October 20, 2017

“Communicating Religion”. Annual Conference of the EASR

A conference report by Hans Van Eyghen

Visiting your Alma Mater is always accompanied by mixed emotions. On the one hand you see familiar things you missed but on the other hand you’re confronted with downsides you hoped were a thing of the past. My visit to the KULeuven for the EASR conference had both, although the positives far outweighed the downsides.

One downside all former KUL students are familiar with is the constant renovation works. The conference venue was only partly finished and the coffee breaks were frequently interrupted by noise. Luckily this was soon forgotten when one of the major strong points of the KUL manifested; its ability to attract a lot of renowned international speakers. The first keynote speaker was Guy Stroumsa who talked about religious evolution in late antiquity. His talk covered developments in pagan Roman religion, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism and Manicheism during that era.

The keynote was followed by the first parallel session. Each slot offered a choice of no less than 12 sessions. I mostly chose sessions on minority religions or esoteric traditions. During the first session titled ‘New Religious Movements’, Suzanne Owen discussed a well-known problem in modern paganism, the difficulty in lumping rather diffuse groups together. She discussed it from a legal perspective and noted that some pagan groups had difficulty in gaining official recognition in the United Kingdom. Vladlena Fedianina’s talk was on a remarkable Japanese movement called Kofuku-no Kagaka. The movement is also known as ‘happy science’. Its leader claims to be able to channel messages from all sorts of (living) people. Fedianina focused on the movement’s efforts in Russia, for example by means of publishing channeled messages from Russian president Vladimir Putin. The third speaker, Matous Vencalek talked about his field work among Czech pagan groups.

The first session I attended on the second day unfortunately had only one speaker. Isabel Canzobre Martinez discussed indications of people identifying with various gods in the Greek magical papyri. She compared the practice with Jesus identifying with the God of Israel in the New Testament. The keynote of the day, Jan Bremmer took the theme of the conference to heart and talked about religious education and communication in antiquity. He argued that education into antique pagan religion mainly happened by having children seeing and partaking in rituals. It was a bit unfortunate that Bremmer didn’t take recent cognitive research about ritual competence[1] and the role of rituals in community-building[2] into account.

Cognitive science was not missing from the third day. Early in the morning three speakers had a panel titled ‘Esotericism and the Cognitive Science of Religion. Egil Asprem started off and discussed how recent theories of predictive coding could shed more light on kataphatic practices. Predictive coding models suggest that the human mind is constantly making hypotheses about the outside world and updating them when needed. Asprem discussed how these models could shed light on kataphatic practices where people try to gain contact or knowledge about higher realms or divine beings. Gusmundur Markusson applied cognitive semiotics to how Alastair Crowley’s ‘Book of the Law’ is used in some forms of western esotericism. He argued that the opaqueness of the book allows readers to find divergent meanings in it. This (among other things) makes the book intriguing. To end the panel, Jesper Sorensen made some general comments how cognitive science of religion can aid the study of esotericism and how the study of esotericism can also help to move cognitive science of religion forward. In the second session I attended two Russian scholars talked about older Russian anthropologists who studies Siberian shamanism. The third speaker did not focus on Russia but argued against Egyptologists who claimed that ancient Egyptian religion did not know shamanic practices (they did).

The afternoon started with a keynote lecture by Ann Taves. She argued for replacing the world religion paradigm with a worldview paradigm. Researching worldviews rather than the five world religions would be more inclusive and could help tackle current problems like partisanship and populism in her view. However, when discussing the course she teaches at the university of California at Santa Barbara, Taves had to admit she still used the world religions paradigm. She was criticized for this during the Q&A. I spend the rest of the afternoon in sessions on Shinto. Michael Pye introduced the first session with a talk on diversity within Shinto. Dunja Jelesijevic discussed interactions between Shinto and Japanese Noh theatre. Tomoko Iwasawa touched on the topic that would be the main point of discussion in the second session on Shinto; namely whether it is possible to use the term ‘Shinto’ for medieval and ancient Japanese religion or whether these are very different things. During the second session, Yeonjoo Park talked about influences of Tendai Buddhism in medieval Shinto. The last speaker, Mart Teeuwen, voiced his doubt that Shinto can be traced back to medieval times, let alone to ancient times.

The fourth day, I attended a session on modern shamanism. Tiina Mahlmäki drew an interesting parallel between shamanistic practices and ethnography. Shamans attribute an important role to the imagination and try to develop ‘inner senses’ to tap into other forms of knowledge. Mahlmäki claimed that ethnographers often have to rely on imagination to capture what their subjects are doing as well. In her view some methods used by researchers are also similar to shamanistic practices. Her example was the ‘creative writing’ many ethnographers do when taking notes. Jaana Kouri (who is a shamanistic practitioner herself) discussed how shamans are able to shift consciousness. She argued that shamanistic knowledge is best construed as a joint production of both human and non-human actors. She also claimed that many western shamanistic practitioners have an academic background. I did not attend more sessions on the fourth day apart from the keynote lecture. In it, Jenny Berglund compared various forms of (Islamic) religious education in Europe.

The EASR conference showed how diverse and interesting religious studies is. A downside is that it also showed how the diversity does not always lead to interaction. Few presenters showed an active interest in what scholars who study other religions or approaches do. The keynote lectures were also largely confined to a subclass of religious studies. I could not help but thinking that scholars could make a greater effort to learn from each other. For example, the speakers on modern shamanism could arguably learn from the speakers on Siberian shamanism. Large conferences, like the EASR conference, are probably not the best venue to serve as a bridge between scholars.

 

[1] See Lawson, E. T. and R. N. McCauley (1990). Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

[2] See Whitehouse, H. and J. A. Lanman (2014). “The Ties That Bind Us.” Current Anthropology 55(6): 674-695.

 

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