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Cultural History of the Study of Religion Unit

Call for Proposals

The Cultural History of the Study of Religion Unit seeks papers that examine the formation and transformation of “religion” and related categories in social, cultural, and political practice in different geographic and historical contexts and in relation to the scholarly study of religion as that study has evolved over time. 


For the 2022 Annual Meeting, we particularly welcome proposals on the following topics: 


  • Scholarship in the Time of Catastrophe

Upheaval has often prompted scholars and intellectuals to question their normative assumptions and practices. In the 1920s, anticolonial and antiracist thinkers like Gandhi and Du Bois rethought European “civilization” in the shadow of World War I. More recently, scholars have rethought religion in the aftermath of the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition, 9/11, the 2015 devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and the COVID-19 pandemic. We welcome papers and panels that take these or any other similarly calamitous event in any region of the world as site for exploring the cultural history of the study of religion. 


  • Religion and the City

Although cities have existed for thousands of years, the city has figured as the epitome of modern spaces, a precondition for publicness, and the scene of visions of futurity—whether utopian or dystopian. In the 20th century, increasing urbanization was understood to spell the end of religion. In the last couple of decades, however, a focus on the city has helped to usher in new ways of approaching the study of religion (e.g. “lived religion”) and expanded the range of populations, places, and practices to which scholars of religion give their attention. We invite papers and panels that excavate the interests, politics, and projects that animate this shift of attention, the impact it has had on the study of religion, and the contours of future projects. 


  • Scholarly Blasphemers: The Limits on Academic Speech

Scholars of religion have been accused of blasphemy (insult, contempt, or lack of reverence for a deity or exalted religious figure) with varying outcomes, depending on context. Scholars of religion have also had to grapple with efforts to limit academic speech, e.g. critical race theory, which may not utilize the category of blasphemy, but which reflect similarities in terms of stakes and presumed sacrality. At the same time, scholars of religion may intentionally avoid disclosures for fear of losing access or out of respect for esoteric rituals. We invite papers and panels which utilize such cases in order to raise and explore important questions about the various publics, aims, and responsibilities of scholars of religion, and to assess the current cultural and political climate for the study of religion. 


  • “Nature” and the “Natural” in the Study of Religion

These categories have had multiple meanings in the history of the study of religion, depending on whether the scholars in question are deists, comparativists, romanticists or cognitive scientists. In some cases, “nature” is aligned with “reason” and underlies all religions; in others, it is the opposite of reason and is associated with the so-called “primitive.” In some instances, nature is the catalyst for transcendence; in others, it signifies a lower stage of development in the history of religions. We are interested in papers and panels that (1) critically examine “nature” and the “natural” in the history of the study of religion; (2) subject these categories to the rigorous cross-cultural analyses to which the category of “religion” has been subjected; or (3) explore how presuppositions about the “natural” continue to inform the study of religion. 


Robert Orsi began his first book by declaring, “It is the central assumption of this history that the [annual festa of the Madonna of 115th Street] cannot be understood apart from an understanding of the lives of the people who took part in it.” He insisted that religion must be studied amidst the joys, sorrows, sufferings, and idiosyncrasies of ordinary life. When viewed from this vantage point, it became impossible to ignore the real presence of special suprahuman beings in people’s lives. This emphasis on real lives and real presence raises critical methodological, theoretical, and ethical considerations for religious studies writ large. In a conversation spanning subfields—from cultural history and Catholic studies to African American studies, Chinese philosophy, environmentalism, the study of secularism, and more—this roundtable will reflect on key questions and central assumptions that define Orsi’s work as both scholar and teacher. They will do so with an eye to the future of the field and consider the implications his work holds for their own—both its limits and possibilities.  

This group regularly uses its sessions to develop new models for conference conversation. Toward that end, we ask that participants be prepared to write shorter papers for possible pre-circulation or short position papers for roundtable format. We also welcome suggestions for new conversational models. 

Statement of Purpose


Steering Committee Members



Review Process

Proposer names are visible to chairs but anonymous to steering committee members