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Getting to Know the North American Association for the Study of Religion

In this interview, Russell McCutcheon and Aaron Hughes discuss the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), an international organization dedicated to historical, critical, and social scientific approaches to the study of religion. McCutcheon and Hughes (the president and vice president of NAASR, respectively) discuss the history of NAASR, their attempt to help return NAASR to its original mission, various publications associated with NAASR, and the philosophy or motivations that guided their annual conference this year.

In January 2016, we welcomed the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) as an additional sponsor. We are indebted to NAASR for their generosity, and we look forward to working with them in the years to come to continue what we do, and to bring about some important and long-planned innovations.

The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) was initially formed in 1985 by E. Thomas Lawson, Luther H. Martin, and Donald Wiebe, to encourage the historical, comparative, structural, theoretical, and cognitive approaches to the study of religion among North American scholars; to represent North American scholars of religion at the international level; and to sustain communication between North American scholars and their international colleagues engaged in the study of religion.

Please see their website for more information on their activities, and for membership details. NAASR is incorporated as a nonprofit in the state of Vermont. A brief history of NAASR, written by Luther H. Martin and Donald Wiebe, can be found here.

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Surveying the Sacred and Secular

The RSP’s interview with Darren Sherkat arrives at a time when research on religion has caught a bit of the media spotlight. Both The Atlantic and Religion Dispatches recently touched on issues with surveys in their reviews of Robert Wuthnow’s new book, Inventing American Religion. In this book, Wuthnow argues that the turn toward survey research shaped our perceptions of “American” religion by producing some stark generalizations, because religious experiences are simply too complex to reduce to national trends captured by survey questions alone (2015:13). I enjoyed the RSP’s interview in light of these challenges because Sherkat reminds us what goes into good polling, why we still do it, and what important lessons it can provide for both social scientists studying religion and the broader public.

What goes into good survey research?

Sherkat and Wuthnow do agree on some major points. We should ask for fewer, larger, and higher quality survey studies rather than just polling willy-nilly. My dissertation research looks at the political impact of the growing non-religious population in the United States, and so I spend a lot of time between surveys on both religion and politics, which face their own challenges during this pre-election season.

Part of the reason polling gets a bad rap is the valid criticism that survey questions cannot capture the nuances of respondents’ beliefs and values, and they are therefore not a good representation of respondents’ religious lives. Fair enough, and sociological research has long challenged the idea that public opinion is good at reflecting the reality of respondents’ conscious thoughts and beliefs. Sherkat gets at this point when he highlights the differences between identities and identifications—a gap between how people think about their religious experiences and whether they affiliate with institutions or established systems of belief. Rather than claim they can capture the nuances of identity, a lot of research thinks about public opinion as a way to capture bigger cultural styles using a “dual process” theory of cognition. This means it is less interested in figuring out what groups of people consciously believe, think about, or talk about. Instead, this work focuses on finding patterns in how people make quick judgements. With a good representative sample, we can learn about how religion shapes the way people answer new questions, rather than what they believe about the issues alone.

Why does that matter?

As Sherkat discusses in this interview, “nones” make up about 20% of the American population. This group makes a great case study for why survey work still matters despite its challenges. Researchers in my field have done a lot of excellent qualitative work looking at non-religious people in the United States. They find that non-religious experiences are just as complex and diverse as religious experiences. We have spiritual but not religious folks, atheists, agnostics, deists, brights, “nothing in particulars”, post-religious people, six kinds of atheism, four ways of talking about the secular, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Even if the “nones” feel a common affinity toward one another for breaking from religious affiliation, underneath the surface they do not agree on much. From the perspective of this qualitative work, this 20% of the U.S. population is not homogeneous; it has substantial ideological and philosophical diversity.

As Sherkat points out in the interview, however, ethnographic research alone can also skew our picture of what is going on if the sub-groups of interest are quite small. This is not at all to say studying a small group is not important, only that we have to remember to step back and synthesize those lived experiences with a larger structural picture. Survey research so far shows us that Americans who disaffiliate from religion often share one particular cultural style: a preference for personal autonomy over received authority (Hout and Fischer 2014). In their new book, American Secularism, Baker and Smith (2015:92) show that atheists, agnostics, and unaffiliated believers have a variety of personal spiritual practices, but they also share a “relatively uniform disengagement from public religion.” When we design survey questions from the ground up based on qualitative findings, as Marcus Mann (2015) did in his study of political and communal motivations for joining local and national atheist groups, we can test whether those findings hold for a range of people and represent a distinct cultural pattern. 20% of the U.S. population with a unique style of evaluating political information could have a huge impact, but we still need quality survey research to test whether these patterns exist and what they do.

What should we do?

One interpretation of Wuthnow’s valid critique of surveys is that our reliance on polling marginalizes the most meaningful religious experiences. Emma Green, writing in The Atlantic , provides the following take on Wuthnow’s work:

Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life…If you mourn anything, mourn the meaningful Grappling With Existence that has to happen in private spaces, rather than public ones, an experience that’s not well-understood or often taken seriously.

Sherkat’s interview reminds us that a lot of the polls facing this criticism are also not ideal sources for scientific research, and survey work is still an important way to understand the American (non)religious experience. To steal a line from my advisor, for each person “grappling with existence” there’s another making a grocery list in church. If big survey research alone often misses the former, sifting for the interesting personal story alone can risk missing the later. Synthesizing both lets us clearly define what parts of religiosity we want to measure, such as whether we are interested in atheism as non-belief or a label with which respondents identify. This often means going back to the drawing board and critiquing long-standing survey questions, but if we put our efforts into good design grounded in testing the findings from qualitative researchers, we stand to gain a lot more than we do by turning away from surveys altogether.

For work on cultural styles, (non)religion, and public opinion, see:

Baker, Joseph O. and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: NYU Press.

Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53(4):775–90.

Edgell, Penny. 2012. “A Cultural Sociology of Religion: New Directions.” Annual Review of Sociology 38(1):247–65.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.” Psychological Review 108(4):814–34.

Hout, Michael and Claude Fischer. 2014. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” Sociological Science 1:423–47.

Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2):165–90.

Mann, Marcus. 2015. “Triangle Atheists: Stigma, Identity, and Community Among Atheists in North Carolina’s Triangle Region.” Secularism and Nonreligion, 4(11): 1–12 http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/snr.bd

Perrin, Andrew J. and Katherine McFarland. 2011. “Social Theory and Public Opinion.” Annual Review of Sociology 37(1):87–107.

Perrin, Andrew J., J. Micah Roos, and Gordon W. Gauchat. 2014. “From Coalition to Constraint: Modes of Thought in Contemporary American Conservatism.” Sociological Forum 29(2):285–300.

Silver, Christopher F., Thomas J. Coleman III, Ralph W. Hood Jr, and Jenny M. Holcombe. 2014. “The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17(10):990–1001.

Vaisey, Stephen. 2009. “Motivation and Justification: A Dual‐Process Model of Culture in Action.” American Journal of Sociology 114(6):1675–1715.

But Mountains, Dammit!

Titus Hjelm’s book Social Constructionisms: Approaches to the Study of the Human World is a fantastic introduction to the topic of “social constructionism.” Titus successfully demonstrates that this term brings together a plurality of approaches that, although they share a great deal in common, have crucial differences. Perhaps the most admirable feature of Titus’ book is it’s clarity—Titus writes about complicated issues with clear and concise prose, making it perhaps a perfect fit for undergraduate “theory and method” courses in which students must be exposed to these critical approaches.

Since commenting on where we agree is unlikely to be productive or advance the conversation, here in my response I’ll focus on Titus’ criticisms of what he considers more “radical” forms of social constructionism, which he associates with the “excesses” of postmodernism or post-structuralism. Hinting in both the RSP interview and the book that he identifies as a type of critical realist, Titus calls into question those forms of social constructionism that are unabashedly anti-realist. Consider the following statements:

According to some social constructionist views, “we can only reach the world through discourse.” (from the interview)

“If everything is discourse and nothing is real, where is the position we can take to critique those constructions?” (from the interview)

“In their most radical form, these [constructionists] claim that we can know about the human world—and the natural world, for that matter—only through discourse. Any ‘reality’ outside of discourse is either bracketed or denied.” (from the book; 88)

For relativist constructionists, “there is nothing [to the world] beyond our description of it.” (from the book; 92)

For relativists, “there is no ‘reality’ to fall back on.” (from the book; 92)

From the relativist perspective, “the ‘world out there’ and perceptions of the world are radically separated, with no access to the former, except through discourse. It is one thing to say that the meaning of, say, gravity is dependent on our ways of talking about it—a position that constructionists would happily embrace. It is another thing for me to jump out of a sixth story window and assume a safe landing because I’m shouting ‘I’m not falling!’” (from the book; 93)

I find such claims frustrating for two reasons. First, I think that Titus is criticizing the forms of constructionism with which I identify—i.e. he’s targeting me—but I think he unfairly represents my view. Second, I’m also frustrated because some of the constructionists I identify with say exactly the sorts of claims Titus is criticizing. All of that is to say: I think that Titus is aiming at a straw man (are there straw women, I wonder?), but unfortunately a straw man that some of my peers stand behind and prop up. Thus, rather than tear down Titus’s excellent work, let me clarify the difference between my view and the view Titus criticizes.

The main problem, for me, is that although I might be a radical constructionist, I absolutely reject the dualist view of the world Titus is partly working with and partly criticizing. This dualism assumes an opposition between the world-as-it-is-in-and-of-itself and the world within discourse. Discourse apparently is “in here” (but where is “here,” one wonders?), and reality is “out there.” (We’re not far here from the contradictions inherent in Kant’s distinction between phenomena and noumena.) Of course, there is some ambiguity for the social constructionists, insofar as they vacillate between the view that there is a world out there—but we have access to it only through discourse—and the view that there isn’t a world out there—that is, everything, even reality, is discourse. This latter view drops the ontological dualism and turns into a type of discursive monism.

Titus’ view seems to be closer to the dualist view, except without the caveat about being locked within discourse: there is a mind-independent or discourse-independent world “out there,” and we can make objective or authoritative rather than merely subjective or relativist claims about it. Despite the insistence of the radical constructionists, there is a real world out there—we can thump the table or point to the mountains on the horizon dammit! Are we to believe those mountains weren’t here before humans came to name them?! Mountains, dammit! They’re real and they’re mind-independent! (It’s at this point that the radical constructionists ask, “can you say that without discourse?” and then the realists really go apoplectic.)

By the time we get here, we’re far afield from where I’d like the conversation to have headed. What’s crucially been lost at this point—from my perspective at least—is the role of discourse in individuation or definition—i.e., the extension of a concept—and the pragmatic ends of the latter.

The best example I can point to for how discourse has a constitutive role in the individuation of something we tend to take for granted as “natural” in the so-called “real world” is in Edward Schiappa’s discussion of the politics of “wetlands” (see Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning; 2003). In the early 1990s, wetlands were a hot topic. Environmentalists wanted to protect wetlands from developers who wanted to clear the land and build on it, while developers wanted the opposite. President George H. W. Bush signed into legislation a bill protecting wetlands from development, but the legislation redefined wetlands in ways that suited the interests of the developers rather than the environmentalists. Wetlands were protected, but there was a bait-and-switch of sorts: the land to which the concept “wetland” extended shrunk dramatically with the novel definition in the new legislation. Both parties used the concept “wetland,” but they individuated something rather different, and—in addition—that to which their concept extended was directly tied to their social or political interests. Schiappa concludes, “definitions are interest-driven and saturated with questions of power and persuasion.”

I think that Titus’ framing of “radical constructionism” fails in helping us to understand Schiappa’s view. First, by no means is Schiappa saying that there’s a world within discourse and then a world out there. For Schiappa, the existence of wetlands is contingent upon the definition we give to the term; if we change the definition of wetland we have a different reality out there to deal with—just as gerrymandered districts are quite literally different districts than before they were gerrymandered. There’s no “reality” of wetlands without first having individuated some types of land as wetland and other types of land as not-wetland. Second, neither is Schiappa saying that all we have access to is the world of discourse. “Wetlands” are constituted by discourse, but that’s not the same thing as saying that wetlands are discourse. Third, it wouldn’t make sense to say that “wetlands” exist independent of discourse; it is we, as humans, who separate this from that, wetlands from not-wetlands, and so on, depending on our interests.

But what about mountains, dammit? Weren’t they there before humans evolved to identify them as mountains? To press the realist position, let me ask: did the state of New York exist before humans came along to identify it as such? Even the realist would have to admit: New York is a human invention—the distinctions between “New York” and “Massachusetts” and “Pennsylvania” aren’t natural, but are lines we as humans draw in the sand. That is, even the realist has to admit that the individuation or extension of “New York” is discursive. But then to press the realist further: what about the Adirondack Mountains? Do the mountains individuate themselves from the land we consider not-mountainous? Or do we, as humans, individuate them for our purposes?

We could of course individuate the stuff of the world in ways that intersect with but don’t exactly match the extension of the term “Adirondack Mountains.” No doubt there are “streams” in the mountains, “hiking paths” over them, “bear hunting grounds” across them, “good fishing areas” in them, and so forth. In addition, whichever discursive concepts we use to slice up the stuff of the Adirondacks will depend on our particular pragmatic interests—do we want fish for dinner? to avoid running across bears? a challenging hike?

In addition, were our interests different—or were we different kinds of animals—no doubt we would individuate our world differently. Does an ant in the Adirondacks see a “mountain”? Is a “mountain” a useful concept for something as small as an insect? If there were alien creatures whose walking stride was the same as the distance from our sun to Pluto, would they have a use for individuating the “Adirondack Mountains”? On the contrary, what we might individuate as the Adirondacks would likely be nothing other than dust on the shoes of their feet, not worth individuation or attention. As some cognitive linguists have noted–for instance, in Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987) or Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh (1999)–what is useful for us to individuate is relative to the type of bodies we are in: “How animals categorize depends on their sensing apparatus and their ability to move themselves and manipulate objects. Categorization is therefore a consequence of how we are embodied” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 17-18).

All of this is to say: crucial for understanding so-called radical social constructionism is the pragmatic function of concepts in individuating the stuff of the world. At bottom, drawing lines between mountains and streams is little different than drawing lines between New York and Massachusetts. And, on this view, the practice of discursive or conceptual individuation neither gets between us and the real world, nor do the things of the world exist as “things” independently of our individuation of them as particular things.

Experiences Deemed Religious from Micro and Qualitative to Macro and Quantitative

Overview

This joint Religious Studies Project/SSSR session was a symposium that included four presentations, all focused on some variation on the topic of “religious experiences,” a category better described as experiences deemed religious (EDRs; Taves, 2009). Beyond that idea in the symposium summary, the only similarity among the presentations was that that they were almost purely descriptive. There was little if any theoretical synthesis, either psychologically or sociologically, to help the audience gain a conceptual understanding of the processes mediating these or other EDRs.

The combined result of the four presentations is certainly positive for purposes of illustrating ways that qualitative or quantitative research on EDRs can be executed. Three of the four presentations also gave the viewer-listener a relatively vivid picture of the questions posed, the participants involved, and what was actually learned from the studies. This is, of course, all good. The downside, however, which is not at all unusual for symposia of this sort, was that the methods and findings were presented and the presentation then stopped, usually for reasons of time.

As an observer-listener I was left with an illuminating picture of what the researchers were trying to get at and what they found. However, my mind strained at the theoretical emptiness left in their wake – my intellectual need to dig deeper and understand why the findings were what they were. That, of course, is the much more difficult task.

Presentations Snapshot

A brief summary of the presentations looks like this:

(1) In Study 1, seven people were interviewed who are active in Christian snake-handling sects in the rural Southern U.S. states. Their beliefs and practices are derived from a literal application of the “five signs” said to follow believers as listed in the last chapter of the Gospel of Mark. The two life-threatening signs are handling poisonous snakes and drinking deadly poison; Each participant had done both. The interviews focused on the phenomenology of drinking strychnine. In order to confirm its toxicity, an independent lab examined a sample of the liquid used; it was confirmed lethal. Reported effects included a powerful sense of awe, “victory,” a “rush” or mental “high,” and sensations such as peace, joy, satisfaction, and spiritual perfection.

(2) In Study 2, several modern Christian churches were observed, and their clergy interviewed, about the role of popular secular and religious music in worship services. The interviews showed that, for these ministers and worshipers, secular music is thought to be “more real” in helping people confront their own shortcomings. It is included such services in order to facilitate an internal sense of honesty, while comfort and hope are subsequently provided by religious music and other non-musical aspects of the service.

(3) Study 3 focused on natural disaster relief and symptoms of PTSD, as approached by clergy and others in Japan, the U.S., and the Philippines. Clergy of various religions, including Christians and Buddhists, completed questionnaires that asked, for instance, how they perceived disasters, whether they had an obligation to help victims or pray with victims, whether they thought disasters were God’s will, if they see signs of PTSD or lesser symptoms in those they help. The results generally affirmed the clergy’s motivation to help, which seem to help decrease the suffering of the victims.

(4) In Study 4, although research was referred to, the main argument was that researchers should get away from doing research only within their narrow disciplinary boundaries. It was proposed that we should instead aim to “highlight the lines of continuity” between disciplines through research that, for example, combines social and natural scientific methods, using methods that exploit the potentials for cooperative effort between fields.

Qualitative and Quantitative Methods

To be fair, the four presentations were so varied that I would not expect to be able to view them, with much accuracy, through only one theoretical or methodological lens. Study 1 was a content analysis of seven interviews aimed at creating a clear, accurate picture of the mental experiences of people that had drunk a poison. With the research goal thus defined and the available N so small, an in-depth interview method is the way to go. Qualitative methodologies of this sort yield a vividness and completeness in the data that physiological recordings cannot produce.

Does this mean that qualitative research is better than quantitative research? No. Nor does it mean it is worse. It means that for a research question posed as this one was, a qualitative method is better equipped to answer it with data of the form most meaningful to the question. Qualitative methods, such as the use of questionnaires in Study 3, are desirable when the research intent is to go deeply into single cases and yield the most complete graphic possible of what is being examined, whether the case is an individual human, as occurs in psychological research, or an individual village, as in anthropological research. Such methods yield a form of data that are sometimes referred to as “deeper” and “richer.” That is their gift and their strength. Vivid pictures of the phenomenology of EDRs can be painted with such methods.

With the strength of a research method, however, there is a corresponding weakness. And these weaknesses turn out to be overcome by the strengths of other, “opposite” kinds of methods. In the case of the small-N phenomenological interview methods used in Study 1, weaknesses include difficulties in going beyond describing the subjects’ experiences to test theoretical predictions about what might happen mentally when someone drinks poison (or does anything else), why the experience might be interpreted in one way or another by the individual, ways people might respond when the experience is discrepant from that which was anticipated, and so forth. Answers to questions phrased in these ways are more amenable to quantitative approaches that allow for testing hypotheses derived from theories about the processes operating inside human minds, such as, the processes that mediate interpretations and responses to unusual mental events, and the consideration their social and physical contexts. Nonetheless, the theoretical gains of using quantitative methods not infrequently come with a loss of the benefits of qualitative methods.

Multilevel Interdisciplinary Paradigm

What is the solution? The main argument of Study 4 was that for comprehensive knowledge to emerge, we must do more research that combines approaches from different disciplines. I have written extensively about this approach, which I call the multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm (MIP; Paloutzian & Park, 2013; Park & Paloutzian, 2013). It involves researchers from different disciplines not just telling others about their research, but engaging in genuine collaborative work around common questions that cannot be answered by one discipline alone. I think future research within the MIP will demonstrate its capability to accomplish the goals of both qualitative and quantitative research, both within disciplines and across their borders.

References

Paloutzian, R. F., & Park, C. L. (2013). Recent progress and core issues in the science of the psychology of religion and spirituality. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. (pp. 3-22). New York: Guilford.

Park, C. L., & Paloutzian, R. F. (2013). Directions for the future of the psychology of religion and spirituality: Research advances in methodology and meaning systems. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. (pp. 651-665). New York: Guilford.

Taves, A. (2009). Religious experience reconsidered: A building block approach to the study of religion and other special things. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

The Fate of Earthly Things

Aztec religion at the time of its encounter with the Spaniards in the early 16th century was a sophisticated mix of ritual and symbolic imagination. In this interview with Molly H. Bassett, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, listeners are treated to a glimpse of a society where human sacrifice was a tool for encountering the divine, priests turned into gods and goddesses, and death held radical meanings for religious agents.

At the beginning of the interview, Dr. Bassett shares how she became involved in Mesoamerican studies thanks to her mentor, Davíd Carrasco. “Hardly anybody… in religious studies” works in this area, she says, instead they are in allied fields such as anthropology or history. Stressing the power of mentors on her career, Bassett reminds all scholars of the role a devoted teacher can have on one’s life. And, as the interview unfolds, the value of this disciplinarity is on display as Bassett is able to ask different questions of the Aztec sources than previous scholars have been.

After providing an overview of the many shared features of pre-Columbian cultures from Southern Texas all the way to Honduras that became known as Mesoamerican thanks to the work of ethnologist Paul Kirchhoff. Stepped pyramids, pictographic writing, ballgames, sacrifice, and common linguistic families are just a few of the traits that reveal the roots of this cultural area. Bassett’s work has included a focus on linguistics and especially through the study of texts employing pictograms (sound and symbols) as in the Florentine Codex and Codex Mexicanus. The Florentine Codex was composed by spanish speaker missionaries who encountered Aztecs, and then learned and translated Nahuatl into Spanish with the help of tri-lingual scribes into volumes that contained both text and commentary.

One of the most fascinating elements of these early codices is its portrayal of Spanish conquistador Cortez’ encounter with Aztec leader Montezuma. Bassett’s work on this encounter, especially in her recently published The Fate of Earthly Things, argues that the codices present this ritual occasion as one where the Spanish were presented as “teotl” or gods. For scholars this has been a challenging interpretative moment. Did the Aztecs really think the Spaniards were gods? No, says Bassett, and by asking what the Aztecs meant by “teotl” she reveals the potency of teixiptla or local embodiments of god(s). Montezuma, she claims, may have used the gift exchange with the Spaniards as a way to prepare Cortez for sacrifice and transformation into a teixiptla.

By the end of the interview, Bassett comes to articulate the value of Mesoamerican studies for undergraduate and graduate students. Her own experiences coming to establish material from a religious studies’ perspective suggest the importance of discipline and method in defining the questions we can ask and therefore the answers our subjects can provide. In the classroom her graduate students–often not even Americanists and rarely Mesoamericanists–are challenged by this material, especially by primary materials that have been approached by methods from different disciplines. For many scholars who teach method or theory courses, Bassett’s presentation of a primary source and the way different disciplines’ methods can limit or expand our inquiries is an excellent model for teachers in all areas and subjects.

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What “in the world” is theory?

Birgit Meyer’s interview with George Ioannides in the recently released Religious Studies Project podcast (6/30/2014) is a pedagogical tour de force. In this conversation, Meyer revisits and introduces anew some of the most urgent problems and questions that have animated the converging fields of visual culture, media, and the study of religion.

Meyer’s work has long been at the forefront of these ever-entangled interests, and in this interview, we hear her “digest” a wide range of theoretical ideas into an eminently clear précis on the study of material, visual, and sensory cultures of religion. Referencing numerous intellectual influences—from late nineteenth-century disciplinary “fathers” like Weber, Durkheim, Tylor, and Fraser to her twenty-first century colleagues in the broader study of religion and social theory, including the likes of Talal Asad, Bruno Latour, Jacques Rancière, David Morgan, Hent de Vries, Jeremy Stolow, Angela Zito, and Charles Taylor—Meyer explains that her robust theoretical digestion is part of a larger attempt to develop new, more wide-ranging methods and approaches for studying the surrounding world. But listeners will also quickly ascertain that Meyer does more than “digest” an otherwise pre-existing set of theories. That is, even as Meyer explicitly professes in this interview not to see herself as a theorist, I want to suggest in this brief response that she does indeed teach us how her own expert processing can—and should—also be understood as a form of propagation. Despite her own resistance to being named a theorist, I argue that her sensational mediation is a form of theory making, one which more students of religion should embrace.

Meyer’s interview showcases many of the admirable aspects we’ve come to expect of her work. She advocates an ever more historically mindful cultural anthropology in the study of religion, one that is aware of the Christonormative and colonialist heft that many of our concepts and modes of study carry. She argues for an approach that “understands religion as a multimedia phenomenon,” one that enables “a fuller research program” than emphases on texts and words have typically allowed for, and one that works to challenge, rather than reinscribe, colonial processes, seeking alternatives to, rather than repetitious critiques of, ”the proverbial Protestant bias.”[1] Likewise, Meyer’s ongoing commitment to the study of “lived religion” is evident in turning our attention to new scenes and sources that cannot be entirely divorced from their tense relations with Protestantism—from boundary encounters between missionaries and missionized populations on the west African coast to Jesus pictures circulating in this “frontier zone.”

If Meyer’s early work focused on language and translation as formative to the process of “bringing into being religious worlds,” she explains that her more recent concerns show that such a focus remains limited in understanding larger colonial power dynamics, particularly given late twentieth-century structural transformations frequently referred to as globalization and neoliberalism. Drawing on her fieldwork among Pentecostal communities in Ghana to work through such dense theoretical terms, Meyer points students and scholars of religion to interrogations of material objects, media forms, and the sensing body as they are invested and turned into vessels, receptors, and indexes of religious experience. Meyer explains that her concern is “not just about images and pictures; it is about regimes that structure vision in particular ways that are embedded in…dynamics of concealment and revelation…primarily through the eyes but, of course, also by regulating the senses, by focusing vision in a certain way, by relating vision, hearing, touch.” In so doing, she solicits scholars and students of religious studies to probe media forms and mediating processes that are authorized by other sensory regimes and structural reproductions. What repercussions do they have on particular sensations and on religious subjectivities, she asks. What preferences are suggested? What modes of sense-making or community formation are enabled and foreclosed?[2]

However, when asked about her advice for up-and-comers in religious studies and anthropology, Meyer pulls back from her own theorizing. Though she first points to the importance of “generating larger theoretical and self-reflexive questions,” and confirms that “theory is incredibly important,” she also counsels students to “find…the themes that you want to think about, find them in the world,” because, she worries, too often scholars “just take one or the other approach or philosopher and then rethink…our world from there.” Hers is a familiar point, one easily taken with an uncritical nod. Yet, I want to pause here to note how Meyer elides what she has already done so well. “I don’t see myself as a theorist,” she says, “but I see myself as someone who tries to digest theory in order to develop methodologies and approaches to throw new light and develop new perspectives on the world of which we are a part, and which is around us.” My response is not to suggest that I do not admire or want to affirm Meyer’s proposal for new approaches in studying the “stuff” of religion. On the contrary, I do. For, Meyer has ably initiated important study of new data sets and geographic locales, but what is perhaps most valuable in her scholarly selections and analytical studies is not so much their ability to fill in otherwise existing descriptive gaps, but how they can (and have) shifted our thinking and practices—for, as Meyer herself explains, such empirical and theoretical alternatives are crucial to “a reconsideration of our concept of religion.”

In this interview, Meyer most provocatively advances such theoretical reconsiderations in her treatment of the fetish as a “hybrid term” associated ambivalently with the distinction between animate and inanimate, subject and object, humans and things. This “sensational form” was also to become, for missionary forces and for scholars of religion, both a marker of western rationality and its ostensible opposite—the heathen, antimodern, neurotic, primitive, or mystified. The fetish materializes, for Meyer, a notion of religion as a practice of mediation—of producing, traversing, and authorizing distinctions amid the “scandalous mixing” of good and bad religion, of person and thing, of a mundane world and an other world, and thereby also both maintaining and crossing the gap of sensible and seemingly insensible “presence.” Countering claims that religion itself is somehow immediate or un-mediated, Meyer explains through her re-visioning of the fetish how religion is the mediating work of fabricating, traversing, authorizing, and remaking those differentiations, those “gaps.”

It is for all this that I think Meyer’s own theorizing, her own mediating work, her own making-sense of things and thoughts, is far too quickly de-authorized in her dissociation from the mantle (or the altar) of “theorist” at the end of this recorded conversation. Meyer’s move away from her own theorizing, from her own philosophizing, leaves me with questions about her theory of “theory.” Given her explicit recommendation for finding themes and topics of study based on one’s curiosity “in the world,” I wonder if Meyer presumes theory to be largely removed from the world, somehow too external, even transcendental, as opposed to, well, what? To immanent critique? To (inter)mediated analysis? Likewise, in contrast to her professed interest in a rigorously interrogative approach, does Meyer find theory to be somehow centrally declarative? Maybe she presumes it to be largely stationary versus the apparent boundary crossing of interdisciplinary innovation she invokes in methodological terms? Or is theory, for her, somehow singular in comparison with the multiplicity of methods and media she advocates? Does Meyer presume theory somehow too much like the missionary conception of the fetish and not enough like her own reconceiving of that sensational form?

Perhaps. Yet, I still think Meyer’s own emphasis on mediation challenges any easy affirmation of such theoretical presumptions of “theory” as removed, disembodied, inanimate, singular, or mystifying. Like her study and—yes, I want to insist—theorizing of religion and/as mediation through her handling of the fetish, I want to propose that Meyer’s seemingly didactic assemblage in this interview is also a more audacious theoretical working and reworking than she otherwise appears to acknowledge or wants to entertain herself. And, if it is (and I think it is), might then religious studies students and scholars endeavor to re-view what “in the world” theory is? Might we begin to theorize again and anew as sensationally as Meyer has begun to teach us here?

 

[1] Describing the links between textual/linguistic analysis and colonialism and advocating for a rethinking of how scholars continue to relate to such processes in disciplinary formations and specializations in the so-called book religions of, namely, the Abrahamic traditions, Meyer also suspects that scholars “explicitly working on book religion also tend…to affirm certain processes of colonization as they also occur within disciplines.” She thus implies that a focus on religion as multiply mediated can help reduce such tendencies by putting such emphases on texts/language into perspective. Gaining new perspectives seems almost always to the good, and Meyer’s suggestion about seeing texts themselves as objects and as one medium among others is warranted and welcome. Nevertheless, I think it remains somewhat less clear why we should suspect that those studying “book religions” would necessarily have more of a tendency to reinscribe colonial practices. It seems to me that finding a place “outside” such suspect disciplining (if there even is such a place, and I’m not sure Meyer thinks there is either) needn’t be the only way to challenge a history of colonialism—particularly if one recognizes immanent critique as valuable, if not entirely transformative nor apocalyptically revolutionary.

[2] Meyer is joined by a growing array of scholars with similar concerns, asking related questions. See, for example, a series of articles and a forum on “The Senses in History,” edited by Martin Jay in The American Historical Review, vol. 116, no. 2 (April 2011), and the recently published anthology, Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice, edited by Sally M. Promey (Yale University Press, 2014).

The Subtle Body

Jay Johnston is a senior lecturer in the Department of Studies of Religion at the University of Sydney. A distinguished interdisciplinary researcher, Johnston is known for her scholarly explorations and elucidations in areas of research concerning subtle bodies; embodiment and intersubjectivity; feminist studies; religion and material culture. In her fascinating books Angels of Desire: Esoteric Bodies, Aesthetics and Ethics (Equinox Publishing, 2008) and Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West: Between Mind and Body (Routledge, 2013) co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, she establishes innovative theoretical and methodological examinations of notions of subtle embodiment as a shared narrative negotiating the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, and how subtle intersubjectivity is a unique experience of the lived human body within both Western and Eastern religious discourses. Other current projects include the ARC Discovery Project: The production and function of art and design elements in ancient texts and artefacts of ritual power from Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean region with Iain Gardner, Julia Kindt (Sydney); Erica Hunter (SOAS) and Helen Whitehouse (Oxford), and Wellbeing Spirituality and Alternative Therapies with Dr Ruth Barcan.

During the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religion at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, Damon Lycourinos had the pleasure of interviewing Jay regarding her work on the subtle body and alternative notions of intersubjectivity, addressing both the theoretical and methodological implications for the academic study of subtle embodiment, and what the future might hold for this in the academy and beyond.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Before “Religion”: a History of a Modern Concept

For much of the past two centuries, “religion” has been understood as a universal phenomenon, a part of the “natural” human experience that is essentially the same across cultures and throughout history. Individual religions may vary through time and geographically, but there is an element, religion, that is to be found in all cultures during all time periods. Taking apart this assumption, Brent Nongbri has built upon a generation of critical scholarship to provide the first comprehensive history of “religion” as a category in western discourse.

In his recently published work, Before Religion: a History of a Modern Concept (Yale University Press, 2013), Nongbri shows that the idea of “religion” as a sphere of life distinct from politics, economics, or science is a recent development in European history—a development that has been projected outward in space and backward in time with the result that religion now appears to be a natural and necessary part of our world.

Discussing this book with Jack Tsonis, Nongbri begins by explaining various uses of the term “religio” in Roman and Christian antiquity, which were somewhat different from the modern term “religion”. The conversation then moves into the early modern period and the changes wrought by the Reformation, the rise of the political state, and the subsequent period of religious conflict.   At this point we begin to see something that looks like the modern English category “religion”, although that shift was not fully consolidated until the formalization of philology and ancient world studies in the nineteenth century.

This podcast will interest all students of religion, regardless of their area of speciality. At the core of Nongbri’s project is a call for constant vigilance with the categories we use to describe  human behaviour.  While he does not advocate abandoning “religion”, understanding the history of the term does encourage us to use it with greater methodological reflexivity.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

THATCamp Roundtable on Digital Religious Studies

At this past year’s meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore, Maryland, over 70 scholars met to participate in the AAR’s first THATCamp. The Humanities and Technology Camp is an open meeting for those desiring a conference experience outside of the presentation of formal papers. Participants submitted ideas ahead of time to the AAR THATCamp website, but the final shape and content of the event was decided on-site by a vote. In the busy weekend of paper sessions, THATCamp AAR was an oasis of facilitate first, pontificate second. As digital religious studies emerges within the broader digital humanities movement, the Camp was a rather bold move for the AAR, whose interaction has been driven by more conservative timelines.

THATCamp represents one of the bright spots of the digital world and its potential for conference goers. It emphasizes hands-on experience, privileges active learning, and puts expertise and enthusiasm for technology side-by-side. It can be chaotic with its impromptu schedule, but the advantage is the flexibility it offers to solve problems, foster dialogue, and teach digital skills.

Over the course of the day participants had the option to become more familiar with the online curation platform Omeka, learn about the many options for digital publishing, brainstorm ways to harness outside technological expertise for humanities projects, discuss the role of media in the classroom, learn the basics of big data, and even get tips about doing digital ethnography with students. The schedule is still up here, but it was as full a day of information as even the most seasoned technophiles could handle.

For the conference organizers that sat together for a few brief minutes over lunch, there was awareness of both the promises and perils of the digital world. As a fledgling research method whose products are varied and often unique, there is a great need for clear standards of evaluation of “good scholarship in the digital realm.” This should be of special concern to early career scholars who may have to fight for the presence of digital work in their tenure portfolios or in grant applications. This problem would be addressed not only by the development and promotion of open platforms for scholarly work, but also by sincere discussion about basic digital literacy and professionalization with digital tools and methods. Publishers, professional organizations, libraries, departments, scholars, and students–everyone in the academic chain will need to work out their roles for digital methods and digital work.

With so little time, several questions were pre-circulated to help things move along quickly on these topics.

What does it mean to teach or research religious studies digitally?

Does religious “data” make digital religious studies distinct within the digital humanities?

What is a digital religious studies research project you think more people should know about?

How can departments and the field better support digital methods and pedagogies?

For each of the six participants, digital methods and platforms are a key element in their identity as scholars. While there was not an opportunity to to fully explore their contribution and work, if you would like to learn more about them, please use the links below:

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.comlinks to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

“Would You Still Call Yourself an Asianist?”

There’s a group on Facebook devoted to the History of Religions. Apart from a quite regularly posted Christian bible study blog that’s devoted to scriptural exegesis—and which prompts reader comments such as this recent one:

It seems obvious God is a God who feels. I am imagining He grieved, felt sorry not only to see the depravity of man whom He made in His image, but of every single cell which He created, His art, His masterpiece. God as an artist experiencing the destruction and loss of it all. Every flower, creature, piece of nature which He had created GOOD.

—almost all that gets posted on its wall are links to articles or announcements about the things we study: decaying scrolls found here or there, rituals practiced by this or that group, etc. Once in a while you see a link to an article on methodology—how we study things—but rarely does someone post an item related to why we study them or why our work should matter to people who don’t happen to share our focus on this piece of pottery or that ancient text. That’s because it seems that, for many if not most of us, there’s an obviousness to the things that we’re interested in, both for us, as scholars, as well as for the wider groups in which we live and shop and work: we all know they’re important because, well…, they’re important, simple as that.

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What’s therefore intriguing about Steven Ramey’s work is that while he, like all of us, was trained in a specific expertise related to a world religion, to fieldwork, to languages, and to texts and distant lands—he did his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the religions of south Asia, and came to the University of Alabama in 2006, after a couple years working at UNC Pembroke—over the course of his career he has gradually and smoothly made a significant shift. Of course he still studies material relevant to his earlier training, but a shift in research focus from inter-religious cooperation to diaspora religion, eventually studying south Asian communities in the U.S. south, led the way to a far broader interest not only in social theory but in the practical implications of categorization for creating identities. Now, apart from regularly blogging on wide topics in identity formation at Culture on the Edge (a research group in which he participates), he is among the few who paused when some Pew survey data came out not long ago, on the so-called “Nones” (people who responded to a questionnaire saying that they had no religious affiliation), and asked how reasonably it is for scholars to assume that an entire, cohesive social group somehow exists based on a common answer to this or that isolated question when the respondents differed so much on the rest of the survey? The point? Why do we, as scholars, think the Nones are out there and what effect does our presumption of their identity have on making it possible for others to think and act as if the Nones are real and of growing influence?

It was this career arc—moving from what or how we study to why we study something, focusing on the wider theoretical interests that motivate our work with specific e.g.s and which ought to be relevant to scholars in fields far outside the academic study of religion—that prompted Russell McCutcheon to sit down with Steven, his colleague at Alabama, on a chilly day last December, to talk about Steven’s training and earlier interests but then to learn more about how a scholar who heads up our interdisciplinary minor in Asian Studies found himself at the Baltimore meeting of the American Academy of Religion inviting Americanists and sociologists to give the Nones a second thought.

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Thanks to Russell McCutcheon for writing this piece, and for conducting the interview. You can read a Huffington Post article by Ramey on the ‘Nones’ here. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your philosophical tomes etc.

Ayahuasca as a Gateway Drug (Toward a Less Stigmatized Academic Discussion of Drugs and Religion)

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 6 November 2013, in response to Andrew Dawson’s interview on Santo Daime  (4 Novemberr 2013).

With the presumption that one of the major purposes of the Religious Studies Project is not simply to describe various religions but to act as a focal point for broader discussions of the academic study of religion, I intend to focus my attention on the apparent sticky areas that discussion of Santo Daime seems to move us into rather than on the specifics of Santo Daime itself.  While Andrew Dawson provided an abundance of insightful food for thought on issues of globalization and modernization, it is apparent that the most salient and polarizing feature of Santo Daime is simply that their rituals consist of the use of a hallucinogenic drug.  In fact, I suspect that if Dawson’s research were on a non-drug-using syncretic Brazilian church, it’s very likely that this podcast would never have happened and that very few of us beyond specialists in that arena would pay any attention.  It is the added ayahuasca component that draws both our attention and our suspicion, and I suspect that it is partly the ways in which such substances are characteristically represented to us and the fact that they are typically illegal which influences our, often unconscious and unreasoned, bias against attributions of religious import to drugs or drug-related experiences. The assertion that an experience which takes place while under the influence of a drug should not be construed as having religious import implicitly makes a value-judgment about what true or valid religion can consist of, whereas an examination of how hermeneutic and discursive resources are drawn upon to develop a personal or communal account in which drugs and the experiences they elicit are ‘deemed religious’ (Taves 2009) is likely to provide significantly more analytical purchase.

My goal in this essay is simply to propose that the discussion of the role of ayahuasca in a contemporary Brazilian church may provide a conceptual framework which could be used to advance the level of academic discourse surrounding the use of psychotropic substances into a broader range of contexts in which the consumption of such substances are deemed religious.  As a heuristic effort, then, relative to this goal, I would like to make an attempt to bridge the ethnographic efforts of Andrew Dawson with the theoretical and corrective aims of Wouter Hanegraaff (2012).  To this effect, Dawson is interested in documenting and contextualizing a Brazilian new religion that, in almost every sense, fits our general intuitions and definitions of what constitutes a religion (it’s community-based, it’s about God and communing with spiritual beings, it involves ritualized communal services, it has a founder who is understood to have been divinely inspired, etc.).  Hanegraaff, with a much broader scope, is interested in overcoming an academically-untenable and methodologically-inconsistent negative response to emic attributions of religious significance to the use of drugs as well as to attempts at etic analysis of the same.  As Hanegraaff notes, “The ‘drugs’ category… causes [such beliefs and practices] to be associated with hedonistic, manipulative, irresponsible, or downright criminal attitudes, so that claims of religious legitimacy are weakened even further” (Hanegraaff 2012, 395).  In contrast to such dismissive attitudes, Hanegraaff endorses an approach which would “treat entheogenic esotericism as just another form of contemporary religion that requires our serious attention” (Ibid).

Editor’s insertion: The album cover Entheogenic’s self-titled album “Entheogenic” (simply because it seemed tangentially relevant, and Chris and Kevin both like them, and think they’re worth checking out!)

The term ‘entheogen’, which Hanegraaff has taken up in discussing this issue, is itself a very good example of the need for a proper academic study of the place of drug-use in the contemporary religious world.  It was expressly coined in an emic framework intended to reorient the discussion of these substances away from terms stressing psychological or sensory effects toward a discourse in which the substances were understood to possess distinctly religious import.  One of the originators of the term, Gordon Wasson, defined it as “’God within us’, those plant substances that, when ingested, give one a divine experience, in the past commonly called ‘hallucinogens’, ‘psychedelics’, ‘psychoto-mimetics’, etc, to each of which serious objections can be made” (Wasson 1980, xiv).  In the face of such obvious efforts of individuals to frame their drug experiences in religious terms, what possible objection could there be to analyzing such instances with all of the theoretical force that a Religious Studies perspective can muster toward the effort?

What I would like to suggest (which struck me as I was listening to this interview) is that opening the door to the discussion of drugs and religion with examples such as Santo Daime and research such as Dawson’s might provide a stepping stone that could allow us to face and address some of the broader and more contentious issues regarding drugs and the study of religion.  Since Santo Daime, without the ayahuasca, fits very easily into almost any academic definition of religion, we can, perhaps, begin to discuss the ‘drug issues’ that inevitably arise but do so in a less contested space before moving the discussion further on into the role of drugs in even more challenging areas of research in the academic study of religion, such as ‘alternative,’ ‘esoteric,’ ‘occult,’ ‘new age,’ ‘popular,’ and similar such amorphous religious frameworks.  Hanegraaff’s chapter on ‘entheogenic religion’ focuses very much on this latter grouping and it is in this milieu (which is often understood to be highly individualistic and shallow) that we are more likely to encounter the kinds of accusations of hedonism and irresponsibility that he expresses concern over.  So, perhaps Santo Daime can be used as a bridge to allow for the venting of worries about drugs on the way toward achieving Hanegraaff’s goal of opening up a perfectly legitimate, prevalent, influential, and, ultimately, theoretically fruitful object of study, which has so often be treated with misapprehension, suspicion, derision, or simply dismissed as unimportant.

Dawson himself suggests a similar ‘bridging’ aim in discussing his underlying interest in “the ways in which the rather exotic, non-mainstream profile of Santo Daime allows us to think about what constitutes religion, religious belief, religious practice in a new way.”  While my own essay is, in effect, an endorsement of this very effort, to use Santo Daime as a heuristic means of addressing broader trends, I take the need for this statement to be incredibly unfortunate in that I don’t believe that the existence of contemporary drug-use, even if it is understood to be ‘exotic’, requires thinking newly about what constitutes religion (though we should certainly continue to do that, as well).  As far as I can tell, there seems to be very little reason to suspect that Santo Daime should be an issue for any of the most prominent contemporary academic definitions of religion.  It involves belief in God and putative engagement with spiritual beings.  It involves communal ritual participation relative to those beliefs.  It is Catholic.  It is soteriological.  It is international.  It is acknowledged by national governments as a religious organization.  As Dawson points out, when you get over the sensationalized notion of Santo Daime as a “drug-fueled religion,” you find that “they are, in many ways, quite traditional in appearance when you look at what goes on.”  In other words, in the case of Santo Daime, it is predominantly the use of drugs that gives people pause.

So, if, as Dawson has admirably done, we can communicate clearly and effectively that a psychotropic substance plays a fundamental role in an otherwise patently obvious example of religion (although, I suppose diminutive reactions to syncretism are also not uncommon), then we stand in a better position to move onto a more mature further discussion of the religious significance of drugs in our own cultures and countercultures where attitudes are typically more highly contentious, as is apparent when Santo Daime attempts to find a home in countries with negative overall views on drug-use (typically excepting alcohol and other already sanctioned drugs).

Assessments of the validity of the source of a religious attribution is not the prerogative of the scholar of religion, or, at best, is relatively uninteresting theoretically.  If someone tells us that drugs or the experiences they render are understood to possess religious import, especially if they then orient their lives around that understanding and influence others to take up a similar position, then there is no case to argue, “but it was only a drug experience.”  For all of the analytical purchase that such a stance provides us, we may as well tell a Catholic at mass, “but it’s only a wafer.”  Such appellations tell us little about the cognitive, social, historical, and other factors which lead the psychonaut or Catholic to hold the religious attributions that they do and even less about how the experience and attribution affect their lives and behavior.  If an informant tells me that he was divinely inspired on a mushroom trip, I wouldn’t bat an eye any more than if he told me that he was divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit during communion.  That is his attribution to make and mine to document and analyze.  In fact, as a scholar of religion, the primary data of import is that he did, in fact, make that attribution.  Our informants provide us with the data about what is and isn’t deemed religious.  If people are telling us, in unequivocal terms, that they attribute religious meaning to their drug experiences, we trivialize them not at our peril but merely at our bias, and in doing so we miss out on important data about the religious lives of a large number of people in the contemporary world who may hold more of a sway over the collective imagination than many might think.  For instance, to use my own research as an example, the recent bout of millennialist expectations for the year 2012 was developed in and propagated by circles of entheogenic enthusiasts, and it is actually very difficult to understand the development of that widespread millennial phenomenon without understanding and addressing the role of drug-experiences in the production of prophecy.  In fact, in many cases, it was the very fact that the prophecy was understood as having arisen from a drug-experience that was seen by an audience as assuring its authenticity.  If we close our eyes to the religious import of drugs in a globalized modern context, there are significant religious phenomena in the world that we will simply fail to see and thereby fail to take into account in our models.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 2012. “Entheogenic Esotericism.” In Contemporary Esotericism, edited by Egil Asprem and Kennet Granholm. Sheffield: Equinox.
  • Taves, Ann. 2009. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. 1980. The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Material Religion Roundtable

Unless you have had your head buried in the sand for the past decade or so, if you are involved in the academic study of ‘religion’ you will have come across the field of ‘Material Religion’. People have Leading international Religious Studies podcasts have focused on it. And the BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group made it the focus of their annual conference at Durham University, UK, in April of this year.

David with conference organizer Tim Hutchings enjoying a well-earned pint at the Swan and Three Cygnets

David with conference organizer Tim Hutchings enjoying a well-earned pint at the Swan and Three Cygnets

However, what exactly does Material Religion bring to Religious Studies? Is it a potentially revolutionary phenomenon, or merely a passing fad? How might one apply the theoretical perspectives and methodologies developed in this growing field to some of the defining debates of our subject area? To discuss these issues, and reflect on the conference in general, RSP hosts David Robertson and Christopher Cotter were joined by George Ioannides, Rachel Hanneman and Dr David Wilson (and some local regulars in the background) in the Swan and Three Cygnets pub in Durham, immediately after the conference finished. This week’s podcast is a recording of their discussion.

You can also download this roundtable, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Material Religion with David Morgan, Religion, Space and Locality with Kim Knott, and Religion and the Built Environment with Peter Collins.

Meet the Discussants:

CotterChristopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Rachel Hanemann is working on her PhD at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Her research examines the role of the body in processes of religious formation and as a managed site of identity at an all-girls Catholic secondary school in London. She feels that this biographical note thoroughly encapsulates her as a person. Chris forgot to ask her for a picture to use on this page. He apologises profusely and is wearing the cone of shame.

GeorgeGeorge Ioannides studied comparative religion as part of his Undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, Australia.

 

 

DavidDavid G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Publications include “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) and “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

david wilsonDavid Gordon Wilson wears many hats. He served as a solicitor, then partner, then managing partner  in Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Egypt, before returning to university to embark on a Religious Studies degree. His PhD at the University of Edinburgh focused upon spiritualist mediumship as a contemporary form of shamanism, and his monograph has recently been published with Bloomsbury, titled Redefining Shamanisms: Spiritualist Mediums and Other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes. Wearing one of his other hats, David is a practising spiritualist medium and healer, and among his many connected roles, he is currently the President of the Scottish Association of Spiritual Healers.

Peter Collins on Religion and the Built Environment

The bells of Durham Cathedral clearly impacted upon David Wilson and David Robertson (April 2013)

The bells of Durham Cathedral clearly impacted upon David Wilson and David Robertson (April 2013)

In our ‘post-modern’ world, it should come as no surprise that the built environment – skyscrapers or teepees, sports stadiums or roadside shrines – impact upon the daily lives of individuals and communities in multifarious ways. Buildings dominate our skylines, they shape the nature, size, sound and smell of events within their walls, they provide a connection to the recent and distant past, and they serve as a physical, material instantiation of any number of contextual discourses. But what about the relationship between ‘religion’ and these (generally) human-made structures? How does a building become recognized as in some sense ‘religious’? What other information do we need to infer things about the purpose of a building? About its impact? This week’s podcast features Chris talking with Dr Peter Collins about these sorts of questions, during the BSA SocRel Conference in Durham (April 2013). This sociology of religion conference occurred within a Chemistry department, at one of Britain’s most historic universities, in the vicinity of Durham Castle, and the magisterial Durham Cathedral… unsurprisingly, the built environment had a significant impact.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Locality and Katie Aston’s essay entitled Finding space for nonreligion? Further possibilities for spatial analysis.

collinsDr Peter J. Collins is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Durham University, UK. completed an MA in development studies and a PhD in social anthropology at Manchester University. His research interests include religion (especially Quakerism), ritual and symbolism; historical anthropology; qualitative research methods, particularly narrative analysis; the anthropology of Britain; aesthetics and the built environment. He was recently engaged in an NHS-funded projects looking at hospital design and the space and place of hospital chaplaincies. Recent publications include “On Ritual Knowledge” (in Diskus: The Journal of the British Association for the Study of Religions. Vol 13. 2013), “Acute Ambiguity: Towards a Heterotopology of Hospital Chaplaincy” (in Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett and Christopher R. Cotter, Ashgate. pp. 39-60. 2013) and “On the Materialisation of Religious Knowledge and Belief” (in Religion and Knowledge, ed. E.A. Arweck and M. Guest, Ashgate. 2012).

Ralph Hood on Mysticism

HoodRalph2012_10One of the primary interests of scholars and researchers from diverse academic disciplines has been in exploration of mysticism. Mysticism has been observed within a variety of traditions and philosophies from Neo-Platonism to Hinduism and Christianity. Mysticism as a field of study is pregnant with possibilities for academic inquiry, both cross-disciplinary and discipline specific. The field of psychology is one of those disciplines which have sought to explore the richness of individual claims of mystical experience. This has been done with theoretical depth and methodological sophistication and is centralized within a variety of tools of empirical inquiry.

The study of mysticism necessitates addressing issues of ontology and epistemology, relating to the methodological processes for studying direct personal experiences. Within the psychological perspective, some of these concerns are mediated through what both Porpora (2006) and Hood, Hill and Spika (2009) describe as methodological agnosticism. While Silver (2011) argues that there is no such thing as true objectivity in research, certainly academics and researchers can strive for a post-positivist paradigm of objectivity where they attempt to remove bias and subjectivity from their research or hermeneutic inquiry.

While there is plenty of hermeneutic and observational potential in the study of Mysticism, more needs to be done in exploration of the experiential and psychological correlates related to personal experiences. Dr. Ralph W. Hood Jr. has extensive experience in the field of psychology of religion and particularly in the study of mysticism and mystical experience. As an early pioneer in the renaissance of the field of psychology of religion, Hood’s work is extensive and prolific exploring a variety of research topics in the social sciences of religion. Moreover, much of his collaborative work extends beyond the field of psychology to include sociology, religious studies, medicine, and a variety of other disciplines in the social scientific study of religion. In this week’s podcast, Chris SIlver is joined by Ralph Hood to discuss in detail his work on mysticism and the benefits and disadvantages of this academic exercise.

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HoodRalph2012_10

Ralph W. Hood Jr. is professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is a former editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and former co-editor of the Archive for the Psychology of Religion and The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.  He is a past president of division 36 (psychology of religion) of the American Psychological Association and a recipient of its William James, Mentor, and Distinguished Service awards. He has published over 200 articles in the psychology of religion and has authored, co-authored, or edited numerous book chapters and eleven books, all dealing with the psychology of religion.

References

  • Hood, R.W., P.C. Hill, and B. Spilka. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach. 4th ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Porpora, D. V. (2006). Methodological atheism, methodological agnosticism and religious experience. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 36, 57–75.
  • Silver, C. F. (2011). Psychology and Religion: Explorations in paradigm, theory, and method. In Weathington, B. L., Cunningham,  C. J. L., O’Leary, B. J., & Biderman, M. D. (Eds.), Applied Psychology in Everyday Life (pp. 71-107). Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Nuancing the Qual-Quan Divide: The Vitality of Research Methods in the Academic Study of Religion

Nuancing the Qual-Quan Divide:The Vitality of Research Methods in the Academic Study of Religion

By Yasaman S. Munro, Wilfrid Laurier University

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 4 July 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with David Voas on Quantitative Research (2 July 2012).

By using “vitality” in the title above, I mean to point to two aspects of the same urgent call. First, I simply mean that research methods are vital to the academic study of religion. As Stausberg and Engler suggest, “it is through methods that data and theory speak to each other and become part of a shared horizon” (2011: 11), and indeed it is still not a platitude to recall that theory, method and data can be considered three sides of that triangle we conjure, whether implicitly or explicitly, whenever we conduct research in this discipline. Second, I mean to claim that the active engagement of students and scholars embedded in the study of religion with research methods contributes to the ongoing vitality of our discipline. Please allow me to elaborate.

In this interview with Professor David Voas—a social scientist in Britain specializing in demography, and a scholar who is deeply involved in quantitative research himself—interviewer David Robertson asks about the oft-cited distinction between quantitative and qualitative research. I’d like to comment on this, specifically on what my own social research methods professor called the “qual-quan” divide. Professor Voas goes so far as to contrast the “qualitative people” to scholars using quantitative methods. Yet, what he does hint at, but has not had a chance to elaborate upon here in this short interview, is that the division between qualitative and quantitative research methods can be quite blurry in practice, and furthermore, they can and often are used in conjunction, as for instance in mixed methods research (Stausberg and Engler 2011: 13). Both Voas and Robertson themselves point to what could arguably be considered qualitative problems inherent in quantitative research designs, namely issues around designing valid questionnaires to administer to an appropriate sample of people in order to address specific research questions. Or, for example, in my own research on domestic health and healing practices among Hindu migrants in Canada, I have found myself asking interviewees what Voas refers to as the “how much, to what extent” sorts of questions that could be classified as quantitative questions.

But, even more significant than recognizing this blurry divide is what I noticed in this podcast to be a tendency not to nuance either qualitative and quantitative research methods. Voas rightly points to the usually forgotten difference between methods of data collection and analysis, considering surveys conducted among individuals or organizations. He also outlines some pros and cons for using primary and secondary data collection and analysis. What seems to be missing here is the acknowledgement that both quantitative and qualitative research often involves far more than simply statistical data gleaned from surveys, or in-person interviews, respectively.

Michael Stausberg and Steven Engler’s recent edited volume is a breath of the proverbial fresh air in this regard. In this pioneering handbook on research methods in the study of religion, the editors and the diverse contributors consider a wide variety of research designs, data analysis and collection strategies. Included are everything from issues in research ethics and hermeneutics to network analysis and material culture. Another recent work, by Hilary Rodrigues and John S. Harding, does address approaches to the study of religion—a subject area for which Walter Capps (1995) deserves a notable mention—and would be more suitable for undergraduate students being introduced to research methods. Those of us immersed in religious studies would benefit from pursuing works like these.

Why are research methods so vital to us? A while ago Russell McCutcheon (1997) called on us to pay more critical attention to theory (and method) in the study of religion. We do have a number of important works dealing with theoretical topics in the study of religion (e.g. Braun and McCutcheon 2000; Hinnells 2005; Taylor 1998), and as Stausberg and Engler have in my opinion rightly claimed, our Method and Theory courses have tended to focus more on theory than on method per se. Furthermore, as Capps among others, has reminded us, “where one stands determines what one sees and what one can know” (1995: 334-5); arguably both our theories and methods are implicated in where we stand. Because our methods, just as it is the case with our theories, play such a vital part in structuring, and arguably even producing, the data we find in our research, when we do not explicitly address our research methods, we are not adequately taking advantage of the resources we have to render high quality research. We could more clearly examine our research questions, our methods for data collection and analysis (beyond simply claiming we are conducting “quantitative” or “qualitative” research), and we could more explicitly employ strategies to establish our project’s methodological credibility, among other things. We are each encouraged to immerse ourselves in these sorts of things not only for the sake of our own ongoing research but because doing so will benefit the students and colleagues whose research we continue to help foster together.

Given the interviewee’s background, the interview tends to focus on issues that are usually important to scholars practicing the sociology of religion, issues such as how to measure the degree of religiosity of adherents, and how demographic factors are complicit in these processes. The interview could therefore more accurately be titled “Quantitative Research in the Sociology of Religion in Europe and the United States.” What is important to note here is that Voas’ perspectives on the value of quantitative research, involving particular data collection and analysis strategies (especially those involving large-scale surveys), while valuable, do stem from his adherence to the particular research questions of concern to him. What listeners are therefore exposed to here does not by any means exhaust the possibilities for research designs available to other kinds of scholars carrying out other kinds of research in our multi-faceted discipline.

At the end of the interview, Voas and Robertson encourage young scholars to engage with quantitative research methods. While I wholeheartedly support their inviting sentiments, I suggest it is vital for students and scholars of religion to pay closer attention to research methods more generally. As I have heard often enough in multiple places, the research questions are what ultimately drive the method, and therefore quantitative research designs may not be suitable for all projects. In my own doctoral research, for example, I have found the use of semi-structured interviews in domestic spaces and photography of household medical items indispensable for addressing my particular research questions.

It was a pleasure listening to what I hope to be the first of several more podcasts addressing the richly various aspects of research methods in our discipline. The interview does provide listeners with a good introduction to some important topics, such as validity, sampling, and generalizability. Still, given that research methods courses are a long way from being abundantly accessible to students in the discipline, students (and scholars) of religious studies would benefit from continually engaging with some of the established and emerging literature on research design and methodology so they can further nuance their understandings (e.g. Creswell 2009; Bryman, Teevan and Bell 2009; Berg 2007; Denzin and Lincoln 2011). I have been fortunate in that at my academic institution we have had a “Fieldworkers’ Group” meeting at least once a term for several years to discuss issues we have collectively experienced in mostly anthropological fieldwork. Indeed, beyond classroom and textbook, we all might find it helpful to engage more in occasional roundtables at conferences or at our institutions to discuss best practices in our ongoing adventures with research methods.

I therefore join Stausberg and Engler among others in inviting students and scholars in our discipline to open the lines of dialogue and debate on the vital topic of research methods in the academic study of religion, otherwise our research triangles run the risk of looking a bit more like boomerangs.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Yasaman S. Munro is a PhD candidate in the joint Wilfrid Laurier University-University of Waterloo Religious Diversity in North America doctoral program. Her doctoral research focuses on relational and material dimensions of Āyurveda and associated South Asian medical modalities unfolding in the domestic spaces of Hindu migrants in the Waterloo Region of Canada. In particular, she is tracing how the health and healing ideas and practices manifesting in these spaces are linked to those elsewhere and at other times, and what these can tell us about people’s religious and other social identities. More broadly, Yasaman’s work examines intersections between what we call “religion” and “health” from a multidisciplinary approach.

References:

Berg, Bruce L. (2007). Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences, Sixth Edition. Long Beach: California State University.

Braun, Willi, and Russell McCutcheon, Eds. (2000). Guide to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Cassell.

Bryman, Alan, James J. Teevan and Edward Bell. (2009). Social Research Methods, Second Canadian Edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Capps, Walter H. (1995). Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Creswell, John W. (2009). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Denzin, Norman K., and Yvonna S. Lincoln, Eds. (2011). The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th revised edition. London and Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Hinnells, John R., Ed. (2005). The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Routledge.

McCutcheon, Russell T. (1997). Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and The Politics of Nostalgia. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary, and John S. Harding. (2009). Introduction to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Routledge.

Stausberg, Michael, and Steven Engler, Eds. (2011). The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge.

Taylor, Mark C., Ed. (1998). Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Podcasts

Getting to Know the North American Association for the Study of Religion

In this interview, Russell McCutcheon and Aaron Hughes discuss the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), an international organization dedicated to historical, critical, and social scientific approaches to the study of religion. McCutcheon and Hughes (the president and vice president of NAASR, respectively) discuss the history of NAASR, their attempt to help return NAASR to its original mission, various publications associated with NAASR, and the philosophy or motivations that guided their annual conference this year.

In January 2016, we welcomed the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) as an additional sponsor. We are indebted to NAASR for their generosity, and we look forward to working with them in the years to come to continue what we do, and to bring about some important and long-planned innovations.

The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) was initially formed in 1985 by E. Thomas Lawson, Luther H. Martin, and Donald Wiebe, to encourage the historical, comparative, structural, theoretical, and cognitive approaches to the study of religion among North American scholars; to represent North American scholars of religion at the international level; and to sustain communication between North American scholars and their international colleagues engaged in the study of religion.

Please see their website for more information on their activities, and for membership details. NAASR is incorporated as a nonprofit in the state of Vermont. A brief history of NAASR, written by Luther H. Martin and Donald Wiebe, can be found here.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, incense, driving gloves, and more.

Surveying the Sacred and Secular

The RSP’s interview with Darren Sherkat arrives at a time when research on religion has caught a bit of the media spotlight. Both The Atlantic and Religion Dispatches recently touched on issues with surveys in their reviews of Robert Wuthnow’s new book, Inventing American Religion. In this book, Wuthnow argues that the turn toward survey research shaped our perceptions of “American” religion by producing some stark generalizations, because religious experiences are simply too complex to reduce to national trends captured by survey questions alone (2015:13). I enjoyed the RSP’s interview in light of these challenges because Sherkat reminds us what goes into good polling, why we still do it, and what important lessons it can provide for both social scientists studying religion and the broader public.

What goes into good survey research?

Sherkat and Wuthnow do agree on some major points. We should ask for fewer, larger, and higher quality survey studies rather than just polling willy-nilly. My dissertation research looks at the political impact of the growing non-religious population in the United States, and so I spend a lot of time between surveys on both religion and politics, which face their own challenges during this pre-election season.

Part of the reason polling gets a bad rap is the valid criticism that survey questions cannot capture the nuances of respondents’ beliefs and values, and they are therefore not a good representation of respondents’ religious lives. Fair enough, and sociological research has long challenged the idea that public opinion is good at reflecting the reality of respondents’ conscious thoughts and beliefs. Sherkat gets at this point when he highlights the differences between identities and identifications—a gap between how people think about their religious experiences and whether they affiliate with institutions or established systems of belief. Rather than claim they can capture the nuances of identity, a lot of research thinks about public opinion as a way to capture bigger cultural styles using a “dual process” theory of cognition. This means it is less interested in figuring out what groups of people consciously believe, think about, or talk about. Instead, this work focuses on finding patterns in how people make quick judgements. With a good representative sample, we can learn about how religion shapes the way people answer new questions, rather than what they believe about the issues alone.

Why does that matter?

As Sherkat discusses in this interview, “nones” make up about 20% of the American population. This group makes a great case study for why survey work still matters despite its challenges. Researchers in my field have done a lot of excellent qualitative work looking at non-religious people in the United States. They find that non-religious experiences are just as complex and diverse as religious experiences. We have spiritual but not religious folks, atheists, agnostics, deists, brights, “nothing in particulars”, post-religious people, six kinds of atheism, four ways of talking about the secular, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Even if the “nones” feel a common affinity toward one another for breaking from religious affiliation, underneath the surface they do not agree on much. From the perspective of this qualitative work, this 20% of the U.S. population is not homogeneous; it has substantial ideological and philosophical diversity.

As Sherkat points out in the interview, however, ethnographic research alone can also skew our picture of what is going on if the sub-groups of interest are quite small. This is not at all to say studying a small group is not important, only that we have to remember to step back and synthesize those lived experiences with a larger structural picture. Survey research so far shows us that Americans who disaffiliate from religion often share one particular cultural style: a preference for personal autonomy over received authority (Hout and Fischer 2014). In their new book, American Secularism, Baker and Smith (2015:92) show that atheists, agnostics, and unaffiliated believers have a variety of personal spiritual practices, but they also share a “relatively uniform disengagement from public religion.” When we design survey questions from the ground up based on qualitative findings, as Marcus Mann (2015) did in his study of political and communal motivations for joining local and national atheist groups, we can test whether those findings hold for a range of people and represent a distinct cultural pattern. 20% of the U.S. population with a unique style of evaluating political information could have a huge impact, but we still need quality survey research to test whether these patterns exist and what they do.

What should we do?

One interpretation of Wuthnow’s valid critique of surveys is that our reliance on polling marginalizes the most meaningful religious experiences. Emma Green, writing in The Atlantic , provides the following take on Wuthnow’s work:

Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life…If you mourn anything, mourn the meaningful Grappling With Existence that has to happen in private spaces, rather than public ones, an experience that’s not well-understood or often taken seriously.

Sherkat’s interview reminds us that a lot of the polls facing this criticism are also not ideal sources for scientific research, and survey work is still an important way to understand the American (non)religious experience. To steal a line from my advisor, for each person “grappling with existence” there’s another making a grocery list in church. If big survey research alone often misses the former, sifting for the interesting personal story alone can risk missing the later. Synthesizing both lets us clearly define what parts of religiosity we want to measure, such as whether we are interested in atheism as non-belief or a label with which respondents identify. This often means going back to the drawing board and critiquing long-standing survey questions, but if we put our efforts into good design grounded in testing the findings from qualitative researchers, we stand to gain a lot more than we do by turning away from surveys altogether.

For work on cultural styles, (non)religion, and public opinion, see:

Baker, Joseph O. and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: NYU Press.

Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53(4):775–90.

Edgell, Penny. 2012. “A Cultural Sociology of Religion: New Directions.” Annual Review of Sociology 38(1):247–65.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.” Psychological Review 108(4):814–34.

Hout, Michael and Claude Fischer. 2014. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” Sociological Science 1:423–47.

Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2):165–90.

Mann, Marcus. 2015. “Triangle Atheists: Stigma, Identity, and Community Among Atheists in North Carolina’s Triangle Region.” Secularism and Nonreligion, 4(11): 1–12 http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/snr.bd

Perrin, Andrew J. and Katherine McFarland. 2011. “Social Theory and Public Opinion.” Annual Review of Sociology 37(1):87–107.

Perrin, Andrew J., J. Micah Roos, and Gordon W. Gauchat. 2014. “From Coalition to Constraint: Modes of Thought in Contemporary American Conservatism.” Sociological Forum 29(2):285–300.

Silver, Christopher F., Thomas J. Coleman III, Ralph W. Hood Jr, and Jenny M. Holcombe. 2014. “The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17(10):990–1001.

Vaisey, Stephen. 2009. “Motivation and Justification: A Dual‐Process Model of Culture in Action.” American Journal of Sociology 114(6):1675–1715.

But Mountains, Dammit!

Titus Hjelm’s book Social Constructionisms: Approaches to the Study of the Human World is a fantastic introduction to the topic of “social constructionism.” Titus successfully demonstrates that this term brings together a plurality of approaches that, although they share a great deal in common, have crucial differences. Perhaps the most admirable feature of Titus’ book is it’s clarity—Titus writes about complicated issues with clear and concise prose, making it perhaps a perfect fit for undergraduate “theory and method” courses in which students must be exposed to these critical approaches.

Since commenting on where we agree is unlikely to be productive or advance the conversation, here in my response I’ll focus on Titus’ criticisms of what he considers more “radical” forms of social constructionism, which he associates with the “excesses” of postmodernism or post-structuralism. Hinting in both the RSP interview and the book that he identifies as a type of critical realist, Titus calls into question those forms of social constructionism that are unabashedly anti-realist. Consider the following statements:

According to some social constructionist views, “we can only reach the world through discourse.” (from the interview)

“If everything is discourse and nothing is real, where is the position we can take to critique those constructions?” (from the interview)

“In their most radical form, these [constructionists] claim that we can know about the human world—and the natural world, for that matter—only through discourse. Any ‘reality’ outside of discourse is either bracketed or denied.” (from the book; 88)

For relativist constructionists, “there is nothing [to the world] beyond our description of it.” (from the book; 92)

For relativists, “there is no ‘reality’ to fall back on.” (from the book; 92)

From the relativist perspective, “the ‘world out there’ and perceptions of the world are radically separated, with no access to the former, except through discourse. It is one thing to say that the meaning of, say, gravity is dependent on our ways of talking about it—a position that constructionists would happily embrace. It is another thing for me to jump out of a sixth story window and assume a safe landing because I’m shouting ‘I’m not falling!’” (from the book; 93)

I find such claims frustrating for two reasons. First, I think that Titus is criticizing the forms of constructionism with which I identify—i.e. he’s targeting me—but I think he unfairly represents my view. Second, I’m also frustrated because some of the constructionists I identify with say exactly the sorts of claims Titus is criticizing. All of that is to say: I think that Titus is aiming at a straw man (are there straw women, I wonder?), but unfortunately a straw man that some of my peers stand behind and prop up. Thus, rather than tear down Titus’s excellent work, let me clarify the difference between my view and the view Titus criticizes.

The main problem, for me, is that although I might be a radical constructionist, I absolutely reject the dualist view of the world Titus is partly working with and partly criticizing. This dualism assumes an opposition between the world-as-it-is-in-and-of-itself and the world within discourse. Discourse apparently is “in here” (but where is “here,” one wonders?), and reality is “out there.” (We’re not far here from the contradictions inherent in Kant’s distinction between phenomena and noumena.) Of course, there is some ambiguity for the social constructionists, insofar as they vacillate between the view that there is a world out there—but we have access to it only through discourse—and the view that there isn’t a world out there—that is, everything, even reality, is discourse. This latter view drops the ontological dualism and turns into a type of discursive monism.

Titus’ view seems to be closer to the dualist view, except without the caveat about being locked within discourse: there is a mind-independent or discourse-independent world “out there,” and we can make objective or authoritative rather than merely subjective or relativist claims about it. Despite the insistence of the radical constructionists, there is a real world out there—we can thump the table or point to the mountains on the horizon dammit! Are we to believe those mountains weren’t here before humans came to name them?! Mountains, dammit! They’re real and they’re mind-independent! (It’s at this point that the radical constructionists ask, “can you say that without discourse?” and then the realists really go apoplectic.)

By the time we get here, we’re far afield from where I’d like the conversation to have headed. What’s crucially been lost at this point—from my perspective at least—is the role of discourse in individuation or definition—i.e., the extension of a concept—and the pragmatic ends of the latter.

The best example I can point to for how discourse has a constitutive role in the individuation of something we tend to take for granted as “natural” in the so-called “real world” is in Edward Schiappa’s discussion of the politics of “wetlands” (see Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning; 2003). In the early 1990s, wetlands were a hot topic. Environmentalists wanted to protect wetlands from developers who wanted to clear the land and build on it, while developers wanted the opposite. President George H. W. Bush signed into legislation a bill protecting wetlands from development, but the legislation redefined wetlands in ways that suited the interests of the developers rather than the environmentalists. Wetlands were protected, but there was a bait-and-switch of sorts: the land to which the concept “wetland” extended shrunk dramatically with the novel definition in the new legislation. Both parties used the concept “wetland,” but they individuated something rather different, and—in addition—that to which their concept extended was directly tied to their social or political interests. Schiappa concludes, “definitions are interest-driven and saturated with questions of power and persuasion.”

I think that Titus’ framing of “radical constructionism” fails in helping us to understand Schiappa’s view. First, by no means is Schiappa saying that there’s a world within discourse and then a world out there. For Schiappa, the existence of wetlands is contingent upon the definition we give to the term; if we change the definition of wetland we have a different reality out there to deal with—just as gerrymandered districts are quite literally different districts than before they were gerrymandered. There’s no “reality” of wetlands without first having individuated some types of land as wetland and other types of land as not-wetland. Second, neither is Schiappa saying that all we have access to is the world of discourse. “Wetlands” are constituted by discourse, but that’s not the same thing as saying that wetlands are discourse. Third, it wouldn’t make sense to say that “wetlands” exist independent of discourse; it is we, as humans, who separate this from that, wetlands from not-wetlands, and so on, depending on our interests.

But what about mountains, dammit? Weren’t they there before humans evolved to identify them as mountains? To press the realist position, let me ask: did the state of New York exist before humans came along to identify it as such? Even the realist would have to admit: New York is a human invention—the distinctions between “New York” and “Massachusetts” and “Pennsylvania” aren’t natural, but are lines we as humans draw in the sand. That is, even the realist has to admit that the individuation or extension of “New York” is discursive. But then to press the realist further: what about the Adirondack Mountains? Do the mountains individuate themselves from the land we consider not-mountainous? Or do we, as humans, individuate them for our purposes?

We could of course individuate the stuff of the world in ways that intersect with but don’t exactly match the extension of the term “Adirondack Mountains.” No doubt there are “streams” in the mountains, “hiking paths” over them, “bear hunting grounds” across them, “good fishing areas” in them, and so forth. In addition, whichever discursive concepts we use to slice up the stuff of the Adirondacks will depend on our particular pragmatic interests—do we want fish for dinner? to avoid running across bears? a challenging hike?

In addition, were our interests different—or were we different kinds of animals—no doubt we would individuate our world differently. Does an ant in the Adirondacks see a “mountain”? Is a “mountain” a useful concept for something as small as an insect? If there were alien creatures whose walking stride was the same as the distance from our sun to Pluto, would they have a use for individuating the “Adirondack Mountains”? On the contrary, what we might individuate as the Adirondacks would likely be nothing other than dust on the shoes of their feet, not worth individuation or attention. As some cognitive linguists have noted–for instance, in Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987) or Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh (1999)–what is useful for us to individuate is relative to the type of bodies we are in: “How animals categorize depends on their sensing apparatus and their ability to move themselves and manipulate objects. Categorization is therefore a consequence of how we are embodied” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 17-18).

All of this is to say: crucial for understanding so-called radical social constructionism is the pragmatic function of concepts in individuating the stuff of the world. At bottom, drawing lines between mountains and streams is little different than drawing lines between New York and Massachusetts. And, on this view, the practice of discursive or conceptual individuation neither gets between us and the real world, nor do the things of the world exist as “things” independently of our individuation of them as particular things.

Experiences Deemed Religious from Micro and Qualitative to Macro and Quantitative

Overview

This joint Religious Studies Project/SSSR session was a symposium that included four presentations, all focused on some variation on the topic of “religious experiences,” a category better described as experiences deemed religious (EDRs; Taves, 2009). Beyond that idea in the symposium summary, the only similarity among the presentations was that that they were almost purely descriptive. There was little if any theoretical synthesis, either psychologically or sociologically, to help the audience gain a conceptual understanding of the processes mediating these or other EDRs.

The combined result of the four presentations is certainly positive for purposes of illustrating ways that qualitative or quantitative research on EDRs can be executed. Three of the four presentations also gave the viewer-listener a relatively vivid picture of the questions posed, the participants involved, and what was actually learned from the studies. This is, of course, all good. The downside, however, which is not at all unusual for symposia of this sort, was that the methods and findings were presented and the presentation then stopped, usually for reasons of time.

As an observer-listener I was left with an illuminating picture of what the researchers were trying to get at and what they found. However, my mind strained at the theoretical emptiness left in their wake – my intellectual need to dig deeper and understand why the findings were what they were. That, of course, is the much more difficult task.

Presentations Snapshot

A brief summary of the presentations looks like this:

(1) In Study 1, seven people were interviewed who are active in Christian snake-handling sects in the rural Southern U.S. states. Their beliefs and practices are derived from a literal application of the “five signs” said to follow believers as listed in the last chapter of the Gospel of Mark. The two life-threatening signs are handling poisonous snakes and drinking deadly poison; Each participant had done both. The interviews focused on the phenomenology of drinking strychnine. In order to confirm its toxicity, an independent lab examined a sample of the liquid used; it was confirmed lethal. Reported effects included a powerful sense of awe, “victory,” a “rush” or mental “high,” and sensations such as peace, joy, satisfaction, and spiritual perfection.

(2) In Study 2, several modern Christian churches were observed, and their clergy interviewed, about the role of popular secular and religious music in worship services. The interviews showed that, for these ministers and worshipers, secular music is thought to be “more real” in helping people confront their own shortcomings. It is included such services in order to facilitate an internal sense of honesty, while comfort and hope are subsequently provided by religious music and other non-musical aspects of the service.

(3) Study 3 focused on natural disaster relief and symptoms of PTSD, as approached by clergy and others in Japan, the U.S., and the Philippines. Clergy of various religions, including Christians and Buddhists, completed questionnaires that asked, for instance, how they perceived disasters, whether they had an obligation to help victims or pray with victims, whether they thought disasters were God’s will, if they see signs of PTSD or lesser symptoms in those they help. The results generally affirmed the clergy’s motivation to help, which seem to help decrease the suffering of the victims.

(4) In Study 4, although research was referred to, the main argument was that researchers should get away from doing research only within their narrow disciplinary boundaries. It was proposed that we should instead aim to “highlight the lines of continuity” between disciplines through research that, for example, combines social and natural scientific methods, using methods that exploit the potentials for cooperative effort between fields.

Qualitative and Quantitative Methods

To be fair, the four presentations were so varied that I would not expect to be able to view them, with much accuracy, through only one theoretical or methodological lens. Study 1 was a content analysis of seven interviews aimed at creating a clear, accurate picture of the mental experiences of people that had drunk a poison. With the research goal thus defined and the available N so small, an in-depth interview method is the way to go. Qualitative methodologies of this sort yield a vividness and completeness in the data that physiological recordings cannot produce.

Does this mean that qualitative research is better than quantitative research? No. Nor does it mean it is worse. It means that for a research question posed as this one was, a qualitative method is better equipped to answer it with data of the form most meaningful to the question. Qualitative methods, such as the use of questionnaires in Study 3, are desirable when the research intent is to go deeply into single cases and yield the most complete graphic possible of what is being examined, whether the case is an individual human, as occurs in psychological research, or an individual village, as in anthropological research. Such methods yield a form of data that are sometimes referred to as “deeper” and “richer.” That is their gift and their strength. Vivid pictures of the phenomenology of EDRs can be painted with such methods.

With the strength of a research method, however, there is a corresponding weakness. And these weaknesses turn out to be overcome by the strengths of other, “opposite” kinds of methods. In the case of the small-N phenomenological interview methods used in Study 1, weaknesses include difficulties in going beyond describing the subjects’ experiences to test theoretical predictions about what might happen mentally when someone drinks poison (or does anything else), why the experience might be interpreted in one way or another by the individual, ways people might respond when the experience is discrepant from that which was anticipated, and so forth. Answers to questions phrased in these ways are more amenable to quantitative approaches that allow for testing hypotheses derived from theories about the processes operating inside human minds, such as, the processes that mediate interpretations and responses to unusual mental events, and the consideration their social and physical contexts. Nonetheless, the theoretical gains of using quantitative methods not infrequently come with a loss of the benefits of qualitative methods.

Multilevel Interdisciplinary Paradigm

What is the solution? The main argument of Study 4 was that for comprehensive knowledge to emerge, we must do more research that combines approaches from different disciplines. I have written extensively about this approach, which I call the multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm (MIP; Paloutzian & Park, 2013; Park & Paloutzian, 2013). It involves researchers from different disciplines not just telling others about their research, but engaging in genuine collaborative work around common questions that cannot be answered by one discipline alone. I think future research within the MIP will demonstrate its capability to accomplish the goals of both qualitative and quantitative research, both within disciplines and across their borders.

References

Paloutzian, R. F., & Park, C. L. (2013). Recent progress and core issues in the science of the psychology of religion and spirituality. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. (pp. 3-22). New York: Guilford.

Park, C. L., & Paloutzian, R. F. (2013). Directions for the future of the psychology of religion and spirituality: Research advances in methodology and meaning systems. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. (pp. 651-665). New York: Guilford.

Taves, A. (2009). Religious experience reconsidered: A building block approach to the study of religion and other special things. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

The Fate of Earthly Things

Aztec religion at the time of its encounter with the Spaniards in the early 16th century was a sophisticated mix of ritual and symbolic imagination. In this interview with Molly H. Bassett, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, listeners are treated to a glimpse of a society where human sacrifice was a tool for encountering the divine, priests turned into gods and goddesses, and death held radical meanings for religious agents.

At the beginning of the interview, Dr. Bassett shares how she became involved in Mesoamerican studies thanks to her mentor, Davíd Carrasco. “Hardly anybody… in religious studies” works in this area, she says, instead they are in allied fields such as anthropology or history. Stressing the power of mentors on her career, Bassett reminds all scholars of the role a devoted teacher can have on one’s life. And, as the interview unfolds, the value of this disciplinarity is on display as Bassett is able to ask different questions of the Aztec sources than previous scholars have been.

After providing an overview of the many shared features of pre-Columbian cultures from Southern Texas all the way to Honduras that became known as Mesoamerican thanks to the work of ethnologist Paul Kirchhoff. Stepped pyramids, pictographic writing, ballgames, sacrifice, and common linguistic families are just a few of the traits that reveal the roots of this cultural area. Bassett’s work has included a focus on linguistics and especially through the study of texts employing pictograms (sound and symbols) as in the Florentine Codex and Codex Mexicanus. The Florentine Codex was composed by spanish speaker missionaries who encountered Aztecs, and then learned and translated Nahuatl into Spanish with the help of tri-lingual scribes into volumes that contained both text and commentary.

One of the most fascinating elements of these early codices is its portrayal of Spanish conquistador Cortez’ encounter with Aztec leader Montezuma. Bassett’s work on this encounter, especially in her recently published The Fate of Earthly Things, argues that the codices present this ritual occasion as one where the Spanish were presented as “teotl” or gods. For scholars this has been a challenging interpretative moment. Did the Aztecs really think the Spaniards were gods? No, says Bassett, and by asking what the Aztecs meant by “teotl” she reveals the potency of teixiptla or local embodiments of god(s). Montezuma, she claims, may have used the gift exchange with the Spaniards as a way to prepare Cortez for sacrifice and transformation into a teixiptla.

By the end of the interview, Bassett comes to articulate the value of Mesoamerican studies for undergraduate and graduate students. Her own experiences coming to establish material from a religious studies’ perspective suggest the importance of discipline and method in defining the questions we can ask and therefore the answers our subjects can provide. In the classroom her graduate students–often not even Americanists and rarely Mesoamericanists–are challenged by this material, especially by primary materials that have been approached by methods from different disciplines. For many scholars who teach method or theory courses, Bassett’s presentation of a primary source and the way different disciplines’ methods can limit or expand our inquiries is an excellent model for teachers in all areas and subjects.

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What “in the world” is theory?

Birgit Meyer’s interview with George Ioannides in the recently released Religious Studies Project podcast (6/30/2014) is a pedagogical tour de force. In this conversation, Meyer revisits and introduces anew some of the most urgent problems and questions that have animated the converging fields of visual culture, media, and the study of religion.

Meyer’s work has long been at the forefront of these ever-entangled interests, and in this interview, we hear her “digest” a wide range of theoretical ideas into an eminently clear précis on the study of material, visual, and sensory cultures of religion. Referencing numerous intellectual influences—from late nineteenth-century disciplinary “fathers” like Weber, Durkheim, Tylor, and Fraser to her twenty-first century colleagues in the broader study of religion and social theory, including the likes of Talal Asad, Bruno Latour, Jacques Rancière, David Morgan, Hent de Vries, Jeremy Stolow, Angela Zito, and Charles Taylor—Meyer explains that her robust theoretical digestion is part of a larger attempt to develop new, more wide-ranging methods and approaches for studying the surrounding world. But listeners will also quickly ascertain that Meyer does more than “digest” an otherwise pre-existing set of theories. That is, even as Meyer explicitly professes in this interview not to see herself as a theorist, I want to suggest in this brief response that she does indeed teach us how her own expert processing can—and should—also be understood as a form of propagation. Despite her own resistance to being named a theorist, I argue that her sensational mediation is a form of theory making, one which more students of religion should embrace.

Meyer’s interview showcases many of the admirable aspects we’ve come to expect of her work. She advocates an ever more historically mindful cultural anthropology in the study of religion, one that is aware of the Christonormative and colonialist heft that many of our concepts and modes of study carry. She argues for an approach that “understands religion as a multimedia phenomenon,” one that enables “a fuller research program” than emphases on texts and words have typically allowed for, and one that works to challenge, rather than reinscribe, colonial processes, seeking alternatives to, rather than repetitious critiques of, ”the proverbial Protestant bias.”[1] Likewise, Meyer’s ongoing commitment to the study of “lived religion” is evident in turning our attention to new scenes and sources that cannot be entirely divorced from their tense relations with Protestantism—from boundary encounters between missionaries and missionized populations on the west African coast to Jesus pictures circulating in this “frontier zone.”

If Meyer’s early work focused on language and translation as formative to the process of “bringing into being religious worlds,” she explains that her more recent concerns show that such a focus remains limited in understanding larger colonial power dynamics, particularly given late twentieth-century structural transformations frequently referred to as globalization and neoliberalism. Drawing on her fieldwork among Pentecostal communities in Ghana to work through such dense theoretical terms, Meyer points students and scholars of religion to interrogations of material objects, media forms, and the sensing body as they are invested and turned into vessels, receptors, and indexes of religious experience. Meyer explains that her concern is “not just about images and pictures; it is about regimes that structure vision in particular ways that are embedded in…dynamics of concealment and revelation…primarily through the eyes but, of course, also by regulating the senses, by focusing vision in a certain way, by relating vision, hearing, touch.” In so doing, she solicits scholars and students of religious studies to probe media forms and mediating processes that are authorized by other sensory regimes and structural reproductions. What repercussions do they have on particular sensations and on religious subjectivities, she asks. What preferences are suggested? What modes of sense-making or community formation are enabled and foreclosed?[2]

However, when asked about her advice for up-and-comers in religious studies and anthropology, Meyer pulls back from her own theorizing. Though she first points to the importance of “generating larger theoretical and self-reflexive questions,” and confirms that “theory is incredibly important,” she also counsels students to “find…the themes that you want to think about, find them in the world,” because, she worries, too often scholars “just take one or the other approach or philosopher and then rethink…our world from there.” Hers is a familiar point, one easily taken with an uncritical nod. Yet, I want to pause here to note how Meyer elides what she has already done so well. “I don’t see myself as a theorist,” she says, “but I see myself as someone who tries to digest theory in order to develop methodologies and approaches to throw new light and develop new perspectives on the world of which we are a part, and which is around us.” My response is not to suggest that I do not admire or want to affirm Meyer’s proposal for new approaches in studying the “stuff” of religion. On the contrary, I do. For, Meyer has ably initiated important study of new data sets and geographic locales, but what is perhaps most valuable in her scholarly selections and analytical studies is not so much their ability to fill in otherwise existing descriptive gaps, but how they can (and have) shifted our thinking and practices—for, as Meyer herself explains, such empirical and theoretical alternatives are crucial to “a reconsideration of our concept of religion.”

In this interview, Meyer most provocatively advances such theoretical reconsiderations in her treatment of the fetish as a “hybrid term” associated ambivalently with the distinction between animate and inanimate, subject and object, humans and things. This “sensational form” was also to become, for missionary forces and for scholars of religion, both a marker of western rationality and its ostensible opposite—the heathen, antimodern, neurotic, primitive, or mystified. The fetish materializes, for Meyer, a notion of religion as a practice of mediation—of producing, traversing, and authorizing distinctions amid the “scandalous mixing” of good and bad religion, of person and thing, of a mundane world and an other world, and thereby also both maintaining and crossing the gap of sensible and seemingly insensible “presence.” Countering claims that religion itself is somehow immediate or un-mediated, Meyer explains through her re-visioning of the fetish how religion is the mediating work of fabricating, traversing, authorizing, and remaking those differentiations, those “gaps.”

It is for all this that I think Meyer’s own theorizing, her own mediating work, her own making-sense of things and thoughts, is far too quickly de-authorized in her dissociation from the mantle (or the altar) of “theorist” at the end of this recorded conversation. Meyer’s move away from her own theorizing, from her own philosophizing, leaves me with questions about her theory of “theory.” Given her explicit recommendation for finding themes and topics of study based on one’s curiosity “in the world,” I wonder if Meyer presumes theory to be largely removed from the world, somehow too external, even transcendental, as opposed to, well, what? To immanent critique? To (inter)mediated analysis? Likewise, in contrast to her professed interest in a rigorously interrogative approach, does Meyer find theory to be somehow centrally declarative? Maybe she presumes it to be largely stationary versus the apparent boundary crossing of interdisciplinary innovation she invokes in methodological terms? Or is theory, for her, somehow singular in comparison with the multiplicity of methods and media she advocates? Does Meyer presume theory somehow too much like the missionary conception of the fetish and not enough like her own reconceiving of that sensational form?

Perhaps. Yet, I still think Meyer’s own emphasis on mediation challenges any easy affirmation of such theoretical presumptions of “theory” as removed, disembodied, inanimate, singular, or mystifying. Like her study and—yes, I want to insist—theorizing of religion and/as mediation through her handling of the fetish, I want to propose that Meyer’s seemingly didactic assemblage in this interview is also a more audacious theoretical working and reworking than she otherwise appears to acknowledge or wants to entertain herself. And, if it is (and I think it is), might then religious studies students and scholars endeavor to re-view what “in the world” theory is? Might we begin to theorize again and anew as sensationally as Meyer has begun to teach us here?

 

[1] Describing the links between textual/linguistic analysis and colonialism and advocating for a rethinking of how scholars continue to relate to such processes in disciplinary formations and specializations in the so-called book religions of, namely, the Abrahamic traditions, Meyer also suspects that scholars “explicitly working on book religion also tend…to affirm certain processes of colonization as they also occur within disciplines.” She thus implies that a focus on religion as multiply mediated can help reduce such tendencies by putting such emphases on texts/language into perspective. Gaining new perspectives seems almost always to the good, and Meyer’s suggestion about seeing texts themselves as objects and as one medium among others is warranted and welcome. Nevertheless, I think it remains somewhat less clear why we should suspect that those studying “book religions” would necessarily have more of a tendency to reinscribe colonial practices. It seems to me that finding a place “outside” such suspect disciplining (if there even is such a place, and I’m not sure Meyer thinks there is either) needn’t be the only way to challenge a history of colonialism—particularly if one recognizes immanent critique as valuable, if not entirely transformative nor apocalyptically revolutionary.

[2] Meyer is joined by a growing array of scholars with similar concerns, asking related questions. See, for example, a series of articles and a forum on “The Senses in History,” edited by Martin Jay in The American Historical Review, vol. 116, no. 2 (April 2011), and the recently published anthology, Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice, edited by Sally M. Promey (Yale University Press, 2014).

The Subtle Body

Jay Johnston is a senior lecturer in the Department of Studies of Religion at the University of Sydney. A distinguished interdisciplinary researcher, Johnston is known for her scholarly explorations and elucidations in areas of research concerning subtle bodies; embodiment and intersubjectivity; feminist studies; religion and material culture. In her fascinating books Angels of Desire: Esoteric Bodies, Aesthetics and Ethics (Equinox Publishing, 2008) and Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West: Between Mind and Body (Routledge, 2013) co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, she establishes innovative theoretical and methodological examinations of notions of subtle embodiment as a shared narrative negotiating the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, and how subtle intersubjectivity is a unique experience of the lived human body within both Western and Eastern religious discourses. Other current projects include the ARC Discovery Project: The production and function of art and design elements in ancient texts and artefacts of ritual power from Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean region with Iain Gardner, Julia Kindt (Sydney); Erica Hunter (SOAS) and Helen Whitehouse (Oxford), and Wellbeing Spirituality and Alternative Therapies with Dr Ruth Barcan.

During the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religion at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, Damon Lycourinos had the pleasure of interviewing Jay regarding her work on the subtle body and alternative notions of intersubjectivity, addressing both the theoretical and methodological implications for the academic study of subtle embodiment, and what the future might hold for this in the academy and beyond.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Before “Religion”: a History of a Modern Concept

For much of the past two centuries, “religion” has been understood as a universal phenomenon, a part of the “natural” human experience that is essentially the same across cultures and throughout history. Individual religions may vary through time and geographically, but there is an element, religion, that is to be found in all cultures during all time periods. Taking apart this assumption, Brent Nongbri has built upon a generation of critical scholarship to provide the first comprehensive history of “religion” as a category in western discourse.

In his recently published work, Before Religion: a History of a Modern Concept (Yale University Press, 2013), Nongbri shows that the idea of “religion” as a sphere of life distinct from politics, economics, or science is a recent development in European history—a development that has been projected outward in space and backward in time with the result that religion now appears to be a natural and necessary part of our world.

Discussing this book with Jack Tsonis, Nongbri begins by explaining various uses of the term “religio” in Roman and Christian antiquity, which were somewhat different from the modern term “religion”. The conversation then moves into the early modern period and the changes wrought by the Reformation, the rise of the political state, and the subsequent period of religious conflict.   At this point we begin to see something that looks like the modern English category “religion”, although that shift was not fully consolidated until the formalization of philology and ancient world studies in the nineteenth century.

This podcast will interest all students of religion, regardless of their area of speciality. At the core of Nongbri’s project is a call for constant vigilance with the categories we use to describe  human behaviour.  While he does not advocate abandoning “religion”, understanding the history of the term does encourage us to use it with greater methodological reflexivity.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

THATCamp Roundtable on Digital Religious Studies

At this past year’s meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore, Maryland, over 70 scholars met to participate in the AAR’s first THATCamp. The Humanities and Technology Camp is an open meeting for those desiring a conference experience outside of the presentation of formal papers. Participants submitted ideas ahead of time to the AAR THATCamp website, but the final shape and content of the event was decided on-site by a vote. In the busy weekend of paper sessions, THATCamp AAR was an oasis of facilitate first, pontificate second. As digital religious studies emerges within the broader digital humanities movement, the Camp was a rather bold move for the AAR, whose interaction has been driven by more conservative timelines.

THATCamp represents one of the bright spots of the digital world and its potential for conference goers. It emphasizes hands-on experience, privileges active learning, and puts expertise and enthusiasm for technology side-by-side. It can be chaotic with its impromptu schedule, but the advantage is the flexibility it offers to solve problems, foster dialogue, and teach digital skills.

Over the course of the day participants had the option to become more familiar with the online curation platform Omeka, learn about the many options for digital publishing, brainstorm ways to harness outside technological expertise for humanities projects, discuss the role of media in the classroom, learn the basics of big data, and even get tips about doing digital ethnography with students. The schedule is still up here, but it was as full a day of information as even the most seasoned technophiles could handle.

For the conference organizers that sat together for a few brief minutes over lunch, there was awareness of both the promises and perils of the digital world. As a fledgling research method whose products are varied and often unique, there is a great need for clear standards of evaluation of “good scholarship in the digital realm.” This should be of special concern to early career scholars who may have to fight for the presence of digital work in their tenure portfolios or in grant applications. This problem would be addressed not only by the development and promotion of open platforms for scholarly work, but also by sincere discussion about basic digital literacy and professionalization with digital tools and methods. Publishers, professional organizations, libraries, departments, scholars, and students–everyone in the academic chain will need to work out their roles for digital methods and digital work.

With so little time, several questions were pre-circulated to help things move along quickly on these topics.

What does it mean to teach or research religious studies digitally?

Does religious “data” make digital religious studies distinct within the digital humanities?

What is a digital religious studies research project you think more people should know about?

How can departments and the field better support digital methods and pedagogies?

For each of the six participants, digital methods and platforms are a key element in their identity as scholars. While there was not an opportunity to to fully explore their contribution and work, if you would like to learn more about them, please use the links below:

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.comlinks to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

“Would You Still Call Yourself an Asianist?”

There’s a group on Facebook devoted to the History of Religions. Apart from a quite regularly posted Christian bible study blog that’s devoted to scriptural exegesis—and which prompts reader comments such as this recent one:

It seems obvious God is a God who feels. I am imagining He grieved, felt sorry not only to see the depravity of man whom He made in His image, but of every single cell which He created, His art, His masterpiece. God as an artist experiencing the destruction and loss of it all. Every flower, creature, piece of nature which He had created GOOD.

—almost all that gets posted on its wall are links to articles or announcements about the things we study: decaying scrolls found here or there, rituals practiced by this or that group, etc. Once in a while you see a link to an article on methodology—how we study things—but rarely does someone post an item related to why we study them or why our work should matter to people who don’t happen to share our focus on this piece of pottery or that ancient text. That’s because it seems that, for many if not most of us, there’s an obviousness to the things that we’re interested in, both for us, as scholars, as well as for the wider groups in which we live and shop and work: we all know they’re important because, well…, they’re important, simple as that.

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What’s therefore intriguing about Steven Ramey’s work is that while he, like all of us, was trained in a specific expertise related to a world religion, to fieldwork, to languages, and to texts and distant lands—he did his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the religions of south Asia, and came to the University of Alabama in 2006, after a couple years working at UNC Pembroke—over the course of his career he has gradually and smoothly made a significant shift. Of course he still studies material relevant to his earlier training, but a shift in research focus from inter-religious cooperation to diaspora religion, eventually studying south Asian communities in the U.S. south, led the way to a far broader interest not only in social theory but in the practical implications of categorization for creating identities. Now, apart from regularly blogging on wide topics in identity formation at Culture on the Edge (a research group in which he participates), he is among the few who paused when some Pew survey data came out not long ago, on the so-called “Nones” (people who responded to a questionnaire saying that they had no religious affiliation), and asked how reasonably it is for scholars to assume that an entire, cohesive social group somehow exists based on a common answer to this or that isolated question when the respondents differed so much on the rest of the survey? The point? Why do we, as scholars, think the Nones are out there and what effect does our presumption of their identity have on making it possible for others to think and act as if the Nones are real and of growing influence?

It was this career arc—moving from what or how we study to why we study something, focusing on the wider theoretical interests that motivate our work with specific e.g.s and which ought to be relevant to scholars in fields far outside the academic study of religion—that prompted Russell McCutcheon to sit down with Steven, his colleague at Alabama, on a chilly day last December, to talk about Steven’s training and earlier interests but then to learn more about how a scholar who heads up our interdisciplinary minor in Asian Studies found himself at the Baltimore meeting of the American Academy of Religion inviting Americanists and sociologists to give the Nones a second thought.

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Thanks to Russell McCutcheon for writing this piece, and for conducting the interview. You can read a Huffington Post article by Ramey on the ‘Nones’ here. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your philosophical tomes etc.

Ayahuasca as a Gateway Drug (Toward a Less Stigmatized Academic Discussion of Drugs and Religion)

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 6 November 2013, in response to Andrew Dawson’s interview on Santo Daime  (4 Novemberr 2013).

With the presumption that one of the major purposes of the Religious Studies Project is not simply to describe various religions but to act as a focal point for broader discussions of the academic study of religion, I intend to focus my attention on the apparent sticky areas that discussion of Santo Daime seems to move us into rather than on the specifics of Santo Daime itself.  While Andrew Dawson provided an abundance of insightful food for thought on issues of globalization and modernization, it is apparent that the most salient and polarizing feature of Santo Daime is simply that their rituals consist of the use of a hallucinogenic drug.  In fact, I suspect that if Dawson’s research were on a non-drug-using syncretic Brazilian church, it’s very likely that this podcast would never have happened and that very few of us beyond specialists in that arena would pay any attention.  It is the added ayahuasca component that draws both our attention and our suspicion, and I suspect that it is partly the ways in which such substances are characteristically represented to us and the fact that they are typically illegal which influences our, often unconscious and unreasoned, bias against attributions of religious import to drugs or drug-related experiences. The assertion that an experience which takes place while under the influence of a drug should not be construed as having religious import implicitly makes a value-judgment about what true or valid religion can consist of, whereas an examination of how hermeneutic and discursive resources are drawn upon to develop a personal or communal account in which drugs and the experiences they elicit are ‘deemed religious’ (Taves 2009) is likely to provide significantly more analytical purchase.

My goal in this essay is simply to propose that the discussion of the role of ayahuasca in a contemporary Brazilian church may provide a conceptual framework which could be used to advance the level of academic discourse surrounding the use of psychotropic substances into a broader range of contexts in which the consumption of such substances are deemed religious.  As a heuristic effort, then, relative to this goal, I would like to make an attempt to bridge the ethnographic efforts of Andrew Dawson with the theoretical and corrective aims of Wouter Hanegraaff (2012).  To this effect, Dawson is interested in documenting and contextualizing a Brazilian new religion that, in almost every sense, fits our general intuitions and definitions of what constitutes a religion (it’s community-based, it’s about God and communing with spiritual beings, it involves ritualized communal services, it has a founder who is understood to have been divinely inspired, etc.).  Hanegraaff, with a much broader scope, is interested in overcoming an academically-untenable and methodologically-inconsistent negative response to emic attributions of religious significance to the use of drugs as well as to attempts at etic analysis of the same.  As Hanegraaff notes, “The ‘drugs’ category… causes [such beliefs and practices] to be associated with hedonistic, manipulative, irresponsible, or downright criminal attitudes, so that claims of religious legitimacy are weakened even further” (Hanegraaff 2012, 395).  In contrast to such dismissive attitudes, Hanegraaff endorses an approach which would “treat entheogenic esotericism as just another form of contemporary religion that requires our serious attention” (Ibid).

Editor’s insertion: The album cover Entheogenic’s self-titled album “Entheogenic” (simply because it seemed tangentially relevant, and Chris and Kevin both like them, and think they’re worth checking out!)

The term ‘entheogen’, which Hanegraaff has taken up in discussing this issue, is itself a very good example of the need for a proper academic study of the place of drug-use in the contemporary religious world.  It was expressly coined in an emic framework intended to reorient the discussion of these substances away from terms stressing psychological or sensory effects toward a discourse in which the substances were understood to possess distinctly religious import.  One of the originators of the term, Gordon Wasson, defined it as “’God within us’, those plant substances that, when ingested, give one a divine experience, in the past commonly called ‘hallucinogens’, ‘psychedelics’, ‘psychoto-mimetics’, etc, to each of which serious objections can be made” (Wasson 1980, xiv).  In the face of such obvious efforts of individuals to frame their drug experiences in religious terms, what possible objection could there be to analyzing such instances with all of the theoretical force that a Religious Studies perspective can muster toward the effort?

What I would like to suggest (which struck me as I was listening to this interview) is that opening the door to the discussion of drugs and religion with examples such as Santo Daime and research such as Dawson’s might provide a stepping stone that could allow us to face and address some of the broader and more contentious issues regarding drugs and the study of religion.  Since Santo Daime, without the ayahuasca, fits very easily into almost any academic definition of religion, we can, perhaps, begin to discuss the ‘drug issues’ that inevitably arise but do so in a less contested space before moving the discussion further on into the role of drugs in even more challenging areas of research in the academic study of religion, such as ‘alternative,’ ‘esoteric,’ ‘occult,’ ‘new age,’ ‘popular,’ and similar such amorphous religious frameworks.  Hanegraaff’s chapter on ‘entheogenic religion’ focuses very much on this latter grouping and it is in this milieu (which is often understood to be highly individualistic and shallow) that we are more likely to encounter the kinds of accusations of hedonism and irresponsibility that he expresses concern over.  So, perhaps Santo Daime can be used as a bridge to allow for the venting of worries about drugs on the way toward achieving Hanegraaff’s goal of opening up a perfectly legitimate, prevalent, influential, and, ultimately, theoretically fruitful object of study, which has so often be treated with misapprehension, suspicion, derision, or simply dismissed as unimportant.

Dawson himself suggests a similar ‘bridging’ aim in discussing his underlying interest in “the ways in which the rather exotic, non-mainstream profile of Santo Daime allows us to think about what constitutes religion, religious belief, religious practice in a new way.”  While my own essay is, in effect, an endorsement of this very effort, to use Santo Daime as a heuristic means of addressing broader trends, I take the need for this statement to be incredibly unfortunate in that I don’t believe that the existence of contemporary drug-use, even if it is understood to be ‘exotic’, requires thinking newly about what constitutes religion (though we should certainly continue to do that, as well).  As far as I can tell, there seems to be very little reason to suspect that Santo Daime should be an issue for any of the most prominent contemporary academic definitions of religion.  It involves belief in God and putative engagement with spiritual beings.  It involves communal ritual participation relative to those beliefs.  It is Catholic.  It is soteriological.  It is international.  It is acknowledged by national governments as a religious organization.  As Dawson points out, when you get over the sensationalized notion of Santo Daime as a “drug-fueled religion,” you find that “they are, in many ways, quite traditional in appearance when you look at what goes on.”  In other words, in the case of Santo Daime, it is predominantly the use of drugs that gives people pause.

So, if, as Dawson has admirably done, we can communicate clearly and effectively that a psychotropic substance plays a fundamental role in an otherwise patently obvious example of religion (although, I suppose diminutive reactions to syncretism are also not uncommon), then we stand in a better position to move onto a more mature further discussion of the religious significance of drugs in our own cultures and countercultures where attitudes are typically more highly contentious, as is apparent when Santo Daime attempts to find a home in countries with negative overall views on drug-use (typically excepting alcohol and other already sanctioned drugs).

Assessments of the validity of the source of a religious attribution is not the prerogative of the scholar of religion, or, at best, is relatively uninteresting theoretically.  If someone tells us that drugs or the experiences they render are understood to possess religious import, especially if they then orient their lives around that understanding and influence others to take up a similar position, then there is no case to argue, “but it was only a drug experience.”  For all of the analytical purchase that such a stance provides us, we may as well tell a Catholic at mass, “but it’s only a wafer.”  Such appellations tell us little about the cognitive, social, historical, and other factors which lead the psychonaut or Catholic to hold the religious attributions that they do and even less about how the experience and attribution affect their lives and behavior.  If an informant tells me that he was divinely inspired on a mushroom trip, I wouldn’t bat an eye any more than if he told me that he was divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit during communion.  That is his attribution to make and mine to document and analyze.  In fact, as a scholar of religion, the primary data of import is that he did, in fact, make that attribution.  Our informants provide us with the data about what is and isn’t deemed religious.  If people are telling us, in unequivocal terms, that they attribute religious meaning to their drug experiences, we trivialize them not at our peril but merely at our bias, and in doing so we miss out on important data about the religious lives of a large number of people in the contemporary world who may hold more of a sway over the collective imagination than many might think.  For instance, to use my own research as an example, the recent bout of millennialist expectations for the year 2012 was developed in and propagated by circles of entheogenic enthusiasts, and it is actually very difficult to understand the development of that widespread millennial phenomenon without understanding and addressing the role of drug-experiences in the production of prophecy.  In fact, in many cases, it was the very fact that the prophecy was understood as having arisen from a drug-experience that was seen by an audience as assuring its authenticity.  If we close our eyes to the religious import of drugs in a globalized modern context, there are significant religious phenomena in the world that we will simply fail to see and thereby fail to take into account in our models.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 2012. “Entheogenic Esotericism.” In Contemporary Esotericism, edited by Egil Asprem and Kennet Granholm. Sheffield: Equinox.
  • Taves, Ann. 2009. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. 1980. The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Material Religion Roundtable

Unless you have had your head buried in the sand for the past decade or so, if you are involved in the academic study of ‘religion’ you will have come across the field of ‘Material Religion’. People have Leading international Religious Studies podcasts have focused on it. And the BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group made it the focus of their annual conference at Durham University, UK, in April of this year.

David with conference organizer Tim Hutchings enjoying a well-earned pint at the Swan and Three Cygnets

David with conference organizer Tim Hutchings enjoying a well-earned pint at the Swan and Three Cygnets

However, what exactly does Material Religion bring to Religious Studies? Is it a potentially revolutionary phenomenon, or merely a passing fad? How might one apply the theoretical perspectives and methodologies developed in this growing field to some of the defining debates of our subject area? To discuss these issues, and reflect on the conference in general, RSP hosts David Robertson and Christopher Cotter were joined by George Ioannides, Rachel Hanneman and Dr David Wilson (and some local regulars in the background) in the Swan and Three Cygnets pub in Durham, immediately after the conference finished. This week’s podcast is a recording of their discussion.

You can also download this roundtable, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Material Religion with David Morgan, Religion, Space and Locality with Kim Knott, and Religion and the Built Environment with Peter Collins.

Meet the Discussants:

CotterChristopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Rachel Hanemann is working on her PhD at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Her research examines the role of the body in processes of religious formation and as a managed site of identity at an all-girls Catholic secondary school in London. She feels that this biographical note thoroughly encapsulates her as a person. Chris forgot to ask her for a picture to use on this page. He apologises profusely and is wearing the cone of shame.

GeorgeGeorge Ioannides studied comparative religion as part of his Undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, Australia.

 

 

DavidDavid G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Publications include “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) and “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

david wilsonDavid Gordon Wilson wears many hats. He served as a solicitor, then partner, then managing partner  in Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Egypt, before returning to university to embark on a Religious Studies degree. His PhD at the University of Edinburgh focused upon spiritualist mediumship as a contemporary form of shamanism, and his monograph has recently been published with Bloomsbury, titled Redefining Shamanisms: Spiritualist Mediums and Other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes. Wearing one of his other hats, David is a practising spiritualist medium and healer, and among his many connected roles, he is currently the President of the Scottish Association of Spiritual Healers.

Peter Collins on Religion and the Built Environment

The bells of Durham Cathedral clearly impacted upon David Wilson and David Robertson (April 2013)

The bells of Durham Cathedral clearly impacted upon David Wilson and David Robertson (April 2013)

In our ‘post-modern’ world, it should come as no surprise that the built environment – skyscrapers or teepees, sports stadiums or roadside shrines – impact upon the daily lives of individuals and communities in multifarious ways. Buildings dominate our skylines, they shape the nature, size, sound and smell of events within their walls, they provide a connection to the recent and distant past, and they serve as a physical, material instantiation of any number of contextual discourses. But what about the relationship between ‘religion’ and these (generally) human-made structures? How does a building become recognized as in some sense ‘religious’? What other information do we need to infer things about the purpose of a building? About its impact? This week’s podcast features Chris talking with Dr Peter Collins about these sorts of questions, during the BSA SocRel Conference in Durham (April 2013). This sociology of religion conference occurred within a Chemistry department, at one of Britain’s most historic universities, in the vicinity of Durham Castle, and the magisterial Durham Cathedral… unsurprisingly, the built environment had a significant impact.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Locality and Katie Aston’s essay entitled Finding space for nonreligion? Further possibilities for spatial analysis.

collinsDr Peter J. Collins is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Durham University, UK. completed an MA in development studies and a PhD in social anthropology at Manchester University. His research interests include religion (especially Quakerism), ritual and symbolism; historical anthropology; qualitative research methods, particularly narrative analysis; the anthropology of Britain; aesthetics and the built environment. He was recently engaged in an NHS-funded projects looking at hospital design and the space and place of hospital chaplaincies. Recent publications include “On Ritual Knowledge” (in Diskus: The Journal of the British Association for the Study of Religions. Vol 13. 2013), “Acute Ambiguity: Towards a Heterotopology of Hospital Chaplaincy” (in Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett and Christopher R. Cotter, Ashgate. pp. 39-60. 2013) and “On the Materialisation of Religious Knowledge and Belief” (in Religion and Knowledge, ed. E.A. Arweck and M. Guest, Ashgate. 2012).

Ralph Hood on Mysticism

HoodRalph2012_10One of the primary interests of scholars and researchers from diverse academic disciplines has been in exploration of mysticism. Mysticism has been observed within a variety of traditions and philosophies from Neo-Platonism to Hinduism and Christianity. Mysticism as a field of study is pregnant with possibilities for academic inquiry, both cross-disciplinary and discipline specific. The field of psychology is one of those disciplines which have sought to explore the richness of individual claims of mystical experience. This has been done with theoretical depth and methodological sophistication and is centralized within a variety of tools of empirical inquiry.

The study of mysticism necessitates addressing issues of ontology and epistemology, relating to the methodological processes for studying direct personal experiences. Within the psychological perspective, some of these concerns are mediated through what both Porpora (2006) and Hood, Hill and Spika (2009) describe as methodological agnosticism. While Silver (2011) argues that there is no such thing as true objectivity in research, certainly academics and researchers can strive for a post-positivist paradigm of objectivity where they attempt to remove bias and subjectivity from their research or hermeneutic inquiry.

While there is plenty of hermeneutic and observational potential in the study of Mysticism, more needs to be done in exploration of the experiential and psychological correlates related to personal experiences. Dr. Ralph W. Hood Jr. has extensive experience in the field of psychology of religion and particularly in the study of mysticism and mystical experience. As an early pioneer in the renaissance of the field of psychology of religion, Hood’s work is extensive and prolific exploring a variety of research topics in the social sciences of religion. Moreover, much of his collaborative work extends beyond the field of psychology to include sociology, religious studies, medicine, and a variety of other disciplines in the social scientific study of religion. In this week’s podcast, Chris SIlver is joined by Ralph Hood to discuss in detail his work on mysticism and the benefits and disadvantages of this academic exercise.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

HoodRalph2012_10

Ralph W. Hood Jr. is professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is a former editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and former co-editor of the Archive for the Psychology of Religion and The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.  He is a past president of division 36 (psychology of religion) of the American Psychological Association and a recipient of its William James, Mentor, and Distinguished Service awards. He has published over 200 articles in the psychology of religion and has authored, co-authored, or edited numerous book chapters and eleven books, all dealing with the psychology of religion.

References

  • Hood, R.W., P.C. Hill, and B. Spilka. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach. 4th ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Porpora, D. V. (2006). Methodological atheism, methodological agnosticism and religious experience. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 36, 57–75.
  • Silver, C. F. (2011). Psychology and Religion: Explorations in paradigm, theory, and method. In Weathington, B. L., Cunningham,  C. J. L., O’Leary, B. J., & Biderman, M. D. (Eds.), Applied Psychology in Everyday Life (pp. 71-107). Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Nuancing the Qual-Quan Divide: The Vitality of Research Methods in the Academic Study of Religion

Nuancing the Qual-Quan Divide:The Vitality of Research Methods in the Academic Study of Religion

By Yasaman S. Munro, Wilfrid Laurier University

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 4 July 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with David Voas on Quantitative Research (2 July 2012).

By using “vitality” in the title above, I mean to point to two aspects of the same urgent call. First, I simply mean that research methods are vital to the academic study of religion. As Stausberg and Engler suggest, “it is through methods that data and theory speak to each other and become part of a shared horizon” (2011: 11), and indeed it is still not a platitude to recall that theory, method and data can be considered three sides of that triangle we conjure, whether implicitly or explicitly, whenever we conduct research in this discipline. Second, I mean to claim that the active engagement of students and scholars embedded in the study of religion with research methods contributes to the ongoing vitality of our discipline. Please allow me to elaborate.

In this interview with Professor David Voas—a social scientist in Britain specializing in demography, and a scholar who is deeply involved in quantitative research himself—interviewer David Robertson asks about the oft-cited distinction between quantitative and qualitative research. I’d like to comment on this, specifically on what my own social research methods professor called the “qual-quan” divide. Professor Voas goes so far as to contrast the “qualitative people” to scholars using quantitative methods. Yet, what he does hint at, but has not had a chance to elaborate upon here in this short interview, is that the division between qualitative and quantitative research methods can be quite blurry in practice, and furthermore, they can and often are used in conjunction, as for instance in mixed methods research (Stausberg and Engler 2011: 13). Both Voas and Robertson themselves point to what could arguably be considered qualitative problems inherent in quantitative research designs, namely issues around designing valid questionnaires to administer to an appropriate sample of people in order to address specific research questions. Or, for example, in my own research on domestic health and healing practices among Hindu migrants in Canada, I have found myself asking interviewees what Voas refers to as the “how much, to what extent” sorts of questions that could be classified as quantitative questions.

But, even more significant than recognizing this blurry divide is what I noticed in this podcast to be a tendency not to nuance either qualitative and quantitative research methods. Voas rightly points to the usually forgotten difference between methods of data collection and analysis, considering surveys conducted among individuals or organizations. He also outlines some pros and cons for using primary and secondary data collection and analysis. What seems to be missing here is the acknowledgement that both quantitative and qualitative research often involves far more than simply statistical data gleaned from surveys, or in-person interviews, respectively.

Michael Stausberg and Steven Engler’s recent edited volume is a breath of the proverbial fresh air in this regard. In this pioneering handbook on research methods in the study of religion, the editors and the diverse contributors consider a wide variety of research designs, data analysis and collection strategies. Included are everything from issues in research ethics and hermeneutics to network analysis and material culture. Another recent work, by Hilary Rodrigues and John S. Harding, does address approaches to the study of religion—a subject area for which Walter Capps (1995) deserves a notable mention—and would be more suitable for undergraduate students being introduced to research methods. Those of us immersed in religious studies would benefit from pursuing works like these.

Why are research methods so vital to us? A while ago Russell McCutcheon (1997) called on us to pay more critical attention to theory (and method) in the study of religion. We do have a number of important works dealing with theoretical topics in the study of religion (e.g. Braun and McCutcheon 2000; Hinnells 2005; Taylor 1998), and as Stausberg and Engler have in my opinion rightly claimed, our Method and Theory courses have tended to focus more on theory than on method per se. Furthermore, as Capps among others, has reminded us, “where one stands determines what one sees and what one can know” (1995: 334-5); arguably both our theories and methods are implicated in where we stand. Because our methods, just as it is the case with our theories, play such a vital part in structuring, and arguably even producing, the data we find in our research, when we do not explicitly address our research methods, we are not adequately taking advantage of the resources we have to render high quality research. We could more clearly examine our research questions, our methods for data collection and analysis (beyond simply claiming we are conducting “quantitative” or “qualitative” research), and we could more explicitly employ strategies to establish our project’s methodological credibility, among other things. We are each encouraged to immerse ourselves in these sorts of things not only for the sake of our own ongoing research but because doing so will benefit the students and colleagues whose research we continue to help foster together.

Given the interviewee’s background, the interview tends to focus on issues that are usually important to scholars practicing the sociology of religion, issues such as how to measure the degree of religiosity of adherents, and how demographic factors are complicit in these processes. The interview could therefore more accurately be titled “Quantitative Research in the Sociology of Religion in Europe and the United States.” What is important to note here is that Voas’ perspectives on the value of quantitative research, involving particular data collection and analysis strategies (especially those involving large-scale surveys), while valuable, do stem from his adherence to the particular research questions of concern to him. What listeners are therefore exposed to here does not by any means exhaust the possibilities for research designs available to other kinds of scholars carrying out other kinds of research in our multi-faceted discipline.

At the end of the interview, Voas and Robertson encourage young scholars to engage with quantitative research methods. While I wholeheartedly support their inviting sentiments, I suggest it is vital for students and scholars of religion to pay closer attention to research methods more generally. As I have heard often enough in multiple places, the research questions are what ultimately drive the method, and therefore quantitative research designs may not be suitable for all projects. In my own doctoral research, for example, I have found the use of semi-structured interviews in domestic spaces and photography of household medical items indispensable for addressing my particular research questions.

It was a pleasure listening to what I hope to be the first of several more podcasts addressing the richly various aspects of research methods in our discipline. The interview does provide listeners with a good introduction to some important topics, such as validity, sampling, and generalizability. Still, given that research methods courses are a long way from being abundantly accessible to students in the discipline, students (and scholars) of religious studies would benefit from continually engaging with some of the established and emerging literature on research design and methodology so they can further nuance their understandings (e.g. Creswell 2009; Bryman, Teevan and Bell 2009; Berg 2007; Denzin and Lincoln 2011). I have been fortunate in that at my academic institution we have had a “Fieldworkers’ Group” meeting at least once a term for several years to discuss issues we have collectively experienced in mostly anthropological fieldwork. Indeed, beyond classroom and textbook, we all might find it helpful to engage more in occasional roundtables at conferences or at our institutions to discuss best practices in our ongoing adventures with research methods.

I therefore join Stausberg and Engler among others in inviting students and scholars in our discipline to open the lines of dialogue and debate on the vital topic of research methods in the academic study of religion, otherwise our research triangles run the risk of looking a bit more like boomerangs.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Yasaman S. Munro is a PhD candidate in the joint Wilfrid Laurier University-University of Waterloo Religious Diversity in North America doctoral program. Her doctoral research focuses on relational and material dimensions of Āyurveda and associated South Asian medical modalities unfolding in the domestic spaces of Hindu migrants in the Waterloo Region of Canada. In particular, she is tracing how the health and healing ideas and practices manifesting in these spaces are linked to those elsewhere and at other times, and what these can tell us about people’s religious and other social identities. More broadly, Yasaman’s work examines intersections between what we call “religion” and “health” from a multidisciplinary approach.

References:

Berg, Bruce L. (2007). Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences, Sixth Edition. Long Beach: California State University.

Braun, Willi, and Russell McCutcheon, Eds. (2000). Guide to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Cassell.

Bryman, Alan, James J. Teevan and Edward Bell. (2009). Social Research Methods, Second Canadian Edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Capps, Walter H. (1995). Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Creswell, John W. (2009). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Denzin, Norman K., and Yvonna S. Lincoln, Eds. (2011). The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th revised edition. London and Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Hinnells, John R., Ed. (2005). The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Routledge.

McCutcheon, Russell T. (1997). Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and The Politics of Nostalgia. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary, and John S. Harding. (2009). Introduction to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Routledge.

Stausberg, Michael, and Steven Engler, Eds. (2011). The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge.

Taylor, Mark C., Ed. (1998). Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.