American Association of Geographers, 2015: Chicago, IL

In April 2015, I attended the American Association of Geographers’ Annual Meeting, held in Chicago, IL. I presented a paper, took part in a panel, and presided over the Business Meeting of the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Specialty Group (GORABS).

The paper I presented was titled ‘Sexualized unions: Cantonese evangelicals, educational politics, and labour politics in Vancouver, BC.’ This was in a session called Education, Faith, and Place 2 (3522) organized by Peter Hemming (Cardiff) and chaired by Betsy Olson (UNC-Chapel Hill). The abstract is as follows:

Since the late 1990s, Cantonese evangelicals in British Columbia have become known for their socially conservative politics against sexual liberalization, especially with regards to schools. Not only did they oppose the federal legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada, but they have organized against school boards introducing anti-homophobia curriculum and transgender policies while standing in solidarity with Trinity Western University in its struggle against the teachers’ union refusing to acknowledge its Teachers’ College because its community covenant proscribes homosexual practices. These socially conservative politics have seldom been interrogated in relation to the geographical literature on the transnational Hong Kong-Vancouver social field, where geographers have observed that Asia-Pacific migrants import a style of neoliberal privatization to Vancouver’s property market and educational institutions (Olds 1996; Mitchell 2004; Waters 2008; Ley 2010). Instead of presuming that religious sensibilities predispose Cantonese evangelicals toward social conservatism, my ethnographic findings reveal that economic subjectivities also shape ‘grounded theologies’ (Tse 2014). I argue that Cantonese evangelicals who oppose sexual liberalization in British Columbian schools do so because their practice of faith is shaped by their neoliberal opposition to labour unions. Cantonese evangelicals suggested that the teachers’ union used sexual liberalization as part of a larger public strategy to undermine their private economic and educational aspirations. This paper advances geographies of religion, education, and migration by examining how secular economic subjectivities can be deeply embedded in the practice of grounded theologies.

The panel in which I took part was: Geography and Asian-American Studies: Past Reflections and Future Collaborations. This was an intimate discussion organized by Sean Wang (Syracuse University), and featured some very good reflections from Wendy Cheng (Arizona State), Yui Hashimoto, Timothy Huynh (Pennsylvania State), Stevie Larson (UNC-Chapel Hill), and Ishan Ashutosh (Indiana University).

I was also privileged to preside as chair over this year’s Annual Lecture for GORABS given by Banu Gökariksel (UNC-Chapel Hill) and Anna Secor (University of Kentucky) on ‘the post-secular problematic.’

Our specialty group also had a field trip organized by Richard Dodge to Sacred Places in Chicago, in which participants visited the Seventeenth Church of Christ Science, the Chicago Temple (Methodist), the Frank Lloyd Wright Unity Temple in Oak Park, and the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette.

As I’m posting this super-late, I’m just going to end by saying that I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at AAG 2016 this year in San Francisco!

Social and Cultural Geography: Book Review Forum: Justin Wilford, Sacred Subdivisions

I’m very excited to learn that a book review forum that Tristan Sturm put together for Social and Cultural Geography is now hot off the press. The book is Justin Wilford’s Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism, and it’s an ethnography of Saddleback Church in Southern California. The other reviewers included Banu Gökariksel, Betsy Olson, and Claire Dwyer.

My review focused on how Wilford’s book was put to work when Asian American evangelicals took Saddleback Church’s Pastor Rick Warren to task for an insensitive Facebook photo in September 2013. Recounting what took place leading up to the Asian American open letter to the evangelical church, I argued that Wilford’s book helped to nuance some of the on-the-ground conversation about Warren’s photo, helping those who were involved in the activism to understand that Warren situates himself within a distinctively Southern California postsuburban geography. The service that geographers like Wilford do for the community is to help make activism more precise, getting to the heart of issues and steering conversations in productive directions.

I want to thank Tristan for his hard work in pulling this review forum together. This forum originated as an ‘Author Meets the Critics’ session at the Association of American Geographers’ 2013 Annual Meeting; I was later invited by Tristan to step in to take one of the reviewers’ place. While I originally submitted a review to the forum prior to the activity around Warren’s photo, I decided to submit a new review after the activism that put the book itself to work on the ground. This was helpful because I have previously reviewed the book for Religious Studies Review and the AAG Review of Books, and I did not want to repeat myself. Focusing on activism gave me a fresh lens from which to look at Wilford’s book, and I’m thankful to Tristan for pulling it off so well. Many thanks to Justin Wilford for writing such a rich book. We are all indebted to his labours.

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Boston, 8-10 November 2013

I am here at the Westin Waterfront Hotel in Boston, MA, at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR), which is being jointly held with the Religious Research Association (RRA), from 8-10 November 2013.

I organized a session for Saturday, 9 November.  It’s a paper session titled Faith, Class, and Space: Geographies of Religion, session G-10 on the SSSR program. It will be held from 2-3:30 PM in the Carlton Room, and it will feature geographers who work on religion, including Banu Gökariksel (Geography, University of North Carolina), Anna Secor (Geography, University of Kentucky), and Betsy Olson (Geography, University of North Carolina). Ann Taves (Religious Studies, UC Santa Barbara) is our discussant; this is more than appropriate because Taves was our Annual Lecturer for the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Specialty Group (GORABS) at the Association of American Geographers’ (AAG) Annual Meeting earlier this April 2013. If you are here in Boston, you are warmly invited to attend.

The genesis of our paper session came from a conversation that I had with Lily Kong at the AAG earlier this year. Following Kong’s 2010 paper in Progress in Human Geography (which was incidentally her inaugural Annual Lecture for GORABS in 2010), we discussed the various conferences that geographers needed to attend and in which they needed to intervene in order to spread the word that geographers are interested in religion as an analytic. Having heard from Ann Taves and James Wellman (Religion, Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington) that the SSSR was a conference that we must attend, I decided to organize a panel with some of the latest work in geographies of religion. Kong herself was unfortunately unable to attend. However, we really did get the cream of the crop in our discipline. Gökariksel and Secor have made fascinating interventions in the intersection of religion and consumption in their study of tesettür, Turkish veiling fashion that is seen as morally and aesthetically ambivalent and yet political in regard to secular states. Olson is presenting work that she conducted with a team of social geographers in the United Kingdom interested in the intersection of religion, childhood and youth studies, and postsecularism; her collaborators include Peter Hopkins (Geography, Newcastle University), Giselle Vincett (Geography, University of Edinburgh), and Rachel Pain (Geography, Durham University). Their collective project focuses on the young Christians in Scotland and factors in class to differentiate different kinds of youth in their sample. These two projects are some of the latest work being published in geographies of religion and represent an exciting turn in the discipline where religion is demonstrably a geographical analytic that, when it intersects with other social factors, presents a powerful entryway into theorizing how the contemporary world is constructed.

My paper is titled ‘We were very orderly and peaceful’: model minority evangelicals in public space. This paper is drawn from my PhD research, but because I want to focus on just one case study, it will explore how Cantonese evangelicals in the San Francisco Bay Area participated in activism around Proposition 8. At a theoretical level, this paper also seeks (like the other papers) to intervene in the social scientific study of religion by arguing that geographers become part of this conversation by focusing on how places are constituted, constructed, and contested. Here is the abstract:

Images of Chinese evangelical demonstrations against sexual liberalization in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Hong Kong have circulated throughout a global debate about sexual minorities and marriage equality.  While anti-marriage equality demonstrators have often been portrayed as motivated by private religious convictions and homophobic sentiments, little has been done to theorize their intersections of race, ethnicity, and class.  This paper focuses on one such group: Cantonese-speaking evangelicals in the Pacific Rim.  Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in 2011 and 2012 that involved 140 interviews and 13 focus groups, I argue that Cantonese evangelical protests against sexual liberalization often invoke a middle-class ‘model minority’ conception of participation in public space as an orderly activity over against lower-class forms of anarchy.  While notions of the ‘model minority’ have been anathema in Asian American studies, that Cantonese evangelicals actively invoke their peaceful, legal, non-violent, and non-anarchic approach to public space as a frame for their political activities suggests that fissures along class among migrant religious populations.  These analyses must in turn be grounded in space, demonstrating that class differences as to how public spaces are used are illustrative of larger conversations about religion, ethnicity, and class in the public sphere.

So far, it’s been a very good and interesting conference. There is a lot of interesting talk about the social sciences and interdisciplinarity. I also attended a very interesting ‘Author Meets the Critics’ session for Julie Park’s new book, When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher EducationIn addition to our disciplinary intervention with human geography here at the SSSR, I am enjoying meeting and reconnecting with people who are also interested in the social scientific study of Asian American religions. All that is to say, I am very glad that I am here, and I look forward to continuing to be productive while I am here.

Association of American Geographers, 9-13 April 2013: Los Angeles

I am right now at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. I’m mainly attending religion panels and meeting with lots of geographers, putting what I do in conversation with everyone else. You can find the rundown of geography of religion events here in the AAG’s religion newsletter.

I am presenting as part of a panel on Post-secular Spaces: Explorations Beyond Secular Theory and Research. It’s organized by two geographers at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Banu Gökariksel and Betsy Olson. Here’s the session description:

The aim of this paper session is to explore the parameters of post-secular research and theory in Geography. From Habermas to Asad to Butler, post-secular theories and approaches unsettle previously taken-for-granted relationships between religion, the state, and society.  The challenge posed by post-secular theory is not to study religion more, or to study religion in isolation, but rather to re-view moments, meanings and events without the assumptions of secularization theory – that is, without assuming that religious practices, values and institutions have been historically or contemporarily irrelevant or marginalized in the functioning of ‘modern’ societies. As a critique of secularization theory, post-secular approaches encourage us to uncover and analyze the lingering and overt presence of religion in our social interactions, our economies, and in the everyday and exceptional practice of politics. Less clear in these broader debates (and, arguably, within geographical scholarship on the topic) is the relevance of space and spatial theory in either the theoretical development or empirical analysis of post-secular approaches. This paper session hopes to begin consolidating and synthesizing the spatial concerns of post-secular theory by exploring emerging empirical research on new (and old) interrelationships between religion, society, politics, and economy.

My paper is on Friday, 12 April 2013, at 1 PM at the Pacific Ballroom Salon 3 in the LA Hotel, 3rd floor. It’s titled Cantonese Protestant Activism and Secular Geographies: religion, ethnicity, and the secularization thesis. Here’s the abstract:

Geographers of religion have long assumed that the resurgence of religious practice in contemporary spaces are signs of the vitality of religion, demonstrating the falsity of the secularization thesis.  Fieldwork that I conducted in 2011 and 2012 with 140 Cantonese-speaking Protestant key informants and 115 Cantonese-speaking Protestant focus group participants in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong would seem to indicate no different, for they have been active in advocating for traditional family values and offering social services to the poor through religious agencies.  While some might label these signs of post-secular geographies, I follow Wilford’s (2010) argument that geographies of religion need to be conceptualized in the context of secularization in the modern world.  I demonstrate that Cantonese Protestants active in the public sphere imagine their contributions as secular engagements, both espousing individualistic conceptions of the self and policing their activities as universally rational, not theological.  This paper advances the geography of religion by properly understanding such phenomena in the context of secular modernity while speaking to migration, ethnic, and political geographies by showing that new religious resurgences require modern contextual interpretations.

The reference to Justin Wilford in there is part of a broader discussion with his work that is most accessible in his book on Saddleback Church, Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism. Go read it, if you haven’t.

The Annual Lecturer for the Geography of Religion and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group this year is Professor Ann Taves (UC Santa Barbara, Religious Studies). It’s unfortunately at the same time as a panel for post-secular spaces organized by Gökariksel and Olson, but I will be at the Taves’s lecture and skip the panel. The lecture will be on Friday, 12 April 2013, from 4:40 – 6:20 PM at the Santa Barbara B, Westin, Lobby Level. It’s titled Mapping Significance: A Building Block Approach. Following the lecture, Adrian Ivakhiv (University of Vermont) will give a response via Skype. Ann Taves’s lecture abstract is here:

Ivakhiv (2006) has argued that religion and sacrality are unstable signifiers that should be studied as ways of distributing significance across geographic spaces and distinguishing between different kinds of significance.  To implement this agenda, we need to attend more carefully to the processes that work together to create a sense of significance.  A building block approach to significance would suggest the importance of at least three factors: setting apart, which marks things as non-ordinary; valuation, which ranks and orders them; and positioning, which situates them in relation to other things.  Examples will be used to illustrate the interplay of these factors, the contestations surrounding them, and thus the way that point of view constitutes such maps and makes them unstable.

Finally, everyone is welcome to the GORABS Business Meeting. This is from 7:30 – 8:30 PM in Santa Monica D at the Westin, Level 3. You can find an agenda on p. 46 in the GORABS newsletter.

Homo Religiosus? Religion and Immigrant Subjectivities (co-authored with David Ley), in Religion and Place: landscape, politics, piety (eds. Peter Hopkins, Lily Kong, and Elizabeth Olson)

I just received my copy of Religion and Place: landscape, politics, piety put out by Springer and set for a 2013 release date.  It’s edited by my friends, Peter Hopkins (Newcastle University, Geography), Lily Kong (National University of Singapore, Geography), and Betsy Olson (University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, Geography), and it’s got a great line-up of geographers of religion contributing in its various chapters, including Banu Gokariksel, Anna Secor, Sarah Moser, Nimrod Luz, Lynn Staeheli, Caroline Nagel, Barbara Bompani, Giselle Vincett, David Conradson, and Julian Holloway.

My supervisor, David Ley (University of British Columbia, Geography), and I co-authored a chapter entitled Homo religiosus? Religion and immigrant subjectivities” based on Ley’s 2010 lecture for the Association of American Geographers’ Geography of Religions and Belief Systems annual lecture series.  I contributed a great deal of citations to make the chapter relevant to theology and religious studies (fields that Lily Kong [2010] has been pushing us to get involved in) as well as some empirical material on Chinese Canadian evangelicals, especially from my 2011 article on a Cantonese Christian congregation published in Population, Space, and Place.  Our chapter suggests that while there has been a great deal of interest in the relationship between religion and migration, little has been done from within the theological frameworks of religious migrant practitioners themselves. We attempt a thought-experiment with transnational Chinese migrants to Vancouver who attend Christian churches to examine their religious practices from an explicitly theological perspective.

One of the innovative elements of this book is its explicit openness to doing social science of religion from within theological frameworks, as can also be seen from Julian Holloway’s chapter.  To me, this raises questions about how human geographers do religious studies similarly and differently from their social science counterparts in sociology and anthropology.  The editors and the contributors are very excited about the release of this book, as it signals a growing interest within human geography in religion and the growing significance of various approaches to religious studies in the social sciences more generally.

*UPDATED* CFP: AAG 2013: Post-secular spaces; ORIGINAL: CFP: AAG 2013: Debating Secularization: Theory and Practice in Geographies of Religion

Betsy Olson (UNC Chapel Hill, Geography) and Banu Gokariksel (also UNC) have been in touch with me.  The themes set out in their CFP is so similar to mine that we might as well make it a joint effort.  I am now referring all interested persons in my original CFP to their paper session.  Here it is:

AAG Annual Meeting, Los Angeles, April 9-13, 2013
Post-secular spaces: geographical explorations beyond secular theory and research

The aim of this paper session is to explore the parameters of post-secular research and theory in Geography. From Habermas to Asad to Butler, post-secular theories and approaches unsettle previously taken-for-granted relationships between religion, the state, and society.  The challenge posed by post-secular theory is not to study religion more, or to study religion in isolation, but rather to re-view moments, meanings and events without the assumptions of secularization theory – that is, without assuming that religious practices, values and institutions have been historically or contemporarily irrelevant or marginalized in the functioning of ‘modern’ societies. As a critique of secularization theory, post-secular approaches encourage us to uncover and analyze the lingering and overt presence of religion in our social interactions, our economies, and in the everyday and exceptional practice of politics. Less clear in these broader debates (and, arguably, within geographical scholarship on the topic) is the relevance of space and spatial theory in either the theoretical development or empirical analysis of post-secular approaches.

Our hope with this paper session is to begin consolidating and synthesizing the spatial concerns of post-secular theory by exploring emerging empirical research on new (and old) interrelationships between religion, society, politics, and economy. We would especially encourage contributions from scholars who don’t consider religion to be their central interest, but have perhaps been trying to explain religious influence upon economic, social or political practices. Papers might therefore be either historical or contemporary studies, and could address themes such as:

·      Religion and technologies of communication
·      Geopolitics in the secular age
·      Class and religion
·      Spirituality in social movements
·      Religion, labor and rights
·      Environmental ethics and spirituality
·      Law, secularism, and religion
·      Piety, embodiment, and the body
·      Secularism and public space
·      Religion and the economy
·      Feminism and the secular critique
·      Popular culture and religion

Please send your abstract of no more than 250 words to Betsy Olson ( and Banu Gökarıksel ( )

Debating Secularization: Theory and Practice in Geographies of Religion
Sponsored by the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Specialty Group
AAG 2013: Call for Papers

Recent work in geographies of religion has suggested a need for the tenets of the subfield to be debated.  Lily Kong (2010) argues, for example, that not enough work has been done to examine the theological and metaphysical aspects of geographies of religion and to engage the interdisciplinary enterprise of religious studies.  An emerging topic of debate is secularization and whether or not emerging geographies of religion can be seen as post-secular spaces.  While Beaumont and Baker (2010) argue that cities with new configurations of faith-based organizations are developing new post-secular approaches to social activism, Kong (2010) cautions against this idea for its over-emphasis on European phenomena.  On the other hand, Justin Wilford (2011) argues that religious phenomena, while significant, need to be conceptualized as ‘sacred archipelagoes’ in a sea of secularity, for secularization has in fact affected all facets of modern religious practice.  The theoretical underpinnings of geographies of religion and its requisite attachments to the secularization thesis are thus currently under debate.

This session calls for papers that examine the theory and practice in geographies of religion in light of these debates.  Papers that will be submitted do not necessarily need to be completely theory-oriented papers; indeed, empirical studies that contribute to these theoretical debates, as well as papers that deal with theological and metaphysical issues, will both be strongly considered.  Suggested topics include:

  • Geographical studies that either support or refute the secularization thesis
  • Theological and metaphysical treatments of religious themes in geography
  • Post-secular cities
  • Faith-based organizations and their treatment of religion and the secular
  • Geographies of religious migration, with a theoretical treatment of religion and the secular
  • Interfaith geographies as religious, secular, or post-secular phenomena
  • Positionality in the theory and practice of geographies of religion
  • Religious geopolitics as religious, secular, or post-secular phenomena
  • Non-European geographies of religion and their relation to secular geographies
  • Feminist approaches to geographies of religion and the secularization thesis

Papers should be submitted to Justin K.H. Tse at no latter than October 20, 2012 for submission to the AAG.

Association of American Geographers 2011 (Seattle, WA)

A few updates on the sessions in this Association of American Geographers in Seattle’s Washington State Convention Center and the Sheraton.

Betsy Olson, Claire Dwyer, and I co-organized a session on Wednesday, 13 April 2011, at 10 AM entitled Religion and transnationalism/Traveling faith (#2244).  This paper featured paper presentations by Murat Es, Abby Day, Ben Kogaly, Sharon Suh, and Patricia Ehrkamp.  Claire Dwyer, David Ley, and I also gave our presentation on Richmond’s “Highway to Heaven”:

While geographers have written much about the varying dimensions of transnational urbanism (Ley 2004, MP Smith 2001, Mitchell 2004) religious transnationalism remains under explored despite the establishment of many new spectacular religious buildings in diaspora cities in the last decade and evidence of the continuing significance of religious practice for many migrants (Levitt 2007, Tweed 2002). In this paper we draw on recent empirical work in the multicultural suburb of Richmond, Vancouver to explore the complex geographies of a transnational suburban religious landscape. Along the Number 5 Road, on the eastern boundary of the city and adjacent to the major 99 highway, more than twenty religious buildings including mosques, churches, religious schools, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh temples are clustered within 3 kilometres. This suburban religious landscape has been produced by the complex intersection of suburban planning regulations, municipal multiculturalism and the transnational activities of a range of different diasporic faith communities living in greater Vancouver and beyond. Our paper traces the processes by which this landscape has been produced and raises some questions about the possible outcomes of planning for religious and cultural diversity and the varying trajectories of religious transnationalism.

I am also giving a paper on Thursday, 14 April 2011, at 10 AM in the Issues in Ethnic Geography II (#3220) session.  Here is the paper abstract:

Until recently, ethnic, religious, and ethno-religious spaces in North America have been assumed to be apolitical.  Urban ethnic centres (such as Chinatowns), ethnoburbs (such as Richmond in Metro Vancouver), and ethnic churches and temples have often been seen as sites where migrant cultures to North America have been preserved; indeed, the only politics in which they are involved may be anti-segregation and anti-racism protests.  However, Cantonese Christians have not been apolitical.  In 2008, Cantonese Christians successfully campaigned for the election of a Conservative Member of Parliament in Richmond, British Columbia; a parallel in the San Francisco Bay Area was an alliance of Chinese evangelicals with the larger evangelical movement to pass Proposition 8 to ban same-sex unions.  Such a trend has also been noticed by Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, running a front-page article on immigrants and the conservative vote.  In this presentation, I propose a working approach to such migrant religious communities that takes into account their politics.  We must ask: what are the civic imaginations and practices of Cantonese Christians who are said to vote conservative?  This paper grounds this question in Vancouver and San Francisco as the starting point of a new line of inquiry into the political agency of communities formerly thought to be ethnic enclaves running parallel religious lives in North America.  It is the hope of this paper to initiate a new approach to immigrant and ethnic geographies from which empirical data can be collected.

Finally, in the usual great run-up of speakers for the Geography of Religion and Belief Systems Annual Lecture, Claire Dwyer will be giving this year’s lecture (#4258):

Encountering the Divine in W5 and Highway 99: stories of the suburban sacred
This lecture reflects on my on-going collaborative research on suburban faith spaces in London and Vancouver to explore the significance of everyday geographies of religion.  Recent research on suburban faith spaces offers both into a reinterpretation of the assumed secularism of suburban space and an analysis of the transnational and postcolonial connections shaping suburban geographies. Through this analysis of suburban faith spaces I develop two broader arguments about the geographies of religions and belief systems. First, I ask what geographies of religion have to offer to wider theoretical discussions within the discipline. Second, I reflect on the  possibilities and challenges of accessing the suburban sacred as part of a wider reflection on geographies of encounter and enchantment.