The Science of Prayer: Genealogies and Biopolitics
Podcast with John Lardas Modern (22 June 2020).
Interviewed by David McConeghy.
Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.
Audio and transcript available at:
David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. My name is David McConeghy. And today I’m joined by Professor John Lardas Modern, who teaches at Franklin and Marshall College, and is the author of several books: The Bop Apocalypse: Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs; Secularism in Antebellum America; and he is the co-editor, with Katie Lofton, of Class 200: New Studies in Religion, an excellent book series that I recommend heartily to all of our Listeners. Professor Modern, thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate having your time today.
John Modern (JM): Well thank you, David. And good morning to you!
DMcC: Good morning, as well! I would invite you to share with us a little bit about your ongoing projects. What are you working on right now? And how can we develop that into an interesting conversation, for our Listeners, about the idea of the scientific study of prayer?
JM: Ah. Well, that’s a good question. So currently, I am sort-of betwixt-and-between different projects. I’m doing some final revisions on a book project that I’ve been working on for about, oh, ten years or so, which deals with the sort-of histories, the genealogies of the cognitive and neuroscientific studies of religion. And so a lot of my interest in measurement and calculability, and the kind-of incursion of certain forms of mathematical formalism into, you know, Humanities and Social Sciences in general, but for our particular purposes the Study of Religion and – even more specifically – the study of prayer, derives from that research. But I’m also very excited by a project that I have on the horizon that I’ve been dabbling in for the last few years. It is connected to the previous project on cognitive science, but it’s taking and thinking about the developments in science – particularly cybernetics in the mid-twentieth century – and trying to think through that problematic by telling a story about the history of Akron, Ohio from the nineteenth century through to the industrialisation in the 1970s.
DMcC: So let’s talk a little bit about that story. Some of what John and I are going to talk about is from the very first inaugural issue of American Religion, in an essay called “Praying Hands“, which really connects some of these issues for us. The scientific study of prayer, as you outline in the beginning of that piece, begins in the late nineteenth century. Can you talk about the origins of the scientific study of prayer?
JM: Yes. I mean, I guess I’d first qualify any sort-of questions about origins or . . . . Discussions about origins are always a little bit fraught because, to paraphrase Don DeLillo, you can never tell where it begins – anything – where it begins. But, for the conceit of the article, I do locate an origin point in sort-of Victorian England amongst natural scientists – particularly, three that I sort-of talk about in the article: EB Tylor – everybody’s favourite Victorian anthropologist of the nineteenth century.
JM: And his two-volume work, Primitive Culture in 1871, and also the following year, 1872 – which in England was the season of the Prayer Gauge Debates, in which prayer, the subject of prayer, became a kind-of talking point among certain kinds of established scientists from the Royal Society. Between John Tyndall and Francis Galton who, in their kind-of reaction to the state calling for a Day of National Prayer for the country – in terms of thinking about some of the issues – they kind-of responded in a way that reminds you, I would say, of almost a New Atheist pose in the present: your kind-of trolling attitude toward religion. So, in the Prayer Gauge Debates, basically, they used it as an opportunity to publish these almost tongue-in-cheek, but also semi-serious articles about what the scientific study of prayer really looked like. And, in doing so, kind-of pointed out what a ridiculous proposition it would be to take prayer seriously as a kind of religious faculty. But it could be taking it seriously by measuring it, and coming up with sophisticated experimental designs by which one would study the prayers of people and how effective they were. And this is combined with EB Tylor, who in a sort-of different setting . . . . EB Tylor is not trolling anybody with Primitive Culture! (5:00) But he is making some very kind-of provocative claims about the history and origins of religion. And he sees prayer as he sees religion, as a kind of necessary evolutionary development within human history; that it does serve an evolutionary purpose of advancing both cognition and social structure. And he sees it primarily as a kind of way – in similar ways in which contemporary cognitive science see it – as something that can, in fact, be measured. And for Tylor, his sort-of standard of measurement in the 1870s was adopting the new science . . . or not the new, but the exciting possibilities that were being unleashed by the science of statistics, and looking at, you know, large data sets of populations, and trying to crunch the numbers in such a way as you could figure something out about not only the population but the individuals that comprise the population. So in Tylor you also see, in a less ironic mode, this desire to proclaim that religion is something that is out there in the world that humans do – which is a founding assumption. But moreover, it’s something that cannot simply be described or compared, but it’s also something that can be measured with precision, and the tightness of numbers, with the underlying assumption that whatever mathematical formalism one brings to the object of prayer, that prayer can be contained within that sort of formal structure: that the idea that whatever accedes in human life in religion is not necessarily, first and foremost, on the minds of people like Tyler and Galton and Tyndall.
DMcC: I’m really amused by some of the examples that you cite. Especially in the research questions that they asked. So the simple question of, “Do sick persons who pray, or are prayed for, recover on average more rapidly than others?” was a kind-of like guiding question for the statistical model. But then, when they went to draw on the data, they crunched numbers from whether clerics had better health outcomes than lawyers, and whether slave ships were more likely to sink than those that were carrying missionaries on them. I mean, these are provocative data sets!
JM: Yes. And so that’s Galton again, kind-of trolling this . . . So, “If prayer really works or is effective, wouldn’t you think that these people who are prayed for more than others would feel the benefits, would feel the effects of those prayers?” And so, simply as a kind-of anecdote of Galton’s, this was kind-of a ridiculous proposition. And I think I also mention in my piece something to the effect of “It’s like, wouldn’t the insurance companies be on this?!” (Laughs) “If this was a viable option, who do you think would be first and foremost on it, in order to make money, and to maximise their capitalist margin?”
DMcC: I can’t imagine that that guy from State Farm would pass up an opportunity like that.
JM: Oh no. And I think in a lot of ways that’s, for me . . . . When I read that piece, actually, about Galton, I thought, “Oh my gosh!” In a lot of ways, as a kind-of genealogist, I sort-of live in the past, in a strange temporality, where I don’t, in a sense, walk around the world making hard and fast distinctions about past present and future. It’s a kind of cultivated temporality. And you see Galton doing this in the nineteenth century, which resonates so much with contemporary sort-of scientific studies of religion and spirituality, prayer, meditation. Where, you know, we at the AAR will see a session on the cognitive science of religion, on the study of meditation, or something. And we’ll go it, and we’ll have arguments, etc. But I think the one thing to keep in mind with research that these scientists are doing is it’s being operationalised far outside the discipline of Religious Studies. It is being operationalised by pharmaceutical companies. It is being operationalised by insurance companies, who . . . . In a lot of ways, in the last 15 years, the kind-of incursion of wellness programmes in every nook and cranny of institutional bureaucratic life, is, I think, a product of this kind-of conception that this is useful data. It’s data about religion that’s not simply about figuring out what religion is, or what the human is. It’s data that can be capitalised on. It’s data that can, in a sense, make your business model, or your drug, more effective or something like that. (10:00) So there are these consequences of this kind-of intellectual history that I’m sort-of putting together, that I think are haunting the piece, or in the background of the piece, in a lot of ways.
DMcC: I appreciate the idea that there’s a moment, perhaps, that you’re putting your finger on. It might not be the first moment, but it’s a very clear moment, where religion is being identified as an instrumental object. It is the thing that can act, it can do, it can be appropriated for certain ends. And we have a moment in the quantification of prayer, when we can trace deliberately the actions of specific persons pursuing those ends. And the ways in which that actually changes not only what religion is about, but maybe religion’s opposites. Can you speak a little bit about how measuring prayer actually changes something about the way that we understand the category of religion and non-religion, and the ways in which questioning, measuring, quantifying really provoke challenges to the categories that we use in the world to describe things like prayer?
JM: Yes. That’s a great question. You know I think the first thing I would say, if one stands in the world, and stands and looks upon the world, and assumes as a matter of course that the thing you are interested in it’s a matter of identifying it, locating it, and measuring it – with the confidence that one can identify, locate and measure with a precision to situate it in the world, to locate it in the world in a very specific way – to kind-of contain it in a lot of ways, it’s going to affect the kinds of questions that you’re going to ask. And so, with my sort-of genealogy of the measurement of prayer in this essay, I’m trying to think a lot about, think through . . . . So in the nineteenth century you had this kind-of science of statistics, this kind-of enthusiasm for the possibilities of measuring different kinds of means across populations, and trying to figure out what is essentially that which defines a population – in terms of religion, or mortality, or whatever it might be – where the study of prayer becomes, “Ok, does prayer work?” The initial questions are, for Tyndall and Galton and some of the people who responded to Tyndall and Galton . . . . You have all these religious folks – people who are practising theologians or sort-of self-identified religious leaders in the Anglican Church, who are kind-of hitting back against this trolling that they feel they have been subject to by saying that prayer does in a sense work: not because it can be measured in terms of better mortality rates of clerics, or something like that. But it works as a kind of moral salve, or a social cohesive energy, or something like that. So in that moment you have both sides sort-of thinking about religion – well, prayer in particular – and both are coming at it as it’s something in the world out there that can be identified and located. And although some of the religious critics are not using statistics they have, in a sense, moved into a space where we begin to see this kind of separation of categories of the religious and the secular. And so you fast forward a little bit, let’s say . . . . In my piece I also jump around a lot in the piece in terms of time periods. But you see in the contemporary moment, where nobody’s studying prayer statistically like that as much anymore. There was a recent study about ten years ago in the Harvard Medical Review or something. It was a Harvard scientist, I forget. But saying “I’m not sure prayer works.” (Laughs). “I’m not sure. We’ve done the data points. It doesn’t work as a model of cause and effect.” But now the question becomes, “Well, how do we measure what’s happening in the brain when somebody prays? Is there something about commonality across different kinds of brains so that we can, with a degree of certainty, claim that we can understand prayer as a particular style of cognition? Or we can reduce prayer to a kind of cognitive system?” And so I sort-of see that your initial question – like, what happens to these categories? – well we’re here where the brain, for example, in the contemporary moment, oddly becomes a kind of site, and location, and place of investment of energies and desires and fears and ambitions; (15:00) that maybe perhaps we would normally understand as something . . . that what we think when religion happens, that’s what happens. And so the brain itself – in a desire for measurement, the desire to calculate, and a kind of righteousness that is often adopted by those who would deign to measure such things as prayer and religion – itself becomes oddly, strangely resonant with precisely the category that they are trying to, in a sense, explain away through their regimes of measurement.
DMcC: This jives a lot . . . I was re-listening to a recent interview that Ben Marcus did about separation of church and state. And in that recent interview, one of the things that the lawyers that he was interviewing suggested was that efforts to expand the category of religious liberty in the contemporary era are a slippery slope that ends up limiting religious freedom later on. You think you want that liberty, but when you get it you find out that you did not get what you bargained for! And in some sense, I think that’s what you’re saying here as well. That by studying prayer, we turn prayer into an object that we can control. We study meditation, we turn it into an object that we can control. By doing that, we try to exert power over that particular exercise of religion, and try to define where and where its power does not rely, right? Whether meditation is valuable for us? Ok, then everybody should do it! Is prayer good for us? Everyone should do it! And if we prove it wrong, then we have reduced, potentially, the set of variables that prayer could act on to only, “Is it good or bad for our health?” and not the range of things that it might have been prior to that moment. So the studying of it actually narrows the focus down so much that it limits the object considerably. Is that something that you’re seeing here?
JM: Yes, and I think that’s a good recitation of that kind-of move of modernity, right? Because, again, we’re dealing with this kind-of objectification of prayer in a moment where biomedical regimes, pharmaceutical regimes, various risk assessment regimes are using this knowledge in a way that is, that is limiting, right? And the idea that one perhaps . . . . I’ll speak for my own institution. I am incentivised economically to do yoga, and to count calories, and to do various things that are going to prove to the health insurance overlords that I am employee who is going to save them money in the long-run. You know, I don’t do this, I don’t do this, I do these four or five things. . . . And so this is something that is troubling. Because, again, it’s not simply a kind of intellectual debate among scholars – although I love participating in those! I think the stakes are much higher in ways that have to do not just simply . . . . I mean, the study of prayer is one example of kind-of larger trajectory that we are moving into and through, kind-of just a continual unfolding of a kind-of biopolitical dynamic that Michel Foucault identified long ago. And so I’m also reminded here, where these larger things . . . . This came to a head when I was at a retreat in Denmark. And it was a retreat for those scientists, cognitive neuro-scientists and scholars who are associated with a project that came out of the University of Aarhus there, called the MINDLab project, which was a five-year sort-of huge thing that was happening, in which the study of cognition and religion sort-of came to the fore. And so this was a retreat. It was a beautiful retreat in this kind of pastoral setting. And the first night I sat down for dinner, the opening dinner, and I sat beside a PhD in Chemistry from Berlin. He wasn’t an academic, but he was somebody who worked for a major pharmaceutical company in Germany, in Berlin. And I was like, “Well what are you doing here? What’s your interest in the cognitive science of religion thing?” And basically, without any irony, it was just like “I’m really fascinated by what they’re showing about the kind-of neuro correlates of mysticism and meditation” for himself as a scientist. He felt that he could begin to take this data and to be able to see how the brain operates when one is mediating, or when one is praying. And to be able to, then, kind-of reverse engineer that process by literally coming up with a drug that would replicate what is happening in your brain – you know, in the light of what they think is going on in your brain when you’re meditating, or something like that (20:00) – which sounds almost like a conceit out of science fiction novel!
DMcC: It does!
JM: But it’s happening, right?
DMcC: There is a Doctor Who episode where the Doctor is . . . I think it’s about Season Three or Four, and they go to this community, and the community has polluted the earth beyond all measure. And everybody gets by on drugs that represent emotion. And so the Doctor and his companion, Martha – at that moment, I believe – are offered, “Do you want Happy?” That’s the drug. The drug is a patch that will give you happy. Or “Forget” is the drug. And those kind of designer drugs, that Sci-Fi future, that does not feel so terribly far off right now.
JM: Oh no. Let’s think of the saturation of different kinds of neuro-enhancers and various ways in which we are using drugs to sort-of change and to cultivate, à la phrenology: the nineteenth century sort-of practice of seeing brain plasticity as the key to actualising one’s freedom or subjectivity. You know, this is this future. And it ties in with . . . ok, the idea where we’re living in a situation where . . . . I mean, I know I’m just feeling the effects. For example, every year at my institution our healthcare gets cut. Because healthcare is just a ballooning expense, right? And you see a future where in order to, in a sense, treat people, or to have insurance, one might be subject to different kinds of strictions, the same way in which, for example, if you smoke you’re not . . . your health insurance, or your life insurance rates are going be higher. So what’s different like, well, if you pray – or more yet – if you don’t pray, do you take this drug that replicates what happens to your brain when you pray? And that’s a really strange world. Because then you can imagine the next step where, if you’re prognosticating, “What does the future of” let’s say, “American religious history look like?” you’ll begin to have different kinds of movements, different kinds of groups, and individuals, and formations that are revolving around the practice, the myths, and rituals of these kinds of conceptions of cognition. Which we already see, for example, in Scientology, which is emerging at a moment in the 1940s and 1950s where the sort-of concept . . . . Our concept of the brain that we have right now, in 2020: it’s basically constituted by a network of neurons that processes information. This kind of paradigm comes together in the 1940s with, you know, the kind-of notion of a “logical calculus” – an essay or an article in 1943 put out by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts. And it gets kind-of integrated with burgeoning theories of information that are coming from Claude Shannon, Norbert Weiner, different kinds of mathematicians. And together, when these are integrated, there’s a paradigm shift in how we understand the brain. And that is, you know, more or less. There are many kinds of ups and downs, and kinds of tangents that happen. But essentially we do assume that the brain is constituted by neurons processing information. And that’s an interesting kind-of thing that Hubbard was way into. He designed an entire religion and cosmology around that conceit. So it’s happened before and it will happen again, I am sure.
DMcC: So if that’s one version of the story, in your article you propose that there might be some alternatives. And one of your sources for your alternatives, is the counter-cultural music band, Devo. (Laughs). Can you explain how Devo fits in to all this? How do we go from EB Tylor, and these folks that were arguing about whether or not prayer is effective, to Devo?
JM: Well yes. That . . . I guess once people, perhaps, hear this podcast, they might actually pick up the article! (Laughs) Like, “What on earth is going on here?!” So the essay does move from the nineteenth century, and it kind-of ends with this sort-of mediation on Akron in the 1970s, which, as I mentioned, is my next project that I’m sort-of thinking a lot about. And so, when I was asked to think about an essay to submit to this new journal that Sarah Imhoff and M. Cooper Harriss are editing. You know, I was like “Well, I don’t have anything quite right. But I have this kind-of idea where I can sort-of connect things, and it’s sort-of crazy and weird?” And they were like, “Yes. We want that!” (25:00) And so the invitation to really kind-of think outside of a standard academic essay was quite inviting. And so, in this piece, I put together all of these different kinds of components that on some level are addressing the notion of prayer. And, as you mention, a lot of the essay is about, I guess, maybe the kind of reductions that are happening, or the kinds of enclosures that I see happening in the objectification of religion, and the scientific measurement of prayer. And I do end with a kind-of moment, the conceit of “Praying Hands“, which is an early Devo song. Devo is a conceptual art project that emerged out of Kent State university in the early 1970s, in the aftermath of the May 4th shootings in 1970.You know, just a bunch of kids who had some kind-of nutty ideas, and who were reacting to what they saw was an utter failure of civilisation that contained them. And they started making weird music, wearing weird costumes, doing all kinds of just strange things. And this is one of their early songs that they talk about praying hands. And the line that keeps repeating is that “Praying hands, real praying hands pray to no man. They pray to no man.” And so one of the things that I am projecting upon Devo . . . . I’m not sure whether the leaders of Devo were sort-of reading a lot of negative theology at the time, but they were, you know, kind-of weirdly involved in a lot of weird religious stuff that I talk about there, and elsewhere. But it’s this kind-of notion of: what does it mean to think about a world that, at the end of the day, is resistant to calculation, is resistant to the human standards of measurement that we assume it can be subsumed under? What if, there is a kind of horizon of unknowing in our world? What if these categories of the religion versus the secular, this categorical difference, is simply seen as a kind of artefact of history, as a kind of social construction that has done a tremendous amount of work in this world, but still, at the end of the day, is something that is strangely made up? And so I see something like Devo as . . . given their artistic license to be able to sort-of act, create, think and live in a way that doesn’t first and foremost subscribe to some of the categorical differences and some of the common sense assumptions that people often do. And so in the piece they, over a season in 1979, they had this kind-of thing they would do where they came out as the opening act for their own concerts. They were not a big band at the time, or that big. They only had their first album out. And so people weren’t familiar with what they looked like. So they would come out for a twenty minute set before their main set, playing this band called Dove, D-O-V-E, the band of love. And they would do a twenty minute set of these sort-of cheesy religious songs. They did “A Worried Man”, by the Carter Family, and they did the song, “Praying Hands”. Which they would kind-of do this evangelical performance, a kind-of revivalist ethos, and they would sort-of do this thing before Devo came out. And I’ve always found that to be sort-of sweet, alluring and attractive. And my goal was to sort-of make sense of it in a way that perhaps pointed to an alternative, or an outside, of the fairly dark story that I tell. I tell a lot of dark stories in my work. Most of my stories are pretty dark. And so I’m always sort-of keen to try to find some sort-of spark of hope, or redemption, or light somewhere. Not too much, but just a little bit! (Laughter).
DMcC: I’m fascinated by the idea that a band would be its own opener, and would invert what they were doing. The line in your piece that really caught my attention was that the singer would say, “Oh brothers and sisters, praise Jesus! And now here’s a reborn Devo song. When they play the devil music, now it’s gone! The Praying Hands.”
DMcC: Which is just this openness to the inversion of who they’re about: “Hey, Crowd! You thought you were here for us weird punk people playing, you know, music, and dancing in weird ways, dressing in weird ways. And, by the way, here’s some Jesus music to start with.”(30:00)
JM: Yes! No, it’s so . . . I love it. And one of the things that I’ve been really lucky and privileged to have done, over the last couple of years, is to be in contact with some of those guys who were in Devo – Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, particularly – and to sort-of talk to them a little bit about what they were thinking, vis-à-vis religion in that moment. And both of them, in a sense, mention the kind-of weird strange influence of this televangelist named Rex Humbard, who’s also in the piece on prayer, where . . . . Something that Jerry told me was that he learned a lot watching Rex Humbard, watching these televangelists. Just as a performer of . . . like, how do you captivate an audience? How do you cultivate a kind of charismatic performance? And so, just at the level of aesthetics I think early Devo, particularly, borrowed much from the sort-of stagecraft of somebody like Rex Humbard, and the kind of evangelical stagecraft which has a very long and rich history in America. And so Devo has this very long, inverted endpoint, where they’re taking that tradition and inverting it, the same way in which they would . . . . You know, the whole point of Devo. They were originally called the De-evolution Band. That was the long version – de-evolution. So their whole point is the Adorno and Horkheimer dialectic of enlightenment point: the idea that all this work, and advertisement, that is going in to substantiate and to progress the enlightenment culture of civilisation is actually, ironically, producing the exact opposite. And it’s producing not evolution but de-evolution. It’s producing decline, not progress. And, you know, that is one of those kinds of what ifs: what if things are not getting better? What if things aren’t getting better? Imagine the kinds of questions you would ask. But also all the sort-of constellation of comments, and assumptions, that you hold to be self-evident. To what degree would they be up-ended, challenged, or at least put in tension in some way?
DMcC: While you were talking I was picturing a moment from the movie, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Have you seen that before?
JM: Yes, I saw that a long time ago. Yup.
DMcC: So there’s a big political scene, and they’re at a rally. And the main characters are on stage and they’re playing their song which the political person is kind-of against. But then he sees how much the crowd is into the music, and he changes his tune instantly, right? He pivots, and he says “Oh the crowd is into this. I guess I need to be into this too.” And he walks up on stage and he celebrates them, and he says, “And now you’re going to lead us all in a rousing chorus of ‘You are my Sunshine’.” This kind-of inversion. I wonder, when you see Devo as kind-of taking its inspiration from the stagecraft of religious persons, whether that’s part of the story that you’re telling with the scientific study of prayer, too?
JM: Absolutely. Which gets us back to the idea where, you know . . . think about a concern with “charisma”, or a concern with “the crowd”. Think about these terms. These terms are central to the development of the academic study of religion, right? When people thought about religion they would go, “Charisma!”, or think about crowd behaviour, “Durkheim or Weber!” or something like that. And so you get to Devo, where my kind-of conceit is that they’re exploding these kinds of categorical differences, where: to what degree is that a religious thing or a secular thing? And so I’m not really interested in saying “Well Devo is a little bit, ‘Is this religion, or is that secular?’” And I have a little fun thing at the end, where, you know, where Mark Mothersbaugh, the lead singer of Devo, mentioned to me – you know, it wasn’t serious, necessarily – but it’s like, you know: “Talking to you, John, we probably should have made Devo a religion!” (Laughs). He was kind-of mocking me, a little bit! And I was just like “Yeah! Yeah!” And I just got excited in a kind-of almost fan-boy sort of way! And it was this moment when . . . . This kind-of encapsulates for me something about our desire, our reliance upon, for example, the distinction between the religious and the secular. Even for somebody like myself, who has spent a lot of time trying to sort-of think through the making of that distinction, and to make kinds-of claims about how that distinction is not some sort-of universal thing that is written into the very fabric of the cosmos, but it is a kind-of human construct. I know that, right? But yet I feel the pull of that binary. (35:00) I feel the pull of kinds of systems of values that are embedded within that binary, that allow me access to the different parts of the world that I live in. Which is a kind-of . . . . For me, Devo – listening to Devo or talking about Devo – at least gives you some sort-of small space by which one could possibly gain a degree of leverage, reflection, and distance from the culture that contains you.
DMcC: I’m so glad that I had the chance to speak with you today. And I think your recommendation is really useful: “Go listen to Devo!”
JM: That’s right! All the time. All day long! Promise me! (Laughs).
DMcC: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you.
JM: Oh. Thank you so much, David. I really, very much enjoyed it.
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