Dr. Shawn Arthur

Dr. Shawn Arthur, WFU

Assistant Professor
(Leave Fall 2018)
Office: Wingate 215
Phone: 758-2496
Email: arthursd@wfu.edu



Shawn Arthur joined Wake Forest in 2014 from Appalachian State University where he taught for eight years and achieved the rank of Associate Professor. Shawn teaches courses mainly on Chinese religions – Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, contemporary and folk religions, and Chinese medicine. He also teaches about religion and the body, women and religion, nature-oriented religions, world religions more generally, and theories and method in the study of religions, including ethnographic study, comparative study, and interdisciplinary analysis of religion.

Professor Arthur’s first book, Early Daoist Dietary Practices: Examining Ways to Health and Longevity (Lexington Books 2013), focuses on a 5th century Daoist text that contains 70 recipes for achieving improved health and immortality. In addition to looking at the religious content and issues present in the text, he also uses a range of nutritional, medical, and parasitological scientific studies to analyze the text’s physical regimens and their claimed outcomes.

Contemporary Religions in China (forthcoming Routledge 2018), Shawn’s second book, examines the range of religious ideas and practices of regular people across China. Researchers have published many accounts of the ‘official’ religions of China (Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholic Christianity, and Protestant Christianity), but this work explores religion as it is lived by ordinary people without formal training in, or even strong commitment to, any particular religious tradition. This research provides insights into Chinese culture and important reasons why Chinese people participate in religious or pseudo-religious activities. While working on this second book and after taking part in the United Nations’ Commission for the Study of Women/ Non-Governmental Organization Meeting in March 2018, Shawn has re-doubled his efforts to discuss the importance of understanding issues of women and religion/culture in his classes and writing.

Dr. Arthur also is hard at work on his next book (contracted with Bloomsbury): Religion, Culture, and the Quest for Perfection: Body Problems, Body Modifications. This volume is based on his popular course called “Religion, Culture, and the Body.” The text begins by exploring ways that scholars and medical researchers have talked about and studied bodies over the past 150 years or so. This is followed by more detailed examination of the ways that religions and cultures teach people (especially women) to see their bodies (and minds, since bodies and minds exist together) as problematic and in need of various kinds of ‘help.’ For example, a great number of television and internet advertisements focus on people who have not met society’s arbitrary weight and beauty and fashion standards, many Christians claim people are sinful or are born separate from divine perfection, and Buddhists are concerned with people’s suffering, and many sub-cultures focus on members ‘fitting in’ by looking and/or acting a certain way. In the third section, Shawn shows that even though religions and cultures claim people’s bodies are problematic and less-than-perfect in a host of ways, they always seem to promote their own solutions to these problems – through dieting, surgery, increased materialism, salvation, meditation, and many other bodily practices.

The fourth section explores ways that people learn to modify their bodies in their attempts to meet the aforementioned goals and/or to solve their perceived problems. From simple and impermanent acts such as cutting one’s hair and wearing particular clothes or make-up; to more permanent acts such as piercing one’s ears or getting a tattoo; and to much more painful and life-threatening acts such as cosmetic or gender confirmation (i.e., reassignment) surgeries, foot-binding, or female genital mutilation: he also analyzes why these are important for people and why people do them to meet the arbitrary goals set before them by religions and cultural groups. The book’s final section questions if the goal of bodily perfection is even possible. In order to answer this question, the chapter reflects on the themes of the book and explores how these body-oriented activities for solving culturally- and religiously-determined body problems illustrate the lengths that social groups and authority figures will go in their attempts to control people (especially women) and their perceptions of themselves. Throughout the volume, Shawn uses examples from a wide range of religions and cultures while also emphasizing the necessity of being aware of the examples’ complex contexts to best understand them.

Using his research interests in the intersections of religions, cultures, health practices, and bodies, Shawn helped to launch and remains co-editor of the journal Body and Religion with Graham Harvey (UK). Shawn recently (2018) published a chapter on ‘Smell in Chinese Religions.’ He was invited to present this work at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Religion Department at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He also was recently subject of an Alumni Spotlight from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (his BA and MA alma mater): https://religion.utk.edu/students/arthur.php.

After his first book, Professor Arthur has dedicated himself to presenting his research in ways that students and non-specialists can approach and understand. Ultimately, he argues, scholarship is not particularly helpful to the larger world if only a few people can read and make sense of it – a phenomenon which contributes to an unhelpful and widening gap between academics and everyone else. Shawn hopes his work can reach broader audiences and can influence others to become interested in learning more about humans, their interactions, their religions, and their cultures – at home, in China, and elsewhere. One crucial way to help the world become a better and safer place is to help people learn about other people about whom they know little in order to lessen their fears and to help them understand the many problems associated with taking advantage of and/or continuing conflict with each other.

Shawn has been invited to Zhejiang University in China in October 2018 to present new work on assessing lived religions and new religious movements. Generally seen as superstitious and dangerous by the Chinese government, practitioners of popular religious activities that do not fall under the teachings of the official religions, small religious groups (especially those that do not register with the authorities), and new religious movements often have difficulties with the law even if they are not doing anything illegal. Shawn will discuss alternate ways for government officials at national and local levels to talk and think about these typically benign groups.



2007 Ph.D. – Boston University – Chinese Religion and Society (requirements finished 2006)
Dissertation: “Ancient Daoist Diets for Health and Longevity”
 2001 M.A. – University of Tennessee at Knoxville – Religious Studies
Thesis: “Nature and the Environment in American Wicca”
1996 B.A. – University of Tennessee at Knoxville – Religious Studies

Click here for CV



Regular Offerings:
REL 101: Intro to Religion
REL 104: Introduction to Asian Religions (104c focuses on Chinese Religions) (also counts for East Asian Studies credit)
REL 109: Buddhism  (also counts for East Asian Studies credit)
REL 305: Ethnography
REL 329: Chinese Medicine  (also counts for Bioethics, Humanities and Medicine minor and East Asian Studies credit)
REL 343: Religion, Culture, & the Body  (also counts for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies credit)
REL 349: East Asian Meditation Practices  (also counts for East Asian Studies credit)
REL 382: Religions and Cultures of China  (also counts for East Asian Studies credit)


On Demand:
Contemporary Global Issues
Myth, Symbol, & Ritual
Nature-Oriented Religions
Self-Cultivation in Classical China
Women in China

Comments are closed.