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Religion, Education, and Politics in Australia and NZ

Following on from the delivery of her conference paper at the EASR 2018 in Bern, in this podcast, Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University speaks to Thomas White regarding the historical, national and regional differences in the presence of religion in Australian and New Zealand schools. The podcast begins with a brief biography of Professor Maddox’s rise to academic tenure, and the various post-doctoral positions that paved her transition away from theology, and towards the subject of religion and politics.

Covering projects including the training of Catholic school teachers and deputy-principals in secular religious education, her research into the Hindmarsh Island affair – which investigated Aboriginal women’s claims to ‘secret women’s business’ – and her work under the Australian Parliamentary Research Fellowship, the discussion turns to national differences between public religion in New Zealand and Australia. Contrasting Australian multi-culturalism with New Zealand bi-culturalism, Professor Maddox explains how, despite New Zealand being further along a path of secularisation (by religious affiliation), religion often obtains a greater presence in the public sphere as it is carried on a policy of cultural recognition for Maori tradition, as mandated in the country’s Treaty of Waitangi. This was particularly evident with the daily expression of Maori karakia (prayers) in her daughter’s school, which later transpired to be the Lord’s Prayer!

Focusing on the Australian experience of public policy on religion and education, Maddox explains how 19th Century Australian concerns regarding both sectarianism and protecting religion from political manipulation led to a surprising consensus across colony parliaments that religion should be kept out of the public school system. In the late 20th Century, however, ‘currents of change are pulling in different directions’.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Religion, Education and Politics in Australia and NZ

Podcast with Marion Maddox (26 November 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White.

Transcribed by Thomas White and Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Maddox_-_Religion,_Education_and_Politics_in_Australia_and_NZ_1.1

Thomas White (TW): Well it is a beautiful morning here on the penultimate day of the EASR in Bern, and I’m delighted to be joined by Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University in Sydney. Marion is a Professor of Politics at Macquarie and she has PhDs in Theology from Flinders, and another PhD in Philosophy from the University of New South Wales. It is probably no exaggeration to say that Professor Maddox is the leading authority on questions of religion and politics in Australia, and it is an absolute pleasure to have you with us in the recording studio this morning. Professor Maddox, welcome!

Marion Maddox (MM): Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.

TW: So, your paper was delivered on Monday. Today’s Wednesday, so we’re a couple of days down the line. But I thought perhaps before going into the paper, as a first question to ease us into the interview, could you please tell us a little about how you became a Professor of Religion and Politics in Australia?

MM: Yes, well, sort-of by mistake! I did a PhD in Theology, and by the time I’d finished I was very sure that I didn’t want to work for the Church – which is pretty much the only thing you can do with a PhD in theology in the normal kind-of career progression in Australia. So I applied for jobs all around the place. And the one I happened to get . . . which was not what I imagined myself doing, but you know how it is when you finish your PhD and you apply all around the place, and you get what you happen to get. The one that I happened to get was in a fabulous department that no longer exists in the University of South Australia. And what we did was provide teacher training to teachers of Religious Studies. Because, in those days, South Australia had thought that it was going to have a non-confessional RE programme for teachers in public schools, and they had set up this whole department to train the teachers for it. But what had actually happened was that that programme was never implemented, and instead we provided teacher training for Catholic schools mainly. Our main clientele was Catholic schools’ deputy principals, who had to get a degree in Religious Education in order to get the next step on their promotion. And so we were kind-of a service provider for the Catholic Education Office. And then ACU (the Australian Catholic University) got set up and so we lost that client base, and the department isn’t there anymore. But it was a fantastic department, and I learnt there what non-confessional RE – Religious Education, education about religions – is, because we were providing it to all these Catholic school teachers. We would see them come in and think that Religious Education was catechesis, and then they would go through this programme and they would discover that there is this whole other way to think about religion. I worked there for 5 years as I was on contract, and then my contract ran out. Then I cast around and applied for jobs, and the one that I happened to get, again, was in Australian Politics, at the University of Adelaide. And while I was doing that I thought, “Hang on a minute! There’s all this work on religion and politics in America, but no one is doing anything on religion and politics in Australia. But there is a huge story here!” And while I was doing that two-year contract in Politics at the University of Adelaide, a big story was in the paper every single day, on, and on, and on. In fact, it started while I was still in Religious Studies at the University of South Australia. And that was the Hindmarsh Island Royal Commission, which anybody who lives in South Australia will still know what that is about straight-away – it was on the front page of the Adelaide Advertiser for a couple of years. It was an inquiry into whether a group of Aboriginal women from South Australia had fabricated so-called “secret women’s business” – which is now a phrase in Australian vernacular but it wasn’t until then – which was a set of traditional beliefs that, because they were secret, they hadn’t talked about before. So wider Australia went, “We’ve never heard of this, you must have made this up!” But the point of it was that these beliefs were about a tract of water between Hindmarsh Island and the mainland. And its sacredness, these women said, should prevent a marina being built, that was wanted to be built by some developers. And so this whole question of “Should sacred sites stand in the way of development?” blew up into a question about “Do Aboriginal peoples make up traditions in order to stop development?” and “Are they being manipulated by ‘Greenies’?” And so there was a series of inquiries. So this question of how non-Aboriginal Australia deals with questions of sacredness seemed to me to be a very religions-and-politics question that mainstream Australia did not have a vocabulary to deal with. So I wrote quite a lot about that. And then, when my University of Adelaide ran out (laughs) . . . . It seems my academic trajectory has been really shaped by the conditions of the labour market! I then applied for, and got, the Australian Parliamentary Fellowship which was a fantastic programme run by the parliamentary library which still exists but, I think, in not as a good a form. But in those days it was a one year programme where you worked in parliament as a research fellow for a year, where you spent half your time doing an individual independent research project, and the other half of the time supplying information for members and senators on anything they ask about. And my independent research project was about religion and Australian parliamentary processes. And I wrote my first book which was called For God and Country: Religious Dynamics in Australian Federal Politics, which was the only Parliamentary Fellowship monograph ever to sell out, and go to a second printing! And it is now available on-line for a free pdf download. And then, after that, I got my first permanent job – Yes! – at the Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand. And there we had a course on Religion and Politics. So there’s a long answer!

TW: Oh well, OK! This segues nicely with a question that I was going to ask towards the end but: the situation of politics and religion in Australia, and the situation of politics and religion in New Zealand – was it quite a shift going to Victoria, after developing all your expertise on your situation in Australia?

MM: It really was. I was quite, well . . . I had been to New Zealand once. I did the interview over the phone, so I had only been there once, years earlier, for a conference. So I did not really know anything about New Zealand, except that I heard this rumour that they have really good coffee – which proved to be true!

TW: Excellent coffee, yes!

MM: Yes, yes! And that was such a wrench, coming back! But when I got to Wellington, I remember going to my first faculty meeting and thinking, “I’m going to have to get a dictionary!” Because there was so much Maori language which is used as just a matter of course, in everyday discourse, from university management and in university processes. And I didn’t know what all these words meant. So if you are a student, and a student has a problem, you are allowed to bring whanau support, you know, so I didn’t know. I learnt. But it was a very sharp learning curve, and that required a whole sort of cultural shift. And when I moved back to Australia it was a culture shock again, to have that indigenous perspective suddenly not present in university processes. So that was one thing that I noticed. And the political system, when we moved to New Zealand. New Zealand had only quite recently made the shift to MMP, multi-member proportional voting, whereas Australia uses single transferable vote in the lower house and a version of proportional representation in the upper house. And so I learnt that the voting system has quite a strong effect, which I hadn’t really . . . I’d kind-of intellectually known, but I hadn’t really seen it in action. And so I hadn’t really, viscerally, appreciated the effect it can have on, like, the way that religious interests can have an effect in electoral politics. And while we were in New Zealand there was that dramatic election when a religiously influenced party, United Future New Zealand, got an unexpectedly big vote and, effectively, the balance of power in the New Zealand parliament. So, I learnt a lot things and I did have to go on a sharp learning curve, and I couldn’t kind-of, be an expert on New Zealand politics straight away. I had to make a quick catch-up.

TW: Well, that’s interesting. So trying to rephrase that in very broad brush, and perhaps overly clumsy positioning: is there the implication that New Zealand is a bit more open to ethnic difference – in terms of the Maori having much stronger representation within the political system – this is carried over to more access for religion within the public space, or more representation for religion in the public space in New Zealand, than in Australia?

  1. MM. Well, I would say it is a different kind of presence. Australia has a history of a strongly articulated policy of multiculturalism, which has been under increasing attack over the recent decade or two. But multiculturalism became official policy in 1974, and for a long time there was quite a strong infrastructure of policy and practice to support that. Whereas, New Zealand’s policy is biculturalism, so that has kind of made different spaces for religious communities to be present in the public space. New Zealand is further down the secularisation path than Australia is, if we think of secularisation meaning the religious practice of the majority of the population. So in the last Australian census, 54% of Australians claimed to be of some sort of religious adherence. I’m not sure what the figure is for New Zealand, but New Zealand got to that 50%, just over that 50%, a couple censuses ago. So I imagine it’s lower now. But the striking difference about religion in the public space that I noticed when I lived in New Zealand is that, in New Zealand Maori make up not only a bigger proportion of the population, but also a much more cohesive proportion of the population than Aboriginal people – Aboriginal People and Torres Strait Islanders – do in Australia. So indigenous Australians are about 2-3% of the population whereas Maori, at the time I was living there, were about 15%. And the other big difference is that Maori have a common language, whereas Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders have many different language groups: there were about 500 different language groups at the time of European contact. So, for example, when I enrolled my daughter in primary school in Wellington, on her first day, when she was 5, we went along to Newtown primary and there was a ceremony to welcome to the new students. And it was forty-five minutes long and every last word of it was in Maori! And all the little pakeha kids, like my daughter, just had to sit there and . . . sit there politely and listen. And the principal made a quite long speech – I guess about 15 minutes long – and every now and then a smattering of people in the audience laughed and the rest of knew that he’d made a joke! And there was a haka, and my daughter had never seen a haka before – having just come from Australia – so she was just kind of gobsmacked! And then, once she started at school, everyday started with a karakia – which is a Maori prayer which is offered at the beginning of something important – which is in Maori. And the children who didn’t speak Maori didn’t know what the content of the karakia They just knew this was something that they had to pay respectful attention to. And then, one day we were sitting in a church service and the vicar said, “We will now chant the Lord’s prayer in Maori”, and my daughter said in a triumphant state, “I know this!” And only at the point did she realise that what she had been saying every day in school was actually with Christian content, but delivered in Maori language. So there is a lot more kind-of theological presence in New Zealand public life through the Maori traditions than there is in Australia – partly because of the Treaty obligation to respect Maori tradition, much of which has Christian content. So that was a bit of an eye-opener to me, in the way that religious meaning can be present in public life.

TW: Yes, it gets carried in the representation of Maori voices, yes. Excellent, that’s an interesting contrast taking place there. So throughout your career very much looking at public policy, you mentioned in your paper that you take great value from Bacchi’s approach to public policy in terms of “framing the problem”. Could you, perhaps, please explain to our listeners what that’s about?

MM: Well, yes. So Carol Bacchi was, in fact, one of my colleagues at the University of Adelaide. And see developed this approach called ‘What’s the problem represented to be?” which is a problem-framing analysis technique that she has very successful disseminated – particularly to Australian public policy practitioners, and the people working on the boundaries of academia and public service. And so it’s taking off from the observation, that anyone working in policy-framing is aware of, which is that how you frame the question has a big influence on how you find the solution. So if the problem is traffic congestion, if you think the problem is not enough roads, then you build more roads. But then you’ll still end up . . . because all that happens is that everyone takes their cars out, and you end up with still more blocked roads. So is the solution to traffic congestion more roads? Or is it having to think about traffic in a different way? So she developed this six-point technique, based on a Foucauldian set of assumptions, where you ask, in any particular policy framework: what is problem represented to be? Why is the problem represented to be this way? What assumptions underlie this problem representation? How could it be represented differently? And whose interests are being served by representing it in this way rather than some other way? And, what if we represent it in a different way? Or what different problem representations can we come up with? And who would benefit or lose when we represent it in different ways? And what consequences would flow from different problem representations? So I was applying that approach to looking at the way questions about secular education have been framed and applied in the 19th and 21st Century in Australia and France.

TW: Yes. So, I really enjoyed the paper.

MM: Thank you.

TW: It think it got a really good response from the audience: the comparative analysis of the trajectories of religion in schools in France and Australia. I think probably, most of our Listeners, they would be more familiar with the France situation because of the veil, and that’s received a lot of popular attention. So, starting with Australia, what’s the story regarding religion in schools in Australia? How has that developed?

MM: Well, the story about education in Australia goes back to before it was a country, and was a set of colonies. The Australian colonies federated in 1901 – and, at the time, everyone thought New Zealand was going to join in as well, but it didn’t – and each of the colonies started out with the schools being mainly provided by churches, because that was who had the resources to do it. And then, as they were scrambling to set up local infrastructure, gradually, they were governed directly from the UK. And then they established local parliaments and then the parliaments set up school systems. And so there is a very good record in the local Hansards, the records of parliamentary debates, about the parliamentarians debating what kind of school system they should set up. And they all, each of the parliaments in turn, debated whether religion should be put into the public schools, and should the parliaments or governments be subsidising religious schools alongside the public system? And each of them decided, for very similar reasons – and the same debates were had in parliament after parliament – “No. They should not be subsidising religious schools, and they should not have religion taught in the public schools.” And both of those things for the same reason: namely, that children should be encouraged to go to public schools because they wanted to overcome the problem that they’d perceived which was sectarianism that was dividing . . . . The biggest potential division in their communities was sectarianism. And so divisions between Catholic and Protestant students was the main division. But other divisions like between . . . . Particularly in South Australia, they talked a lot about . . . they imagined a future colony where there might be Jewish and Muslim students as well, and maybe Buddhists they mentioned. In the 19th Century parliaments they thought that the best way was for all of those students to be educated side-by-side and to grow into one cohesive community. And they thought that any attempt . . . . They wondered, “Could there be some non-denominational Christianity?” or could there be some sort of . . . ? “Er, no. That won’t work. Because that will still exclude the little Jews and Buddhists.” “Could we teach some general religion that doesn’t offend anybody?” But they sort-of flirted with that idea for about five minutes and then realised that isn’t going work.

TW: Yes, you’re always going to offend somebody.

MM: Yes. So, in the end, they concluded that the only way was just not to have religion in the public schools. And all the people in the debates were very religious people by and large, or fairly religious people; they were not anti-religion. In fact, some of them were very devout. And some of them said that religion is simply too important to let it be politicised by letting it be kicked around in the education debates: “We need to protect religion by keeping it out of the public schools.” And churches also, some of them, wanted to have the Bible in schools. But some of them, like the Congregationalists in Australia, they passed a series of motions through their Synod, saying that the Bible needed to be kept out of public schools to protect it from being turned into a fetish or being turned into a political football. So there was quite a unified – surprisingly, to me – unified view across the religious and non-religious spectrum – but the non-religious spectrum in 19th Century Australia was minute – but that religion didn’t belong in public education.

TW: And we’re still talking here religious instruction – a values-based religion-type education – as opposed to the RE that you might get in more contemporary schooling systems, which is just exploring descriptive aspects of religion?

MM: Yeah. But the exception was New South Wales. And because New South Wales is so big, a lot of the debate that we have now takes the New South Wales experience as normative. But, actually, New South Wales was really the exception. And what New South Wales did was that it was the last state to pass . . . or colony, to pass its secular Education Act in 1880, and it was also the most equivocal. Because the sectarian issue was the fiercest in New South Wales. But it kept something called ‘General Religious Education’ in its Education Act and that was where teachers could give general religious information, which the 19th Century legislators thought was going to be a kind of non-denominational Christian RE, not education-about-religions education as we think about it now. There was going to be some Bible instruction but without dogmatic commentary. And New South Wales also kept in a capacity for ministers of religion to come in for up to an hour a day – but nobody actually did that – to instruct members of their own denomination: an in-house catechetical instruction.

So the more education-about-religions, as an educational subject, by and large, is still not taught in Australian schools. There is a little element in the Civics curriculum, in the National Curriculum. But I think it would be true to say that most Australian students wouldn’t notice that they’d received it. A bit about, you know, the religions of your neighbours. And in New South Wales, there is also a Studies of Religion which you can take in the last two years at High School as an optional subject. Nearly everyone who takes it takes it from private schools, religious schools. But it is a very good programme in that it is seriously non-confessional RE, and you can’t just do it in one tradition. Like if you are a Catholic school . . . . Most Catholic schools make Catholicism one of their traditions, but you have to do another one.

TW: Is that an initiative that is coming out of the Catholic Church itself, or is this something that is coming out of the national education body?

MM: No, it’s overseen by the Board of Studies, which is the New South Wales education. And although the majority of students that take it are in private schools, some public schools offer it as well, and some students take it as an independent study unit.

TW: OK. But as your paper was suggesting there is a wind of change blowing through the Australian education system – or ever since John Howard, anyway – where things, perhaps, are moving in a different direction. Is that correct?

MM: Well, there are currents of change pulling in different directions. So actually, even going back before John Howard there has been a move of increasing segregation in Australia’s education. So Gough Whitlam actually – the hero of progressive politics – he, in 1973, introduced a huge change which was to bring back public funding of private schools. He also greatly increased school funding across the board, so there was just so much largesse going around the schools, that it didn’t create a great deal of protest. And also he directed it towards the most needy, poor Catholic schools. But every reiteration of the funding arrangements since then has been to the benefit of wealthier schools and to the detriment of the public school system. So we now have a very segmented school system where large numbers of wealthy schools are funded over their official allocation, because they’ve managed to do special deals where they get funding for their running costs, and on top of that for their building programmes, and for additional special projects. And the funding allocation of public schools has gone down, proportionally.

TW: And it’s the private schools that are more often the religious-run schools?

MM: Over 90% of private schools in Australia are attached to Christian denominations, one way or another. And whereas public schools are officially secular, the other change – that is a Howard change – is that public schools also have increasing amounts of religious presence in them. For example, through the National Schools Chaplaincy Programme, which is a government-funded programme which puts almost exclusively Christian chaplains in public schools. And another Howard change is that the make-up of the private school market has changed with the easing of the regulations for small private schools – most of which tend to be from the more conservative-evangelical end of the spectrum.

TW: Are these changes actually done with a religious motive, or a motive of actually helping religions gain a larger foothold in education? Or is this actually due to kind-of changing educational policy in relation to the freedom of institutions to develop their own curricula, or to have more autonomy from national or state education bodies?

MM: I think, from looking at Howard’s statements for why he was making those changes, I’d say it was a combination of things. The Liberal Party, which was his government, the Liberal Government, their general preference is for private providers rather than public provision. Not on the basis of any educational evidence, but that’s just . . . . They oversaw out-sourcing of public services in a whole range of areas and education was one. I do, however, think he had a deliberate strategy of courting the conservative Christian end, the conservative Christian demographic. Because, before he came to power in 1996, he had identified progressive churches as one of a series of groups, including feminists, academics, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the environmentalists, he had this list of people . . .

TW: The usual troublemakers . . .

  1. MM. Yes, that’s right! . . . who had blocked reforms that his predecessors in the Liberal Party had tried to implement, and liberal Christians were one his targeted groups. And so, when he got in in 1996, he embarked on a programme of telling progressive churches to get back in their box, and stick to talking about spiritual matters. And at the same he went out his way to go to Hillsong Church conventions; to do this thing of easing the regulations for small Christian schools; to make a series of statements on conservative so-called “family values” issues; to complain about political correctness, and generally sort-of court that so-called Christian-values/conservative-values end of the religious spectrum – which is actually only a very tiny proportion of the population of Australia. Australia doesn’t have a big S Christian right market, but he was talking that sort of language. And this was the same time that George Bush was aligning himself with the U.S. Christian right. And Howard was echoing, in a more muted way, that same sort of language and appealing, in Australia, to . . . not so much of an existent evangelical-voter-base, but more to a part of the population that doesn’t go to church, but thinks that values are a good idea: “Christians seems to have them, maybe. Society is falling apart, and maybe we ought to stick with the person who appears to know what values are and where they are to be found.”

TW: So, to summarise: where the Australian education system started out with a strong commitment to keeping religion out of its education system, in the name of openness and inclusivity, under the Howard government, religion, and specifically Christian values, are making a quiet return as an educational resource, largely to push against a liberal politics in Australia. And, indeed, confirming some of the earlier reservations in the 19th Century about religion in education becoming a political resource. Fascinating. Professor Maddox, thank you very much for your time and expertise. And thank you to our Listeners for tuning in.


Citation Info: Maddox, Marion and Thomas White. 2018. “Religion, Education and Politics in Australia and NZ”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 November 2018. Transcribed by Thomas White and Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 October 2018. Available at: http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-education-and-politics-in-australia-and-nz/ 

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

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Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered… and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining Chris today to discuss these questions and more, is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University.

This interview was recorded at the June 2018 EASR Conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, where Susannah has delivered a paper entitled “What Gender is ‘Nature’? An approach to new age ecospirituality in theory and practice.” This interview was graciously facilitated by Moritz Klenk, and his podcast studio!

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, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Dickies one piece mechanic suits, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

Podcast with Susannah Crockford (1 October 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Crockford_-_Ecospirituality,_Gender_and_Nature_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (C.C.): In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered . . . and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining me today to discuss these questions and more is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University. So for a start, Susannah, to the Religious Studies Project, welcome!

Susannah Crockford (SC): Thank you! Welcome.

CC: We are recording in Bern, at the European Association for the Study of Religion Conference, where Susannah has been delivering a paper earlier on called “What Gender is nature? An Approach to New Age Ecospirituality in Theory and Practice.” So I had the pleasure of being in the room. But before we get to today’s conversation I’ll just tell you that Dr Crockford’s a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Literary Studies at Ghent University, which works on the NARMESH, or Narrating the Mesh project, investigating the contemporary narrative of the interrelations between humans and large gamut of non-human realities and its potential for staging, challenging and expanding the human imagination of the non-human. The research interests centre on the use of ethnography to explore narratives of spirituality, millenarianism and climate change. Her doctoral thesis was entitled “After the American Dream: Political Economy and Spirituality in Northern Arizona”. And that was awarded in July 2017 by LSE, following which she spent 9 months as a research officer for INFORM or the Information Network on New Religious Movements. And she has a number of forthcoming articles and chapters on topics relevant to today’s interview coming out in Religion, State and Society, Correspondences, Novo Religio and the Dictionary of Contemporary Esotericism. So, watch this space! I suppose some of them might have changed from forthcoming to published by the time this goes out, who knows?

SC: Probably. Hopefully. You never know.

CC: Yes. Academic publishing is a wonderful, wonderful world!

SC: We love it. We love it. (Laughs).

CC: So, we’re going to get to your case study in Arizona soon, but first of all: gender, nature, ecospirituality – how do you get here?

SC: How did I get here was very much through my fieldwork. Because these were the kind-of topics that came up when I was in Sedona and other places in Arizona. People talked about nature in a very gendered way. It was very striking to me just how much these discourses came up. So it was very much an empirical interest. I didn’t really set out to study ecological issues, or ecospirituality. I mean, I thought nature would be relevant when I got to the field. But I wasn’t so concerned with gender. But it’s kind-of one of these topics that it was going to be in my thesis, and then I didn’t have space. So I kind-of pushed it to one side. And then, for this conference, it kind-of came back. And I was like, “Oh yes! Now I can write my thing about gender and ecospirituality” and how New Age spirituality really kind-of inverts this gender binary, I think in a quite interesting, but also problematic, way. So that’s how it came about.

CC: Well how did you, more broadly, end up in Arizona?

SC: That’s a really good question.  And, I mean, there are several ways that I can date it back to. But let’s just say for the sake of simplicity I ended up in Arizona because I wanted to do a project on contemporary esotericism and I discovered Sedona, which is in Arizona, through a quite tragic case, actually of James Arthur Ray. He set himself up as this spiritual guru. And he ran a sweat lodge as part of a longer Rainbow Warrior workshop, where people paid $9000 to go and “unleash your spiritual warrior within”. And it was held in Sedona. And then three people died in this sweat lodge. It was in 2009. And I was reading about that in the news, because I was doing a lot of work on Shamanism at the time. And I was like, “Oh, That’s terrible.” But then I was like, “Oh there’s this place called Sedona that’s full of these New Age people and full of these things that they call vortexes. That would be a great place for an ethnographic study on contemporary esotericism!” So that, very briefly, is how I ended up in Arizona doing my fieldwork.

CC: I could ask you now to introduce us to Sedona, but maybe I should say first of all – because ecospirituality’s going to be coming up probably throughout the introduction . . . . So I know this is a very broad question but, in terms of the next twenty minutes, what are we meaning by ecospirituality? And then we’ll hear more about it.

SC: Yes, so I’m going to define it in a really simple way – which obviously some people might find simplistic – but: finding nature is, in some form, divinised, or finding divinity in nature. And doing that outside of the framework of some organised religion. So I think the difference between ecospirituality and say, like the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change, for example. Like you can be concerned for the environment as a mainstream Christian, but I don’t think that’s ecospirituality. Because God, specifically, is not in nature for them. For people who are in some way engaged in ecospirituality the divine is in nature. It’s pantheistic. And it comes up in lots of different forms. Paganism is obviously a really prominent one, Wicca, and it’s obviously very prominent in New Age spiritualties that see nature as part of the energy of the universe, but in a very kind-of high vibrational form. So the energy of nature is one that has a very kind-of high spiritual level. So there’s a very clear association between nature and spirituality and, as we’ll get onto, women and femininity.

CC: And so it’s not environmentalism, and things like that?

SC: No. And that’s actually one of the main points I was making, today: that just because you find spirituality in nature, you think that nature has something to do with your understanding of God, doesn’t mean that you will actually engage in actions that might be considered environmentally friendly, or ecologically engaged, or in fact have anything to do with mitigating largescale ecological problems like pollution and climate change. These are separate things.

CC: Yes. And to the audio editors, we’re going to start banging the table!

SC: Sorry, I need to gesticulate!

CC: It’s alright. Hit me, instead of the table.

Both: (Laugh).

CC: Right. So let’s set the scene then. So, Sedona – a small town in Arizona. What makes it so interesting? You mentioned the vortexes earlier and things . . .

SC: Yes. So Sedona is a fascinating town. It is in Northern Arizona, which is higher up than Southern Arizona. So it’s not low desert with the big Saguaro cactuses which come to most people’s minds when they think about Arizona. It’s up in the mountains, it gets cold in the winter. They even have snow sometimes, but it’s also still, quite hot. Sedona has a river – which is quite rare in Arizona. So it has a fresh water source. So it has the incredible kind-of red rock canyons and the river running through it. There’s trees growing everywhere. So it’s very different from the rest of Arizona. And it’s this sense of landscape that is both striking and substantially different from that around it which I think makes it stand up in human perception as something that this is different enough that “I will perceive it, in some way, maybe, sublime – or even something to do with the divine.” Because a lot of people who live there think that Sedona is a sacred space, whether or not they’re engaged in New Age spirituality. People I spoke to there who were Christians said, you know, “This is a place where God has kind-of bestowed something special on the human race.” Because it is a very beautiful place. So it’s a town of about 17000 people. It is within the Red Rock Canyon. It has one main highway and then another bit splits off to a slightly southern community that’s called the Village of Oak Creek. But they’re all basically Sedona, they’re all pretty much one place. Even though municipally they’re two different places. And Sedona is a tourist resort. It has a lot of kind-of hotels and it has a lot of spas and timeshares, and people go there to enjoy nature, to go on holiday. A lot of people who own property there, own it as a second home. There’s even some kind-of super-rich people there, like John McCain who’s a Republican Senator, Sharon Stone apparently owned a house up the hill from where I first rented a room, in uptown. So there’s these three main locations in Sedona. Uptown has a lot of the stores and a lot of the very wealthy houses. You’ve got West Sedona where there’s a lot of the services, like the Post Office and the school. And it’s where a lot of my informants lived, because it’s a lot cheaper. And then you’ve got the village of Oak Creek which where a lot of retirees live. Because it’s a good place. There’s this phenomena in America of Snowbirds – of people who, once they retire, go and live somewhere sunny for the winter. And then, for the hot months – which are very, very hot – they go back up north to Michigan or Canada or wherever they’re from. So there’s a lot of Snowbirds in Sedona. So, as a town, it’s quite . . . I don’t know, it’s quite typical of small town America in lots of ways. You know, there’s the older people who own all the property and the young people work all the jobs, but don’t really have any resources. And then you’ve also got these things called vortexes. So there’s two ways of talking about the vortexes. Either you can say that there’s four, around town, which are all these kind-of very prominent red rock formations. There are lots of other red rock formations and they have all kinds of names. There’s one called Snoopy, because it looks a bit like Snoopy lying on his back. I never quite saw it myself, but you know people told me it looked like Snoopy anyway. And there’s Cathedral Rock which apparently used to be called Court Rock. And there’s another rock called Courthouse rock. And they got mixed up, and then suddenly Cathedral Rock became Cathedral Rock instead. So this is kind-of like historicity to the naming of the rocks. But they’re also given this kind-of eternal, almost like Eliadian essence of the divine, where people say, “No. They have this special energy. The Native Americans knew about this special energy, that’s why it was sacred to the local tribe s that lived here.” And the reason that people now say there are vortexes there is because this energy emanates from the earth – you know, it’s a real part of the landscape and that’s why we’re drawn there. So people do move there to go and have spiritual experiences. You know, people go on vacations and you know, there’s a lot of services there that cater for this market as well. You can get your aura photograph taken, you can go on a vortex tour. You can have a Shaman take you round to power spots and do rituals with you. So there is a market to it. But there’s also people who genuinely engage with these practices and move there because they feel like it’s a part of their spiritual path. They move there. They would tell me that they were called to Sedona that “the energy drew them in”. And then if they had to leave it was “the energy that spat them out”. And some people would say it was quite a common discourse in Sedona, that the energy could get so intense it could literally drive you crazy. There was a story of a woman who said that she had to leave because “the Red Rocks were screaming at her”. So, you know. There’s this idea that this is a very special place, it’s a very sacred place. But it’s also incredibly intense, and it can be very difficult to live there, both materially and spiritually – if that’s how you kind-of experience your world.

CC: So that’s an excellent scene-setting for the milieu, and the spiritual milieu in Sedona. But let’s focus in on the role of nature in this context, and these practices – and then also on gender. I imagine that you can probably talk about those at the same time.

SC: Yes. So nature is really prominent. I mean it would be prominent even with people who didn’t in any way engage with New Age spirituality. And something I should probably say here is that no-one actually called themselves a “New Ager” in Sedona. There was a shop called Centre for the New Age which has psychic where you can go and pay for readings. But if you ask people, “Are you a New Ager?” they would say, “No.” They call it spirituality and they’re quite comfortable with that. They don’t really care about all out disciplinary arguments about what’s spirituality, and what’s religion, and what’s what. They just say, “Yes, I’m spiritual.” Or “Yes, I’m interested in spirituality.” But they would never really call themselves New Agers – unless they were trying to sell a certain product and it helped them as a label. So the people who were engaged in some way in spirituality very often identified nature as a very prominent source of what they would consider kind-of spiritual practice. But also kind-of just the energy of the place. So for some people being spiritual literally just entailed going for hikes amongst the rocks, maybe meditating a bit, but just being close to the earth. And simply moving to Sedona was seen as way of getting closer to nature. Because it was this place of like astounding natural beauty. It was kind-of seen as embodying nature in a very visceral way. And you’ve also got other locations close by like the Grand Canyon, the San Francisco Peaks, which is a larger series of mountains that were also considered sacred and kind-of also embodied this idea of big nature in a similar way. So, when it comes to gender, the experience of nature as sacred was very often feminised in the way they spoke about it. So, you know, obviously mother Earth is quite a common one. But in Sedona they would also talk about the Father Sky. So there’s this idea of gender emerging there already. So you’ve got Mother Earth on the one hand that complements father sky. They would talk about the divine feminine and the complement is the divine masculine. Now these are energies. And the shift that was once called the New Age – but now they talk about it much in terms like the ascension, they call it the shift, they call it the new paradigm – this is when the old male energies kind-of wither away and die and are supplanted with the dominance of the divine feminine. So the change that is called New Age spirituality, that change is a shift from something that’s coded as male to something that’s coded as female. And there are all kinds of associations with this gender binary. So male is aggressive, competitive, you know: men start wars, men destroy the planet, they have an extractive relationship to nature. Whereas the female principle is cooperative: it’s very in tune with emotions and it’s very connected to nature and celebrating the earth and being part of the earth. And so, something that came up in the panel today was . . . . This is a very old association between women and nature, but the way that association is framed is not always the same in all times and all places. So I thought one thing interesting that came up this morning was the feminine being associated with death, which made total sense to me. But that’s not there in the context in Sedona. Women are about life, they are about producing life. The feminine is the mother, is the nurturer, is the care giver. You know, this is the divine feminine principle. So it’s this very kind-of starkly-coded gender binary. And it doesn’t really change anything from what are the kind-of general gender associations in America more generally. It just inverts it and says that the feminine is better than the masculine. And you know, basically, it’s not even that women should be in charge – it’s just that everyone should embrace the feminine within them, and that that complementarity is part of the way that we will progress spiritually and socially. But it doesn’t really lend itself to any sense of action. And this is where we come back to this idea that ecospirituality is not the same as environmentalism. My informants weren’t in any way engaged in environmental politics. They didn’t really do anything that could be seen as particularly environmentally friendly. And in fact in the whole kind-of cosmology of the shift, or the ascension, it’s happening anyway. And the way it happens is like everyone working on their spiritual practice. It doesn’t happen by you going on protests or you switching to an electric car, or whatever. It happens by you sitting at home and meditating. Now from another perspective, you could see how that doesn’t help the environment at all. In fact, it breeds a certain passivity to social action. And means that people are going along with the same kind-of actions that are harming the planet. For example: driving cars, which release a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, carbon monoxide and all the other greenhouse gases. So there’s no sense of social action or social change. It’s all very inward. And everyone going on their spiritual path together cumulatively creates the change. It’s like the 100th monkey idea. Do you know what that is?

CC: Go for it.

SC: Well it’s like this credited idea from Bio-Anth – biological anthropology –

CC: Yes.

SC:   – that if, like, a certain number of monkeys – say 100 – learn a specific skill it will spread out through the rest of the monkeys by, like, collective consciousness. So that’s very dominant, at least amongst my informants in Sedona, that in fact it was detrimental to go out and do political action. I had this one informant who used to be very involved in NGOs, and going to other countries and trying to do development work. And then she said that all her protest work and all of her social action work had actually been making things worse, because she was so focussed on the negativity of these situations and instead she should stay in America and work on her spiritual path. And, you know, she did various kind-of workshops, and she was very much engaged in “embracing this divine feminine” herself. But that seems to basically involve going on these exclusive retreats to places like the Caribbean Islands, like the Bahamas, or like places in Aspen, Colorado, and getting women who had very high-paying jobs to go on them, so that they could go and “explore their divine feminine”, “work on their consciousness”, and “evolution”, and “inner-conscious entrepreneur”. And by doing that, she would help create way more positive action than she ever did working in NGOs. And, you know, so you can kind-of shift the perspective and go, “How is it helping by you kind-of creating all these places where everyone flies into these luxury resorts, has a lovely holiday, goes home, continues doing capitalism every day?” So . . .

CC: So you’ve done a good job of painting the relationship or lack of relationship, potentially, between environmentalism and ecospirituality, and sort of carving out what we’re meaning there. And we’ve spoken about the entanglements of gender and constructions of nature. But how are the two, I guess, entangled? These two: the ecospirituality on the one hand and this gendering of nature. Are there example you can maybe give of that entanglement of the two?

SC: So, how is ecospirituality entangled in gender? Well, I think it’s very much in this idea associating nature with the feminine – and that both of those things are given a positive valence regardless of what those actions actually are. So I could get very frustrated, in fact, in the field, with people talking about things that are nature and natural as thought that means it’s good for human health. So to take as an example: my informants generally liked to get water from the spring in Sedona because it came directly from the earth – and therefore it was good for them, right? But then it actually transpired that that stream had a very high level of naturally occurring anthrax, which is not good for human health. Now that’s entirely natural, in the sense that humans didn’t put it there. It was a part of the composition of the soil and the water in the area.

(Edited audio)

CC: Susannah has a correction to make to what she just said!

SC: Yes, so what I meant to say, instead of anthrax, was in fact arsenic. Arsenic is naturally occurring in water, not anthrax.

CC: Back to the interview!

(End of edit)

SC: Also, with the way this divine feminine principle got expressed in practice. So in my paper today, I talked about the work of an artist who . . . she did this whole series of paintings of the goddess. And it was all different kind-of instantiations of what she called the goddess energy. And it was all like faces of women growing out of trees, for example. And there’s this wonderful one called Blue Corn Woman, which she attached to a re-evaluation of Hopi myth that had something to do them surviving Atlantis because they listened to earth and knew when to go underground. And therefore they survived the cataclysm that destroyed Atlantis. So she had a whole series of paintings in this way. And, in person, she would always talk about the Goddess and how that was how she kind-of tried to live her life – it was in celebration of this divine feminine principle. And then this led to this very kind-of difficult lifestyle that she had, where she didn’t really want to go out and work because “emotionally, that didn’t suit her”. She wanted to do art, because that’s how she “expressed her soul”. But that meant she basically relied on men, who were variously infatuated with her, to support her financially. And she also had a fairly considerable drinking problem. And she drove her car while drunk. She had a blood alcohol level of like 0.3, now the legal limit is like 0.8 or 008, or something, so she was well over the legal limit. And she drove it into a fire station and wrecked the front of a fire station. And afterwards she was arrested, you know . . .  the process . . . . Let out . . . she blamed the fact that she had experienced childhood trauma. And it wasn’t that she was drunk, it was that she was having a “dissociative state” at the time, caused by her childhood trauma. So she, then, refused to come to court many times. She kept firing her lawyer. And this was . . . all she had to serve was a 90 day prison sentence and go on her way. And it took her three years to come to terms and just do that. So, why is this related to the divine feminine and nature? So it was this association between her emotions and her emotional state – the idea of herself as a woman and the idea of what is natural and what is natural for her – led to this lifestyle that is on one hand quite passive, and on the other hand not accepting any sense of social responsibility for her own action. Because she wasn’t responsible because she’d experienced this trauma. Therefore her emotions were such that she just had to express them. And I felt that that was actually quite problematic. Because, on the one hand you’ve got ecospirituality that’s seen as. . . in a way it’s seen as inevitable – you don’t have to do anything – so that breeds passivity on the social level. And then on a personal level it leads to a lack of accountability in your personal actions – or it can. Because you over-value your own emotions to the extent that the consequences of your emotional states are not dealt with. At least, I felt that in that case. Obviously I knew other people who, in different ways, were interested in kind-of the divine feminine aspects of spirituality. And they did quite productive things. So I don’t want to try and claim that everyone was like this. I’m saying that this is like . . . . The worst excesses of this kind-of association could lead to this kind-of situation. I knew someone else, for example, who felt that the divine feminine principle was how she should express her spirituality and she held Goddess wisdom workshops, and they were very fun, and that was fine. (Laughs) But again, I felt like there was this very simplistic association between femininity, nature and the sense of goodness. Like . . . that it was somehow inherent, and that you would just somehow know, as a woman, by being natural, the right thing to do. And I don’t think that that was always the case.

CC: Excellent. So we’re getting on in time, and I know I’ve got two more questions that I want to ask you before we get to the “what’s next on the agenda, for your research”. One is – you’ve just been speaking there a bit to this: what are the practical, social, political, real world – for want of a better term – effects of this gendering of nature, in your research experience? Why does it matter?

SC: OK. Why does it matter? I think it matters because we are in a time, in our society, when actually we really need to pay a great deal of attention to the environment and to ecology, not for the sake of the planet or of the environment in some disconnected way – because they will actually keep on going. What’s happening in terms of climate change is the erosion of the habitability of the planet for humans. You know, we’re destroying our own ecosystem, and we will be the ones that suffer for that eventually. And I think any of these discourses that kind-of separate off nature and the environment as something separate from humans are causing harm. And I think this particular kind-of ecospirituality in terms of the New Age, or whatever you want to a call it, is quite detrimental in terms of ecology, because it doesn’t put any kind-of real world action to the forefront. I think meditating is great, but I also think you need to accompany it with some form of action that will make your goals happen instead of just sitting back and thinking that it will happen inevitably. It’s like: prayer is great, but you should also get out there and do something about the social goals you want to achieve that go along with your religious ethics. So what I see a bit too much in this particular form is the “nature will just take care of these things.” That somehow Mother Nature is this caring powerful being and that that means it’s all going to be ok for humans. And that’s not the case. If we continue destroying our ecosystems humans will not continue living. You know, society will not continue. The planet will find a way to go on, because it’s the planet. So that’s why, in real world terms, I think it matters. I think I’m being a bit more evaluative and normative than I would ever be if I wrote any of this down, right now!

CC: That’s ok, you know.

SC: Is that ok? Because I really feel like that this is the defining important issue of our time. And if you’re not paying attention to it, if you’re not doing something useful about it, whatever that may be – even if it is just your individual actions – then actually, you’re not helping. You’re making things worse.

CC: And just to riff on that normativity a little bit, I can imagine that actually, yes, part of this discourse enables people . . . like, people might feel that they are doing something.

SC: Yes. No, they absolutely think they’re doing . . . . They think they are the only ones that are doing something. Because they’re meditating and expecting the shift any moment through enhancing themselves spiritually. Which . . . from a Religious Studies perspective it’s fascinating! I could sit and describe the cosmology all day. But if we’re going to talk about real world effects and real problems, that’s not helping.

CC: Exactly. We should also just acknowledge that we’ve been speaking in terms of gender binaries here, but that is predominantly what’s going on in the discourse. It is . . . we’re talking in binaries.

SC: Yes, so I very much . . . . Perhaps we should flag that up? I’m not saying, “I believe that these gender binaries are natural.” I’m saying that in this context my informants naturalised these gender binaries: “There is male and there is female”. They don’t really think about any other formation of gender. And that’s the way they see it. I’m not saying that normatively that’s correct.

CC: Exactly. So this is the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been floating around the topic of religion and spirituality here. But could we . . . . We probably could have described a lot of the stuff that was going on without needing to invoke those terms. So I’m just wondering what the role, what role these terms are playing, or if there’s maybe other dynamics that could explain away this gendering of nature.

SC: Yes, so I think I’m probably going to say something that will annoy lots of people who do Religious Studies. But I think that if we’re going to talk about spirituality, for me it’s a very specific thing which is this form of spirituality that was once called New Age. And it has a specific cosmology. And if you go out there amongst people who actually engage in these practices you can see it coming through. And I always say the basic tenet of it is that everything is energy and all energy vibrates at a specific frequency. So I think that spirituality, so defined, is kind-of one of the big religious shifts that we’re currently going through. Spirituality isn’t just something that happens in Sedona. It’s not something that just happens in America. It’s a global phenomenon. One of the things that happens to me a lot as I talk about my work – especially to other anthropologists, which is my background – they’ll say, “Oh yes! People I know in Palestine are really into that, because it gets them over sectarian conflict.” “People in Indonesia that I work with are really interested in that right now, as a form of healing.” And it is spread around the globe. And it is offering people a way of doing religion that is not part of their typical traditional organised religion. And for some people that’s just like a breath of fresh air. For some people that’s, quite literally, a life-saver – that they don’t have to engage in these old sectarian conflicts anymore; that they can create a new way forward without becoming secular. Because a lot of people don’t actually want that. They want to still engage with some kind-of meta-empirical reality – whatever you want to use as a term for it. So I think that spirituality is a form of religion, and it’s one of the growing forms of religion. And if you want to pay attention to the trends in religion now, as it’s actually lived and experienced on a daily basis, then you should really pay attention to spirituality – especially because it doesn’t really show up on stats and censuses, because there’s not really a box to tick for it. And also, people who are into spirituality really don’t like definitions. They wouldn’t really call themselves spiritual in that sense, but if you talk to them about what they do, and if you ask them if they’re interested in spirituality they will “Yes”, and suddenly they will come up with all of these fascinating things that they do. So I think it’s something that has to be studied empirically through qualitative research. And I think it’s something that is probably a lot more prevalent than we realise. Because it doesn’t really show up on these top-down measurements that a lot of scholarship can rely on – not all of it, obviously.

CC: (Laughs). So we have a whirlwind here. And, of course, we’ll point listeners to these forthcoming works. And you’re working on this NARMESH project, just now?

SC: NARMESH, yes.

CC: And so, you’re probably going to say it’s what’s next for you. But do want to say a little bit about your work there, and also, perhaps, anything you would like to see happening in this field of gender, spirituality, nature?

SC: Ok. So NARMESH is one of these ERC projects which . . . I’m kind-of discovering that they all have these kind-of acronyms for what they’re called. It’s from “narrating the mesh” which is from eco-theorist Timothy Morton’s work. So, the mesh is his idea for how everything is interconnected. And our project is looking at narratives of the interconnection of humans and non-humans and climate. So the rest of the people on the project are looking at narratives in literary fiction – which is why I’m in the Literary Studies department – and I’m looking at personal narratives. So what I’ve been doing is taking interviews and doing some short bits of fieldwork amongst groups of people who are differently positioned in the wider climate change discourse. So that’s climate scientists, radical environmentalists or kind-of eco-philosophers and, also, people who do not accept that climate change is happening – or if it is, they do not accept the human role in climate change. So, what we might call deniers or climate change sceptics. So that’s my current work. I’m kind-of in the middle of doing the fieldwork for that over in Sweden, two weeks ago, amongst people who basically see the world as ending and that we’re living through this kind-of destruction of the world. And “how do we kind-of create a new culture?” So that’s what I’ve been doing most recently. In terms of gender, nature and eco spirituality, I think it’s a really fascinating field and it’s one that I think you can kind-of bring together a lot of diverse studies from antiquity, right through to contemporary work, to look at this kind-of question. You know: how is nature gendered? What do we mean by goddess spirituality? And I think it is something that’s quite neglected. I think it’s something that, for a long time, got relegated to that kind-of “women’s studies” area of Religious Studies, and a lot of people don’t see it as particularly interesting or relevant. So I think it’s one of those things, if people start looking at it and studying it, it will come up more and more as a really relevant and important part of everyday religious practice for a very widely placed diversity of people, in different traditions, and different  historical periods and times.

CC: And I’m sure that there’s a lot more that we could get into just there now – but we have run out of time, Listeners. That was an excellent interview Susannah Crockford, and we’re looking forward to all the interest that you will have piqued, and to hearing more from this developing project that you’ve got. NARMESH?

SC: NARMESH, great. Thank you so much.

CC: It does sound like a little farewell, doesn’t it? Narmesh!

SC: Narmesh!

Both: (Laugh).


Citation Info: Crockford, Susannah and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 1 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 6 July 2018. Available at: http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/ecospirituality-gender-and-nature/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Myth, Solidarity, and Post-Liberalism

With the rise of reactionary politics across the globe, it is arguably increasingly important for the academic community to give consideration to the prospects of developing and strengthening solidarity across apparent religious, political and economic differences. In this podcast, Chris speaks to Dr Timothy Stacey (University of Ottawa) about his forthcoming book, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division (Routledge, 2018), in which he asks how we can begin to imagine solidarity in the modern world, and challenges academics to be challenge the co-option of their work by being “better than those who seek to co-opt us.”

What is solidarity? What is liberalism? And post-liberalism? How does this relate to the problematic notion of post-secularity? To myth? To the ‘sacred’? And are we missing a trick by not paying attention to the mythic elements of secularity? These questions and more provide the narrative hooks throughout this interview, in which we hear some fascinating insights into Tim’s personal biography and his extensive field research in London, and challenge the aversion which some social scientists feel regarding normativity.

If you like what you hear, why not check out our previous podcasts on “The Sacred”, “The Post-Secular” and “Habermas, Religion and the Post-Secular”, as well as Tim’s ongoing Lived Religions Project with Fernande Pool, featuring many fascinating “interviews with ordinary people telling their unique story” livedreligionproject.com

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, banners, flags, teapots and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism

Podcast with Timothy Stacey (9 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Stacey_-_Myth,_Solidarity_and_Post-Liberalism_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome to another episode of the Religious Studies Project. It’s the start of 2018 as I’m recording – although who knows when this is actually going to go out, because we’ve got such a backlog! I am here in Reading, on my way to Oxford. And I’m joined by Dr Tim Stacey. Hi Tim!

Timothy Stacey (TS): Hi.

CC: Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. Tim is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Ottawa, but has been in the UK for the festive period and our diaries and travel schedules managed to collide nicely! We’ll be hearing bout Tim’s research during the course of the interview, but the primary trigger for the interview is the forthcoming publication of his first monograph, with Routledge, later this year. That’s called, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division. And today we’re going to be talking a little bit about these notions of myth and solidarity, but also this key concept of post-liberalism. So, first of all, I’ve given a very brief introduction to you, Tim. But tell us, who are you? How have you got here?

TS: How have I . . . ?

CC: How have you got here? Why are you speaking to me?!

TS: Well, I guess I started off . . . I did my Masters at Nottingham, in Theology. And it was there – as I was listening to some really interesting arguments about virtue ethics, primarily from people like Alasdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor – that I felt very inspired by the stuff they were saying. But also, as an atheist myself, I kept asking, “How do I actually make this relevant to me, somebody who’s not actually a Christian?” And that was what triggered me moving from Theology into social scientific research. And so that triggered the PhD, which was about exploring possibilities for virtue ethics and notions of transcendence in a religiously plural society. And more recently the interest has turned to secular subjects, so that’s what I’m now in Vancouver exploring: what are the potentials for transcendence and solidarity amongst secular subjects?

CC: Fantastic! And we’ll be hearing more about that as this conversation ensues. So, set the scene for us then. The first couple of chapters of this book are exploring this notion of post-liberalism. But I don’t know that many of our listeners necessarily know what-on-earth that means! So perhaps you could, just for the sake . . . ? We know that we are in turbulent political times. There is a sort of reactionary politics happening all over the place. We’ve got these notions that there’s the political elites versus the ordinary masses, and everything. So, maybe, just take us through a chronological . . . . How have we got to this state? What is liberalism? And then, what is post-liberalism?

TS: Yes. Well, basically, the basic premise of the book is to follow this post-liberal argument. And the primary argument there is that, in a liberal secular society, we’ve lost a sense of the role of transcendence in forming social identity. So instead, we treat people as basically . . . both ideally, and also primarily motivated by rationality. And I suggest that we also tend to castigate those who appear to be irrational, whether that’s because of religion, ideology, parochialism, or simply a lack of education. And I think that comes up during the Brexit debate a lot as well. And the result, according to post-liberals, is two-fold. First: politics becomes technocratic and economics becomes instrumental. So, politics is less about building belonging and empowering people than it is about a university educated elite, delivering to social-scientifically construed need. And then, economics is less about reciprocity than it is about GDP. And then second: because of this, we increasingly see people retrenching in communities that they feel provide them with a sense of belonging and empowerment – communities of faith, race, nation, economic status. But then, kind of the . . . . (5:00) What inspired this book for me was that although post-liberalism gives, for me, a really exciting analysis of our current political problems, post-liberalism is itself as much a symptom of that as it is an analysis. By which I mean that it represents a retrenching in Christian notions of transcendence. And that simply doesn’t work for a society that is simultaneously – as I put it in the book – post-Christian, post-secular and religiously plural.

CC: Hmm.

TS: So that very long premise is actually the basis of this exploration, namely: to explore the relevance and role of transcendence in developing solidarity in the messy religious and non-religious landscape that we see before us, primarily in the western world. And I explored this by undertaking two years of ethnographic research with groups seeking to develop solidarity in London – which I kind-of identify as one of the most socially and economically liberal cities in the world, as well as being one of the most religiously and non-religiously diverse cities in the world. So, despite all that complexity, the actual answers the book provides I feel are quite simple. First, it says that despite the assumptions of liberal secularism and the dominance of this system within London for almost 300 years, the majority of people – both religious and non-religious – still do draw on transcendence in forming their social identity. In particular – and this is where I get to the notion of myth – they do this through myths. And that’s what I call stories of great events and characters that exemplify people’s ideals. And while for Christians that might be like the story of Christ or of the great Flood, for atheists that might be about, sometimes, Ghandi or Martin Luther King – figures who actually have some sort of religious background themselves – but also, just stories of their mum, or their dad, or their best friend, or a great heroic colleague that for them exemplified a virtuous way of living. And then the second point is that again – despite the assumptions of secular liberalism – actually, the role of the state doesn’t need to be this kind of principled distance from religion, or principled distance from ideology. Instead, we can actually imagine the role of the state less as an enforcer of a particular ideology – or else perhaps, in a liberal society, an enforcer of a lack of ideology – and instead we can think about it as a curator of the sharing of different ideologies. So that people can explore the virtues inherent in very different ways of living and see that, for instance, I might be somebody who is quite critical of Islam, but then I spend time trying to develop solidarity in a local setting with a Muslim. And it’s something as simple as seeing that they are good people that makes you realise, “Well, maybe Islam’s not so bad, either.” And then I began to see some really interesting processes of bricolage, like out-and-out atheists talking about how they were inspired by the story of Mohammed. And they would even talk about him as the “first community organiser”, for instance. So I found that really interesting. And then I get onto this idea of solidarity centres. So it’s actually the notion that the state will create these liberal spaces in which people of very different backgrounds come together to intentionally explore their ideas of how the world should be. And then, acting on that together: “Right. Ok, this is how the world should be. What are some policies, or things going on in our community that are stopping that from happening?” And that might be something like low wages, high house prices, or whatever, and then working together to solve those problems.

CC: Excellent. Well thanks for that fantastic introduction to the topic and, indeed, overview of the book. It really resonates with me, I can remember sitting with . . . you know there is this really common idea, particularly in the UK, that politics and religion don’t go together, you know. What was it? Alastair Campbell: “We don’t do God“. (10:00) And I can remember last semester, at Edinburgh, in a course on Religion in Modern Britain, sitting with my students in a tutorial and they were talking about whether a Muslim politician should be expected to act as a Muslim or to represent their constituents. And they all seemed to think that they shouldn’t be bringing religion into it, at all. And I tried to push and push: “But what other normative ways do we allow politicians to act” And they were: “gender”, “race”, “political party”, right? We have this conceit that they represent their whole constituency but they also have the sacred ideals of their political party that they hold higher than everything else. (Laughs).

TS: Absolutely.

CC: So, that’s just a little riff! So going right back to the beginning, then – in the book it was, maybe, 2011 when your research process was starting. How did you get into this massive area of research? And what pushed you?

TS: Well, yes. It was actually an incredibly strange and exciting journey for me. So, going back to Nottingham – I don’t know how well you know that university, but we’d have a lot of theological seminars in the staff club lounge, around leather armchairs. And that was my introduction to academia – talking about Alisdair Macintyre, and virtue ethics, and John Milbank, and theses radical critiques of modernity. And I was very excited by them. But as I said, I was troubled. And I wanted to work out, “Ok, is this relevant?” And I thought social science was the best way of working that out. But I was a theologian. So I arrived in London and my supervisor starts talking to me about this thing called “data”.

CC: (Laughs)

TS: “You need to go out and get data.” “Hmm, what is data, exactly?” And I spent a lot of time reading different kind of research methods books, and trying to understand exactly how I was going to explore this question of the link between transcendence and solidarity in a religiously plural society. But then, while that was happening – and this is a bit weird now! It kind-of matches with the personal: I’ve grown up all around the world, and I’ve never had any particular home. So when I was living in London for the first time, being in a place for more than a few years, I was thinking very hard to myself about what does it mean to be a part of my local community? And as I was simultaneously thinking about those two things – on the one hand data, and on the other my own desire to be involved in the community – the London riots happened. And I thought, “You know what? This is amazing. This is a great opportunity for me to be involved in the process of rebuilding Tottenham”, which is sort of where I was living – in response to this. So I came across this group called London Citizens, who wanted to do a citizens enquiry into the Tottenham riots. They basically do these things called “listening campaigns”, where they go out and basically ask members of the public: what is the main problem that you and your family face? That’s the first question. And the second question is always, what can you . . . and us – what can we together do about this? So it’s not like, “Ok what are your problems and shall we write to the local politician and tell them about it?” It’s “Let’s do something together. Let’s take direct action.” And it just suddenly clicked in my head. I was thinking about this word solidarity so theoretically. And then here were some people actually living it out, developing solidarity in a very real way, in my local area. And my first thought, really, when that happened was to say to myself, “Why am I even bothering to study this? I should just be doing it!”

CC: Yes.

TS: “I might as well just quit the PhD!” Then it occurred to me that actually taking action in this way could be my data. And I’d been reading stuff about post-secularity. And I realised London Citizens really is a kind of post-secular group. They’re a group that recognised the important role of religion in the public sphere. They, themselves, are somewhat inspired by a faith narrative, but the majority of the key organisers were non-religious. And so the way that they were able to so openly navigate faith and non-faith, and bring people together, was really exciting to me. (15:00) And then I thought, “You know what? The best way to explore the possibility for solidarity in this society that’s simultaneously Christian and secular and post-secular, is to work with a group that indicatively represents each one of those paradigms.” So then I started thinking, “OK, what are the key post-War paradigms for developing a sense of solidarity?” And you have, initially, the very strong connection between Christianity and the setting up of the welfare state. So I took one group that I felt represented that, which was at the time called the Christian Socialist Movement, but now is called Christians on the Left. Then I thought the next phase was secular ways of doing this, and in particular, a lot of money was being pumped into councils for voluntary service. So I started working with them, representing my secular organisation. Then in the ‘90s and early 2000s you had the multi-faith policy paradigm. So I thought, “OK, I need a group that represents that.” And then, going back to the start, London Citizens became my post-secular organisation. And that’s the story of how I got there.

CC: Excellent. And on the notion of post-secular, listeners, do check out our previous interview with Kevin Gray about that. I mean I think that you would agree with me as well, Tim, that it’s a problematic notion – the concept of post-secular.

TS: Absolutely, and indeed my current supervisor Lori Beaman insists that I stop using it! So . . .

CC: Well, it’s here to stay, perhaps! OK. And you organise the book then along these . . . you’ve got these three sections really, I guess, looking at pluralistic contexts, and then the state, these organisations, and then also capitalism. And any of those would be interesting to expand upon, but perhaps let’s think about this place of the notion of myth and transcendence. And then, maybe sort-of weave in these three strands.

TS: Mmm.

CC: So basically, one of your arguments is that these organisations all have varying relationships with the idea of transcendence and the construction of myth. So maybe you could just introduce the organisations there, to tell us about them and their relationship to this?

TS: Yes, OK. I mean the word myth, I primarily introduce – and I don’t know how helpful it really is . . . . What I was ultimately critiquing there was the sort of Habernasian notion that we are primarily motivated rationally. And, by introducing the term myth, I was trying to demonstrate the parity between religious and non-religious ways of relating to the world. So in doing that I then felt that I was able – by cutting through this kind of religious/secular binary – I was then able to start thinking about the role of the state as something very different: as not something that has to separate religion from politics, but instead can relate more reflexively towards the notion of myth.

CC: Yes. Throughout you use this phrase, “religious/secular, mythic/rational binary”. That’s your thing. So, yes, what’s going on there?

TS: Yes. So what I’m trying to say, basically, is that we end up having this notion that the religious is primarily mythic and the secular is primarily rational. And what I was trying to say is that both the religious and secular have very strong mythic elements to them. Primarily, I was not doing that as a means of . . . . There’s lot of research trying to demonstrate that religious belief can in fact be far more rational than we realise. I was, actually, trying to go the other way round and say that secularity can be a lot more mythic than we realise. And I wasn’t doing that in any way to put down secular people or secularity, but rather to say, “Well if we are primarily motivated through myth then we’re really missing a trick in how we motivate secular people.” (20:00) If we simply assume that they’re motivated by rationality alone, then we miss out on one of the most powerful ways of making people act in the world. And then you get back to the whole argument about Brexit and Trump and so on, which is that if we forget the role of mythic narrative in motivating people, then they become very vulnerable to just anyone who’s able to spin a good myth.

CC: And all you end up with is talking about economics and security, as you argue. Could give an example, maybe, of the kind of . . . . So we can all think of, I guess, a religion-related myth, perhaps. But what sort of – for want of a better word – secular myths are people motivated by?

TS: Well, one of these myths is actually the notion of the self-independent rational actor itself, right? Because that is a story that people are living by, primarily. It’s not actually this . . . In some sense, there’s this kind-of subtraction narrative to the understanding of secular identity that says: it’s an identity that is short of religious elements. But instead, what I’m trying to suggest is that secular people do live by myths, and rationality itself is one of those. And another one, for instance, is that of capitalism: the idea that says people are primarily motivated by financial incentive. So, basically, what the research seems to suggest is that there are clear secular myths, but these are primarily ones I feel that aren’t intentionally constructed by secular people. So they might be myths of rationality or myths of capitalism. And what I’m trying to explore now is: OK – but what are those deep, more intentionally constructed myths that can challenge a purely instrumental notion of politics or economics? In Vancouver it’s really interesting, because that’s coming from a lot of different places. So there’s myths of earth-based spiritualty – the sense that I, as a person, am intimately related to the world in the same way . . . there. This stuff wouldn’t necessarily work in London at all, but it’s very much derived from indigenous mythology as well. So the people don’t see themselves as any more important than the orca in the Pacific Ocean, for instance, or the salmon. So those myths – the telling of the stories of the orca and the salmon – actually become really important ways of challenging an instrumental approach to the land and the environment. So you have otherwise entirely secular people arguing against the construction of a pipeline, for instance, because of salmon. And at first, I have to say, I actually giggled a bit when I started getting these findings. Because it was just so out of context for what I’d grown up around in London and for what had come out of my previous research. But as I’ve been doing this ethnographic research there – and it’s always, as in this this book, very auto-ethnographic as well – I try and really immerse myself in the stories of people I’m studying. And, yes. Now I’ve come to be inspired by these stories of whales and salmon, and how they might be transformative in challenging a particular idea of, say, growth.

CC: Yes. And I imagine one could also, you know, even just thinking of what you get in the Marvel films – there’s a lot of myth in popular culture, as well, that you probably might easily and interestingly excavate.

TS: Absolutely. And people really do integrate that into their stories. It’s absolutely not out of place that people will talk to me about a Batman film, or something, when they’re trying to explain their belief in . . . I mean, one that comes up quite a lot in Spiderman is that: “With great power comes great responsibility”. And it seems almost laughable, in a way. But I think, the way that people sort-of suspend their disbelief in the cinema can be very similar to the way they might do in a church. (25:00) And those myths really do have power for people.

CC: And we’re already almost at the end of our time, which is excellent. I mean, not excellent – I just mean we’ve already covered a lot of ground! So, just to push on this – one of the key arguments I would see from your book is that rather than perhaps trying to find – you know, sitting people down and going “OK, you’re a Christian, you’re a Muslim, you’re an atheist, you’re a Buddhist. You’re never going to agree on these things, so it’s all pointless.” So, is the idea that everyone is constructing myths about, I don’t know, the better society, the greater good, the way they want things to progress and that by focussing on those, rather than the specifics, it might be a constructive way forward? Or . . . ?

TS: Yes, that’s true. But also there’s a very real sense in which I think, those settings need to be intentionally constructed in secular society. That’s a part of where my critique comes from. So you look at my analysis of Hackney CVS, for instance, I was suggesting that the secular people there had strong myths based on their parents who might be their heroes, or their colleagues. So their myths, in fact, were just telling the stories of their friends and family. And they were really inspiring and transformative for them. But what I noticed, what there was . . . there were a lack of intentional rituals within that organisation, for bringing those to the surface. And so they failed to really integrate them into their practice, and therefore failed to inspire much enthusiasm. And so, my feeling is that we need to actually deliberately create spaces where people can discuss these things. And so my example, when you talk about bringing Muslims and Jews and atheists together in a room, the best example I came across was the London Citizens. They would ask this very simple question: “We live in the world as it is – but there is a world as it should be. Please tell me some words that you associate with the world as it should be.”

CC: Mmm.

TS: So, that’s the first step – that you get people from these very different backgrounds together in a room, recognising: “Oh wow! That guy looks very different to me but, in fact, he seems to want the same idea of the perfect world that I want.” So that’s the first step. But then – once you’ve done that – you actually encourage people to draw on their own very different, idiosyncratic stories. So once they all recognise that this is the world as it should be, then they can, again, start talking about their particular myths – whether of Islam, or Christianity or of the more secular ones such as of a Socialist utopia, or . . . .

CC: Yes. And I’ve always found it . . . . I remember Craig Martin made this point in his Masking Hegemony, in 2010, I’ve always found it very strange that, yes – why would you expect people to be able to bracket off these aspects of their identity? Why not . . . we have this myth of the secular space that people enter and they bracket off . . . but, why not just everyone talk about it, talk about your myths, and talk about where you’re coming from? And then we can, maybe, move forward.

TR: Yes – the thing is though, it’s actually a much more honest way of being. Because if I understand where you’re coming from, I can actually hold you to account on the basis of that story that you’re telling.

CC: Yes. Just to indulge my curiosity here, listeners, this might go on slightly longer than usual. I’ve got three more questions I want to ask Tim.

TS: I’ll try and be brief in my answers.

CC: No, it’s good. First, the notion of the sacred here. So I know Gordon Lynch – in fact we spoke to Gordon Lynch a number of years ago about this concept – and Kim Knott and others have developed this notion of like the secular sacred, and things. So where does the role of the sacred – maybe it’s a non-ontological, non-religion inflected sacred – fit into the myths and into solidarity?

TS: Well, for one thing, I totally would have been happy to us the term sacred. (30:00) But I had two issues with that. One was that there was a lot of talk about it being non-negotiable. And I thought, “That’s exactly what I want to avoid with transcendence.” Because the very point is that we need people to negotiate. And the other issue is, I felt that a lot of that research was around what’s already sacred. It would be around pointing out some certain category had become a sacred one. Whereas, I was trying – rather than move backwards in that way – move forwards. So I got into discussions with people doing research around that, including Gordon Lynch and saying, “Well, actually, what I’m thinking about is: how do we develop a new sacred?” And I didn’t feel like people were all that interested in that, in those circles. And in that sense, alone, that word became tainted for me. And I wanted to try and think about it slightly differently. But otherwise, yes, it is very, very similar.

CC: Yes. They’re related. You can see clear overlaps. But clearly again, you’re stepping out into uncharted territory. On that note, then: “here at the Religious Studies Project”, our sort-of approach would probably map more onto the Critical Study of Religion, and when normativity comes up we tend to bristle a little bit. So, as we’ve been hearing there, you’re an engaged scholar. So, how do you personally navigate that sort of: “I’m doing this work which is – I guess – objective, but also trying to . . . .” You know.

TS: Well, yes. I think, the thing is that I have no qualms about saying that I am personally, and academically, fighting for a world in which there is more solidarity, in which people are willing to do things for one another without necessarily expecting something in return. I’m also quite happy to say that I was saddened by the rise of neoliberalism. And I saw that Christianity was very instrumental to the setting up of the welfare state, initially. And I was asking myself that question: what is that new metanarrative going to be, around which we can create more solidarity, and renew interest in social welfare? But the research itself is objective, in that sense that I’m totally open to what the answer to that may be. And that’s constantly evolving. And I think, in my current research, I would slightly challenge some of the assumptions that I had in the previous. But it’s all this objective, social scientific, critical research that interested me in religion in the first place. Because I’m only interested in religion incidentally. Because a lot of research seems to be demonstrating that something like religion, or the sacred, or whatever you want to call it, has a powerful effect on a sense of solidarity. So, for me, that’s my only very incidental interest in religion. It’s: “OK, if that’s true, then what does that look like in a society where none of us believe the same things anymore?”

CC: And my final question was going to be, what was the broader relevance of this to the academic study of religion? But I think you’ve just actually summarised that quite neatly in your final statement there. Unless you want to have a final push?

TS: Well the only thing I would say, without wanting to be preachy, is that I think there is a real danger that we can get stuck behind this social scientific lens that says, “I’m not allowed to be normative” when, in reality, we have to recognise the very things we choose to research are guided by our own normative principals. So I think, in the dangerous world that we currently live in, it’s time for academics to step up and say, “This is what I believe in, and I’m willing to work towards bringing it about.”

CC: Exactly. And in your own work as well, what you’re doing is not proposing a definitive: “This is the objective reality.” It’s: “We’re building . . . .” And you’ve expanded upon your own research. And you’ve changed your ideas. And we’re all part of a process, moving towards whatever . . . perfection – let’s say it!

TS: (Laughs)

CC: Well it’s been a pleasure speaking to you, Tim. Thanks, so much.

TS: (35:00) Thanks, so much, for having me on.

Citation Info: Stacey, Timothy and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 2 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/myth-solidarity-and-post-liberalism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion

In this interview with Professor Bryan Turner at the Leeds SocRel 2017 conference, we discuss how the sociology of religion can work to stay central to sociology as a broader discipline, by focusing on how religion functions in contemporary political contexts.

Starting with a consideration of the role religion takes in American political discourse, particularly Trump’s appeals to evangelical communities, Turner discusses how the evangelical ideal of the ‘tender warrior’ can appeal to the blue collar, white, male, working class. This religiously-inflected form of populism is able to bear significant weight on political debates, for example around abortion. This can be compared to the apparent increase of populism in European politics, where the recent success of Emmanuel Macron in France appears to signal that this tide has been halted, for now. Looking even further afield, to Russia and the Philippines, ‘strongman’ politics have become increasingly prominent and relate to religion in different ways: Rodrigo Duterte of the Phillipines has a complicated relationship with the Catholic Church and the Pope, whilst Vladimir Putin allegedly keeps an Eastern Orthodox priest as a counsellor, in an attempt to link Russian identity to Orthodoxy. In many of these cases, religion features heavily in the national insider/outsider debate, further highlighting its salience in contemporary political discourse.

Following the lead of scholars such as Jose Casanova, Professor Turner brings the public and political role of religion into focus. By doing so, he argues, we can push the sociology of religion toward the realms of political theory, international relations, and race relations, thus creating an agenda in which the sociology of religion becomes increasingly mainstream and relevant to the world we live in, rather than fading into a marginal sub-field of sociology.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

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, Snickers bars, pogs, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion

Podcast with Bryan Turner (15 January 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Turner_-_The_Political_Relevance_of_The_Sociology_of_Religion1.1

Sammy Bishop (SB): I’m Sammy Bishop, I’m here at the SocRel Conference, 2017. And I have with me a man who needs very little introduction, thanks to the huge influence that he’s had on the field. I’m with Professor Bryan Turner. So, welcome. And thank you for being involved with the Religious Studies Project.

Bryan Turner (BT): It’s a pleasure.

SB: OK, so today we’re going to talk a little bit about teaching and Religious Studies, and some of the differences between the British, European and American context as well. So could we start off, perhaps, with just a little about how you became interested in this topic?

BT: Well, I was converted to Methodism when I was about 17 and I was on holiday in Greece with a group of Methodists. In the following year I went to East Germany, Moscow and through Russia by train, and became very interested in Sociology. So, if you put the two together, I was a kind of Methodist with an interest in Communism and Marxism, although the main influence on my work has been Max Weber. I came here, to the University of Leeds, to do a PhD. I was in the Methodist Society. I was the President of the Student Christian Movement, so I had those kind of involvements. And I was taught by a famous comparative religion expert, Trevor Ling, who was a Buddhist Scholar. And through him became very interested in comparative religion. I was appointed to the University of Aberdeen to teach the Sociology of Religion in 1970, I think it was, but very few students were interested in doing religion, so I had very few students! So I retrained as a medical sociologist, which partly explains my interest in the sociology of the body and how medicine and religion connect with each other. To be honest, the Sociology of Religion dropped out of my career a bit, for those sorts of reasons. I became very much interested in Max Weber so, at that level, religion was part of my agenda. But it was also mixed up with all the other things that I was interested in and doing work on. And, to sort-of finish this little biographical sketch, after 9/11 just about anybody with an interest in Islam was suddenly employable. And I had all these kind-of requests to revisit stuff that I’d done. Because my first book was 1974: Weber and Islam. I went to live in America in 2006, I think it was. And I spent a year at Wiley College and then ended up at the Graduate Centre at the City University of New York, where I’ve been teaching the Sociology of Comparative Religion. So perhaps I’d better say something about the teaching method, if you’d like?

SB: Yes, please do.

BT: Well, I try to make religions kind-of relevant to the world they’re living in. So, for example, during the Mitt Romney/Barack Obama presidential race there was a lot of material to work with. Mitt Romney was a Mormon. There was this huge debate in the Media about whether Mormonism was a religion. So that was an easy way in to talking about what we mean by religion, or Mormonism, or Christianity. And the other, of course, was the allegation that Obama was really a secret Muslim of some sort – we had all of those debates. And then, in 2016 when the Clinton/Trump confrontation started, there seemed to be almost nothing to get into. Because I kind-of listened to every debate and read all of the stuff I could possibly get hold of. But I think Clinton mentioned religion only like once, when she read a passage from the New Testament. Bernie Sanders once talked about his Jewish legacy in an interview, but it wasn’t really part of his campaign. And then we had Trump. How does Trump relate to religion? Because we all know – American exceptionalism – religion is prominent in the public sphere. Just about every textbook starts with de Tocqueville’s commentary on civil religion and so on, and so forth. And it seemed very difficult to actually believe that Trump could win the election, given the fact of these disclosures of his attitudes towards women, his groping of women. And Trump, of course, changed his position on just about everything. So, at one stage, Trump was pro-life – very much committed to that kind of agenda. (5:00) And then, of course, during the campaign it comes out that he’s actually totally opposed to Roe Vs Wade which was the legislation that made abortion possible for women. He came out very strongly in favour of removing that legislation to make abortion either impossible or increasingly difficult. But what sort-of emerged after the election is that he has quite strong support from the Evangelical Churches. And one reason is that within the Evangelical Churches there is a kind of crisis around masculinity. A lot of the Evangelical literature has been developing the idea of the “tender warrior”. This is the kind of dominant male who is in charge of the family. He is in charge of the family. The idea is that women’s role is domestic. And that women really kind-of prefer to be subordinated to men, rather than to be liberated. And that part of the crisis in America is connected with: the acceptance of gays in the military; the legislation that made possible same-sex marriage in some states; the general kind of reception of alternative forms of sexuality, particularly on the East Coast. So, some of this election was about the East Coast, versus the Southern States, and so forth. So Jerry Falwell has come about very much in favour of Trump. Trump visited Liberty University which is run by Falwell, one of the founders of the Moral Majority. And so, my puzzlement about how Trump can possibly get support from religious groups has been partly answered by this idea that there is a kind-of deep anxiety, in conservative America, about the status of men, connected to: the rise of women into pink collar occupations; the better performance of women in education; the growth, or the presence of influential women in leadership positions. You know – Merkel in Germany, the head of the IMF, the Fed and so forth – you see women in very powerful political positions. And, insofar as populism and Trump are connected to the erosion of the blue collar male white working class, you can kind-of understand, partly, why Trump is getting support from Evangelicals. But I would point out a couple of things. I mean, Trump and Clinton were the least-attractive, least-supported presidential candidates in the whole of American history. Clinton did win the popular vote, despite Trump’s claims that it was all fake. Trump has huge support from his base, but he’s still a very problematic figure in American culture, I think. And he has divided society right down the middle. And so one never knows what is going to happen next, really, in America.

SB: Could you say more about the idea of Populism itself, and how that concept has become more relevant, perhaps, at the moment?

BT: Yes. Well, people have been studying populism for a long time. And there are arguments that populism has been present in American politics for long time, such as the People’s Party and so forth. “Agrarian populism” has been a notion around for some time. But I agree with you that in the last twelve months populism has been everywhere: conferences, journal articles, books and so on, and so forth. And I mean, it looked at one stage as if the populist parties would swing through Europe with the Northern League and Golden Dawn, and the Freedom Party in Austria and so forth. And then we’ve had this pause, if you like, in which Macron in France has won the election and to some extent the popular vote for extreme positions on foreigners has been slowed down a bit. And then, I think, with Brexit which again . . . . I mean UKIP, having had some electoral success, has virtually disappeared as a party. And it looks as though the complexity of Brexit may grind it into the ground eventually, who knows? But a lot of the populist literature has been saying that Britain is slightly different from other societies, in that the populist vote is weaker than you’ll find in, say, Italy, and so forth. (10:00) I mean, one issue is to what extent Thatcherism was an earlier form of populism. She did want to change everything. She had these structural views about an inside and an outside. I mean, one of the defining characteristics of populism is that it divides the world into “us” and “them”. And then you’ve got the people on the one side and their enemies on the other. I mean, as we’ve heard in this conference, the enemies seem to be connecting to Muslim refugees in Europe and so forth. But again, looking at this from the outside – that is, from America – what struck me was the antagonism towards East Europeans. So, Polish people were being criticised by Conservative people who wanted to argue that the welfare state was being exploited by free-riders from other countries. So I don’t think it’s just Islam, there’s all sorts of other things going on about the insider and the outsider.

SB: Where do you see it going in the future?

BT: Well I was reminiscing . . . . In the 1960s and 1970s and really into the ’80s, I suppose, we had the three day week, we had the miners’ strike and we had the poll tax strikes. And whilst Thatcher was hugely popular – again amongst her base – and while she was, in many ways, the most successful Prime Minister we’ve had – she won three elections, etc. – living through that period, I mean, Britain did seem amazingly unstable. I mean, just visually, we had piles of rubbish piled up in the streets; electricity was very limited; I remember having to teach with no heating in the university, so we all wore hats and gloves to work, sitting in classrooms. And the current period feels like that as well. Because, I think, if Brexit fails the people that voted to leave will be deeply frustrated. I mean Nigel Farage has threatened to comeback into politics if that happened! The legislative mess – it’s horrendous. And then, looking at the broader picture, we’ve got what you might call “strong man politics” in the Philippines, in China, in Russia and so forth. And, to some extent, some of these figures at least are mobilising religion to bolster their position. I think very interesting is Putin, who allegedly has an Orthodox Priest – an Eastern Orthodox Priest – as a counsellor. He’s obviously appealing to Orthodoxy as a way of defining what it is to be Russian. It’s a fairly complicated picture, I think. Again, I suppose I should have said about Trump that Trump’s foreign policy is deeply worrying, because he seems to want to undermine many of the institutions that have bolstered European peace for 70 years or so. And there is this figure, Steve Bannon, who’s a conservative Catholic with an Irish background, who I think is mobilising Trump’s foreign policy. And I think that’s very problematic. So, from an academic point of view, I think religion is going to be very central to all of these debates, whether it’s conflicts between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, or Buddhists and Muslims in Asia, or Catholic and Pentecostals and Protestants elsewhere.

SB: How do you think scholars of religion or sociologists of religion are best approaching it?

BT: Well, in the talk I’m going to give this evening, I think sociology of religion kind-of bifurcates into those that have gone into spirituality and post-institutional churches, and those who follow people like José Casanova who are interested in public religion. My question is how we make the Sociology of Religion central to the sociological enterprise, as a whole. And I think the public religions debate pushes the sociology of religion into political theory, into international relations, into race relations and creates a kind of agenda where Sociology of Religion is once more part of the mainstream rather than a minority interest on the margins. This conference- I’m going to get the title of the conference wrong, but “On the Edge”: are we part of the periphery or part of the mainstream? I think it’s an important question. And I, personally, don’t want to be on the periphery. Sociology of Religion is central to the modern world. (15:00)If you look at everywhere, basically: Israel, Brazil, America, Germany, France – it’s difficult to find a country that doesn’t have some kind of religious issue going on. And I think it’s’ something we need to address, really.

SB: When you speak about the political aspects of, for example, race relations as well, do you think that there’s a certain amount of activism that could be involved in the Sociology of Religion?

BT: Well, I certainly think Sociology needs to contribute to a solution. And whether that’s social policy or becoming engaged in activism, I think is something we can’t sort-of predict in advance, so to speak. But I think sociologists can’t describe the mess we’re in without taking some responsibility for suggesting ways we might get out of this mess. Otherwise we might all bathe in misery and melancholy, and what would be the point of having a conference like this? We might as stay at home and be miserable! And this is too big a topic for this interview, but I tend to think sociologists are always looking at failure: failed institutions, failed constitutions, failed social movements, failed this, that and the other. And I think we need to turn this around a bit and say: well, ok, can we find any successful institutions, or successful social movements, or successful philosophies or whatever, that have improved the human condition – even if it’s for a short time? My argument is that no institution lasts for ever. They all have fluctuating histories – I mean of success and failure. But the idea that all institutions are failing is an impossible position to take. I tend to say that there’s no such thing as consistent pessimism, because we wouldn’t be having this interview if you and I were consistently pessimistic, I don’t think. You know, we’d be getting drunk or something!

SB: (Laughs).

BT: So I think, I mean I haven’t been an activist in that traditional sort of sense. But I’ve edited the journal Citizenship Studies for about 20 years, which I see as making a contribution to understanding the kind-of erosion of social rights over the last 30 years or so. And that citizenship, revitalised would be some kind of answer to questions about social solidarity and so forth. I’m beginning to lose my voice. I don’t know if we can keep this interview to a limited period, because I have to speak in a while?

SB: Yes. Just one more question?

BT: Yes, sure.

SB: Do you see, when you speak about citizenship, do you see any role for religion in that idea?

BT: Well, I mean there are arguments that a lot of our notions of rights come out of . . . . Some people would argue that a lot of our notions of rights come out of the Protestant Methodist tradition. But, more recently, the Catholic Church was to some extent responsible for developing the concept of human dignity, which was the underpinning to the Declaration of Human Rights. And then, I think, the Christian Democratic tradition was part of this sort-of development. But I think the Sociology of Religion could contribute a more sophisticated understanding of what Judaism is or Islam, or other religions, what Sikhism is about and so on. So as a basic educational role, to undermine false assumptions about – you know – what happens to Muslim women, what Judaism has been about.

SB: Professor Bryan Turner, thank you very much for your time.

BT: Thank you.

Citation Info: Turner, Bryan and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 15 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-political-relevance-of-the-sociology-of-religion/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Politics of this world: Protestant, evangelical, and Pentecostal movements in the Peru

riverEvangelicalism in Peru has become a driving force in politics and decision making across major subjects, such as gender-related policies and institutional power. But it’s relevance today in the current political landscape is only the result of a much larger process, one that started around the end of the nineteenth century, with the entrance of the first protestant denominations and the establishment of their grassroots across the country. In this podcast, professor Juan Fonseca aims to elaborate a brief history of Protestantism, in order to comprehend its current mainstream manifestation.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Podcast with Juan Fonseca

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock  and revised by  Sidney Castillo.

Sidney Castillo (SC): Professor Juan Fonseca is Licentiate in History for Pontificia Universidad Catholica del Peru. He’s also Master in History at this university. His work focuses on the historical development of non-Catholic Christian movements in Peru, mainly Protestant evangelical, and intertwined with an interest in politics and social movements. Welcome Professor Fonseca to the Religious Studies Project.

Juan Fonseca (JF): It’s a pleasure to speak with you.

SC: The pleasure is also ours. Now, we’re here to learn some things about the non-Catholic Christian movements in Peru. In order to do that we would like to know a bit more about the classification of these movements. Since the Protestant and Pentecostal landscape of Peru is, counterintuitively enough, a diverse one in terms of origins, theology and political tendencies, based on your previous research, would you please elaborate a brief specification of these movements?

JF: Of course. In my last writings I have raised a typology of Protestantism. This typology is based in the following aspects. First its historical roots – national level and worldwide level – and some interreligious characteristics, that is to say, the beliefs and the religious practices that make them singular within the set-up of Christianity.

SC: Mmm

JF: This includes. . . There’s two things. There is theology and there are ecumenical practices: a type of religiousness practised by these members.

SC: OK.

JF: And third is the religious emphasis, which includes the ways that this person is articulated in the public sphere. For example, their political attitudes, some of attitudes towards social practices and some ideological points. Moreover, I believe that Protestant and Pentecostal are like two specific faces within Peruvian Christianity. These two faces co-exist in Peru, within the non-Catholic population. These two groups share some theological characteristics, but also they reference the Bible to define the dogma. However, there is a fundamental difference between the symbolic epistemology that constitutes the basis on which the religious practices – or the religious devotes – are constructed. On the one hand Protestantism, which is basically rational religion sustained in the Bible. On the other hand Pentecostalism is a sensorial religion, sustained in the constant intense experience with the numinous. Protestantism is like a religion of modernity, Pentecostalism is a religion of post-modernity and, in this sense, Catholicism is like a religion from pre-modernity. (5:00) About this theoretical base I suggest the following typology. So, two big groups: Protestantism itself and Pentecostalism. In Protestantism itself we can distinguish two groups: mainline Protestantism and evangelical Protestantism. Mainline Protestantism, for example, includes churches like Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian. These churches have a very ecumenical attitude and missiology. Their theology is liberal and their political attitudes are very progressive. And the evangelical group includes some churches, for example, the Christian Missionary Alliance, The Nazareth Church, The Baptist Church, the Anabaptist Church. And their theology is more moderate, not necessarily liberal. Its political attitudes are moderate: centre-right or centre-left. And in the Pentecostal sphere we can distinguish two groups: classic Pentecostalism, for example, some churches like Assemblies of God, Church of God. Pentecostal churches in general, in this field, their theology is more conservative, sometimes fundamentalist. Its religiosity is very pietistic and its political attitudes are more conservative. And the last group, inside Pentecostalism, is the charismatic churches. The charismatic churches, for example include very large Christian communities: Agua Viva is a very large community here in Lima; and Camino de Vida; Emmanuel Church – the Church of Humberto Lay, who is a very outstanding evangelical congressman. These churches are very enthusiastic. Their religion is very conservative theology but these churches have very good work in politics, too, very effective work. But with politics, they’re very conservative, too. So they’re sometimes linked to the political right and their morals are very conservative. I think this is the spectrum, like you said.

SC: That’s a very interesting present-day analysis. But as a historian you, of course, have researched about the very beginnings of non-Catholic denominations in Peru. In that sense especially, what was the relationship between the first wave of Protestant missions and the social movements or institutions that were present in first years of the twentieth century? We could name some like indigenism, syndicate movement, student movement or feminists.

JF: On the one hand, the brothers and missionaries of the early decades of the twentieth century developed a strategy combining the following aspects. (10:00) First, a political objective: the decline of the power of the Catholic Church, which will coincide with the most progressive sectors in different periods. Second, a cultural offer: the Protestants as carriers of civilisation in which they will also receive the support of the liberals. And third, a religious agenda: Protestantism as a confessional eternity programme. Well this strategy was based, on the other hand, in the countries from which it came. In the United States, their so-called social gospel had a strong influence on the missionary group – particularly the Methodists, which is the third denomination in Peru. Although, the more conservative groups such as evangelicals from Great Britain, or other places, had the most pietistic disposition. But they were also clear that socialisation was part of their mission. On that basis, they developed a series of missionary initiatives in the social sphere. For instance: the development of the employment option for women; promoting female employment and education in their schools; or fostering the development of the nursing profession, which at that time was only confined to Catholic nuns. In addition, it is well known the link of the Protestant missionaries with the first leaders of the Peruvian feminism, such as Maria Alvarado. In fact, one of the very old Methodist schools – Lima High School – is Maria Alvarado School. Furthermore, they developed links with indigenous people, several of whose leaders – Manuel Vincente Villarán, Dora Mayer de Zulen – expressed their appreciation for the help with this work. Similarly Protestant missionaries developed some missionary projects within areas such as: the Amazonas,with the Awajún people; or in the Perené, with the Asháninka people; or Puno, with the Aymara people; with the Azangaro people of Puno; and in the area of trade unions and the university movement. The closeness between the Methodist pastor Roberto Alcorta and workers and the labour movements are well-known. In fact, Roberto Alcorta was part of the temperance movement in the beginning of the twentieth century. John A. Mackay, the very renowned Scottish educator, had the very closest links within circles of intellectualism in Lima, in the 1920s. In addition, Presbyterians of the Peruvian school had very close link with some intellectuals and politicians like Victor Raul Haya de la Torre,  Jose Carlos Mariátegui and Victor Andrés Belaúnde.

SC: Now, you talked about the intellectual movements linked with the Christian denominations and all theses initiatives were properly from the first decades of the twentieth century Peru. But nowadays you could trace a little bit from the mid twentieth century, there’s a change in the way that these denominations do pastoral work. In that sense, I would like to ask you . . . .Your research shows that these first waves of Protestant missionaries were agents of modernization, directing their work to many institutions and social groups. But it also refers that in the last fifty years a great portion of Protestant evangelical and Pentecostal denominations aligned themselves with more conservative ideas and political parties. When and why, would you say, is the turning point for this particular way of doing missionary work and overall being Protestant, evangelical or Pentecostal?

JF: (15:00) Well, I think that transformations of social approaches of missionaries started around the 1940s. On the one hand, the global context at this stage of the post-war period and the beginnings of the cold war influenced the conservatism of the Protestant churches. Thus, since the 1950s, new waves of missionaries with an anti-communist mentality and with a pietistic missiological approach focussed basically on proselytising and the spiritualisation of the Christian missions when they arrived. In China, there was a communist revolution during 1940-49 so, two years after, all the protestant missionaries were expelled. Like ten thousand, so most of them came to Latin America with very anti-communist ideas. This was going to be acute in the following case when they were from nations of ideological Christian progressivism: communism, versus the Christian evangelical conservatives who were there. These troubles between the conservative majority and the progressive minority – mainly grouped in the Methodist church and the Christian NGOs – began in the ’60s. Similar to what happened with Catholicism, the nature of the debate was focussed on the ideological dimensions of the Christian mission in communism. In the ’70s, it was clear that theological conservatism had been imposed, but in a moderate version, whose best expression was the Latin American Theological Fraternity, and the Association of Evangelical College Groups of Peru (AGEUP in Spanish). At the side of it, the great evangelical mass – people attached to large denominations – basically developed pietistic religious practices and a fundamentalist hermeneutic. And on the other hand, the complex process of nationalisation of the leadership of the Protestant denominations of course, in that context, just when conservative speech and fundamentalism was in progress. Obviously, that explains why many of the protestant national leadership took a conservative, anti-ecumenical and even fundamentalist speech. So the CONEP (in Spanish): the National Council of Evangelical Churches starts its activities in the 1940s. And the CONEP was, well, the leadership of CONEP was very national – national people. They became institutionally independent but they inherited the ideological imprint of the missionaries from whom they complained. Thus, as we enter into the 1980s the field was ready for the emergence of fundamentalism. Somehow a violence of terrorism delayed that process for a short while, because moderate evangelicalism made this speech, hegemonize at least in evangelical cooperation entities and especially in CONEP, the Evangelical National Council of Peru. Since then, most of their leaders have belonged to the moderate evangelicalism. However, this hegemony began to be questioned by a growing and very well organised fundamentalist force, which caused a big crisis in CONEP. (20:00) So this neo-fundamentalism, represented in the leaders of the charismatic movement, was different from moderate evangelicalism in its mission of the church, and its political ideology. Neo-fundamentalism is not necessarily anti-intellectual. You can even say that it is relatively illustrated and fits very well into the parameters of the democratic party sphere. This neo-fundamentalism is very active, politically speaking, always a part of the agenda of right-wing political groups. Between 1993 and 1995 an outpost of this group decided to take control of CONEP. The damage that this battle produced in the main evangelical institutions was prolonged, although later on the moderate groups would take control of the situation. But the neo-fundamentalists empowered themselves and began to construct the spaces of collective institutions on the basis of which, they would promote their agenda. Thus FIPAC – the International Fraternity of Christian Pastors and the Peruvian Fellowship of Evangelical Pastors – were developed. These institutions are very conservative, very fundamentalist. So throughout the 21st century the strength of neo-fundamentalism and conservative groups has continued to grow. CONEP has been the battlefield between the ultra-conservative groups and the moderate minority that still maintains its presence here. Sometimes CONEP seems a very strange institution, because their presidents – these last years – were always moderate, or even liberal pastors, but when they took the presidency, immediately they acted like prisoners of the conservatives. So the CONEP people say, “Well the president is liberal.” But it’s just a symbolic position, they have no power, no effective power inside the institution. So the UNICEP, the formation of the Union of Christian Evangelical Churches, its partner institutions, different from CONEP, begin a new attempt by the right-wing evangelical groups to hegemonise their reactionary speech. So, an additional factor in this brief history is the influence of the American neo-conservative agenda – the North American conservative agenda. Since the 1980s, the right-wing religious parties have been strengthened considerably in the United States and is globalized in the last decade. So, the objectives of the crusade to the demands of sexual minorities, feminism, and secularism in general, and for a decade their actions have become globalized. I think it is one of the protagonists of, for example, homophobic speech and the practice of Christian conservatism in Peru.

SC: As you may know, on March 12 2016, La Marcha por la Familia y la Vida, or March for Life and Family took place. It is an annual international march organised by the Archdiocese of Lima and gathers most of the conservative Christian and political wings of Peruvian civil society against abortion and same-sex unions. In that sense, what is the current impact of the Pentecostal and evangelical movement as part of a wider conservative coalition in these political struggles. (25:00) Also, why would you say are they so focused on these particular issues?

JF: At present, it is clear that neo-fundamentalists have managed to hegemonise at least on this point. On the Catholic side, the statement of the Episcopal Conference, the Bishop’s Conference, have been clearly reactionary. And at this point, all the wings of the Catholic church handle the same speech, at least publicly. Progressive groups are afraid of saying something for fear or for indifference. Well, but on the Protestant evangelical side, the internal battles which have occurred in the past few years about this subject also show that the neo-fundamentalist speech succeeded in cornering moderates and progressives, in a way that they had to abide to the falling tide, which at this time has been extended by the evangelical churches. The neo-fundamentalists have succeeded in associating their speech with the essentiality of the evangelical identity. I think that the Protestant evangelical members, their identity did not necessarily imply being, for example, homophobic. Thus part of the conservative strategy was to normalise and naturalise the relationship between evangelical religious discourse and fierce opposition to sexual diversity or abortion, and other issues like this. The conservative pressure has been so strong that it has managed to neutralise almost all voices inside the local Protestantism, that began to show some sympathy to the LGBT cause. They have gone with unethical methods many times, but have finally been effective. For example, the campaign for recall of Susana Villarán[1] ecognised the conflict of powers in which the neo-fundamentalists won and important repositioning. There are some similar areas affecting this outbreak of homophobic speech and religious practice of conservative Christianity. On the one hand, theology and Biblical hermeneutics produce the ideological conditions for the constitution of pastoral homophobic discourse to the interior of the churches. On the other hand, the political discourse of religious hierarchies in the public sphere is more and more careful with using religious categories except for less sophisticated groups. Finally, in practice, this trans-confessional alliance of neo-conservatism, or “ecumenical fundamentalism”, has a more active set of actors who are positioned in the various political groupings within the country, as well as in social spaces. Traditionally, they were reluctant to change, for example, the location of the militant institutions. However, the progressive minority, silenced for decades, also begins to build a theological discourse where the practice of the faith are compatible with promotion of sexual diversity rights or some other issues of progressive agenda.

SC: (30:00) Well, now that we have covered the conservative part, I’d like to go to the other side of the spectrum with this the next question. Now we’re facing the second round of presidential elections – on June 5, 2016. While there is a common misconception that being Christian equals being a political conservative – thus favouring religious and secular conservative candidates – a recent statement of an interdenominational Christian collective, favouring a left wing candidate, has been circulated in different social media. Why these kind of political stances hardly find any correspondences in the majority of Peruvian Christians?

JF: Well, I’m not sure that this manifest of progressive Christians, on which I include myself as well, has impacted too much on the electoral decisions of evangelical voters. I think the evangelical voter is more independent than many people believe and votes according to rationales that are not always religious. However I think that, actually, there is an ultra-conservative fundamentalist core that is militant in the anti-rights crusade that its hierarchies have initiated. Although it is a minority, it is very powerful in its media presence. They have managed, as I said, to naturalise the relationship between the Gospel and the conservative media and public opinion in general. Well, in that context, progressive evangelical voices are even less than the fundamentalists, but hold key positions in evangelical institutions, for example the CONEP, the Bible Society, Christian NGOs, some seminaries and even some denominations. In that sense, I think the dissemination of the pronouncements of Christians in favour of Veronika, the left-wing candidate, is a very positive step. Because it shows that some of them are already learning to position themselves in the public debate with the same aggressiveness as conservatives, and articulated with national political actors, in this case, with the left-wing Frente Amplio. In that way, I think that an interesting way has been marked so that, in the future, progressive positions expand their capacity of incidence within the churches and also in Peruvian society in general. And I think it’s very possible.

SC: Well, Professor Fonseca, it has been a pleasure to have you here on the Religious Studies Project. We have learnt a lot about non-Catholic Christian movements that are in our country for more than a century now.

JF: Well thanks for this opportunity.

SC: See you next time.

[1] The mayor of Lima during the period 2011-2014. She was indicted in a widely mediatic process for being, alledgedly, inefficient as a public official. During that process, the several conservative Christian denominations came out to denounce the former mayor for being pro-LGBT rights, since several of her public policies targeted sexual minorities, sex workers, and the like. [Note added by SC]


Citation Info: Fonseca, Juan 2017. “Politics of This World: Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal Movements in Peru”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 17 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.2, 1 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/politics-of-this-world-protestant-evangelical-and-pentecostal-movements-in-the-peru/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

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Of course, you may still send or forward submissions regarding calls for papers, events, jobs, awards, grants, etc. to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com for free advertisement in this (mostly) weekly digest.

Calls for papers

Conference: Radical/ized Religion: Religion as a Resource for Political Theory and Practice

June 9-11, 2017

University of Chichester, UK

Deadline: April 14, 2017

More information

Symposium: CenSAMM: 500 Years: The Reformation and its Resonants

September 14–15, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: April 30, 2017

More information

Events

Conference: The Future of Religion: Civilization or Barbarism

April 24–29, 2017

Dubrovnik, Croatia

More information

Reading Room: Sanskrit

Various dates, spring/summer 2017

University of Oxford, UK

More information

Jobs and funding

One-Year Position: East Asian Religions

Grinnell College, USA

Deadline: June 26, 2017

More information

Lecturer: Religious Studies

Mahidol University, Thailand

Deadline: May 31, 2017

More information

Visiting Lecturer: Buddhist Studies and Tibetan Language

Kathmandu University, Nepal

Deadline: June 29, 2017

More information

Research Fellow: Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre

Birmingham, UK

Deadline: April 28, 2017

More information

South American church-state relations

imgPolitics and social institutions are inseparable. Whether we take a look at small-scale or complex societies, we can find that politics is involved with economics, kinship with hierarchy, and of course, religion with the state. The relationship between the last two has been shaped by numerous processes throughout human history; but, if we place our attention in the history of the western world, we can identify a turning point, one that started with the first waves of enlightened thought (eighteenth century), continuing with the posterior massive drop-out of catholic religiosity, and culminating with the total separation of religion and the state. In this podcast, Sidney Castillo interviews professor Marco Huaco Palomino as he addresses the nuances of secularity in several Latin American countries.

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, Richard Dawkins memorabilia, and more.

Researching Radicalisation

Radicalisation, fundamentalism or extremism, are terms which are highly prevalent in media, public, political, and legal discourse these days, and are surrounded by mystification, rhetoric and ideological assumptions that work against clear, objective, non-partisan understandings of the phenomena they denote. Regular listeners to the RSP will be unsurprised that we look askance at such discourses and aim to take a critical approach to this controversial topic. What might the academy mean by the term ‘radicalisation’? How might we study it? What makes it different from ‘socialisation’? Is there a necessary connection between ‘religion’ – or particular forms of ‘religion’ – and radicalisation? And how might we position ourselves in relation to other actors – in politics, the military, or the media – who have a vested interest in our research?

To discuss these and other issues, we are joined this week by Dr Matthew Francis, Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University and Communications Director for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). In this interview we discuss what we mean by ‘radicalisation’, and what its connections to socialisation, terrorism, and ‘religion’ might be. We take on the methodological question of how one might go about researching such a contested topic, and look specifically at some of Matthew’s findings relating to the causes of radicalisation, and the neo-Durkheimian ‘sacred’. We also reflect on the position of the researcher when approaching topics entangled such vested political interests, negotiating the media, and future research directions.

Be sure to check out other great podcasts on: Zen Buddhism Terrorism and Holy War with Brian Victoria; Sociotheology and the Cosmic War with Mark Juergensmeyer; Religion, violence and the Media with Jolyon Mitchell; Studying “Cults” with Eileen Barker; The Sacred with Gordon Lynch; and Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond with Ian Reader and Paulina Kolata. This episode is the fifth in a series co-produced with Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality” with Naomi Thompson, ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan, and ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie.

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, this BLACK FRIDAY, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cough drops, single malt whiskey, and more.

Difference or Diversity: Promoting Dialogue of Diversity as Religious Studies Professionals

Prof. Martin Stringer, now of Swansea University, once again lends his expertise in religious diversity to the Religious Studies Project. In this podcast, Prof. Stringer discusses the changes the discourse of religious diversity. After years of studying in different locations in the U.K. – Birmingham, London, Manchester – Stringer began noticing a pattern in the way people identify.  Prof. Stringer states it is important to recognize the significant changes to the discourse on diversity. No longer are people identifying based on countries of origin or their ethnicities, but people often proclaim their religious identity as their marker. This is much different from the conversations of the 1960s and 70s, where the conversation is based on the ethnicities migrating throughout Europe.

Stringer mentioned the work of Steven Vertovec, and his concept of “super-diversity.”  According to Vertovec, looking at diversity solely through the lens of ethnicity or country of origin is misleading and one-dimensional (2006, 1). Vertovec’s proposition of “super-diversity” acknowledges that there is a large array of variables that make up the diversity of an area. As researchers, we ought to look into the variables of age, immigration status, languages, gender, and as Stringer mentions, religion.

dividedTo expand upon Vertovec’s theory of super-diversity, Stringer emphasizes the importance for religious studies professionals to develop a language to use when discussing this type of diversity, and be in conversation with our elected officials. According to Stringer, the language used to discuss religion has been secularized so much so that it almost as if we are no longer discussing religion. Cultivating a proper lexicon to discuss religion in public sphere is where religious studies professionals come in. This vocabulary comes in particularly useful when discussing the current atmosphere surrounding immigration and the tension brought on by the refugee crisis. As we start recognizing the differences that make up super-diversity, religion is a key component.

As Stringer points out, discourse is divided along the lines of diversity and difference. When discourse focuses on difference, it divides the subjects along categorical boundaries. These categorical boundaries are socially constructed and further the narrative of “us vs. them”. However, when building discourse surrounding groups that are, yes, different, but focused on the commonalities, that is building a discourse on diversity. Those are the conversations we, as religious studies professionals, need to be having as outreach to the public and to our elected officials. Stringer points out that we must create this lexicon, promote, and make it accessible to the people that do not study religion as in-depth as us. In the case of immigrants and refugees, it is important that we recognize religious differences, and develop that language for the general public and elected officials to use. We can create a discourse of diversity, rather than allowing them to continue with the discourse of difference. If the conversation around migration changes, maybe the culture of suspicion and distrust towards migrants will change to one of welcome and empathy.

At first while listening to this podcast, I was having a difficult time figuring out what angle I wanted to write this response. All of the research Stringer mentions is centered on the U.K. As a student in the United States, I am not familiar with the neighborhoods he mentions nor the discourse he actually observes to draw his conclusions. However, I can relate what Stringer states to a very similar set of issues we are having in the U.S. We have the same issue of correct religious vocabulary to use while discussing religious diversity, the same lack of use of religious studies professionals in the political sphere, heated discussions of immigrants and refugees incited by the discourse of difference, and the division along categorical lines are exacerbated as these conversations persist.

As we have seen over the course of the last few years, the gap between the right and left has increased. Furthering the problematic discourse of difference that Stringer discusses. In agreement with Stringer, I fully believe that religious studies professionals must engage in civic matters more actively. It is not enough that we study the people that make our super-diverse communities. It is not enough that we understand the religious beliefs of the refugees fleeing Syria. In the United States, as in much of Europe, U.S. citizens are divided on whether we should accept more refugees from Syria or bar them and their religious beliefs. My own elected officials have introduced legislation to restrict the flow of refugees from areas with ISIS strongholds, in fear that Muslim radicals would be a part of the admitted refugees. What is my duty as somebody that studies human rights and religion? It is to bring these conversations to light, and lend my expertise to my elected officials. However, we cannot wait to have a seat at this table, but we must create it.

I don’t know if Prof. Stringer had this type of conversation in mind as he sat down with the Religious Studies Project, or throughout his research of super-diversity, but this is a conversation we must also have. We have seen violence increase after the Brexit vote, through a variety of news outlets and perspectives:

In the U.S. we see the vitriol and hate-filled rhetoric expounded by Donald Trump and the far right:

Many of the conversations centered in these situations are focused on the difference between us (citizens of our countries) or them (the migrants). I cannot speak to the discourse that is happening in the U.K., but I can speak to the discourse in the United States. It is one of division, fear, and hate, and one that religious studies professionals can lend their hand to, to calm the discussion and shift the conversation and culture from what makes us different to what our commonalities are to overcome those differences.

Researching Religious Diversity

In Martin Stringer’s Discourses on Religious Diversity (2013a), and in further elaborations (2013b; 2014), he paints a picture of some of the prevalent everyday discourses on ‘religious diversity’ which he and his doctoral students have encountered over several years working in Birmingham, Manchester, London and other cities, bringing a large body of variously ‘circumstantial data’ (Stringer 2013a, 2) into conversation with new and innovatively gathered material (Stringer 2013b) and broader academic literature from anthropology and urban studies.

In this interview, we discuss the broad topic of diversity, contrast this with concepts of ‘difference’, and ask what on Steven Vertovec might mean by the concept of ‘super-diversity’ (2007). We then ask why scholars might be interested in situations of ‘religious diversity’, how they might avoid becoming mere puppets of the state, how this differs from ‘multiculuralism’, and how we might go about doing such research. Using examples from case studies in the Birmingham districts of Highgate and Handsworth, Stringer argues that scholars need to pay attention to the particularities of the localities in question, and that we need to rehink just how we disseminate the results of our research for public usage.

This interview was recorded at the BASR Annual Conference at the University of Wolverhampton, and draws on Professor Stringer’s keynote lecture “Beyond Difference: Challenging the Future for Religious Studies.”

Check out Martin’s previous podcast on ‘Situational Belief’ 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, SPAM, moth balls, and more.


References

Stringer, Martin D. 2013a. Discourses of Religious Diversity: Explorations in an Urban Ecology. Farnham: Ashgate.
———. 2013b. “The Sounds of Silence: Searching for the Religious in Everyday Discourse.” In Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular, edited by Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter, 161–71. Farnham: Ashgate.
———. 2014. “Religion, Ethnicity and National Origins: Exploring the Independence of Variables in a Superdiverse Neighbourhood.” Diskus: The Journal of the British Association for the Study of Religions 16 (2): 88–100.
Vertovec, Steven. 2007. “Super-Diversity and Its Implications.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 30 (6): 1024–54. doi:10.1080/01419870701599465.

Report: 2015 Joint Conferences of the New Zealand and Australian Associations for the Study of Religion

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Bruno Marshall Shirley and John H. Shaver

The biennial conference of the New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions (NZASR) and the annual conference of the Australian Association for the Study of Religions (AASR) were held together in Queenstown, New Zealand from December 8-10 2015. Interdisciplinary perspectives and theoretical approaches across the humanities and social sciences were evident in the wide-range of papers presented. Islam, and Asian religions more generally, were the most consistent objects of focus, perhaps unsurprising given Australasia’s proximity to Asia and recent increased media attention to the Islamic State.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The conference’s emphasis on Asia and Islam were evident in the keynote lectures. In a talk entitled “Creativity and Ethical Life in India,” Tulasi Srinivas (Emerson College) described religious innovations in Bangalore and the sense of “wonder” that they often inspire. She argued that scholars ought to take emerging religious practices seriously, rather than as anomalies or deviations from established, textually-based understandings of religion. Turning to Japan, Douglas Ezzy (University of Tasmania) argued that Shint­ō is best considered a “religion of practice” in contrast to those traditional conceptions of religion as belief-oriented. He suggested that while a non-Christian can attend mass at a Christian place of worship and not be “doing Christianity,” a tourist at a Shint­ō shrine participating in its various ritual practices might be said to be “doing Shint­ō.” For many Japanese Shint­ō is not associated with doctrinal belief (shūkyō), which allows people to engage with Shint­ō ritual practice while not accepting its cosmology. Some in the audience disagreed with Ezzy’s analysis of Shint­ō and its relationship to shūkyō, but his call for a renewed focus on religious practice was generally appreciated. Sally McAra (University of Auckland), looked at one traditionally Asian religion, Buddhism, in the Australasian context. She discussed the problems facing an anthropologist conducting ethnographic research among their own group, principally a difficulty in carrying out objective analyses, due to a positive bias towards group ideals.

The final keynote lecture, from Gary D. Bouma (Monash University), turned to Islam and to Western discourses about the “threat” that each other poses. Bouma argued that both anti-Western and anti-Muslim narratives shared several key features: both narratives assert that the “other” is incorrect in some way; each is reinforced due to media bias; and both narratives are responsible for the perpetuation of conflict. Bouma’s most significant point was that Religious Studies scholars have a responsibility to discredit these discourses – particularly anti-Muslim narratives in the West, such as those put forth by Trump or Abbot. These narratives, Bouma argued, serve to legitimise attempts to gain power at the expense of civil liberties, and/or to divert attention from their own violence (including structural violence, domestic violence, or even climate change).

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper "Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult," in the panel "Religion in/and Politics."

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper “Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult,” in the panel “Religion in/and Politics.”

The panel “Contemporary Religions” continued the central foci on Asian religions and Islam. A paper by Douglas Osto (Massey) (based on his forthcoming book, Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America, Columbia UP, 2016) outlined the history of “Psychedelic Buddhism” from the 1950s into the present, and the changing attitudes of American Buddhist practitioners towards mind-altering drugs. Osto described how some practitioners used psychedelic drugs as a “door” to advanced states of mind, before graduating to “pure” meditation practices, while others (notably Joan Halifax) continued to use drugs to supplement their meditative practices. Although psychedelia has been investigated before, Osto’s study represents the first serious examination of psychedelic Buddhism as a non-systemic religious movement, and is sure to lead to further studies of other hybrid Buddhist practices in the West. Buddhism was also the focus of a panel on “Buddhist Tales and Territories,” which featured a paper by Chaisit Suwanvarangkul (University of Otago) on the relevance of dharmakāya and the tathāgatagarbha doctrine to Therāvada Buddhism, as well as to the Mahāyāna. Suwanvarangkul’s paper was partially in response to an earlier paper by Michael Radich (Victoria University of Wellington), presented at the 2007 Australian Association of Buddhist Studies conference, entitled “There is no Dhammakāya in the Pāli Canon.” Suwanvarangkul’s inclusion of the Chinese Āgama as Theravāda was the subject of some controversy, as Osto pointed out that, despite parallels to the Theravāda nikāya, the Chinese āgama contain several key differences from the Theravāda texts. The panel also included papers by Anna Halafoff and Matthew Clarke (both of Deakin University) on the role of Songdhammakalyani monastery (Thailand) in promoting gender equality; Chiew Hui Ho (University of Sydney) on Chinese tales about the Diamond Sutra and their role in encouraging faith; and Phra Akbordin Rattana (University of Otago) on the model of Buddha devotion expressed in the Mārabandha chapter of the Paṭhamasambodhi-kathā.

Papers in the panel “Religion and the State” shared a common theme of distinctions between “religious practice” and “political actions” breaking down, in cases drawn from China, Japan, and Sri Lanka. Melissa Inoue (University of Auckland) discussed China’s True Jesus Church and its “miraculous” discourse. She argued that by directing attention to this-worldly affairs, the discourse indirectly both critiques and affirms contemporary Chinese society and the stewardship of the party-state. Ben Schonthal (University of Otago) turned to Sri Lanka and the (legal) case of a Buddhist monk who was denied an application for a driver’s license on the grounds that it was not appropriate for monks to drive. He argued that this was fundamentally a problem of contested authority over religious practice in Sri Lanka, arising from an ambiguous constitutionalising of religion. Bruno M. Shirley (Victoria University of Wellington) called for a post-secular rethinking of “religious violence” using the case study of Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Senā. Shirley suggested that explanations for religious violence, generally and in Sri Lanka specifically, have tended to assume a secularist dichotomy of “religion” and “politics” that is inadequate for dealing with the relationship between Buddhism, politics, and violence in Sri Lanka. Shirley suggested instead that we might reconsider this relationship within a framework of identity politics.

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper "Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion," in the panel "Naming Islamism."

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper “Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion,” in the panel “Naming Islamism.”

The panel “Naming Islamism,” was by far the most controversial of the conference. Will Sweetman (University of Otago), Christopher van der Krogt (Massey University), Douglas Pratt (University of Waikato), William E. Shepard (University of Canterbury), and audience members debated whether or not the Islamic State could be considered an authentic iteration of “Islam.” Van der Krogt argued that such a debate represents a misunderstanding of religion, and Islam in particular, while Sweetman argued that there is no basis for denying the Islamic State’s self-identification as Muslim. Several audience members disagreed with this assertion, instead arguing that Islam did indeed have some core norms and values with which the Islamic State does not conform. This panel also included less controversial papers by Shepard (University of Canterbury), on the development of Sayyid Qutb’s views on gender relations, and Pratt, on the Islamic State’s “theological ideology.”

Not all of the panels at the conference focussed on Asia or on Islam, and of these the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) panel is particularly notable for being the most empirically-oriented of the conference. The first NZAVS talk was delivered by the director of the study, Chris Sibley, a psychologist from the University of Auckland. Sibley described the breadth of the study and some of the many challenges inherent to large-scale longitudinal data collection. Joseph Bulbulia (Victoria University of Wellington) then detailed a few of the more significant findings pertaining to religion that have emerged from the NZAVS, including his work on the distinct “faith signatures” that span and defy traditional denominational categorization. Following these talks, Geoffrey Troughton (Victoria University of Wellington) described the history of the “Christian Not Further Declared (NFD)” designation in the New Zealand census, and then used NZAVS data to describe the demographic characteristics of those individuals that have recently come to identify with this tremendously growing group. The panel concluded with John Shaver (Victoria University of Wellington) describing the complex, but unique, picture of religion and prejudice/ tolerance in New Zealand. Although highly religious New Zealanders are more tolerant of many social groups (including ethnic and religious out-groups) than their secular counterparts, they are also less tolerant of some other groups (e.g., homosexuals). Shaver interpreted this pattern as a result of the differential flexibility of human values. He argued that those values associated with conservatism are necessary for the cultural transmission of religion and are therefore less free to vary across cultures, while those that are less relevant to transmission are subject to greater environmental influence.

Perhaps due to the University of Otago’s excellent choice to host the conference in scenic Queenstown, the conference was relatively well-attended by NZASR standards, and a strong Australian presence was a welcome addition to the conference’s academic and social events. While Asia and Islam were focal, the range of perspectives and disciplinary approaches made for interesting discussions, both in panels and informally. The conference demonstrated that the study of religions in New Zealand and Australia continues to broaden its interdisciplinary focus.

Teaching and Learning in Contemporary Religious Studies

As we career forward into the twenty-first century, in a context where more and more students have access to higher education, where technology advances at an exponential rate, and where the logics of neoliberalism and management seemingly creep further into every aspect of everyday life, critical reflection about the role of academics in teaching has never been more necessary. In this our first podcast of 2016, Chris was joined by Dr Dominic Corrywright of Oxford Brookes University in the UK, to discuss current developments in higher education pedagogy, the challenges and opportunities that these present for Religious Studies, and some practical examples from Dominic’s own experience.

Dominic Corrywright is Principal Lecturer for Quality Assurance, Enhancement and Validations, and Course Coordinator for Religion and Theology at Oxford Brookes. Alongside other research interests, including alternative spiritualities and new religious movements, Dominic has a strong research focus on teaching and learning in higher education, and pedagogy in the study of religions. He is Teaching & Learning representative on the executive committees of both the Particularly relevant publications include a co-edited issue of the BASR’s journal DIskus on Teaching and Learning in 2013, including his own article Landscape of Learning and Teaching in Religion and Theology: Perspectives and Mechanisms for Complex Learning, Programme Health and Pedagogical Well-being, and a chapter entitled Complex Learning and the World Religions Paradigm: Teaching Religion in a Shifting Subject Landscape, in a certain forthcoming volume edited by the RSP’s Christopher Cotter and David Robertson.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with Doe Daughtrey on Teaching Religious Studies Online. 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, ink cartridges, My Little Ponies, and more!

NAASR 2015 Annual Meeting: A Report from the Field

The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) held its annual meeting last week in connection with the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) conference in Atlanta, GA. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Matt Sheedy.

The theme for this year’s NAASR panels was “Theory in a Time of Excess,” which aimed to signal a basic problem in the study of religions; that despite increased attention and inclusion of debates on method and theory within the field over the last 30-odd years, it would appear, to quote the description on NAASR’s website, “that few of the many examples of doing theory today involve either meta-reflection on the practical conditions of the field or rigorously explanatory studies of religion’s cause(s) or function(s).” Accordingly, this year’s NAASR panels were designed to re-examine just what we mean by “theory” in the study of religion—e.g., should we follow an inclusive, “big tent” approach, or something more precise?

Be sure to wear your NAASR button! Photo thanks to NAASR.

Be sure to wear your NAASR button! Photo thanks to NAASR.

Four pre-circulated papers were presented on November 20-21, each of which included a panel of respondents:

1 “On the Restraint of Theory,” by Jason N. Blum

2 “What the Cognitive Science of Religion Is (And Is Not),” by Claire White

3 “Of Cognitive Science, Bricolage, and Brandom,” by Matt Bagger

4 “The High Stakes of Identifying (with) One’s Object of Study,” by Merinda Simmons

These panels presented a variety of critical approaches to the study of religion—materialist phenomenology, cognitive science of religion, cognitive science and analytic philosophy, and culture and identity studies—in order to explore some competing ideas of what constitutes “theory” in the study of religion, with responses from a variety of early career scholars who were chosen because of their own distance from the approaches in question.

Some questions and ideas that came out of these well-attended discussions (an average of 40-50 per session, by my count) included:

  • Can we speak about “religious” consciousness and experience without privileging particularistic and ahistorical perspectives?
  • Theory challenges us to realize that we are always fictionalizing our data.
  • What is the role of realism and inter-subjective reasoning in our work? Or, to put it differently, what are the lines between theory and addressing practical concerns as they appear in the social world today?
  • How can we address tensions between “naturally occurring” patterns of human cognition (e.g., the tendency to attribute agency to unknown forces) vs. the role of culture in shaping conceptions of the supernatural in the cognitive science of religion (CSR)?
  • Can religion be explained scientifically, as many CSR scholars would have it, or is the term religion itself too unstable to signify a coherent object of study?
  • Can we still talk about “religious belief” in the study of religion?
  • What is new about the “new materialism” (e.g., the return to questions of the body)? Is it merely repeating the idea of “lived religions” or something else altogether?
  • To what extent does one’s position in the academy (e.g., as a grad student, adjunct, or professor) determine what they can and cannot say in terms of their desire to critique certain aspects of the field?

During the NAASR business meeting, it was announced that Steven Ramey will be joining Aaron Hughes as the new co-editor of the NAASR-affiliated journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, and that the panel proceedings from this year’s conference will be turned into a book with Equinox Publishing. Providing opportunities for early career scholars was a constant topic of discussion at the conference, as well as the need to draw in new members—though it was noted that there was a significant spike in membership in 2015.

This year’s Presidential Panel featured two papers:

“Theory is the Best Accessory: Some Thoughts on the Power of Scholarly Compartmentalization,” by Leslie Dorrough Smith (Avila University)

“Compared to What?: Collaboration and Accountability in a Time of Excess,” by Greg Johnson (University of Colorado at Boulder)

Leslie Dorrough Smith and Greg Johnson. Photo thanks to NAASR.

NAASR Presidential Panel: Leslie Dorrough Smith and Greg Johnson. Photo thanks to NAASR.

Both of these presenters, along with those in attendance, were encouraged to read an unpublished essay on NAASR’s history by Don Wiebe and Luther Martin, which was written on the occasion of NAASR’s 20th anniversary, some 10 years ago. The purpose of this panel, now some 30 years after NAASR’s inception, was to explore how the organization can “continue pressing the field in novel, rigorous, and interesting directions,” and “to help us think through where the cutting edges may now be in the field.”

Sunday afternoon included a well attended workshop entitled, “…But What Do You Study?”: A NAASR Workshop on Theory & Method in the Job Market. Here a variety of early career scholars were broken up into groups, each with a more established scholar, to discuss strategies such as crafting a Cover Letter and what to include in one’s CV.

The final NAASR panel, co-sponsored with the SBL, was entitled “When Is the Big Tent too Big?” Following the description on the NAASR website, this panel sought to address the following question: “What are the strengths and weaknesses of the ‘big tent” philosophy that governs much of the disciplines of religious studies and biblical studies as represented in many academic societies, the publishing industry, and many colleges and universities?” Some of the questions/ideas raised by the panelists included:

  • The structural need for a big tent given the relative size of NAASR as compared with the AAR and SBL
  • What counts as reasonable, constructive scholarship and what goes too far (e.g., the “anything goes” approach)?
  • The need to highlight the role of ideology, power, and interests
  • An adequate secondary discourse should be neutral in terms of who can do it (i.e., it should privilege certain insiders and aim for theories that all scholars of religion can apply)
  • When is the tent to big? When it forgets its purpose as scholarship? When it covers up its own history?
  • Proposing the need to declare conflicts of interest when one is claiming academic legitimacy (i.e., where one is receiving funds from, relevant organizations they belong to, etc.).

All in all, the format of this year’s conference was deemed a success, and discussions are currently underway for adopting a similar format for the 2016 conference in San Antonio, TX, including another workshop for early career scholars looking to make their way in a challenging market.

 

 

 

 

 

Podcasts

Religion, Education, and Politics in Australia and NZ

Following on from the delivery of her conference paper at the EASR 2018 in Bern, in this podcast, Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University speaks to Thomas White regarding the historical, national and regional differences in the presence of religion in Australian and New Zealand schools. The podcast begins with a brief biography of Professor Maddox’s rise to academic tenure, and the various post-doctoral positions that paved her transition away from theology, and towards the subject of religion and politics.

Covering projects including the training of Catholic school teachers and deputy-principals in secular religious education, her research into the Hindmarsh Island affair – which investigated Aboriginal women’s claims to ‘secret women’s business’ – and her work under the Australian Parliamentary Research Fellowship, the discussion turns to national differences between public religion in New Zealand and Australia. Contrasting Australian multi-culturalism with New Zealand bi-culturalism, Professor Maddox explains how, despite New Zealand being further along a path of secularisation (by religious affiliation), religion often obtains a greater presence in the public sphere as it is carried on a policy of cultural recognition for Maori tradition, as mandated in the country’s Treaty of Waitangi. This was particularly evident with the daily expression of Maori karakia (prayers) in her daughter’s school, which later transpired to be the Lord’s Prayer!

Focusing on the Australian experience of public policy on religion and education, Maddox explains how 19th Century Australian concerns regarding both sectarianism and protecting religion from political manipulation led to a surprising consensus across colony parliaments that religion should be kept out of the public school system. In the late 20th Century, however, ‘currents of change are pulling in different directions’.

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, Men at Work’s “Business as Usual” album, Vegemite, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Religion, Education and Politics in Australia and NZ

Podcast with Marion Maddox (26 November 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White.

Transcribed by Thomas White and Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Maddox_-_Religion,_Education_and_Politics_in_Australia_and_NZ_1.1

Thomas White (TW): Well it is a beautiful morning here on the penultimate day of the EASR in Bern, and I’m delighted to be joined by Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University in Sydney. Marion is a Professor of Politics at Macquarie and she has PhDs in Theology from Flinders, and another PhD in Philosophy from the University of New South Wales. It is probably no exaggeration to say that Professor Maddox is the leading authority on questions of religion and politics in Australia, and it is an absolute pleasure to have you with us in the recording studio this morning. Professor Maddox, welcome!

Marion Maddox (MM): Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.

TW: So, your paper was delivered on Monday. Today’s Wednesday, so we’re a couple of days down the line. But I thought perhaps before going into the paper, as a first question to ease us into the interview, could you please tell us a little about how you became a Professor of Religion and Politics in Australia?

MM: Yes, well, sort-of by mistake! I did a PhD in Theology, and by the time I’d finished I was very sure that I didn’t want to work for the Church – which is pretty much the only thing you can do with a PhD in theology in the normal kind-of career progression in Australia. So I applied for jobs all around the place. And the one I happened to get . . . which was not what I imagined myself doing, but you know how it is when you finish your PhD and you apply all around the place, and you get what you happen to get. The one that I happened to get was in a fabulous department that no longer exists in the University of South Australia. And what we did was provide teacher training to teachers of Religious Studies. Because, in those days, South Australia had thought that it was going to have a non-confessional RE programme for teachers in public schools, and they had set up this whole department to train the teachers for it. But what had actually happened was that that programme was never implemented, and instead we provided teacher training for Catholic schools mainly. Our main clientele was Catholic schools’ deputy principals, who had to get a degree in Religious Education in order to get the next step on their promotion. And so we were kind-of a service provider for the Catholic Education Office. And then ACU (the Australian Catholic University) got set up and so we lost that client base, and the department isn’t there anymore. But it was a fantastic department, and I learnt there what non-confessional RE – Religious Education, education about religions – is, because we were providing it to all these Catholic school teachers. We would see them come in and think that Religious Education was catechesis, and then they would go through this programme and they would discover that there is this whole other way to think about religion. I worked there for 5 years as I was on contract, and then my contract ran out. Then I cast around and applied for jobs, and the one that I happened to get, again, was in Australian Politics, at the University of Adelaide. And while I was doing that I thought, “Hang on a minute! There’s all this work on religion and politics in America, but no one is doing anything on religion and politics in Australia. But there is a huge story here!” And while I was doing that two-year contract in Politics at the University of Adelaide, a big story was in the paper every single day, on, and on, and on. In fact, it started while I was still in Religious Studies at the University of South Australia. And that was the Hindmarsh Island Royal Commission, which anybody who lives in South Australia will still know what that is about straight-away – it was on the front page of the Adelaide Advertiser for a couple of years. It was an inquiry into whether a group of Aboriginal women from South Australia had fabricated so-called “secret women’s business” – which is now a phrase in Australian vernacular but it wasn’t until then – which was a set of traditional beliefs that, because they were secret, they hadn’t talked about before. So wider Australia went, “We’ve never heard of this, you must have made this up!” But the point of it was that these beliefs were about a tract of water between Hindmarsh Island and the mainland. And its sacredness, these women said, should prevent a marina being built, that was wanted to be built by some developers. And so this whole question of “Should sacred sites stand in the way of development?” blew up into a question about “Do Aboriginal peoples make up traditions in order to stop development?” and “Are they being manipulated by ‘Greenies’?” And so there was a series of inquiries. So this question of how non-Aboriginal Australia deals with questions of sacredness seemed to me to be a very religions-and-politics question that mainstream Australia did not have a vocabulary to deal with. So I wrote quite a lot about that. And then, when my University of Adelaide ran out (laughs) . . . . It seems my academic trajectory has been really shaped by the conditions of the labour market! I then applied for, and got, the Australian Parliamentary Fellowship which was a fantastic programme run by the parliamentary library which still exists but, I think, in not as a good a form. But in those days it was a one year programme where you worked in parliament as a research fellow for a year, where you spent half your time doing an individual independent research project, and the other half of the time supplying information for members and senators on anything they ask about. And my independent research project was about religion and Australian parliamentary processes. And I wrote my first book which was called For God and Country: Religious Dynamics in Australian Federal Politics, which was the only Parliamentary Fellowship monograph ever to sell out, and go to a second printing! And it is now available on-line for a free pdf download. And then, after that, I got my first permanent job – Yes! – at the Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand. And there we had a course on Religion and Politics. So there’s a long answer!

TW: Oh well, OK! This segues nicely with a question that I was going to ask towards the end but: the situation of politics and religion in Australia, and the situation of politics and religion in New Zealand – was it quite a shift going to Victoria, after developing all your expertise on your situation in Australia?

MM: It really was. I was quite, well . . . I had been to New Zealand once. I did the interview over the phone, so I had only been there once, years earlier, for a conference. So I did not really know anything about New Zealand, except that I heard this rumour that they have really good coffee – which proved to be true!

TW: Excellent coffee, yes!

MM: Yes, yes! And that was such a wrench, coming back! But when I got to Wellington, I remember going to my first faculty meeting and thinking, “I’m going to have to get a dictionary!” Because there was so much Maori language which is used as just a matter of course, in everyday discourse, from university management and in university processes. And I didn’t know what all these words meant. So if you are a student, and a student has a problem, you are allowed to bring whanau support, you know, so I didn’t know. I learnt. But it was a very sharp learning curve, and that required a whole sort of cultural shift. And when I moved back to Australia it was a culture shock again, to have that indigenous perspective suddenly not present in university processes. So that was one thing that I noticed. And the political system, when we moved to New Zealand. New Zealand had only quite recently made the shift to MMP, multi-member proportional voting, whereas Australia uses single transferable vote in the lower house and a version of proportional representation in the upper house. And so I learnt that the voting system has quite a strong effect, which I hadn’t really . . . I’d kind-of intellectually known, but I hadn’t really seen it in action. And so I hadn’t really, viscerally, appreciated the effect it can have on, like, the way that religious interests can have an effect in electoral politics. And while we were in New Zealand there was that dramatic election when a religiously influenced party, United Future New Zealand, got an unexpectedly big vote and, effectively, the balance of power in the New Zealand parliament. So, I learnt a lot things and I did have to go on a sharp learning curve, and I couldn’t kind-of, be an expert on New Zealand politics straight away. I had to make a quick catch-up.

TW: Well, that’s interesting. So trying to rephrase that in very broad brush, and perhaps overly clumsy positioning: is there the implication that New Zealand is a bit more open to ethnic difference – in terms of the Maori having much stronger representation within the political system – this is carried over to more access for religion within the public space, or more representation for religion in the public space in New Zealand, than in Australia?

  1. MM. Well, I would say it is a different kind of presence. Australia has a history of a strongly articulated policy of multiculturalism, which has been under increasing attack over the recent decade or two. But multiculturalism became official policy in 1974, and for a long time there was quite a strong infrastructure of policy and practice to support that. Whereas, New Zealand’s policy is biculturalism, so that has kind of made different spaces for religious communities to be present in the public space. New Zealand is further down the secularisation path than Australia is, if we think of secularisation meaning the religious practice of the majority of the population. So in the last Australian census, 54% of Australians claimed to be of some sort of religious adherence. I’m not sure what the figure is for New Zealand, but New Zealand got to that 50%, just over that 50%, a couple censuses ago. So I imagine it’s lower now. But the striking difference about religion in the public space that I noticed when I lived in New Zealand is that, in New Zealand Maori make up not only a bigger proportion of the population, but also a much more cohesive proportion of the population than Aboriginal people – Aboriginal People and Torres Strait Islanders – do in Australia. So indigenous Australians are about 2-3% of the population whereas Maori, at the time I was living there, were about 15%. And the other big difference is that Maori have a common language, whereas Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders have many different language groups: there were about 500 different language groups at the time of European contact. So, for example, when I enrolled my daughter in primary school in Wellington, on her first day, when she was 5, we went along to Newtown primary and there was a ceremony to welcome to the new students. And it was forty-five minutes long and every last word of it was in Maori! And all the little pakeha kids, like my daughter, just had to sit there and . . . sit there politely and listen. And the principal made a quite long speech – I guess about 15 minutes long – and every now and then a smattering of people in the audience laughed and the rest of knew that he’d made a joke! And there was a haka, and my daughter had never seen a haka before – having just come from Australia – so she was just kind of gobsmacked! And then, once she started at school, everyday started with a karakia – which is a Maori prayer which is offered at the beginning of something important – which is in Maori. And the children who didn’t speak Maori didn’t know what the content of the karakia They just knew this was something that they had to pay respectful attention to. And then, one day we were sitting in a church service and the vicar said, “We will now chant the Lord’s prayer in Maori”, and my daughter said in a triumphant state, “I know this!” And only at the point did she realise that what she had been saying every day in school was actually with Christian content, but delivered in Maori language. So there is a lot more kind-of theological presence in New Zealand public life through the Maori traditions than there is in Australia – partly because of the Treaty obligation to respect Maori tradition, much of which has Christian content. So that was a bit of an eye-opener to me, in the way that religious meaning can be present in public life.

TW: Yes, it gets carried in the representation of Maori voices, yes. Excellent, that’s an interesting contrast taking place there. So throughout your career very much looking at public policy, you mentioned in your paper that you take great value from Bacchi’s approach to public policy in terms of “framing the problem”. Could you, perhaps, please explain to our listeners what that’s about?

MM: Well, yes. So Carol Bacchi was, in fact, one of my colleagues at the University of Adelaide. And see developed this approach called ‘What’s the problem represented to be?” which is a problem-framing analysis technique that she has very successful disseminated – particularly to Australian public policy practitioners, and the people working on the boundaries of academia and public service. And so it’s taking off from the observation, that anyone working in policy-framing is aware of, which is that how you frame the question has a big influence on how you find the solution. So if the problem is traffic congestion, if you think the problem is not enough roads, then you build more roads. But then you’ll still end up . . . because all that happens is that everyone takes their cars out, and you end up with still more blocked roads. So is the solution to traffic congestion more roads? Or is it having to think about traffic in a different way? So she developed this six-point technique, based on a Foucauldian set of assumptions, where you ask, in any particular policy framework: what is problem represented to be? Why is the problem represented to be this way? What assumptions underlie this problem representation? How could it be represented differently? And whose interests are being served by representing it in this way rather than some other way? And, what if we represent it in a different way? Or what different problem representations can we come up with? And who would benefit or lose when we represent it in different ways? And what consequences would flow from different problem representations? So I was applying that approach to looking at the way questions about secular education have been framed and applied in the 19th and 21st Century in Australia and France.

TW: Yes. So, I really enjoyed the paper.

MM: Thank you.

TW: It think it got a really good response from the audience: the comparative analysis of the trajectories of religion in schools in France and Australia. I think probably, most of our Listeners, they would be more familiar with the France situation because of the veil, and that’s received a lot of popular attention. So, starting with Australia, what’s the story regarding religion in schools in Australia? How has that developed?

MM: Well, the story about education in Australia goes back to before it was a country, and was a set of colonies. The Australian colonies federated in 1901 – and, at the time, everyone thought New Zealand was going to join in as well, but it didn’t – and each of the colonies started out with the schools being mainly provided by churches, because that was who had the resources to do it. And then, as they were scrambling to set up local infrastructure, gradually, they were governed directly from the UK. And then they established local parliaments and then the parliaments set up school systems. And so there is a very good record in the local Hansards, the records of parliamentary debates, about the parliamentarians debating what kind of school system they should set up. And they all, each of the parliaments in turn, debated whether religion should be put into the public schools, and should the parliaments or governments be subsidising religious schools alongside the public system? And each of them decided, for very similar reasons – and the same debates were had in parliament after parliament – “No. They should not be subsidising religious schools, and they should not have religion taught in the public schools.” And both of those things for the same reason: namely, that children should be encouraged to go to public schools because they wanted to overcome the problem that they’d perceived which was sectarianism that was dividing . . . . The biggest potential division in their communities was sectarianism. And so divisions between Catholic and Protestant students was the main division. But other divisions like between . . . . Particularly in South Australia, they talked a lot about . . . they imagined a future colony where there might be Jewish and Muslim students as well, and maybe Buddhists they mentioned. In the 19th Century parliaments they thought that the best way was for all of those students to be educated side-by-side and to grow into one cohesive community. And they thought that any attempt . . . . They wondered, “Could there be some non-denominational Christianity?” or could there be some sort of . . . ? “Er, no. That won’t work. Because that will still exclude the little Jews and Buddhists.” “Could we teach some general religion that doesn’t offend anybody?” But they sort-of flirted with that idea for about five minutes and then realised that isn’t going work.

TW: Yes, you’re always going to offend somebody.

MM: Yes. So, in the end, they concluded that the only way was just not to have religion in the public schools. And all the people in the debates were very religious people by and large, or fairly religious people; they were not anti-religion. In fact, some of them were very devout. And some of them said that religion is simply too important to let it be politicised by letting it be kicked around in the education debates: “We need to protect religion by keeping it out of the public schools.” And churches also, some of them, wanted to have the Bible in schools. But some of them, like the Congregationalists in Australia, they passed a series of motions through their Synod, saying that the Bible needed to be kept out of public schools to protect it from being turned into a fetish or being turned into a political football. So there was quite a unified – surprisingly, to me – unified view across the religious and non-religious spectrum – but the non-religious spectrum in 19th Century Australia was minute – but that religion didn’t belong in public education.

TW: And we’re still talking here religious instruction – a values-based religion-type education – as opposed to the RE that you might get in more contemporary schooling systems, which is just exploring descriptive aspects of religion?

MM: Yeah. But the exception was New South Wales. And because New South Wales is so big, a lot of the debate that we have now takes the New South Wales experience as normative. But, actually, New South Wales was really the exception. And what New South Wales did was that it was the last state to pass . . . or colony, to pass its secular Education Act in 1880, and it was also the most equivocal. Because the sectarian issue was the fiercest in New South Wales. But it kept something called ‘General Religious Education’ in its Education Act and that was where teachers could give general religious information, which the 19th Century legislators thought was going to be a kind of non-denominational Christian RE, not education-about-religions education as we think about it now. There was going to be some Bible instruction but without dogmatic commentary. And New South Wales also kept in a capacity for ministers of religion to come in for up to an hour a day – but nobody actually did that – to instruct members of their own denomination: an in-house catechetical instruction.

So the more education-about-religions, as an educational subject, by and large, is still not taught in Australian schools. There is a little element in the Civics curriculum, in the National Curriculum. But I think it would be true to say that most Australian students wouldn’t notice that they’d received it. A bit about, you know, the religions of your neighbours. And in New South Wales, there is also a Studies of Religion which you can take in the last two years at High School as an optional subject. Nearly everyone who takes it takes it from private schools, religious schools. But it is a very good programme in that it is seriously non-confessional RE, and you can’t just do it in one tradition. Like if you are a Catholic school . . . . Most Catholic schools make Catholicism one of their traditions, but you have to do another one.

TW: Is that an initiative that is coming out of the Catholic Church itself, or is this something that is coming out of the national education body?

MM: No, it’s overseen by the Board of Studies, which is the New South Wales education. And although the majority of students that take it are in private schools, some public schools offer it as well, and some students take it as an independent study unit.

TW: OK. But as your paper was suggesting there is a wind of change blowing through the Australian education system – or ever since John Howard, anyway – where things, perhaps, are moving in a different direction. Is that correct?

MM: Well, there are currents of change pulling in different directions. So actually, even going back before John Howard there has been a move of increasing segregation in Australia’s education. So Gough Whitlam actually – the hero of progressive politics – he, in 1973, introduced a huge change which was to bring back public funding of private schools. He also greatly increased school funding across the board, so there was just so much largesse going around the schools, that it didn’t create a great deal of protest. And also he directed it towards the most needy, poor Catholic schools. But every reiteration of the funding arrangements since then has been to the benefit of wealthier schools and to the detriment of the public school system. So we now have a very segmented school system where large numbers of wealthy schools are funded over their official allocation, because they’ve managed to do special deals where they get funding for their running costs, and on top of that for their building programmes, and for additional special projects. And the funding allocation of public schools has gone down, proportionally.

TW: And it’s the private schools that are more often the religious-run schools?

MM: Over 90% of private schools in Australia are attached to Christian denominations, one way or another. And whereas public schools are officially secular, the other change – that is a Howard change – is that public schools also have increasing amounts of religious presence in them. For example, through the National Schools Chaplaincy Programme, which is a government-funded programme which puts almost exclusively Christian chaplains in public schools. And another Howard change is that the make-up of the private school market has changed with the easing of the regulations for small private schools – most of which tend to be from the more conservative-evangelical end of the spectrum.

TW: Are these changes actually done with a religious motive, or a motive of actually helping religions gain a larger foothold in education? Or is this actually due to kind-of changing educational policy in relation to the freedom of institutions to develop their own curricula, or to have more autonomy from national or state education bodies?

MM: I think, from looking at Howard’s statements for why he was making those changes, I’d say it was a combination of things. The Liberal Party, which was his government, the Liberal Government, their general preference is for private providers rather than public provision. Not on the basis of any educational evidence, but that’s just . . . . They oversaw out-sourcing of public services in a whole range of areas and education was one. I do, however, think he had a deliberate strategy of courting the conservative Christian end, the conservative Christian demographic. Because, before he came to power in 1996, he had identified progressive churches as one of a series of groups, including feminists, academics, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the environmentalists, he had this list of people . . .

TW: The usual troublemakers . . .

  1. MM. Yes, that’s right! . . . who had blocked reforms that his predecessors in the Liberal Party had tried to implement, and liberal Christians were one his targeted groups. And so, when he got in in 1996, he embarked on a programme of telling progressive churches to get back in their box, and stick to talking about spiritual matters. And at the same he went out his way to go to Hillsong Church conventions; to do this thing of easing the regulations for small Christian schools; to make a series of statements on conservative so-called “family values” issues; to complain about political correctness, and generally sort-of court that so-called Christian-values/conservative-values end of the religious spectrum – which is actually only a very tiny proportion of the population of Australia. Australia doesn’t have a big S Christian right market, but he was talking that sort of language. And this was the same time that George Bush was aligning himself with the U.S. Christian right. And Howard was echoing, in a more muted way, that same sort of language and appealing, in Australia, to . . . not so much of an existent evangelical-voter-base, but more to a part of the population that doesn’t go to church, but thinks that values are a good idea: “Christians seems to have them, maybe. Society is falling apart, and maybe we ought to stick with the person who appears to know what values are and where they are to be found.”

TW: So, to summarise: where the Australian education system started out with a strong commitment to keeping religion out of its education system, in the name of openness and inclusivity, under the Howard government, religion, and specifically Christian values, are making a quiet return as an educational resource, largely to push against a liberal politics in Australia. And, indeed, confirming some of the earlier reservations in the 19th Century about religion in education becoming a political resource. Fascinating. Professor Maddox, thank you very much for your time and expertise. And thank you to our Listeners for tuning in.


Citation Info: Maddox, Marion and Thomas White. 2018. “Religion, Education and Politics in Australia and NZ”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 November 2018. Transcribed by Thomas White and Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 October 2018. Available at: http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-education-and-politics-in-australia-and-nz/ 

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Protected: Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature (Classroom Edit)

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Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered… and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining Chris today to discuss these questions and more, is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University.

This interview was recorded at the June 2018 EASR Conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, where Susannah has delivered a paper entitled “What Gender is ‘Nature’? An approach to new age ecospirituality in theory and practice.” This interview was graciously facilitated by Moritz Klenk, and his podcast studio!

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

Podcast with Susannah Crockford (1 October 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Crockford_-_Ecospirituality,_Gender_and_Nature_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (C.C.): In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered . . . and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining me today to discuss these questions and more is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University. So for a start, Susannah, to the Religious Studies Project, welcome!

Susannah Crockford (SC): Thank you! Welcome.

CC: We are recording in Bern, at the European Association for the Study of Religion Conference, where Susannah has been delivering a paper earlier on called “What Gender is nature? An Approach to New Age Ecospirituality in Theory and Practice.” So I had the pleasure of being in the room. But before we get to today’s conversation I’ll just tell you that Dr Crockford’s a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Literary Studies at Ghent University, which works on the NARMESH, or Narrating the Mesh project, investigating the contemporary narrative of the interrelations between humans and large gamut of non-human realities and its potential for staging, challenging and expanding the human imagination of the non-human. The research interests centre on the use of ethnography to explore narratives of spirituality, millenarianism and climate change. Her doctoral thesis was entitled “After the American Dream: Political Economy and Spirituality in Northern Arizona”. And that was awarded in July 2017 by LSE, following which she spent 9 months as a research officer for INFORM or the Information Network on New Religious Movements. And she has a number of forthcoming articles and chapters on topics relevant to today’s interview coming out in Religion, State and Society, Correspondences, Novo Religio and the Dictionary of Contemporary Esotericism. So, watch this space! I suppose some of them might have changed from forthcoming to published by the time this goes out, who knows?

SC: Probably. Hopefully. You never know.

CC: Yes. Academic publishing is a wonderful, wonderful world!

SC: We love it. We love it. (Laughs).

CC: So, we’re going to get to your case study in Arizona soon, but first of all: gender, nature, ecospirituality – how do you get here?

SC: How did I get here was very much through my fieldwork. Because these were the kind-of topics that came up when I was in Sedona and other places in Arizona. People talked about nature in a very gendered way. It was very striking to me just how much these discourses came up. So it was very much an empirical interest. I didn’t really set out to study ecological issues, or ecospirituality. I mean, I thought nature would be relevant when I got to the field. But I wasn’t so concerned with gender. But it’s kind-of one of these topics that it was going to be in my thesis, and then I didn’t have space. So I kind-of pushed it to one side. And then, for this conference, it kind-of came back. And I was like, “Oh yes! Now I can write my thing about gender and ecospirituality” and how New Age spirituality really kind-of inverts this gender binary, I think in a quite interesting, but also problematic, way. So that’s how it came about.

CC: Well how did you, more broadly, end up in Arizona?

SC: That’s a really good question.  And, I mean, there are several ways that I can date it back to. But let’s just say for the sake of simplicity I ended up in Arizona because I wanted to do a project on contemporary esotericism and I discovered Sedona, which is in Arizona, through a quite tragic case, actually of James Arthur Ray. He set himself up as this spiritual guru. And he ran a sweat lodge as part of a longer Rainbow Warrior workshop, where people paid $9000 to go and “unleash your spiritual warrior within”. And it was held in Sedona. And then three people died in this sweat lodge. It was in 2009. And I was reading about that in the news, because I was doing a lot of work on Shamanism at the time. And I was like, “Oh, That’s terrible.” But then I was like, “Oh there’s this place called Sedona that’s full of these New Age people and full of these things that they call vortexes. That would be a great place for an ethnographic study on contemporary esotericism!” So that, very briefly, is how I ended up in Arizona doing my fieldwork.

CC: I could ask you now to introduce us to Sedona, but maybe I should say first of all – because ecospirituality’s going to be coming up probably throughout the introduction . . . . So I know this is a very broad question but, in terms of the next twenty minutes, what are we meaning by ecospirituality? And then we’ll hear more about it.

SC: Yes, so I’m going to define it in a really simple way – which obviously some people might find simplistic – but: finding nature is, in some form, divinised, or finding divinity in nature. And doing that outside of the framework of some organised religion. So I think the difference between ecospirituality and say, like the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change, for example. Like you can be concerned for the environment as a mainstream Christian, but I don’t think that’s ecospirituality. Because God, specifically, is not in nature for them. For people who are in some way engaged in ecospirituality the divine is in nature. It’s pantheistic. And it comes up in lots of different forms. Paganism is obviously a really prominent one, Wicca, and it’s obviously very prominent in New Age spiritualties that see nature as part of the energy of the universe, but in a very kind-of high vibrational form. So the energy of nature is one that has a very kind-of high spiritual level. So there’s a very clear association between nature and spirituality and, as we’ll get onto, women and femininity.

CC: And so it’s not environmentalism, and things like that?

SC: No. And that’s actually one of the main points I was making, today: that just because you find spirituality in nature, you think that nature has something to do with your understanding of God, doesn’t mean that you will actually engage in actions that might be considered environmentally friendly, or ecologically engaged, or in fact have anything to do with mitigating largescale ecological problems like pollution and climate change. These are separate things.

CC: Yes. And to the audio editors, we’re going to start banging the table!

SC: Sorry, I need to gesticulate!

CC: It’s alright. Hit me, instead of the table.

Both: (Laugh).

CC: Right. So let’s set the scene then. So, Sedona – a small town in Arizona. What makes it so interesting? You mentioned the vortexes earlier and things . . .

SC: Yes. So Sedona is a fascinating town. It is in Northern Arizona, which is higher up than Southern Arizona. So it’s not low desert with the big Saguaro cactuses which come to most people’s minds when they think about Arizona. It’s up in the mountains, it gets cold in the winter. They even have snow sometimes, but it’s also still, quite hot. Sedona has a river – which is quite rare in Arizona. So it has a fresh water source. So it has the incredible kind-of red rock canyons and the river running through it. There’s trees growing everywhere. So it’s very different from the rest of Arizona. And it’s this sense of landscape that is both striking and substantially different from that around it which I think makes it stand up in human perception as something that this is different enough that “I will perceive it, in some way, maybe, sublime – or even something to do with the divine.” Because a lot of people who live there think that Sedona is a sacred space, whether or not they’re engaged in New Age spirituality. People I spoke to there who were Christians said, you know, “This is a place where God has kind-of bestowed something special on the human race.” Because it is a very beautiful place. So it’s a town of about 17000 people. It is within the Red Rock Canyon. It has one main highway and then another bit splits off to a slightly southern community that’s called the Village of Oak Creek. But they’re all basically Sedona, they’re all pretty much one place. Even though municipally they’re two different places. And Sedona is a tourist resort. It has a lot of kind-of hotels and it has a lot of spas and timeshares, and people go there to enjoy nature, to go on holiday. A lot of people who own property there, own it as a second home. There’s even some kind-of super-rich people there, like John McCain who’s a Republican Senator, Sharon Stone apparently owned a house up the hill from where I first rented a room, in uptown. So there’s these three main locations in Sedona. Uptown has a lot of the stores and a lot of the very wealthy houses. You’ve got West Sedona where there’s a lot of the services, like the Post Office and the school. And it’s where a lot of my informants lived, because it’s a lot cheaper. And then you’ve got the village of Oak Creek which where a lot of retirees live. Because it’s a good place. There’s this phenomena in America of Snowbirds – of people who, once they retire, go and live somewhere sunny for the winter. And then, for the hot months – which are very, very hot – they go back up north to Michigan or Canada or wherever they’re from. So there’s a lot of Snowbirds in Sedona. So, as a town, it’s quite . . . I don’t know, it’s quite typical of small town America in lots of ways. You know, there’s the older people who own all the property and the young people work all the jobs, but don’t really have any resources. And then you’ve also got these things called vortexes. So there’s two ways of talking about the vortexes. Either you can say that there’s four, around town, which are all these kind-of very prominent red rock formations. There are lots of other red rock formations and they have all kinds of names. There’s one called Snoopy, because it looks a bit like Snoopy lying on his back. I never quite saw it myself, but you know people told me it looked like Snoopy anyway. And there’s Cathedral Rock which apparently used to be called Court Rock. And there’s another rock called Courthouse rock. And they got mixed up, and then suddenly Cathedral Rock became Cathedral Rock instead. So this is kind-of like historicity to the naming of the rocks. But they’re also given this kind-of eternal, almost like Eliadian essence of the divine, where people say, “No. They have this special energy. The Native Americans knew about this special energy, that’s why it was sacred to the local tribe s that lived here.” And the reason that people now say there are vortexes there is because this energy emanates from the earth – you know, it’s a real part of the landscape and that’s why we’re drawn there. So people do move there to go and have spiritual experiences. You know, people go on vacations and you know, there’s a lot of services there that cater for this market as well. You can get your aura photograph taken, you can go on a vortex tour. You can have a Shaman take you round to power spots and do rituals with you. So there is a market to it. But there’s also people who genuinely engage with these practices and move there because they feel like it’s a part of their spiritual path. They move there. They would tell me that they were called to Sedona that “the energy drew them in”. And then if they had to leave it was “the energy that spat them out”. And some people would say it was quite a common discourse in Sedona, that the energy could get so intense it could literally drive you crazy. There was a story of a woman who said that she had to leave because “the Red Rocks were screaming at her”. So, you know. There’s this idea that this is a very special place, it’s a very sacred place. But it’s also incredibly intense, and it can be very difficult to live there, both materially and spiritually – if that’s how you kind-of experience your world.

CC: So that’s an excellent scene-setting for the milieu, and the spiritual milieu in Sedona. But let’s focus in on the role of nature in this context, and these practices – and then also on gender. I imagine that you can probably talk about those at the same time.

SC: Yes. So nature is really prominent. I mean it would be prominent even with people who didn’t in any way engage with New Age spirituality. And something I should probably say here is that no-one actually called themselves a “New Ager” in Sedona. There was a shop called Centre for the New Age which has psychic where you can go and pay for readings. But if you ask people, “Are you a New Ager?” they would say, “No.” They call it spirituality and they’re quite comfortable with that. They don’t really care about all out disciplinary arguments about what’s spirituality, and what’s religion, and what’s what. They just say, “Yes, I’m spiritual.” Or “Yes, I’m interested in spirituality.” But they would never really call themselves New Agers – unless they were trying to sell a certain product and it helped them as a label. So the people who were engaged in some way in spirituality very often identified nature as a very prominent source of what they would consider kind-of spiritual practice. But also kind-of just the energy of the place. So for some people being spiritual literally just entailed going for hikes amongst the rocks, maybe meditating a bit, but just being close to the earth. And simply moving to Sedona was seen as way of getting closer to nature. Because it was this place of like astounding natural beauty. It was kind-of seen as embodying nature in a very visceral way. And you’ve also got other locations close by like the Grand Canyon, the San Francisco Peaks, which is a larger series of mountains that were also considered sacred and kind-of also embodied this idea of big nature in a similar way. So, when it comes to gender, the experience of nature as sacred was very often feminised in the way they spoke about it. So, you know, obviously mother Earth is quite a common one. But in Sedona they would also talk about the Father Sky. So there’s this idea of gender emerging there already. So you’ve got Mother Earth on the one hand that complements father sky. They would talk about the divine feminine and the complement is the divine masculine. Now these are energies. And the shift that was once called the New Age – but now they talk about it much in terms like the ascension, they call it the shift, they call it the new paradigm – this is when the old male energies kind-of wither away and die and are supplanted with the dominance of the divine feminine. So the change that is called New Age spirituality, that change is a shift from something that’s coded as male to something that’s coded as female. And there are all kinds of associations with this gender binary. So male is aggressive, competitive, you know: men start wars, men destroy the planet, they have an extractive relationship to nature. Whereas the female principle is cooperative: it’s very in tune with emotions and it’s very connected to nature and celebrating the earth and being part of the earth. And so, something that came up in the panel today was . . . . This is a very old association between women and nature, but the way that association is framed is not always the same in all times and all places. So I thought one thing interesting that came up this morning was the feminine being associated with death, which made total sense to me. But that’s not there in the context in Sedona. Women are about life, they are about producing life. The feminine is the mother, is the nurturer, is the care giver. You know, this is the divine feminine principle. So it’s this very kind-of starkly-coded gender binary. And it doesn’t really change anything from what are the kind-of general gender associations in America more generally. It just inverts it and says that the feminine is better than the masculine. And you know, basically, it’s not even that women should be in charge – it’s just that everyone should embrace the feminine within them, and that that complementarity is part of the way that we will progress spiritually and socially. But it doesn’t really lend itself to any sense of action. And this is where we come back to this idea that ecospirituality is not the same as environmentalism. My informants weren’t in any way engaged in environmental politics. They didn’t really do anything that could be seen as particularly environmentally friendly. And in fact in the whole kind-of cosmology of the shift, or the ascension, it’s happening anyway. And the way it happens is like everyone working on their spiritual practice. It doesn’t happen by you going on protests or you switching to an electric car, or whatever. It happens by you sitting at home and meditating. Now from another perspective, you could see how that doesn’t help the environment at all. In fact, it breeds a certain passivity to social action. And means that people are going along with the same kind-of actions that are harming the planet. For example: driving cars, which release a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, carbon monoxide and all the other greenhouse gases. So there’s no sense of social action or social change. It’s all very inward. And everyone going on their spiritual path together cumulatively creates the change. It’s like the 100th monkey idea. Do you know what that is?

CC: Go for it.

SC: Well it’s like this credited idea from Bio-Anth – biological anthropology –

CC: Yes.

SC:   – that if, like, a certain number of monkeys – say 100 – learn a specific skill it will spread out through the rest of the monkeys by, like, collective consciousness. So that’s very dominant, at least amongst my informants in Sedona, that in fact it was detrimental to go out and do political action. I had this one informant who used to be very involved in NGOs, and going to other countries and trying to do development work. And then she said that all her protest work and all of her social action work had actually been making things worse, because she was so focussed on the negativity of these situations and instead she should stay in America and work on her spiritual path. And, you know, she did various kind-of workshops, and she was very much engaged in “embracing this divine feminine” herself. But that seems to basically involve going on these exclusive retreats to places like the Caribbean Islands, like the Bahamas, or like places in Aspen, Colorado, and getting women who had very high-paying jobs to go on them, so that they could go and “explore their divine feminine”, “work on their consciousness”, and “evolution”, and “inner-conscious entrepreneur”. And by doing that, she would help create way more positive action than she ever did working in NGOs. And, you know, so you can kind-of shift the perspective and go, “How is it helping by you kind-of creating all these places where everyone flies into these luxury resorts, has a lovely holiday, goes home, continues doing capitalism every day?” So . . .

CC: So you’ve done a good job of painting the relationship or lack of relationship, potentially, between environmentalism and ecospirituality, and sort of carving out what we’re meaning there. And we’ve spoken about the entanglements of gender and constructions of nature. But how are the two, I guess, entangled? These two: the ecospirituality on the one hand and this gendering of nature. Are there example you can maybe give of that entanglement of the two?

SC: So, how is ecospirituality entangled in gender? Well, I think it’s very much in this idea associating nature with the feminine – and that both of those things are given a positive valence regardless of what those actions actually are. So I could get very frustrated, in fact, in the field, with people talking about things that are nature and natural as thought that means it’s good for human health. So to take as an example: my informants generally liked to get water from the spring in Sedona because it came directly from the earth – and therefore it was good for them, right? But then it actually transpired that that stream had a very high level of naturally occurring anthrax, which is not good for human health. Now that’s entirely natural, in the sense that humans didn’t put it there. It was a part of the composition of the soil and the water in the area.

(Edited audio)

CC: Susannah has a correction to make to what she just said!

SC: Yes, so what I meant to say, instead of anthrax, was in fact arsenic. Arsenic is naturally occurring in water, not anthrax.

CC: Back to the interview!

(End of edit)

SC: Also, with the way this divine feminine principle got expressed in practice. So in my paper today, I talked about the work of an artist who . . . she did this whole series of paintings of the goddess. And it was all different kind-of instantiations of what she called the goddess energy. And it was all like faces of women growing out of trees, for example. And there’s this wonderful one called Blue Corn Woman, which she attached to a re-evaluation of Hopi myth that had something to do them surviving Atlantis because they listened to earth and knew when to go underground. And therefore they survived the cataclysm that destroyed Atlantis. So she had a whole series of paintings in this way. And, in person, she would always talk about the Goddess and how that was how she kind-of tried to live her life – it was in celebration of this divine feminine principle. And then this led to this very kind-of difficult lifestyle that she had, where she didn’t really want to go out and work because “emotionally, that didn’t suit her”. She wanted to do art, because that’s how she “expressed her soul”. But that meant she basically relied on men, who were variously infatuated with her, to support her financially. And she also had a fairly considerable drinking problem. And she drove her car while drunk. She had a blood alcohol level of like 0.3, now the legal limit is like 0.8 or 008, or something, so she was well over the legal limit. And she drove it into a fire station and wrecked the front of a fire station. And afterwards she was arrested, you know . . .  the process . . . . Let out . . . she blamed the fact that she had experienced childhood trauma. And it wasn’t that she was drunk, it was that she was having a “dissociative state” at the time, caused by her childhood trauma. So she, then, refused to come to court many times. She kept firing her lawyer. And this was . . . all she had to serve was a 90 day prison sentence and go on her way. And it took her three years to come to terms and just do that. So, why is this related to the divine feminine and nature? So it was this association between her emotions and her emotional state – the idea of herself as a woman and the idea of what is natural and what is natural for her – led to this lifestyle that is on one hand quite passive, and on the other hand not accepting any sense of social responsibility for her own action. Because she wasn’t responsible because she’d experienced this trauma. Therefore her emotions were such that she just had to express them. And I felt that that was actually quite problematic. Because, on the one hand you’ve got ecospirituality that’s seen as. . . in a way it’s seen as inevitable – you don’t have to do anything – so that breeds passivity on the social level. And then on a personal level it leads to a lack of accountability in your personal actions – or it can. Because you over-value your own emotions to the extent that the consequences of your emotional states are not dealt with. At least, I felt that in that case. Obviously I knew other people who, in different ways, were interested in kind-of the divine feminine aspects of spirituality. And they did quite productive things. So I don’t want to try and claim that everyone was like this. I’m saying that this is like . . . . The worst excesses of this kind-of association could lead to this kind-of situation. I knew someone else, for example, who felt that the divine feminine principle was how she should express her spirituality and she held Goddess wisdom workshops, and they were very fun, and that was fine. (Laughs) But again, I felt like there was this very simplistic association between femininity, nature and the sense of goodness. Like . . . that it was somehow inherent, and that you would just somehow know, as a woman, by being natural, the right thing to do. And I don’t think that that was always the case.

CC: Excellent. So we’re getting on in time, and I know I’ve got two more questions that I want to ask you before we get to the “what’s next on the agenda, for your research”. One is – you’ve just been speaking there a bit to this: what are the practical, social, political, real world – for want of a better term – effects of this gendering of nature, in your research experience? Why does it matter?

SC: OK. Why does it matter? I think it matters because we are in a time, in our society, when actually we really need to pay a great deal of attention to the environment and to ecology, not for the sake of the planet or of the environment in some disconnected way – because they will actually keep on going. What’s happening in terms of climate change is the erosion of the habitability of the planet for humans. You know, we’re destroying our own ecosystem, and we will be the ones that suffer for that eventually. And I think any of these discourses that kind-of separate off nature and the environment as something separate from humans are causing harm. And I think this particular kind-of ecospirituality in terms of the New Age, or whatever you want to a call it, is quite detrimental in terms of ecology, because it doesn’t put any kind-of real world action to the forefront. I think meditating is great, but I also think you need to accompany it with some form of action that will make your goals happen instead of just sitting back and thinking that it will happen inevitably. It’s like: prayer is great, but you should also get out there and do something about the social goals you want to achieve that go along with your religious ethics. So what I see a bit too much in this particular form is the “nature will just take care of these things.” That somehow Mother Nature is this caring powerful being and that that means it’s all going to be ok for humans. And that’s not the case. If we continue destroying our ecosystems humans will not continue living. You know, society will not continue. The planet will find a way to go on, because it’s the planet. So that’s why, in real world terms, I think it matters. I think I’m being a bit more evaluative and normative than I would ever be if I wrote any of this down, right now!

CC: That’s ok, you know.

SC: Is that ok? Because I really feel like that this is the defining important issue of our time. And if you’re not paying attention to it, if you’re not doing something useful about it, whatever that may be – even if it is just your individual actions – then actually, you’re not helping. You’re making things worse.

CC: And just to riff on that normativity a little bit, I can imagine that actually, yes, part of this discourse enables people . . . like, people might feel that they are doing something.

SC: Yes. No, they absolutely think they’re doing . . . . They think they are the only ones that are doing something. Because they’re meditating and expecting the shift any moment through enhancing themselves spiritually. Which . . . from a Religious Studies perspective it’s fascinating! I could sit and describe the cosmology all day. But if we’re going to talk about real world effects and real problems, that’s not helping.

CC: Exactly. We should also just acknowledge that we’ve been speaking in terms of gender binaries here, but that is predominantly what’s going on in the discourse. It is . . . we’re talking in binaries.

SC: Yes, so I very much . . . . Perhaps we should flag that up? I’m not saying, “I believe that these gender binaries are natural.” I’m saying that in this context my informants naturalised these gender binaries: “There is male and there is female”. They don’t really think about any other formation of gender. And that’s the way they see it. I’m not saying that normatively that’s correct.

CC: Exactly. So this is the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been floating around the topic of religion and spirituality here. But could we . . . . We probably could have described a lot of the stuff that was going on without needing to invoke those terms. So I’m just wondering what the role, what role these terms are playing, or if there’s maybe other dynamics that could explain away this gendering of nature.

SC: Yes, so I think I’m probably going to say something that will annoy lots of people who do Religious Studies. But I think that if we’re going to talk about spirituality, for me it’s a very specific thing which is this form of spirituality that was once called New Age. And it has a specific cosmology. And if you go out there amongst people who actually engage in these practices you can see it coming through. And I always say the basic tenet of it is that everything is energy and all energy vibrates at a specific frequency. So I think that spirituality, so defined, is kind-of one of the big religious shifts that we’re currently going through. Spirituality isn’t just something that happens in Sedona. It’s not something that just happens in America. It’s a global phenomenon. One of the things that happens to me a lot as I talk about my work – especially to other anthropologists, which is my background – they’ll say, “Oh yes! People I know in Palestine are really into that, because it gets them over sectarian conflict.” “People in Indonesia that I work with are really interested in that right now, as a form of healing.” And it is spread around the globe. And it is offering people a way of doing religion that is not part of their typical traditional organised religion. And for some people that’s just like a breath of fresh air. For some people that’s, quite literally, a life-saver – that they don’t have to engage in these old sectarian conflicts anymore; that they can create a new way forward without becoming secular. Because a lot of people don’t actually want that. They want to still engage with some kind-of meta-empirical reality – whatever you want to use as a term for it. So I think that spirituality is a form of religion, and it’s one of the growing forms of religion. And if you want to pay attention to the trends in religion now, as it’s actually lived and experienced on a daily basis, then you should really pay attention to spirituality – especially because it doesn’t really show up on stats and censuses, because there’s not really a box to tick for it. And also, people who are into spirituality really don’t like definitions. They wouldn’t really call themselves spiritual in that sense, but if you talk to them about what they do, and if you ask them if they’re interested in spirituality they will “Yes”, and suddenly they will come up with all of these fascinating things that they do. So I think it’s something that has to be studied empirically through qualitative research. And I think it’s something that is probably a lot more prevalent than we realise. Because it doesn’t really show up on these top-down measurements that a lot of scholarship can rely on – not all of it, obviously.

CC: (Laughs). So we have a whirlwind here. And, of course, we’ll point listeners to these forthcoming works. And you’re working on this NARMESH project, just now?

SC: NARMESH, yes.

CC: And so, you’re probably going to say it’s what’s next for you. But do want to say a little bit about your work there, and also, perhaps, anything you would like to see happening in this field of gender, spirituality, nature?

SC: Ok. So NARMESH is one of these ERC projects which . . . I’m kind-of discovering that they all have these kind-of acronyms for what they’re called. It’s from “narrating the mesh” which is from eco-theorist Timothy Morton’s work. So, the mesh is his idea for how everything is interconnected. And our project is looking at narratives of the interconnection of humans and non-humans and climate. So the rest of the people on the project are looking at narratives in literary fiction – which is why I’m in the Literary Studies department – and I’m looking at personal narratives. So what I’ve been doing is taking interviews and doing some short bits of fieldwork amongst groups of people who are differently positioned in the wider climate change discourse. So that’s climate scientists, radical environmentalists or kind-of eco-philosophers and, also, people who do not accept that climate change is happening – or if it is, they do not accept the human role in climate change. So, what we might call deniers or climate change sceptics. So that’s my current work. I’m kind-of in the middle of doing the fieldwork for that over in Sweden, two weeks ago, amongst people who basically see the world as ending and that we’re living through this kind-of destruction of the world. And “how do we kind-of create a new culture?” So that’s what I’ve been doing most recently. In terms of gender, nature and eco spirituality, I think it’s a really fascinating field and it’s one that I think you can kind-of bring together a lot of diverse studies from antiquity, right through to contemporary work, to look at this kind-of question. You know: how is nature gendered? What do we mean by goddess spirituality? And I think it is something that’s quite neglected. I think it’s something that, for a long time, got relegated to that kind-of “women’s studies” area of Religious Studies, and a lot of people don’t see it as particularly interesting or relevant. So I think it’s one of those things, if people start looking at it and studying it, it will come up more and more as a really relevant and important part of everyday religious practice for a very widely placed diversity of people, in different traditions, and different  historical periods and times.

CC: And I’m sure that there’s a lot more that we could get into just there now – but we have run out of time, Listeners. That was an excellent interview Susannah Crockford, and we’re looking forward to all the interest that you will have piqued, and to hearing more from this developing project that you’ve got. NARMESH?

SC: NARMESH, great. Thank you so much.

CC: It does sound like a little farewell, doesn’t it? Narmesh!

SC: Narmesh!

Both: (Laugh).


Citation Info: Crockford, Susannah and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 1 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 6 July 2018. Available at: http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/ecospirituality-gender-and-nature/

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Myth, Solidarity, and Post-Liberalism

With the rise of reactionary politics across the globe, it is arguably increasingly important for the academic community to give consideration to the prospects of developing and strengthening solidarity across apparent religious, political and economic differences. In this podcast, Chris speaks to Dr Timothy Stacey (University of Ottawa) about his forthcoming book, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division (Routledge, 2018), in which he asks how we can begin to imagine solidarity in the modern world, and challenges academics to be challenge the co-option of their work by being “better than those who seek to co-opt us.”

What is solidarity? What is liberalism? And post-liberalism? How does this relate to the problematic notion of post-secularity? To myth? To the ‘sacred’? And are we missing a trick by not paying attention to the mythic elements of secularity? These questions and more provide the narrative hooks throughout this interview, in which we hear some fascinating insights into Tim’s personal biography and his extensive field research in London, and challenge the aversion which some social scientists feel regarding normativity.

If you like what you hear, why not check out our previous podcasts on “The Sacred”, “The Post-Secular” and “Habermas, Religion and the Post-Secular”, as well as Tim’s ongoing Lived Religions Project with Fernande Pool, featuring many fascinating “interviews with ordinary people telling their unique story” livedreligionproject.com

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, banners, flags, teapots and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism

Podcast with Timothy Stacey (9 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Stacey_-_Myth,_Solidarity_and_Post-Liberalism_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome to another episode of the Religious Studies Project. It’s the start of 2018 as I’m recording – although who knows when this is actually going to go out, because we’ve got such a backlog! I am here in Reading, on my way to Oxford. And I’m joined by Dr Tim Stacey. Hi Tim!

Timothy Stacey (TS): Hi.

CC: Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. Tim is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Ottawa, but has been in the UK for the festive period and our diaries and travel schedules managed to collide nicely! We’ll be hearing bout Tim’s research during the course of the interview, but the primary trigger for the interview is the forthcoming publication of his first monograph, with Routledge, later this year. That’s called, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division. And today we’re going to be talking a little bit about these notions of myth and solidarity, but also this key concept of post-liberalism. So, first of all, I’ve given a very brief introduction to you, Tim. But tell us, who are you? How have you got here?

TS: How have I . . . ?

CC: How have you got here? Why are you speaking to me?!

TS: Well, I guess I started off . . . I did my Masters at Nottingham, in Theology. And it was there – as I was listening to some really interesting arguments about virtue ethics, primarily from people like Alasdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor – that I felt very inspired by the stuff they were saying. But also, as an atheist myself, I kept asking, “How do I actually make this relevant to me, somebody who’s not actually a Christian?” And that was what triggered me moving from Theology into social scientific research. And so that triggered the PhD, which was about exploring possibilities for virtue ethics and notions of transcendence in a religiously plural society. And more recently the interest has turned to secular subjects, so that’s what I’m now in Vancouver exploring: what are the potentials for transcendence and solidarity amongst secular subjects?

CC: Fantastic! And we’ll be hearing more about that as this conversation ensues. So, set the scene for us then. The first couple of chapters of this book are exploring this notion of post-liberalism. But I don’t know that many of our listeners necessarily know what-on-earth that means! So perhaps you could, just for the sake . . . ? We know that we are in turbulent political times. There is a sort of reactionary politics happening all over the place. We’ve got these notions that there’s the political elites versus the ordinary masses, and everything. So, maybe, just take us through a chronological . . . . How have we got to this state? What is liberalism? And then, what is post-liberalism?

TS: Yes. Well, basically, the basic premise of the book is to follow this post-liberal argument. And the primary argument there is that, in a liberal secular society, we’ve lost a sense of the role of transcendence in forming social identity. So instead, we treat people as basically . . . both ideally, and also primarily motivated by rationality. And I suggest that we also tend to castigate those who appear to be irrational, whether that’s because of religion, ideology, parochialism, or simply a lack of education. And I think that comes up during the Brexit debate a lot as well. And the result, according to post-liberals, is two-fold. First: politics becomes technocratic and economics becomes instrumental. So, politics is less about building belonging and empowering people than it is about a university educated elite, delivering to social-scientifically construed need. And then, economics is less about reciprocity than it is about GDP. And then second: because of this, we increasingly see people retrenching in communities that they feel provide them with a sense of belonging and empowerment – communities of faith, race, nation, economic status. But then, kind of the . . . . (5:00) What inspired this book for me was that although post-liberalism gives, for me, a really exciting analysis of our current political problems, post-liberalism is itself as much a symptom of that as it is an analysis. By which I mean that it represents a retrenching in Christian notions of transcendence. And that simply doesn’t work for a society that is simultaneously – as I put it in the book – post-Christian, post-secular and religiously plural.

CC: Hmm.

TS: So that very long premise is actually the basis of this exploration, namely: to explore the relevance and role of transcendence in developing solidarity in the messy religious and non-religious landscape that we see before us, primarily in the western world. And I explored this by undertaking two years of ethnographic research with groups seeking to develop solidarity in London – which I kind-of identify as one of the most socially and economically liberal cities in the world, as well as being one of the most religiously and non-religiously diverse cities in the world. So, despite all that complexity, the actual answers the book provides I feel are quite simple. First, it says that despite the assumptions of liberal secularism and the dominance of this system within London for almost 300 years, the majority of people – both religious and non-religious – still do draw on transcendence in forming their social identity. In particular – and this is where I get to the notion of myth – they do this through myths. And that’s what I call stories of great events and characters that exemplify people’s ideals. And while for Christians that might be like the story of Christ or of the great Flood, for atheists that might be about, sometimes, Ghandi or Martin Luther King – figures who actually have some sort of religious background themselves – but also, just stories of their mum, or their dad, or their best friend, or a great heroic colleague that for them exemplified a virtuous way of living. And then the second point is that again – despite the assumptions of secular liberalism – actually, the role of the state doesn’t need to be this kind of principled distance from religion, or principled distance from ideology. Instead, we can actually imagine the role of the state less as an enforcer of a particular ideology – or else perhaps, in a liberal society, an enforcer of a lack of ideology – and instead we can think about it as a curator of the sharing of different ideologies. So that people can explore the virtues inherent in very different ways of living and see that, for instance, I might be somebody who is quite critical of Islam, but then I spend time trying to develop solidarity in a local setting with a Muslim. And it’s something as simple as seeing that they are good people that makes you realise, “Well, maybe Islam’s not so bad, either.” And then I began to see some really interesting processes of bricolage, like out-and-out atheists talking about how they were inspired by the story of Mohammed. And they would even talk about him as the “first community organiser”, for instance. So I found that really interesting. And then I get onto this idea of solidarity centres. So it’s actually the notion that the state will create these liberal spaces in which people of very different backgrounds come together to intentionally explore their ideas of how the world should be. And then, acting on that together: “Right. Ok, this is how the world should be. What are some policies, or things going on in our community that are stopping that from happening?” And that might be something like low wages, high house prices, or whatever, and then working together to solve those problems.

CC: Excellent. Well thanks for that fantastic introduction to the topic and, indeed, overview of the book. It really resonates with me, I can remember sitting with . . . you know there is this really common idea, particularly in the UK, that politics and religion don’t go together, you know. What was it? Alastair Campbell: “We don’t do God“. (10:00) And I can remember last semester, at Edinburgh, in a course on Religion in Modern Britain, sitting with my students in a tutorial and they were talking about whether a Muslim politician should be expected to act as a Muslim or to represent their constituents. And they all seemed to think that they shouldn’t be bringing religion into it, at all. And I tried to push and push: “But what other normative ways do we allow politicians to act” And they were: “gender”, “race”, “political party”, right? We have this conceit that they represent their whole constituency but they also have the sacred ideals of their political party that they hold higher than everything else. (Laughs).

TS: Absolutely.

CC: So, that’s just a little riff! So going right back to the beginning, then – in the book it was, maybe, 2011 when your research process was starting. How did you get into this massive area of research? And what pushed you?

TS: Well, yes. It was actually an incredibly strange and exciting journey for me. So, going back to Nottingham – I don’t know how well you know that university, but we’d have a lot of theological seminars in the staff club lounge, around leather armchairs. And that was my introduction to academia – talking about Alisdair Macintyre, and virtue ethics, and John Milbank, and theses radical critiques of modernity. And I was very excited by them. But as I said, I was troubled. And I wanted to work out, “Ok, is this relevant?” And I thought social science was the best way of working that out. But I was a theologian. So I arrived in London and my supervisor starts talking to me about this thing called “data”.

CC: (Laughs)

TS: “You need to go out and get data.” “Hmm, what is data, exactly?” And I spent a lot of time reading different kind of research methods books, and trying to understand exactly how I was going to explore this question of the link between transcendence and solidarity in a religiously plural society. But then, while that was happening – and this is a bit weird now! It kind-of matches with the personal: I’ve grown up all around the world, and I’ve never had any particular home. So when I was living in London for the first time, being in a place for more than a few years, I was thinking very hard to myself about what does it mean to be a part of my local community? And as I was simultaneously thinking about those two things – on the one hand data, and on the other my own desire to be involved in the community – the London riots happened. And I thought, “You know what? This is amazing. This is a great opportunity for me to be involved in the process of rebuilding Tottenham”, which is sort of where I was living – in response to this. So I came across this group called London Citizens, who wanted to do a citizens enquiry into the Tottenham riots. They basically do these things called “listening campaigns”, where they go out and basically ask members of the public: what is the main problem that you and your family face? That’s the first question. And the second question is always, what can you . . . and us – what can we together do about this? So it’s not like, “Ok what are your problems and shall we write to the local politician and tell them about it?” It’s “Let’s do something together. Let’s take direct action.” And it just suddenly clicked in my head. I was thinking about this word solidarity so theoretically. And then here were some people actually living it out, developing solidarity in a very real way, in my local area. And my first thought, really, when that happened was to say to myself, “Why am I even bothering to study this? I should just be doing it!”

CC: Yes.

TS: “I might as well just quit the PhD!” Then it occurred to me that actually taking action in this way could be my data. And I’d been reading stuff about post-secularity. And I realised London Citizens really is a kind of post-secular group. They’re a group that recognised the important role of religion in the public sphere. They, themselves, are somewhat inspired by a faith narrative, but the majority of the key organisers were non-religious. And so the way that they were able to so openly navigate faith and non-faith, and bring people together, was really exciting to me. (15:00) And then I thought, “You know what? The best way to explore the possibility for solidarity in this society that’s simultaneously Christian and secular and post-secular, is to work with a group that indicatively represents each one of those paradigms.” So then I started thinking, “OK, what are the key post-War paradigms for developing a sense of solidarity?” And you have, initially, the very strong connection between Christianity and the setting up of the welfare state. So I took one group that I felt represented that, which was at the time called the Christian Socialist Movement, but now is called Christians on the Left. Then I thought the next phase was secular ways of doing this, and in particular, a lot of money was being pumped into councils for voluntary service. So I started working with them, representing my secular organisation. Then in the ‘90s and early 2000s you had the multi-faith policy paradigm. So I thought, “OK, I need a group that represents that.” And then, going back to the start, London Citizens became my post-secular organisation. And that’s the story of how I got there.

CC: Excellent. And on the notion of post-secular, listeners, do check out our previous interview with Kevin Gray about that. I mean I think that you would agree with me as well, Tim, that it’s a problematic notion – the concept of post-secular.

TS: Absolutely, and indeed my current supervisor Lori Beaman insists that I stop using it! So . . .

CC: Well, it’s here to stay, perhaps! OK. And you organise the book then along these . . . you’ve got these three sections really, I guess, looking at pluralistic contexts, and then the state, these organisations, and then also capitalism. And any of those would be interesting to expand upon, but perhaps let’s think about this place of the notion of myth and transcendence. And then, maybe sort-of weave in these three strands.

TS: Mmm.

CC: So basically, one of your arguments is that these organisations all have varying relationships with the idea of transcendence and the construction of myth. So maybe you could just introduce the organisations there, to tell us about them and their relationship to this?

TS: Yes, OK. I mean the word myth, I primarily introduce – and I don’t know how helpful it really is . . . . What I was ultimately critiquing there was the sort of Habernasian notion that we are primarily motivated rationally. And, by introducing the term myth, I was trying to demonstrate the parity between religious and non-religious ways of relating to the world. So in doing that I then felt that I was able – by cutting through this kind of religious/secular binary – I was then able to start thinking about the role of the state as something very different: as not something that has to separate religion from politics, but instead can relate more reflexively towards the notion of myth.

CC: Yes. Throughout you use this phrase, “religious/secular, mythic/rational binary”. That’s your thing. So, yes, what’s going on there?

TS: Yes. So what I’m trying to say, basically, is that we end up having this notion that the religious is primarily mythic and the secular is primarily rational. And what I was trying to say is that both the religious and secular have very strong mythic elements to them. Primarily, I was not doing that as a means of . . . . There’s lot of research trying to demonstrate that religious belief can in fact be far more rational than we realise. I was, actually, trying to go the other way round and say that secularity can be a lot more mythic than we realise. And I wasn’t doing that in any way to put down secular people or secularity, but rather to say, “Well if we are primarily motivated through myth then we’re really missing a trick in how we motivate secular people.” (20:00) If we simply assume that they’re motivated by rationality alone, then we miss out on one of the most powerful ways of making people act in the world. And then you get back to the whole argument about Brexit and Trump and so on, which is that if we forget the role of mythic narrative in motivating people, then they become very vulnerable to just anyone who’s able to spin a good myth.

CC: And all you end up with is talking about economics and security, as you argue. Could give an example, maybe, of the kind of . . . . So we can all think of, I guess, a religion-related myth, perhaps. But what sort of – for want of a better word – secular myths are people motivated by?

TS: Well, one of these myths is actually the notion of the self-independent rational actor itself, right? Because that is a story that people are living by, primarily. It’s not actually this . . . In some sense, there’s this kind-of subtraction narrative to the understanding of secular identity that says: it’s an identity that is short of religious elements. But instead, what I’m trying to suggest is that secular people do live by myths, and rationality itself is one of those. And another one, for instance, is that of capitalism: the idea that says people are primarily motivated by financial incentive. So, basically, what the research seems to suggest is that there are clear secular myths, but these are primarily ones I feel that aren’t intentionally constructed by secular people. So they might be myths of rationality or myths of capitalism. And what I’m trying to explore now is: OK – but what are those deep, more intentionally constructed myths that can challenge a purely instrumental notion of politics or economics? In Vancouver it’s really interesting, because that’s coming from a lot of different places. So there’s myths of earth-based spiritualty – the sense that I, as a person, am intimately related to the world in the same way . . . there. This stuff wouldn’t necessarily work in London at all, but it’s very much derived from indigenous mythology as well. So the people don’t see themselves as any more important than the orca in the Pacific Ocean, for instance, or the salmon. So those myths – the telling of the stories of the orca and the salmon – actually become really important ways of challenging an instrumental approach to the land and the environment. So you have otherwise entirely secular people arguing against the construction of a pipeline, for instance, because of salmon. And at first, I have to say, I actually giggled a bit when I started getting these findings. Because it was just so out of context for what I’d grown up around in London and for what had come out of my previous research. But as I’ve been doing this ethnographic research there – and it’s always, as in this this book, very auto-ethnographic as well – I try and really immerse myself in the stories of people I’m studying. And, yes. Now I’ve come to be inspired by these stories of whales and salmon, and how they might be transformative in challenging a particular idea of, say, growth.

CC: Yes. And I imagine one could also, you know, even just thinking of what you get in the Marvel films – there’s a lot of myth in popular culture, as well, that you probably might easily and interestingly excavate.

TS: Absolutely. And people really do integrate that into their stories. It’s absolutely not out of place that people will talk to me about a Batman film, or something, when they’re trying to explain their belief in . . . I mean, one that comes up quite a lot in Spiderman is that: “With great power comes great responsibility”. And it seems almost laughable, in a way. But I think, the way that people sort-of suspend their disbelief in the cinema can be very similar to the way they might do in a church. (25:00) And those myths really do have power for people.

CC: And we’re already almost at the end of our time, which is excellent. I mean, not excellent – I just mean we’ve already covered a lot of ground! So, just to push on this – one of the key arguments I would see from your book is that rather than perhaps trying to find – you know, sitting people down and going “OK, you’re a Christian, you’re a Muslim, you’re an atheist, you’re a Buddhist. You’re never going to agree on these things, so it’s all pointless.” So, is the idea that everyone is constructing myths about, I don’t know, the better society, the greater good, the way they want things to progress and that by focussing on those, rather than the specifics, it might be a constructive way forward? Or . . . ?

TS: Yes, that’s true. But also there’s a very real sense in which I think, those settings need to be intentionally constructed in secular society. That’s a part of where my critique comes from. So you look at my analysis of Hackney CVS, for instance, I was suggesting that the secular people there had strong myths based on their parents who might be their heroes, or their colleagues. So their myths, in fact, were just telling the stories of their friends and family. And they were really inspiring and transformative for them. But what I noticed, what there was . . . there were a lack of intentional rituals within that organisation, for bringing those to the surface. And so they failed to really integrate them into their practice, and therefore failed to inspire much enthusiasm. And so, my feeling is that we need to actually deliberately create spaces where people can discuss these things. And so my example, when you talk about bringing Muslims and Jews and atheists together in a room, the best example I came across was the London Citizens. They would ask this very simple question: “We live in the world as it is – but there is a world as it should be. Please tell me some words that you associate with the world as it should be.”

CC: Mmm.

TS: So, that’s the first step – that you get people from these very different backgrounds together in a room, recognising: “Oh wow! That guy looks very different to me but, in fact, he seems to want the same idea of the perfect world that I want.” So that’s the first step. But then – once you’ve done that – you actually encourage people to draw on their own very different, idiosyncratic stories. So once they all recognise that this is the world as it should be, then they can, again, start talking about their particular myths – whether of Islam, or Christianity or of the more secular ones such as of a Socialist utopia, or . . . .

CC: Yes. And I’ve always found it . . . . I remember Craig Martin made this point in his Masking Hegemony, in 2010, I’ve always found it very strange that, yes – why would you expect people to be able to bracket off these aspects of their identity? Why not . . . we have this myth of the secular space that people enter and they bracket off . . . but, why not just everyone talk about it, talk about your myths, and talk about where you’re coming from? And then we can, maybe, move forward.

TR: Yes – the thing is though, it’s actually a much more honest way of being. Because if I understand where you’re coming from, I can actually hold you to account on the basis of that story that you’re telling.

CC: Yes. Just to indulge my curiosity here, listeners, this might go on slightly longer than usual. I’ve got three more questions I want to ask Tim.

TS: I’ll try and be brief in my answers.

CC: No, it’s good. First, the notion of the sacred here. So I know Gordon Lynch – in fact we spoke to Gordon Lynch a number of years ago about this concept – and Kim Knott and others have developed this notion of like the secular sacred, and things. So where does the role of the sacred – maybe it’s a non-ontological, non-religion inflected sacred – fit into the myths and into solidarity?

TS: Well, for one thing, I totally would have been happy to us the term sacred. (30:00) But I had two issues with that. One was that there was a lot of talk about it being non-negotiable. And I thought, “That’s exactly what I want to avoid with transcendence.” Because the very point is that we need people to negotiate. And the other issue is, I felt that a lot of that research was around what’s already sacred. It would be around pointing out some certain category had become a sacred one. Whereas, I was trying – rather than move backwards in that way – move forwards. So I got into discussions with people doing research around that, including Gordon Lynch and saying, “Well, actually, what I’m thinking about is: how do we develop a new sacred?” And I didn’t feel like people were all that interested in that, in those circles. And in that sense, alone, that word became tainted for me. And I wanted to try and think about it slightly differently. But otherwise, yes, it is very, very similar.

CC: Yes. They’re related. You can see clear overlaps. But clearly again, you’re stepping out into uncharted territory. On that note, then: “here at the Religious Studies Project”, our sort-of approach would probably map more onto the Critical Study of Religion, and when normativity comes up we tend to bristle a little bit. So, as we’ve been hearing there, you’re an engaged scholar. So, how do you personally navigate that sort of: “I’m doing this work which is – I guess – objective, but also trying to . . . .” You know.

TS: Well, yes. I think, the thing is that I have no qualms about saying that I am personally, and academically, fighting for a world in which there is more solidarity, in which people are willing to do things for one another without necessarily expecting something in return. I’m also quite happy to say that I was saddened by the rise of neoliberalism. And I saw that Christianity was very instrumental to the setting up of the welfare state, initially. And I was asking myself that question: what is that new metanarrative going to be, around which we can create more solidarity, and renew interest in social welfare? But the research itself is objective, in that sense that I’m totally open to what the answer to that may be. And that’s constantly evolving. And I think, in my current research, I would slightly challenge some of the assumptions that I had in the previous. But it’s all this objective, social scientific, critical research that interested me in religion in the first place. Because I’m only interested in religion incidentally. Because a lot of research seems to be demonstrating that something like religion, or the sacred, or whatever you want to call it, has a powerful effect on a sense of solidarity. So, for me, that’s my only very incidental interest in religion. It’s: “OK, if that’s true, then what does that look like in a society where none of us believe the same things anymore?”

CC: And my final question was going to be, what was the broader relevance of this to the academic study of religion? But I think you’ve just actually summarised that quite neatly in your final statement there. Unless you want to have a final push?

TS: Well the only thing I would say, without wanting to be preachy, is that I think there is a real danger that we can get stuck behind this social scientific lens that says, “I’m not allowed to be normative” when, in reality, we have to recognise the very things we choose to research are guided by our own normative principals. So I think, in the dangerous world that we currently live in, it’s time for academics to step up and say, “This is what I believe in, and I’m willing to work towards bringing it about.”

CC: Exactly. And in your own work as well, what you’re doing is not proposing a definitive: “This is the objective reality.” It’s: “We’re building . . . .” And you’ve expanded upon your own research. And you’ve changed your ideas. And we’re all part of a process, moving towards whatever . . . perfection – let’s say it!

TS: (Laughs)

CC: Well it’s been a pleasure speaking to you, Tim. Thanks, so much.

TS: (35:00) Thanks, so much, for having me on.

Citation Info: Stacey, Timothy and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 2 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/myth-solidarity-and-post-liberalism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

 

 

The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion

In this interview with Professor Bryan Turner at the Leeds SocRel 2017 conference, we discuss how the sociology of religion can work to stay central to sociology as a broader discipline, by focusing on how religion functions in contemporary political contexts.

Starting with a consideration of the role religion takes in American political discourse, particularly Trump’s appeals to evangelical communities, Turner discusses how the evangelical ideal of the ‘tender warrior’ can appeal to the blue collar, white, male, working class. This religiously-inflected form of populism is able to bear significant weight on political debates, for example around abortion. This can be compared to the apparent increase of populism in European politics, where the recent success of Emmanuel Macron in France appears to signal that this tide has been halted, for now. Looking even further afield, to Russia and the Philippines, ‘strongman’ politics have become increasingly prominent and relate to religion in different ways: Rodrigo Duterte of the Phillipines has a complicated relationship with the Catholic Church and the Pope, whilst Vladimir Putin allegedly keeps an Eastern Orthodox priest as a counsellor, in an attempt to link Russian identity to Orthodoxy. In many of these cases, religion features heavily in the national insider/outsider debate, further highlighting its salience in contemporary political discourse.

Following the lead of scholars such as Jose Casanova, Professor Turner brings the public and political role of religion into focus. By doing so, he argues, we can push the sociology of religion toward the realms of political theory, international relations, and race relations, thus creating an agenda in which the sociology of religion becomes increasingly mainstream and relevant to the world we live in, rather than fading into a marginal sub-field of sociology.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

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, Snickers bars, pogs, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion

Podcast with Bryan Turner (15 January 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Turner_-_The_Political_Relevance_of_The_Sociology_of_Religion1.1

Sammy Bishop (SB): I’m Sammy Bishop, I’m here at the SocRel Conference, 2017. And I have with me a man who needs very little introduction, thanks to the huge influence that he’s had on the field. I’m with Professor Bryan Turner. So, welcome. And thank you for being involved with the Religious Studies Project.

Bryan Turner (BT): It’s a pleasure.

SB: OK, so today we’re going to talk a little bit about teaching and Religious Studies, and some of the differences between the British, European and American context as well. So could we start off, perhaps, with just a little about how you became interested in this topic?

BT: Well, I was converted to Methodism when I was about 17 and I was on holiday in Greece with a group of Methodists. In the following year I went to East Germany, Moscow and through Russia by train, and became very interested in Sociology. So, if you put the two together, I was a kind of Methodist with an interest in Communism and Marxism, although the main influence on my work has been Max Weber. I came here, to the University of Leeds, to do a PhD. I was in the Methodist Society. I was the President of the Student Christian Movement, so I had those kind of involvements. And I was taught by a famous comparative religion expert, Trevor Ling, who was a Buddhist Scholar. And through him became very interested in comparative religion. I was appointed to the University of Aberdeen to teach the Sociology of Religion in 1970, I think it was, but very few students were interested in doing religion, so I had very few students! So I retrained as a medical sociologist, which partly explains my interest in the sociology of the body and how medicine and religion connect with each other. To be honest, the Sociology of Religion dropped out of my career a bit, for those sorts of reasons. I became very much interested in Max Weber so, at that level, religion was part of my agenda. But it was also mixed up with all the other things that I was interested in and doing work on. And, to sort-of finish this little biographical sketch, after 9/11 just about anybody with an interest in Islam was suddenly employable. And I had all these kind-of requests to revisit stuff that I’d done. Because my first book was 1974: Weber and Islam. I went to live in America in 2006, I think it was. And I spent a year at Wiley College and then ended up at the Graduate Centre at the City University of New York, where I’ve been teaching the Sociology of Comparative Religion. So perhaps I’d better say something about the teaching method, if you’d like?

SB: Yes, please do.

BT: Well, I try to make religions kind-of relevant to the world they’re living in. So, for example, during the Mitt Romney/Barack Obama presidential race there was a lot of material to work with. Mitt Romney was a Mormon. There was this huge debate in the Media about whether Mormonism was a religion. So that was an easy way in to talking about what we mean by religion, or Mormonism, or Christianity. And the other, of course, was the allegation that Obama was really a secret Muslim of some sort – we had all of those debates. And then, in 2016 when the Clinton/Trump confrontation started, there seemed to be almost nothing to get into. Because I kind-of listened to every debate and read all of the stuff I could possibly get hold of. But I think Clinton mentioned religion only like once, when she read a passage from the New Testament. Bernie Sanders once talked about his Jewish legacy in an interview, but it wasn’t really part of his campaign. And then we had Trump. How does Trump relate to religion? Because we all know – American exceptionalism – religion is prominent in the public sphere. Just about every textbook starts with de Tocqueville’s commentary on civil religion and so on, and so forth. And it seemed very difficult to actually believe that Trump could win the election, given the fact of these disclosures of his attitudes towards women, his groping of women. And Trump, of course, changed his position on just about everything. So, at one stage, Trump was pro-life – very much committed to that kind of agenda. (5:00) And then, of course, during the campaign it comes out that he’s actually totally opposed to Roe Vs Wade which was the legislation that made abortion possible for women. He came out very strongly in favour of removing that legislation to make abortion either impossible or increasingly difficult. But what sort-of emerged after the election is that he has quite strong support from the Evangelical Churches. And one reason is that within the Evangelical Churches there is a kind of crisis around masculinity. A lot of the Evangelical literature has been developing the idea of the “tender warrior”. This is the kind of dominant male who is in charge of the family. He is in charge of the family. The idea is that women’s role is domestic. And that women really kind-of prefer to be subordinated to men, rather than to be liberated. And that part of the crisis in America is connected with: the acceptance of gays in the military; the legislation that made possible same-sex marriage in some states; the general kind of reception of alternative forms of sexuality, particularly on the East Coast. So, some of this election was about the East Coast, versus the Southern States, and so forth. So Jerry Falwell has come about very much in favour of Trump. Trump visited Liberty University which is run by Falwell, one of the founders of the Moral Majority. And so, my puzzlement about how Trump can possibly get support from religious groups has been partly answered by this idea that there is a kind-of deep anxiety, in conservative America, about the status of men, connected to: the rise of women into pink collar occupations; the better performance of women in education; the growth, or the presence of influential women in leadership positions. You know – Merkel in Germany, the head of the IMF, the Fed and so forth – you see women in very powerful political positions. And, insofar as populism and Trump are connected to the erosion of the blue collar male white working class, you can kind-of understand, partly, why Trump is getting support from Evangelicals. But I would point out a couple of things. I mean, Trump and Clinton were the least-attractive, least-supported presidential candidates in the whole of American history. Clinton did win the popular vote, despite Trump’s claims that it was all fake. Trump has huge support from his base, but he’s still a very problematic figure in American culture, I think. And he has divided society right down the middle. And so one never knows what is going to happen next, really, in America.

SB: Could you say more about the idea of Populism itself, and how that concept has become more relevant, perhaps, at the moment?

BT: Yes. Well, people have been studying populism for a long time. And there are arguments that populism has been present in American politics for long time, such as the People’s Party and so forth. “Agrarian populism” has been a notion around for some time. But I agree with you that in the last twelve months populism has been everywhere: conferences, journal articles, books and so on, and so forth. And I mean, it looked at one stage as if the populist parties would swing through Europe with the Northern League and Golden Dawn, and the Freedom Party in Austria and so forth. And then we’ve had this pause, if you like, in which Macron in France has won the election and to some extent the popular vote for extreme positions on foreigners has been slowed down a bit. And then, I think, with Brexit which again . . . . I mean UKIP, having had some electoral success, has virtually disappeared as a party. And it looks as though the complexity of Brexit may grind it into the ground eventually, who knows? But a lot of the populist literature has been saying that Britain is slightly different from other societies, in that the populist vote is weaker than you’ll find in, say, Italy, and so forth. (10:00) I mean, one issue is to what extent Thatcherism was an earlier form of populism. She did want to change everything. She had these structural views about an inside and an outside. I mean, one of the defining characteristics of populism is that it divides the world into “us” and “them”. And then you’ve got the people on the one side and their enemies on the other. I mean, as we’ve heard in this conference, the enemies seem to be connecting to Muslim refugees in Europe and so forth. But again, looking at this from the outside – that is, from America – what struck me was the antagonism towards East Europeans. So, Polish people were being criticised by Conservative people who wanted to argue that the welfare state was being exploited by free-riders from other countries. So I don’t think it’s just Islam, there’s all sorts of other things going on about the insider and the outsider.

SB: Where do you see it going in the future?

BT: Well I was reminiscing . . . . In the 1960s and 1970s and really into the ’80s, I suppose, we had the three day week, we had the miners’ strike and we had the poll tax strikes. And whilst Thatcher was hugely popular – again amongst her base – and while she was, in many ways, the most successful Prime Minister we’ve had – she won three elections, etc. – living through that period, I mean, Britain did seem amazingly unstable. I mean, just visually, we had piles of rubbish piled up in the streets; electricity was very limited; I remember having to teach with no heating in the university, so we all wore hats and gloves to work, sitting in classrooms. And the current period feels like that as well. Because, I think, if Brexit fails the people that voted to leave will be deeply frustrated. I mean Nigel Farage has threatened to comeback into politics if that happened! The legislative mess – it’s horrendous. And then, looking at the broader picture, we’ve got what you might call “strong man politics” in the Philippines, in China, in Russia and so forth. And, to some extent, some of these figures at least are mobilising religion to bolster their position. I think very interesting is Putin, who allegedly has an Orthodox Priest – an Eastern Orthodox Priest – as a counsellor. He’s obviously appealing to Orthodoxy as a way of defining what it is to be Russian. It’s a fairly complicated picture, I think. Again, I suppose I should have said about Trump that Trump’s foreign policy is deeply worrying, because he seems to want to undermine many of the institutions that have bolstered European peace for 70 years or so. And there is this figure, Steve Bannon, who’s a conservative Catholic with an Irish background, who I think is mobilising Trump’s foreign policy. And I think that’s very problematic. So, from an academic point of view, I think religion is going to be very central to all of these debates, whether it’s conflicts between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, or Buddhists and Muslims in Asia, or Catholic and Pentecostals and Protestants elsewhere.

SB: How do you think scholars of religion or sociologists of religion are best approaching it?

BT: Well, in the talk I’m going to give this evening, I think sociology of religion kind-of bifurcates into those that have gone into spirituality and post-institutional churches, and those who follow people like José Casanova who are interested in public religion. My question is how we make the Sociology of Religion central to the sociological enterprise, as a whole. And I think the public religions debate pushes the sociology of religion into political theory, into international relations, into race relations and creates a kind of agenda where Sociology of Religion is once more part of the mainstream rather than a minority interest on the margins. This conference- I’m going to get the title of the conference wrong, but “On the Edge”: are we part of the periphery or part of the mainstream? I think it’s an important question. And I, personally, don’t want to be on the periphery. Sociology of Religion is central to the modern world. (15:00)If you look at everywhere, basically: Israel, Brazil, America, Germany, France – it’s difficult to find a country that doesn’t have some kind of religious issue going on. And I think it’s’ something we need to address, really.

SB: When you speak about the political aspects of, for example, race relations as well, do you think that there’s a certain amount of activism that could be involved in the Sociology of Religion?

BT: Well, I certainly think Sociology needs to contribute to a solution. And whether that’s social policy or becoming engaged in activism, I think is something we can’t sort-of predict in advance, so to speak. But I think sociologists can’t describe the mess we’re in without taking some responsibility for suggesting ways we might get out of this mess. Otherwise we might all bathe in misery and melancholy, and what would be the point of having a conference like this? We might as stay at home and be miserable! And this is too big a topic for this interview, but I tend to think sociologists are always looking at failure: failed institutions, failed constitutions, failed social movements, failed this, that and the other. And I think we need to turn this around a bit and say: well, ok, can we find any successful institutions, or successful social movements, or successful philosophies or whatever, that have improved the human condition – even if it’s for a short time? My argument is that no institution lasts for ever. They all have fluctuating histories – I mean of success and failure. But the idea that all institutions are failing is an impossible position to take. I tend to say that there’s no such thing as consistent pessimism, because we wouldn’t be having this interview if you and I were consistently pessimistic, I don’t think. You know, we’d be getting drunk or something!

SB: (Laughs).

BT: So I think, I mean I haven’t been an activist in that traditional sort of sense. But I’ve edited the journal Citizenship Studies for about 20 years, which I see as making a contribution to understanding the kind-of erosion of social rights over the last 30 years or so. And that citizenship, revitalised would be some kind of answer to questions about social solidarity and so forth. I’m beginning to lose my voice. I don’t know if we can keep this interview to a limited period, because I have to speak in a while?

SB: Yes. Just one more question?

BT: Yes, sure.

SB: Do you see, when you speak about citizenship, do you see any role for religion in that idea?

BT: Well, I mean there are arguments that a lot of our notions of rights come out of . . . . Some people would argue that a lot of our notions of rights come out of the Protestant Methodist tradition. But, more recently, the Catholic Church was to some extent responsible for developing the concept of human dignity, which was the underpinning to the Declaration of Human Rights. And then, I think, the Christian Democratic tradition was part of this sort-of development. But I think the Sociology of Religion could contribute a more sophisticated understanding of what Judaism is or Islam, or other religions, what Sikhism is about and so on. So as a basic educational role, to undermine false assumptions about – you know – what happens to Muslim women, what Judaism has been about.

SB: Professor Bryan Turner, thank you very much for your time.

BT: Thank you.

Citation Info: Turner, Bryan and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 15 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-political-relevance-of-the-sociology-of-religion/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Politics of this world: Protestant, evangelical, and Pentecostal movements in the Peru

riverEvangelicalism in Peru has become a driving force in politics and decision making across major subjects, such as gender-related policies and institutional power. But it’s relevance today in the current political landscape is only the result of a much larger process, one that started around the end of the nineteenth century, with the entrance of the first protestant denominations and the establishment of their grassroots across the country. In this podcast, professor Juan Fonseca aims to elaborate a brief history of Protestantism, in order to comprehend its current mainstream manifestation.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Podcast with Juan Fonseca

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock  and revised by  Sidney Castillo.

Sidney Castillo (SC): Professor Juan Fonseca is Licentiate in History for Pontificia Universidad Catholica del Peru. He’s also Master in History at this university. His work focuses on the historical development of non-Catholic Christian movements in Peru, mainly Protestant evangelical, and intertwined with an interest in politics and social movements. Welcome Professor Fonseca to the Religious Studies Project.

Juan Fonseca (JF): It’s a pleasure to speak with you.

SC: The pleasure is also ours. Now, we’re here to learn some things about the non-Catholic Christian movements in Peru. In order to do that we would like to know a bit more about the classification of these movements. Since the Protestant and Pentecostal landscape of Peru is, counterintuitively enough, a diverse one in terms of origins, theology and political tendencies, based on your previous research, would you please elaborate a brief specification of these movements?

JF: Of course. In my last writings I have raised a typology of Protestantism. This typology is based in the following aspects. First its historical roots – national level and worldwide level – and some interreligious characteristics, that is to say, the beliefs and the religious practices that make them singular within the set-up of Christianity.

SC: Mmm

JF: This includes. . . There’s two things. There is theology and there are ecumenical practices: a type of religiousness practised by these members.

SC: OK.

JF: And third is the religious emphasis, which includes the ways that this person is articulated in the public sphere. For example, their political attitudes, some of attitudes towards social practices and some ideological points. Moreover, I believe that Protestant and Pentecostal are like two specific faces within Peruvian Christianity. These two faces co-exist in Peru, within the non-Catholic population. These two groups share some theological characteristics, but also they reference the Bible to define the dogma. However, there is a fundamental difference between the symbolic epistemology that constitutes the basis on which the religious practices – or the religious devotes – are constructed. On the one hand Protestantism, which is basically rational religion sustained in the Bible. On the other hand Pentecostalism is a sensorial religion, sustained in the constant intense experience with the numinous. Protestantism is like a religion of modernity, Pentecostalism is a religion of post-modernity and, in this sense, Catholicism is like a religion from pre-modernity. (5:00) About this theoretical base I suggest the following typology. So, two big groups: Protestantism itself and Pentecostalism. In Protestantism itself we can distinguish two groups: mainline Protestantism and evangelical Protestantism. Mainline Protestantism, for example, includes churches like Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian. These churches have a very ecumenical attitude and missiology. Their theology is liberal and their political attitudes are very progressive. And the evangelical group includes some churches, for example, the Christian Missionary Alliance, The Nazareth Church, The Baptist Church, the Anabaptist Church. And their theology is more moderate, not necessarily liberal. Its political attitudes are moderate: centre-right or centre-left. And in the Pentecostal sphere we can distinguish two groups: classic Pentecostalism, for example, some churches like Assemblies of God, Church of God. Pentecostal churches in general, in this field, their theology is more conservative, sometimes fundamentalist. Its religiosity is very pietistic and its political attitudes are more conservative. And the last group, inside Pentecostalism, is the charismatic churches. The charismatic churches, for example include very large Christian communities: Agua Viva is a very large community here in Lima; and Camino de Vida; Emmanuel Church – the Church of Humberto Lay, who is a very outstanding evangelical congressman. These churches are very enthusiastic. Their religion is very conservative theology but these churches have very good work in politics, too, very effective work. But with politics, they’re very conservative, too. So they’re sometimes linked to the political right and their morals are very conservative. I think this is the spectrum, like you said.

SC: That’s a very interesting present-day analysis. But as a historian you, of course, have researched about the very beginnings of non-Catholic denominations in Peru. In that sense especially, what was the relationship between the first wave of Protestant missions and the social movements or institutions that were present in first years of the twentieth century? We could name some like indigenism, syndicate movement, student movement or feminists.

JF: On the one hand, the brothers and missionaries of the early decades of the twentieth century developed a strategy combining the following aspects. (10:00) First, a political objective: the decline of the power of the Catholic Church, which will coincide with the most progressive sectors in different periods. Second, a cultural offer: the Protestants as carriers of civilisation in which they will also receive the support of the liberals. And third, a religious agenda: Protestantism as a confessional eternity programme. Well this strategy was based, on the other hand, in the countries from which it came. In the United States, their so-called social gospel had a strong influence on the missionary group – particularly the Methodists, which is the third denomination in Peru. Although, the more conservative groups such as evangelicals from Great Britain, or other places, had the most pietistic disposition. But they were also clear that socialisation was part of their mission. On that basis, they developed a series of missionary initiatives in the social sphere. For instance: the development of the employment option for women; promoting female employment and education in their schools; or fostering the development of the nursing profession, which at that time was only confined to Catholic nuns. In addition, it is well known the link of the Protestant missionaries with the first leaders of the Peruvian feminism, such as Maria Alvarado. In fact, one of the very old Methodist schools – Lima High School – is Maria Alvarado School. Furthermore, they developed links with indigenous people, several of whose leaders – Manuel Vincente Villarán, Dora Mayer de Zulen – expressed their appreciation for the help with this work. Similarly Protestant missionaries developed some missionary projects within areas such as: the Amazonas,with the Awajún people; or in the Perené, with the Asháninka people; or Puno, with the Aymara people; with the Azangaro people of Puno; and in the area of trade unions and the university movement. The closeness between the Methodist pastor Roberto Alcorta and workers and the labour movements are well-known. In fact, Roberto Alcorta was part of the temperance movement in the beginning of the twentieth century. John A. Mackay, the very renowned Scottish educator, had the very closest links within circles of intellectualism in Lima, in the 1920s. In addition, Presbyterians of the Peruvian school had very close link with some intellectuals and politicians like Victor Raul Haya de la Torre,  Jose Carlos Mariátegui and Victor Andrés Belaúnde.

SC: Now, you talked about the intellectual movements linked with the Christian denominations and all theses initiatives were properly from the first decades of the twentieth century Peru. But nowadays you could trace a little bit from the mid twentieth century, there’s a change in the way that these denominations do pastoral work. In that sense, I would like to ask you . . . .Your research shows that these first waves of Protestant missionaries were agents of modernization, directing their work to many institutions and social groups. But it also refers that in the last fifty years a great portion of Protestant evangelical and Pentecostal denominations aligned themselves with more conservative ideas and political parties. When and why, would you say, is the turning point for this particular way of doing missionary work and overall being Protestant, evangelical or Pentecostal?

JF: (15:00) Well, I think that transformations of social approaches of missionaries started around the 1940s. On the one hand, the global context at this stage of the post-war period and the beginnings of the cold war influenced the conservatism of the Protestant churches. Thus, since the 1950s, new waves of missionaries with an anti-communist mentality and with a pietistic missiological approach focussed basically on proselytising and the spiritualisation of the Christian missions when they arrived. In China, there was a communist revolution during 1940-49 so, two years after, all the protestant missionaries were expelled. Like ten thousand, so most of them came to Latin America with very anti-communist ideas. This was going to be acute in the following case when they were from nations of ideological Christian progressivism: communism, versus the Christian evangelical conservatives who were there. These troubles between the conservative majority and the progressive minority – mainly grouped in the Methodist church and the Christian NGOs – began in the ’60s. Similar to what happened with Catholicism, the nature of the debate was focussed on the ideological dimensions of the Christian mission in communism. In the ’70s, it was clear that theological conservatism had been imposed, but in a moderate version, whose best expression was the Latin American Theological Fraternity, and the Association of Evangelical College Groups of Peru (AGEUP in Spanish). At the side of it, the great evangelical mass – people attached to large denominations – basically developed pietistic religious practices and a fundamentalist hermeneutic. And on the other hand, the complex process of nationalisation of the leadership of the Protestant denominations of course, in that context, just when conservative speech and fundamentalism was in progress. Obviously, that explains why many of the protestant national leadership took a conservative, anti-ecumenical and even fundamentalist speech. So the CONEP (in Spanish): the National Council of Evangelical Churches starts its activities in the 1940s. And the CONEP was, well, the leadership of CONEP was very national – national people. They became institutionally independent but they inherited the ideological imprint of the missionaries from whom they complained. Thus, as we enter into the 1980s the field was ready for the emergence of fundamentalism. Somehow a violence of terrorism delayed that process for a short while, because moderate evangelicalism made this speech, hegemonize at least in evangelical cooperation entities and especially in CONEP, the Evangelical National Council of Peru. Since then, most of their leaders have belonged to the moderate evangelicalism. However, this hegemony began to be questioned by a growing and very well organised fundamentalist force, which caused a big crisis in CONEP. (20:00) So this neo-fundamentalism, represented in the leaders of the charismatic movement, was different from moderate evangelicalism in its mission of the church, and its political ideology. Neo-fundamentalism is not necessarily anti-intellectual. You can even say that it is relatively illustrated and fits very well into the parameters of the democratic party sphere. This neo-fundamentalism is very active, politically speaking, always a part of the agenda of right-wing political groups. Between 1993 and 1995 an outpost of this group decided to take control of CONEP. The damage that this battle produced in the main evangelical institutions was prolonged, although later on the moderate groups would take control of the situation. But the neo-fundamentalists empowered themselves and began to construct the spaces of collective institutions on the basis of which, they would promote their agenda. Thus FIPAC – the International Fraternity of Christian Pastors and the Peruvian Fellowship of Evangelical Pastors – were developed. These institutions are very conservative, very fundamentalist. So throughout the 21st century the strength of neo-fundamentalism and conservative groups has continued to grow. CONEP has been the battlefield between the ultra-conservative groups and the moderate minority that still maintains its presence here. Sometimes CONEP seems a very strange institution, because their presidents – these last years – were always moderate, or even liberal pastors, but when they took the presidency, immediately they acted like prisoners of the conservatives. So the CONEP people say, “Well the president is liberal.” But it’s just a symbolic position, they have no power, no effective power inside the institution. So the UNICEP, the formation of the Union of Christian Evangelical Churches, its partner institutions, different from CONEP, begin a new attempt by the right-wing evangelical groups to hegemonise their reactionary speech. So, an additional factor in this brief history is the influence of the American neo-conservative agenda – the North American conservative agenda. Since the 1980s, the right-wing religious parties have been strengthened considerably in the United States and is globalized in the last decade. So, the objectives of the crusade to the demands of sexual minorities, feminism, and secularism in general, and for a decade their actions have become globalized. I think it is one of the protagonists of, for example, homophobic speech and the practice of Christian conservatism in Peru.

SC: As you may know, on March 12 2016, La Marcha por la Familia y la Vida, or March for Life and Family took place. It is an annual international march organised by the Archdiocese of Lima and gathers most of the conservative Christian and political wings of Peruvian civil society against abortion and same-sex unions. In that sense, what is the current impact of the Pentecostal and evangelical movement as part of a wider conservative coalition in these political struggles. (25:00) Also, why would you say are they so focused on these particular issues?

JF: At present, it is clear that neo-fundamentalists have managed to hegemonise at least on this point. On the Catholic side, the statement of the Episcopal Conference, the Bishop’s Conference, have been clearly reactionary. And at this point, all the wings of the Catholic church handle the same speech, at least publicly. Progressive groups are afraid of saying something for fear or for indifference. Well, but on the Protestant evangelical side, the internal battles which have occurred in the past few years about this subject also show that the neo-fundamentalist speech succeeded in cornering moderates and progressives, in a way that they had to abide to the falling tide, which at this time has been extended by the evangelical churches. The neo-fundamentalists have succeeded in associating their speech with the essentiality of the evangelical identity. I think that the Protestant evangelical members, their identity did not necessarily imply being, for example, homophobic. Thus part of the conservative strategy was to normalise and naturalise the relationship between evangelical religious discourse and fierce opposition to sexual diversity or abortion, and other issues like this. The conservative pressure has been so strong that it has managed to neutralise almost all voices inside the local Protestantism, that began to show some sympathy to the LGBT cause. They have gone with unethical methods many times, but have finally been effective. For example, the campaign for recall of Susana Villarán[1] ecognised the conflict of powers in which the neo-fundamentalists won and important repositioning. There are some similar areas affecting this outbreak of homophobic speech and religious practice of conservative Christianity. On the one hand, theology and Biblical hermeneutics produce the ideological conditions for the constitution of pastoral homophobic discourse to the interior of the churches. On the other hand, the political discourse of religious hierarchies in the public sphere is more and more careful with using religious categories except for less sophisticated groups. Finally, in practice, this trans-confessional alliance of neo-conservatism, or “ecumenical fundamentalism”, has a more active set of actors who are positioned in the various political groupings within the country, as well as in social spaces. Traditionally, they were reluctant to change, for example, the location of the militant institutions. However, the progressive minority, silenced for decades, also begins to build a theological discourse where the practice of the faith are compatible with promotion of sexual diversity rights or some other issues of progressive agenda.

SC: (30:00) Well, now that we have covered the conservative part, I’d like to go to the other side of the spectrum with this the next question. Now we’re facing the second round of presidential elections – on June 5, 2016. While there is a common misconception that being Christian equals being a political conservative – thus favouring religious and secular conservative candidates – a recent statement of an interdenominational Christian collective, favouring a left wing candidate, has been circulated in different social media. Why these kind of political stances hardly find any correspondences in the majority of Peruvian Christians?

JF: Well, I’m not sure that this manifest of progressive Christians, on which I include myself as well, has impacted too much on the electoral decisions of evangelical voters. I think the evangelical voter is more independent than many people believe and votes according to rationales that are not always religious. However I think that, actually, there is an ultra-conservative fundamentalist core that is militant in the anti-rights crusade that its hierarchies have initiated. Although it is a minority, it is very powerful in its media presence. They have managed, as I said, to naturalise the relationship between the Gospel and the conservative media and public opinion in general. Well, in that context, progressive evangelical voices are even less than the fundamentalists, but hold key positions in evangelical institutions, for example the CONEP, the Bible Society, Christian NGOs, some seminaries and even some denominations. In that sense, I think the dissemination of the pronouncements of Christians in favour of Veronika, the left-wing candidate, is a very positive step. Because it shows that some of them are already learning to position themselves in the public debate with the same aggressiveness as conservatives, and articulated with national political actors, in this case, with the left-wing Frente Amplio. In that way, I think that an interesting way has been marked so that, in the future, progressive positions expand their capacity of incidence within the churches and also in Peruvian society in general. And I think it’s very possible.

SC: Well, Professor Fonseca, it has been a pleasure to have you here on the Religious Studies Project. We have learnt a lot about non-Catholic Christian movements that are in our country for more than a century now.

JF: Well thanks for this opportunity.

SC: See you next time.

[1] The mayor of Lima during the period 2011-2014. She was indicted in a widely mediatic process for being, alledgedly, inefficient as a public official. During that process, the several conservative Christian denominations came out to denounce the former mayor for being pro-LGBT rights, since several of her public policies targeted sexual minorities, sex workers, and the like. [Note added by SC]


Citation Info: Fonseca, Juan 2017. “Politics of This World: Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal Movements in Peru”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 17 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.2, 1 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/politics-of-this-world-protestant-evangelical-and-pentecostal-movements-in-the-peru/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

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Of course, you may still send or forward submissions regarding calls for papers, events, jobs, awards, grants, etc. to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com for free advertisement in this (mostly) weekly digest.

Calls for papers

Conference: Radical/ized Religion: Religion as a Resource for Political Theory and Practice

June 9-11, 2017

University of Chichester, UK

Deadline: April 14, 2017

More information

Symposium: CenSAMM: 500 Years: The Reformation and its Resonants

September 14–15, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: April 30, 2017

More information

Events

Conference: The Future of Religion: Civilization or Barbarism

April 24–29, 2017

Dubrovnik, Croatia

More information

Reading Room: Sanskrit

Various dates, spring/summer 2017

University of Oxford, UK

More information

Jobs and funding

One-Year Position: East Asian Religions

Grinnell College, USA

Deadline: June 26, 2017

More information

Lecturer: Religious Studies

Mahidol University, Thailand

Deadline: May 31, 2017

More information

Visiting Lecturer: Buddhist Studies and Tibetan Language

Kathmandu University, Nepal

Deadline: June 29, 2017

More information

Research Fellow: Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre

Birmingham, UK

Deadline: April 28, 2017

More information

South American church-state relations

imgPolitics and social institutions are inseparable. Whether we take a look at small-scale or complex societies, we can find that politics is involved with economics, kinship with hierarchy, and of course, religion with the state. The relationship between the last two has been shaped by numerous processes throughout human history; but, if we place our attention in the history of the western world, we can identify a turning point, one that started with the first waves of enlightened thought (eighteenth century), continuing with the posterior massive drop-out of catholic religiosity, and culminating with the total separation of religion and the state. In this podcast, Sidney Castillo interviews professor Marco Huaco Palomino as he addresses the nuances of secularity in several Latin American countries.

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, Richard Dawkins memorabilia, and more.

Researching Radicalisation

Radicalisation, fundamentalism or extremism, are terms which are highly prevalent in media, public, political, and legal discourse these days, and are surrounded by mystification, rhetoric and ideological assumptions that work against clear, objective, non-partisan understandings of the phenomena they denote. Regular listeners to the RSP will be unsurprised that we look askance at such discourses and aim to take a critical approach to this controversial topic. What might the academy mean by the term ‘radicalisation’? How might we study it? What makes it different from ‘socialisation’? Is there a necessary connection between ‘religion’ – or particular forms of ‘religion’ – and radicalisation? And how might we position ourselves in relation to other actors – in politics, the military, or the media – who have a vested interest in our research?

To discuss these and other issues, we are joined this week by Dr Matthew Francis, Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University and Communications Director for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). In this interview we discuss what we mean by ‘radicalisation’, and what its connections to socialisation, terrorism, and ‘religion’ might be. We take on the methodological question of how one might go about researching such a contested topic, and look specifically at some of Matthew’s findings relating to the causes of radicalisation, and the neo-Durkheimian ‘sacred’. We also reflect on the position of the researcher when approaching topics entangled such vested political interests, negotiating the media, and future research directions.

Be sure to check out other great podcasts on: Zen Buddhism Terrorism and Holy War with Brian Victoria; Sociotheology and the Cosmic War with Mark Juergensmeyer; Religion, violence and the Media with Jolyon Mitchell; Studying “Cults” with Eileen Barker; The Sacred with Gordon Lynch; and Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond with Ian Reader and Paulina Kolata. This episode is the fifth in a series co-produced with Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality” with Naomi Thompson, ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan, and ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie.

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, this BLACK FRIDAY, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cough drops, single malt whiskey, and more.

Difference or Diversity: Promoting Dialogue of Diversity as Religious Studies Professionals

Prof. Martin Stringer, now of Swansea University, once again lends his expertise in religious diversity to the Religious Studies Project. In this podcast, Prof. Stringer discusses the changes the discourse of religious diversity. After years of studying in different locations in the U.K. – Birmingham, London, Manchester – Stringer began noticing a pattern in the way people identify.  Prof. Stringer states it is important to recognize the significant changes to the discourse on diversity. No longer are people identifying based on countries of origin or their ethnicities, but people often proclaim their religious identity as their marker. This is much different from the conversations of the 1960s and 70s, where the conversation is based on the ethnicities migrating throughout Europe.

Stringer mentioned the work of Steven Vertovec, and his concept of “super-diversity.”  According to Vertovec, looking at diversity solely through the lens of ethnicity or country of origin is misleading and one-dimensional (2006, 1). Vertovec’s proposition of “super-diversity” acknowledges that there is a large array of variables that make up the diversity of an area. As researchers, we ought to look into the variables of age, immigration status, languages, gender, and as Stringer mentions, religion.

dividedTo expand upon Vertovec’s theory of super-diversity, Stringer emphasizes the importance for religious studies professionals to develop a language to use when discussing this type of diversity, and be in conversation with our elected officials. According to Stringer, the language used to discuss religion has been secularized so much so that it almost as if we are no longer discussing religion. Cultivating a proper lexicon to discuss religion in public sphere is where religious studies professionals come in. This vocabulary comes in particularly useful when discussing the current atmosphere surrounding immigration and the tension brought on by the refugee crisis. As we start recognizing the differences that make up super-diversity, religion is a key component.

As Stringer points out, discourse is divided along the lines of diversity and difference. When discourse focuses on difference, it divides the subjects along categorical boundaries. These categorical boundaries are socially constructed and further the narrative of “us vs. them”. However, when building discourse surrounding groups that are, yes, different, but focused on the commonalities, that is building a discourse on diversity. Those are the conversations we, as religious studies professionals, need to be having as outreach to the public and to our elected officials. Stringer points out that we must create this lexicon, promote, and make it accessible to the people that do not study religion as in-depth as us. In the case of immigrants and refugees, it is important that we recognize religious differences, and develop that language for the general public and elected officials to use. We can create a discourse of diversity, rather than allowing them to continue with the discourse of difference. If the conversation around migration changes, maybe the culture of suspicion and distrust towards migrants will change to one of welcome and empathy.

At first while listening to this podcast, I was having a difficult time figuring out what angle I wanted to write this response. All of the research Stringer mentions is centered on the U.K. As a student in the United States, I am not familiar with the neighborhoods he mentions nor the discourse he actually observes to draw his conclusions. However, I can relate what Stringer states to a very similar set of issues we are having in the U.S. We have the same issue of correct religious vocabulary to use while discussing religious diversity, the same lack of use of religious studies professionals in the political sphere, heated discussions of immigrants and refugees incited by the discourse of difference, and the division along categorical lines are exacerbated as these conversations persist.

As we have seen over the course of the last few years, the gap between the right and left has increased. Furthering the problematic discourse of difference that Stringer discusses. In agreement with Stringer, I fully believe that religious studies professionals must engage in civic matters more actively. It is not enough that we study the people that make our super-diverse communities. It is not enough that we understand the religious beliefs of the refugees fleeing Syria. In the United States, as in much of Europe, U.S. citizens are divided on whether we should accept more refugees from Syria or bar them and their religious beliefs. My own elected officials have introduced legislation to restrict the flow of refugees from areas with ISIS strongholds, in fear that Muslim radicals would be a part of the admitted refugees. What is my duty as somebody that studies human rights and religion? It is to bring these conversations to light, and lend my expertise to my elected officials. However, we cannot wait to have a seat at this table, but we must create it.

I don’t know if Prof. Stringer had this type of conversation in mind as he sat down with the Religious Studies Project, or throughout his research of super-diversity, but this is a conversation we must also have. We have seen violence increase after the Brexit vote, through a variety of news outlets and perspectives:

In the U.S. we see the vitriol and hate-filled rhetoric expounded by Donald Trump and the far right:

Many of the conversations centered in these situations are focused on the difference between us (citizens of our countries) or them (the migrants). I cannot speak to the discourse that is happening in the U.K., but I can speak to the discourse in the United States. It is one of division, fear, and hate, and one that religious studies professionals can lend their hand to, to calm the discussion and shift the conversation and culture from what makes us different to what our commonalities are to overcome those differences.

Researching Religious Diversity

In Martin Stringer’s Discourses on Religious Diversity (2013a), and in further elaborations (2013b; 2014), he paints a picture of some of the prevalent everyday discourses on ‘religious diversity’ which he and his doctoral students have encountered over several years working in Birmingham, Manchester, London and other cities, bringing a large body of variously ‘circumstantial data’ (Stringer 2013a, 2) into conversation with new and innovatively gathered material (Stringer 2013b) and broader academic literature from anthropology and urban studies.

In this interview, we discuss the broad topic of diversity, contrast this with concepts of ‘difference’, and ask what on Steven Vertovec might mean by the concept of ‘super-diversity’ (2007). We then ask why scholars might be interested in situations of ‘religious diversity’, how they might avoid becoming mere puppets of the state, how this differs from ‘multiculuralism’, and how we might go about doing such research. Using examples from case studies in the Birmingham districts of Highgate and Handsworth, Stringer argues that scholars need to pay attention to the particularities of the localities in question, and that we need to rehink just how we disseminate the results of our research for public usage.

This interview was recorded at the BASR Annual Conference at the University of Wolverhampton, and draws on Professor Stringer’s keynote lecture “Beyond Difference: Challenging the Future for Religious Studies.”

Check out Martin’s previous podcast on ‘Situational Belief’ 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, SPAM, moth balls, and more.


References

Stringer, Martin D. 2013a. Discourses of Religious Diversity: Explorations in an Urban Ecology. Farnham: Ashgate.
———. 2013b. “The Sounds of Silence: Searching for the Religious in Everyday Discourse.” In Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular, edited by Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter, 161–71. Farnham: Ashgate.
———. 2014. “Religion, Ethnicity and National Origins: Exploring the Independence of Variables in a Superdiverse Neighbourhood.” Diskus: The Journal of the British Association for the Study of Religions 16 (2): 88–100.
Vertovec, Steven. 2007. “Super-Diversity and Its Implications.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 30 (6): 1024–54. doi:10.1080/01419870701599465.

Report: 2015 Joint Conferences of the New Zealand and Australian Associations for the Study of Religion

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Bruno Marshall Shirley and John H. Shaver

The biennial conference of the New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions (NZASR) and the annual conference of the Australian Association for the Study of Religions (AASR) were held together in Queenstown, New Zealand from December 8-10 2015. Interdisciplinary perspectives and theoretical approaches across the humanities and social sciences were evident in the wide-range of papers presented. Islam, and Asian religions more generally, were the most consistent objects of focus, perhaps unsurprising given Australasia’s proximity to Asia and recent increased media attention to the Islamic State.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The conference’s emphasis on Asia and Islam were evident in the keynote lectures. In a talk entitled “Creativity and Ethical Life in India,” Tulasi Srinivas (Emerson College) described religious innovations in Bangalore and the sense of “wonder” that they often inspire. She argued that scholars ought to take emerging religious practices seriously, rather than as anomalies or deviations from established, textually-based understandings of religion. Turning to Japan, Douglas Ezzy (University of Tasmania) argued that Shint­ō is best considered a “religion of practice” in contrast to those traditional conceptions of religion as belief-oriented. He suggested that while a non-Christian can attend mass at a Christian place of worship and not be “doing Christianity,” a tourist at a Shint­ō shrine participating in its various ritual practices might be said to be “doing Shint­ō.” For many Japanese Shint­ō is not associated with doctrinal belief (shūkyō), which allows people to engage with Shint­ō ritual practice while not accepting its cosmology. Some in the audience disagreed with Ezzy’s analysis of Shint­ō and its relationship to shūkyō, but his call for a renewed focus on religious practice was generally appreciated. Sally McAra (University of Auckland), looked at one traditionally Asian religion, Buddhism, in the Australasian context. She discussed the problems facing an anthropologist conducting ethnographic research among their own group, principally a difficulty in carrying out objective analyses, due to a positive bias towards group ideals.

The final keynote lecture, from Gary D. Bouma (Monash University), turned to Islam and to Western discourses about the “threat” that each other poses. Bouma argued that both anti-Western and anti-Muslim narratives shared several key features: both narratives assert that the “other” is incorrect in some way; each is reinforced due to media bias; and both narratives are responsible for the perpetuation of conflict. Bouma’s most significant point was that Religious Studies scholars have a responsibility to discredit these discourses – particularly anti-Muslim narratives in the West, such as those put forth by Trump or Abbot. These narratives, Bouma argued, serve to legitimise attempts to gain power at the expense of civil liberties, and/or to divert attention from their own violence (including structural violence, domestic violence, or even climate change).

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper "Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult," in the panel "Religion in/and Politics."

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper “Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult,” in the panel “Religion in/and Politics.”

The panel “Contemporary Religions” continued the central foci on Asian religions and Islam. A paper by Douglas Osto (Massey) (based on his forthcoming book, Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America, Columbia UP, 2016) outlined the history of “Psychedelic Buddhism” from the 1950s into the present, and the changing attitudes of American Buddhist practitioners towards mind-altering drugs. Osto described how some practitioners used psychedelic drugs as a “door” to advanced states of mind, before graduating to “pure” meditation practices, while others (notably Joan Halifax) continued to use drugs to supplement their meditative practices. Although psychedelia has been investigated before, Osto’s study represents the first serious examination of psychedelic Buddhism as a non-systemic religious movement, and is sure to lead to further studies of other hybrid Buddhist practices in the West. Buddhism was also the focus of a panel on “Buddhist Tales and Territories,” which featured a paper by Chaisit Suwanvarangkul (University of Otago) on the relevance of dharmakāya and the tathāgatagarbha doctrine to Therāvada Buddhism, as well as to the Mahāyāna. Suwanvarangkul’s paper was partially in response to an earlier paper by Michael Radich (Victoria University of Wellington), presented at the 2007 Australian Association of Buddhist Studies conference, entitled “There is no Dhammakāya in the Pāli Canon.” Suwanvarangkul’s inclusion of the Chinese Āgama as Theravāda was the subject of some controversy, as Osto pointed out that, despite parallels to the Theravāda nikāya, the Chinese āgama contain several key differences from the Theravāda texts. The panel also included papers by Anna Halafoff and Matthew Clarke (both of Deakin University) on the role of Songdhammakalyani monastery (Thailand) in promoting gender equality; Chiew Hui Ho (University of Sydney) on Chinese tales about the Diamond Sutra and their role in encouraging faith; and Phra Akbordin Rattana (University of Otago) on the model of Buddha devotion expressed in the Mārabandha chapter of the Paṭhamasambodhi-kathā.

Papers in the panel “Religion and the State” shared a common theme of distinctions between “religious practice” and “political actions” breaking down, in cases drawn from China, Japan, and Sri Lanka. Melissa Inoue (University of Auckland) discussed China’s True Jesus Church and its “miraculous” discourse. She argued that by directing attention to this-worldly affairs, the discourse indirectly both critiques and affirms contemporary Chinese society and the stewardship of the party-state. Ben Schonthal (University of Otago) turned to Sri Lanka and the (legal) case of a Buddhist monk who was denied an application for a driver’s license on the grounds that it was not appropriate for monks to drive. He argued that this was fundamentally a problem of contested authority over religious practice in Sri Lanka, arising from an ambiguous constitutionalising of religion. Bruno M. Shirley (Victoria University of Wellington) called for a post-secular rethinking of “religious violence” using the case study of Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Senā. Shirley suggested that explanations for religious violence, generally and in Sri Lanka specifically, have tended to assume a secularist dichotomy of “religion” and “politics” that is inadequate for dealing with the relationship between Buddhism, politics, and violence in Sri Lanka. Shirley suggested instead that we might reconsider this relationship within a framework of identity politics.

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper "Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion," in the panel "Naming Islamism."

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper “Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion,” in the panel “Naming Islamism.”

The panel “Naming Islamism,” was by far the most controversial of the conference. Will Sweetman (University of Otago), Christopher van der Krogt (Massey University), Douglas Pratt (University of Waikato), William E. Shepard (University of Canterbury), and audience members debated whether or not the Islamic State could be considered an authentic iteration of “Islam.” Van der Krogt argued that such a debate represents a misunderstanding of religion, and Islam in particular, while Sweetman argued that there is no basis for denying the Islamic State’s self-identification as Muslim. Several audience members disagreed with this assertion, instead arguing that Islam did indeed have some core norms and values with which the Islamic State does not conform. This panel also included less controversial papers by Shepard (University of Canterbury), on the development of Sayyid Qutb’s views on gender relations, and Pratt, on the Islamic State’s “theological ideology.”

Not all of the panels at the conference focussed on Asia or on Islam, and of these the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) panel is particularly notable for being the most empirically-oriented of the conference. The first NZAVS talk was delivered by the director of the study, Chris Sibley, a psychologist from the University of Auckland. Sibley described the breadth of the study and some of the many challenges inherent to large-scale longitudinal data collection. Joseph Bulbulia (Victoria University of Wellington) then detailed a few of the more significant findings pertaining to religion that have emerged from the NZAVS, including his work on the distinct “faith signatures” that span and defy traditional denominational categorization. Following these talks, Geoffrey Troughton (Victoria University of Wellington) described the history of the “Christian Not Further Declared (NFD)” designation in the New Zealand census, and then used NZAVS data to describe the demographic characteristics of those individuals that have recently come to identify with this tremendously growing group. The panel concluded with John Shaver (Victoria University of Wellington) describing the complex, but unique, picture of religion and prejudice/ tolerance in New Zealand. Although highly religious New Zealanders are more tolerant of many social groups (including ethnic and religious out-groups) than their secular counterparts, they are also less tolerant of some other groups (e.g., homosexuals). Shaver interpreted this pattern as a result of the differential flexibility of human values. He argued that those values associated with conservatism are necessary for the cultural transmission of religion and are therefore less free to vary across cultures, while those that are less relevant to transmission are subject to greater environmental influence.

Perhaps due to the University of Otago’s excellent choice to host the conference in scenic Queenstown, the conference was relatively well-attended by NZASR standards, and a strong Australian presence was a welcome addition to the conference’s academic and social events. While Asia and Islam were focal, the range of perspectives and disciplinary approaches made for interesting discussions, both in panels and informally. The conference demonstrated that the study of religions in New Zealand and Australia continues to broaden its interdisciplinary focus.

Teaching and Learning in Contemporary Religious Studies

As we career forward into the twenty-first century, in a context where more and more students have access to higher education, where technology advances at an exponential rate, and where the logics of neoliberalism and management seemingly creep further into every aspect of everyday life, critical reflection about the role of academics in teaching has never been more necessary. In this our first podcast of 2016, Chris was joined by Dr Dominic Corrywright of Oxford Brookes University in the UK, to discuss current developments in higher education pedagogy, the challenges and opportunities that these present for Religious Studies, and some practical examples from Dominic’s own experience.

Dominic Corrywright is Principal Lecturer for Quality Assurance, Enhancement and Validations, and Course Coordinator for Religion and Theology at Oxford Brookes. Alongside other research interests, including alternative spiritualities and new religious movements, Dominic has a strong research focus on teaching and learning in higher education, and pedagogy in the study of religions. He is Teaching & Learning representative on the executive committees of both the Particularly relevant publications include a co-edited issue of the BASR’s journal DIskus on Teaching and Learning in 2013, including his own article Landscape of Learning and Teaching in Religion and Theology: Perspectives and Mechanisms for Complex Learning, Programme Health and Pedagogical Well-being, and a chapter entitled Complex Learning and the World Religions Paradigm: Teaching Religion in a Shifting Subject Landscape, in a certain forthcoming volume edited by the RSP’s Christopher Cotter and David Robertson.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with Doe Daughtrey on Teaching Religious Studies Online. 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, ink cartridges, My Little Ponies, and more!

NAASR 2015 Annual Meeting: A Report from the Field

The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) held its annual meeting last week in connection with the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) conference in Atlanta, GA. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Matt Sheedy.

The theme for this year’s NAASR panels was “Theory in a Time of Excess,” which aimed to signal a basic problem in the study of religions; that despite increased attention and inclusion of debates on method and theory within the field over the last 30-odd years, it would appear, to quote the description on NAASR’s website, “that few of the many examples of doing theory today involve either meta-reflection on the practical conditions of the field or rigorously explanatory studies of religion’s cause(s) or function(s).” Accordingly, this year’s NAASR panels were designed to re-examine just what we mean by “theory” in the study of religion—e.g., should we follow an inclusive, “big tent” approach, or something more precise?

Be sure to wear your NAASR button! Photo thanks to NAASR.

Be sure to wear your NAASR button! Photo thanks to NAASR.

Four pre-circulated papers were presented on November 20-21, each of which included a panel of respondents:

1 “On the Restraint of Theory,” by Jason N. Blum

2 “What the Cognitive Science of Religion Is (And Is Not),” by Claire White

3 “Of Cognitive Science, Bricolage, and Brandom,” by Matt Bagger

4 “The High Stakes of Identifying (with) One’s Object of Study,” by Merinda Simmons

These panels presented a variety of critical approaches to the study of religion—materialist phenomenology, cognitive science of religion, cognitive science and analytic philosophy, and culture and identity studies—in order to explore some competing ideas of what constitutes “theory” in the study of religion, with responses from a variety of early career scholars who were chosen because of their own distance from the approaches in question.

Some questions and ideas that came out of these well-attended discussions (an average of 40-50 per session, by my count) included:

  • Can we speak about “religious” consciousness and experience without privileging particularistic and ahistorical perspectives?
  • Theory challenges us to realize that we are always fictionalizing our data.
  • What is the role of realism and inter-subjective reasoning in our work? Or, to put it differently, what are the lines between theory and addressing practical concerns as they appear in the social world today?
  • How can we address tensions between “naturally occurring” patterns of human cognition (e.g., the tendency to attribute agency to unknown forces) vs. the role of culture in shaping conceptions of the supernatural in the cognitive science of religion (CSR)?
  • Can religion be explained scientifically, as many CSR scholars would have it, or is the term religion itself too unstable to signify a coherent object of study?
  • Can we still talk about “religious belief” in the study of religion?
  • What is new about the “new materialism” (e.g., the return to questions of the body)? Is it merely repeating the idea of “lived religions” or something else altogether?
  • To what extent does one’s position in the academy (e.g., as a grad student, adjunct, or professor) determine what they can and cannot say in terms of their desire to critique certain aspects of the field?

During the NAASR business meeting, it was announced that Steven Ramey will be joining Aaron Hughes as the new co-editor of the NAASR-affiliated journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, and that the panel proceedings from this year’s conference will be turned into a book with Equinox Publishing. Providing opportunities for early career scholars was a constant topic of discussion at the conference, as well as the need to draw in new members—though it was noted that there was a significant spike in membership in 2015.

This year’s Presidential Panel featured two papers:

“Theory is the Best Accessory: Some Thoughts on the Power of Scholarly Compartmentalization,” by Leslie Dorrough Smith (Avila University)

“Compared to What?: Collaboration and Accountability in a Time of Excess,” by Greg Johnson (University of Colorado at Boulder)

Leslie Dorrough Smith and Greg Johnson. Photo thanks to NAASR.

NAASR Presidential Panel: Leslie Dorrough Smith and Greg Johnson. Photo thanks to NAASR.

Both of these presenters, along with those in attendance, were encouraged to read an unpublished essay on NAASR’s history by Don Wiebe and Luther Martin, which was written on the occasion of NAASR’s 20th anniversary, some 10 years ago. The purpose of this panel, now some 30 years after NAASR’s inception, was to explore how the organization can “continue pressing the field in novel, rigorous, and interesting directions,” and “to help us think through where the cutting edges may now be in the field.”

Sunday afternoon included a well attended workshop entitled, “…But What Do You Study?”: A NAASR Workshop on Theory & Method in the Job Market. Here a variety of early career scholars were broken up into groups, each with a more established scholar, to discuss strategies such as crafting a Cover Letter and what to include in one’s CV.

The final NAASR panel, co-sponsored with the SBL, was entitled “When Is the Big Tent too Big?” Following the description on the NAASR website, this panel sought to address the following question: “What are the strengths and weaknesses of the ‘big tent” philosophy that governs much of the disciplines of religious studies and biblical studies as represented in many academic societies, the publishing industry, and many colleges and universities?” Some of the questions/ideas raised by the panelists included:

  • The structural need for a big tent given the relative size of NAASR as compared with the AAR and SBL
  • What counts as reasonable, constructive scholarship and what goes too far (e.g., the “anything goes” approach)?
  • The need to highlight the role of ideology, power, and interests
  • An adequate secondary discourse should be neutral in terms of who can do it (i.e., it should privilege certain insiders and aim for theories that all scholars of religion can apply)
  • When is the tent to big? When it forgets its purpose as scholarship? When it covers up its own history?
  • Proposing the need to declare conflicts of interest when one is claiming academic legitimacy (i.e., where one is receiving funds from, relevant organizations they belong to, etc.).

All in all, the format of this year’s conference was deemed a success, and discussions are currently underway for adopting a similar format for the 2016 conference in San Antonio, TX, including another workshop for early career scholars looking to make their way in a challenging market.