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Online Program Book

The AAR's inaugural Online June Sessions of the Annual Meetings were held on June 25, 26, and 27, 2024. For program questions, please reach out to

This is the preliminary program for the 2024 in-person Annual Meeting, hosted with the Society for Biblical Literature in San Diego, CA - November 23-26. Pre-conference workshops and many committee meetings will be held November 22. If you have questions about the program, contact All times are listed in local/Pacific Time.


Theme: Collecting Religion: Media, Material Culture, and Museum Violence

Saturday, 9:00 AM - 11:00 AM


  • They are Taken from the Earth: Nahua Collecting in the Early Modern Period


     This paper proposes an elaborate process of Native collecting based on information gathered from colonial Nahuatl-language sources and available material culture from archeological sites, in particular Teotihuacan, Tollan, and Tenochtitlan (1325-1521). The paper connects oztomecameh “disguised traders,” members of the telpochcalli “house of youth,” and calpixque “caretakers of big house.” Together they ensured that precious goods—like those the ancient left behind—arrived safely back to their city-states, where they were subsequently stored, classified, and directed to their appropriate destinations in the Nahua market economy.

  • Ordering Religion: Museum Classification & Cultural Evolution


    This paper will focus on the methods of categorization that Cyrus Adler (1863-1940), the Smithsonian’s first curator of religion, and others at the Smithsonian used to sort religious objects from different communities and religious groups. Adler was charged with conserving objects that had some sort of religious significance. He specifically focused on monotheistic traditions, while objects relating to Indigenous traditions of the Americas, Africa, Australia, and elsewhere were not under his purview. These objects were held separately, in anthropological collections. I will be exploring the rationale for this method of classification, and the implications of museum categorization for understandings of religious hierarchies. During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, museums like the Smithsonian often distinguished between Indigenous and “world” religions based on a racialized system of cultural evolution. This led to uneven treatment of Indigenous and non-Native religious objects.

  • A Debt to Decay? Envisioning Decolonial Ethics and Indigenous Materialism in the Museum


    In this paper I think from and with a contested collection of thousands of Maya offerings from the sacred site of México which have been housed at Harvard’s Peabody Museum for over a century. This assemblage of materials can be understood as populated by powerful entities in relational networks both past and present. For Mesoamerican peoples these material bodies, like human and animal bodies, are imbued with life forces—they are active and essential participants in cycles of life and death, fertility, regeneration, and beyond. Yet, in coming to the museum they are treated as inanimate objects. Here, I attend to materials which “fall through the cracks” of conventional repatriation and thus will remain, for the foreseeable future, in museum storage. What are the ethical obligations of preservation or of decay to these Indigenous belongings? This paper interrogates traditional assumptions and explores alternatives for life and death in the anthropology museum.

  • ‘It’s Giving … Colonization’: Challenges to Mental Resilience, Spirituality and Storytelling for Indigenous Pacific Youth


    Indigenous Pacific Island youth living in the diaspora, particularly in Aotearoa New Zealand, increasingly express difficulty in grappling with the role Christianity has played in colonization and how this impacts their self-identity and wellbeing. This paper will explore perspectives of indigenous storytelling shared on popular social media accounts and streaming platforms which celebrate pre-Christian indigenous Pacific spiritualities and practices, as well as question and criticise forms of Christianity that continue to colonize Pacific communities. Cultural and spiritual identity and a sense of belonging to place are key to the mental resiliency of Pacific youth. Further, Pacific Island youth do not necessarily have access to decolonized Christian theologies in their church communities, or know that this type of theology exists. I reflect on how authentic storytelling is key for challenging media stereotypes for indigenous Pacific youth, especially on the topic of how pre-Christian spiritualities sit alongside Christian theology in everyday life.


Theme: Quakers, Fellow Travelers, Racial Justice, and Peace

Saturday, 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM

This panel examines how two “fellow travelers” of the Quakers, Charles C. Burleigh (1810-1878) and Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), theorized and practiced the relationship between pacifism and racial justice in their respective political projects. A broader discussion with an esteemed respondent will explore how Quaker attitudes toward racial justice transformed from the Civil War through the mid-twentieth century.

  • American Abolitionist Non-Violence as Seen in the Life of Charles C. Burleigh (1810-1878): Uniting Philosophy, Practice, and Religious Eclecticism


    Charles Calistus Burleigh (1810-1878) was a proponent of Immediate Abolition who was also a committed adherent to principles of peace and non-violence. His pacifism and non-resistant ideas were tried in actual struggle, as he was present at some infamous attacks upon the Abolitionists, such as the attempt in Boston to attack William Lloyd Garrison (1835) and the destruction of Pennsylvania Hall (1838). Based primarily on original archival research, this presentation looks at his combination of theory and practice, aided by an eclectic approach to religious resources from groups as disparate as the Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers, that highlight how Burleigh's direct engagement with the struggle helped accelerate the diffusion of non-violent ideas from many sources into a genuine practice that, despite its shortcomings, can speak to issues of social justice that remain cogent today, including race, gender, capital punishment and the violence of war. 

  • Bayard Rustin’s Quakerism: A Radical Habitus


    Scholars have underplayed Bayard Rustin’s Quakerism.  Labeled a “Gandhian,” Rustin is said to have prioritized techniques Gandhi tested in India over biblically-based teachings about nonviolence from a distant past.  Gandhi did influence Rustin; however, I argue that Quakerism played a key role, as shown in Rustin’s “holy experiments'' at the Ashland Federal Penitentiary and at interracial institutes he organized.  Rustin’s Quakerism is revealed as a radical habitus (N. Crossley).  Rustin called on fellow Quakers to “expend our energies in developing a creative method of dealing non-violently with conflict,” to “make war impossible in ourselves and then make it impossible in society,” and to share with others what Quakers already have at hand: “a pattern for a ‘way of life that can do away with the occasion of war.’”  Rustin’s experiments, grounded in this “way of life,” powerfully influenced non-violent direct actions he organized.



Theme: "Have we met the Other? Is it Us?" : Pagan Identities Through Board Games, Music, Rhizomes and Conversion

Sunday, 12:30 PM - 2:30 PM

There is deep interest in the scholarly community of Pagan Studies in the processes of otherization and conscious estrangement. ‘Pagan’ as a discursive polysemy inflects along multiple metaphoric and metonymic trajectories both before and alongside the development of Contemporary Paganism as a religious category. Its role as anti-Christian slur finds developments in historic board games that reflect and reproduce popular prejudices, yet its role as transgressive Other carries currency for religious seekers. Roots in Romanticism and the Natural Sublime invite descriptions as “nature religion,” yet increasing numbers of witches identify as secular, rejecting religious identity altogether. This session looks to material and sonic culture, ideological competition and rhizomatic spread as substrates for elaboration, recursion and rejection.

  • (Working Title): Playing the Pagan: How a proselytizing board game led to violence


    It was 1844 in Salem, Massachusetts when the W. and S.B. Ives Company published a provocative new board game: “The Game of Pope and Pagan, or Siege of the stronghold of Satan, by the Christian army.” Likely inspired from The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, this two player, missionary-based game pits the “papal and pagan Antichrist” against the Christian (meaning Protestant Christian) army. According to the board, the white pieces representing Christian missionaries symbolize “innocence, temperance, and hope.” The pope and pagan are in black, denoting “their grief at the daily loss of empire.” Perhaps the makers thought it would just be fun and games, but The Pope and Pagan only fanned the Nativist flames of anti-Catholic and anti-pagan hatred and violence in America.

  • Power and Attachment: A Look at Conversion to the Wiccan Faith


    Wicca has been one of the fastest growing religions in the United States in recent times. Although the rate of individuals being born into the religion is increasing, the vast majority of adherents to the Wiccan faith are converts from other religions. What do these individuals find so appealing about Wicca that they shed their old religious beliefs and convert? The works of Pierre Bourdieu and attachment theory provide a sound basis for answering that question. This paper will look at the reasons given by converts to the Wiccan faith for their decision to convert to the faith, and they will be analyzed using Bourdieu's theory of power dynamics along with attachment theory to identify the psychological factors and motivations behind individuals converting to the Wiccan religion.

  • The Old Ones Are With Us: Exploring Romantic Pagan Theologies in Contemporary American Black Metal


    Black metal – an inaccessible underground subgenre of heavy metal music – has a controversial relationship to mainline religion and theology. This paper interrogates the theological meanings in the lyrics, compositions, and aesthetics of a variety of contemporary American black metal bands to show that the musical scene is actively engaged in the work of constructive theology. These theologies employ a variety of wisdom traditions including Romantic philosophy, pre-Christian polytheism, occultism, Gnostic theology, pantheism, and surrealism. I argue that the contemporary black metal scene in America is currently describing a complex, participatory, pagan theology, inspired by pre-Christian religion as well as the Romantic movement in Europe and America. Finally, I will suggest, through specifics examples in the music, that this Romantic paganism proposes important ecological and ethical perspectives that are relevant in our era of extractivist ecocide.  

  • Tired of Trees: Discarding Nature Religion for a Rhizomatic Model of Contemporary Witchcraft


    Witches on social media are not only redefining the boundaries of their traditions, they are eschewing the category of religion entirely, adopting the language of secularism to describe their magical identities. Secular witches compose a rapidly growing presence on sites like TikTok, Tumblr, and Instagram, and their perspectives are making their way into traditional publishing, sometimes to the bewilderment of both other witches and scholars alike. When witches of previous decades have fought so publicly to be members of a “religion,” how do practitioners who actively defy this categorization fit into these movements? With an understanding of religion as an inherently political category, this paper affirms the efforts of secular witches to recast their craft by using Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome to think about not just how we define religious groups, but how we consider groups that insist that what they are doing is firmly not religion.


Theme: Teaching with Native American Religions for Social Justice

Sunday, 12:30 PM - 2:30 PM

This roundtable asks two primary questions: how can we nurture greater respect, more nuanced understanding, more care-full critical thought, and deeper community engagement in teaching on Native American and Indigenous religious traditions? Secondly, how can theories and methods from Native American and Indigenous studies offer critical interventions to responsible pedagogy, making any course in religious studies more responsive to questions of social justice? We seek to shift the focus from probing Indigenous religious traditions themselves, to critically understanding the relationship between Indigenous religions, power, and justice. This involves reassessing misguided colonial attempts to categorize Indigenous religious practices and considering Indigenous contestations and engagements with these approaches. In other words, how might teaching with Native American religious traditions, rather than just about them, be an occasion for better understanding the history and formation of settler colonial societies, and for imagining and enacting more respectful relationships with Indigenous peoples, places, and knowledges?


Theme: Religion, Digitality, and Ethnography

Sunday, 12:30 PM - 2:30 PM

This papers session investigates the complexities of digital/simulated fieldwork and the interplay that emerges between individuals, groups, and system mechanics. Through ethnography we learn of emigrant Iranian computer scientists in the United States specializing in the “debiasing” of AI systems; Chinese Buddhist diaspora communities based in French Canada experiencing digital migration since the outset of COVID-19; U.S. researchers and educators utilizing virtual reality headsets for open-ended interviews and pedagogy; recruitment of virtual/automated followers in cult-building tabletop and video game play; and various Satanic conspiracy theorist communities united through social media. This session (which includes a respondent) provides profound phenomenological implications to our techno-virtual-being-in-the world, at times resisting the orderliness of algorithms and numbers with care and concern reserved for residual emotional states, finding authenticity in digitality, all the while further complicating the methodology of observing simulating worlds and actions as ethnography.

  • Code and Creed: Bias, AI, and the Problem of Islam in Secular Ethics


    This paper examines the lives and work of a group of emigrant Iranian computer scientists in the US specializing in the “debiasing” of AI systems. Focusing on the concept of "bias," as entangled with both their professional and personal lives, I argue that amidst their debiasing efforts, the line between Islamic and anti-Islamic bias often becomes blurred. Through my ethnographic encounter, I explore the relationship between "bias" in the language of numbers and bias as felt by the subject. In the former, bias can supposedly be articulated, quantified, and mitigated. In the latter, bias manifests as an emotional residue, resistsing the orderliness of algorithms and numbers, with deep roots in a complex interplay of history, memory, and emotion. In exploring this terrain, I address the complexities within the concept of bias in relation to Islam at the intersection of AI and the broader liberal project of debiasing citizens at large. 



  • Using Buddhist Skillful Means(Upaya) in Digital Ethnography: Researcher’s Reflexivity, Positionality, and Voice in the Study of Chinese Digital Sanghas in French Canada


    In this article, I examine how I utilize a collection of "skillful means” informed by Buddhism, namely a collection of practices encompassing reflexive choices and decisions, positioning, and creativities that are situationally tailored for and derived from interacting with Chinese Buddhist diasporas in French Canada in the context of digital social media throughout my digital fieldwork. I use ethnographic vignettes to illustrate how these practices, afforded by the Buddhist ideas, digital possibilities, and ethnographic reflexivity, are crucial to constantly navigate, negotiate, and devise new strategies for pinpointing digital field sites and conducting participant observation. More importantly, I highlight the digital affordances one could leverage as both a researcher and a practitioner to actively build visibility and voices in the researched digital communities. I further reflect on how these dynamics can uniquely affect the researched individuals and communities. Finally, I point out the caveats and pitfalls this approach can bring.

  • Virtual Solicitude: An Existential Ethnography of Being-with in Video Game Worlds


    While much phenomenological work has been undertaken concerning questions of techno-virtual-being-in-the world, very little ethnographic work has applied a Heideggerian hermeneutic to the question of virtual “solicitude,” or the type of “Dasein-with [that] remains existentially constitutive for Being-in-the-world [and] must be Interpreted in terms of the phenomenon of care; for as ‘care’ the Being of Dasein in general is to be defined” (Being and Time, 1927). The literature concerned with Heideggerian accounts of virtual inhabitation and video game play have either failed to recognize the constitutive nature of Being-with, a type of sociality, to Being-in-the-world or have foreclosed the possibility of fostering authentic social relationships within virtual worlds by virtue of virtual technology use itself. The present work seeks to rectify this prior dearth in the literature by countering these latter claims of socio-existential inauthenticity in technologically mediated virtual worlds by way of an existential ethnography of video game play.

  • Cultish Gameplay and Mechanics in the Games Cult of the Lamb and CULTivate


    This paper provides a comparative analysis of the board game CULTivate and the video game Cult of the Lamb. In it, I focus on their gameplay and mechanics (e.g., the actions a player may take) to decode how these games have implicit theories of what cults are and how cults work. It situates these games and their implicit theories within recent debates on the rhetoric of cults and their representation in popular media. This paper concludes with suggestions about research at the intersection of Religious Studies and Game Studies with a focus on the design and experience of game mechanics.

  • The Satanic "cult" conspiracy theory and its followers: the digital rebranding of a medieval myth


    The Satanic Cult conspiracy theory alleges that Satan-worshipping cults exist and threaten society. It has underpinned multiple witch hunts and moral panics from the early Middle Ages to the 1980s ‘Satanic Panic’. Today its narratives have appeared again, popularised by seemingly united communities of conspiracy theorists across social media. This paper analyses the role of social media in legitimising contemporary Satanic cult conspiracy theories, and the relationship between its 'followers' and those that they demonise. It emphasises both how its theorists weaponise ‘Satanic cult’ accusations against others, but also – paradoxically - how they have themselves also attracted ‘the cult label’. This paper ultimately questions the extent to which we can determine whether online conspiracism today can be considered a form of  ‘new religion’, or even ‘belief’ at all, and whether or not it really matters.


Theme: Translation, Retelling, and Retranslation of the _Mahābhārata_

Sunday, 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM

The two papers in this session consider issues in translation and retelling in the tradition of the _Mahābhārata_. Shankar Ramaswami’s paper compares the account in the _Mahābhārata_ of the snake sacrifice by Janamejaya with the retelling of it in Arun Kolatkar’s English poem “Sarpa Satra.” He argues that while Kolatkar’s poem suggests the contours of a non-anthropocentric vision of dharma (as that which sustains and promotes all life and the earth), this ideal is actually more fully developed in the critical edition of the _Mahābhārata_. Fred Smith’s paper approaches the ongoing project of translating the critical edition of the _Mahābhārata_ as an effort of retranslation, and describes the current publication plan. He compares examples from earlier efforts at translating segments of the text. Advances in translation methodology and cultural understanding can give greater focus to the meaning, intent, and comprehensibility of a received text.

  • Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Vision of Dharma: Violence, Nonviolence, and the Non-Human World in Arun Kolatkar’s Sarpa Satra (Snake Sacrifice)


    What is Arun Kolatkar’s reading of Janamejaya’s snake sacrifice and the burning of the Khandava forest, as depicted in the poem, Sarpa Satra (2004)?  If the poem describes the snake sacrifice as “cynical,” a “mockery”, and a “grotesque parody” of a yajna, what would constitute a true, proper yajna?  Why does Jaratkaru advise Astika to stop the sacrifice, not for the sake of the Nagas, but to save “the last vestige of humanity”?  In addressing these questions, I will argue that although Sarpa Satra seems to present an anthropocentric understanding of dharma (in which human beings should live and let other species live), there are materials in the poem that suggest the contours of a non-anthropocentric vision of dharma (as that which sustains and promotes all life and the earth), an ideal that is more fully developed in the critical edition of the Mahabharata.

  • Translation and retranslation: thoughts on methodology, with respect to the Mahābhārata


    Translation and retranslation: thoughts on methodology, with respect to the Mahābhārata

    This is a report on the present state of the Mahābhārata translation by Primus Books, Delhi, which is the completion of the translation of the Pune critical edition undertaken by the University of Chicago Press more than half a century ago, but now permanently suspended. At this point, more than half a century after van Buitenen commenced that translation and 140 years after Ganguli began the first translation of the complete Mahābhārata in Calcutta, we are best served by viewing the present project as a retranslation. This paper will examine some of the methodologies or retranslation, a subfield of translation studies, in order to appraise how advances in this field will help us to better understand the Indian national epic.


Theme: Author Meets Readers: Daniel Weiss' Modern Jewish Philosophy and the Politics of Divine Violence

Sunday, 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM

This roundtable session, co-sponsored by the Scriptural Reasoning Unit and the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, will feature a conversation on Daniel Weiss' new book Modern Jewish Philosophy and the Politics of Divine Violence (Cambridge University Press, 2023).


Theme: (N)etnographies of Contemporary Paganisms

Monday, 9:00 AM - 11:00 AM

The Steering Committee continues to be interested in juxtaposing onsite ethnographic (re)enactments and online netnographic engagements in Contemporary Paganisms. Online Goddess communities work to create synergistic aesthetic and emotive polarities as imago deae empowerments alongside onsite communities’ relational ontologies with Other-Than-Human Persons in the service of wholistic healing. Cognitive immersion as hegemonic judges in witch trial courts reinforce stereotypes of Others as well, yet the common building blocks of heuristic relationality retain a protean power to undermine materialism, yet perhaps at the cost of historical appropriation. This session seeks to place these online communities and their cultural productions in relief with onsite communities of tourists and practitioners to locate functions of both conjunctions and disjunctions.

  • The Goddess Factory: Creating Visions of the Divine Feminine through TikTok


    This paper is an analytical comparative study of young women on TikTok who adhere to goddess aesthetics and devotion to make meaning of their gender, sexuality, traumas, and self-image. By using the examples of Aphrodite, who represents the “light” side of the Divine Feminine, and Hekate, who represents the “dark” side of the Divine Feminine, we see that young women in the United States are making meaning of what they consider to be distinctively feminine traits, and using that as a means of empowerment, regardless of the colors, symbols, and themes they choose to adhere to. This paper is a digital ethnography that employs religious aesthetic and feminist theories from a lived religion perspective.

  • The Weekly Murder of Grace Sherwood: Witch Trial Tourism at Colonial Williamsburg


    *Cry Witch!* is one of Colonial Williamsburg’s (the living history museum) most popular programs. It depicts Virginia’s best-known witch trial, the 1706 trial of Grace Sherwood. In the show, reenactors portray key characters including Sherwood and witnesses, and audience members play the jury. At the end of the hour-long performance (which includes outlandish testimonies and a woman dragged out screaming), tourists take Sherwood’s fate into their hands, and they almost always vote to condemn her of the crime of witchcraft. To better understand how self-identified witches receive this play, I interviewed 10 in the Williamsburg area to hear their opinions. In this work, I show that fantastical representations of witch trials affect present-day witches by reinforcing negative stereotypes of how women deemed evil should be punished. I also find that witch trials are not taken as seriously as other American wrongs because of how absurd they sound to modern audiences. 

  • A Study of Tradition and Change in the Eponian Faerie Faith


    Grounded in ongoing ethnographic and archival research, this presentation offers reflections on the Eponian Faerie Faith, an eclectic, nature-oriented form of contemporary Paganism that developed during the 1980s in the American Southeast. The key formulator of the Faerie Faith, Lady Epona (the late Dr. Patricia Zook, 1951-2016), combined initiatory structures drawn from Dianic Witchcraft with elements of Celtic and American New Thought philosophies (especially the work of Max Freedom Long) to offer practitioners a "shamanistic" path for personal development. While numerically small, the Eponian Faerie Faith stands as a fascinating case study for exploring the ways that new religious movements appeal to and/or invent tradition to legitimize their practices.

  • Crafting the Wild Soul: Remembering Druidic Identity


    The “homecoming narrative” is commonly used as a description of shifts in identity within Pagan community but has been critiqued in cross-religious comparative work on conversion. My broader work explores how people develop a sense of Druidic identity within a tradition that has no authoritative texts or leaders but does have shared cultural models for understanding and acting within a relational world. In this paper, I focus specifically on the experiences that drive Druids to seek new meanings outside their religions of upbringing, how this leads to discovering Druidry, and how Druidic identity is deepened through ongoing spiritual and practical experiences. Using autoethnography, interview data, and text analysis, I examine American Druidry considering theoretical approaches drawn from ethnoecology, cognitive anthropology, and organizational anthropology in order to shed light on ways we can better understand the development of identity and community within new decentralized nature-centered religions.


Theme: Mapping the Field of Religious Literacy: A Work-in-Progress Roundtable

Monday, 9:00 AM - 11:00 AM

Religious literacy education is a broad field drawing on the work of many stakeholders, including K12 educators, religious studies scholars, education researchers, content providers, and more. However, this interdisciplinary nature can be both a strength and a weakness, often limiting collaboration and tending towards fragmentation. This roundtable discussion will report on the ongoing work of a group of scholars and practitioners attempting to take stock of the state of the field of religious literacy education in the post-pandemic era and move toward developing greater cohesion and collaboration in the field. This work began with an in-person retreat in March 2024 and has continued since then through ongoing conversations and working groups. The roundtable discussion will feature multiple perspectives in the field of religious literacy education. Particular attention will be given to the diverse definitions of religious literacy, an emerging map of stakeholder groups, and the ongoing evolution of this field.


Theme: Author Meets Critics: Leslie Ribovich, *Without a Prayer: Religion and Race in New York City Public Schools*

Monday, 12:30 PM - 2:30 PM

This roundtable assembles scholars of religion to discuss Leslie Ribovich’s Without a Prayer: Religion and Race in New York City Public Schools, published in June 2024 in the North American Religions Series with New York University Press. The book is a detailed, skillful excavation of debates in midcentury New York schools, as administrators, school board members, parents, politicians, and other interested parties attempted to navigate desegregation and secularization.

Our four panelists, scholars of religion with a variety of backgrounds and interests in the study of education, will highlight and discuss key themes from Without a Prayer that are pertinent to the study of law, religion, and culture. Among these are secularization and public institutions; the entanglements of race and religion, particularly as they intersect with nationalism and national identities; and the complex relationships between moral formation, religious ideologies, and race-making.


Theme: Repping Religious Studies at our Institutions: A Panel Discussion

Tuesday, 10:30 AM - 12:00 PM

In this moment of anxiety about Religious Studies departments and the future of our field, we are interested in discussing the broader issue of what Religious Studies has to offer the Humanities and our institutions. We will share how our interdisciplinary training in Religious Studies has equipped and prepared us to amplify and support the Humanities at our institutions. We will share our perspectives on how our training has helped prepare us for our upper-level administrative roles, and we will share strategies for positioning Religious Studies in the broader Humanities and the dominant STEM-focus of our institutions. We intend for this session to be focused, generative, and future-oriented, and we look forward to a broader conversation with our colleagues in San Diego.