities, one of the things I found was that religion is how people make sense of the ultimate significance of their lives. Religion — whatever that is — religions are the ways in which we orient ourselves in order to deal with shifting landscapes and suffering and pain and these ultimate questions about meaning in life. And I’ve found that people of the world…have these kinds of questions, have these kinds of struggles, and so the inversive is that I became intrigued about how this teaches me something about what it means to be human. And all of that complicated stuff that I just said, it matters to people. And if I’m concerned about people and the mattering of people, I want to understand what matters to them, and so religion helps me to get at those really deep questions.


Dr. Seth Emmanuel Gaiters received his Ph.D in Comparative Studies at OSU. He is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion and Africana Studies at University of North Carolina, Wilmington. His research examines African American religious studies, with particular interest in the exploration of religion and race through Black progressive social movements and cultures in America. He is currently completing a book manuscript, tentatively titled, #BlackLivesMatter and Religion in the Street: A Revival of the Sacred in the Public Sphere. 

Why Study Religion? with Alumnus Damon T. Berry

Why Study Religion? is a video series in which the CSR asks its faculty, students, staff, and guests what is important to them about the academic study of religion and why more folks should consider pursuing it. Find out more about the Center and its initiatives HERE. To learn more about OSU’s Religious Studies Major, visit our website at THIS LINK.

Why does Dr. Damon T. Berry, a Comparative Studies alumnus, think it’s important to study religion? Shurouq Ibrahim, CSR’s Graduate Research Associate interviewed Dr. Berry to find out. Watch the video below for his response!

Shurouq: Why is the study of religion important?


Dr. Damon T. Berry:

One, if you take the classical notion of what it meant to study the humanities or liberal arts, which was — and still is in ways that people don’t acknowledge — the foundation of higher education. The whole point of it wasn’t just so that you could be good at producing widgets. The point of it was to make a more well-rounded person who could engage very purposefully as a citizen, as someone who belongs to a community, has a certain situation in that community, has relative relationships of power in that context, and to act accordingly — to know yourself and your world well enough to engage intelligently with it. So I would argue that anybody benefits by studying religion — just by nature of the ways it’s going to make you engage with questions that you don’t otherwise get to engage with.

On the more immediate level, there’s no way that you’re going to talk about freedom in the American context, or the modern liberal democratic context, without having to wrestle with religion. In my Intro class, and in other contexts, when I talk about the history of religion in America, for example, we can’t not talk about the First Amendment, Article VI — which are the only two places where religion is mentioned in the Constitution — and the fact that religion is never defined in American law. And then you have subsequent legislation that affects people’s reproductive rights, it affects all sorts of things. So, whether you’re in business, whether you’re going to work in a law office, or you’re just going to be a person living in a modern liberal democracy, you have to know about these things. And if you don’t, there’s going to be a lot you don’t understand about why things are going the way they’re going. And in the context of religious freedom, this is on the UN Charter of Human Rights, so I don’t know if there’s a place on the planet where you can live where you don’t have to think about that.


Dr. Damon T. Berry received his Ph.D in Comparative Studies from OSU. He is currently an Associate Professor of Religion and Chair of Religious Studies at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. His research focuses on the imbrication of religious and racialized discourses that shape and inform ideologies and practices of exclusion and violence. He has published in several venues on topics such as religion and violence and the history of racist movements. He has written three monographs: Blood and Faith: Christianity in American White Nationalism Christianity & The Alt-Right: Exploring the Relationship, and most recently, The New Apostolic Reformation, Trump, and Evangelical Politics.

Why Study Religion? with Alumna Kati Fitzgerald

Why Study Religion? is a video series in which the CSR asks its faculty, students, staff, and guests what is important to them about the academic study of religion and why more folks should consider pursuing it. Find out more about the Center and its initiatives HERE. To learn more about OSU’s Religious Studies Major, visit our website at THIS LINK.

Why does Dr. Kati Fitzgerald, a Comparative Studies alumna, think it’s important to study religion? Shurouq Ibrahim, CSR’s Graduate Research Associate interviewed Dr. Fitzgerald to find out. Watch the video below for her response!


Shurouq: Why should people study religion academically?


Dr. Kati Fitzgerald: 

That’s a good question. We had a faculty panel recently [at Wittenberg] where the question was: Why go to college, or why get a liberal arts degree? And I think that my answer to both of those questions is quite similar, so there are maybe three things I can say on that.

One is that in order for us to live peacefully in the world…we come into contact with foreign others all of the time, with people that we don’t understand, with people we don’t agree with, with people who look different than us, who speak differently than us, who eat food or dress or act in the world differently than us, and in order for us to be able to live peacefully in the world we have to have some sort of common vocabulary. We have to be able to just feel comfortable having conversations and asking questions and engaging in the world. And I think the most fundamental benefit to a liberal arts education especially one in religion and religious studies or philosophy is that it just allows us to develop this vocabulary necessary for peaceful communication in the world.

The second reason is that part of, again, this drive towards peaceful coexistence is the need to develop the skill of compassion. And compassion isn’t just, “Oh, I feel sorry for somebody else who has experienced suffering,” but it’s really the practice of “taking off” my own point of view. I think some things, or I think I think some things, and if I practice, all of the time, not thinking those things — what if I just take off that hat and I allow myself to see and experience things from somebody else’s point of view? Then I’m able to not only feel empathy and connection with other human beings, but also, I become more flexible in my own thinking. I’m able to see — “actually, I’m mostly not right, mostly I’m wrong about almost everything. And therefore, I should have a sort of broad-minded approach and curiosity when I encounter other human beings.” Courses in religious studies, courses in religion and philosophy, are really good at doing that — sort of digging at your core understandings…So that practice, just doing that over and over again, creates a sort of countenance towards understanding others.

And then the third reason is that we are not just trying to replicate…or create better more efficient workers for a particular system. We’re not just trying to reinvent or repopulate the kind of working class for another generation, but really, we want to be thinking about new paradigms of justice. We live in a world that is violent, we live in a world that is unequal, we live in a world that is deeply unjust, and so we have to be thinking about — all the time — how do we really not just break down or criticize those systems but then build back up different kinds of understandings of ethics and morality and justice in the world? And so I think also that studying religion, thinking about these things deeply, breaking down our own understandings of what is right and wrong, and up and down, and black and white, allows us to creatively produce different forms of social justice in the world. Whether they are effective or not, I don’t know, but at least, I think, the study of religion allows to be thinking innovatively about the kinds of societies we want to build in the future.


Dr. Kati Fitzgerald received her Ph.D in Comparative Studies from OSU. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Religion at Wittenberg University. Her work centers on the lives and religious experiences of Tibetan lay women. She uses primarily ethnographic methods in contemporary Tibet to understand the religious theories of everyday Buddhists. She is also interested in the intersection between artistic production and religious practice, lineage, oral transmission and bodily forms of liberation. 

Why Study Religion? with Ph.D Candidate Zari Mahmoudi

Why Study Religion? is a video series in which the CSR asks its faculty, students, staff, and guests what is important to them about the academic study of religion and why more folks should consider pursuing it. Find out more about the Center and its initiatives HERE. To learn more about OSU’s Religious Studies Major, visit our website at THIS LINK.

Why does Zari Mahmoud, a Ph.D student in Near Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures, think it’s important to study religion? Shurouq Ibrahim, CSR’s Graduate Research Associate, sat down with Zari to find out! Watch the video below for Zari’s response!


Shurouq: Zari, why did you choose to study religion? And why should others study religion?


Zari: That is a really interesting question. Thank you for asking. For me, it was because I was always interested in…reading mystical literature, mystical texts, mostly Sufism, because I studied Persian language and literature. And for me, it was important to know…what is the cosmology — what is the reason to get to know the universe rather than just the mundane life that we have.  How can a human being be connected to God and be unified [with God] as those Sufis going through those journeys and ’ahwāl and maqāmāt? It started off with my mother reading Mawlānā poetry for me. Later on, I did so many other studies like reading Mathnawi myself, Shams’ lyrics, Attār’s works and Jāmi’s works and so many other Sufis. And right now, I’m really interested in working on women and female mystics in other religions like Christianity, Kabbalism, and also Islam. So, I think it’s important to study religion as a human being to know other reasons — rather than just biological reasons — why we [humans] are here [on earth], and [ask] what is the origin of the universe, or what is one of the reasons for the origin of the universe? It just always soothes me to study about it and learn more about it. This is my reason for why I study religion.*

*Note on terms:

  • Ahwāl pl. Hāāl: a temporary state of consciousness, generally as a product of spiritual practice that a Sufi reaches.
  • Maqāmāt pl. Maqām: literally meaning “spiritual station” that a Sufi must pass through to reach one of two outcomes: annihilation or unity with God.
  • Mawlānā (Rumi/ Balkhi) was a 13th century Sufi, poet, and Islamic scholar who is famous for his Mathnawi, which is an extensive poem written in Persian and one of the most influential works in Sufism scholarship.
  • Jāmi was a 15th century poet and Sufi scholar known for his great works in Sufi literature.

Zari Mahmoudi is a Ph.D candidate from the NESA department at OSU. She is currently researching female mystics and Chivalric spirituality in 13th century and 15th century Persian literature.  

Interview with 2023 Iles Award Winner Evan DeCarlo

Congratulations to CSR’s latest Iles Award winner, Evan DeCarlo!

Evan is a doctoral fellow in the interdisciplinary Folklore Program of The Ohio State University’s English Department. His research interests cover the legendry genre, digital narrative, and the intersection between folklore and Web 2.0 era vernacular spaces and modes. Shurouq Ibrahim, CSR’S Graduate Research Associate, sat down with Evan to see what the CSR’s Iles Award means for his research!

Shurouq: Can you tell me about your research as a graduate student at OSU?

Evan: I am a Ph.D student of the English department but, also, as a person with their focus in folklore, half my research is also involved in Comparative Studies which is how the folklore program works. My research, as a folklorist, focuses primarily on the legend genre, which is an interesting term. Legend. It has a particular meaning to folklorists and one that I’ll talk about a little bit; it has a kind of all-over-the-place meaning. But it also has a more exoteric definition in the broader — we can say, the Anglophone world — particularly North America. And I have looked at legend from a lot of different angles for a lot of my research career as a grad student…But for my dissertation, I wanted to take a look at what I have decided to call “hoax-lore”— manufactured legend — legend we wouldn’t, by a conventional, sort of traditional, definition of legend…recognize as necessarily belonging in that genre because of their authorial provenance. The full title of the dissertation, which is kind of a mouthful, is “Hoax-Lore: The Aestheticization of Truth through Fabricated Legend,” which is a lot, but [it] gives you the components of what’s going on…The big two things that stick in addition to legends being localized are these two other factors that really oscillate a lot: truth and belief in the way that — throughout the twentieth century — trying to define legend has a lot to do with what different scholars have to say about truth and belief…Going into mid-century folkloristics and beyond, we have this idea that when we use the term “legend” out and about and in our daily lives, I think what we tend to mean is: it’s fiction, that’s just a legend; it’s just made up, it’s not real, it’s not true. Folklorists have been using a — not identical — but in many ways similar definition for legend especially  as a way to delineate or delimit, or even demarcate, the genre from its sister genres of something like tale, or fairy tale, and then myth, on the other hand. The way legend has been variously defined then floats around these two factors: truth and belief.

Shurouq: Right. And this brings me to my second question: How does your research intersect at all with the study of religion?

Evan: Sure. Certainly, nominally, I am not studying religion at all, but what I am definitely studying is belief, which certainly has quite a lot to do with religion. There’s been a lot of talk in folkloristics about the rhetoric of believability, and I think to some extent my research really embraces this. It says: What are we learning about what it takes to believe something? Another way of phrasing that question would be: What does it take to understand something as true, as potentially believed, or as truly believed? And to that end, I think what looking at hoax-lore and the way it moves (and legend in general) has taught me is that truth has a lot less to do…with a platonic sense of truth than it might with…believability…This really interesting idea of truth as collectively and culturally instantiated via repetition and consensus, and then the sort of simulation of that process is very interesting to me at least in the way it’s been expressed in…hoax-legends. Now I don’t know how much you might be able to move this into the world of the study of religion, but I certainly think there is application especially just via the ritualization of a lot of these factors — the traditionality of them as well.

Shurouq: Nice! And what did the Iles Award mean for your research? How did it advance your research in any way?

Evan: Well, I think building on what I just said, that was the idea that my research could have some cachet, some legs, in a field nominally other than folkloristics was really inspiring to me. A group of people who were working for the Center for the Study of Religion and participating in all these other different disciplines could still look at it and say, “I think there’s something here worth talking about” — outside the primary context of folkloristics — was definitely [important]. Other than just the monetary aid of the award…maybe there is some utility to what I am looking at here….That’s a really nice way for a graduate student to be inspired to keep working. Maybe what I’ve considered as a very esoteric little niche [interest] isn’t so squirreled away after all. And then over the summer, I took my project to an interdisciplinary conference in Serbia, of all places, which was primarily an international relations conference and got some political scientists to comment on it. And it turns out there may be applications there too. When you take a concept like the “fake,” the “hoax”…and you give yourself permission to not think about it that way…you get a lot of mileage out of it. And I think that the Iles Award, for me, was sort of like a permission to start examining this from other perspectives. That there was a hospitality to this kind of thinking in disciplines other than my own sub-sub-sub field, which was really encouraging. And then, of course, just being able to have some money as a graduate student has been extremely helpful.

Shurouq: Wonderful! Thank you for this, Evan!

Interview with 2022 Iles Award Winner Ishmael Konney

Ishmael Konney is an OSU alumnus who earned his M.A degree in International Studies from Ohio University and his MFA degree in Dance from Ohio State University. Shurouq Ibrahim, CSR’s Graduate Research Associate, interviewed Ishmael to ask what the Iles Award meant to him!

Shurouq: Could you tell me about your research as a graduate student/alumnus of OSU?

Ishmael: Thank you for this opportunity. My larger research interest focuses on the promotion of the Ghanaian cultural identity and every project I embark on is under the auspices of this  research. My immediate research explores the intersectionality between Ghanaian cultural practices and contemporary dance.Looking at ways that I can share my Ghanaian values in the work I make on and off stage. Currently the cultural practice I work with is traditional Ghanaian storytelling. Ghanaian storytelling encompasses music, dance, theatre, other visual arts and dissolves any division between the performers and the audience, creating a participatory environment in which every person involved is important. With my training in music, theatre and dance, storytelling becomes a conglomerate and a medium for me to share my artistic expertise while fostering a communal experience for the audience and performers. So, you can think of my research as a pyramid scheme, where the main idea at the top births multiple interests but every new interest is tethered to the main idea at the top.

Shurouq: How does your research intersect with the study of myth and religion, if at all? Why do you think the study of religion is important?

Ishmael: The research that got me the [Iles] award “W)gb3j3k3” was investigating the migration of the Ga people. History has it that the Ga people migrated from Israel to their present location. Most of the Ghanaian stories are embedded in our oral traditions and these stories are passed on from generation to generation through folktales, legends, and myths. My culture is preserved through myths and folktales so my history cannot be accessed without talking about and honoring  these oral traditions. According to Paschal Younge in his book I Am a Ghanaian Cultural Ambassador: A Manual for Traditional Drumming and Dance Groups of Ghana, “there were no tangible or reliable documentary sources on Ga history before the 1600’s. Most of the history can be found in folktales, songs, legends, myths, poems, and other traditional oral sources” (2016, 135). The study of religion aids in understanding the people that are being studied, their beliefs and their way of life. This becomes a bedrock to understand how these histories exist and are embedded in the culture of the people. It is essential to examine the religion of a group of people while studying their history.

Shurouq: How did you hear about the Iles Award offered through the Center for the Study of Religion?

Ishmael: Faculty in the dance department at OSU always share funding resources to the grad students. Similarly, an email was shared about this funding opportunity, and I did not hesitate to apply because my research project was a perfect fit.

Shurouq: And how did the Iles Award contribute to the advancement of your research?

Ishmael: Firstly, it was and is still expensive to travel to Ghana from the US and this award defrayed majority of the travel cost. I was able to have conversations around the traditions of the La people and that developed into a documentary which was not part of my initial plans. The initial goal was to record the conversation about the migration so I could generate movements and build the concept for my final piece. The conversations were educative, and I wanted to share the information with other people and the world so I scheduled with the religious leader to have another interview that developed into a documentary about the history of the La people.

Ishmael Konney in traditional Ghanian dress.

Shurouq: Where are you currently? And what are your current projects? 

Ishmael: I am currently an Assistant Teaching Professor of Dance in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Ball State University, located in Muncie, Indiana. I also serve as a dance faculty at Kentucky Governors School for the Arts ummer program. My recent project was a collaborative piece choreographed by myself and  Jenn Meckley (dance faculty at Ball State) titled “Fusion”. It was a piece that celebrated community through various cultures, identities, movement, and music, and emphasized the dynamic interweaving of traditional West African forms, American house dance, Afro-house dance, dancehall, Afrobeats, and Hip-hop.

Shurouq Ibrahim: Thank you!

To watch Ishmael’s documentary, click here.

Interview with 2022 Iles Award Winner Zahra Abedinezhad

Zahra Abedinezhad is a Ph.D candidate in Comparative Studies and Folklore at OSU. Having backgrounds in Law (TMU, Iran) and in Folk Studies (Western Kentucky University), she is interested in exploring intersections between religious practices and social regulations/codes. She is currently working on mourning performances of Iranian women. Shurouq Ibrahim, CSR’S Graduate Research Associate, sat down with Zahra to see what the CSR’s Iles Award means for her research!

Shurouq: Hi, Zahra. Thanks for doing this interview with the Center for the Study of Religion. Would you just introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your research?

Zahra: Sure. I’m Zahra Abedinezhad. I’m a Ph.D candidate in Comparative Studies with a GIS in folklore. It’s my fourth year of the Ph.D, and my research is called “Resisting Mourning: Vernacular Ta’ziyeh in Iran.” The focal point of my research is a myth that [is] called the “Karbala” event. Some people [call it] an event; some people say it [is] a story…but it’s a sacred story, and based on our definition in folklore and religious studies, we call this a myth. So, I am trying to understand how this myth is interpreted and used by people and how this [clashes] with an understanding of religious authorities in power. At different times, throughout history, this myth becomes a source for people to perform a vernacular religious theatre that is called Ta’ziyeh, and I have that in the title [of my dissertation]. As I said, Ta’ziyeh literally means mourning. So, people reenact that story via Ta’ziyeh. Throughout history, sometimes [Ta’ziyeh] was complicated; it was forbidden, [but] sometimes it was a national symbol of the country [Iran] —  we have a Karbala vernacular folkloristic theatre…

But I, as a folklore researcher/researcher who is interested in religious studies, (because this is a ritual, this a sacred story that ritual is based on that), I am trying to understand at this current time in Iran specifically because of different critical, social, cultural circumstances, how different groups, different communities interpret this story to perform their resistance. There is a sub-group that I discovered so far, that I identified, that [says] the way that [the Karbala myth] is performed or should be performed is really trying to challenge [those in] power. But, this is the way that [only one] group of Iranians claim it. But the way that the state treats this performance is very complicated. Sometimes they say, this is good and we accept this because it helps the proliferation of [the] Shia movement (because the majority of the Iranians are Shia and they stake claims to the Islamic Republic). But for those groups [that mentioned before], they say, “We are religious; we like to perform religion but the way that this performance should be performed is really challenging whoever is [in] power.” Shiism was supposed to be a band of rebels against tyranny and now because tyranny is happening and is implement[ed] by the Islamic authorities and power in Iran, they are saying: “What if we interpret this Ta’ziyeh, this performance, as a performance of resistance and just try to learn some lessons from this performance. It is not enough to just perform it; it is a resource for learning ethical and religious principles and one is: resisting tyranny — resistance mandatory rules. I am more interested in these kinds of interpretations, and I want to know how Ta’ziyeh and the Karbala myth is used as a means of resistance in current times in Iran.

Shurouq: I think you’ve already touched on how your research is relevant to the study of religion. You previously won the Center for the Study of Religion’s Iles Award. Could you tell us how the Iles Award advanced your research or what the award means to your research?

Zahra: First of all, it’s the validity that the award can give to my research. It is good to be connected with different centers, specifically when your primary themes [are] related to their subjects of study. Again, this is a vernacular religious theatre that is performed in Iran. This is focal to the system also, because the system (the Islamic Republic of Iran) is a religious system. First, and the most important thing for me was the validity — the prestige of winning an award.

Second, of course, financially, because my topic is a bit sensitive and I have to be cautious about the way that I talk and the way that I publicize my research so I cannot really save the data that I collect in [the] cloud or free spaces. I have to, for example, buy hard drives to save a lot pictures, a lot videos, and a lot of tweets, because I have to take screenshots of a lot of tweets. I have to save them in equipment, right? So, this award helped me to buy those kinds of research equipment. Before, I was planning to go to Iran to do my fieldwork in person. Unfortunately, so far, I [have not been] able to do it, it’s not possible to go there — to make it possible. But I am still waiting, so I saved some of this money for my trip in the future, but also [the] archive is one of the other research methods that I use and I was able, for example, to go to the archive of film studies in New York to collect some data there. Also, in D.C., I was able to collect some archival materials in the summer about Ta’ziyeh and how this was performed in different historical periods. Besides the legitimacy and besides the “fame” of the award, I am using that as a kind of source to overcome the financial barriers, you know, the fiscal barriers that I encounter during my research…what else? And equipment, really, equipment. And you know, we, as Ph.D students, always need books, right? Of course, borrowing from libraries is an option, but sometimes you really want to have those books. For example, during summer, I needed to have those books with [me] when I was traveling, so it was easier to buy the books…I think that’s it!

Shurouq: Well, thank you. I appreciate you answering my questions. Those were all the questions I had for you today. 

Why Study Religion? with Ph.D Student Patrick Dunn

Why Study Religion? is a video series in which the CSR asks its faculty, students, staff, and guests what is important to them about the academic study of religion and why more folks should consider pursuing it. Find out more about the Center and its initiatives HERE. To learn more about OSU’s Religious Studies Major, visit our website at THIS LINK.

Why does Patrick Dunn, a Ph.D student in Comparative Studies think it’s important to study religion? Watch the video below to find out!



Patrick Dunn: Religion connects us with the vastness of what we don’t know, and that includes the very ancient human past. Religion is our link to our lost ancestry as a species. And religion is also — at least it has been for the last 5000 years or so — what connects humans to the cosmos beyond our understanding, beyond what is conceivable, really, as a reminder that our knowledge is limited, and that the universe is greater than we can comprehend. So, I think those are some of the really important reasons to study religion.

Patrick Dunn is a first-year Ph.D student in Comparative Studies. He is interested in the ways modern “secular” institutions mediate human relationships to the “paranormal” and “supernatural,” and how these relationships replicate a logic of religious secrecy. Before coming to OSU, he lived for ten years as a Zen Buddhist monastic and ordained priest.


REFLECTIONS – “Lending to God: Charitable Giving in an Age of Commerce” with Dr. Adam Davis

by Savannah H. Finver

On December 1, 2022, Dr. Adam Davis, Professor of History at Denison University, delivered the annual Don and Barbara Davis Lecture in Christianity, co-sponsored by the Department of Comparative Studies, the Center for the Study of Religion, the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and the Department of History. The lecture, entitled “Lending to God: Charitable Giving in an Age of Commerce,” focused on the emergent connection between charitable giving, especially in the form of almsgiving, and the increase in rhetoric around the profit economy popularized in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Davis’ argument stems in part from his recent book, The Medieval Economy of Salvation: Charity, Commerce, and the Rise of the Medieval Hospital (2019) which was awarded the Ohio Academy of History’s 2021 Publication Award for best work published in the previous year by an author from the state of Ohio. While the book focuses more heavily on the founding of hospitals during the 12th-13th centuries, Davis’ lecture focused primarily on the ideas circulating through both churches and the emerging market economy which led to charitable giving being reframed as a kind of spiritual capital; that is, as a loan that a layperson could make to God which God would then be obligated to repay “tenfold” or even “a hundred fold.” Crucially, this reframing of charitable giving in economic terms directly challenged prior notions of the very definition of “charity” put forth in the gospel as Christian clergymen had interpreted the text before.

The problem with framing charitable giving as a “loan,” as Davis explains it, is that by definition, a loan requires reciprocity, meaning that which is given must be compensated or repaid in full. Furthermore, usury, or the taking of interest on a loan (being paid back tenfold, for example), was explicitly denounced as a sin in early Christian and Catholic teachings, and in certain cases in Jewish and Muslim teachings as well. Charity, then, at least prior to the 12th century, implied a certain type of attitude towards the act of giving, that the giving must be performed without any expectation of compensation or reward in return, even emotional or spiritual reward. In the 12th and 13th centuries, though, it was the very promise of spiritual reward or spiritual capital in Heaven—indeed, sometimes even material rewards on Earth—that clergymen used to encourage their congregations to engage in almsgiving. Though the idea of performing good works, especially in the form of charitable giving, in order to secure favor with God may sound like a familiar idea to readers today, in the 13th century it amounted to a fundamental paradigm shift, one which would usher in a new era of conceiving God as a debtor to his human creations, who were in turn conceived as merchant creditors with the power to force or manipulate God into providing them material or spiritual wealth in exchange for their good deeds. In other words, the language used in churches to discuss charitable giving began to take on the same terms and ideas that were emerging from the profit market. Put differently, churches began borrowing the language of economy to make sense of the gospel to their congregations. You can see some examples of how this language was equated and interchanged in the table below:

Economy Church
loan charity
debtor God
creditor layperson
repayment spiritual reward
profit favor
market congregation

At the end of the lecture, many audience members remarked that, though they very much enjoyed the lecture, they were unsurprised by Davis’ findings and felt that the language of market/profit economy was still very present currently in churches and in matters of charitable giving. For my part, I was reminded multiple times throughout Davis’ talk of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (originally published in English in 1930) and my own undergraduate advisor Craig Martin’s Capitalizing Religion. Because the rise in free market capitalism coincides pretty closely to the height of Protestant Reformation (in the 16th century), it hardly seems surprising that the commercialized language that would become the center of the modern world would inevitably have an impact on those discourses we call “religious” as well. Relying in part on Weber’s argument that the Calvinist expectation for engaging in good works drove the development of modern capitalism, Martin argues that many kinds of so-called “religious” discourses have been adapted to produce a particular kind of docile worker–one which won’t protest worsening conditions in the workplace and accepts individual responsibility for systemic issues. No corner is truly safe, it would seem–even the supposedly “separate” sphere of religion–from the jaws of the gods of the marketplace.

We look forward to continuing these conversations at next year’s Davis Symposium, a day packed with discussions about Christianity and Capitalism, on Oct. 27, 2023. We hope to see you there!

Research Notes from the Field, 2022 – Dr. Hugh Urban

Our faculty blog contains short posts from faculty members affiliated with the Center for the Study of Religion updating us on current events in Religious Studies and the progress of their research. Read on to learn more about Dr. Hugh Urban’s recent trip to India to continue his studies on the practice of Tantra.

Research Notes, 2022

Hugh B. Urban

Professor, Department of Comparative Studies

From January to February 2022, I traveled to northeast India to continue research on a project that I have been working on since around 2001. With the working title of “The Path of Desire: Living Tantra in Northeast India,” the project focuses on the lived, popular, and vernacular forms of Hindu Tantra in the state of Assam. Historically, Tantra is one of the most important forms of Asian religions, which spread throughout both Hindu and Buddhist traditions from roughly the sixth century CE onward. But it is also one of the most widely misunderstood and misrepresented. While most European Orientalist scholars and Christian missionaries of the nineteenth century dismissed Tantra as “black art of the crudest and filthiest kind,” modern American popular audiences have celebrated Tantra as a form of “spiritual sex” and a “cult of ecstasy” (as we see in books such as The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Tantric Sex). My project looks instead at Tantra as it is practiced today in Assam, which is often identified as one of the oldest centers and perhaps original heartland of Tantra. Known in early sources as Kamarupa (the “place” or “form” [rupa] of “desire” [kama]), Assam is the seat of the mother goddess Kamakhya (the goddess of desire), whose temple is believed to be the locus of the goddess’ yoni (womb and/or sexual organ; see figures 1 and 2). The most important festival at the temple is Ambuvaci Mela, which celebrates the goddess’ annual menstruation and coincides with the coming of the monsoon in early summer.

Kamakhya Temple, Assam

Kamakhya Temple, Assam (Fig. 1)

Lajja Gauri, the Goddess giving birth, outer wall of Kamakhya Temple

Lajja Gauri, the Goddess giving birth, outer wall of Kamakhya Temple (Fig. 2)

In my project, I am not only interested in understanding this fascinating tradition and its historical development; more importantly, I am also grappling with the changing nature of this tradition in the twenty-first century, in the face of Hindu nationalism, globalization, neoliberal capitalism, tourism, and a rapidly developing Indian economy, all of which have radically transformed many traditional religious sites. For the sake of these brief research notes, I will highlight just two examples from my recent research.

Perhaps the most striking transformation concerns the goddess’ annual menstruation festival, Ambuvaci Mela. For the last five or six years, the festival has been aggressively promoted by conservative Hindu politicians, including India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and Assam’s Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma.  Modi and others are explicitly trying to use goddess temples and pilgrimage sites as new symbols of Hindu nationalism and as a means of accelerating India’s economic growth, particularly in the northeast states. When I visited the festival in 2017, for example, I noted huge billboards featuring Prime Minister Modi himself, welcoming visitors to come “Come, seek the blessings of Maa Kamakhya” in the “Cradle of Tantra” (Figures 3 and 4). This promotion by the conservative BJP government is profoundly ironic, however. This is, after all, a Tantric festival based on the goddess’ menstruation, which involves practices that are typically condemned by conservative Hindus like Modi. Perhaps most controversial is the practice of animal sacrifice, which is considered to be essential to the goddess’ worship in Assam, where large numbers of goats, buffaloes, pigeons, fish, and sheep are sacrificed each year (Figure 5). In Assam and throughout India, conservative religious and political groups have attempted to ban the practice, which they see as barbaric, primitive, and fundamentally “un-Hindu.”

Billboard for Ambuvaci Mela featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Assam state politicians.

Billboard for Ambuvaci Mela featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Assam state politicians. (Fig. 3)

Billboard for Ambuvaci Mela

Billboard for Ambuvaci Mela (Fig. 4)

Another key focus in my project is the practice of magic in Assam, where it is usually referred to as tantra-mantra or jadu. From very early sources, Assam has been known as the “land of magic,” and still today it retains a reputation of a realm of enchantment and particularly of black magic or sorcery. Indeed, Assam has the dubious distinction of having the most witchcraft accusations and witch killings in South Asia; since 2010, over 100 suspected witches have been murdered in the region – most of them women. In this part of my project, I discuss the village of Mayong, Assam, which has a widespread reputation as the quintessential “land of black magic.” In recent years, the village has also been promoted as a tourist destination, with posters reading “Welcome to Mystic Mayong,” and numerous Youtube videos and social media sites advertising this as “India’s own Hogwarts” and as the center of Tantric magic in South Asia (Figures 6-7). For this part of the project, I interviewed three male practitioners of tantra-mantra in Mayong, as well as one female activist who is fighting against witch-hunting in Assam (Figures 8-10). I was basically trying to understand how these individuals navigate the complex terrain of Tantra, magic and witchcraft in the twenty-first century, particular in the context of globalization and social media in which they might become the subjects of a Youtube video or a Facebook post, or — conversely – the target of viral witchcraft accusations.

Goat sacrifice, Kamakhya Temple

Goat sacrifice, Kamakhya Temple (Fig. 6)

Poster from the Mayong Museum

Poster from the Mayong Museum (Fig. 7)

Prabin Saikiya, a local bej (healer) and practitioner of tantra-mantra in Mayong

Prabin Saikiya, a local bej (healer) and practitioner of tantra-mantra in Mayong (Fig 9)

Tilok Hazarika, a practitioner of tantra-mantra in Mayong

Tilok Hazarika, a practitioner of tantra-mantra in Mayong (Fig. 9)

Birubala Rabha, a female activist who fights against witch-hunting in Assam

Birubala Rabha, a female activist who fights against witch-hunting in Assam (Fig. 10)

At least at this point in my research, I am concluding that Tantra today lies at the complex intersection or “node” between a great number of different social, political, and religious interests. To borrow Michel Foucault’s term, it is a kind of “linchpin” at the intersection of many tensions – tensions between religion and magic, between local identity and Hindu nationalism, between “tradition” and modernization, between spiritual practice and the inexorable forces of globalization, tourism, neoliberalism, and economic development.  In fairly simplistic schematic terms, these tensions could perhaps be diagrammed as follows:

tantra diagram