Donovan Schaefer

Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania
Core Faculty, Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies
Member of the Graduate Group, Comparative Literature


I‘m an associate 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. During this period, I co-founded the Religion, Affect, and Emotion group at the American Academy of Religion. 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. In addition to my appointment in Religious Studies, I am core faculty in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies and a member of the Graduate Group in Comparative Literature.

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, science and technology studies, material culture studies, evolutionary biology, and queer theory. In my first book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, I argued that to understand how religion shapes our relationships with fields of power, we need to think of it as more than a linguistic construct or a set of propositional beliefs. Instead, I proposed that we need to think of religion in its animality, as determined by embodied emotions rather than words. In my next volume for Cambridge University Press, The Evolution of Affect Theory: The Humanities, the Sciences, and the Study of Power, I explored contemporary debates within affect theory, arguing for an approach that emphasizes animality and embodiment rather than philosophical abstraction. The approach I take sees religion as something we do with bodies, feelings, and objects in the world as much as (or more than) with frameworks of belief

It would be wrong to imagine that religion alone is determined by feeling, though. In my most recent book, Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin, I set out to dismantle the thinking/feeling binary—a paradigm that is in the background of a significant swathe of academic scholarship as well as all kinds of everyday understandings we have about ourselves in the world. My interest in this book lies in reconceptualizing “rationality” as determined by affective processes. I explore 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 defined by subtle networks of feeling. To this end, I bring the academic fields of critical secularism studies and STS into conversation with affect theory. As I show in the book, this has implications for a range of contemporary political problems, including conspiracy theory, white Christian nationalism, New Atheist Islamophobia, and climate denialism. Wild Experiment won the 2023 Ludwik Fleck Prize from the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S), the annual book prize from the International Society for Science and Religion, and was a finalist for the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the Analytical-Descriptive Studies category.

In my next project, I will be exploring the relationships between feeling, belief, the secular, and material culture, with a particular focus on the politics of Confederate monuments in the US.

Speaking and Public-Facing Work

I routinely give talks and lecture to a variety of different audiences–community groups, undergraduates, and advanced researchers–around the world. My regular rotation of topics includes affect theory (at both introductory and advanced levels), secularism studies, science and technology studies, monuments and material culture, embodied/animal religion, conspiracy theory, and a number of other topics relating to my research.

I’m happy to discuss any invitation to speak, which I’ll try to accommodate within my schedule if possible. Please reach out to me at my University of Pennsylvania email address with any requests.

The divide between academic conversations and public conversations has always troubled me, and I’ve invested heavily in creating public-facing pieces like short articles, videos, and podcasts, archived here.