belief, queer, religion, sociology, spirituality
In the past twenty years or so, I have been teaching—first in the Division of Politics and Sociology, Nottingham Trent University (1995–2007) and then the School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Nottingham (from 2007)—a second-year undergraduate elective course called Belief, Spirituality, and Religion, currently taught over an eleven-week term. In this brief piece, I share my reflections on how, in designing the curriculum, I uphold, to a certain extent, the conventional curriculum of sociology of religion1—by which many students expect this course to be framed—but also to queer this presumption. I often jokingly tell students who have pursued sociology of religion on pre-university level that this course is sociology of religion "with a queer twist." Therefore, they—who are predominantly white, middle class, and secular—should expect to emerge from the learning process disoriented, but, hopefully, intellectually and emotionally stimulated.
The term queer, which is variantly deployed in literature, needs to be explicated and delineated at the outset. To me, queer is about positionality: a position vis-à-vis the normative, the established, the hegemonic. In this case, it is a position I deliberately situate the course in relation to the conventional curriculum of sociology of religion. Queer is also action. Once [End Page 111] the counternormative position is anchored, from there disrupting energies are unleashed, leading not only to the interrogation of the conventional curriculum but also to some form of paradigm shift. Queering, therefore, aims to deconstruct supposedly stable and normalized disciplinary contents and boundaries. In my course, this queering manifests itself in three ways, which I think, based on student feedback, enriches the learning experience. I discuss these queering strategies in turn.
Decentering Christianity, the Institutional, and the Collective
What we habitually conceive as sociology of religion in the United Kingdom is, in essence, sociology of British (Western) Christianity. From a historical and sociocultural point of view, this focus is understandable indeed. However, this taken-for-granted and powerful underpinning often leads to the unhelpful academic habit of using Christianity as the template for the study of religions in general. The secularization theory—which, broadly, argues that modernization leads to the decline of religion—is an example par excellence. For decades, this theory assumed a hegemonic status in the sociology of religion. However, on closer inspection, its empirical foundation, primarily underpinned by the development of institutional Christianity in the United Kingdom (and Western Europe more broadly), is rather specific. This theory, for a long time, was seemingly blind to the growth of Christianity in other parts of the world, and the proliferation of some other religions (for example, Islam) in the West and across the world. Therefore, in my course, I encourage students to be critical about the cultural and geographical specificities of this theory and to take a more nuanced and global look at the relationship between modernity and religion, envisioning multiple trajectories and outcomes. Even strictly within the UK context, students often find it fascinating to explore the complex religious landscape, with, for instance, the decline of "traditional" Christianity alongside the rise of non-Western migrant churches as well as Islam.
In my effort to decenter Christianity in the learning of religion, I expand the learning of classical perspectives which conventionally focus on the works of Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber, to include also the works of Ibn Khaldūn, the fourteenth-century North African Arab historiographer, historian, and philosopher. I was fortunate to have started my journey with sociology of religion in the 1980s in Malaysia (a predominantly Muslim but significantly multireligious country), where the sociocultural context enabled the learning of non-Western and non-Christian perspectives of religion. Over three decades later, I still recall my excitement of learning about Khaldūn, whose work neutralized the sociocultural disconnect I often felt in relation to the works of [End Page 112] sociology's other three "founding fathers." Since I have been on the other side of the fence, so to speak, I have been deeply committed to expanding my students' horizon in this respect. Indeed, I have been encouraged by the...