Donovan Schaefer



I‘m an assistant professor in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania. My B.A. is from the interdisciplinary Religion, Literature, and the Arts program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where I was born. My master’s and doctoral degrees are from Syracuse University. After completing my doctorate I held a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at Haverford College, where I participated in a Mellon faculty research seminar on affect theory, worked with some extraordinary students, and spent a lot of time with the turtles. While at Haverford, I co-founded the Religion, Affect, and Emotion group at the American Academy of Religion with Prof. M. Gail Hamner. I then moved to the University of Oxford, where I worked from 2014 to 2017 as a Departmental Lecturer in Science and Religion. While at Oxford, I was also attached to Trinity College as Tutor in Theology and Religion. At Penn, I research, teach, supervise graduate students, and collaborate with other research units around the university.

Research Interests

I’m interested in how religion works, and especially why religion is such a powerful force in our lives (and why we sometimes say that it is, when it actually isn’t). To explore religion, I use different academic disciplines, including affect theory, material culture studies, evolutionary biology, and queer theory. In my first book, Religious Affects, I argued that to understand how religion shapes our relationships with fields of power, we need to think of it as something other than a linguistic construct or a set of beliefs. Instead, I proposed that we need to think of religion in its animality, as determined by embodied emotions rather than words. The approach I take sees religion as something we do with bodies, emotions, and objects in the world as much or more than with frameworks of belief

However, it would be wrong to imagine that religion alone is determined by emotion. In my current research project I’m exploring the ways that nonreligious cultures—a laboratory, a seminar room, a humanist community, or a New Atheist book (all formations of what anthropologists call “secularisms”)—are also determined by subtle networks of emotion. To this end, I’m interested in bringing the academic fields of critical secularism studies and science/technology studies into conversation with affect theory. This work has implications for political questions about the role of religion and secularism in society.