Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species was published in 1859, and had an immediate and dramatic effect on religious narratives. Traditional religions were forced to adopt an evolutionary worldview, or to go on the offensive; whereas New Religious Movements like Wicca or New Age adopted an environmental concern as a central part of their belief. And possibly, for individuals and groups committed to protect, preserve or sacralise nature, environmentalism has become a kind of religion in itself.
The secularisation thesis – the idea that traditional religions are in terminal decline in the industrialised world – was perhaps the central debate in the sociology of religion in the second half of the 20th century. Scholars such as Steve Bruce, Rodney Stark and Charles Taylor argued whether religion was becoming less important to individuals, or that only the authority of religions in the public sphere was declining. Data from the US and South America, however, began to challenge many of their basic assumptions. Professor Linda Woodhead joins us to discuss the background and legacy of the secularisation thesis.
“In practice, experimentation requires much effort, imagination, and resources. The subject of religion seems too complex and too ‘soft’ for the laboratory. It is filled with much fantasy and feelings, two topics which academic psychology finds hard to approach.”
The majority of those who identified as a Jedi on the 2001 UK census were mounting a more-or-less satirical or playful act of non-compliance; nevertheless, a certain proportion of those were telling the truth. How does a religion constructed from the fictional Star Wars universe problematise how we conceptualise other religions, and the stories they involve? And what makes certain stories able to transcend their fictional origins and become myths?
“If we want to discover what [wo]man amounts to, we can only find it in what [wo]men are: and what [wo]men are, above all other things, is various. It is in understanding that variousness – its range, its nature, its basis, and its implications – that we shall come to construct a concept of human nature that, more than a statistical shadow, and less than a primitivists dream, has both substance and truth.” (Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973:52)
After this week’s podcast, which involved eight scholars giving their views on the future of Religious Studies, there was really only one way we could create a suitably collective and varied response – six postgrads sitting around a table, accompanied by pink gin and our trusty dictaphone. Conversation ranges from the public perception of what Religious Studies does, what to do with a RS degree, to the financial practicalities of doing postgraduate research in the UK and US today. Mostly, though, it’s a collective rant about the cognitive study of religion
This week we decided to do something a bit different. Every time David and Chris have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: “What is the Future of Religious Studies?”
The result is this highly stimulating compilation of differing perspectives and levels of optimism on what has become one of the most hotly debated topics in the academic study of religion at the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Could the difficulties associated with the academic conceptualisation of “religion” be overcome by changing our focus instead to “the sacred”? Jay Demerath tells Chris why we should define religion substantively – that is, in terms of specific attributes like rituals, deities or dogmas – but the sacred in terms of the function it serves in the lives of individuals and cultures. From this perspective, religion can be considered one of a number of potential sources of the sacred.
In the 1960s, most sociologists consciously or unconsciously bought into idea of the ‘death of god’ – religion became effectively invisible to academia. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, a number of events – most notably the ‘Satanic Verses’ controversy – dramatically increased the ‘visibility’ of religion: it became a political problem. Now, in the 21st century, religion is increasingly being construed by politicians, educators, the media etc, as a useful resource to be exploited. In this interview, Professor Davie discusses the place of religion in modern Europe, paying particular attention to the place of the United Kingdom within the European context.
The Religion, Youth and Sexuality: A Multi-faith Exploration project, based at the University of Nottingham, looked at 18 to 25 year-olds from a variety of faith backgrounds in order to understand attitudes and practices around sexuality and how this was negotiated in relation to religious traditions. Dr Sarah-Jane Page, one of the research fellows, talks to Chris about the project’s findings, which were sometimes surprising. Religion is found to be a significant influence, but one influence among a number of others.
The Insider/Outsider problem, relating to where scholars position themselves relating to the subject matter (whatever that may be), is one of the most perennial problems in the academic study of religion. Does one have to be a member of a community for your testimony about that community to be valid? Or does your membership of the community invalidate your objectivity? Does an academic training permanently exclude you from insider status regardless of your personal ‘beliefs’ or sense of belonging? These questions and many more form part of the theoretical backdrop for this interview with Dr Chryssides.
Animism is often taken as referring to worldviews in which spirits are to be found not only in humans, but potentially in animals, in plants, in mountains and even natural forces like the wind. It was of central importance in early anthropological conceptions of religion, most notably in the work of E. B. Tylor. More recently, however, Graham Harvey has challenged the traditional conception of animism, seeking to understand it as “relational epistemologies and ontologies”; in other words, it is a way of living in a community of persons, most of whom are other-than-human.
It is generally accepted – at least as far as most academics are concerned – that there is a distinct difference between religious studies and theology. As you shall see from this interview, however, things are much more complicated, and Professor Wiebe is particularly qualified to present his own take on the relationship between these two distinct disciplines.
What is an “Invented Religion”? Why should scholars take these religions seriously? What makes these “inventions” different from the revelations in other religions? What happens when an author does not want their story to become a religious text?
The cognitive study of religion has quickly established itself as the paradigmatic methodology in the field today. It’s grounded in the concept that religiosity is natural because it is well adapted to the cognitive propensities developed during the evolution of our species. In this episode, Professor Armin Geertz tells Chris why it deserves its prominent profile, and how it is developing.