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Faculty Expert Q&A

A conversation with Alan Levinovitz

by Hannah Lynn Robinson

Alan Levinovitz, professor of religious studies at James Madison University, researches at the unique intersection between food and religion.

Providing his students and readers with unfamiliar perspectives, he challenges commonly accepted norms surrounding spirituality and naturalness—discovering the subtle yet powerful role that rhetoric plays in our largely socialized view of wellness.

His newest book, Natural: How Faith In Nature's Goodness Leads To Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science—is scheduled for Spring 2020.

Levinovitz has been published in the Atlantic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, NPR and Business Insider.


Q: What do you enjoy about teaching in higher education?

A: I believe strongly in the mission of higher education, which is, broadly, producing and disseminating knowledge. It's a tremendous privilege to have a job that also provides me with deep personal fulfillment and a sense of purpose. 

Q: How did you become interested in finding an intersection between schools of thought that are often so far removed from one another?

A: As someone who studies religion and literature, I'm primed to look for religious terms and rhetoric. In the world of food, these come up often: "guilty" pleasures; "sinful" treats; pure foods vs. impure foods; cleanses. My work on the intersection of food and religion led me to see a broader phenomenon, which was the religiosity behind understandings of "naturalness." Seeing these ideas differently, through the lens of religious studies, has provided me—and, I hope, my readers —with a valuable and unfamiliar perspective. 

Q: Your research is a common topic of public discussion. What is the most exciting development in your area today?

A: From medicine to food to ecology, there's a growing recognition that seemingly basic concepts are in fact incredibly complicated and ideologically charged. The idea of what it means for an ecosystem to be "healthy," or food to be "natural"—we can no longer assume that those ideas are easy and uncontroversial. That, in turn, is creating necessary dialogue between science and the humanities, which is excellent for everyone involved. 

Q: What are some challenges you can foresee in your research in the coming year?

A: The topics I write about are extremely controversial and highly polarizing. It's tempting to fall into ideological oversimplifications, especially because that can get you support from vested interests. I hope to be able to steer clear of that temptation and remain nuanced in my perspective.

Q: If you could tell the public one thing about your area of expertise, what would it be?

A: The tools of religious studies can be used to illuminate much more than what is traditionally understand as religious beliefs and practices.

Q: What are your interests outside of your work at JMU?

A: I'm interested in what causes people to change their minds about important beliefs, and the consequences of changing your mind. (And, of course, my family, cooking, and traveling!)

Media contact: Hannah Robinson,, 520-222-2808



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Published: Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Last Updated: Saturday, January 2, 2021

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