Not So Fast Neuroscience!

Over at Religion Dispatches my friend Andrew Aghapour (a fellow College of Charleston religious studies alum) does a nifty take down of neuroscience explanations of religion by picking apart a claim that Apple products function the same as religious imagery:

Which “religious” parts of Alex Brooks’ brain lit up when he was shown Apple products? According to Dr. Calvert, Riley’s expert, it was the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes visual information. When Brooks was shown Apple products, she states, the MRI indicated, “much more activity in the visual cortex, [indicating] enhanced sort of visual attention.” In other words, Brooks focused more on pictures of Apple products than he did on other gizmos and gadgets. This shouldn’t be a surprise—he runs an Apple-news website, and makes a living tracking the product releases, updates, and rumors associated with the brand. “Enhanced visual attention” should be expected in the brains of any other experts, from fashion designers to cell biologists to shepherds shown pictures of sheep among other animals.

At most, Calvert’s experiments seem to show a correlation between visual attention and past experience: if you have spent a good deal of time studying something in the past, then you spend relatively more mental energy looking at it compared to other objects. How, then, do she and Riley conclude that Apple is exploiting parts of the brain that evolved to process religion?

In a separate study, they argue, a similar pattern was found in “very religious” persons shown religious and nonreligious images. The simplest explanation for this similarity is that humans spend more visual attention on images which they find interesting or which they see quite often, whether they are Apple products or religious images. Instead, Calvert and Riley posit a “stack two” argument: that the visual cortex is a uniquely religious part of the brain, which Apple exploits in order to sell more mp3 players. The glaring problem here is that the visual cortex is not uniquely religious, nor is religion essentially visual. Just like time, “religion” is too multifaceted to be found in just one room of a mental skyscraper.

Under casual scrutiny, the objective aura of Alex Riley’s neuroscientific comparisons has begun to fade. Apple isn’t exploiting the religious part of our brains because the brain likely doesn’t have any essentially religious real estate, and even if it did, it certainly wouldn’t be the visual cortex.

Go read the whole thing.

I will only add that I find the simplistic ABC argument Andrew describes maddening. I had a handful of arguments in a seminar on religion and culture with someone who had been bit by the cognitive bug. They treat their cognitive theory as if it were their own sacred doctrine that explains everything. I do think, though, that cognitive research will have a huge impact on the study of religion in the next decades. Looking forward to more of this from folks like Andrew.

Help Me Write Better: How Much Signposting is Too Much Signposting in Academic Writing?

via Flickr user Kapungo, Creative Commons License

As I’ve been writing I’ve been thinking about the use of signposting in my writing. I have always thought the strength of my academic writing was my organization. I spend a lot of energy making sure a chapter/essay is built well and one way I do that is through very blatant signpost of what the essay/chapter is going to do (as you’ll see below.) I’ve been debating if I should go back and as part of the revision process, smooth over this blatant signposting. So, my question for folks out there on the internets is whether this is a good idea or not. Is signposting helpful? Is it distracting? Is it poor style? Will I lose clarity by taking it out? I’ve already tweeted and posted a Facebook status asking these questions but I thought an example might make it easier to get people’s ideas.  I know these questions might be hard to answer without reading the whole essay but I’ve put a chunk from the introduction of an essay I’m currently revising for submission below to give an example of what I’m doing. These are the last paragraphs of the introduction. Thoughts? Comments?


It is arguable whether the haystack meeting was the birth of American missions or not, but it still serves as an exemplary American missionary story. The young men of Williams College in 1806 took part in a revival experience of the community around them. They read transatlantic letters and sermons describing the movement of the Holy Spirit at home and in Great Britain and studied the work of great British missionary leaders such as Wilberforce, Carey, and Ward. Then, after they had gone to the field themselves, they sent back letters, journals and accounts of the mission field to an Evangelical audience in America that consumed their stories along with stories of domestic revival.

This essay examines this process of traveling narratives. Specifically, I argue that the travel of revival narratives constituted the transatlantic revival at the turn of the 19th century. This revival and its narratives engendered the missionary movement in America which then in turn bred new narratives that traveled across oceans from the mission field to America, creating the sense of a global awakening.

To analyze this process of traveling transatlantic and transoceanic revival, I begin with a broad definition of revival that draws on examples from across American history. I provide a six point definition of revival that foregrounds the relationship between experience, narrative, and communication in the production and spread of revivals. I then closely track two of these six points: narrative and communication. To that end, I move from the broad view of revival throughout history to a view of the revivals from 1790 to 1820 in order to establish the transatlantic travel of texts—that is, the communication of narratives. I then hone in more narrowly again and focus on the narratives of British missionaries that found their way into American culture. Finally, in concluding the essay, the fourth, and narrowest section, reveals how narratives from the mission field were part of a growing American Evangelical print culture that joined foreign intelligence with domestic and British revival narratives to create a sense of global awakening.

But to begin, what is revival?

Fat Coated Bullets Are Never a Good Idea

"The Sepoy Mutnay of 1857"

It’s 1857 all over again folks!

Via Amy Levin at the Revealer:

Is this real? Or just some spoof from the West Wing or Law & Order? Could the US military really be using bullets covered with oil containing 13% pig fat to evoke fear in Islamic terrorists and allegedly send them into eternal damnation? For the moment, the answer seems like a skeptical maybe, but the supplier of Silver Bullet Gun Oil, pseudonymed “Midnite Rider,” or “Warrior of YAHWEH,” claims not only that his oil has been distributed to “members of all US military branches,” but that the oil was used on the bullet which killed none other than Osama bin Laden.

According to the mysterious purveyor’s logic, Silver Bullet Gun Oil (SGBO), when applied to the inside of a firearm, coats the bullet with pig fat as it is fired and transfers the sin-bearing solvent into the body of an “Islamo-Fascist Terrorist,” keeping the terrorist from paradise.  Charging underneath his banner, “One Shot, One Soul,” Midnite Rider claims on his website.

As Levin rightly points out later in the post, the Quran does not punish a Muslim for forced consumption of un-halal meat. So Silver Bullet Gun Oil is another example of that cooky mixture of ignorance and hatred of Islam at the same time. Furthermore, aren’t silver bullets for killing werewolves?  Or is it Vampires?

This story reminded me of a more famous incident involving bullets and pig fat: the 1857 Indian Rebellion (or First War of Indian Independence or Sepoy Mutiny, depending on your historical-political leanings). As Indians began to bristle under the control of the British East India Company the rumor began to circulate that the bullets being used in the Sepoy army were greased with tallow. The bullets needed to be bit on before they were loaded and so consumption of the tallow was a real possibility. Some claimed it was pig fat-which angered Muslims. Others claimed it was cow fat-which angered Hindus. In the end, rumors, unrest, and Company mismanagement were enough to prompt the Sepoys to strike back at the Company. The rebellion was controlled by the Company (through terrible violence) but it was enough to prompt the Crown to take control of the colony and began the direct imperial control of the British Raj in South Asia.

A hundred fifty years ago rumors of offensive gun grease helped foment an anti-colonial rebellion. Now, real offensive gun grease is part of anti-Muslim war hawking. But in both cases exhibit strong ties between the sacred and the violent. The profanation of the sacred in 1857  led to a rebel violence in the face of existing colonial violence. In the twenty first century, violence itself has a sacred quality and profanation is a tactic. It’s one thing to kill the enemy but if you can somehow damn them in the process then you’ve achieved a sort of cosmic violence. The illogic of using the profane  of a “false religion” as a weapon only makes sense in a rationality of violence. It’s an upside down proposition: “Islam is evil and false. But we’ll be sure they are evil on their own false terms too.”

As the United States’ relationship with Pakistan continues to fall apart and as we continue three (or is it four?) wars in Muslim majority countries, it might be best to leave the fat greased bullets alone.

Research Trip Wrap Up: From “Heathens” to “Hindoos”

Cotton Mather just thought they were heathens.

The first research trip is over and as I look back over my notes I’m realizing that I may have been asking the wrong questions all along. Going into the trip I thought the East India Marine Society would be the perfect case study for how ideas about Hinduism floated into America through trade networks. But after spending four days going through all of the records left by the society I now see it differently. The society and its museum did not present visitors and the folks of Salem with Hinduism or even Hindoos. Instead, they presented the Orient, the Indies, the East. It was undifferentiated. Yes, there was India, China, and other countries, but they were all swallowed up in the East/Orient/Indies. This was why it didn’t seem dissonant for someone in full Mandarin dress to lead a procession that included a Bengali made palanquin carried by African Americans in turbans. It was about the Oriental mood. This is why it made sense to put the Ganesa image from Java right next to the Rama and Sita image from Bengal. It was different but it wasn’t. Yes they were people known as Hindoos, but they were part of the larger group of Orientals.

So, the questions change. The question for chapter one had been: How did the East India Marine Society introduce local New Englanders to representations of Hinduism? The new question: What made it possible for New Englanders to imagine people known as Hindoos? This new questions gets at the limits and production of knowledge about India in America. In India Christiana, Cotton Mather does not distinguish between Indians-be they from the West or East Indies. Rather, they are all heathen and they all need Christianity. In the 1830s Rammohun Roy emerges in Unitarian magazines as a Hindu and when he is labeled a heathen by conservative Protestants he is quickly defended by his liberal Christian allies. Thus, my task in chapter one is to explore where, when, and under what circumstances Americans began to see “Hindoos,” and “Hindoo religion” as something unique. When did “Hindoo religion” or “Hinduism” emerge from heathenism in the minds of Americans. I’m sure this happened in fits and starts and among liberals long before conservatives but that’s still the question.

Now, off to research.

Research Trip Post #3: Toasts, Gods, and Museum Catalogs

 I got out of the library archive and into the museum the past couple of days. Yesterday, thanks to a wonderful curator at the Peabody Essex Museum,  I was got a quick tour of the East India Marine Hall and saw a handful of the original EIMS collection that is on display currently. She even took me back to a storage building and showed me the palanquin. It was covered in plastic but I could imagine it being carried down the streets of Salem. I went back today and took some pictures of the items on display to help me think about what folks might have run into when they entered the museum in the 1820s.

Back in the library, I spent yesterday going through old catalogs and manuscripts trying to find out what items were in the museum when and who donated them. I’m realizing that there was a good bit of stuff from Hindu religious culture in the museum, but that there was a lot of other stuff too.

Today, I looked at a bunch of lists of toasts given at the societies anniversary dinners, some scrapbooks, and some guest books. The toasts were useful because they revealed how nationalistic and commercially minded the society was. It was all about an amazing virtuous America built upon strong commercial enterprise. The toasts are like early American tweets-little bursts of thought that crystallized ideas floating in the culture. Going the guest books was tedious but interesting. I knew I’d find John Quincy Adams and Nathaniel Hawthorne. I also knew I’d find a spot where Andrew Jackson had had his signature clipped out in an act of pro-Whig vandalism by two young girls. But I didn’t know I’d find Lyman and Harriet Beecher or Franklin Pierce. I also didn’t know I’d find visitors from as far away as Mississippi, Charleston, Kentucky, and Alabama. Seems like the museum was the thing to do when you visited Salem (maybe even Boston)  in the early nineteenth century.

Tomorrow is the last day. Time to finish with the guest books and head back to Atlanta.

Trying to Find the “Hindoos” in Salem

East India Marine Hall

East India Marine Hall, Built by the Salem East India Marine Society in 1825

So yesterday I spent all day working in the beautiful reading room of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum. If you are wondering what I was looking for you can find out here. So what did I find?

Not much.


I spent yesterday going through the minutes of the East India Marine Society meetings from the founding in 1799 to about 1820. What stuck out to me initially was a few years in a row the society held a dinner and procession through the town to celebrate its anniversary. The first of these was referred to as “a festival.” But after a few years they stopped. From the minutes it looks as if the members just didn’t want to do them anymore. Once the processions stopped the dinners got fancier. Including music and invited guests from around the Salem and Boston area. These fancy anniversaries peaked with a dinner that  included William Emerson, Ralph Waldo’s father, and where the Justices of the Supreme Court, the Solicitor General and the Attorney General had been invited but declined.

But then the next year, no dinner. There were anniversary dinners in subsequent years but always much smaller and each year required a vote to determine if they’d have one or not. The votes became closer and closer but usually they ended up voting to leave it up to the President and Standing Committee to decide about the dinner and to arrange for it.

The dinner’s aren’t exactly my interest here, though. They reflect the rise and fall of the financial affairs of the merchants that make up the society. The processions are what I need to know more about. From what I can gather they included “costumes” from the museum’s collection, the use of a palanquin from Calcutta, and turbaned African Americans. What did these processions look like, how did they function in local Salem society? How was “the Oriental” deployed for local social ends? I suspect, and another researcher I ran into in the archives confirmed, this has something to do with class.

Today I’m thinking about going straight to the museum’s catalogs from 1820 and 1830 and just seeing what the heck they had in there. Then I think I’m going to take a look at a set of scrapbooks kept by the society and see what I can find in there.

I have been thinking that if I can’t find enough on the museum and its holdings and influence then I might expand the chapter and look at Boston area libraries (I could probably include Philadelphia, New York, and Charleston too but that might be a FTB (for the book). Then I could tie the ideas in English books about Indian culture in circulation to the artifacts in the museum. While they were decontextualized within the museum itself, the objects in the museum did fit into a larger context of American consumption of knowledge about India and its religions.

Ok, time to head to the library.

The First Research Trip: Hinduism & Sailors in Salem, MA

It’s that time of year again: research trips! I have begun my first official dissertation research trip this week. I’ll be spending four days in the lovely Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusettes. While I’m here I’ll be digging into the records of the Salem East India Marine Society (EIMS).

Here’s what I know now: In 1799 a group of merchants who had been involved in the nascent East Indies trade decided to form a society with three goals. First, they would combine their knowledge of the seas and routes from America around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean. Second, they would provide for the widows and families of seamen. Finally, and most interestingly for me, they wanted to keep a “cabinet of curiousities” that they brought home from their voyages. This “cabinet” eventually became the Salem East India Marine Society Museum (which eventually became the Peabody Essex Museum). The cabinet/museum had some stone images of Hindu gods, I’ve seen a Ganesa listed in an old  museum catalog, and some engravings of life in India. They also had a large palanquin from Calcutta they would use in annual processions through the city.

Here’s what I want to know: How many “average New Englanders” wandered into the museum from its opening in 1799 to around 1840 or so? What did people in Salem make of a group of old sailors trapsing through the city with a boy on a palanquin dressed “in Oriental style” being carried by four African Americans outfitted in  turbans? And most importantly, what was the representation of Hinduism the museum offered Americans and (how) did it change over the years?

We’ll see what I find in the archives today. If you are interested in what I find (and why wouldn’t you be?) follow my Twitter feed for breaking news from the museum archives.


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