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Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the eye of the creator

By comparing the Miss Christian America pageant to other more well known pageants Miss USA and Miss America, Chelsea Belanger’s study provides a look at the intersections between religion, gender, and collective identity. Using Christian Smith’s ideas of subcultural identity, Belanger examines how the structure of the Miss Christian pageant helps develop a unique form of embodied religion.

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


Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the Eye of the Creator

Podcast with Chelsea Belanger (4 March 2019).

Interviewed by Kristeen Black.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Belanger_-_Christian_Beauty_Pageants_1.1

Kristeen Black (KB): We’re all aware of the Miss Universe Pageant, Miss USA Pageant, Miss America pageant. There’s various systems of beauty pageant but each are uniquely identifiable, different in some way. And my guest today is going to talk to us about Miss Christian America. Please welcome Chelsea Belanger.

Chelsea Belanger (CB): Hello.

KB: Would you like to introduce yourself? Tell me a little bit about your research background and what brought you to this topic.

CB: Sure. So my name is Chelsea Belinger. I’m a second year doctoral student at the University of Central Florida. I got my Bachelors and my Masters at the University of Texas at San Antonio. And my master’s thesis encompassed race, religion, gender and behavioural health. It was a qualitative study examining the relationship between religiosity and sexual health among devout African American college women. And so . . .

KB: Fascinating.

CB: It was fascinating research, which I take a lot of pride in. It was a lot of fun but what was really interesting is the creative way in which these women used their religious beliefs to navigate through their sexual decision making. One of the main kind-of key points that emerged from this research, with respect to autonomy over our bodies, is that while these women that I interviewed were devout Christians, they expressed that they have supportive views of women deciding what is best for their body – especially with respect to abortion. So while they supported abortion they expressed or articulated that they themselves would never have an abortion, because of their religious beliefs.

KB: I see. So that’s the way that they negotiated that space.

CB: Absolutely. That space in terms of their religion, their views, their practices, but also being a woman. Being an African American woman and having those rights. It was fascinating. It was just a fascinating study.

KB: And do you see that same kind of synchronicity coming about with the beauty pageants? That there’s this national sense of beauty or gender as well as individual . . . but then again, collective, on a religious basis?

CB: Right. So what we’ve seen with respect to beauty pageants is that there’s a lot of religion being done. Unfortunately there’s scant research on Christian beauty pageants. But beauty pageants overall, now I will say there’s lot of research on the Miss America pageant. But what’s interesting here is that there’s a multitude of different pageant systems, such as Miss USA and Miss Christian America, where this research has encompassed . . .

KB: And to be honest, I didn’t realise there was a Miss Christian America pageant.

CB: Me neither, before this research!

KB: Who knew?!

CB: Indeed. But that’s what makes it so fascinating. It’s that there are different pageant systems that can really accommodate to anybody’s needs, so to speak. So I think that’s what . . . there’s a major misconception in American Society that there is just Miss America pageant. And that’s not the case.

KB: OK. So which came first for you in your research question: the theory that you were looking at of, for instance, Christian Smith and maybe even Judith Butler; or this kind-of noticing the different types of pageants going on, and the religiosity associated with that?

CB: Well certainly this research is going to encompass a lot of what I’m doing for my dissertation. So, being a frequent viewer of beauty pageants, American beauty pageants, I was really inspired to focus on this area. Because there’s such limited research on beauty pageants and not just Miss America. So I really wanted to focus on . . . . Ok – what is it about beauty pageants and gender that I want to focus on? And religion is something that I love studying. So I really wanted to look at how religion was being used in these beauty pageants. So that was the foundation of the study. And then looking at what theoretical frameworks are most appropriate for the study. And that’s where I came across the cultural identity theory. Now I will say I had a lot of help with Dr John Borkowksi who helped me along this, who was also my thesis advisor.

KB: A great shout out! So tell me little bit more about that theory and how that helps.

CB: So I’m working on Christian Smith’s cultural identity theory, where religious subcultures balance the demand of cultural distinction and social engagements. So, in other words, looking at this negotiating mainstream values and religious values (5:00). So, with respect to this work, looking at Miss Christian America, it’s a beauty pageant. Women are competing in this pageant, very similar to mainstream secular pageants. But what makes it uniquely different are the structure but also the requirements for this pageant, as well. In terms of the structure, there is no swimsuit portion in the Miss Christian America, but rather a sportswear competition. So that’s kind of deviating from the mainstream. Whereas the mainstream pageant like Miss USA has a swimsuit portion of the competition. And with respect to the pageant requirements, for Miss Christian America we see that contestants in this pageant must be active in ministry. They also have to have reference letters from one pastor and a media ministry leader as well. Which makes them stand out significantly from the mainstream pageant. So we see with respect to the subcultural identity theory how religion is being practised in these pageants that may exhibit mainstream characteristics.

KB: So, for my ear, it sounds like it’s evangelically focussed because women in ministry is not available in every denomination.

CB: Yeah. Right. Right. And that’s what’s interesting about this particular pageant, it’s that . . . the way in which I was studying this beauty pageant, it seemed as though as long as the contestants identified as being a Christian – that was also kind of this requirement to represent this particular pageant – whereas the mainstream pageant, Miss USA, there is no religious component whatsoever, where you’re actively driven by your faith or not.

KB: So, one of the things that I found interesting is that I seem to hear this core relationship between fitness – so, having to wear sports attire and then being judged physically fit in that sense, but no pictures – but then also being judged as spiritually fit, being inner beauty. You mentioned something about this inner type of driven-ness, and religiosity. So is that something that you’ve found, this idea of fitness in some way . . .?

CB: Right. So I saw in terms of physical fitness, this particular Miss Christian America really reinforces the characteristics of a “godly woman”. And so with this idea of a sportswear, it’s just really maintaining modesty and you know foregoing any kind of cleavage that you might see in the swimsuit competition. So really reinforcing this inner beauty. What’s really interesting about the Miss Christian America is their mission statement. And it says “no” to swimsuits and vain beauty; “yes” to the word of God, prayer, praise worship and inner . . . it really reinforces that evangelical component.

KB: Ok, Great. Also, you mentioned seeing this type of religiousness, or godly woman being reflected in some way throughout the pageant. Tell me more about that.

CB: Yes. So again, what makes this pageant so unique is kind of the requirement, if you will. So for these contestants application form, contestants for this pageant have to name their church, the numbers of years in which they’ve attended this church, and attend weekly Bible study – so that was like a yes or no response. Also the competition categories that vary vastly with the mainstream pageants are outreach ministry presentations, Biblical question and answer . . .

KB: Oh, interesting!

CB: Which is like the onstage questions that you see in the mainstream. But this, particularly, is a Biblically-based question . . . and, again, the sportswear competition. Also what’s interesting is the title holder responsibilities that are encompassed. And again we see this comparative component where both pageants have responsibilities for their title holders. But what’s interesting about Miss Christian America is the Evangelicalism that she must partake in as a title holder, representing Miss Christian America. And in addition to that, that encompasses missionary work, upholding the morals and standards of Miss Christian America pageant. So again, maintaining or exuding those characteristics of a godly woman (10:00).

KB: So, do you see the part of that being a godly woman encompasses idealised gender roles and things like . . . with the Miss America pageant, you have to be never married, never given birth. Is that the same type of thing reinforced here?

CB: Yes, so we certainly see, in this research, we see a lot of comparisons with mainstream and secular pageants and this particular pageant, Miss Christian America. We see that both pageants, Miss USA and Miss Christian America really promote women’s confidence and self-esteem and the importance of community involvement. In addition to that we see a lot of overlap between the two competitions, such as the pageant interview with the panel of judges, the opening number which is commonly done in the beginning of the pageant: this is when you’re first introduced to the contestants on stage. There’s no talent competition in either one of these pageants. Whereas, in Miss America you see that there’s a talent competition. Now, going back to what you were saying in terms of never married, single, never given birth, those are two requirements of both pageants, Miss USA and Miss Christian America. The contestant has to be single, never married and the contestant also has to be natural born female. In addition to that, she cannot have given birth at any point. So those are really, those are just similar characteristics between the two. In addition to that, community involvement is very much reinforced in both these pageants. Title holders or the winners of these pageants win a crown and sash. And oftentimes you’ll see on their sash the title which they’re representing. So Miss USA, Miss Christian America. And again the title holder responsibilities which, as we talked about before, varies but still maintains those responsibilities.

KB: And you just mentioned a sash, and I had kind of this question . . . . In the Miss America pageant we’re used to seeing like Miss Texas and Miss South Carolina, do they identify in that type of way? Is it like Miss Lutheran? [Laughs].

CB: That is a great question. From what I saw, no. Again, and I can only go on what I’ve seen of the Miss Christian America pageant. I did not see if there were women that identified. . .if they identified as Lutheran, that’s what the sash would say as they competed. I didn’t see that, so I’m going to assume no. I could be corrected. But again, as long as you identify as being Christian and being involved in the Christian faith.

KB: So it’s really more of an umbrella type of identification.

CB: Exactly. That’s how I interpreted it.

KB: OK. And how is race represented in there?

CB: That’s an excellent question. So we’ve seen . . . historically, in an American beauty pageant, we’ve seen this pattern of white women typically competing, but also winning these pageants. What’s unique about this particular pageant is a large presence of African American women competing in Miss Christian America, from what I’ve seen on their website. And so there’s also kind of this difference between the two. Now certainly we’ve seen, over time, recently, the crowning of diverse women and really reinforcing diversity in mainstream beauty pageants. But this particular pageant, I’d say that there’s a larger population of African American women competing and representing in this pageant.

KB: Great. OK. And then, do you think that there is some kind of reflection going on in the pageant of what’s going on in mainstream society, about the rising Evangelicalism? Is that contributing? Do you have any sense of how big the pageant is? Has it been growing lately?

CB: Right. Over all, that’s a really good question that I don’t think I’m prepared to answer just yet.

KB: OK, that’s good!

CB: But my assumption is, is that you know . . . unfortunately, American society may view beauty pageants negatively. And I hope my research reinforces some sort of shift in perception of how we view beauty pageants. So I don’t know in terms of the enrolment or participation of these beauty pageants over time. But certainly, hopefully there’s a shift that shows that beauty queens are not just a pretty face. They’re so much more than that regardless of the beauty pageant that you’re competing in. There’s that community involvement. But also within the pageant it’s this sisterhood that’s being created. These bonds of relationship. But also with respect to religion, how’s religion essentially being done in these pageants (15:00)? And from my own experience, backstage is where you see a lot of these . . . of religion being practised. Whether you’re competing in a secular pageant or a Christian-driven pageant, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see competitors, just before getting on stage, praying with each other – regardless of your faith – but just praying that everything goes well, and praying with each other. Whereas, once you step out on stage, they’re then your competition! But once you step off there’s this sisterhood again. And I think that’s the importance of just participating in a beauty pageant. And yes, there’s the sash and the crown, but also the bond, the friendship, the confidence that can come your way. And competing in these pageants. I hope my work can really explore that.

KB: And that’s great, because I was kind of wondering about this idea of collective versus the individual. And religion is such a collective idea. And how could that be reconciled, or is that, like, just taken into account? Is there a way that that’s negotiated, somehow?

CB: Certainly, so we’ve seen, at least in the Miss America, it’s not uncommon to see title-holders talk about their faith, even though Miss America’s not a religious pageant. We’ve certainly seen over time how contestant representing their states may kind-of talk about their faith and how they practice their faith, so to speak. So certainly, I wouldn’t say it’s completely erased from secular pageants just because they don’t have a religiously-driven component in these pageants. Who is to say these women aren’t driven by their faith?

KB: Right. But it’s just not as apparent?

CB: It’s not as apparent. But certainly, I guess, it’s up to the contestant if they want to talk about their faith. And it certainly had been played in previous years.

KB: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered?

CB: With respect to this research?

KB: Right.

CB: So much. I think I’ve gained an even greater respect for pageants, just exploring a pageant. And I’m so intrigued by how religion is being displayed in the Miss Christian America pageant. Prior to this research I had never heard of the Miss Christian America pageant. But looking into it and seeing what they stand for, and just with the way in which they’re promoting their faith, you know, it’s intriguing. Especially for somebody that studies the sociology of religion. I’m intrigued by that. So and just seeing how they navigate through that negotiation of secular pageants. And what they’re going to take from those secular pageants and how they’re going to incorporate their unique component to facilitate their religion. It’s fascinating.

KB: Yeah. And I can imagine that some denominations might resonate differently. Like if you have a very idealised gender role type of model to follow, that might be a little different experience than one that’s a little more fluid?

CB: Right. Right. Certainly, you know, in beauty pageants, mainstream, what have you, you’re going to have to exhibit these particular gender roles in terms of the makeup and, you know, heels, and hair spray, and what have you. So I certainly see that being practised here. But I think it’s so much more than that. You know, in terms of this sisterhood that’s being created. But also, what’s being done for these contestants? Win or lose – which I don’t think there’s any losers in pageantry. You gain something. Whether it’s self-confidence, or whether its friendships, what have you, or just trying something new. Certainly there’s definitely these generals that are in place. But there’s so much more. So much more that can be taken out of this from this experience as well.

KB: Would you say that this could be a faith experience for some of them?

CB: I think so. I could be wrong. But in terms of the Miss Christian America, I think it could really reinforce, or it does reinforce that commitment to their faith and really strengthening their religious beliefs and practices with the outreach of ministry and, you know, one of the competition categories – like I said before – was this Biblical question and answer. So really preparing . . . because this is a competition. There’s a panel of judges. You’re going to be judged. So really just the preparations that are encompassed in this particular pageant. And how, you know . . . preparing for those categories, (20:00) but also strengthening one’s faith.

KB: And that’s kind-of how I . . . . Just listening to you talk about it, it seems like it could be a faith-enhancing or religious experience.

CB: Indeed.

KB: So maybe just going back to Christian Smith just for a minute: tell me a little bit about how you’re applying that theory.

CB: Right. So in looking at subcultural identity theory we’re looking at religious subcultures balancing the demands of cultural distinction and social engagement. So, how is the Miss Christian America negotiating this cultural distinction and cultural engagement, compared to a more secular pageant, Miss USA?

KB: So that’s why you’ve compared both of those pageants. I see.

CB: Yes. So this was really a comparative textual analysis between the two pageants. But in addition to that, we’re kind of looking at the unique religious identity compared to the broader secular pageants. So looking at that religious identity and what’s coming about that. But also looking at the Evangelicalism that’s been brought forth in this research. So looking at the truthfulness of the Bible, so looking at values of scriptures, how is that being displayed in the pageant? The influence of human nature, so looking at the mainstream culture, so going back to the swimsuit competition, and so forth, and then finally, the “born again” experience that’s really the salvation of such faith.

KB: Oh, interesting.

CB: So it’s really interesting how the pageant is negotiating these religious values and borrowing from mainstream beauty pageants. Something that I talked about in this presentation was this idea of this perception, or borrowing, of mainstream, and really using it and navigating through the religious values and the mainstream values. So again, that on stage question, right? But in the sense of the Biblical question and answer.

KB: So these two are really being interspersed rather than juxtaposed, is that . . . ?

CB: I think so. Absolutely. So again, just going back to how they’re very uniquely similar, but also vastly different. But in the end somebody’s going to be crowned the title holder. So they’re still similar in many ways but vastly different in other ways with respect to religion.

KB: Fascinating. So if anyone had a question, is there a way that they could contact you? Do you have . . . is your work published somewhere?

CB: Not as of yet. So this is actually going to be . . . this research is part of a larger research study that I’m doing to for my dissertation. So I’m really . . . not brainstorming. But I know I want to conduct this research into pageantry because when I began such scant literature was out there on pageantry. So I really want to change that. I’m inspired to change that. And I really want to maintain . . . . I’m a qualitative researcher – so I want to look at kind of the motivations, why women choose to compete in beauty pageants.

KB: Yes. Great question!

CB: I want to explore that. Is it to make friends? Is it to gain self-confidence? Is it to get scholarship money? Or is it just to win a crown? And there are so many ways that that can be reinforced. So I want to explore reasons why women choose to . . . but as a researcher that’s fascinated by religion I want to also look at, maybe, how religion is displayed. So I’m not really focussing on a particular pageant. But I really want to interview former title holders but also former beauty pageant contestants, as well. And just explore and investigate why they chose to compete. And then, were there any ways in which they used their religion through that experience? Whether it was praying right before going on stage, or carrying a cross, or wearing a cross while they competed? I really want to explore that.

KB: And see what that means, yes. So this is a whole new way to think of lived religion and experiencing religion.

CB: Indeed. And going back to your question before. Certainly, if anybody has a question they can reach out to me through email. My email is chelsea.belanger@knight.ucf.edu

KB: Ok. And we’ll post that on the website as well.

CB: Thank you.

KB: Thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a pleasure.

CB: Likewise. Thank you for having me.

KB: We look forward to reading your book, once you turn your dissertation into a book (25:00).

CB: (Laughs) Yes I look forward to that one day, too.

KB: And I’ll re-interview you then!

CB: Yes. Sounds good. Thank you so much.

KB: Thank you, Chelsea.


Citation Info: Belanger, Chelsea and Kristeen Black. 2019. “Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the Eye of the Creator”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 4 March 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 February 2019. Available at: http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/christian-beauty-pageants-beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-creator/

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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America’s Changing Religious Landscape

The religious landscape of the United States is changing dramatically. Americans must consider what it means to govern a nation of religious minorities. We interview Dr. Robert P. Jones, the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. Jones discusses findings from PRRI’s national surveys on religion and public life, many of which are represented in the American Values Atlas. The data collected by PRRI reveal a number of surprising trends related to religion and its intersection with politics, voting patterns, age, race, immigration, and secularism in the United States. A few key findings highlighted in PRRI’s 2016 report on America’s changing religious identity and covered in this podcast: (1) white Christians now account for fewer than half of the public, (2) white evangelical Protestants are in decline, (3) non-Christian religious groups are growing, and (4) atheists and agnostics account for a minority of all religiously unaffiliated. We discuss the implications of these findings and more, and we briefly review the research methodologies utilized by PRRI.

 

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, apple pie, jazz albums, and more.


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


America’s Changing Religious Landscape

Podcast with Robert P. Jones (18 February 2019).

Interviewed by Benjamin P. Marcus

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Jones_-_America_s_Changing__Religious_Landscape_1.1

Benjamin P. Marcus (BM): My guest today is Robert P. Jones the founding CEO of PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) and a leading scholar and commentator on religion, culture and politics. He’s the author of The End of White Christian America, two other books, and numerous peer reviewed book chapters and articles. Dr Jones serves as the co-chair of the national steering committee for the Religion and Politics section at the American Academy of Religion. He’s a past-member of the editorial boards for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and Politics and Religion, the journal of the American Political Science Association. He holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Edinburgh University, an M.Div. from South-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, and B.S. in Computing Science and Mathematics from Mississippi College. Today we’ll be discussing PRRI’s 2018 reports about what’s happening with the religious landscape in the United States. We’ll look at the demographic changes in the country that might help explain the political climate that we find ourselves in today. Hello, Dr Jones – and welcome to the Religious Studies Project! I’d like to begin by asking a really broad question: what’s happening with religion in the US today?

Robert P. Jones (RJ): Well, it’s a great question. A lot is happening. And I think that is the story – that we’ve been experiencing a great deal of religious change, really since the 1990’s, but it’s been accelerated in the last decade. So just to give you a couple of, I think, relevant stats: one is the percentage of white Christians in the country has been declining, fairly precipitously, in the last ten years. And in particular we’ve gone – in the US – from being a majority white Christian nation, to one that is no longer a majority white Christian nation. And it’s happened fairly rapidly. If you go back to just 2008, the country was fifty-four percent white and Christian. And when I wrote my book, The End of White Christian America, I was working on 2014 data. And that number had dropped from fifty-four percent to forty-five, and that was a significant drop. But we’ve been continuing to track data since 2014 and that number’s down to forty-one percent, now. So we’ve looked at a thirteen percentage-point drop just since 2008 – so over the last decade, in the percentage of white Christians in the country. That’s come with an uptick in the religiously unaffiliated category. So if you just go back to the 1990s those numbers are in single digits: five, six percent in the 1990s. Our last data, 2017 data, is showing twenty-five percent of the public. And among young people it’s forty percent of the public. So this is a real sea-change in the country. Going from mostly a white Protestant country in 1993. That was actually the last year the country was white and Protestant. But even if you take all white Christians together – Protestant, Catholics, Orthodox, Non-denominational and denominational together – that number today is only forty-one percent. And that’s a real shift for the country.

BM: Wow. I have a number of questions from that. One is this category of “Nones” – n-o-n-e-s – people who are unaffiliated. Many people think that that’s a pretty homogeneous category of atheists and agnostics. But from what I understand that’s not the case. Is that right?

RJ: That’s right. Atheists and agnostics actually only make up only a minority of that category of a quarter of the US population. And the rest of them are kind of a mixed bag. When we’ve looked underneath the hood, there’s kind of two other groups in there. There’s one group that looks . . . that we’ve just broadly labelled “secular” in some of our reporting, that looks broadly like a cross-section of the country. But there’s another group in there that we’ve actually dubbed “unattached believers”. And that group looks, on many measures of religiosity – like, “How often do you pray?”, “How often do you attend religious services?”, “Do you believe in God?”, those kind of questions – they look like religious Americans, even though they refuse the category and won’t identify with any particular religious group. That group tends to be less white, more African American or Latino. And they tend to be younger. And so it’s a very interesting group. I think, as a whole, this group has moved so fast now that it is a very diverse group. I mean, after all, it’s a quarter of Americans, so that is a big, big group that we’re talking about, now.

BM: Wow. And does that seem to be concentrated in the sort-of Godless coasts? Or is that happening across the United States? Are we seeing a decrease in white Christian presence – not only in the middle of the country, but also in the coasts? Or is it happening in certain places?

RJ: Yeah. This is a great question. This is definitely not a bi-coastal urban phenomenon. One project that the PRRI started back in 2013 is called the American Values Atlas. And we actually have this online – for any of your Listeners who want to go check it out – it’s ava.prri.org. And what we did is, we started realising that we had enough data every year that, if we were careful about combining it, we could actually map the religious demography of every state in the country, and also the top thirty metro areas in the country (5:00). So you can go online right now and you can compare Iowa to California, for example. And you can go back in time as well. And one of the things that you see there is, if you go back ten years to today, virtually everywhere is experiencing these changes. So it’s not just New York and California, or Texas, but it’s Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota – each of these states has experienced, for example, approximately a ten percentage-point drop in the number of white Christians in their population over this last decade.

BM: Wow. Are there any states or cities that jump out at you as sort-of a surprising religious demography? Or maybe the majority religious community is not what you’d expect? Or the second biggest community is not what you’d expect?

RP: Well we still see some history at play. We still see Rhode Island as one of the most Catholic states in the country, for example. And we still see the South heavily evangelical. So you can see the . . . . You can see the religious history still there. But we are . . . it is starting to mix up. Even though you can see these historic, I guess, centres. But you can also see the shifts happening there, as well. So even in Rhode Island you’re getting an uptick in the religiously unaffiliated, and more Protestants than you had in the past. And in the evangelical South you’re getting more Latino Protestants and Latino Catholics as a result of immigration, and changing migration patterns in the South.

BM: A few times, already, you’ve mentioned the history of the United States; you’ve mentioned, not only religious communities, but also mentioning markers of race and ethnicity, patterns of immigration. Can you tell me more about the relationship between religion, race or ethnicity and the United States, and how that shows up in the data?

RJ: Well it’s . . . when I was working on the last book, race . . . it became just so clear. I mean, it’s something that I’ve known, but it became clear to me in a more poignant way, that . . . . For example: if you asked me in a sentence to summarise religious voting patterns, you can’t really talk about that without talking about race. So the short answer to that question is, in presidential elections, white Christians tend to favour Republican presidential candidates and non-white religious people – Christians or other religions and the religiously unaffiliated – tend to support Democratic candidates. So the kind-of lines of race – even class, to some extent – but the most dominant fault line in the religious landscape is really around white, non-Hispanic Christians and pretty much everyone else. You can see this cleavage on a whole range of issues.

MP: That’s so interesting. I had a professor in graduate school who used to say that you could accurately predict America’s voting patterns if you knew “four Rs”: race, region, religion and rank. And that’s something that I’ve thought about a lot. This relationship between these four Rs and how people vote. And the embeddedness of religion in American culture. Are there religious communities that are more diverse in rank or race, than others?

RJ: There are, but they tend to be the smaller ones. So, like, one of the more diverse groups in the country is Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example. They tend to be very racially and ethnically diverse – much more so than most other groups I can think of. But they, of course, are a very, very small group in the country. But it is a story of American religion that race has sorted and bifurcated religious communities to such an extent that you really can see these major cleavages, both in the denominational structure on the ground – in the way that they’re lived out and organised – but also in the macro-data. One of the reasons why, for example, social scientists – when we’re kind-of parsing data – tend to look at African American Protestants in one bucket and white evangelical Protestants in another bucket, is because, despite the fact that they share so many religious beliefs and practices – even hymns – when you look at how they behave, and their attitudes, and the political space, their race kind-of acts like a prism that just pushes them in completely different directions. So it’s hard to overstate, I think, the way that race has structured American religiosity.

BM: That’s so fascinating, and brings me to another question, which is: as you know, Religious Studies as a field has had a lot of trouble with the – quote-unquote –”world religions paradigm”. And the fact that we often sort people into religious communities based on these large groups: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus . . . And often when people teach about religion in schools, or in the media, we expect people to act in certain ways, or believe in certain ways, based on the group that they fall in (10:00). Is the research that you’re conducting showing that it’s more complicated than that? Or are there other ways that we should start thinking about religious identities, so that we’re not talking about these large world religions, but subsets, based on race, or ethnicity, or gender, or any other categories?

RJ: Yeah. Well, here I think we’ve got the push and the pull of the quantitative versus the qualitative study of religion. You know in the social sciences you need these categories. You need categories to sort people into, and they need to be big enough categories that you can actually conduct reliable statistical analysis on them, right? And so, if you’re doing a survey of a thousand people, you need these categories to be big enough to at least have, say at least 100 or so people in them. Otherwise your results start getting fairly unreliable, if you drop below that. On the other hand, you know, we all should just acknowledge that these are all sort-of human categories that have been constructed by social scientists to help us see things in different ways. They’re never perfect and they always do some kind of violence, actually, to the kind-of messy reality on the ground. We should always acknowledge that. On the other hand, you know, if we allowed for the uniqueness of every single congregation on the ground – which as everyone who’s ever served in a congregation knows that, like, if you move from one Southern Baptist congregation to another, it’s a really different world, even though they’re in the same denomination – if we stuck with that kind of granularity, which is really valuable, it would be really hard to come up and say anything broad about the group. So I think it is a real challenge. To me what matters is: can you test the category against lived reality? Right? And, is the category . . . I think it’s never the right question to say, for example, “Is the category of ‘white evangelical Protestant’, right?” – which has race, ethnicity, and kind-of religious identity all baked into one thing. It’s never the right question, I think, to say, “Is that a truthful category?” Or “Is it a right category?” I think the question, honestly is, “Is it a useful category for helping us understand the lived reality on the ground?” That means it should never be sacrosanct, it should be questionable. And we should be willing to look at, for example: what do all evangelicals look like, if we don’t just look at it by race? And then, how does that category help us see something interesting on the ground?

BM: Right. I want to pause a moment on this topic: white evangelical Protestants. We began by talking about the religious demography of the United States. I mentioned that we might be able to see something about our political landscape because of the religious landscape. What do we know about the political landscape and the influence of white evangelical Protestants? Are we putting too much emphasis on white evangelical Protestants to understand our current political moment, or are there other groups we should be looking at? What are your thoughts on that?

RJ: Well, it’s interesting. White evangelical Protestants, like other white Christians, have been declining in their percentage of the population. So, for example, if we go back again to the beginning of Barrack Obama’s tenure as president, his election, what we see is that white evangelicals – depending on the survey you look at – were around twenty-three, twenty-two percent of the population. And our last data has them down now to fifteen percent of the population. So they, like other white Christians, have been declining as a proportion of the population. But what makes them important, even as they decline, is that they have been so active on just one side of the partisan divide in the US. So unlike mainline Protestants or Catholics – who tend to be more divided in their partisan allegiances – even as this group has shrunk, they have still maintained their activity mostly on the Republican side of US politics. Which means that they have a very out-sized voice on that side of the partisan divide, and not so much among Democratic politics. But in Republican politics, they’re still a very powerful group to contend with if you’re a Republican politician. So I think they’re still very important. The other reason why the evangelicals are important is because of their strong support for President Trump. They voted about eight in ten for him in the 2016 election. As we’ve been tracking their favourability of President Trump, around his inauguration it was about two-thirds favourable. And it has gone up since then and has remained fairly steady around seven in ten support for the President throughout his presidency. So that remarkable stability is also really important for understanding them as a stalwart base. And, in fact, when we asked white evangelicals who said that they had a favourable view of President Trump’s job performance whether there was anything he could do to lose their support, nearly four in ten reported that: “No. There is virtually nothing that President Trump could do to lose our support.” (15:00)

BM: Wow.

RJ: So they are a very, very entrenched group in the Republican coalition – really a bedrock support of President Trump.

BM: Wow. That’s interesting, because on social media I see this idea floated by a number of people, based on mostly anecdotal evidence of young evangelicals that they’ve spoken to, that there’s a generational gap: that older evangelicals are stalwarts of President Trump, but that younger evangelicals might be moving away from that political affiliation – as well as certain key cornerstones of what many people think of as primary evangelical issues. Is that true? Is there a change in generation?

RJ: Well, I think there is that divide. But I think it’s a little bit different than that description. So if we go back ten years ago, I think that was more true than it is today. But it is true that young evangelicals have moved. But what they have moved from is from being evangelical to be unaffiliated. So they’ve actually exited the category over time. And we can see that a couple of ways in the data. For example, among young people today, only eight percent identify as white evangelical Protestant, right? And again that’s compared to about fifteen percent in the population. So young people are only half as likely to identify as evangelical as Americans overall. And when we look underneath the hood, and we look at the median age, for example, of white evangelicals over time, we see it creeping up. And the main reason for that is that, as they’ve lost members, they’re disproportionately losing members from their younger ranks. So what’s happening is, yes indeed, the young evangelicals of ten years ago have moved. But they’ve not moved over to be Democrats – or they might have – but they’ve mostly moved out of the whole category. They’ve stopped identifying as evangelical. And I think that’s the real shift. So if you’re looking for those people who were young evangelicals a decade ago, you should look for them in the unaffiliated category and not in the evangelical category. And what we’re seeing is that, among the young people who have stayed, the generational differences are now kind-of muted. Because the people who have stayed are actually people who hold views that are fairly consistent with older evangelicals. But the ones who had views, for example, that were in great tension – like on gay rights – have largely left the fold.

BM: Wow. It’s helpful to look at some of these assumptions or theories and test them against the data. So here’s another thing to test against the data. I’ve heard a lot about the resurgence or higher visibility of progressive Christians in the United States today. I know a lot of people are watching Reverend Barber’s movement for example. Does the data show increased religious affiliation, or a higher salience of religious identity among people who identify as progressive Christians today?

RJ: Well, what I would say is, it’s a little complicated. The last sort-of major study we did of this, where we looked at it very carefully, what we did see is among younger Americans under the age of thirty, there were more progressive Christians than there were conservative Christians. That’s true. It’s largely true, though, because of this phenomena we just talked about. That the ranks of evangelicals and other conservative, particularly white, Christians have thinned. And so as that has happened among the under-thirties, the relative ratio between progressive and conservative Christians has come more into balance. In fact, among those under thirty, there are more progressive Christians than there are conservative Christians. However, there’s one category that is more than either of those, and that is the religiously unaffiliated. Because many, many young people – forty percent of young people – are in that camp. So it’s notable, right, that that’s creeping up to be almost half of young people, claiming no religious affiliation whatsoever. That’s a really different thing, by the way, than we’ve ever seen in American public life. So if you take Baby Boomers back into their twenties . . . . And this is a question I get all the time: “Well, everyone’s more unaffiliated in their twenties, right? You’re single, maybe you’re moving around a lot, you’re changing jobs, you don’t have kids yet, maybe? So those are all things that lead you to be more transient, less rooted in a community or a community organisation like a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque. But what we find is, if we look at the historical data and take baby boomers back into their twenties, they’re still less than fifteen percent unaffiliated in their twenties. So that means that this generation is at least two-and-a-half times more unaffiliated than any generation that we have ever seen. So even if some of them – quote-unquote – “come back” as they have kids, and they settle down – they’re looking for stability in communities and integrating into community life and religious institutions are a way that people historically have done that (20:00) – even if a proportion of them do that, this will still be the most unaffiliated generation the country’s ever seen.

BM: What’s quite interesting to me is, when many people challenge the “secularisation thesis”, broadly, they often point to the United States as an outlier and say, “This is clearly a modern country that is highly religious and continues to be highly religious. So the secularisation thesis is debunked” – besides looking at other countries around the world that are highly religious. Does this data maybe put at least an asterisk by that and say, “Well, maybe we spoke a little too soon, and the US is becoming increasingly irreligious or unaffiliated?” What does that do for our understanding of the secularisation thesis?

RJ: Yes. It’s funny because we’ve got a UK audience here, so . . .

BM: And United States.

RJ: Yes, and US. But what’s funny about this is, when I give a talk in the US and I say, “Twenty-five percent of the country is now religiously unaffiliated and forty percent of young people are religiously unaffiliated”, there are gasps in the room. Because people are shocked that there’s that many people who claim no religious affiliation. If I give that same lecture in London, people would be shocked that there were that many people affiliated with religion. (Laughs).

BM: Right.

RJ: So I still think the US is a little bit different than Western Europe, for example, which is where it mostly gets compared. There’s still more religious vibrancy here. More religious experimentation, more effervescence, I think, in the religious space than there is in Western Europe, for sure. And there’s certainly not, I think, overall . . . . I think politicians here face pressure to say things like “God Bless America!” at the end of their speech, in the way British politicians certainly do not. If anything there’s the opposite pressure not to say anything overtly religious like that. So I still think there’s some difference here. But I do think what we’re seeing is, there is a shift here that is certainly more something in line with what we saw in the secularisation thesis. It’s not an absolute outlier. It’s certainly a lagger from some of the trends that we’ve seen in Western Europe. And I think we’ll have to wait and see. So far we don’t see any evidence of this upward trend in the religiously unaffiliated flat-lining. It keeps ticking up year, after year, after year.

BM: I appreciate your cautiousness not to prognosticate – is that the right word?

RJ: Yes! (Laughs).

BM: But I’m going to ask you to make some predictions. Can you look out, with your crystal ball, five, ten, fifteen years? Are there any trends that you think will continue? Or things that you think we should look out for, in the next decade or so?

RJ: Yes: Well, yeah. Just like the financial retirement planning things, you see at the bottom, “Last years past performance is no guarantee of future returns”?

BM: Right.

RJ: I think that’s kind of where we’re at on this! But with that caveat, I will say that a couple of pieces of evidence – just to continue the unaffiliated line here – we’re sing a couple of things that I think will mean that this should continue, at least for the near future. One is that we’re seeing unaffiliated people now marrying other unaffiliated people – seeking them out as marriage partners. That’s significant because one of the main things pulling people back into religious community, if they’ve become unaffiliated, is if they marry someone religious. They have that conversation, like: “OK. Well, I’m going to get married unless you pledge to raise the kids in the church” or “in the synagogue.” And I think there’s less and less of that happening. So I think that’s one less thing to kind-of pull people, at least some people, back into the fold. And you know, again, so far, we haven’t seen a single year in the last decade where that line has been flat. It keeps up-ticking every year. One thing I’ll say, that is pretty clear from the evidence, is that one of the reasons why this change on the ground is not quite translated into the political space yet, is because of different ways that different religious groups turn out and vote. So in the US context, the ballot box tends to act a bit like a time machine. And it takes us back about ten years to where the country was about ten years ago. So the electorate in this last election . . . if you map the electorate onto the general population, the election in 2016 looks about like the general population looked in 2006.

BM: OK. That’s interesting.

RJ: It takes us back about ten years. And that’s because white evangelicals, and older white Christians, turn out and vote at much higher rates. So they’re over-represented at the ballot box compared to where they are in the general population. (25:00) If we project that forward, what it means is, even though we’ve passed this threshold, for example, where the country’s no longer majority white and Christian, that will not be true at the ballot box until 2024. So we’re still two election cycles out from really seeing the demographic realities really hit at the ballot box.

BM: Well that’s a great place to pause on the content of all the things you’ve been finding. And I want to make sure we leave some time to talk about how you collect your data, to look behind the hood and look at the processes and how you set up your battery of questions. So could you tell us little bit more about that? What’s it like to run a major polling firm, and how do you do what you do?

RJ: Sure. Well it’s a lot of fun, first of all! It’s great to be able to sit around a table and say, “I wonder…X?” And, you know, think, “Well, that’s an empirical question. We can actually put that to the test.” And one of the things that PRRI have pledged to do . . . . So we’re a non-partisan, non-profit, independent research organisation. So, part of our charitable purpose is that we’re actually putting a lot of social science data back into the public domain. So one of the things we have made sure that we do is, we are very transparent. So every time we release something, we release the whole questionnaire. We hold onto the data sets for a year for internal purposes, for analysis, but after that we release the entire data set out into the public domain. So anyone can pull it up – at the Roper Center, they can pull it off of our website, and download, and do their own analysis of the data. So that’s part of our mission. In terms of how we collect it, we are dedicated, really, to doing full probability sampling of data. So all of our data is a random probability sample of the USs population. It’s all Americans. So even though we have an emphasis on mostly doing political party, and religion, and race, and other kinds of demographic breaks, we have full-bound samples of the entire population in all of our surveys here. And you know, we really do sit down, and we do our lit review, you know: the process where we look at other polls and what they have asked, and other trends we might want to check. But I think one of the things we are always trying to get at is the “Why” question. And so, not just the “What”, but the “whys”. We definitely want to know what people believe, but we also want to know what connects belief A with belief B, and belief C. What’s the underlying thing that drive them to connect those issues together? So that, I think, is part of the art of this, and I think what makes it, really, the most fun and the most worthwhile.

BM: It sounds so fun, in fact, that our Listeners might be wondering how they can get involved. So do you have any ideas for scholars out there who sit there and wonder if X,Y or Z about the American population . . .?Are there ways for them to try to do polling, or to reach out to your kind of organisations, to feed you ideas? Or what’s the process, if you’re a scholar in a university, for trying to find out some of this information at a national scale?

RJ: Well, there’s a couple of options. I mean, I get emails all the time – and I love getting emails all the time – saying, “Hey, have you thought about this?” And every now and then, there’s like “Oh man! That’s a great idea!” And if we have space, we can do it. So I would say, feel free to shoot us an email. And we certainly are interested in hearing what’s going on, and ideas that are out there. The other way is, we have formally partnered with a number of universities. So we were just . . . this past three years we did a three-wave study with Florida State University, looking at spirituality and its impact on voluntarism and other kinds of pro-social behaviours, trying to answer the question, “Does it make a difference if you’re religious or not, for how you actually behave in the world?” And trying to get at those kind of questions (30:00). We’ve partnered with the Brookings Institution and other kinds of think-tanks in this space. So I think it’s a little of both. We’ve done some individual kinds of things, but we’ve also worked on kind-of careful, multi-year, full-on collaborations with academic institutions.

BM: And your work is entirely focussed in the United States, is that right?

RJ: It is, yes. So we just do domestic religion, politics and culture.

BM: And do you consult with folks outside the United States who might be interested in this kind of work in other countries? Or do you have any partnerships? Or share ideas for best practices with organisations outside the US?

RJ: We’ve certainly been talking about this. We haven’t, so far, branched out beyond that. But it’s something we’d certainly be open to doing.

BM: Great. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I think this time really flew by for me. I enjoyed our conversation. I want to remind our Listeners that you can download all of the reports from the Public Religion Research Institute – PRRI – at prri.org. And if you’re looking for contact information for folks at the organisation you can find that on their website. And we encourage you to check out the American Values Atlas Project, which has a lot of the data that we’ve been speaking about today. So thank you again, Robby, for an excellent conversation. And I hope our Listeners enjoyed it as well.

RJ: Great, Thank you. Yes, it was a lot of fun.

BM: Thanks.


Citation Info: Jones, Robert P. and Benjamin P. Marcus. 2019. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 18 February 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 February 2019. Available at: http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

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.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Resonance of Vestigial States

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is RSP stalwart (currently our videos producer), Jonathan Tuckett.

Way back in the early days of the RSP when I did interviews and roundtables I interviewed Naomi Goldenberg on religion as vestigial states. This was also back in the early days of my PhD when I had joined Stirling University and its program of phenomenology“. (Don’t worry this isn’t about phenomenology so much as it is about me).

This was all before I started reading Alfred Schutz who turned my thesis onto an entirely new path and eventually to the heights of “proper phenomenology”. The truth is, back then – when I interviewed Naomi – I couldn’t really say that a I “got” Critical Religion. As David has already explained in his editor’s choice, Timothy Fitzgerald is perhaps the most important scholar of religion of our time for the fact that he has made us change the way we think about religion. But I was stubborn and combative, so I had to come to realise the paradigm shift of Tim’s work by a slightly circuitous route.

And ever since I have made that paradigm shift, ever since I “got” Critical Religion and pronounce myself to be a part of that group, I have returned again and again to Naomi’s work on religion as vestigial states. I’m not saying I fully agree with Naomi’s theory. But the more I develop my proper phenomenology (yes, I am going to hammer that distinction again and again – I am no less stubborn and combative these days), the more I find how similarly my own views on “religion” resonate with hers. And, with potentially fortuitous timing, Naomi will be keynote speaker at this year’s BASR conference so we may well have another interview with her in the near future.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. 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, buckets-o-soldiers, sharpies, and more.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Co-Dependency of Religion and the Secular

In our fifth editors’ pick, Marek Sullivan writes “Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!”

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our new features co-editor, Marek Sullivan.

Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. 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, Pulp Fiction memorabilia, astronaut ice cream and more.

Sounds of the Underground

A Response to “Drone Metal Mysticism” by Owen Coggins

Francis Stewart

Read more

From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment”

Dr. Josephson-Storm’s first book, “The Invention of Religion in Japan,” discussed how, after Commodore Perry forcibly opened Japan to Europeans and Americans in 1853, the Meiji intelligentsia and government remade their country along Western lines. This meant inventing a term, shukyo, that was roughly analogous to the Western word “religion.” In other words, an artificial delineation between spiritual practices and other parts of society was introduced to Japan, as part of the quest to be “modern.” Another key aspect of religious modernization was the delineation of “proper” religions from “superstition” and “magic.”

Meanwhile, Japanese intellectuals who visited America and Europe realized that the Westerners were not as objective or rational — that is, disenchanted — as they claimed. In fact, many Americans and Europeans believed in Spiritualism, occultism, Theosophy, mesmerism, magnetism, herbal medicine, and other things that didn’t conform with proper religion (i.e., Christianity). “The Myth of Disenchantment,” Josephson-Storm’s second book, argues that, although Westerners conceived of a philosophical triad — science and Christianity in opposition to magic/Spiritualism/etc. — the triad obscured the ways in which people interacted with each other and blended religion, “magic,” and science. There were, and are, many strands of people with varying approaches to religion and modernity. In our interview, Josephson-Storm and I agree that (based on Josephson-Storm’s research) Western intellectual history is more like a river, with many concepts colliding with each other, than a stable triad or other spatial metaphor. Josephson-Storm argues that it is wrong to assume that the West has progressed beyond myth or magic; it is wrong to assume that religion never influences scientists; and it is wrong to think that major scientific figures avoided occultism, esotericism, Christianity, or other religious traditions.

We also discuss where we go in the study of religion, and in philosophy generally, in the wake of postmodernism. To interrogate categories like “religion” and “magic” and show their intellectual genealogy, as Josephson-Storm does, is to act in the vein of postmodernism, deconstruction, and other forms of critical theory / Continental Philosophy. But where do we go next? How do we frame our lives, since we cannot deconstruct things forever? Josephson-Storm proposes that we admit the constant reconstruction and manipulation of narratives, so that, instead of getting hung up on flawed categories of modernization or ripping apart arguments infinitely (beware fake news), we admit the world is filled with dynamic tension. If the past way of studying “civilized” religion versus “primitive” magic is wrong, and if we are honest about our personal biases and the limits of objectivity, then we might achieve a world that is more tolerant of different religions and a world in which scholars produce unconventional, but more accurate, studies of religion.

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, sleeveless t-shirts, chest expanders, and more.

A transcript of this podcast is available as a PDF, and has been pasted below.

For our previous podcast with Prof. Storm on “The Invention of Religion in Japan”, see here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-invention-of-religion-in-japan/

From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment” and Framing Religious Studies

Podcast with Jason Ā Josephson-Storm (14 May 2018).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Daniel Gorman (DG): Good afternoon, Professor!

Jason Josephson-Storm (JJS): Good afternoon, Dan.

DG: So Jason Josephson-Storm is calling in today, from Williamstown, Massachusetts.

JJS: Indeed! The snowy part of the state, yes.

DG: And I’m sitting in my kitchen, and the snow hasn’t reached me yet.

JJS: Oh, right.

DG: Today we will be talking about your new book, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences, published last May, by the University of Chicago Press. But I think, before we get into that, we should tell our listeners where you’re from, historiographically. Your first book was set across the Pacific: The Invention of Religion in Japan.

JJS: Yes, indeed. My first book was my dissertation – a heavily revised dissertation – called The Invention of Religion in Japan. And it was basically about Japanese intellectuals encountering the category religion for the first time, in a set of trade treaties in the mid nineteenth century, and trying to figure out what the word religion meant. Because there wasn’t necessarily an equivalent translation term for religion in Japanese. And they had no clear idea what – if anything, in Japan – was a religion, or counted as the category religion. And in that book I traced how the category religion was debated and articulated in Japan, and how Japanese thinkers came to see that the term was embedded in a set of contrasts. On the one hand, with religion and science as putative opposites, and the other as religion and superstition, as another imposing term. And to figure out one, you had to figure out the other. At least that’s what Japanese thinkers ended up deciding. And they ended up coining a completely new vocabulary of new terms, in Japanese. For example, like the term shūkyō for religion, or kagaku for science, that didn’t exist before this encounter with European thought. So yes, that was my dissertation. I did both sides of the encounter. Mostly I was looking at Japanese sources – Japanese thinkers looking to the West and then, in some cases in that book, I flipped the encounter and looked at Europeans writing about Japan in the same period. And looked at their mismatch of conceptual ideas and terms.

DG: If I remember correctly in The Invention of Religion in Japan, you talk about a few Japanese intellectuals who spend time studying in the United States?

JJS: Yes, that’s right, including thinkers like Mori Arinori who famously came to the United States – I think it was at Amherst College, actually – which is our arch-rival here, from Williams. [Editorial Note: See author’s correction below, from 18 May 2018 – “One small correction–Mori Arinori didn’t go to Amherst. I misspoke. He went to Brocton, New York, and spent a year living in a religious community established by spiritualist mystic Thomas Lake Harris and loosely based on the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The nineteenth century Japanese thinker who went to Amherst College, was Uchimura Kanzō. I discuss both men in The Invention of Religion in Japan.”] But I look at a number of Japanese intellectuals who travelled in the United States and wrote about their experiences there, definitely. And they tried to figure out the central edifices of Western thought. And this is a group of Japanese whose writings in the West has been historically less studied, because they studied weird things that don’t fit the story that Europeans like to tell about Europe. So they were considered to have got it wrong. But, actually, I think they had a lot of perceptive, interesting things to say. But that was the first book.

DG: I want to dig into that, a little bit. You were mentioning the story that Western Europeans are telling about themselves. And that’s an essential idea to The Myth of Disenchantment, your next book. What do you see as the story that they’re telling about themselves?

JJS: So, one of the things that the Europeans presented was an equation between their technological civilisation – in other words their guns and their boats and what-have-you – and their either cultural or intellectual traditions. And Europeans tended to tie them together and argue for the superiority and the fundamental connection between the two. So even though gunpowder was invented in China and the print press had its earlier formation, for example, in China (although we can’t see direct transition there) Europeans presented European technology as proof that European civilisation was superior, and they claimed, often, that European civilisation was superior for two competing reasons: either because European civilisation at that time was considered Christian, or they claimed that their civilisation was superior because it was more rational. But Japanese intellectuals encountering British culture were worried about: What is this Christianity? Is it uniform? And, particularly, they questioned the rationality of European thought. Versions of that were questions about the disenchantment narrative. So Europeans often claimed that their particular form of superiority came from the fact that they had disabused themselves of superstitions. But some Japanese thinkers noticed that . . . and this didn’t make it into the first book or the second book, but I’m publishing it elsewhere as an article. A bunch of Japanese thinkers, instead of seeing a disenchanted West, saw a West full of spiritualists, full of people believing in the Occult, full of Pentecostal religious revivals, full of people who believe in charms and the efficacy of talismans. So, in that respect, the presentation of the West – particularly Europe or America – as radically “other”, in terms of its lack of superstitions, didn’t make sense to them. They could see not only a disenchanted West but, in a way, a mystical West (5:00). And they saw a parallel, as they saw it, in European interest in things like x-rays and radioactivity. European science was populating the world with invisible forces and a number of European thinkers equated those . . . talked about spiritualism in terms of radioactivity or in terms of x-rays, or what have you. So one of the things that interested me early on was this interesting reading that Japanese thinkers produced about the West. The other things that they saw, or didn’t see, that I found interesting in that project were distinctions between philosophy and religion that they found to be really problematic. And the idea of a secular state was a construct that was, in many respects, mythical, or what-have-you. So that’s a lot about that book. Yes.

DG: What you’re suggesting is that with these Japanese intellectuals in the late 19th century – they’re looking and saying . . . with their connection between science and religion, they’re anticipating figures like Alfred North Whitehead.

JJS: You mean, who might see those two as having a different relationship?

DG: Yes. So, for instance, Whitehead is a mathematician but he’s talking about universal principals of the spirit. He’s making those connections. William James is using social science but he’s also interested in psychical phenomena. These individuals don’t fit neatly into the philosophical box you’re describing.

JJS: Yes, exactly. And I think they didn’t fit in a box from Japanese scholars, and they don’t fit that opposition. A lot of European scholars have put that opposition today. One of the grand myths that – to sort-of pivot to the next book – that I’m interrogating in The Myth of Disenchantment, is this notion of a necessary conflict between religion and science – which turns out to be a pervasive myth articulated, basically, in the 19th century in Europe and America. And it presumes that religion and science are necessarily in conflict. And there are a lot of interesting things we could say about, for example, Draper who is the first to talk about the conflict model, which he himself already uses as a Protestant anti-Catholic argument. Or we could say something about the number of scientists themselves who have not seen these two things in conflict, or whatever. But what I was really interested in, is how the categories of religion and science got articulated spaces, as terrains – to borrow something Peter Harrison later talked about, he uses that language – but to think how religion and science were defined in opposition. And one of thing that I notice . . . . And I’m sorry, if I get excited I talk too fast! So I’ll try and slow down a little bit. One of the things I noticed is that, conceptually, there was often a third term: not only were religion and science positioned in conflict, as part of this myth of a conflict model, but also often religion was seen as opposed to something – superstition – which was like the pseudo-religion, or the thing that looked like religion but is not religion, often described a superstition or magic. But similarly, science was also positioned in opposition to something called “pseudo-science”, which was also described as superstition or magic. So it seemed like the intellectual edifice that was being formulated in the 19th century was a triadic oppositional structure between, on the one hand, a conversation about the difference between religion and science, but also about religion and magic, or magic and science. And, in particular, areas that religion and science seemed to overlap were the most likely to be policed as illegitimate, as pseudo-science or as magic, or as . . . I’m thinking of things like psychical research, spiritualism, table-turning or what-have-you, that presented itself as a science, as a science of the dead . . .

DG: It satisfies neither group. Something like spiritualism, it satisfies neither the pure modernist, the scientist, and it doesn’t satisfy the Christians either.

JJS: Yes, often. Although there are a range of scientists who love spiritualism and a range of Christians or Quakers, or what-have-you that, as we know, were into spiritualism. But you’re right, that it didn’t fit the clean definitionary lines. But it became an object of attack from both sides. So one of the things that already motivated the transition between the two books was, I got interested in trying to figure out . . . if in Japan, in the 19th century, they were encountering these three categories as if they were already accomplished things: religion, science and magic or superstition. I was interested in how those three got formulated as three distinct categories in thought, and how much boundary work was going on in policing them – and also the ways that boundary work collapsed. And then, the other kind-of insight that motivated this second project is that a lot of the conversation about this third term – magic or spiritualism – connected itself up to a notion of modernity as such. So one of the central myths, that I think is still shared in much of the social sciences, is the notion of some grand periodisation called modernity. And the idea is that at a certain point – everybody disagrees about when, but it may the birth of the printing press, or industrialisation, or the Protestant Reformation, or what-have-you – there’s a rupture, after which we enter a period called modernity, but often modernity is described in terms of something called disenchantment (10:00). And that disenchantment is usually defined as an end of belief in spirit, or an end of belief in magic. But the problem is that, if you look at it – and I have a chapter that looks at the sociological evidence – people didn’t stop believing in spirits. Many Americans, arguably – depending upon how you define the categories – something like 75% of Americans hold onto some kind of paranormal or general belief in spirits, in ghosts, in angels, in demons, demons that possess people etc., psychical powers – all this stuff is really widespread – astrology, for example. So, you know, we might guess that the academy has more sceptics than other, but even then it’s not necessarily clear. It’s just there are different kinds of belief that people have. So it doesn’t look like contemporary America is disenchanted, according to those logics – or contemporary Western Europe. And what’s more, it turns out that the notion of modernity as itself disenchanted, was basically formulated in the 19th century. And this is a period where we hear about revival, about spiritualist séances, about the widespread birth of psychical research, and theosophy, and a whole bunch of other positions. So it turns out that – as I argue in this book, The Myth of Disenchantment –after looking at . . . . I started looking at these founding figures of this narrative of modernity as disenchantment, who are often the founders of many of our disciplines: founders of Sociology, or Psychology, or Psychoanalysis, or Philosophy, or Religious Studies. And I looked through their diaries and their letters, and I was able to locate them in the exact milieu where magic was, itself, being practised or believed. They hung out with spiritualists, or they themselves called their own project theosophy, and talked to these theosophists. So it looked, in a way, that the myth of magic departure was part and parcel of conversations of occultists as well as scholars of religion. So Helena Blavatsky, for example – the founder of the Theosophical Society – she described modernity in terms of the disenchantment, and said that the central feature of the West was that it had lost belief in magic – even as she wanted to return to India, and her hidden masters, to recoup the missing pieces! So it looked like the difference . . . normally disciplines like Sociology and Religious Studies describe themselves as disenchanting or secularising. But that becomes harder to countenance when you know that in the individual lives of a lot of these people – let’s say Sigmund Freud – they find themselves having the beliefs that they are, themselves, describing as archaic! So, what it means is that there is a way in which this very notion of modernity as disenchanted turns out to be a myth. And that turns out to be one of the many things I try to argue in the book. Basically, not only isn’t it true now, but it wasn’t true then. And we can see, if we look at the lives – the private lives – of all these thinkers, that they had all these kind-of, let’s say, heterodox, or complicated, or interesting, or enchanted beliefs themselves. So I think that’s one of the big pay-offs.

DG: Hang on! Sorry I want to get a word in, here!

JJS: Yes, sorry!

DG: So you mentioned that there’s a flood narrative, to say that there’s a triadic opposition of magic, Western Christianity and (science). If that’s a flawed model, and everything’s more fluid and, as you say, you have scientists like Curie and Max Müller who are going to séances, then what is the correct structure? Is there even a structure? Shall we get rid of this triad? Is it the tesseract, and multiple dimensions wrapping around itself, or what is it?

JJS: So, I think we tend to think of this triad as necessary and universal. But I think we’re wrong about that. What I ‘m not saying is that nobody believed in this triad but rather, in the process of constructing this triad, we carved out a much more complex, heterogeneous space and then made a bunch of arbitrary divisions around it. So one of the things I’m trying to do is challenge the presumption of that triad. I would agree that it needs to be unwoven, in a certain way. But that doesn’t mean that we deny that we’ve had this history. So one of the things that I’m really interested in is how we study – just to take a step back to these higher categories. So, we spend a bunch of time sitting in the horizon of these categories. So, let’s say, we spend much time thinking of religion as a universal, and then trying to define the features that religion has. What’s the definition of religion, and how is it in all sides, and in all cultures? I don’t think that . . . . That project has failed. My book isn’t the first to show this. Neither of my books is the first to show this. But there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the category of religion takes its primary relation to a particular period in Euro-American history and then is imposed, in a heavily negotiated and contested way, on the rest of the globe. But what I think we can do, as scholars, is then to not study the category as a universal thing, but study the category as it is articulated and the effects that it’s had. So we can trace this category as a kind of unfolding process or, what I like to call a “higher order assemblage”, and look at how various things are recruited into it. It’s like an unfolding process, like a stream. To take a metaphor, what I’m trying to do is, I’m kind-of . . . instead of a process physics – a process anthropology (15:00). And to look how these categories were historically conditioned and articulated within the implications of doing that. And that means that we have to look at ourselves as scholars within the categories themselves, and kind-of work them out. Anyway, this is stuff I’m working on for the next book. So I shouldn’t monologue any more about it! But I’m working on a book called Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism. And that’s exactly about: how do we work with, and study, these higher order categories. And how do we sort-of function without returning to the older discredited modernism, or turning into the word-play of postmodernism. And what I argue for is a kind of pride in “humble science” is one of my phrases. And I kind-of come up with a new philosophy of social science for a post-Kuhnian way of looking at the world as these kind-of aggregated processes. But I should step back, and return to this before I get carried away.

DG: There is a little bit to unpack there. Let’s begin with this idea of . . . I think one of the things we’re dancing around in this conversation is there is a difference between studying something, and there is a difference between practising it. So you mentioned, for instance, three are people in the 19th Century who believe in the triumvirate of magic, spiritualism and science – no excuse me I got the triumvirate wrong, the triumvirate is Christianity, Spiritualism and science: OK, take a step back to the present. . .

JJS: Or religion, science and magic, or whatever. Yes.

DG: So then, as a scholar looking back, you’re seeing the flowing river where it’s all intertwined and there is no simple static thing. So then let’s go to another level, ok? You’ve got the people in the past with the triad; you’ve got the people today, studying, saying, “No. I see a stream in which these people were functioning.” So what’s the next step? Where do we go if we’re saying that our narrative of modernity and postmodernity is flawed? What’s the next step for building a framework to understand this stuff? Because we still have to live with it in the present day.

JJS: So what I’m saying is, to locate ourselves within the horizon of temporality. So I mean, in that respect, one of the things that we have to do is recognise the limitedness of our own conceptual categories. I mean, now we’re really onto my third book stuff – so this is fun! But one of the things that we do is we have to recognise . . . . I should take a step back, and talk about the history of modernism and postmodernism, and then tell you . . . . So, one of the things that many academic disciplines were predicated on was the notion of concepts. That was essentially Aristotelian in its basic function. This is a notion of concepts as having necessary and sufficient conditions for membership. And what’s more, we thought that our concepts mapped on the world – that they cut up what the Greeks had called the “joints of nature” – in other words, looked at where nature divided things up. So that made natural kinds of distinctions. This is often called “natural kinds”. And we thought that if you could find necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in a given category, that you could identify its essence. And if you could say something about its essence you could begin to discover and develop, let’s say, robust or scientific knowledge about a subject. In the hard sciences we’ve already begun to challenge that notion of essences. And I think a lot of philosophy of science has already moved past the way that those conceptions or categories are articulated. But in the humanities we also had a crisis around this, because we discovered that many of our concepts no longer worked. The capacity to produce necessary and sufficient conditions for the category of religion turns out to have been a flawed process, etc. So the question then becomes . . . . Instead of thinking about nature as jointed, in the old fashioned way, we have to think of it in the way of a disjointed nature. And this is at least true. Even if you think that there is a distinction between natural kinds and human kinds, in which nature itself has joints, it’s pretty clear that human concepts don’t have the kinds of joints that we would like to project upon them. The joints that we have are historically contingent. So part of what we end up doing in studying is locating ourselves within our study – so this is a kind of reflexivity – and then focussing on how these conceptual categories were themselves constructed. But I’m aware that we’re getting away from . . .

DG: Yes. I feel like we’re moving beyond The Myth of Disenchantment to what comes after. We realised that the myth of disenchantment is flawed. And we’re also running out of time. So, we sketched out the theoretical terrain. But what struck me with this book is that, as much as we talk about the critical theory and the flawed basis of modernity, you’re showing an incredible range of material in, let’s see: German, French, English – you’re doing comparative linguistic work here, also.

SSJ: Yes.

DG: What is your . . . I mean, it almost sounds like a Larry King softball question, but I’m curious! What is your language training, to be able to do a book like this? Because it’s almost like you were doing the work of four books in one. You’re talking about German intellectual history, you talk about the Renaissance, you talk about Occultism, and Britain and America in the ’50s.

JJS: Yes, so I grew up bilingual with French and English, and I went to a French and English Educational school until I went to High School. And having basically tested out of High School French, I started Japanese in High School (20:00). And my mother was born in Germany. So I grew up also with sharing a lot of German. So I had, basically, those four – German is my weakest of those languages. I also spent some time in Barcelona, studying Spanish. And then I lived in France for a couple for years, and I lived in Japan and I lived in Germany. And when I was in Japan I studied Classical Chinese. So, basically, I have English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese and Classical Chinese. And then from Romance languages and Germanic languages you can get to other Romance and Germanic languages easily. And then, when I was here a few years ago at Williams, I did tutoring- I took and received tutoring from a classicist here, in Latin. So I was working on building my Latin. At the moment I’ve just started – I love languages – I’ve just started Biblical Hebrew. So in fact, what I’m going to go to in thirty minutes is my Hebrew lesson. But I just love languages! I mean, I just love them. I read in languages more than I speak with languages. I talk quickly and I like to be grammatical, and then I get tongue-tied if I try to speak. I speak all my languages better drunk, for example! But I love puzzling things out philologically. So that’s the kind of stuff that was in the background of this book. Yes.

DG: You also mentioned, in our conversation, the idea that there are moments in history – as you see it – sort-of these explosive junctures, that upset our models for understanding the world. You know, you can look at Japan: the arrival of the Westerners unsettles their way of not seeing a division between spirituality and nature. For Westerners: the atomic bomb, the discovery of the germ, the DNA – these sort of explosive moments. And I find it interesting that you started writing The Myth of Disenchantment after an explosive moment: the Fukishima disaster. So we’re talking about reflexivity, so I’m trying to situate you, Josephson-Storm, in the fields that you’re talking about. Where are you in the stream?

JJS: Oh well, that’s a big question! Do you want to know why I came to this particular project, when? Or do you want to hear about how I shifted from Japan to the Western European thing? Or I could go in so many different directions. That’s a good one.

DG: Well, let’s focus . . . . Since we’re talking about historical moments that upset the stream, that upset the models, for you I want to talk about the Fukishima thing. And how does that effect the way you conceive of religion?

JJS:I mean for me, as I mentioned at the beginning of this book, after I’d finished The Invention of Religion in Japan, before it had come to press, I was starting research on another project that was going to be called “Ghosts and Resurrections in Contemporary Japan”. And it was about the history of the notion of spirits, and about contemporary belief in talismans. And I was already making the argument that 19th and 20th century Japan wasn’t disenchanted. But then the incident . . . . You know, I’d already done a lot of research towards that project. And one of the things that tipped me the other way, just by chance of timing, was in Kyoto – I was on an early tenure sabbatical doing research. And I was actually at a tattoo parlour getting some tattoo work done, when the Fukishima incident happened. It was actually- the earthquake off at Tohuku. We didn’t know it was Fukishima, yet. And earthquakes aren’t uncommon in Japan. They’re pretty common. And we didn’t, right away, know how huge the effects were going to be. So, a lot of people in the tattoo parlour would just stop what we doing, and we were just watching the television screens. And I remember seeing the images of the tsunami, but not yet being aware of how tragic and disastrous it was going to be in terms of loss of human life. And one of the guys in the tattoo parlour was asking me about my research, and I started talking about, you know, asking people about their belief in talismans and ghosts and spirits and talking about that kind of thing. And there was one other non-Japanese person there. And when we were having this conversation this guy, who I think probably was from either Norway or Sweden or something like that, was like: “Oh, of course Japanese people believe in all these magical things. But that’s because Japan is a kind-of like mystical Asia, where people still believe in magic. But in the West people don’t believe in anything like that.” And I thought, the binary that was drawn – it was flawed. And, in particular – in part, we could say, autobiographically – it’s because my grandmother was a famous anthropologist, Felicitas Goodman, who herself went kind of . . . the term people used to describe her was “went native”. On a reservation in New Mexico, she started believing in the existence of spirits. And I remember, from growing up, her offering cornmeal to the ghosts when the sunrise came up, to the spirits and the ancestors and what have you – the spirits of the land (25:00). And I knew that a lot of people came from all over the world to attend these sessions that she gave on the reservation. So some of those famous sociologist, anthropologists and artists from Germany, from Mexico, from the Unites States. And so I was always . . . I felt a bit of an outsider to that community. But I greatly admired my grandmother who was one of my intellectual heroes, and one of the reasons I study religion. And so I knew, at least, she was strange – but she wasn’t that strange. And so this reinforced my sense that this binary between an enchanted Asia and disenchanted West, was itself a kind of mythical distinction. So that’s one of the things that gave birth to this project: to kind of look at Europe with the eyes of an outsider anthropologist – or look at Europe and America from this semi-outsider vantage point. And there’s where I think I saw a lot of things that I didn’t expect, perhaps. But clearly there was disaster. I was planning to go to Tokyo and it looked like Tokyo was . . . . You couldn’t get food, they were having to ship stuff into the city. I was looking online at radiation levels that were spiking, and I just thought it was probably . . . I wasn’t going to be able to get the kind of research that I was going to get done, done in Tokyo. So I went to Germany, where I was intending to go at some point after that, anyway. So the disaster, in a way, uprooted me. And I made sure that my Japanese friends were safe, and I tried to keep tabs on things. But I knew, you know like it wasn’t going to be conducive to. . . .You know – an American, rooting around in the archives, wasn’t going to be conducive to what was happening in Fukishima and Tokyo in that particular moment. So I went to Germany and then went through the German archives, basically. I was trying to beef up my German, so I started reading a lot of stuff in German then.

DG: We’ve gone around the world I think, three times at this point. I think the fact is that the stuff we’re talking about – we could go on about this for hours. But our listeners only have about half an hour. So, to wrap up: I think what I see as the contribution of your book, is that it’s identifying . . . instead of this singular, “us versus them”, science or Christian scientists (that’s two separate words, that’s Christian scientists not Christian Scientists, the religion) versus the spiritualist, by showing the fact that it’s more complicated. I saw a couple of different strands in your book. And I want you to critique me if you think I’ve got the wrong strands. You’ve got Christians who are scientist and spiritualist. You have scientists who are spiritualists. You have spiritualists who aren’t scientists but reject Christianity. So my point is: every single part of the triad, you could flip that a couple of different ways. And so, suddenly, you’ve got six or seven – I don’t know. . . . How many strands would you see, in the book, of how many different boxes people can fall into?

JJS: Yes, I didn’t organise it that way, but I did organise it around the birth of these different disciplines. So, I mean I think you’re right, even looking at the birth of these different disciplines, what I was interested in is the different ways that people navigated those categories. And you’re right, there are like a plurality. You could be pro-science, pro-magic; anti -science, anti-magic; pro-Christianity, pro-magic: anti Christianity, pro-magic. All of the possible options, and a much more pluralistic way than you would get if you bought the story that suggested that the central feature of modernity is that people no longer believed in spirits or magic.

DG: But what you’re talking about is also a more interesting story.

JJS: Yes. Thank you. Yes, I hope I highlight some interesting complexities and interesting figures. And I found a lot of stuff. I was surprised, you know, the amount of stuff that I found that was in diaries, or letters, or things that were lesser known works of a range of figures that really doesn’t fit our received impression of these people. But then, I look not just at the founders of academic disciplines but – for the sake of your readers – I look at a number of famous magicians and occultists and show how they were in dialogue with the academic world, more than people often supposed. So Aleister Crowley and Helena Blavatsky, for example, are two key examples. And then I do five hundred years of history. So, you know, basically it’s Francis Bacon, to the Vienna Positivists. So maybe not quite 500 years, but more like 400 years of history. It was a lot of stuff. It was a lot of fun. I had to leave out a lot.

DG: Yes. And I’ve seen some of those articles you published the one called, what’s it? “God’s Shadow” – the one about the founders of the study of religion who were also obsessed with ghosts.

JJS: Yes, totally. Indeed. So the book . . . there are lot of pieces that I had to cut out. Some of it has appeared in articles, and I have a bunch more of book chapters that will look at different pieces. But I’m trying to move off of that. But I just had so much and I had to cut it down for publishing purposes. So it’s a little bit tight in terms of the prose. But there’s a lot of evidence there, yes (30:00).

DG: So thank you, Dr Josephson-Storm. It’s been a very lively conversation!

JJS: Good to speak to you, too.

DG: And having gone from the triad, which is flawed, to the stream, which is interesting, I am interested to see what your theoretical book will say next. Because once you explode the streams – and living in an age of fake news where anything goes, I’m very interested in where the study of religion, and how we understand it, goes next.

JJS: Thank you. Yes, that’s what I’m working on, yes.

DG: If you come up with a good answer, let me know!

JJS: Yes, you’ll have to read the book, or interview me when the next one comes out. It’s under contract and I’m claiming I’m going to have it to the press by the end of 2019. So I have to come up with an answer by then, anyway! We’ll hope it’s a good one!

DG: Go test it on your undergrads!

JJS: Yes, totally.

DG: Thank you very much.

JJS: Good to speak to you. Thank you.

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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Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Cliches

“Religions are belief systems”, “Religions are intrinsically violent”, “Religion is Bullshit”… these are just some of the pervasive cliches that we might hear from time to time in the English-speaking world about our central topic of discussion on the RSP, ‘religion’. In this podcast, Chris is joined by Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin, the editors of the recently published Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Cliches (Bloomsbury, 2017) to discuss these cliches, the ideological work that they do, how scholars could and should approach them, the construction of the book, and more.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for making this recording possible. The other cliches addressed in the book and/or covered in the podcast include:

* “Religion Makes People Moral”
* “Religion Concerns the Transcendent”
* “Religion is a Private Matter”
* “Religions are Mutually Exclusive”
* “I’m Spiritual but Not Religious”
* “Learning about Religion Leads to Tolerance”
* “Everyone has a Faith”

You can find a full list of contributors, and more about the book, on the publisher’s website: 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, Wu-Wear, previously enjoyed golf balls, and more.

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

Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés

Podcast with Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin (30 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Stoddard and Martin – Stereotyping Religion 1.1

Chris Cotter (CC): “Religions are belief systems.” “Religions are intrinsically violent.” “Religion is bullshit.” These are just some of the pervasive clichés that we might hear from time to time, in the English-speaking world, about our central topic of discussion on the RSP: religion. Joining me today to talk about a new book that’s coming out called Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin, neither of whom should be strangers to the Religious Studies Project. But, just to introduce them, Brad is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. He completed his dissertation at Florida State University and is currently revising his manuscript on Florida’s faith-based correctional institutions. He teaches American Religious History and the History of Christianity. And he’s primarily interested in religion and the law, religion in American prisons, and theory and method in the Study of Religion. And he’s currently serving as the president of our beneficent sponsors, the North American Association for the Study of Religion. And Craig Martin is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at St Thomas Aquinas College. And his research and teaching focuses on theoretical questions in the academic Study of Religion, typically related to discourse, ideology and power. And some of his books include, Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere; Capitalising Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie; and A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion. And he is currently the editor of a book series with Bloomsbury, titled Critiquing Religion: Discourse, Culture and Power, in which this book, Stereotyping Religion, appears. So, Brad and Craig – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project!

Brad Stoddard (BS): Thank you.

Craig Martin (CM): Thanks so much.

CC: And I should say that we are conversing via the wonders of Skype. So maybe – just to set the scene here for me – if you want to tell me, how did this book come to be? Why did it come to be? What’s the point here?

CM: Brad, can I field that one to begin with?

BS: I think you should!

CM: (Laughs.) So, the initial idea for this book project came to me when I was working on my dissertation at Syracuse University. I was thinking about all the stereotypes about religion that my students came into the class with, and that I found frustrating to know how to deal with – and not just students, but also friends and family members who would repeat these clichés. And it was like, I couldn’t think of an obvious scholarly source to point them to, to say, “OK. In a nutshell, here’s why scholars try to avoid this cliché.” So, through conversations with my friends Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi  . . . Schaefer’s now at – I’m going to get this wrong. He’s either at Penn State, or the University of Pennsylvania – I can’t remember which.

CC: (Laughs).

CM: But, I reached out to Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi and I said, “You know, I think we could write this book really quickly and easily, because we already know what we want to say about each of these stereotypes.” And we produced three chapters, and I graduated and moved away, and the thing just kind-of languished and was never picked up and continued. So a couple of years ago I was like, “You know, that really was a good idea for a book. There should be something on clichés and stereotypes.” So I reached out to Brad and said, “Hey, are you interested in helping me edit this?” And he jumped on board, and then we ran with it.

CC: Wonderful. And it’s really great when that sort of thing happens, when you get to revisit an idea that you had – and no one else has stolen it! Yes.

CM: (Laughs). Yes. Well in ten years of it sitting, nobody else stole the idea. And I think that the stereotypes we chose are so pervasive that we didn’t have any difficulty getting people to sign up for the project. People were immediately, “Oh yes! That’s a great idea. Can I address this one?” Or, “Can I address that one?” So, yes we were pleased with how quickly it came together, and how great our submitting authors were.

CC: On that note . . . . So, you say you found it quite easy to come up with the list of clichés: did you present a ready-made list and then try and find contributors? Or did contributors come to you with clichés they particularly wanted to write about? And were there ones that you had wanted to include, that you couldn’t?

BS: As I recall, Craig and I . . . when Craig approached me with the project we sat down, you know, over the phone or email and went back and forth to create a list of about ten clichés that we agreed on. And then we started looking for people to write about the individual clichés. And in conversations with the individual authors at least one or maybe two of the clichés changed, because the author would say, “Well that’s good – can I approach it from this angle” And of course, when it made sense, we gave the individual authors the freedom to run with the cliché. But the bulk of it, I think, came from a few conversations where Craig and I just identified: these are the main clichés we see in society and politics. These are the main clichés we encounter in class. And so we had this list of clichés – and it just changed a little bit, but for the most part we ran with our list.

CC: Fantastic. I’ll ask you in a moment to take me through a few of them. But, in the introduction you set out the context for the book, but also the context in which the clichés are operating. So you talk about liberal political theory, idealised Protestantism, secularisation theory and so on. Maybe you could – just for the listeners – lay out the context that we’re talking about, in which these stereotypes are operating?

CM: I think a lot of that stuff in the intro was from me. Because when we were finishing edits to the various chapters, and I was reading through them and thinking about, you know – would my students be able to follow these or not? Because we wanted this to be accessible at an undergraduate level. I realised a common theme that went throughout a majority of the chapters were those three things that you mentioned: liberal political discourse that says religion is a private matter, the discourses on secularism and the discourses on New Atheism. These didn’t pop up in every single chapter, but in a majority of ones. So I was like, you know: we should give some background to the consistent themes that were going to pop up as the reader moves through the book.

CC: Yes.

CM: So that’s why I used those in particular: because I thought that they would help the readers understand the chapters.

BS: The only thing that I would add to that – I think you also mention in that section anti-Catholic propaganda, or anti-Catholic Protestant propaganda, about religion being a private matter. Or some of the other clichés: that they have a Protestant bias built into them. And, of course, the colonial context. Those are two other factors that we saw as common themes in the history of the general clichés.

CM: Yes, for sure. Exactly.

CC: Fantastic. So, I’m wary of asking you pull out favourites or anything, because we’ll not have time to get through every cliché. But perhaps you could take us through one or two of them, and just show us some of the analysis in action?

BS: Do you have any ones you want to pull out, Craig?

CM: I’ll wait till after you go.

CC: (Laughs). I like that.

BS: I have a soft spot for Steven Ramey’s piece. Steven Ramey writes about religions being mutually exclusive. And I think Steven’s was the first . . . . The reason I have a soft spot for it: I think it was the first one that came back to us; he was the first to submit it, that is. And I read it and I thought, “This is exactly how I want this book to look.” So, Steven Ramey addresses the cliché that religions are mutually exclusive. And so he introduces the chapter with I think the opening sentence, “What is your religion? Check one box.” And this is something that all undergraduates have seen in some version, right? What is your religion? They get it here. They have the option to check that box when they apply for admission. So I know they’ve at least seen it once, but probably many times before. So he introduces the cliché. In the introduction he talks about how this is not . . . this cliché that religions are mutually exclusive is not just academic navel-gazing, but that there are real political and legal implications. And he addressed some of the legal and political implications. And he continues . . . . In the chapter he talks about places where you encounter this cliché. Where do we see it? We see it in popular culture. We see it in politics. We see it in Law. Of course, he doesn’t mention this, but for example in the work I do in prisons: when you’re an inmate in America you check “Which religion are you?” You have to check one. And in Florida, where I did the bulk of my research, you can only change your religion once every six months. And it dictates where you can move about in the prison, which groups you can attend, which study groups, which religious services. Steven doesn’t address that part, but these are some of the examples. Steven mentions different types of examples like this. You know, this idea that religions are mutually exclusive: it does have political and legal implications. So then he moves in, and he talks about the development, the historical development of the cliché. Talking about, of course, the European context in which the cliché emerged. He talks about the colonial context. I believe he mentions the Protestant Reformation. He talks about places like India, where the distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism is not as rigid as we would imply. Or some other Asian countries where Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism or even Shinto – these alleged, so-called separate religions – the boundaries are just so much more malleable. So, long-story-short, by the time you read Steven’s chapter you get the history of the cliché, you get the political work that it does, and you realise the areas of the world where that cliché becomes quite problematic.

CC: Exactly. And it’s worth noting, here, that the book isn’t attempting to sort-of put something in the place of these clichés. Because the opposite example of religions being mutually exclusive, would be that, I guess, religions are all one and the same – which is another one that is dealt with in the book. You’re not so much asking these authors to say, “This is wrong, and this is right.” You’re rather pointing out that clichés, in and of themselves, never tell the full picture and are always doing ideological work.

BS: That’s true. We highlight that in the introduction, where we make a point of saying that we want to make it clear the work is not to replace these old clichés with new generalisations about religion, or better generalisations about religion. Instead, we’re suggesting to the students, or to the readers, that any cliché about religion or any generalising statement can similarly be interrogated, historicised, etc.

CC: Fantastic. So, Craig, you’ve had a long time to think, there, about which you’re going to pick out!

CM: Well, I decided I can’t pick one. I think – there are so many great chapters in here, in my opinion.

CC: You’ll never hear the end of it if you pick . . . you know, whoever you pick!

CM: Yes. (Laughs). Well, ok

BS: Delete my answer, then!

CM: I really enjoyed Tenzan‘s chapter on learning about how religion leads to tolerance – in part because he did a bunch of research into Ninian Smart’s work that I didn’t have a lot of prior familiarity with. So I actually learned a lot about Ninian Smart by reading his chapter. You know, Ninian Smart reproduces a stereotype that if you learn about religion, or if we teach about religion in public schools or in colleges, then people will be more tolerant and accepting and forgiving of one another. And one of the things that I felt was really important about the book was that I felt that we needed to address how theses stereotypes appear not only in popular culture, but also in scholarly literature. And Tenzan just did a fantastic job of showing, you know, how even a sophisticated scholar like Ninian Smart reproduces some pretty blatant stereotypes. But I really thought he nailed Ninian Smart – that’s probably why I liked it so much.

CC: Yes. When I was reading it I did highlight three or four pages to come back to, the next time I have to teach about Ninian Smart.

CM: I had a chance to teach him in my Intro to Religious Studies class. I taught this book last semester. And literally, the day . . . . So, this was a 9 o’clock in the morning class, and we’d addressed Tenzan’s chapter that education about religion leads to tolerance. And then, literally a couple of hours later, one of my students who was in that class went to one of her other classes where they had a guest lecturer – who showed up to talk about how education about different religions leads to tolerance! So the student came back to me in office hours the next day and said, “You know, Professor, I was arguing with this presenter in my head, and I was pretty sure I won the argument, based on what we had learned in class earlier that day.”

CC: (Laughs).

CM: So it was fun to see . . . . You know, we addressed this cliché and then two hours later, literally, she encounters the cliché in the classroom. It’s fun!

CC: Fantastic. And we’ll talk, hopefully, before we finish about that experiment of using it in the classroom. But you’ve touched on, there, learning about religions leads to tolerance. That sounds like a quite a positive cliché. In one of the chapters, I think it was Matt Sheedy’s on religion being violent, he brought up Karen Armstrong, and others, insisting that proper religion is peaceful, and religion is a peaceful, nice thing. Is there a danger that by critiquing positive clichés we’re doing society a disservice? Or is there such a thing as a positive cliché?

CM: I want to answer this question pointing to what I think is an excellent book on phenomenology of religion, Tim Murphy‘s The Politics of Spirit. And in that book Murphy looks at the history of phenomenology, a lot of which puts a positive spin on religion: that religion is getting in touch with the transcendent; religion is a sort of happiness, etc. Phenomenology of religion tends to think positively about religion. But what Tim Murphy does is show that each one of those phenomenologists uses their rhetorical framework to rank religions and to denigrate some in relationship to others. So that someone like Rudolph Otto says, you know, religion is getting in touch with the transcendent, and that Christianity most beautifully gets us in touch with the transcendent. But, of course, Islam doesn’t do so well, and primitive religion is terrible at it. So I think that even the positive clichés . . . like Karen Armstrong – she also has a ranking system built into her framework. So that the things that she likes she can call authentic religion, and the things that she doesn’t like she can dismiss as inauthentic religion or political religion – or maybe, for her, political religion isn’t even religion. So perhaps it’s ok to bomb the ship in the Middle East, because they’re not good religious people, they’re bad religious people? So I think that even the positive clichés have the potential to be used in that kind of ranking system, where people can favour one and dismiss others. And that can often-times lead to what I consider to be negative effects.

CC: Absolutely. And, indeed, Leslie Dorrough Smith writes in the book about the idea of religion being about transcendence. And I pulled out this quote where she says that cliché can “simultaneously normalise the existence of the supernatural, identify an enemy, justify a political cause, amplify the seriousness of one’s position and unite a group of people under the banner of their own moral worth.” And that’s not even a complete list! So in that . . . . You hear, “Oh religion is just about the transcendent, the supernatural, the ineffable,” and it doesn’t sound harmful. But when you look at how it is deployed, it’s doing real ideological work. So let’s talk about the classroom setting, then. So, as I was saying earlier to you: this is certainly going to be a very useful resource when I’m coming to teaching – not only about Ninian Smart, but any time you casually mention these clichés – it’s going to be fantastic to just pick up the book and find a few examples. So I can see it being a really useful teaching resource, in that respect. But, Brad – you used it in the classroom, then. So how did that go down?

BS: Yes, I used this book in my Intro to Religious Studies class, where we start by reviewing the so-called canon of important or influential Religious Studies scholars, and then we supplement that with people who are omitted from the so-called canon. And then the benefit of that is that the students got a wide survey of theories about religions, approaches to religion, methods, methodologies, etc. And then we ended the semester by reading and discussing Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés. And since it was the first time I taught from the book, I organised it as this: we’d meet three days a week, and I asked groups of students to present for a half hour. And so, you had two or three students each presenting a chapter. And they presented for about twenty minutes, and then we’d open up for Q and A for about ten minutes or so. And then I had some closing comments at the end of the class. And what I like about it is that it allowed me to see what the students took from the book, and what I thought they omitted. And it led to some really good discussions, because the students thought…or the students said, “Yes. Some of the clichés that we’ve identified, I embrace them.” Pretty much the entire class! And so to have someone call them out, and point out the history, and point out the problems with it – it did a lot of work in the class. It helped the students, because it overturned some things that they had just taken for granted. And actually, on the last day of class, we discussed the entire book. And the students tended to agree – obviously they knew that I was one of the editors, so they weren’t going to say too many harsh criticisms; they weren’t going to criticise it too much! But they thought that it was nice to end the semester by addressing these clichés, for the simple fact that it changed the way they were thinking, or that they had thought about religion, you know, for their young adult life.

CC: Fantastic.

BS: Not to over-romanticise it, right?!

CC: Oh, no.

BS: But they did find value in it.

CC: Excellent. I can totally see myself, the next time I’m marking a pile of essays . . . . And you see these clichés coming up all the time. One that’s not in the book is, you know: “Religion has been around since the beginning of time . . .” They’ll sort-of begin with that. But plenty of other ones come up. And I can imagine, immediately, just copying in a URL to the chapter on the library website, for any of these – rather than having to spend my own time deconstructing it! Just say, “Read that chapter, and then come back and write it again.”

BS: That’s a good one! Craig, take note: we should include that in the next edition, if there is one!

CC: Yes! (Laughs). Well, if there’s another one: “Religion is a choice” – you always hear that. People choose to believe, or choose to have a certain religion. So, yes, I’m already filling up the next volume! I guess an obvious question that would come up on the RSP quite often, is: why religion, here? Obviously this is our area of interest. We teach courses on this. But could you do a similar book for say stereotyping sport, or stereotyping gender, or, you know – is religion particularly problematic?

BS: Yes, you could. And I hope other people do!

CC: (Laughs).

BS: So, I have a little more of a substantive response to that question.

All: (Laugh).

BS: I think that, yes, obviously you could write such a book about any subject matter: stereotyping politics, stereotyping gender, stereotyping race. What I think sets Religious Studies apart is the fact that post-structuralism reached Religious Studies twenty years later than it hit all those other fields. And the popularisation of post-structuralist approaches is lagging. I don’t know, apart from Malory Nye‘s intro book, in Russell McCutcheon’s new book, I don’t know of any introductory material in Religious Studies that actually comes from a critical, poststructuralist perspective. And I’m pretty sure that people have been teaching poststructuralism to undergrads since the 80s. So it’s time that we went ahead, and picked up our slack, and tried to catch up by having some undergraduate literature to present. I mean it’s not like post-structuralism is brand new. It’s 50 years old, now! Our introductory textbooks still tend to ignore those types of critical approaches.

CC: Yes. So there are disciplinary reasons why such a book may not be written, necessarily, in other fields. And then also, like it or not, “religion” – this constructed political category – is something that has a lot of power in the modern Western world. To write a book called, I don’t know, “Stereotyping Golf”, or “Stereotyping Stamp Collecting”, whilst it might be interesting . . . . Unfortunately, stereotypes about stamp collecting probably aren’t quite as pervasive, or potentially harmful, as these clichés about “religion”. Every time I say “religion” it’s in scare quotes. But we all know that. We are coming up on about 25 minutes, here. So I’ll be wanting to wrap up, fairly soon. And I’m going to close the interview with Rebekka King‘s close to the book. But I just wondered if there’s anything more on this topic of prevalent stereotypes about religion that you would like to say, or that you’d hoped you were going to say?

CM: I think I would just want to say thanks to Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi for working with me on this project in the ancient past, and thanks to Brad for joining the project when I decided to resurrect it. And also thanks to Lalle Pursglove at Bloomsbury publishing, for showing some interest in the idea and taking me up on the offer.

CC: Absolutely. And it’s brilliant to see the sort of critical religion approach applied in this sense, sort-of applied systematically to a variety of clichés that . . . . When I was reading it myself I was doing a lot of, “Well, yes. Yes, that makes sense.” But there were a lot of things that were thoughts that I’d had, but were never actually put down on paper. And lots of interesting examples, and plenty that I’d never thought of before. And I can see it being really useful, both for students and to point students to – and potentially to do the sort of thing that Brad did, sort-of structuring some teaching around it. So do check out the book, Listeners. It’s called Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés, edited by Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin. It came out in paperback immediately, so it’s nice and . . . It’s not a typical academic book price, so you can get your hands on it quite easily, hopefully. And you can find the full list of all the stereotypes and clichés . . . we’ll put them on the page with this podcast. I just wanted to end with Rebekka King’s chapter on “Religion is bullshit”. And she begins by talking about how even the desire to correct the statement “religion is bullshit” is, in itself, bullshit. And she closes the book with the following words, which I thought would be a nice way to end the episode: “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether or not religion is bullshit. The term is an empty signifier. What matters is your ability to weigh evidence, locate sources and pay critical attention to both your scholarly process and product. You may find yourself mired in shit, but at least you’ll be in good company.” And I hope you’ve been in good company today. Thanks so much Craig and Brad.

CM: Thank you.

BS: Thanks so much for having us. We appreciate it.

Citation Info: Stoddard, Brad, Craig Martin and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 30 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 25 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/stereotyping-religion-critical-approaches-to-pervasive-clichés/

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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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‘Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing

Toys, Rabbits, and Princess Diana – three things that may not seem at all connected. However, when one starts to question the notion of grief, bereavement, and death in the contemporary West, these three are more connected than appears. In this podcast, Breann Fallon interviews Professor Douglas Ezzy of the University of Tasmania on the power of symbols in creating relationships and world-repairing rituals in the context of grief and death. Ezzy discusses the misjudgments of Durkheim in his assessment of Australian Aboriginal symbols as well as the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit (1922), the death of Princess Diana, and his own interaction with symbols in this original take on grief and death. Here, the notions of ‘good’ grief, the use of ritual in creating ‘good’ grief, and the very notion of ‘religion’ bring to light the active role are able to play in dealing with death.

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, stuffed rabbits, Ramen, and more.

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

‘Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing

Podcast with Douglas Ezzy (5 March 2018).

Interviewed by Breanne Fallon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Ezzy- Good Grief- Rituals of World Repairing 1.1

 

Breann Fallon (BF): How do we deal with death and grief in our contemporary contexts? Do we avoid talking about death and grief? Is there a possibility for ‘good’ grief? What role do symbols and rituals play in managing bereavement? To talk about this topic, I have with me today Professor Doug Ezzy of the University of Tasmania. He’s editor of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion and President of the Australian Association for the Study of Religion. His research on contemporary religion includes religious diversity, contemporary paganisms, and Christianity. His books include LGBT Christians, with Bronwyn Fielder, Reinventing Church with Helen and James Collins, Sex Death and Witchcraft: Teenage Witches with Helen Berger, and Qualitative Analysis. Thank you very much for joining us today,

Doulas Ezzy (DE): Thank you. It’s pleasure.

BF: To begin, I was hoping you could give us some context for this discussion about death and grieving in the contemporary world. Do we avoid it? Are we focussing on something else instead? What sort of context do you think we’re sitting in?

DE: I guess, for me, the first move to make is I’m struck by the way in which we’re not talking about the grief or the sadness associated with climate change. When I look forward, over the next few decades, they seem to me to be a time of dramatic loss. We’re already experiencing quite profound losses. You can talk about refugees and migration as a consequence of climate change or, more broadly, about species extinction – the rate of species extinction at the moment is extraordinary. And, you know, also the costs associated with the values of neoliberalism. So there’s a whole bunch of things that will lead to dramatic losses and I don’t see many responses, in our contemporary culture, to those things. It seems strange, or odd, or bizarre. Why are all these sad losses happening and we’re not responding to it? They just get noted, maybe. And then we move on. Like, for me – one quite personal one – I’m a Tasmanian, I was born there, I go back generations. For me, I have a profound sense of a relationship with Tasmania as a place. And there was some seaweed along the East Coast of Tasmania – a really large kelp forest that would cover large areas. And in the last few years they’ve gone. And that’s a product of the warming waters. And for me that’s really sad, because I used to swim in them, we used to fish in them. And they’re gone. So there’s this: “How do I make sense of that? How do I respond to that?” And that very personal experience is reflected in so much broader, cultural experience of loss and change that we’re not responding to. So, while I don’t think we’re a death-denying society, which some people sort-of talk about, I do think that there’s something odd going on with the way that we’re not responding to grief and loss.

BF: Right, so, when you say there’s something going on with the way we’re not responding to it, do you think we’re focussing on something else? Success perhaps?

DE: Yes. That’s right. So, I think that we’re part of a culture that has a sort of a “heroic success” mythology. And I think you see that both in religious culture and in business culture and – to a lesser extent – also in medical ways of understanding the self. So, for example, here in Australia, Hillsong is a really big, popular, Pentecostal Church. And my friend and colleague, Helen Collins, did a content analysis of their music. And what she found was that, in Hillsong, they never sing about grief, loss or sadness. The songs of Hillsong are all about love, and joy, and the Power of God leading you to a successful life. If you compare that with the Australian hymnbook, Jesus is there present with you, walking through the valley of death and through your difficult times. So our religious cultures tend to be ones that celebrate success and overcoming and joy. And they are afraid, or shy away from sadness and death and loss. You see the same sort of thing in economic business narratives where you talk about autobiographies, with Mary Burgan’s study of American bestselling autobiographies. And all the men’s stories in those biographies are stories about success. And there’s not much space for ambiguity or loss, or those sorts of things. And also in the business papers it’s all about success and overcoming and achievement. (5:00) So I think, while there are experiences and stories of loss – we still bury people – all those sorts of things are still there, I don’t think we’ve got very many constructive cultural resources for dealing with the experiences of loss that I see coming, that are already here. There’s something strange going on there – the tension between the two.

BF: There seems to be . . . you’re talking about in those business magazines, in particular, sort of a real focus on the “I” and the individual person. And I was wondering if that sort-of played into this?

DE: Yes. Look, there’s broader story there about how we understand ourselves in the “contemporary West” – In inverted commas – that tends to be very individualistic. And I think that, when we look to indigenous cultures; or the Buddhist concept of co-dependent arising; or social theory, like the interactionist tradition; or hermeneutics that talk about a more relational distributed understanding of the self. And so, I think that moving away from the heroic narrative, is also moving towards a more complex understanding of what it means to be human. So for me, my sociology, I can now call it a relational theory of religion. And there’s a whole bunch of people writing about that at the moment. I particularly like Graham Harvey’s Food, Sex and Strangers, but there’s bunch of other people who are trying to think about religion more as a relational practice and achievement, rather than about “individuals who believe”. So, we’ll get on to thinking about that loss and sadness. But certainly, for me, I think we need to think more in that way, and to think about religion in that way. Because, when we think about religion as a relational practice rather than individuals believing, then I think symbols – including symbols of sadness – play a different role. They’re not about individuals believing in a symbol that represents something – which is the sort of modernist and individualistic understanding of religion – rather, I think, about religious symbols as things that draw people into relationships. And so, for me, the interesting thing about how symbols operate in religious practice, is about what relationships they draw people into, rather than what beliefs or objects they represent.

BF: Yes. So do you have a key example of that that you, maybe, wanted to share with us?

DE: So, I could talk about Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, where he does like the churinga is the key ritual object that aboriginal Australians in the  rite that he talks about in The Elementary forms of Religious Life. The churinga is the symbol that he focusses on. And he says that the Aboriginals are mistaken or misguided because the churinga is fabricated, and therefore not real. And he thinks they’re delusional because they believe in the churinga. I think that completely misunderstands what’s going on there, with the churinga, for the Aboriginal. It’s not that they believe in the churinga. It’s that the churinga is an important part of their ritual, that articulates their relationship to the land. And I think Durkheim misunderstands the role of the churinga in the ritual. He says it really represents the tribe. And it probably does represent the tribe. But it articulates the relationship between the individual and the tribe, and the individual and the land. And when we understand symbols as articulating relationships and ethical responsibilities, they make sense. It doesn’t really make sense to say they’re delusional – they’re belief is wrong – because the symbol articulates relationship, so it’s not true or false in that sort-of modernist way. Rather it’s significant, or not significant, because it articulates relationship and draws people into relationships. So that’s how I think about symbols.

BF: You gave another really interesting example this morning. For those of you who are listening, we’re at the Australian Association and New Zealand Association for the Study of Religion Conference at the University of Notre Dame. And, this morning, you talked about The Velveteen Rabbit. And for me, having read the book, it was just a really fabulous example of what you’re talking about.

DE: So my dear friend, Professor Allan Kellehear, wrote a book called Experiences Near Death. And in that book he devotes a whole chapter to The Velveteen Rabbit, which is a children’s story from 1922, by Margery Williams (10:00). And in the story – for those of you who don’t know it – there’s a young boy who has a toy rabbit that he really loves. And the young boy gets scarlet fever and is ill for a number of weeks, and the adults decide that the toy rabbit is infected with germs and needs to be destroyed. And, in the story, rather than the rabbit being destroyed the rabbit becomes real, and goes and lives with the rabbits at the end of the garden. And it’s a beautiful story, because it’s a story about how a symbol – not really a religious symbol in this case, but a symbol – draws the child into a sense of confidence and love. It’s like the rabbit allows the young boy to feel like he’s still loved. And I think that’s really important and interesting. Rather than: does the rabbit really become real? I think that’s the wrong question to ask. You completely misunderstand what’s going on for the child and the relationship. Are we tricking the child? Deluding them with thought police? That’s to misunderstand. The rabbit articulates the confidence that the child will continue to be loved and cared for. And so, when you see the rabbit in that way, the idea that the rabbit becomes real is a story that draws the child into living more confidently and hopefully in the world. So the symbol operates to draw people into relationships. And I think that’s how symbols operate.

BF: Yes. I think that it’s a really amazing example of what you’re talking about in this idea of the rabbit being part of . . . I think the words you used were “world-repairing”

DE: Yes

BF: Were they the words you used?

DE: Yes. So, I think the idea of world-repairing . . .  I’m still trying to think through exactly what that means. Because, I think symbols’ subjunctive, if you like, which is the concept that Seligman and his associates, in Ritual and Its Consequences – they talk about the way in which religion has a subjunctive aspect to it. And I think symbols can be thought of that way, in the sense that they create an “as if”, and by performing and relating to them in that way they draw you into possible worlds. So, if you think of somebody whose parent dies, for example, the ritual and the symbol of believing in the afterlife, burying them in the earth – or whatever it is – is world-repairing in the sense that it allows you to live with that grief and loss. The grief and loss is still sad and still hurts, but it’s bearable somehow. And I think symbols operate to work with our emotions, with those parts of ourselves that it’s really hard to articulate. Because we’re not all cognitive and rational. We can’t always explain things, and what we believe. There are emotions, there are experiences that are powerful, that shape us in really important ways. And the way we work with them is symbolically, not necessarily cognitively. Yes, I mean you can go to therapy. And for some people that works. Great. But other people, we need symbols that allow us to work with those parts of our lives that we find it hard to articulate. So, the example that I gave in my talk was: I showed a picture of a toy rabbit that was given to my son when he was born. And the toy rabbit, for me . . . . It’s sat there on my bedside table now for abut ten years. My daughter created a little bed in a cardboard box. And the toy rabbit, for me, articulates or symbolizes my relationship with my children. I only really realised this when I wrote this paper. I’d been thinking about this rabbit and thinking, “Oh it’s just a toy, I’ll get rid of it.” But actually, no. It’s important to me. Reflecting on it, it articulates a bunch of things about the way that I relate to my children. So it’s important to me. So I think rabbits and toys, religious symbols, crosses or Buddhas – or whatever they are – they help us. The trick here . . . . There’s an awkward tension between what might sound like a moral project and what is a descriptive project. Because religion is a moral act. And if religion is a moral act, then I’m not necessarily saying “I think you should do . . .” I’m not making moral claims here. What I’m trying to do is describe what I see as a moral practice within religion. And I think religion, and religious symbols, articulate the possible (15:00). And when we don’t do that, that creates certain sorts of problems for us. If we don’t articulate the positive possible worlds, then we get drawn into angry or despairing or frustrating possible worlds.

BF: You gave some sort-of interesting examples to help us think about this, this morning. The one that really struck me – as somebody who didn’t live though it – was Diana’s death. Because I’ve never really understood the fascination with that, because I wasn’t alive. So, for me, that one has always been something I’ve never been able to understand – until you talked about it this morning. And the process of that grieving sort-of started to make a bit more sense to me.

DE: Oh good. Why did it make sense, can I ask?

BF: I think, for me, it was what you said about . . . you know, there’s that image with all the flowers in front of . . . I think it’s Kensington Palace. And just the act of laying the flowers. Those people didn’t really know Diana, but then they’ve gone to do that. And that act of . . . . They never knew her, but the act of laying the flowers would have made them – as you said – deal with that. And there’s kind of sense to it.

DE: Yes, so there’s whole literature on Diana and whether she was a goddess, or a false goddess. And there’s all sorts of critiques of her as a problematic representation of femininity, and that sort of stuff. But for a lot of people, the laying of the flowers, or the remembering of Diana . . . Diana becomes a symbol of their own experience of grief, or their own experience of loss of someone they’ve loved, or the way that they understand themselves as a woman. And so the practice allows themselves to articulate a really important experience of grief. Sometimes it has good outcomes, sometimes it has problematic aspects to it. But I think, for people who study religion, it’s really important to understand symbol as something that operates to articulate relationships and helps people articulate emotions, as well. I think it’s really interesting.

BF: Yes. I think it’s really fascinating, this idea of the ritual. There may be some people out there who kind-of have a problem with focussing so much on actions and not thought. Is there anything you want to say to them?

DE: Look, I don’t want to say beliefs are irrelevant. I think, for some people, beliefs clearly operate in really important and powerful ways – particularly in some forms of Protestant traditions, but also in other religious traditions. But I think the focus on belief often misunderstands a lot of what religious people do. Their religions become important because of the way they fit into our lives – the practices and the symbols and the rituals allow us to find ourselves, to build relationships. And the beliefs are sort-of secondary, or part of what’s going on, but they’re not primary. So I think this idea of religion as believing in something and then “perform”, misunderstands what’s going on.  I think that we find ourselves in relationships, we work out etiquettes and ways of relating to each other, and they’re articulated by symbols. And then we articulate beliefs and their legal frameworks, on top, that justify what we’re doing. So that’s the way that I’d see them.

BF: Yes. And I think you’ve given us so much to think about in terms of how we understand religion, and particularly in a modern context. The thing that really came up, to me, when you were talking this morning, was the idea of sort-of avoiding death by social media. Like keeping a person’s Facebook profile going after they die. This sort-of really complex way that we deal death in a modern context.

DE: Indeed.

BF: We’ve run out of time. So is there anything you wanted to just finish off with?

DE: Um. No. Thank you very much for the opportunity. And it’s been great.

BF: Thank you so much for talking to us today.

Citation Info: Ezzy, Douglas and Breann Fallon. 2018. “’Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 March 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/good-grief-rituals-of-world-repairing/

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.

A student response to “Hinduism”

Edinburgh Masters students respond to Will Sweetman on “Against Invention: A Richer History for ‘Hinduism'”

by Whitney Roth and Lauren Flynn

Read more

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

In this interview Associate Professor Will Sweetman talks to Thomas White about the idea that ‘Hinduism’ and many of the other terms we use to classify religions—including the term religion itself—are modern inventions, emerging out of nineteenth-century inter-cultural contact and European colonialism. Will argues against this critique, and to make his case he draws on historical sources that discuss ‘Hinduism’ both outside of the anglophone experience and long before the nineteenth century. Through identifying alternative, non-anglophone sources of cross-cultural, West-East encounters, where comparative religion is the subject of reflection and description, the concept of ‘Hinduism’ is presented as obtaining a much richer history than the ‘invention thesis’ allows. Such sources include accounts by German Protestant missionaries and those by Jesuits writing in Portuguese, as well as native, expository works by self-reporting Indian religious thinkers. Will argues that ‘Hinduism’ as a concept is older, broader, and indeed more internal to India, than is currently assumed, but this is frequently missed through an overemphasis on relatively late sources almost exclusively in English. The interview goes on to discuss the implications of this research – and endeavours similar to it – for the study of religion in general. The interview closes with a brief chat about Otago’s hosting of the IAHR Congress in 2020.

*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.*

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

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

Podcast with Will Sweetman (19 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Sweetman_-_Against_Invention_-_A_richer_history_for__Hinduism__1.1

 

Thomas White (TW): Kiaora! And a warm welcome from the Otago University recording studios here in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, where I’m joined today by our very own Associate Professor, Will Sweetman. Professor Sweetman is an historian of religion, whose research focuses on the interactions between the religions of Asia and the West in the modern period, and has published three books and several academic articles that explore the historical and the theoretical aspects of the study of religion, with a theoretical focus on South Indian traditions. Will, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview and welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Will Sweetman (WS): My pleasure, thank you.

TW: Now, the topic I’m hoping to discuss today with you is what you described to me as a defence of the “ism” – with the particular ism in question being Hinduism. But perhaps, to ease our way in, we maybe should start at the beginning, or at least your academic beginning, as it were. So, Will, could you please describe your early training in the study of the history of religion and how this has shaped the trajectory of your research career?

WS: Sure. So it was very much a happy accident. I did my undergraduate degree at Lancaster, which is probably well-known to the listeners of this podcast, but it wasn’t to me. I had chosen to go to Lancaster to study Maths and Philosophy, and Religious Studies was . . . you were required to study a third subject in your first year. And for me, it was very much a toss-up between Religious Studies and Psychology. But the queues for Psychology were much longer!

TW: (Laughs)

WS: So I decided to choose Religious Studies, and really never looked back. So I switched to Philosophy and Religious Studies for the remainder of my degree. But what that meant was my understanding of the academic study of religion was shaped by that Lancaster tradition – which was open to all traditions and emphasised, really, none. And even though much of the work I did was, in fact, on the Christian tradition, because of my interest in Philosophy, and because there were papers in the Lancaster Religious Studies department that were focussed on . . . the paper was called: “Modern Religious and Atheistic Thought.” And it was focussed, really, on 18th century and after philosophical thinking about religion. My work was very much focussed on Western Christian thinkers and thought, coming out of that tradition. But I didn’t privilege that, in a way. Then when I went on, my initial aim was to do more philosophy of religion. And I went to Cambridge to do an MPhil in Philosophy of Religion and very quickly discovered that that wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. But partly because although Cambridge had a Religious Studies . . . the faculty of Divinity was teaching Theology and Religious studies, the assumptions were so different. And really, it was that jarring discovery that the Lancaster way was not the only way – because Lancaster really was my only experience of what it was to treat region in the academy. But at Cambridge it was very different, and that prompted in me the question: how did these two such different traditions emerge? And really, that led me to the 18th century and looking at foundational works, like Hume‘s Natural History of Religion – but how this naturalistic approach, that privileges no religious tradition, emerged. That in turn then led me to looking at the religions that were being studied – or the non-Christian or non-Western traditions that were being studied or discovered in Europe at that time. And because, I suppose, of the colonial expansion going on in India it was particularly Hinduism that was being discovered and discussed at that time. Which then led me to my doctoral work on the study of Hinduism and the conceptualisation of Hinduism from the 17th through to the 18th century. Originally, I intended to include the 19th century but . . .

TW: It got a bit too much?

WS: Yes – as many PhD students discover.

TW: Ok, great. It seem that you’ve got quite a personal narrative feeding into your research interests. In terms of the actual methods of the historical study of religion, particularly inter-religious contact, what would you say are the best habits of analysis, or the important things to watch out for when you’re engaging in such research?

WS: So for me, by temperament I think, as much as anything else – because I’m not really trained as a Historian, although that’s how I would describe myself – attention to the sources is absolutely paramount (5:00). And that means – particularly in the context of what we’re talking about, where most of my work is set, that is, the period of European expansion overseas, encounter with and study of Non-Western cultures – well, two things: first of all the European sources, but particularly, also, the sources on the other side. Now that’s always harder, I think, in . . . . There may be a few exceptions in some periods or highly literate cultures but certainly it’s much harder, generally, to recover the voice from the non-European side of the encounter. Harder but, I would say, not impossible. There are ways of doing it and it’s important, even though it’s difficult, not to short-cut that process. So there is a tendency, I think, even in the works of some scholars whose work otherwise I would admire . . . . I’m thinking here, particularly, of Urs Apps’ The Birth of Orientalism which is wonderful book, but he has a tendency to dismiss the sources that are described by Western scholars as their own inventions, to say that they simply made up the source: it doesn’t exist. Now that’s a possibility, but before you can say the source doesn’t exist, you have to do your damnedest to find out whether it does! And there is a particular example in my own work. This is an early 18th century Protestant German missionary who assembled a library of Tamil Sources, which he documented, he catalogued quite carefully, which is unusual for that period. More often, other similar writers – missionaries and others – would simply have done general term like: “in their books”. But he identifies the texts, and some of them are very well-known and it’s not difficult to identify them. But there’s one particular text which he said is the “most important of all Hindu texts”. It clearly isn’t. Particularly because there is no other reference to this text anywhere, so far as I can discover. I had the good fortune when I came to Otago to be given some research money that was pretty much . . . I didn’t have to compete very hard for it. I simply had to propose a project. So I proposed a project I thought nobody else would ever fund, which was a wild goose chase to go looking for this text.

TW: Yes.

WS: And courtesy of a brilliant research assistant, Ilakkuvan, who worked with me – a young Tamil Scholar. It took him about ten or twelve months going through archives very diligently and he found the source. So it is possible to recover the source. And it’s not the most important text. It was wrongly evaluated. But it was the most important text for this particular missionary. And by reading this source we can see what he’s doing with it, and how that’s shaping his own account of Hinduism. Which is, undoubtedly, shaped by his Protestant, Christian presupposition.

TW: So this is the missionary, Bartholomew?

WS: Ziegenbalg. Sorry. So it’s still . . . It is fed through his Christian presuppositions, but it isn’t sheer invention. He is following a text. And what’s interesting about this text is that it’s a basically monotheistic text. So when Ziegenbalg describes Hindus as monotheist this is not only a relic of Christian assumptions about the natural light of reason and a universal revelation, but the result of his close reading of a text – so we can now follow him, and read that text, and discover. . . . So that’s what I would say is the key to this: attention to those sources. On the European side of the encounter, I would also . . . I regularly bemoan the fact that because the sources are thickest in the 19th century, and because the vast majority of people who work – particularly Indian scholars, but not only – are Anglophone: that’s all they read, is English sources. And it’s really important, I think, to look at sources in other European languages. And there are, of course, people looking at those languages. I’ve recently started using Portuguese sources which are the most amazing mine of material. And they have been read, but largely they’ve been read by Portuguese scholars who tend to publish in Portuguese. Not exclusively, there are exceptions to that. So I would say that going beyond the Anglophone sources – or rather, the failure to go beyond the Anglophone sources is a particular problem in much of the historiography of colonial encounters of religion (10:00). Again, there are exceptions, but as a generalisation.

TW: So the importance of linguistic analysis, and making sure that you’re covering all the different cultural, colonial experiences of the European adventure. Perhaps relating to this, at the start of your book: Mapping Religion, Hinduism and the Study of Indian Religions 1600-1776, published in 2003, you equated the dominant history of religion in India as a “Just So Story”. What did you mean by this?

WS: So a “Just So Story”, as I’m sure you know, is Kipling’s stories of “How the Leopard got his Spots”, and so on. And I think there are a couple of accounts of how many of the terms that we are familiar with in the study of religion, how those terms came to be used. So, in the case of Hinduism, there’s a popular account that this was a matter of divide and rule: that the British, by dividing Muslims from Hindus were able to dominate both – set them against each other. Or there’s another story, which I first heard from one of my teachers at Lancaster, which was that the missionaries needed an opponent. They were used to systematic debates, and therefore they constructed an opponent with whom they could have a debate. Now what’s “Just So” about these stories is that though it could have happened like that, that may be how it happened, there’s no evidence that it did. Or, I would say that obviously there’s a grain of truth in both of those stories, but the real story is much more complicated, and involves, again, patient attention to the sources. So again, in that book, what I trace is how the emergence of the concept of Hinduism as a single pan-Indian religion, distinct from Buddhism and Jainism in particular, emerges – at least in part – from experience of Europeans in India and attention to texts. So the question of the spread of Hinduism as a religion throughout India, but confined to India – and therefore different from similar-looking or outwardly-similar religious traditions elsewhere in Asia – partly arose from Europeans observing phenomena like pan-Indian pilgrimage. There are pilgrims from the North of India coming to the major pilgrimage sites in the South. Or that some of the  . . . . For example, the mythology of Krishna: much of it is set in North India, but there were Europeans reading the mythology of Krishna in South India, in South Indian texts, in Tamil Sources, which describe Krishna in places in North India. So it was on the basis of this that Europeans began to connect phenomena of Hinduism in different parts of India. And then, the opposite part of the question is: what do you exclude? And again it was from looking at Indian sources that Europeans decided that Buddhism and Jainism were regarded as more-or-less beyond the pale. And again, if you look at South Indian religious sources, the Tamil texts are very clear. There’s one Tamil author who devotes one verse in each of his poems to denouncing the “filthy Jains”, and the “heretic Buddhists”. And it was through attention to these sources that Europeans worked out that there was a dividing line here, somewhere. There may well have been  . . . And no doubt this idea was consolidated by the practice of censuses by the British. And there was a degree of the other Just So Story that I mentioned, of the missionaries seeking an opponent: so, using Indian sources saying, “Not all Indians agree with us. The Buddhists disagree with you. They say the Veda is idol worship.” So there’s a grain of truth in those stories. But the full story is more interesting, I think. And it also shows a greater degree of Indian agency in the production of these classifications – or if not directly “agency”, at least “input”.

TW: So, the argument that Hinduism is actually a far more coherent, or far more collected systems of rituals, beliefs and institutions than perhaps the “Hinduisms narrative” presents. How do these arguments sit, perhaps, within more current debate about religion and the public space in India? Is there a way that this kind of scholarship can speak to contemporary issues, perhaps regarding the BJP or Hindutva or other current religious public sphere issues taking place in India at present?(15:00)

WS: It’s an interesting question. And there is a danger, I think, that arguing for a greater coherence in Hinduism will give succour to those who argue that Hinduism is the Indian religion and there should be no other. But there’s also a danger – and you can see this in the works of some modern Hindutva ideologues or thinkers, who present the critique of the idea of Hinduism as an attack on Hinduism. So, “You’re trying to tell us that our religion doesn’t exist.” So in a way, those who – not for that reason of course – but who have attempted to deconstruct the idea of Hinduism are also able to, or are in danger of giving succour to those who want to say, “See. The West is out to destroy you. Hinduism we need to unify and rise up!” So the dangers are. . . . So I guess, in the end, you can’t control how your ideas are going to be used. Some unusual people have cited my work in ways that don’t or were never part of my intention. But that’s . . . you can’t control that. You have to go where the sources lead you. And it’s not an argument, I think, to say, “We shouldn’t say this because it might be used in a way that’s not to our liking.”

TW: Yes. I’m finding similar questions and challenges in relation to my research in Fiji, in terms of: where do these ideas feed into other political agendas? But I think you’re right. You just have to go where the sources take you. Now, as I understand it, you’ve been collecting case studies regarding the conceptualisation of religion, or world religion-type concepts in pre-colonial and colonial encounters outside of India. Can you tell us a little about this?

WS: Yes, so this isn’t really something that I’ve done consciously. But I guess, over the last ten years or so, I have done little more than pay attention to where I have seen arguments similar to my own being made in the case of other traditions. And, for a while now, I’ve thought that it would be interesting to do some kind of survey or compilation of the kinds of evidence that’s being presented, and look at what that is telling us about – or what that suggests about – this broader critique of the formation of the “isms”. So I’ll be giving a paper at the Stephen Berkvitz has recently published an article challenging this idea that you find in the work of people like Philip Almond and others, that Buddhism was a 19th  century invention based on the study of text. And he’s showing that no, very clearly in the 16th and 17th century Portuguese, mostly Jesuits were communicating with each other across Asia, or travelling in some cases. So Loís Fróis, a 16th century Jesuit, spent a lot of time in India and then went to Japan. And he understood the connections between India and Japan, and the trajectory of Buddhism from one to the other (20:00). From the other perspective, or the other direction, Eva Pascal has recently written about Franciscan friars coming from the Philippines into Thailand or Siam and engaging with Buddhism. And again, like Fróis, who described Buddhism as a religion, making the same analogy. So that’s one set of case studies. There’s another which is looking, perhaps, more at indigenous understandings of this. So this would be the work, I’m think here of Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst who’s looked at Islamic South Asian Sources, which not only classify religions in a way that’s not dissimilar to the supposedly modern Western way in which we classify religions, but she’s also shown that the very scholars in the 19th century to whom this classification is usually attributed were influenced by . . . they were reading these sources. So Abu’l-Fazl– a Muslim intellectual, a Mughal intellectual, who describes the religions of India, was being studied intently by British scholars in the middle of the 19th century. And then finally – and again you could see that, the Mughal Empire, as a form of cross-cultural encounter, even though it’s an Empire. But there are even, on a deeper level, indigenous accounts. And here I’m thinking mostly of the work of Andrew Nicholson and his book, Unifying Hinduism. So he looks at pre-modern doxographies, from as early as the 6th Century, in India, which are concerned with classifying the different schools of thought that there are. And so these are not all Hindu, there are Buddhist and Jain texts and, perhaps, particularly Buddhist and Jain sources were interesting in this. But what’s very interesting is that he shows that toward the slightly later texts, but still very much pre-modern, there is a kind of coalescing of an idea of an āstika – so, texts that affirm the Vedas: a unification of . . . it’s not quite what we might call Hinduism,  but it’s not a million miles from it either. So, hence the title of his book is Unifying Hinduism. And again, this is not a reaction to either Muslim or Western incursions or colonial structures, it’s something coming from within the tradition and within different schools of thought within the Indian tradition. So, I think, there are some other older works as well, Michael Pye’s work on Tominaga Nakamoto – again pre-European influence – a Japanese intellectual discussing the three religions, san jiao, in China: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism . And again, coming up with a generic concept that’s not unlike the concept of religion which is supposedly invented, like everything else, in the 19th century.

TW: OK, Well, the argument seems to be that the use of the term religion is older, broader, transects outsider/insider distinctions. Does that mean that scholars of religion are safe? Can we rest easy? Are we no longer at risk from the conceptual tools of our analysis?

WS: I think the approach that I would take to this is to say that it’s better the devil you know. So the work that’s been done in deconstructing historicising the concept of religion is by no means valueless. I’m not saying we should discard that, and go back to a happy sense that this is a natural kind and it emerges from the world unproblematically. But I think the proposals from some scholars that we should replace religion with some other term – I mean, you go all the way back to Cantwell Smith and, I think, “cumulative traditions”, or Timothy Fitzgerald has made various proposals of things that we might . . . . The problem is that those terms are no less the result of our attempts to construct reality in accordance with our presuppositions. So the advantage, to my mind, of terms like religion and Hinduism is that we are now – because of the work of these scholars who’ve deconstructed them – much more keenly aware of their limitations. And I don’t think that they are applicable in every circumstance. So, I think there are scholars who’ve done ethnographic work on sites in India, where you will have people coming to a particular site which is, or might formerly have been described as Hindu, and what they’re showing is this label is very problematic (25:00). And the kinds of people who are coming to those sites aren’t, maybe, clearly identified, or can be labelled as Hindu, or Muslim, or Christian in some cases. And I would agree, in that context, the label Hinduism is perhaps not useful. But that doesn’t mean there’s no context in which it is useful. So it’s always a matter of what the context is, what the purpose is for us. I think one of the things that strikes me as a little bit odd, is – and again this is something I’ve kept track of over the years – is the number of times you will hear a speaker, or at the beginning of a book somebody will deconstruct the term Hinduism. And having cleared their throat and covered their bases with this term will then go on to use the term with exactly the same referent as the supposedly pre-critical scholars who used this. So, Donald Lopez had a nice joke about this. He said you could spot scholars of Hinduism by their over-developed pectoral muscles, from continually having to make “scare quotes” in the air . . .

TW: (Laughs)

WS: …every time they used the word Hinduism! But the point is, that they continue to use the word Hinduism and the scare quotes were there. So, I think we can and we should continue to use the term, and the danger of replacing it, or of replacing religion with some other term– because those terms haven’t been so thoroughly deconstructed – is we would be tempted to think of them as more closely corresponding to some actual reality and less constructed, in a way in which they aren’t really.

TW: Yes. That’s also a lot of heavy lifting to go and create these new terms, and try to describe how they can kind of convey meanings that aren’t subject to the same problems as previously.

WS: I think the other dimension here is that precisely because of their history, these terms have a purchase beyond the academy that we can’t ignore. And so this is sometimes described as, you know, people in Religious Studies sawing off the branch on which they sit. Now, if it were the case that there was a compelling argument for discarding the term and disbanding departments of the study of religion, our own financial self-interest wouldn’t be a reason to retain the term. But there are other reasons, as I’ve tried to explain, why I think we should. And given that, if we are to speak to the public sphere, we need to do so in ways that are intelligible. And talking about cumulative traditions or hierarchical structures simply doesn’t cut it.

TW: It doesn’t communicate.

WS: And we can go on to complicate what those terms mean, but we would be ill-advised, I think, to abandon them from that point of view, as well.

TW: Yes. I agree. I do agree. OK. Last question, Will. We’ve been talking about the historical study of religion and its importance to the broader discipline of Religious Studies and its methodologies. Now in 2020 the International Association for the History of Religion will host its next World Congress here in Dunedin. Now, as head of department for Religion and Theology at Otago, I’d imagine you’ve already started to think through what you hope this might look like, or what ambitions you might have for the event. Can you share some early thoughts that you might have on this, please?

WS: Sure. I think there’s a lot of reasons for doing this. Some of my colleagues think I’m mad for even contemplating it! But I think there’s a lot of benefits that I see in this. I mean, one of the primary aims is to share this wonderful part of the world with scholars from all over the world, and we hope many will come. And I think we should be honest about the fact that that’s a reason why many people will come! Because New Zealand is a wonderful place and it will be great to share it. But it’s also, for me, the other side of that is Religious Studies in New Zealand, as it is in many parts of the world, is a relatively small, and in some cases embattled discipline. We have lost departments of Religious Studies even in the short time that I’ve been in New Zealand. And those that do exist are small, for the most part, and not exactly directly threatened, but not as secure as they’d like to be. So I hope that hosting an event of this sort will help in a host of ways to consolidate the discipline here (30:00): to create visibility both internationally – for work that’s been done in New Zealand – but also within New Zealand, to bring to the attention of our academic colleagues and people more broadly, also, what the academic study of religion is. That’s a constant battle. New Zealand is a country where religion is – I would compare it often . . . . For many people what your religion is, or religion at all is about as much interest as whether you prefer strawberry or chocolate ice-cream. There’s a kind of apathy toward religion. Not always, but. . . . And I think, demonstrating the importance of what we do by bringing the best scholars from around the world to talk about what they’re doing, and why the study of religion is important will be important.  And also it will give our graduate students . . .  . We’re a remote location, we don’t get an opportunity to interact with these people. So it will be a once in a lifetime opportunity, I think, for younger scholars in New Zealand to really see the scope of what’s going on overseas and to interact personally with those people. There’s something irreplaceable about that opportunity which, I think, young scholars in New Zealand don’t have as much as scholars in other parts of the world.

TW: Thank you, Will. Well, on that rather optimistic and forward-looking note I think we’ll draw this interview to a close. But thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and expertise with us.

WS: Thank you. And we look forward to seeing you all in 2020!

TW: Indeed! Thank you.

Citation Info: Sweetman, Will and Thomas White. 2018. “Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/against-invention-a richer-history-for-hinduism/

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.

Blended/ing Religion

A Response to “African American Spiritual Churches”

by Justine Bakker

Read more

African American Spiritual Churches

Dr. Guillory teaches religion at the University of Rochester, but her first love is natural science. After receiving a B.A. in Chemistry, she taught high school science for several years. She draws inspiration from the sciences in her current research as a religion scholar. In her investigations of African American Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, Louisiana, Dr. Guillory describes a “dynamical self,” a fluid state of identity shifting between the individual and the collective. Her knowledge of chemistry directly influenced this theory.

The African American Spiritual Churches are combinatory religious sites, which blend Protestant, Catholic, Spiritualist, Haitian Voodoo, and Benin’s traditional Vodun practices. Female leadership and business management has been essential in the history of these churches. Dr. Guillory’s upcoming book draws on years of archival research, ethnographic observation, and oral history interviews to tell the story of these churches from 1920 to the present day. Hurricane Katrina looms large in this story. Most of the physical churches were destroyed in the flooding — or the former inhabitants were not allowed to return as the government began eminent domain proceedings. Yet this religious community endures. Guillory is one of the first scholars to work with the Spiritual Churches, whose affairs remain largely private. Our interview concludes with a discussion of anthropological ethics and practice — how to earn the trust of a community, and how to tell someone else’s story without “stealing” that story.

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, comic books, Haitian rum, and more.

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

African American Spiritual Churches

Podcast with Margarita Simon Guillory (29 January 2018).

Interviewed by Dan Gorman

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Guillory_-_African_American_Spiritual_Churches_1.1

 

Dan Gorman (DG): Professor Margarita Guillory, thank you for joining us today.

Margarita Guillory (MG): No problem. Thank you for inviting me.

DG: And today we’re going to be talking about your new book on African American Spiritual Churches in New Orleans. Although, I’ve been reading your book proposal. I understand the final title has changed.

MG: Yes, instead of More Than Conjurers being the primary title, it’s now the secondary title. So it’s Spiritual and Social Transformation in African American Spiritual Churches: More than Conjurers.

DG: So, perhaps the reverse order of what you wanted originally?

MG: Yes! But for marketing purposes, More than Conjurers took second place. They really believe that they can market the book better with the Spiritual Churches being in the primary title.

DG: Now, just so people have some brief background – is this what you wrote your dissertation about?

MG: My dissertation was actually based upon ethnographic research pulled from spiritual churches in New Orleans. However, the dissertation was a little bit more theoretical, in that it focussed on the ways in which spiritualists in New Orleans utilise rituals and altars – both personal and public altars – to articulate a complex form of subjectivity that I sort of coined in the dissertation, called the “dynamical self”. So the dissertation was little bit more theoretical. I sort-of was able to use the dissertation to write a peer review article and two edited volume essays. However, it was a little narrow for the publisher’s taste. So I sort-of had to rework . . . . I wrote an entire new book, basically!

DG: I see. So when you mention the idea of the dynamical self, it brings to mind the grandiose theatrical aspect of religious worship. I mean, you could say there’s a dynamic self in many religions. But what’s unique about the way that people express their religious beliefs in these churches?

MG: I would say that the way in which I saw the “dynamic” is this sort of fluidity. Within the dissertation I sort of expand upon this fluid conception of the dynamic – and it’s called the dynamical self. But the dynamical self is this identity form that is sort-of the simultaneous expression of both a public collective identity, based upon association with shared qualities with the grou, but it’s also the construction of a personal identity form that’s based upon one’s uniqueness. And this is a theory that . . . . I didn’t go into these communities with this theory. This theory was really formulated based upon the data that I collected from the communities. So it’s totally the reverse. I went in with no sort-of expectation of what I would actually find. I just thought the communities were really, really interesting. And the data yielded the theory.

DG: So, a data-derived argument, rather than a data-driven argument.

MG: Exactly, exactly.

DG: Now, you came into Religious Studies . . . it’s sort of a second career in some ways. You were a high school science teacher, originally. So, how did your first background in natural science . . . how did that inform how you approached the study of religion?

MG: That’s a great question. And it’s a question that I’m asked quite frequently when people find out that I have a Bachelors in Chemistry. I have a profound love of the physical sciences, specifically Chemistry. You know, Chemistry has allowed me to . . . it has armed me and equipped me with a particular interpretive lens. The dynamical self, even though it’s derived upon the data that I retrieved from these Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, it’s really based upon this equilibrium state that sort-of occurs when you look at certain chemical reactions. So the theory – while based on the data that I retrieved from these churches – the way that I sort of nuanced it, was based upon chemical formulations of just basic equations, something that you’d learn in general Chemistry. So science just gives me a unique lens to view religion. Does that answer your question?

DG: I think so. I think I’m curious to know, do you identify as a Humanist or do you identify as a Social Scientist?

MG: Oh. I don’t like to be placed in a box! I think I am a unique scholar in that way, that I still sort-of follow some of the general trends that are going on in Chemistry, I have a great relationship with a couple of Chemists, even on our campus (5:00). I do use sociological and anthropological approaches to the study of religion. And I do consider myself a Humanist. So in that way, I think I’m sort of like a quilt. Which can be problematic for some people, but it works for me. This is why I can have these really collaborative interdisciplinary projects with people across disciplines and not feel uncomfortable. Because I feel like a piece of me as a scholar is vetted in these multiple disciples.

DG: Which brings me back to your book, when the publisher releases it in a few weeks, what . . . not genre – we know it’s a non-fiction monograph – but, the little stamp on the top cover that says what genre it is and what topic: how is it being sold? Is it history? Is it religion?

MG: Yes. Very good question. It has multiple genres. Because the book I wrote, like I said: a lot of the data that I collected while doing research for the dissertation will be used, but the approach is different. It’s different than the dissertation. The book basically examines the socio-political activities and the spiritual-therapeutic elements that are found in the Spiritual Churches in a really, in a coalescing sort of way. And so, in that way, because the book is political – looking at the political and social activism of these churches – and because it looks at the therapeutic function of these churches, the sort-of tag lines will be history – because I start with the first church in the 1920s and by the end of the book, the chapter on Post Katrina Spiritual Churches – so it’s historical but it’s also being publicised as religion in society. So you see that sort-of band where the sociology is also coming in. So they have marketed it in a variety of fields. Interestingly, they’ve even promoted it in what we would call like “Africana Religions”, So if you do a google search with my name under Voodoo or Hoodoo, my book will actually pop up. So they really cast a wide net when publicising the book.

DG: So I suppose the next question is, what is a Spiritual Church? Aren’t all churches spiritual?

MG: That’s a great question. African American Spiritual Churches that I research are a blended religious group. And I like that term “blended”. And what they’ve done, they have conjoined all of these various elements from institutionalised religions – and I’ll talk about them in just a moment – and they’ve created their own, unique religion. Specifically, the Spiritual Churches in New Orleans have conjoined Protestant traditions with a focus on Pentecostalism; they draw from their worship style. Catholicism is a major bedrock in spiritual churches in New Orleans, just because Catholicism is still the predominant religion that’s practised in New Orleans, in particular, and Louisiana, in general. They also incorporate American Spiritualism: the ability to communicate with the dead, that was birthed in Western New York, in Hydesville; and they also sort of conjoin and mix into their faith Hoodoo and Voodoo. And this notion of Voodoo is derived directly from Haitian Vodou. So when you look at sort of their belief system, and their ritual practices, you can see a little of all of these religions.

DG: So when we talk about Hoodoo – this was sort of an older white term used to describe it in some cases. I’m thinking of sort-of 1920s, white attempts to understand black religion. But Voodoo itself is sort of a combinative thing. You’ve got influences of Islam, Native American and Caribbean religions, Christianity. And, of course, there’s a longstanding debate in the study of African American religions: are these religions more – quote unquote – “African” or are they more “American”? Do you have any thoughts on that?

MG: Well I would say, if we specifically look at the system of Voodoo and I mean V-o-o-d-o-o, I would totally say that that is an American religion (10:00). It is a blended religion that is primarily based – even though you have these other elements like Christianity – it’s primarily based upon Haitian Vodou, V-o-d-o-u, that Haitian immigrants who emigrated very early to New Orleans after the Haitian Revolution. A large population of Haitians immigrated to New Orleans and they took with them the religion. So, even though you have these other elements in Louisianan voodoo, the backbone of that religion is Haitian Vodou. And, of course, we know that Haitian Vodou -o-u- was derived from this combination of Catholicism but it comes directly from Benin.

DG: In West Africa?

MG: Exactly: Vodun. So, in that way, once the Vodou sort-of lands in New Orleans, in the South East, yes, it becomes this syncretic – and that’s not the term I like to use – but this sort-of blended type of religious tradition.

DG: So let’s walk through the genealogy from the top, then, beginning in Benin in West Africa. So this would be what kind of religion there? Are we talking about Islam or are we talking about traditional spiritual beliefs?

MG: So, Benin Vodun is an indigenous religion. It is a combination of – and that word might be seen as maybe a little charged – but it is sort-of a combination of the traditional religions that are being practised in Benin. But the scholarly term for it becomes Vodun.

DG: I see. So, then when slaves were brought to Haiti those indigenous religions are brought there. And then they encounter Spanish and French Catholicism, depending which side of the island they’re on.

MG: Exactly, yes.

DG: And then that finally goes to America, where you have the collisions that you’re describing.

MG: Right. Particularly in New Orleans.

DG: So how big a population are we talking about?

MG: That’s hard for me to say, like, quantitatively.

DG: Hundreds? Thousands?

MG: That’s hard for me to say quantitatively, off the cuff. But I could definitely have these sort of conversations, qualitatively. But that’s sort-of tough to derive. We can sort-of search and crunch the numbers but those numbers would be hard to derive.

DG: So let’s talk about some of the churches you studied, then. Were they packed to the gills on a Sunday?

MG: What’s interesting: pre –Katrina, the churches were packed. You had fifty-plus churches. Post-Katrina, those fifty-plus churches dwindled down to two churches in New Orleans.

DG: Is that because of population displacement?

MG: That’s part of the problem. So, part of the problem would be population displacement. And seventy percent of the fifty-plus churches that were operating in New Orleans pre-Katrina were located in the 9th Ward.

DG: (Whistles)

MG: So they were destroyed. And the last chapter of my book sort-of talks about that. The ways in which not only were some of them structurally destroyed but, because of some very difficult economical and political and structural changes that occurred in post-Katrina New Orleans, the lands of these churches – even if they were in a position where they could have restored the church – they were taken, and they were converted to green spaces.

DG: So was that eminent domain?

MG: Eminent domain. Many of the churches – I calculate about forty percent of the churches that were located in post-Katrina 9th Ward – were sort-of taken back by the City, via eminent domain.

DG: I see.

MG: So, there are multiple factors sort-of feeding into why these churches have dwindled down to two.

DG: Has gentrification also occurred?

MG: In the higher elevated levels of 9th Ward, gentrification is now occurring. They sort-of called this area Holy Cross. They built a school, they have a private developer that’s coming in. And I’m saying higher elevation, but it’s still below sea level! But it’s higher than the dominant part of the 9th Ward. It’s being gentrified.

DG: So they’re pushing out the poorer, mostly African American . . .

MG: Well they never let them back in, really. Because they never built . . . . In the 9th Ward, for people who did choose to come back they had no businesses, no stores. I think within the last two years they might have a health clinic. So the infrastructure wasn’t rebuilt for people to come back (15:00). So we can argue, was this intentional? Was this: “We’re going to let the 9th Ward return to nature so it can sort-of serve as the buffer, or the retention land, for other parts of New Orleans? So they won’t flood if we have another major storm, and if we have the breaching of the levees?” So it becomes very . . . and I try to unpack that in chapter five of my book. The ways in which the changing landscape around Spiritual Churches . . . . If you look at the changing landscape of spiritual churches it tells us a lot about other landscapes and shifting landscapes in New Orleans: demographic landscapes, social landscapes, economic landscapes, political landscapes. If you just focus on the Spiritual Churches we can see all of these sorts of dynamics that are going on, post-Katrina.

DG: So I’m assuming that the flood water has destroyed substantial amounts of material culture: archives . . .

MG: Oh, definitely.

DG: So what’s left? I mean, were you working in people’s attics, were you working in libraries?

MG: So no, actually, what was interesting is: when I first went to New Orleans it was in, maybe 2010, and many of the churches were still standing. They were in horrible condition, but they were still filled with all the material culture – covered in all sorts of mould and everything else. And of course I was in those places. So, some of the spiritual leaders who were really respected leaders in the city: Bishop Jackson, Bishop Stokes. He came from Detroit,to give me a tour. So before they began to tear these structures down . . . . Like, these structures are no longer standing in 2017 but I had the fortune to go while they were still there. Not only was I able to see what was in the inside, I took photos of the inside, I took photos of the outside. I do plan on publishing a book of photos of the before and after, so people can actually see what is happening in New Orleans, still today.

DG: But Spiritualists tend to be quite private. How did you gain this access? And this is something I’ve talked about in my past interviews: Douglas Brooks studying . . . . The only way to study some Hindu rituals is to gain the trust and become part of the community. Or Candy Gunther-Brown, who I spoke to – watching Evangelical yoga, but not participating. How did you get access to these communities?

MG: Well actually, one of the first scholars to publish a comprehensive work on Spiritual churches of New Orleans is Claude Jacobs. He’s now retired. He was at the University of Michigan. Him and my adviser at the time, Dr Anthony Pinn who’s also done some work on Spiritual Churches, they basically . . . . He went to Dr Jacobs and told him, “I have a student who’s interested in the Spiritual Churches.” And I was introduced to Archbishop William Stokes who has now passed on – as the Spiritualists say – to the other side. And it was through him. Because he had been a part of the Spiritual Churches. So he came to Houston – we flew him to Houston – and he and I basically spent two weeks together in Houston, just getting to know one another. I took him to different archives, I interviewed him. And so, basically, it was through him. But we had to sort-of . . . . He had to decide, in those two weeks, whether he was going to trust me, and actually introduce me and open the door or not. So, I guess, at the end of the two weeks – considering I’d published . . . like eighty percent of my scholarships is on Spiritual Churches – I must have gained his trust. Because he was coming from Detroit, he said he would be really excited about introducing me to people in New Orleans. So I won a Ford Dissertation Fellowship and I was able to pay for his travel and we spent a summer – this is how I actually first thought of it – we spent a summer in New Orleans together. And it was remarkable.

DG: Generating trust. . .

MG: Generating trust, and because

DG: . . . that you’re not stealing their stories.

MG: Exactly. And because he did not . . . . Because he had been a part of the Spiritual Churches, by that time over five decades, people trusted him. And they knew that he wouldn’t just bring, you know, anyone into the community that wasn’t going to sort-of take their religion and do something with it, in a really fundamental positive way (20:00).

DG: That’s the line between being curious and then between past scholars, who basically were stealing.

MG: Exactly. And I invested a lot of time. So this was like the groundwork. I wasn’t even really collecting data at this point. I was just building relationships. So, you asked me how did I get in – because they are very secretive. This is why there hasn’t been a lot of scholarship surrounding spiritual churches, because some people have mishandled what they’ve given the scholar. So I had to spend quite a bit of time building relationships. But once I’d built those relationships it was like the floodgates opened. They were so excited about sharing their faith with me.

DG: Professor Guillory, we’re almost out of time. I’d like to ask briefly: several of the early chapters in your book focus on female leaders in the church. Women like Mother Leafy Anderson. Could you just speak briefly about female leadership in the churches?

MG: I can. This is why I like the book that I’ve published, instead of turning the dissertation into a book. This book really highlights the political savviness, the entrepreneurial spirit of women in New Orleans, specifically from the early 1920s through the 1940s. These were women, women like Mother Leafy Anderson, Mother Catherine Seals, these were women who not only purchased property, but they built structures from the ground up. For instance Mother Leafy Anderson, she built her church from the ground up, property that she purchased, and the organisation that actually financed the building of her very lovely church for the 1920s, was the Italian Homestead Association. If you go and look at the history of the Italian Homestead Association in New Orleans they were not freely giving money to African Americans to build businesses and structure. That wasn’t their social function. They were committed to Italians, and Sicilians in particular, who were coming into New Orleans, actually utilising them as a pipeline to build and to invest in these communities. So it was really interesting that she was able to get them to finance . . . .

DG: And a completely different religion!

MG: Well what’s interesting is that her church – and I talk about this a bit in the book – was about thirty percent Sicilian.

DG: Well, that’s interesting! Which means the church was racially integrated in the1920s.

MG: It was. And also, Mother Catherine Seals, the manger was about twenty-five to thirty-five percent. We can’t get our hands wrapped around the exact number, but hers was also an integrated religious compound. And during her time there were segregation laws about cohabitation.

DG: And not only that, you had lynching!

MG: Exactly, exactly. And so these women – and this is what I love about the book – the book sort of highlights the courageous activities. And they were really savvy when it came to business, too. They had an entrepreneur sort-of model of earning money using a religion, in a way that was just . . . they were ahead of their time! They were like – I guess we would call them like our large megachurches today. They were like the megachurches of the 1920s, though the book really highlights the social activism and the ways in which these women also met the spiritual needs of the individuals, both black and white – which is amazing. The book sort-of talks about that, they were . . . . Yes, they wanted to be an anchor for the black community, but they also served the white population who were being marginalised by class and by ethnicity. They also served those populations as well.

DG: So just to wrap up, I’ll say that reminds me of – it’s a quite old book – but Arthur Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis

MG: Yes!

DG: So, for those of our listeners who aren’t familiar, Arthur Fauset, an African American scholar wrote this book in the 1940s about the urban religions, mostly in Philadelphia. And these were – like your Spiritual Churches – many of them small groups led by women, and they’re exercising creativity in ways that white society doesn’t want to allow them. And so Fauset also discusses the idea of, you know, foreign religions being translated in America. So, clearly, these questions are still viable and thought-provoking seventy years later.

MG: A perfect ending! (25:00)

DG: So, I will ask, what’s the next project?

MG: Oh. The next project? African American Religion in the Digital Age. So, while I’m still publishing essays and peer-reviewed articles on Spiritual Churches, I’m sort of moving in the direction of digital religion. Specifically, I’m looking at the ways in which people of African descent are utilising technical advances to express multiple forms of religion. So I’m working on a chapter now on black humanism and black atheism, and the way in which it’s promoted among Millennials using social media platforms.

DG: Be careful, you’ll be getting into transhumanism next!

MG: I know! (Laughs)

DG: Professor Guillory, thank you very much.

MG: Thank you very much, Dan.

Citation Info: Guillory, Margarita and Dan Gorman. 2018. “African American Spiritual Churches”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 26 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/african-american-spiritual-churches/

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.

Drawn to the Gods – Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programs

If you were asked to name the TV programs with the most religious content and references what would you name? 7th Heaven, Supernatural or perhaps Games of Thrones? How many of us would name animated television series such as The Simpsons, Family Guy or South Park? These television series are amongst the most religions on our screens. Indeed, 95% of The Simpsons episodes, 84% of Family Guy episodes, and 78% of South Park episodes contain explicit religious references. These animated comedy shows are critically influential in teaching viewers about religious people and religious institutions. The commentary created via the intersection between humour, satire, and religion in these TV shows, particularly in their own context of America, creates an interesting image of what it supposedly means to be a “good religious American”. In this podcast Associate Professor David Feltmate, author of Drawn to the Gods: Religion and Humor in The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy, chats to Breann Fallon about the manner in which these three television shows create a broad commentary on religion for the general public. Feltmate highlights the central place these animate programs have in the proliferation of ideas about the spiritual and the religious, as heavily consumed mediums of popular culture.

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, candy, pocket knives, and more.

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

Drawn to the Gods: Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programmes

Podcast with David Feltmate (11 December 2017).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Feltmate_-_Drawn_to_the_Gods_1.1

Breann Fallon (BF): If you were asked to name the TV programmes that were most religious, had the most religious content and references, which ones would you name? Seventh Heaven, maybe? Or Supernatural? Or perhaps Game of Thrones? Well, I was wondering how many of us would actually name The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or South Park. Because, did you know that 95% of Simpsons episode, 84% of Family Guy episodes and 78% of South Park episodes contain explicit religious references. These animated comedy shows are critically influential in teaching viewers about religious people and about religious institutions. The commentary created by the intersection between humour, satire and religion in these TV shows – and specifically their context of America, creates an interesting image of what is supposedly meant to be a good religious American. To discuss this topic today I have with me Associate Professor David Feltmate, the author of a fantastic new work entitled, Drawn to the Gods: Religion and Humour in the Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy. Dave is Associate Professor of Sociology at Auburn University at Montgomery. He received his PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Waterloo in 2011. His research areas include the Sociology of Religion, religion in popular culture, humour studies, social theory, new religious movements and religions and family. His book, Drawn to the Gods is available from New York University Press and is the topic of our discussion today. Thank you very much for joining us today, Dave.

David Feltmate (DF): Thank you for having me.

BF: So, I’m really interested in how this book came about. Why did you choose to write a book on The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy?

DF: So, this book really started in the winter of 2005. I was fresh out of my masters’ degree at Wilfrid Laurier University. I was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. And I was teaching sessionally, like a lot of people do. And I was teaching a course on religion and popular culture. And I had set the course up. We did a week on Christianity in popular culture. So we’d do a crash course in Christianity and then an example of Christianity in pop culture, or whatever. And what I realised was, these classes had 65 students in them each: I would have three students that really paid attention every day, five students who would tune in for the topic of the day, and most people were just kind-of there to get credit and they weren’t paying attention. And I thought, well, Jeez there’s a lot of really interesting and relevant pop culture stuff. But the way that I started to get them to listen was, I would start quoting Simpsons references at them at the front of the room. And at the time, in Canada, there was a Canadian comedian named Brent Butt. And he said with a good cable package you can get three hours of The Simpsons every day. And he was pretty close to correct at that point in time. And so this stuff was just ubiquitous, everywhere. And that’s what drew students back in. They knew these religious references but they had no understanding of the religious traditions at all. They were just coming in and experiencing it for the first time. Which led me . . . because I knew I was going to go on and do a PhD, which I did at the University of Waterloo. And I said, “Well, they’ve got to have learned something, what did they learn? What were they being taught through these jokes?” So that’s what I went off to study. And so I wrote my dissertation on The Simpsons and that’s sort-of, the very early awkward stages of the book that’s there now. And my supervisor, Doug Cowan, I remembered distinctly, one day he said, “OK. Your dissertation is done, but it’s not a book yet. It needs comparative data.” “Well,” I said, “The obvious comparative data is South Park and Family Guy.” And now they kind of look like legacy programmes, but that’s where it came from. These shows were widely known, they were critically acclaimed and people are learning religious material from them. And I wanted to know what they were learning. And over time it evolved into: how were they learning this through humour? (5:00) Because a lot of the literature that I was reading on The Simpsons or South Park – there’s still not much written on Family Guy – I just found that people did not ask the question: why are these things funny? They simply worked on the assumption that they were. But I know people that don’t find them funny. So I had to ask, what is it about humour that enables people to transmit this information – transmit it in a humorous way – but why are they seeing these things as humorous? Because I know that some people are not going to. They’re either not going to get the joke, or they don’t think the joke is funny in the first place. So that’s where this book comes from: from teaching and thinking about what it means to talk about religion and religious diversity through humour.

BF: So in the book you talk about this idea of sort of using satire and comedy, and how that is bringing religion to a broad audience, and this idea of broad commentary and how this is really teaching the general public about religious people and religious institutions. And I thought we could talk about some specific examples before we sort of talk about the general takeaways from the book. And there are some really interesting examples in the book. I personally like the ones from The Simpsons because – I don’t think I watched every episode of the Simpsons, like you probably did, but I’m pretty close – I do really love the Simpsons. And I’ve watched a lot of Family Guy as well. I think it’s really interesting that you say there’s not a lot written on Family Guy, actually. Because I would have thought there would have been quite a lot on Family Guy, which is an interesting point on the side.

DF: Unless it’s exploded in the last year or so after the book was finished, and it was out there, and I just kind of need a break from reading all of the literature. No there really wasn’t a lot on Family Guy.

BF: Well, there’s a project for any RSP listeners who are looking for a little article to punch out there: Family Guy there for you! But I thought, maybe, we could start with your favourite example from any of the shows, maybe a new religious movement example? I thought maybe you could start with one of those?

DF: Oh man! Do I have a favourite? I don’t know if I have a favourite. I know I’ve watched “Homer the Heretic” the most, but that’s not a new religious movements example. Well, it depends on how you define new religious movements.

BF: That’s a great example anyway.

DF: Yes, well that’s the classic. That’s the sort of Simpsons’ religion urtext from Season Four. And it used to be that I could pretty much close my eyes and see that entire episode playing out before me. So the reason that I really love that one is that it encapsulates so much of what would become the running narratives of religion in the Simpsons. There’s this sort-of back and forth with Christianity. There’s an open display of Hinduism and Judaism, and all of these different kinds of religious traditions that are on display, and a part of this – a part of Springfield but also a part of the American fabric. Which when you consider that that episode was released in what, ’92 . . . ?

BF: It’s early.

DF: I think it’s ’92. Well it’s season four, but I want to say it’s November ‘92. Just a second, I’ve got the book here. It’s going to drive me nuts if I don’t . . . .

BF: The interesting thing about Homer the Heretic – correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s the one where he eats the chilli isn’t it?

DF: No that is . . . the name is in Spanish and I can’t remember, but it’s “The Mysterious Voyage of Homer: El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer”. And that one is Season Eight. Yes, that one’s a great one, too. I love Johnny Cash as the Coyote that offers spiritual wisdom. And Homer says, “Should I get rid of my possessions?” And the Coyote just laughs at him and says, “No. If anything you need more possessions. You don’t even have a computer.” (10:00) And, yeah, “Homer the Heretic” was ’92.

BF: So what happens in “Homer the Heretic”?

DF: So in “Homer the Heretic”, Homer decides, “I don’t want to go the Church,” one day. And he has the best morning of his life, and he attributes it all to not going to church. But Marge has dragged the kids to Church, and so there becomes this marital strife between the two of them over Homer not going to church. He says he forms his own religion, and so he starts doing things like – one of my favourite examples is that he calls into work from the bar and says that he can’t come in, because it’s a religious feast day. And he looks up… They say “What feast day?” and he sees a sign that says “Maximum occupancy” and he says “Maximum Occupancy”. “Click”. Those kinds of jokes really play on this ongoing sentiment in the United States that to be a good American you’ve got to be religious. And you see this come about all the time in political discourse in the USA, when people are talking about candidates. Atheists are among the most distrusted groups, in terms of large polls in the USA. And that’s still today. And this part of the discourse and debate around Donald Trump, is that people can’t figure out why Evangelicals continue to support, or came out to support Donald Trump when he’s so opposed to the kinds of values that they claim to represent, certainly, in all of his actions and everything he espouses to. And The Simpsons was sitting there 25 years ago now, saying, “Hey, this is okay. It’s okay for people to drop out of church.” Then God visits Homer in a dream and says to Homer, “You’ve forsaken my church.” And Homer says, “Well, I try to be a good person and I love my kids. I just want to sleep in on Sunday mornings.” And God listens to Homer for a minute, because Homer says, “Why should I spend every Sunday morning hearing about why I’m going to Hell?” And God goes “Hmm. You’ve got a point there. You know, some Sundays I’d rather just be watching football.” And Homer says, “So, I figure I should just try to live right and worship you in my own way.” And God says, “It’s a deal!” and then ascends into Heaven. And that’s really part of this larger spiritual-seeker narrative – the ability to pick and choose among different religious options – that has become part of the way that Sociologists of Religion, anyway, talk about the United States. And all of these religious options . . . . Like, I live in a city of 200,000 people, roughly. And there are close to a thousand churches in the area. And if you don’t like what’s going on in one of them you can literally. . . . I mean, I went to Church this morning and there’s a church across the street and another church in the parking lot. I was like: “It’s church row over here!” And if I didn’t like what was being said in my church, I could literally walk out the back door and in two minutes be in another service. And that’s just among Christian denominations! At least, now, I live in the American south, so it’s different than other parts of the country. The United States is different in its different regions. But that narrative of spiritual seeking, anyway, by the ‘90s had become part-and-parcel, part of the fabric of the United States of America. And that’s what I like about “Homer the Heretic”. It really introduces this spiritual-seeking – worshipping God in your own way, do what you want to do, that’s fine, just don’t try to impose it on anybody else – that I really found became the core of The Simpsons. So, I don’t know if it’s my favourite, because I love other episodes. I love “The Joy of Sect”, which is the Movementarians, which is just such a great name for a new religious movement. And, as I show in the book there are all these kinds of quick visual references to numerous new religious movements. So it works really well as a display of the cult stereotype. (15:00) And in South Park the Blametologists, as well, are like that. And I really like to study that because again at the University of Waterloo I was working with Douglas Cowan and Lorne Dawson. And people who study new religious movements would be familiar with those names. And I never went in to study new religious movements, I went in to do religion and popular culture, but I said, “Well I’m working with two of the top scholars in the world in new religious movements, I’d be an idiot not to pick this up and learn from them.” And what I found was that these shows were able . . . . Let me go back here a second. If you go into a classroom now and you ask people what a cult is, they’ll usually be able to give you some kind of idea, like it’s a bad religion, it’s a group of people who follow some leader and they don’t think for themselves, they’re often associated with dangerous kind of religions. And then I say, “OK, so you know all of this. How many of you have ever met somebody who’s in a cult?” And nobody raises their hand. Or I shouldn’t say that: I’ve had one person who knew somebody who was in a group that he considered a cult. And so I had to start asking, “Well, where you get this idea from?” And Joseph Laycock has a good article in The Journal of the American Academy of Religion on this as well, called “Where do they get those ideas?” So I don’t want to steal Joe’s thunder. What it was is, over time, these images and ideas about cults were repeated through mass media, through jokes, through television, to the point that you could create completely fictitious groups like the Movementarians, with numerous references to all of these other different groups like Rajneeshpuram is in there, certainly the Unification Church. There’s a mass marriage scene which is just . . . . I like to, in classes, take a picture of a Unification Church mass marriage, and that scene – just a screen shot – from The Simpsons and say, “Look! They’re almost identical!” And what it was, it was able to play on a legacy of particular framing in terms of fear. So that now, generations who have never really encountered some of these movements have a heuristic with which to interpret them. So I thought that was really relevant. That’s definitely one that I like.

BF: This idea of, you know, the TV show being the lens through which a generation can interpret religious people and religious institutions . . . .You said that the Simpsons was sort-of advocating this idea of spiritual-seeking. Do you think that’s the same for South Park and Family Guy or do you think they advocate something different?

DF: No, I think each one advocates its own thing. I think South Park is all about individual creativity.

BF: OK

DF: So, there’s a couple of South Park episodes: “Go God Go” and “Go God Go XII”, I think is the number. And that came out when Richard Dawkins released The God Delusion, and it was a best seller. I think The God Delusion is really the book that made this sort of Four Horseman of the New Atheists movement with Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett who had books out before Dawkins and then Christopher Hitchens who had one out afterwards. But I think The God Delusion is really the book that broke the tidal wave for all four books to become this kind of marker in time. And when it came it in the audio commentary Trey Parker and Matt Stone were talking about how Penn Jillett of Penn and Teller was saying , “You guys have got to come out as atheists,” or whatever. And Trey Parker’s going “But, I’m not an atheist. I don’t necessarily believe in God the way that other theists do . . .  .”  (20:00) But with South Park they don’t like organised religions, but where individual creativity is promoted, enhanced, allowed to flourish through religious expression, they really don’t have a problem with it. What they have a problem with are hypocrites, or people who say things that they just think are stupid. Right? So their feud with Scientology, versus how they treat Latter Day Saints, is a good example of that. The episode “All about the Mormons” from South Park, which has (sings) “Joseph Smith was called a prophet, dum dum dum dum dum.” And dum dum dum eventually turns into “This whole thing is dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb!” But the Mormons are the nicest people ever to come to South Park. And at the end of the episode, the Mormon kid, Gary, just looks at Stan and says, “All I ever wanted to do was be your friend, but you were too high and mighty for that. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy.” And I won’t finish that quote because there might be children listening at home. That, compared to the Scientology episode, “Trapped in the Closet”, which basically came out of . . . . They were asking, “Can we say Tom Cruise is gay?” And they say, “Well, no. That would be libel.” “Well, can we put him in a closet and have him refuse to come out of the closet?” “Yeah, you could do that.” Well, they did that, but they also ended up making fun of Scientology at the same time. And they were just vicious towards Scientology, saying that it’s a big fat global scam. Well that’s because they see the two different religions very differently. They don’t think Scientology produces good people the way that the Latter Day Saints do. And that’s where you can find – in those comparative nuances – is where I think you can find the real standards that South Park puts out there. And Family Guy? Family Guy is atheist. Seth MacFarlane has come out as a very prominent voice in atheist circles and early on in the programme there was . . . . So, the first three seasons of Family Guy there’s more willingness to play with the possibility that religious identities might be good things. But by the time you hit about Season Six or Seven, all the religious traditions are treated as stupid, and in some cases, very dangerous.

BF: That’s really interesting that the three project something completely different, because what people can take from them – you know, the images that they’re getting about religious people in religious institutions, that kind of broad commentary – is so varied. And that idea of, you know, spiritual-seeking is so varied. And one thing I found really interesting in the book were the examples about atheism and spiritual-but-not-religious in the three different TV shows. Because talking about, just then, the different, you know: The Simpsons as being spiritual-seeking and South Park as being this idea of creativity and then Family Guy as being atheist. Then their representation of atheism and as spiritual-but-not -religious in each show is very different. And I think it’s very interesting to see atheism and spiritual-but-not-religious in this context. Because I don’t necessarily know if it’s something that we see on TV a lot.

DF: No. And for me one of the big things was . . . . So, I’m also trained as a Sociologist of Religion and in the United States, whenever a major survey of religious affiliation is released, so let’s say the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life releases a major survey, it gets boiled down to “the number of Christians versus everybody else” in media play. (25:00) And one of the things that I was noticing, really early on, is there’s almost a fight in political and popular culture in the United States over who owns the “unaffiliated”; who the unaffiliated are. Even that term is a problem because it assumes that they’re not just being themselves and their own distinct group, just like Christians and Jews and Muslims. And if you start looking at American religious statistics, there’s a couple of thousand different denominations that get lumped into different families for statistical purposes. But there was this real question, and I saw this coming from New Atheists, people like Domar, where he would claim that people who weren’t affiliated with religion were somehow atheists like him. And I started looking at the numbers and looking at what people in those groups were saying, and I went, “You know, spiritual-but-not-religious is really a catch-all category for all kinds of stuff.” In terms of what people are doing on the ground, it’s a very creative place, where two people would say, “Well, I’m spiritual, but not religious,” and the grounds you would have to compare what they’re doing is the fact that they both say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” And I think The Simpsons in one way, and South Park in another way, kind of capture that. And how they treat atheism in all three programmes is also distinct, right? Like South Park tends to treat atheists like they would other religious extremists. In one episode, “Red Hot Catholic Love”, which is on one hand about the Catholic sexual abuse scandals that were coming out of Boston at the time when that episode was released. When the people in town find out that the kids are being abused in the Catholic Church – not in the local Catholic Church but in the Catholic Church over all – they all decide to quit and become atheists. And one of the sub-plots in that episodes is that Cartman discovers that if you stuff food up your butt, you end up pooping out your mouth. And so, long story short, all the atheists, basically . . . . The surgeon general says, “Oh yes, this is a much healthier way to eat.” So all the atheists start shoving food up their butt and crapping out their mouths. And one of the punchlines in the episode is, Father Maxi, the Catholic priest says, “You just sit around spewing a bunch of crap out of your mouths”, while one of the atheist is busy literally crapping out his mouth. And that really, I think, is one of South Park’s attacks on atheism: they see it as too extreme. Going back to “Go God Go XII”, there’s really this sense that . . . . They’ve got this race of enlightened sea otters in the future and the Wise One comes out and says about Richard Dawkins, and I’m paraphrasing here: “He had some great ideas but that doesn’t mean that he was correct on everything. Maybe, just believing in God makes God exist.” And then all the other otters gang up and kill him. And in the future, you know atheists in those episodes, atheists are at war with each other over what all the atheists should call themselves. So it’s not like atheism solves the problem of religious violence, which is what a lot of atheists were claiming at the time – or at least prominent ones. So, yes. For me, anyway, in terms of writing the book, it was thinking about the ways that we can get people to think about atheists as atheists, and people who say they’re spiritual-but-not-religious as spiritual-but-not-religious. And maybe there’s some overlap in individuals, but maybe these should be two sort-of separate categories in the way that we start thinking about religious groups and publics, certainly within the United States. And you could speak better for the Australian situation than I can.

BF: (30:00) I think we probably should take a moment to talk about . . . . We’ve had all these really great examples about the different sort-of faiths in the TV shows that you bring up in the book. And I think there’s a lot that we could take away from the book as Religious Studies scholars or Sociologists, as well. What do you think the major take-aways from the book are?

DF: I think the first one is: popular culture is something you have to pay attention to. It should be part of the data of a Religious Studies education. In a lot of cases, we teach religion and popular culture as large cash-cow courses in universities, meant to kind-of pull students into the discipline and then get put into quote-unquote “real” coursework at upper levels. And I think that undervalues the work that’s going on, that popular culture producers are doing themselves. So, one of the first takeaways is: this is deep, detailed material. I read through the book and there are days when I go, “Oh man, why didn’t I include that example, or this example?” I threw out way more than I put in, which a lot of people will tell you about their books. So there’s still. . . . I’m done working on these three series. But hopefully, somebody else will pick it up and in four or five years go, “OK! There’s new material here!” Maybe there’s been a new direction taken. I mean, South Park, for the last two years has done really interesting serial episodes throughout their seasons that are completely different from the stuff they were doing when I was writing the book. And who knows? I mean, the next season could turn completely into a massive story arc in which a particular religion or combination of religious traditions become major players. And that could change the argument that I make about South Park. Because these are still ongoing programmes and South Park is able to change directions very quickly – depending on where Trey Parker and Matt Stone want to go – unlike The Simpsons and Family Guy, which are such big productions that trying to turn those ships at this point would be incredibly difficult. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is: jokes aren’t just jokes. . . would be the way that I would put it. Humour is grossly understudied as a means of transmitting religious information. And this is one of the arguments in the book that we haven’t talked about a whole lot. But I talk about religious satire as running on sort-of two different tracks in the book. There’s the sense of, it’s religious satire in that it’s jokes about groups that are considered religions. So there are Mormon jokes in there, there’s scientology jokes. There’s two chapters on all different types of Christians, there’s Jews, there’s Muslims, there’s Buddhist and Hindus, Native American religious traditions. Because that’s where the data was. But at the same time, I argue that the humour itself is doing this work of bringing people into, and here I use a modified version of William James’ definition of religion: socialising you into an unseen order. And that, to me, has become – for me personally – one of the major take-aways from this project; that humour itself really socialises people and audiences very quickly, but with a ton of information flying at you, into a particular worldview. And we don’t pay enough attention to the way that humour is doing that. (35:00) Humour is treated as something frivolous but, at least through working with this data, I found that it was far from just joking. I found it to be an incredibly powerful way of getting across that sense of “it’s funny because it’s true.” And this book is sort of written to say, “No, things are never funny because quote-unquote “they’re true”. It’s funny because people think they’re true. And what are the consequences of socialising people into a big picture of how religious diversity should work, based on the jokes that they tell about religious groups? So, I think those would be the two biggest . . . . There’s also this last one that I always find myself bringing out now because, yeah, I’ve been told I’m a crotchety old liberal arts professor even at the age of 35. But I really do think there’s something valuable to thinking through the stuff that we are consuming. A bad episode of The Simpsons will get millions, literally, more viewers than will ever read my book. Unless, by an act of God, this becomes some sort of international bestseller. And I’m sure University Press would love if that happened, I know I would! Sitting down, thinking critically, assessing why we find certain things funny, asking ourselves, what was actually portrayed in this episode? Why do I get this joke? Because one of the experiences that scholars of religion can bring to programmes like this is, if you have a history of studying anything in religious studies – let’s say you’re a specialist in reform Judaism – you know more about, Reform Judaism than I do, because I’m not a specialist at all. But you can sit down and you can ask: OK, when they portray Jews, how are they doing that? What images are they drawing upon? What additional information can I bring into this conversation to change the way that people would look at this joke, this data? What are the advantages and disadvantages? That old-fashioned critical thinking approach. And the reason that I really like the Simpsons and South Park far more than Family Guy is that I think the Simpsons and South Park have within them a spirit of keeping that critical thinking tradition alive, far more than Family Guy does. And you can do this just by turning on your TV. And I wrote this book, in part, for students in those religion and pop culture classes, those large classes where people will show them an episode of The Simpsons, or South Park, or Family Guy and you can learn to do this from the get go. And that’s a really important vital skill for sitting down and asking who you’re going to be as a person, as a citizen, in this world. Because, at least for me, for example, when I was much younger I would laugh at racist jokes, before I ever met people of different races. I grew up in a predominantly small town, white New Brunswick culture, although there was a large Native population nearby. And it was after meeting people from different backgrounds that I went back, and I thought about jokes that I used to laugh at, and I thought, “You know, they’re really not that funny, now that I know people that fit. So why did I laugh?” And I changed my behaviour accordingly. And thinking about laughter at jokes – why you laugh, what you’re doing when you laugh. Jokes transmit a ton of information, very quickly. (40:00) And the more you can think about them, and the better you can think about them, and the clearer you can think about them, the more you can understand the relationships that are going on in the society around you. And then you can start asking what you want to do with them. And that’s kind-of where I left the book at the end. I left it open-ended, in the sense that I want readers not to stop with the book. I want them to keep thinking after they’re done reading it. So that would be the third take-away.

BF: Well, I definitely found the book left me thinking about pop culture. And everything I watch now, you laugh and you think – you’re right – why did I laugh at that? Why is it funny? And, you know particularly with The Simpsons and South Park and Family Guy, there is so much thought that goes into every single episode. And I really think that, you know, the academy is really kind-of clicked onto the politics side of those shows. They’ve clicked onto the idea that they’re commenting about Trump, or they’re commenting about American politics. But they haven’t really clicked onto the idea that they really comment about religion. And I think you’ve really clicked onto that. And it’s something that we can go beyond those three shows and really look further into pop culture at things that, perhaps we thought – you know, I hope I can say this – things that we thought perhaps weren’t worthy of our time before; these shows were a bit low-brow and low-culture. But they’re actually bringing out these ideas that people are consuming en masse. And they are conveying these ideas about religion, and this broad commentary, that people are consuming en masse. So thank you so much for joining us today. There are so many things in this interview that we can take forward and we can think about and talk about. So thank you so much for joining us again, Dave.

DF: Thank you for having me.

Citation Info: Feltmate, David and Breann Fallon. 2017. “Drawn to the Gods: Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programmes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 11 December 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 8 December 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/drawn-to-the-gods-religion-comedy-and-animated-television-programmes/

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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.

“Communicating Religion”. Annual Conference of the EASR

A conference report by Hans Van Eyghen

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

Podcasts

Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the eye of the creator

By comparing the Miss Christian America pageant to other more well known pageants Miss USA and Miss America, Chelsea Belanger’s study provides a look at the intersections between religion, gender, and collective identity. Using Christian Smith’s ideas of subcultural identity, Belanger examines how the structure of the Miss Christian pageant helps develop a unique form of embodied religion.

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, fake flowers, pretty dresses, and more.


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


Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the Eye of the Creator

Podcast with Chelsea Belanger (4 March 2019).

Interviewed by Kristeen Black.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Belanger_-_Christian_Beauty_Pageants_1.1

Kristeen Black (KB): We’re all aware of the Miss Universe Pageant, Miss USA Pageant, Miss America pageant. There’s various systems of beauty pageant but each are uniquely identifiable, different in some way. And my guest today is going to talk to us about Miss Christian America. Please welcome Chelsea Belanger.

Chelsea Belanger (CB): Hello.

KB: Would you like to introduce yourself? Tell me a little bit about your research background and what brought you to this topic.

CB: Sure. So my name is Chelsea Belinger. I’m a second year doctoral student at the University of Central Florida. I got my Bachelors and my Masters at the University of Texas at San Antonio. And my master’s thesis encompassed race, religion, gender and behavioural health. It was a qualitative study examining the relationship between religiosity and sexual health among devout African American college women. And so . . .

KB: Fascinating.

CB: It was fascinating research, which I take a lot of pride in. It was a lot of fun but what was really interesting is the creative way in which these women used their religious beliefs to navigate through their sexual decision making. One of the main kind-of key points that emerged from this research, with respect to autonomy over our bodies, is that while these women that I interviewed were devout Christians, they expressed that they have supportive views of women deciding what is best for their body – especially with respect to abortion. So while they supported abortion they expressed or articulated that they themselves would never have an abortion, because of their religious beliefs.

KB: I see. So that’s the way that they negotiated that space.

CB: Absolutely. That space in terms of their religion, their views, their practices, but also being a woman. Being an African American woman and having those rights. It was fascinating. It was just a fascinating study.

KB: And do you see that same kind of synchronicity coming about with the beauty pageants? That there’s this national sense of beauty or gender as well as individual . . . but then again, collective, on a religious basis?

CB: Right. So what we’ve seen with respect to beauty pageants is that there’s a lot of religion being done. Unfortunately there’s scant research on Christian beauty pageants. But beauty pageants overall, now I will say there’s lot of research on the Miss America pageant. But what’s interesting here is that there’s a multitude of different pageant systems, such as Miss USA and Miss Christian America, where this research has encompassed . . .

KB: And to be honest, I didn’t realise there was a Miss Christian America pageant.

CB: Me neither, before this research!

KB: Who knew?!

CB: Indeed. But that’s what makes it so fascinating. It’s that there are different pageant systems that can really accommodate to anybody’s needs, so to speak. So I think that’s what . . . there’s a major misconception in American Society that there is just Miss America pageant. And that’s not the case.

KB: OK. So which came first for you in your research question: the theory that you were looking at of, for instance, Christian Smith and maybe even Judith Butler; or this kind-of noticing the different types of pageants going on, and the religiosity associated with that?

CB: Well certainly this research is going to encompass a lot of what I’m doing for my dissertation. So, being a frequent viewer of beauty pageants, American beauty pageants, I was really inspired to focus on this area. Because there’s such limited research on beauty pageants and not just Miss America. So I really wanted to focus on . . . . Ok – what is it about beauty pageants and gender that I want to focus on? And religion is something that I love studying. So I really wanted to look at how religion was being used in these beauty pageants. So that was the foundation of the study. And then looking at what theoretical frameworks are most appropriate for the study. And that’s where I came across the cultural identity theory. Now I will say I had a lot of help with Dr John Borkowksi who helped me along this, who was also my thesis advisor.

KB: A great shout out! So tell me little bit more about that theory and how that helps.

CB: So I’m working on Christian Smith’s cultural identity theory, where religious subcultures balance the demand of cultural distinction and social engagements. So, in other words, looking at this negotiating mainstream values and religious values (5:00). So, with respect to this work, looking at Miss Christian America, it’s a beauty pageant. Women are competing in this pageant, very similar to mainstream secular pageants. But what makes it uniquely different are the structure but also the requirements for this pageant, as well. In terms of the structure, there is no swimsuit portion in the Miss Christian America, but rather a sportswear competition. So that’s kind of deviating from the mainstream. Whereas the mainstream pageant like Miss USA has a swimsuit portion of the competition. And with respect to the pageant requirements, for Miss Christian America we see that contestants in this pageant must be active in ministry. They also have to have reference letters from one pastor and a media ministry leader as well. Which makes them stand out significantly from the mainstream pageant. So we see with respect to the subcultural identity theory how religion is being practised in these pageants that may exhibit mainstream characteristics.

KB: So, for my ear, it sounds like it’s evangelically focussed because women in ministry is not available in every denomination.

CB: Yeah. Right. Right. And that’s what’s interesting about this particular pageant, it’s that . . . the way in which I was studying this beauty pageant, it seemed as though as long as the contestants identified as being a Christian – that was also kind of this requirement to represent this particular pageant – whereas the mainstream pageant, Miss USA, there is no religious component whatsoever, where you’re actively driven by your faith or not.

KB: So, one of the things that I found interesting is that I seem to hear this core relationship between fitness – so, having to wear sports attire and then being judged physically fit in that sense, but no pictures – but then also being judged as spiritually fit, being inner beauty. You mentioned something about this inner type of driven-ness, and religiosity. So is that something that you’ve found, this idea of fitness in some way . . .?

CB: Right. So I saw in terms of physical fitness, this particular Miss Christian America really reinforces the characteristics of a “godly woman”. And so with this idea of a sportswear, it’s just really maintaining modesty and you know foregoing any kind of cleavage that you might see in the swimsuit competition. So really reinforcing this inner beauty. What’s really interesting about the Miss Christian America is their mission statement. And it says “no” to swimsuits and vain beauty; “yes” to the word of God, prayer, praise worship and inner . . . it really reinforces that evangelical component.

KB: Ok, Great. Also, you mentioned seeing this type of religiousness, or godly woman being reflected in some way throughout the pageant. Tell me more about that.

CB: Yes. So again, what makes this pageant so unique is kind of the requirement, if you will. So for these contestants application form, contestants for this pageant have to name their church, the numbers of years in which they’ve attended this church, and attend weekly Bible study – so that was like a yes or no response. Also the competition categories that vary vastly with the mainstream pageants are outreach ministry presentations, Biblical question and answer . . .

KB: Oh, interesting!

CB: Which is like the onstage questions that you see in the mainstream. But this, particularly, is a Biblically-based question . . . and, again, the sportswear competition. Also what’s interesting is the title holder responsibilities that are encompassed. And again we see this comparative component where both pageants have responsibilities for their title holders. But what’s interesting about Miss Christian America is the Evangelicalism that she must partake in as a title holder, representing Miss Christian America. And in addition to that, that encompasses missionary work, upholding the morals and standards of Miss Christian America pageant. So again, maintaining or exuding those characteristics of a godly woman (10:00).

KB: So, do you see the part of that being a godly woman encompasses idealised gender roles and things like . . . with the Miss America pageant, you have to be never married, never given birth. Is that the same type of thing reinforced here?

CB: Yes, so we certainly see, in this research, we see a lot of comparisons with mainstream and secular pageants and this particular pageant, Miss Christian America. We see that both pageants, Miss USA and Miss Christian America really promote women’s confidence and self-esteem and the importance of community involvement. In addition to that we see a lot of overlap between the two competitions, such as the pageant interview with the panel of judges, the opening number which is commonly done in the beginning of the pageant: this is when you’re first introduced to the contestants on stage. There’s no talent competition in either one of these pageants. Whereas, in Miss America you see that there’s a talent competition. Now, going back to what you were saying in terms of never married, single, never given birth, those are two requirements of both pageants, Miss USA and Miss Christian America. The contestant has to be single, never married and the contestant also has to be natural born female. In addition to that, she cannot have given birth at any point. So those are really, those are just similar characteristics between the two. In addition to that, community involvement is very much reinforced in both these pageants. Title holders or the winners of these pageants win a crown and sash. And oftentimes you’ll see on their sash the title which they’re representing. So Miss USA, Miss Christian America. And again the title holder responsibilities which, as we talked about before, varies but still maintains those responsibilities.

KB: And you just mentioned a sash, and I had kind of this question . . . . In the Miss America pageant we’re used to seeing like Miss Texas and Miss South Carolina, do they identify in that type of way? Is it like Miss Lutheran? [Laughs].

CB: That is a great question. From what I saw, no. Again, and I can only go on what I’ve seen of the Miss Christian America pageant. I did not see if there were women that identified. . .if they identified as Lutheran, that’s what the sash would say as they competed. I didn’t see that, so I’m going to assume no. I could be corrected. But again, as long as you identify as being Christian and being involved in the Christian faith.

KB: So it’s really more of an umbrella type of identification.

CB: Exactly. That’s how I interpreted it.

KB: OK. And how is race represented in there?

CB: That’s an excellent question. So we’ve seen . . . historically, in an American beauty pageant, we’ve seen this pattern of white women typically competing, but also winning these pageants. What’s unique about this particular pageant is a large presence of African American women competing in Miss Christian America, from what I’ve seen on their website. And so there’s also kind of this difference between the two. Now certainly we’ve seen, over time, recently, the crowning of diverse women and really reinforcing diversity in mainstream beauty pageants. But this particular pageant, I’d say that there’s a larger population of African American women competing and representing in this pageant.

KB: Great. OK. And then, do you think that there is some kind of reflection going on in the pageant of what’s going on in mainstream society, about the rising Evangelicalism? Is that contributing? Do you have any sense of how big the pageant is? Has it been growing lately?

CB: Right. Over all, that’s a really good question that I don’t think I’m prepared to answer just yet.

KB: OK, that’s good!

CB: But my assumption is, is that you know . . . unfortunately, American society may view beauty pageants negatively. And I hope my research reinforces some sort of shift in perception of how we view beauty pageants. So I don’t know in terms of the enrolment or participation of these beauty pageants over time. But certainly, hopefully there’s a shift that shows that beauty queens are not just a pretty face. They’re so much more than that regardless of the beauty pageant that you’re competing in. There’s that community involvement. But also within the pageant it’s this sisterhood that’s being created. These bonds of relationship. But also with respect to religion, how’s religion essentially being done in these pageants (15:00)? And from my own experience, backstage is where you see a lot of these . . . of religion being practised. Whether you’re competing in a secular pageant or a Christian-driven pageant, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see competitors, just before getting on stage, praying with each other – regardless of your faith – but just praying that everything goes well, and praying with each other. Whereas, once you step out on stage, they’re then your competition! But once you step off there’s this sisterhood again. And I think that’s the importance of just participating in a beauty pageant. And yes, there’s the sash and the crown, but also the bond, the friendship, the confidence that can come your way. And competing in these pageants. I hope my work can really explore that.

KB: And that’s great, because I was kind of wondering about this idea of collective versus the individual. And religion is such a collective idea. And how could that be reconciled, or is that, like, just taken into account? Is there a way that that’s negotiated, somehow?

CB: Certainly, so we’ve seen, at least in the Miss America, it’s not uncommon to see title-holders talk about their faith, even though Miss America’s not a religious pageant. We’ve certainly seen over time how contestant representing their states may kind-of talk about their faith and how they practice their faith, so to speak. So certainly, I wouldn’t say it’s completely erased from secular pageants just because they don’t have a religiously-driven component in these pageants. Who is to say these women aren’t driven by their faith?

KB: Right. But it’s just not as apparent?

CB: It’s not as apparent. But certainly, I guess, it’s up to the contestant if they want to talk about their faith. And it certainly had been played in previous years.

KB: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered?

CB: With respect to this research?

KB: Right.

CB: So much. I think I’ve gained an even greater respect for pageants, just exploring a pageant. And I’m so intrigued by how religion is being displayed in the Miss Christian America pageant. Prior to this research I had never heard of the Miss Christian America pageant. But looking into it and seeing what they stand for, and just with the way in which they’re promoting their faith, you know, it’s intriguing. Especially for somebody that studies the sociology of religion. I’m intrigued by that. So and just seeing how they navigate through that negotiation of secular pageants. And what they’re going to take from those secular pageants and how they’re going to incorporate their unique component to facilitate their religion. It’s fascinating.

KB: Yeah. And I can imagine that some denominations might resonate differently. Like if you have a very idealised gender role type of model to follow, that might be a little different experience than one that’s a little more fluid?

CB: Right. Right. Certainly, you know, in beauty pageants, mainstream, what have you, you’re going to have to exhibit these particular gender roles in terms of the makeup and, you know, heels, and hair spray, and what have you. So I certainly see that being practised here. But I think it’s so much more than that. You know, in terms of this sisterhood that’s being created. But also, what’s being done for these contestants? Win or lose – which I don’t think there’s any losers in pageantry. You gain something. Whether it’s self-confidence, or whether its friendships, what have you, or just trying something new. Certainly there’s definitely these generals that are in place. But there’s so much more. So much more that can be taken out of this from this experience as well.

KB: Would you say that this could be a faith experience for some of them?

CB: I think so. I could be wrong. But in terms of the Miss Christian America, I think it could really reinforce, or it does reinforce that commitment to their faith and really strengthening their religious beliefs and practices with the outreach of ministry and, you know, one of the competition categories – like I said before – was this Biblical question and answer. So really preparing . . . because this is a competition. There’s a panel of judges. You’re going to be judged. So really just the preparations that are encompassed in this particular pageant. And how, you know . . . preparing for those categories, (20:00) but also strengthening one’s faith.

KB: And that’s kind-of how I . . . . Just listening to you talk about it, it seems like it could be a faith-enhancing or religious experience.

CB: Indeed.

KB: So maybe just going back to Christian Smith just for a minute: tell me a little bit about how you’re applying that theory.

CB: Right. So in looking at subcultural identity theory we’re looking at religious subcultures balancing the demands of cultural distinction and social engagement. So, how is the Miss Christian America negotiating this cultural distinction and cultural engagement, compared to a more secular pageant, Miss USA?

KB: So that’s why you’ve compared both of those pageants. I see.

CB: Yes. So this was really a comparative textual analysis between the two pageants. But in addition to that, we’re kind of looking at the unique religious identity compared to the broader secular pageants. So looking at that religious identity and what’s coming about that. But also looking at the Evangelicalism that’s been brought forth in this research. So looking at the truthfulness of the Bible, so looking at values of scriptures, how is that being displayed in the pageant? The influence of human nature, so looking at the mainstream culture, so going back to the swimsuit competition, and so forth, and then finally, the “born again” experience that’s really the salvation of such faith.

KB: Oh, interesting.

CB: So it’s really interesting how the pageant is negotiating these religious values and borrowing from mainstream beauty pageants. Something that I talked about in this presentation was this idea of this perception, or borrowing, of mainstream, and really using it and navigating through the religious values and the mainstream values. So again, that on stage question, right? But in the sense of the Biblical question and answer.

KB: So these two are really being interspersed rather than juxtaposed, is that . . . ?

CB: I think so. Absolutely. So again, just going back to how they’re very uniquely similar, but also vastly different. But in the end somebody’s going to be crowned the title holder. So they’re still similar in many ways but vastly different in other ways with respect to religion.

KB: Fascinating. So if anyone had a question, is there a way that they could contact you? Do you have . . . is your work published somewhere?

CB: Not as of yet. So this is actually going to be . . . this research is part of a larger research study that I’m doing to for my dissertation. So I’m really . . . not brainstorming. But I know I want to conduct this research into pageantry because when I began such scant literature was out there on pageantry. So I really want to change that. I’m inspired to change that. And I really want to maintain . . . . I’m a qualitative researcher – so I want to look at kind of the motivations, why women choose to compete in beauty pageants.

KB: Yes. Great question!

CB: I want to explore that. Is it to make friends? Is it to gain self-confidence? Is it to get scholarship money? Or is it just to win a crown? And there are so many ways that that can be reinforced. So I want to explore reasons why women choose to . . . but as a researcher that’s fascinated by religion I want to also look at, maybe, how religion is displayed. So I’m not really focussing on a particular pageant. But I really want to interview former title holders but also former beauty pageant contestants, as well. And just explore and investigate why they chose to compete. And then, were there any ways in which they used their religion through that experience? Whether it was praying right before going on stage, or carrying a cross, or wearing a cross while they competed? I really want to explore that.

KB: And see what that means, yes. So this is a whole new way to think of lived religion and experiencing religion.

CB: Indeed. And going back to your question before. Certainly, if anybody has a question they can reach out to me through email. My email is chelsea.belanger@knight.ucf.edu

KB: Ok. And we’ll post that on the website as well.

CB: Thank you.

KB: Thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a pleasure.

CB: Likewise. Thank you for having me.

KB: We look forward to reading your book, once you turn your dissertation into a book (25:00).

CB: (Laughs) Yes I look forward to that one day, too.

KB: And I’ll re-interview you then!

CB: Yes. Sounds good. Thank you so much.

KB: Thank you, Chelsea.


Citation Info: Belanger, Chelsea and Kristeen Black. 2019. “Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the Eye of the Creator”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 4 March 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 February 2019. Available at: http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/christian-beauty-pageants-beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-creator/

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America’s Changing Religious Landscape

The religious landscape of the United States is changing dramatically. Americans must consider what it means to govern a nation of religious minorities. We interview Dr. Robert P. Jones, the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. Jones discusses findings from PRRI’s national surveys on religion and public life, many of which are represented in the American Values Atlas. The data collected by PRRI reveal a number of surprising trends related to religion and its intersection with politics, voting patterns, age, race, immigration, and secularism in the United States. A few key findings highlighted in PRRI’s 2016 report on America’s changing religious identity and covered in this podcast: (1) white Christians now account for fewer than half of the public, (2) white evangelical Protestants are in decline, (3) non-Christian religious groups are growing, and (4) atheists and agnostics account for a minority of all religiously unaffiliated. We discuss the implications of these findings and more, and we briefly review the research methodologies utilized by PRRI.

 

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


America’s Changing Religious Landscape

Podcast with Robert P. Jones (18 February 2019).

Interviewed by Benjamin P. Marcus

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Jones_-_America_s_Changing__Religious_Landscape_1.1

Benjamin P. Marcus (BM): My guest today is Robert P. Jones the founding CEO of PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) and a leading scholar and commentator on religion, culture and politics. He’s the author of The End of White Christian America, two other books, and numerous peer reviewed book chapters and articles. Dr Jones serves as the co-chair of the national steering committee for the Religion and Politics section at the American Academy of Religion. He’s a past-member of the editorial boards for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and Politics and Religion, the journal of the American Political Science Association. He holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Edinburgh University, an M.Div. from South-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, and B.S. in Computing Science and Mathematics from Mississippi College. Today we’ll be discussing PRRI’s 2018 reports about what’s happening with the religious landscape in the United States. We’ll look at the demographic changes in the country that might help explain the political climate that we find ourselves in today. Hello, Dr Jones – and welcome to the Religious Studies Project! I’d like to begin by asking a really broad question: what’s happening with religion in the US today?

Robert P. Jones (RJ): Well, it’s a great question. A lot is happening. And I think that is the story – that we’ve been experiencing a great deal of religious change, really since the 1990’s, but it’s been accelerated in the last decade. So just to give you a couple of, I think, relevant stats: one is the percentage of white Christians in the country has been declining, fairly precipitously, in the last ten years. And in particular we’ve gone – in the US – from being a majority white Christian nation, to one that is no longer a majority white Christian nation. And it’s happened fairly rapidly. If you go back to just 2008, the country was fifty-four percent white and Christian. And when I wrote my book, The End of White Christian America, I was working on 2014 data. And that number had dropped from fifty-four percent to forty-five, and that was a significant drop. But we’ve been continuing to track data since 2014 and that number’s down to forty-one percent, now. So we’ve looked at a thirteen percentage-point drop just since 2008 – so over the last decade, in the percentage of white Christians in the country. That’s come with an uptick in the religiously unaffiliated category. So if you just go back to the 1990s those numbers are in single digits: five, six percent in the 1990s. Our last data, 2017 data, is showing twenty-five percent of the public. And among young people it’s forty percent of the public. So this is a real sea-change in the country. Going from mostly a white Protestant country in 1993. That was actually the last year the country was white and Protestant. But even if you take all white Christians together – Protestant, Catholics, Orthodox, Non-denominational and denominational together – that number today is only forty-one percent. And that’s a real shift for the country.

BM: Wow. I have a number of questions from that. One is this category of “Nones” – n-o-n-e-s – people who are unaffiliated. Many people think that that’s a pretty homogeneous category of atheists and agnostics. But from what I understand that’s not the case. Is that right?

RJ: That’s right. Atheists and agnostics actually only make up only a minority of that category of a quarter of the US population. And the rest of them are kind of a mixed bag. When we’ve looked underneath the hood, there’s kind of two other groups in there. There’s one group that looks . . . that we’ve just broadly labelled “secular” in some of our reporting, that looks broadly like a cross-section of the country. But there’s another group in there that we’ve actually dubbed “unattached believers”. And that group looks, on many measures of religiosity – like, “How often do you pray?”, “How often do you attend religious services?”, “Do you believe in God?”, those kind of questions – they look like religious Americans, even though they refuse the category and won’t identify with any particular religious group. That group tends to be less white, more African American or Latino. And they tend to be younger. And so it’s a very interesting group. I think, as a whole, this group has moved so fast now that it is a very diverse group. I mean, after all, it’s a quarter of Americans, so that is a big, big group that we’re talking about, now.

BM: Wow. And does that seem to be concentrated in the sort-of Godless coasts? Or is that happening across the United States? Are we seeing a decrease in white Christian presence – not only in the middle of the country, but also in the coasts? Or is it happening in certain places?

RJ: Yeah. This is a great question. This is definitely not a bi-coastal urban phenomenon. One project that the PRRI started back in 2013 is called the American Values Atlas. And we actually have this online – for any of your Listeners who want to go check it out – it’s ava.prri.org. And what we did is, we started realising that we had enough data every year that, if we were careful about combining it, we could actually map the religious demography of every state in the country, and also the top thirty metro areas in the country (5:00). So you can go online right now and you can compare Iowa to California, for example. And you can go back in time as well. And one of the things that you see there is, if you go back ten years to today, virtually everywhere is experiencing these changes. So it’s not just New York and California, or Texas, but it’s Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota – each of these states has experienced, for example, approximately a ten percentage-point drop in the number of white Christians in their population over this last decade.

BM: Wow. Are there any states or cities that jump out at you as sort-of a surprising religious demography? Or maybe the majority religious community is not what you’d expect? Or the second biggest community is not what you’d expect?

RP: Well we still see some history at play. We still see Rhode Island as one of the most Catholic states in the country, for example. And we still see the South heavily evangelical. So you can see the . . . . You can see the religious history still there. But we are . . . it is starting to mix up. Even though you can see these historic, I guess, centres. But you can also see the shifts happening there, as well. So even in Rhode Island you’re getting an uptick in the religiously unaffiliated, and more Protestants than you had in the past. And in the evangelical South you’re getting more Latino Protestants and Latino Catholics as a result of immigration, and changing migration patterns in the South.

BM: A few times, already, you’ve mentioned the history of the United States; you’ve mentioned, not only religious communities, but also mentioning markers of race and ethnicity, patterns of immigration. Can you tell me more about the relationship between religion, race or ethnicity and the United States, and how that shows up in the data?

RJ: Well it’s . . . when I was working on the last book, race . . . it became just so clear. I mean, it’s something that I’ve known, but it became clear to me in a more poignant way, that . . . . For example: if you asked me in a sentence to summarise religious voting patterns, you can’t really talk about that without talking about race. So the short answer to that question is, in presidential elections, white Christians tend to favour Republican presidential candidates and non-white religious people – Christians or other religions and the religiously unaffiliated – tend to support Democratic candidates. So the kind-of lines of race – even class, to some extent – but the most dominant fault line in the religious landscape is really around white, non-Hispanic Christians and pretty much everyone else. You can see this cleavage on a whole range of issues.

MP: That’s so interesting. I had a professor in graduate school who used to say that you could accurately predict America’s voting patterns if you knew “four Rs”: race, region, religion and rank. And that’s something that I’ve thought about a lot. This relationship between these four Rs and how people vote. And the embeddedness of religion in American culture. Are there religious communities that are more diverse in rank or race, than others?

RJ: There are, but they tend to be the smaller ones. So, like, one of the more diverse groups in the country is Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example. They tend to be very racially and ethnically diverse – much more so than most other groups I can think of. But they, of course, are a very, very small group in the country. But it is a story of American religion that race has sorted and bifurcated religious communities to such an extent that you really can see these major cleavages, both in the denominational structure on the ground – in the way that they’re lived out and organised – but also in the macro-data. One of the reasons why, for example, social scientists – when we’re kind-of parsing data – tend to look at African American Protestants in one bucket and white evangelical Protestants in another bucket, is because, despite the fact that they share so many religious beliefs and practices – even hymns – when you look at how they behave, and their attitudes, and the political space, their race kind-of acts like a prism that just pushes them in completely different directions. So it’s hard to overstate, I think, the way that race has structured American religiosity.

BM: That’s so fascinating, and brings me to another question, which is: as you know, Religious Studies as a field has had a lot of trouble with the – quote-unquote –”world religions paradigm”. And the fact that we often sort people into religious communities based on these large groups: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus . . . And often when people teach about religion in schools, or in the media, we expect people to act in certain ways, or believe in certain ways, based on the group that they fall in (10:00). Is the research that you’re conducting showing that it’s more complicated than that? Or are there other ways that we should start thinking about religious identities, so that we’re not talking about these large world religions, but subsets, based on race, or ethnicity, or gender, or any other categories?

RJ: Yeah. Well, here I think we’ve got the push and the pull of the quantitative versus the qualitative study of religion. You know in the social sciences you need these categories. You need categories to sort people into, and they need to be big enough categories that you can actually conduct reliable statistical analysis on them, right? And so, if you’re doing a survey of a thousand people, you need these categories to be big enough to at least have, say at least 100 or so people in them. Otherwise your results start getting fairly unreliable, if you drop below that. On the other hand, you know, we all should just acknowledge that these are all sort-of human categories that have been constructed by social scientists to help us see things in different ways. They’re never perfect and they always do some kind of violence, actually, to the kind-of messy reality on the ground. We should always acknowledge that. On the other hand, you know, if we allowed for the uniqueness of every single congregation on the ground – which as everyone who’s ever served in a congregation knows that, like, if you move from one Southern Baptist congregation to another, it’s a really different world, even though they’re in the same denomination – if we stuck with that kind of granularity, which is really valuable, it would be really hard to come up and say anything broad about the group. So I think it is a real challenge. To me what matters is: can you test the category against lived reality? Right? And, is the category . . . I think it’s never the right question to say, for example, “Is the category of ‘white evangelical Protestant’, right?” – which has race, ethnicity, and kind-of religious identity all baked into one thing. It’s never the right question, I think, to say, “Is that a truthful category?” Or “Is it a right category?” I think the question, honestly is, “Is it a useful category for helping us understand the lived reality on the ground?” That means it should never be sacrosanct, it should be questionable. And we should be willing to look at, for example: what do all evangelicals look like, if we don’t just look at it by race? And then, how does that category help us see something interesting on the ground?

BM: Right. I want to pause a moment on this topic: white evangelical Protestants. We began by talking about the religious demography of the United States. I mentioned that we might be able to see something about our political landscape because of the religious landscape. What do we know about the political landscape and the influence of white evangelical Protestants? Are we putting too much emphasis on white evangelical Protestants to understand our current political moment, or are there other groups we should be looking at? What are your thoughts on that?

RJ: Well, it’s interesting. White evangelical Protestants, like other white Christians, have been declining in their percentage of the population. So, for example, if we go back again to the beginning of Barrack Obama’s tenure as president, his election, what we see is that white evangelicals – depending on the survey you look at – were around twenty-three, twenty-two percent of the population. And our last data has them down now to fifteen percent of the population. So they, like other white Christians, have been declining as a proportion of the population. But what makes them important, even as they decline, is that they have been so active on just one side of the partisan divide in the US. So unlike mainline Protestants or Catholics – who tend to be more divided in their partisan allegiances – even as this group has shrunk, they have still maintained their activity mostly on the Republican side of US politics. Which means that they have a very out-sized voice on that side of the partisan divide, and not so much among Democratic politics. But in Republican politics, they’re still a very powerful group to contend with if you’re a Republican politician. So I think they’re still very important. The other reason why the evangelicals are important is because of their strong support for President Trump. They voted about eight in ten for him in the 2016 election. As we’ve been tracking their favourability of President Trump, around his inauguration it was about two-thirds favourable. And it has gone up since then and has remained fairly steady around seven in ten support for the President throughout his presidency. So that remarkable stability is also really important for understanding them as a stalwart base. And, in fact, when we asked white evangelicals who said that they had a favourable view of President Trump’s job performance whether there was anything he could do to lose their support, nearly four in ten reported that: “No. There is virtually nothing that President Trump could do to lose our support.” (15:00)

BM: Wow.

RJ: So they are a very, very entrenched group in the Republican coalition – really a bedrock support of President Trump.

BM: Wow. That’s interesting, because on social media I see this idea floated by a number of people, based on mostly anecdotal evidence of young evangelicals that they’ve spoken to, that there’s a generational gap: that older evangelicals are stalwarts of President Trump, but that younger evangelicals might be moving away from that political affiliation – as well as certain key cornerstones of what many people think of as primary evangelical issues. Is that true? Is there a change in generation?

RJ: Well, I think there is that divide. But I think it’s a little bit different than that description. So if we go back ten years ago, I think that was more true than it is today. But it is true that young evangelicals have moved. But what they have moved from is from being evangelical to be unaffiliated. So they’ve actually exited the category over time. And we can see that a couple of ways in the data. For example, among young people today, only eight percent identify as white evangelical Protestant, right? And again that’s compared to about fifteen percent in the population. So young people are only half as likely to identify as evangelical as Americans overall. And when we look underneath the hood, and we look at the median age, for example, of white evangelicals over time, we see it creeping up. And the main reason for that is that, as they’ve lost members, they’re disproportionately losing members from their younger ranks. So what’s happening is, yes indeed, the young evangelicals of ten years ago have moved. But they’ve not moved over to be Democrats – or they might have – but they’ve mostly moved out of the whole category. They’ve stopped identifying as evangelical. And I think that’s the real shift. So if you’re looking for those people who were young evangelicals a decade ago, you should look for them in the unaffiliated category and not in the evangelical category. And what we’re seeing is that, among the young people who have stayed, the generational differences are now kind-of muted. Because the people who have stayed are actually people who hold views that are fairly consistent with older evangelicals. But the ones who had views, for example, that were in great tension – like on gay rights – have largely left the fold.

BM: Wow. It’s helpful to look at some of these assumptions or theories and test them against the data. So here’s another thing to test against the data. I’ve heard a lot about the resurgence or higher visibility of progressive Christians in the United States today. I know a lot of people are watching Reverend Barber’s movement for example. Does the data show increased religious affiliation, or a higher salience of religious identity among people who identify as progressive Christians today?

RJ: Well, what I would say is, it’s a little complicated. The last sort-of major study we did of this, where we looked at it very carefully, what we did see is among younger Americans under the age of thirty, there were more progressive Christians than there were conservative Christians. That’s true. It’s largely true, though, because of this phenomena we just talked about. That the ranks of evangelicals and other conservative, particularly white, Christians have thinned. And so as that has happened among the under-thirties, the relative ratio between progressive and conservative Christians has come more into balance. In fact, among those under thirty, there are more progressive Christians than there are conservative Christians. However, there’s one category that is more than either of those, and that is the religiously unaffiliated. Because many, many young people – forty percent of young people – are in that camp. So it’s notable, right, that that’s creeping up to be almost half of young people, claiming no religious affiliation whatsoever. That’s a really different thing, by the way, than we’ve ever seen in American public life. So if you take Baby Boomers back into their twenties . . . . And this is a question I get all the time: “Well, everyone’s more unaffiliated in their twenties, right? You’re single, maybe you’re moving around a lot, you’re changing jobs, you don’t have kids yet, maybe? So those are all things that lead you to be more transient, less rooted in a community or a community organisation like a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque. But what we find is, if we look at the historical data and take baby boomers back into their twenties, they’re still less than fifteen percent unaffiliated in their twenties. So that means that this generation is at least two-and-a-half times more unaffiliated than any generation that we have ever seen. So even if some of them – quote-unquote – “come back” as they have kids, and they settle down – they’re looking for stability in communities and integrating into community life and religious institutions are a way that people historically have done that (20:00) – even if a proportion of them do that, this will still be the most unaffiliated generation the country’s ever seen.

BM: What’s quite interesting to me is, when many people challenge the “secularisation thesis”, broadly, they often point to the United States as an outlier and say, “This is clearly a modern country that is highly religious and continues to be highly religious. So the secularisation thesis is debunked” – besides looking at other countries around the world that are highly religious. Does this data maybe put at least an asterisk by that and say, “Well, maybe we spoke a little too soon, and the US is becoming increasingly irreligious or unaffiliated?” What does that do for our understanding of the secularisation thesis?

RJ: Yes. It’s funny because we’ve got a UK audience here, so . . .

BM: And United States.

RJ: Yes, and US. But what’s funny about this is, when I give a talk in the US and I say, “Twenty-five percent of the country is now religiously unaffiliated and forty percent of young people are religiously unaffiliated”, there are gasps in the room. Because people are shocked that there’s that many people who claim no religious affiliation. If I give that same lecture in London, people would be shocked that there were that many people affiliated with religion. (Laughs).

BM: Right.

RJ: So I still think the US is a little bit different than Western Europe, for example, which is where it mostly gets compared. There’s still more religious vibrancy here. More religious experimentation, more effervescence, I think, in the religious space than there is in Western Europe, for sure. And there’s certainly not, I think, overall . . . . I think politicians here face pressure to say things like “God Bless America!” at the end of their speech, in the way British politicians certainly do not. If anything there’s the opposite pressure not to say anything overtly religious like that. So I still think there’s some difference here. But I do think what we’re seeing is, there is a shift here that is certainly more something in line with what we saw in the secularisation thesis. It’s not an absolute outlier. It’s certainly a lagger from some of the trends that we’ve seen in Western Europe. And I think we’ll have to wait and see. So far we don’t see any evidence of this upward trend in the religiously unaffiliated flat-lining. It keeps ticking up year, after year, after year.

BM: I appreciate your cautiousness not to prognosticate – is that the right word?

RJ: Yes! (Laughs).

BM: But I’m going to ask you to make some predictions. Can you look out, with your crystal ball, five, ten, fifteen years? Are there any trends that you think will continue? Or things that you think we should look out for, in the next decade or so?

RJ: Yes: Well, yeah. Just like the financial retirement planning things, you see at the bottom, “Last years past performance is no guarantee of future returns”?

BM: Right.

RJ: I think that’s kind of where we’re at on this! But with that caveat, I will say that a couple of pieces of evidence – just to continue the unaffiliated line here – we’re sing a couple of things that I think will mean that this should continue, at least for the near future. One is that we’re seeing unaffiliated people now marrying other unaffiliated people – seeking them out as marriage partners. That’s significant because one of the main things pulling people back into religious community, if they’ve become unaffiliated, is if they marry someone religious. They have that conversation, like: “OK. Well, I’m going to get married unless you pledge to raise the kids in the church” or “in the synagogue.” And I think there’s less and less of that happening. So I think that’s one less thing to kind-of pull people, at least some people, back into the fold. And you know, again, so far, we haven’t seen a single year in the last decade where that line has been flat. It keeps up-ticking every year. One thing I’ll say, that is pretty clear from the evidence, is that one of the reasons why this change on the ground is not quite translated into the political space yet, is because of different ways that different religious groups turn out and vote. So in the US context, the ballot box tends to act a bit like a time machine. And it takes us back about ten years to where the country was about ten years ago. So the electorate in this last election . . . if you map the electorate onto the general population, the election in 2016 looks about like the general population looked in 2006.

BM: OK. That’s interesting.

RJ: It takes us back about ten years. And that’s because white evangelicals, and older white Christians, turn out and vote at much higher rates. So they’re over-represented at the ballot box compared to where they are in the general population. (25:00) If we project that forward, what it means is, even though we’ve passed this threshold, for example, where the country’s no longer majority white and Christian, that will not be true at the ballot box until 2024. So we’re still two election cycles out from really seeing the demographic realities really hit at the ballot box.

BM: Well that’s a great place to pause on the content of all the things you’ve been finding. And I want to make sure we leave some time to talk about how you collect your data, to look behind the hood and look at the processes and how you set up your battery of questions. So could you tell us little bit more about that? What’s it like to run a major polling firm, and how do you do what you do?

RJ: Sure. Well it’s a lot of fun, first of all! It’s great to be able to sit around a table and say, “I wonder…X?” And, you know, think, “Well, that’s an empirical question. We can actually put that to the test.” And one of the things that PRRI have pledged to do . . . . So we’re a non-partisan, non-profit, independent research organisation. So, part of our charitable purpose is that we’re actually putting a lot of social science data back into the public domain. So one of the things we have made sure that we do is, we are very transparent. So every time we release something, we release the whole questionnaire. We hold onto the data sets for a year for internal purposes, for analysis, but after that we release the entire data set out into the public domain. So anyone can pull it up – at the Roper Center, they can pull it off of our website, and download, and do their own analysis of the data. So that’s part of our mission. In terms of how we collect it, we are dedicated, really, to doing full probability sampling of data. So all of our data is a random probability sample of the USs population. It’s all Americans. So even though we have an emphasis on mostly doing political party, and religion, and race, and other kinds of demographic breaks, we have full-bound samples of the entire population in all of our surveys here. And you know, we really do sit down, and we do our lit review, you know: the process where we look at other polls and what they have asked, and other trends we might want to check. But I think one of the things we are always trying to get at is the “Why” question. And so, not just the “What”, but the “whys”. We definitely want to know what people believe, but we also want to know what connects belief A with belief B, and belief C. What’s the underlying thing that drive them to connect those issues together? So that, I think, is part of the art of this, and I think what makes it, really, the most fun and the most worthwhile.

BM: It sounds so fun, in fact, that our Listeners might be wondering how they can get involved. So do you have any ideas for scholars out there who sit there and wonder if X,Y or Z about the American population . . .?Are there ways for them to try to do polling, or to reach out to your kind of organisations, to feed you ideas? Or what’s the process, if you’re a scholar in a university, for trying to find out some of this information at a national scale?

RJ: Well, there’s a couple of options. I mean, I get emails all the time – and I love getting emails all the time – saying, “Hey, have you thought about this?” And every now and then, there’s like “Oh man! That’s a great idea!” And if we have space, we can do it. So I would say, feel free to shoot us an email. And we certainly are interested in hearing what’s going on, and ideas that are out there. The other way is, we have formally partnered with a number of universities. So we were just . . . this past three years we did a three-wave study with Florida State University, looking at spirituality and its impact on voluntarism and other kinds of pro-social behaviours, trying to answer the question, “Does it make a difference if you’re religious or not, for how you actually behave in the world?” And trying to get at those kind of questions (30:00). We’ve partnered with the Brookings Institution and other kinds of think-tanks in this space. So I think it’s a little of both. We’ve done some individual kinds of things, but we’ve also worked on kind-of careful, multi-year, full-on collaborations with academic institutions.

BM: And your work is entirely focussed in the United States, is that right?

RJ: It is, yes. So we just do domestic religion, politics and culture.

BM: And do you consult with folks outside the United States who might be interested in this kind of work in other countries? Or do you have any partnerships? Or share ideas for best practices with organisations outside the US?

RJ: We’ve certainly been talking about this. We haven’t, so far, branched out beyond that. But it’s something we’d certainly be open to doing.

BM: Great. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I think this time really flew by for me. I enjoyed our conversation. I want to remind our Listeners that you can download all of the reports from the Public Religion Research Institute – PRRI – at prri.org. And if you’re looking for contact information for folks at the organisation you can find that on their website. And we encourage you to check out the American Values Atlas Project, which has a lot of the data that we’ve been speaking about today. So thank you again, Robby, for an excellent conversation. And I hope our Listeners enjoyed it as well.

RJ: Great, Thank you. Yes, it was a lot of fun.

BM: Thanks.


Citation Info: Jones, Robert P. and Benjamin P. Marcus. 2019. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 18 February 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 February 2019. Available at: http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

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.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Resonance of Vestigial States

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is RSP stalwart (currently our videos producer), Jonathan Tuckett.

Way back in the early days of the RSP when I did interviews and roundtables I interviewed Naomi Goldenberg on religion as vestigial states. This was also back in the early days of my PhD when I had joined Stirling University and its program of phenomenology“. (Don’t worry this isn’t about phenomenology so much as it is about me).

This was all before I started reading Alfred Schutz who turned my thesis onto an entirely new path and eventually to the heights of “proper phenomenology”. The truth is, back then – when I interviewed Naomi – I couldn’t really say that a I “got” Critical Religion. As David has already explained in his editor’s choice, Timothy Fitzgerald is perhaps the most important scholar of religion of our time for the fact that he has made us change the way we think about religion. But I was stubborn and combative, so I had to come to realise the paradigm shift of Tim’s work by a slightly circuitous route.

And ever since I have made that paradigm shift, ever since I “got” Critical Religion and pronounce myself to be a part of that group, I have returned again and again to Naomi’s work on religion as vestigial states. I’m not saying I fully agree with Naomi’s theory. But the more I develop my proper phenomenology (yes, I am going to hammer that distinction again and again – I am no less stubborn and combative these days), the more I find how similarly my own views on “religion” resonate with hers. And, with potentially fortuitous timing, Naomi will be keynote speaker at this year’s BASR conference so we may well have another interview with her in the near future.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. 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, buckets-o-soldiers, sharpies, and more.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Co-Dependency of Religion and the Secular

In our fifth editors’ pick, Marek Sullivan writes “Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!”

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our new features co-editor, Marek Sullivan.

Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. 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, Pulp Fiction memorabilia, astronaut ice cream and more.

Sounds of the Underground

A Response to “Drone Metal Mysticism” by Owen Coggins

Francis Stewart

Read more

From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment”

Dr. Josephson-Storm’s first book, “The Invention of Religion in Japan,” discussed how, after Commodore Perry forcibly opened Japan to Europeans and Americans in 1853, the Meiji intelligentsia and government remade their country along Western lines. This meant inventing a term, shukyo, that was roughly analogous to the Western word “religion.” In other words, an artificial delineation between spiritual practices and other parts of society was introduced to Japan, as part of the quest to be “modern.” Another key aspect of religious modernization was the delineation of “proper” religions from “superstition” and “magic.”

Meanwhile, Japanese intellectuals who visited America and Europe realized that the Westerners were not as objective or rational — that is, disenchanted — as they claimed. In fact, many Americans and Europeans believed in Spiritualism, occultism, Theosophy, mesmerism, magnetism, herbal medicine, and other things that didn’t conform with proper religion (i.e., Christianity). “The Myth of Disenchantment,” Josephson-Storm’s second book, argues that, although Westerners conceived of a philosophical triad — science and Christianity in opposition to magic/Spiritualism/etc. — the triad obscured the ways in which people interacted with each other and blended religion, “magic,” and science. There were, and are, many strands of people with varying approaches to religion and modernity. In our interview, Josephson-Storm and I agree that (based on Josephson-Storm’s research) Western intellectual history is more like a river, with many concepts colliding with each other, than a stable triad or other spatial metaphor. Josephson-Storm argues that it is wrong to assume that the West has progressed beyond myth or magic; it is wrong to assume that religion never influences scientists; and it is wrong to think that major scientific figures avoided occultism, esotericism, Christianity, or other religious traditions.

We also discuss where we go in the study of religion, and in philosophy generally, in the wake of postmodernism. To interrogate categories like “religion” and “magic” and show their intellectual genealogy, as Josephson-Storm does, is to act in the vein of postmodernism, deconstruction, and other forms of critical theory / Continental Philosophy. But where do we go next? How do we frame our lives, since we cannot deconstruct things forever? Josephson-Storm proposes that we admit the constant reconstruction and manipulation of narratives, so that, instead of getting hung up on flawed categories of modernization or ripping apart arguments infinitely (beware fake news), we admit the world is filled with dynamic tension. If the past way of studying “civilized” religion versus “primitive” magic is wrong, and if we are honest about our personal biases and the limits of objectivity, then we might achieve a world that is more tolerant of different religions and a world in which scholars produce unconventional, but more accurate, studies of religion.

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, sleeveless t-shirts, chest expanders, and more.

A transcript of this podcast is available as a PDF, and has been pasted below.

For our previous podcast with Prof. Storm on “The Invention of Religion in Japan”, see here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-invention-of-religion-in-japan/

From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment” and Framing Religious Studies

Podcast with Jason Ā Josephson-Storm (14 May 2018).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Daniel Gorman (DG): Good afternoon, Professor!

Jason Josephson-Storm (JJS): Good afternoon, Dan.

DG: So Jason Josephson-Storm is calling in today, from Williamstown, Massachusetts.

JJS: Indeed! The snowy part of the state, yes.

DG: And I’m sitting in my kitchen, and the snow hasn’t reached me yet.

JJS: Oh, right.

DG: Today we will be talking about your new book, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences, published last May, by the University of Chicago Press. But I think, before we get into that, we should tell our listeners where you’re from, historiographically. Your first book was set across the Pacific: The Invention of Religion in Japan.

JJS: Yes, indeed. My first book was my dissertation – a heavily revised dissertation – called The Invention of Religion in Japan. And it was basically about Japanese intellectuals encountering the category religion for the first time, in a set of trade treaties in the mid nineteenth century, and trying to figure out what the word religion meant. Because there wasn’t necessarily an equivalent translation term for religion in Japanese. And they had no clear idea what – if anything, in Japan – was a religion, or counted as the category religion. And in that book I traced how the category religion was debated and articulated in Japan, and how Japanese thinkers came to see that the term was embedded in a set of contrasts. On the one hand, with religion and science as putative opposites, and the other as religion and superstition, as another imposing term. And to figure out one, you had to figure out the other. At least that’s what Japanese thinkers ended up deciding. And they ended up coining a completely new vocabulary of new terms, in Japanese. For example, like the term shūkyō for religion, or kagaku for science, that didn’t exist before this encounter with European thought. So yes, that was my dissertation. I did both sides of the encounter. Mostly I was looking at Japanese sources – Japanese thinkers looking to the West and then, in some cases in that book, I flipped the encounter and looked at Europeans writing about Japan in the same period. And looked at their mismatch of conceptual ideas and terms.

DG: If I remember correctly in The Invention of Religion in Japan, you talk about a few Japanese intellectuals who spend time studying in the United States?

JJS: Yes, that’s right, including thinkers like Mori Arinori who famously came to the United States – I think it was at Amherst College, actually – which is our arch-rival here, from Williams. [Editorial Note: See author’s correction below, from 18 May 2018 – “One small correction–Mori Arinori didn’t go to Amherst. I misspoke. He went to Brocton, New York, and spent a year living in a religious community established by spiritualist mystic Thomas Lake Harris and loosely based on the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The nineteenth century Japanese thinker who went to Amherst College, was Uchimura Kanzō. I discuss both men in The Invention of Religion in Japan.”] But I look at a number of Japanese intellectuals who travelled in the United States and wrote about their experiences there, definitely. And they tried to figure out the central edifices of Western thought. And this is a group of Japanese whose writings in the West has been historically less studied, because they studied weird things that don’t fit the story that Europeans like to tell about Europe. So they were considered to have got it wrong. But, actually, I think they had a lot of perceptive, interesting things to say. But that was the first book.

DG: I want to dig into that, a little bit. You were mentioning the story that Western Europeans are telling about themselves. And that’s an essential idea to The Myth of Disenchantment, your next book. What do you see as the story that they’re telling about themselves?

JJS: So, one of the things that the Europeans presented was an equation between their technological civilisation – in other words their guns and their boats and what-have-you – and their either cultural or intellectual traditions. And Europeans tended to tie them together and argue for the superiority and the fundamental connection between the two. So even though gunpowder was invented in China and the print press had its earlier formation, for example, in China (although we can’t see direct transition there) Europeans presented European technology as proof that European civilisation was superior, and they claimed, often, that European civilisation was superior for two competing reasons: either because European civilisation at that time was considered Christian, or they claimed that their civilisation was superior because it was more rational. But Japanese intellectuals encountering British culture were worried about: What is this Christianity? Is it uniform? And, particularly, they questioned the rationality of European thought. Versions of that were questions about the disenchantment narrative. So Europeans often claimed that their particular form of superiority came from the fact that they had disabused themselves of superstitions. But some Japanese thinkers noticed that . . . and this didn’t make it into the first book or the second book, but I’m publishing it elsewhere as an article. A bunch of Japanese thinkers, instead of seeing a disenchanted West, saw a West full of spiritualists, full of people believing in the Occult, full of Pentecostal religious revivals, full of people who believe in charms and the efficacy of talismans. So, in that respect, the presentation of the West – particularly Europe or America – as radically “other”, in terms of its lack of superstitions, didn’t make sense to them. They could see not only a disenchanted West but, in a way, a mystical West (5:00). And they saw a parallel, as they saw it, in European interest in things like x-rays and radioactivity. European science was populating the world with invisible forces and a number of European thinkers equated those . . . talked about spiritualism in terms of radioactivity or in terms of x-rays, or what have you. So one of the things that interested me early on was this interesting reading that Japanese thinkers produced about the West. The other things that they saw, or didn’t see, that I found interesting in that project were distinctions between philosophy and religion that they found to be really problematic. And the idea of a secular state was a construct that was, in many respects, mythical, or what-have-you. So that’s a lot about that book. Yes.

DG: What you’re suggesting is that with these Japanese intellectuals in the late 19th century – they’re looking and saying . . . with their connection between science and religion, they’re anticipating figures like Alfred North Whitehead.

JJS: You mean, who might see those two as having a different relationship?

DG: Yes. So, for instance, Whitehead is a mathematician but he’s talking about universal principals of the spirit. He’s making those connections. William James is using social science but he’s also interested in psychical phenomena. These individuals don’t fit neatly into the philosophical box you’re describing.

JJS: Yes, exactly. And I think they didn’t fit in a box from Japanese scholars, and they don’t fit that opposition. A lot of European scholars have put that opposition today. One of the grand myths that – to sort-of pivot to the next book – that I’m interrogating in The Myth of Disenchantment, is this notion of a necessary conflict between religion and science – which turns out to be a pervasive myth articulated, basically, in the 19th century in Europe and America. And it presumes that religion and science are necessarily in conflict. And there are a lot of interesting things we could say about, for example, Draper who is the first to talk about the conflict model, which he himself already uses as a Protestant anti-Catholic argument. Or we could say something about the number of scientists themselves who have not seen these two things in conflict, or whatever. But what I was really interested in, is how the categories of religion and science got articulated spaces, as terrains – to borrow something Peter Harrison later talked about, he uses that language – but to think how religion and science were defined in opposition. And one of thing that I notice . . . . And I’m sorry, if I get excited I talk too fast! So I’ll try and slow down a little bit. One of the things I noticed is that, conceptually, there was often a third term: not only were religion and science positioned in conflict, as part of this myth of a conflict model, but also often religion was seen as opposed to something – superstition – which was like the pseudo-religion, or the thing that looked like religion but is not religion, often described a superstition or magic. But similarly, science was also positioned in opposition to something called “pseudo-science”, which was also described as superstition or magic. So it seemed like the intellectual edifice that was being formulated in the 19th century was a triadic oppositional structure between, on the one hand, a conversation about the difference between religion and science, but also about religion and magic, or magic and science. And, in particular, areas that religion and science seemed to overlap were the most likely to be policed as illegitimate, as pseudo-science or as magic, or as . . . I’m thinking of things like psychical research, spiritualism, table-turning or what-have-you, that presented itself as a science, as a science of the dead . . .

DG: It satisfies neither group. Something like spiritualism, it satisfies neither the pure modernist, the scientist, and it doesn’t satisfy the Christians either.

JJS: Yes, often. Although there are a range of scientists who love spiritualism and a range of Christians or Quakers, or what-have-you that, as we know, were into spiritualism. But you’re right, that it didn’t fit the clean definitionary lines. But it became an object of attack from both sides. So one of the things that already motivated the transition between the two books was, I got interested in trying to figure out . . . if in Japan, in the 19th century, they were encountering these three categories as if they were already accomplished things: religion, science and magic or superstition. I was interested in how those three got formulated as three distinct categories in thought, and how much boundary work was going on in policing them – and also the ways that boundary work collapsed. And then, the other kind-of insight that motivated this second project is that a lot of the conversation about this third term – magic or spiritualism – connected itself up to a notion of modernity as such. So one of the central myths, that I think is still shared in much of the social sciences, is the notion of some grand periodisation called modernity. And the idea is that at a certain point – everybody disagrees about when, but it may the birth of the printing press, or industrialisation, or the Protestant Reformation, or what-have-you – there’s a rupture, after which we enter a period called modernity, but often modernity is described in terms of something called disenchantment (10:00). And that disenchantment is usually defined as an end of belief in spirit, or an end of belief in magic. But the problem is that, if you look at it – and I have a chapter that looks at the sociological evidence – people didn’t stop believing in spirits. Many Americans, arguably – depending upon how you define the categories – something like 75% of Americans hold onto some kind of paranormal or general belief in spirits, in ghosts, in angels, in demons, demons that possess people etc., psychical powers – all this stuff is really widespread – astrology, for example. So, you know, we might guess that the academy has more sceptics than other, but even then it’s not necessarily clear. It’s just there are different kinds of belief that people have. So it doesn’t look like contemporary America is disenchanted, according to those logics – or contemporary Western Europe. And what’s more, it turns out that the notion of modernity as itself disenchanted, was basically formulated in the 19th century. And this is a period where we hear about revival, about spiritualist séances, about the widespread birth of psychical research, and theosophy, and a whole bunch of other positions. So it turns out that – as I argue in this book, The Myth of Disenchantment –after looking at . . . . I started looking at these founding figures of this narrative of modernity as disenchantment, who are often the founders of many of our disciplines: founders of Sociology, or Psychology, or Psychoanalysis, or Philosophy, or Religious Studies. And I looked through their diaries and their letters, and I was able to locate them in the exact milieu where magic was, itself, being practised or believed. They hung out with spiritualists, or they themselves called their own project theosophy, and talked to these theosophists. So it looked, in a way, that the myth of magic departure was part and parcel of conversations of occultists as well as scholars of religion. So Helena Blavatsky, for example – the founder of the Theosophical Society – she described modernity in terms of the disenchantment, and said that the central feature of the West was that it had lost belief in magic – even as she wanted to return to India, and her hidden masters, to recoup the missing pieces! So it looked like the difference . . . normally disciplines like Sociology and Religious Studies describe themselves as disenchanting or secularising. But that becomes harder to countenance when you know that in the individual lives of a lot of these people – let’s say Sigmund Freud – they find themselves having the beliefs that they are, themselves, describing as archaic! So, what it means is that there is a way in which this very notion of modernity as disenchanted turns out to be a myth. And that turns out to be one of the many things I try to argue in the book. Basically, not only isn’t it true now, but it wasn’t true then. And we can see, if we look at the lives – the private lives – of all these thinkers, that they had all these kind-of, let’s say, heterodox, or complicated, or interesting, or enchanted beliefs themselves. So I think that’s one of the big pay-offs.

DG: Hang on! Sorry I want to get a word in, here!

JJS: Yes, sorry!

DG: So you mentioned that there’s a flood narrative, to say that there’s a triadic opposition of magic, Western Christianity and (science). If that’s a flawed model, and everything’s more fluid and, as you say, you have scientists like Curie and Max Müller who are going to séances, then what is the correct structure? Is there even a structure? Shall we get rid of this triad? Is it the tesseract, and multiple dimensions wrapping around itself, or what is it?

JJS: So, I think we tend to think of this triad as necessary and universal. But I think we’re wrong about that. What I ‘m not saying is that nobody believed in this triad but rather, in the process of constructing this triad, we carved out a much more complex, heterogeneous space and then made a bunch of arbitrary divisions around it. So one of the things I’m trying to do is challenge the presumption of that triad. I would agree that it needs to be unwoven, in a certain way. But that doesn’t mean that we deny that we’ve had this history. So one of the things that I’m really interested in is how we study – just to take a step back to these higher categories. So, we spend a bunch of time sitting in the horizon of these categories. So, let’s say, we spend much time thinking of religion as a universal, and then trying to define the features that religion has. What’s the definition of religion, and how is it in all sides, and in all cultures? I don’t think that . . . . That project has failed. My book isn’t the first to show this. Neither of my books is the first to show this. But there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the category of religion takes its primary relation to a particular period in Euro-American history and then is imposed, in a heavily negotiated and contested way, on the rest of the globe. But what I think we can do, as scholars, is then to not study the category as a universal thing, but study the category as it is articulated and the effects that it’s had. So we can trace this category as a kind of unfolding process or, what I like to call a “higher order assemblage”, and look at how various things are recruited into it. It’s like an unfolding process, like a stream. To take a metaphor, what I’m trying to do is, I’m kind-of . . . instead of a process physics – a process anthropology (15:00). And to look how these categories were historically conditioned and articulated within the implications of doing that. And that means that we have to look at ourselves as scholars within the categories themselves, and kind-of work them out. Anyway, this is stuff I’m working on for the next book. So I shouldn’t monologue any more about it! But I’m working on a book called Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism. And that’s exactly about: how do we work with, and study, these higher order categories. And how do we sort-of function without returning to the older discredited modernism, or turning into the word-play of postmodernism. And what I argue for is a kind of pride in “humble science” is one of my phrases. And I kind-of come up with a new philosophy of social science for a post-Kuhnian way of looking at the world as these kind-of aggregated processes. But I should step back, and return to this before I get carried away.

DG: There is a little bit to unpack there. Let’s begin with this idea of . . . I think one of the things we’re dancing around in this conversation is there is a difference between studying something, and there is a difference between practising it. So you mentioned, for instance, three are people in the 19th Century who believe in the triumvirate of magic, spiritualism and science – no excuse me I got the triumvirate wrong, the triumvirate is Christianity, Spiritualism and science: OK, take a step back to the present. . .

JJS: Or religion, science and magic, or whatever. Yes.

DG: So then, as a scholar looking back, you’re seeing the flowing river where it’s all intertwined and there is no simple static thing. So then let’s go to another level, ok? You’ve got the people in the past with the triad; you’ve got the people today, studying, saying, “No. I see a stream in which these people were functioning.” So what’s the next step? Where do we go if we’re saying that our narrative of modernity and postmodernity is flawed? What’s the next step for building a framework to understand this stuff? Because we still have to live with it in the present day.

JJS: So what I’m saying is, to locate ourselves within the horizon of temporality. So I mean, in that respect, one of the things that we have to do is recognise the limitedness of our own conceptual categories. I mean, now we’re really onto my third book stuff – so this is fun! But one of the things that we do is we have to recognise . . . . I should take a step back, and talk about the history of modernism and postmodernism, and then tell you . . . . So, one of the things that many academic disciplines were predicated on was the notion of concepts. That was essentially Aristotelian in its basic function. This is a notion of concepts as having necessary and sufficient conditions for membership. And what’s more, we thought that our concepts mapped on the world – that they cut up what the Greeks had called the “joints of nature” – in other words, looked at where nature divided things up. So that made natural kinds of distinctions. This is often called “natural kinds”. And we thought that if you could find necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in a given category, that you could identify its essence. And if you could say something about its essence you could begin to discover and develop, let’s say, robust or scientific knowledge about a subject. In the hard sciences we’ve already begun to challenge that notion of essences. And I think a lot of philosophy of science has already moved past the way that those conceptions or categories are articulated. But in the humanities we also had a crisis around this, because we discovered that many of our concepts no longer worked. The capacity to produce necessary and sufficient conditions for the category of religion turns out to have been a flawed process, etc. So the question then becomes . . . . Instead of thinking about nature as jointed, in the old fashioned way, we have to think of it in the way of a disjointed nature. And this is at least true. Even if you think that there is a distinction between natural kinds and human kinds, in which nature itself has joints, it’s pretty clear that human concepts don’t have the kinds of joints that we would like to project upon them. The joints that we have are historically contingent. So part of what we end up doing in studying is locating ourselves within our study – so this is a kind of reflexivity – and then focussing on how these conceptual categories were themselves constructed. But I’m aware that we’re getting away from . . .

DG: Yes. I feel like we’re moving beyond The Myth of Disenchantment to what comes after. We realised that the myth of disenchantment is flawed. And we’re also running out of time. So, we sketched out the theoretical terrain. But what struck me with this book is that, as much as we talk about the critical theory and the flawed basis of modernity, you’re showing an incredible range of material in, let’s see: German, French, English – you’re doing comparative linguistic work here, also.

SSJ: Yes.

DG: What is your . . . I mean, it almost sounds like a Larry King softball question, but I’m curious! What is your language training, to be able to do a book like this? Because it’s almost like you were doing the work of four books in one. You’re talking about German intellectual history, you talk about the Renaissance, you talk about Occultism, and Britain and America in the ’50s.

JJS: Yes, so I grew up bilingual with French and English, and I went to a French and English Educational school until I went to High School. And having basically tested out of High School French, I started Japanese in High School (20:00). And my mother was born in Germany. So I grew up also with sharing a lot of German. So I had, basically, those four – German is my weakest of those languages. I also spent some time in Barcelona, studying Spanish. And then I lived in France for a couple for years, and I lived in Japan and I lived in Germany. And when I was in Japan I studied Classical Chinese. So, basically, I have English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese and Classical Chinese. And then from Romance languages and Germanic languages you can get to other Romance and Germanic languages easily. And then, when I was here a few years ago at Williams, I did tutoring- I took and received tutoring from a classicist here, in Latin. So I was working on building my Latin. At the moment I’ve just started – I love languages – I’ve just started Biblical Hebrew. So in fact, what I’m going to go to in thirty minutes is my Hebrew lesson. But I just love languages! I mean, I just love them. I read in languages more than I speak with languages. I talk quickly and I like to be grammatical, and then I get tongue-tied if I try to speak. I speak all my languages better drunk, for example! But I love puzzling things out philologically. So that’s the kind of stuff that was in the background of this book. Yes.

DG: You also mentioned, in our conversation, the idea that there are moments in history – as you see it – sort-of these explosive junctures, that upset our models for understanding the world. You know, you can look at Japan: the arrival of the Westerners unsettles their way of not seeing a division between spirituality and nature. For Westerners: the atomic bomb, the discovery of the germ, the DNA – these sort of explosive moments. And I find it interesting that you started writing The Myth of Disenchantment after an explosive moment: the Fukishima disaster. So we’re talking about reflexivity, so I’m trying to situate you, Josephson-Storm, in the fields that you’re talking about. Where are you in the stream?

JJS: Oh well, that’s a big question! Do you want to know why I came to this particular project, when? Or do you want to hear about how I shifted from Japan to the Western European thing? Or I could go in so many different directions. That’s a good one.

DG: Well, let’s focus . . . . Since we’re talking about historical moments that upset the stream, that upset the models, for you I want to talk about the Fukishima thing. And how does that effect the way you conceive of religion?

JJS:I mean for me, as I mentioned at the beginning of this book, after I’d finished The Invention of Religion in Japan, before it had come to press, I was starting research on another project that was going to be called “Ghosts and Resurrections in Contemporary Japan”. And it was about the history of the notion of spirits, and about contemporary belief in talismans. And I was already making the argument that 19th and 20th century Japan wasn’t disenchanted. But then the incident . . . . You know, I’d already done a lot of research towards that project. And one of the things that tipped me the other way, just by chance of timing, was in Kyoto – I was on an early tenure sabbatical doing research. And I was actually at a tattoo parlour getting some tattoo work done, when the Fukishima incident happened. It was actually- the earthquake off at Tohuku. We didn’t know it was Fukishima, yet. And earthquakes aren’t uncommon in Japan. They’re pretty common. And we didn’t, right away, know how huge the effects were going to be. So, a lot of people in the tattoo parlour would just stop what we doing, and we were just watching the television screens. And I remember seeing the images of the tsunami, but not yet being aware of how tragic and disastrous it was going to be in terms of loss of human life. And one of the guys in the tattoo parlour was asking me about my research, and I started talking about, you know, asking people about their belief in talismans and ghosts and spirits and talking about that kind of thing. And there was one other non-Japanese person there. And when we were having this conversation this guy, who I think probably was from either Norway or Sweden or something like that, was like: “Oh, of course Japanese people believe in all these magical things. But that’s because Japan is a kind-of like mystical Asia, where people still believe in magic. But in the West people don’t believe in anything like that.” And I thought, the binary that was drawn – it was flawed. And, in particular – in part, we could say, autobiographically – it’s because my grandmother was a famous anthropologist, Felicitas Goodman, who herself went kind of . . . the term people used to describe her was “went native”. On a reservation in New Mexico, she started believing in the existence of spirits. And I remember, from growing up, her offering cornmeal to the ghosts when the sunrise came up, to the spirits and the ancestors and what have you – the spirits of the land (25:00). And I knew that a lot of people came from all over the world to attend these sessions that she gave on the reservation. So some of those famous sociologist, anthropologists and artists from Germany, from Mexico, from the Unites States. And so I was always . . . I felt a bit of an outsider to that community. But I greatly admired my grandmother who was one of my intellectual heroes, and one of the reasons I study religion. And so I knew, at least, she was strange – but she wasn’t that strange. And so this reinforced my sense that this binary between an enchanted Asia and disenchanted West, was itself a kind of mythical distinction. So that’s one of the things that gave birth to this project: to kind of look at Europe with the eyes of an outsider anthropologist – or look at Europe and America from this semi-outsider vantage point. And there’s where I think I saw a lot of things that I didn’t expect, perhaps. But clearly there was disaster. I was planning to go to Tokyo and it looked like Tokyo was . . . . You couldn’t get food, they were having to ship stuff into the city. I was looking online at radiation levels that were spiking, and I just thought it was probably . . . I wasn’t going to be able to get the kind of research that I was going to get done, done in Tokyo. So I went to Germany, where I was intending to go at some point after that, anyway. So the disaster, in a way, uprooted me. And I made sure that my Japanese friends were safe, and I tried to keep tabs on things. But I knew, you know like it wasn’t going to be conducive to. . . .You know – an American, rooting around in the archives, wasn’t going to be conducive to what was happening in Fukishima and Tokyo in that particular moment. So I went to Germany and then went through the German archives, basically. I was trying to beef up my German, so I started reading a lot of stuff in German then.

DG: We’ve gone around the world I think, three times at this point. I think the fact is that the stuff we’re talking about – we could go on about this for hours. But our listeners only have about half an hour. So, to wrap up: I think what I see as the contribution of your book, is that it’s identifying . . . instead of this singular, “us versus them”, science or Christian scientists (that’s two separate words, that’s Christian scientists not Christian Scientists, the religion) versus the spiritualist, by showing the fact that it’s more complicated. I saw a couple of different strands in your book. And I want you to critique me if you think I’ve got the wrong strands. You’ve got Christians who are scientist and spiritualist. You have scientists who are spiritualists. You have spiritualists who aren’t scientists but reject Christianity. So my point is: every single part of the triad, you could flip that a couple of different ways. And so, suddenly, you’ve got six or seven – I don’t know. . . . How many strands would you see, in the book, of how many different boxes people can fall into?

JJS: Yes, I didn’t organise it that way, but I did organise it around the birth of these different disciplines. So, I mean I think you’re right, even looking at the birth of these different disciplines, what I was interested in is the different ways that people navigated those categories. And you’re right, there are like a plurality. You could be pro-science, pro-magic; anti -science, anti-magic; pro-Christianity, pro-magic: anti Christianity, pro-magic. All of the possible options, and a much more pluralistic way than you would get if you bought the story that suggested that the central feature of modernity is that people no longer believed in spirits or magic.

DG: But what you’re talking about is also a more interesting story.

JJS: Yes. Thank you. Yes, I hope I highlight some interesting complexities and interesting figures. And I found a lot of stuff. I was surprised, you know, the amount of stuff that I found that was in diaries, or letters, or things that were lesser known works of a range of figures that really doesn’t fit our received impression of these people. But then, I look not just at the founders of academic disciplines but – for the sake of your readers – I look at a number of famous magicians and occultists and show how they were in dialogue with the academic world, more than people often supposed. So Aleister Crowley and Helena Blavatsky, for example, are two key examples. And then I do five hundred years of history. So, you know, basically it’s Francis Bacon, to the Vienna Positivists. So maybe not quite 500 years, but more like 400 years of history. It was a lot of stuff. It was a lot of fun. I had to leave out a lot.

DG: Yes. And I’ve seen some of those articles you published the one called, what’s it? “God’s Shadow” – the one about the founders of the study of religion who were also obsessed with ghosts.

JJS: Yes, totally. Indeed. So the book . . . there are lot of pieces that I had to cut out. Some of it has appeared in articles, and I have a bunch more of book chapters that will look at different pieces. But I’m trying to move off of that. But I just had so much and I had to cut it down for publishing purposes. So it’s a little bit tight in terms of the prose. But there’s a lot of evidence there, yes (30:00).

DG: So thank you, Dr Josephson-Storm. It’s been a very lively conversation!

JJS: Good to speak to you, too.

DG: And having gone from the triad, which is flawed, to the stream, which is interesting, I am interested to see what your theoretical book will say next. Because once you explode the streams – and living in an age of fake news where anything goes, I’m very interested in where the study of religion, and how we understand it, goes next.

JJS: Thank you. Yes, that’s what I’m working on, yes.

DG: If you come up with a good answer, let me know!

JJS: Yes, you’ll have to read the book, or interview me when the next one comes out. It’s under contract and I’m claiming I’m going to have it to the press by the end of 2019. So I have to come up with an answer by then, anyway! We’ll hope it’s a good one!

DG: Go test it on your undergrads!

JJS: Yes, totally.

DG: Thank you very much.

JJS: Good to speak to you. Thank you.

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.

Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Cliches

“Religions are belief systems”, “Religions are intrinsically violent”, “Religion is Bullshit”… these are just some of the pervasive cliches that we might hear from time to time in the English-speaking world about our central topic of discussion on the RSP, ‘religion’. In this podcast, Chris is joined by Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin, the editors of the recently published Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Cliches (Bloomsbury, 2017) to discuss these cliches, the ideological work that they do, how scholars could and should approach them, the construction of the book, and more.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for making this recording possible. The other cliches addressed in the book and/or covered in the podcast include:

* “Religion Makes People Moral”
* “Religion Concerns the Transcendent”
* “Religion is a Private Matter”
* “Religions are Mutually Exclusive”
* “I’m Spiritual but Not Religious”
* “Learning about Religion Leads to Tolerance”
* “Everyone has a Faith”

You can find a full list of contributors, and more about the book, on the publisher’s website: 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, Wu-Wear, previously enjoyed golf balls, and more.

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

Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés

Podcast with Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin (30 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Stoddard and Martin – Stereotyping Religion 1.1

Chris Cotter (CC): “Religions are belief systems.” “Religions are intrinsically violent.” “Religion is bullshit.” These are just some of the pervasive clichés that we might hear from time to time, in the English-speaking world, about our central topic of discussion on the RSP: religion. Joining me today to talk about a new book that’s coming out called Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin, neither of whom should be strangers to the Religious Studies Project. But, just to introduce them, Brad is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. He completed his dissertation at Florida State University and is currently revising his manuscript on Florida’s faith-based correctional institutions. He teaches American Religious History and the History of Christianity. And he’s primarily interested in religion and the law, religion in American prisons, and theory and method in the Study of Religion. And he’s currently serving as the president of our beneficent sponsors, the North American Association for the Study of Religion. And Craig Martin is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at St Thomas Aquinas College. And his research and teaching focuses on theoretical questions in the academic Study of Religion, typically related to discourse, ideology and power. And some of his books include, Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere; Capitalising Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie; and A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion. And he is currently the editor of a book series with Bloomsbury, titled Critiquing Religion: Discourse, Culture and Power, in which this book, Stereotyping Religion, appears. So, Brad and Craig – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project!

Brad Stoddard (BS): Thank you.

Craig Martin (CM): Thanks so much.

CC: And I should say that we are conversing via the wonders of Skype. So maybe – just to set the scene here for me – if you want to tell me, how did this book come to be? Why did it come to be? What’s the point here?

CM: Brad, can I field that one to begin with?

BS: I think you should!

CM: (Laughs.) So, the initial idea for this book project came to me when I was working on my dissertation at Syracuse University. I was thinking about all the stereotypes about religion that my students came into the class with, and that I found frustrating to know how to deal with – and not just students, but also friends and family members who would repeat these clichés. And it was like, I couldn’t think of an obvious scholarly source to point them to, to say, “OK. In a nutshell, here’s why scholars try to avoid this cliché.” So, through conversations with my friends Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi  . . . Schaefer’s now at – I’m going to get this wrong. He’s either at Penn State, or the University of Pennsylvania – I can’t remember which.

CC: (Laughs).

CM: But, I reached out to Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi and I said, “You know, I think we could write this book really quickly and easily, because we already know what we want to say about each of these stereotypes.” And we produced three chapters, and I graduated and moved away, and the thing just kind-of languished and was never picked up and continued. So a couple of years ago I was like, “You know, that really was a good idea for a book. There should be something on clichés and stereotypes.” So I reached out to Brad and said, “Hey, are you interested in helping me edit this?” And he jumped on board, and then we ran with it.

CC: Wonderful. And it’s really great when that sort of thing happens, when you get to revisit an idea that you had – and no one else has stolen it! Yes.

CM: (Laughs). Yes. Well in ten years of it sitting, nobody else stole the idea. And I think that the stereotypes we chose are so pervasive that we didn’t have any difficulty getting people to sign up for the project. People were immediately, “Oh yes! That’s a great idea. Can I address this one?” Or, “Can I address that one?” So, yes we were pleased with how quickly it came together, and how great our submitting authors were.

CC: On that note . . . . So, you say you found it quite easy to come up with the list of clichés: did you present a ready-made list and then try and find contributors? Or did contributors come to you with clichés they particularly wanted to write about? And were there ones that you had wanted to include, that you couldn’t?

BS: As I recall, Craig and I . . . when Craig approached me with the project we sat down, you know, over the phone or email and went back and forth to create a list of about ten clichés that we agreed on. And then we started looking for people to write about the individual clichés. And in conversations with the individual authors at least one or maybe two of the clichés changed, because the author would say, “Well that’s good – can I approach it from this angle” And of course, when it made sense, we gave the individual authors the freedom to run with the cliché. But the bulk of it, I think, came from a few conversations where Craig and I just identified: these are the main clichés we see in society and politics. These are the main clichés we encounter in class. And so we had this list of clichés – and it just changed a little bit, but for the most part we ran with our list.

CC: Fantastic. I’ll ask you in a moment to take me through a few of them. But, in the introduction you set out the context for the book, but also the context in which the clichés are operating. So you talk about liberal political theory, idealised Protestantism, secularisation theory and so on. Maybe you could – just for the listeners – lay out the context that we’re talking about, in which these stereotypes are operating?

CM: I think a lot of that stuff in the intro was from me. Because when we were finishing edits to the various chapters, and I was reading through them and thinking about, you know – would my students be able to follow these or not? Because we wanted this to be accessible at an undergraduate level. I realised a common theme that went throughout a majority of the chapters were those three things that you mentioned: liberal political discourse that says religion is a private matter, the discourses on secularism and the discourses on New Atheism. These didn’t pop up in every single chapter, but in a majority of ones. So I was like, you know: we should give some background to the consistent themes that were going to pop up as the reader moves through the book.

CC: Yes.

CM: So that’s why I used those in particular: because I thought that they would help the readers understand the chapters.

BS: The only thing that I would add to that – I think you also mention in that section anti-Catholic propaganda, or anti-Catholic Protestant propaganda, about religion being a private matter. Or some of the other clichés: that they have a Protestant bias built into them. And, of course, the colonial context. Those are two other factors that we saw as common themes in the history of the general clichés.

CM: Yes, for sure. Exactly.

CC: Fantastic. So, I’m wary of asking you pull out favourites or anything, because we’ll not have time to get through every cliché. But perhaps you could take us through one or two of them, and just show us some of the analysis in action?

BS: Do you have any ones you want to pull out, Craig?

CM: I’ll wait till after you go.

CC: (Laughs). I like that.

BS: I have a soft spot for Steven Ramey’s piece. Steven Ramey writes about religions being mutually exclusive. And I think Steven’s was the first . . . . The reason I have a soft spot for it: I think it was the first one that came back to us; he was the first to submit it, that is. And I read it and I thought, “This is exactly how I want this book to look.” So, Steven Ramey addresses the cliché that religions are mutually exclusive. And so he introduces the chapter with I think the opening sentence, “What is your religion? Check one box.” And this is something that all undergraduates have seen in some version, right? What is your religion? They get it here. They have the option to check that box when they apply for admission. So I know they’ve at least seen it once, but probably many times before. So he introduces the cliché. In the introduction he talks about how this is not . . . this cliché that religions are mutually exclusive is not just academic navel-gazing, but that there are real political and legal implications. And he addressed some of the legal and political implications. And he continues . . . . In the chapter he talks about places where you encounter this cliché. Where do we see it? We see it in popular culture. We see it in politics. We see it in Law. Of course, he doesn’t mention this, but for example in the work I do in prisons: when you’re an inmate in America you check “Which religion are you?” You have to check one. And in Florida, where I did the bulk of my research, you can only change your religion once every six months. And it dictates where you can move about in the prison, which groups you can attend, which study groups, which religious services. Steven doesn’t address that part, but these are some of the examples. Steven mentions different types of examples like this. You know, this idea that religions are mutually exclusive: it does have political and legal implications. So then he moves in, and he talks about the development, the historical development of the cliché. Talking about, of course, the European context in which the cliché emerged. He talks about the colonial context. I believe he mentions the Protestant Reformation. He talks about places like India, where the distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism is not as rigid as we would imply. Or some other Asian countries where Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism or even Shinto – these alleged, so-called separate religions – the boundaries are just so much more malleable. So, long-story-short, by the time you read Steven’s chapter you get the history of the cliché, you get the political work that it does, and you realise the areas of the world where that cliché becomes quite problematic.

CC: Exactly. And it’s worth noting, here, that the book isn’t attempting to sort-of put something in the place of these clichés. Because the opposite example of religions being mutually exclusive, would be that, I guess, religions are all one and the same – which is another one that is dealt with in the book. You’re not so much asking these authors to say, “This is wrong, and this is right.” You’re rather pointing out that clichés, in and of themselves, never tell the full picture and are always doing ideological work.

BS: That’s true. We highlight that in the introduction, where we make a point of saying that we want to make it clear the work is not to replace these old clichés with new generalisations about religion, or better generalisations about religion. Instead, we’re suggesting to the students, or to the readers, that any cliché about religion or any generalising statement can similarly be interrogated, historicised, etc.

CC: Fantastic. So, Craig, you’ve had a long time to think, there, about which you’re going to pick out!

CM: Well, I decided I can’t pick one. I think – there are so many great chapters in here, in my opinion.

CC: You’ll never hear the end of it if you pick . . . you know, whoever you pick!

CM: Yes. (Laughs). Well, ok

BS: Delete my answer, then!

CM: I really enjoyed Tenzan‘s chapter on learning about how religion leads to tolerance – in part because he did a bunch of research into Ninian Smart’s work that I didn’t have a lot of prior familiarity with. So I actually learned a lot about Ninian Smart by reading his chapter. You know, Ninian Smart reproduces a stereotype that if you learn about religion, or if we teach about religion in public schools or in colleges, then people will be more tolerant and accepting and forgiving of one another. And one of the things that I felt was really important about the book was that I felt that we needed to address how theses stereotypes appear not only in popular culture, but also in scholarly literature. And Tenzan just did a fantastic job of showing, you know, how even a sophisticated scholar like Ninian Smart reproduces some pretty blatant stereotypes. But I really thought he nailed Ninian Smart – that’s probably why I liked it so much.

CC: Yes. When I was reading it I did highlight three or four pages to come back to, the next time I have to teach about Ninian Smart.

CM: I had a chance to teach him in my Intro to Religious Studies class. I taught this book last semester. And literally, the day . . . . So, this was a 9 o’clock in the morning class, and we’d addressed Tenzan’s chapter that education about religion leads to tolerance. And then, literally a couple of hours later, one of my students who was in that class went to one of her other classes where they had a guest lecturer – who showed up to talk about how education about different religions leads to tolerance! So the student came back to me in office hours the next day and said, “You know, Professor, I was arguing with this presenter in my head, and I was pretty sure I won the argument, based on what we had learned in class earlier that day.”

CC: (Laughs).

CM: So it was fun to see . . . . You know, we addressed this cliché and then two hours later, literally, she encounters the cliché in the classroom. It’s fun!

CC: Fantastic. And we’ll talk, hopefully, before we finish about that experiment of using it in the classroom. But you’ve touched on, there, learning about religions leads to tolerance. That sounds like a quite a positive cliché. In one of the chapters, I think it was Matt Sheedy’s on religion being violent, he brought up Karen Armstrong, and others, insisting that proper religion is peaceful, and religion is a peaceful, nice thing. Is there a danger that by critiquing positive clichés we’re doing society a disservice? Or is there such a thing as a positive cliché?

CM: I want to answer this question pointing to what I think is an excellent book on phenomenology of religion, Tim Murphy‘s The Politics of Spirit. And in that book Murphy looks at the history of phenomenology, a lot of which puts a positive spin on religion: that religion is getting in touch with the transcendent; religion is a sort of happiness, etc. Phenomenology of religion tends to think positively about religion. But what Tim Murphy does is show that each one of those phenomenologists uses their rhetorical framework to rank religions and to denigrate some in relationship to others. So that someone like Rudolph Otto says, you know, religion is getting in touch with the transcendent, and that Christianity most beautifully gets us in touch with the transcendent. But, of course, Islam doesn’t do so well, and primitive religion is terrible at it. So I think that even the positive clichés . . . like Karen Armstrong – she also has a ranking system built into her framework. So that the things that she likes she can call authentic religion, and the things that she doesn’t like she can dismiss as inauthentic religion or political religion – or maybe, for her, political religion isn’t even religion. So perhaps it’s ok to bomb the ship in the Middle East, because they’re not good religious people, they’re bad religious people? So I think that even the positive clichés have the potential to be used in that kind of ranking system, where people can favour one and dismiss others. And that can often-times lead to what I consider to be negative effects.

CC: Absolutely. And, indeed, Leslie Dorrough Smith writes in the book about the idea of religion being about transcendence. And I pulled out this quote where she says that cliché can “simultaneously normalise the existence of the supernatural, identify an enemy, justify a political cause, amplify the seriousness of one’s position and unite a group of people under the banner of their own moral worth.” And that’s not even a complete list! So in that . . . . You hear, “Oh religion is just about the transcendent, the supernatural, the ineffable,” and it doesn’t sound harmful. But when you look at how it is deployed, it’s doing real ideological work. So let’s talk about the classroom setting, then. So, as I was saying earlier to you: this is certainly going to be a very useful resource when I’m coming to teaching – not only about Ninian Smart, but any time you casually mention these clichés – it’s going to be fantastic to just pick up the book and find a few examples. So I can see it being a really useful teaching resource, in that respect. But, Brad – you used it in the classroom, then. So how did that go down?

BS: Yes, I used this book in my Intro to Religious Studies class, where we start by reviewing the so-called canon of important or influential Religious Studies scholars, and then we supplement that with people who are omitted from the so-called canon. And then the benefit of that is that the students got a wide survey of theories about religions, approaches to religion, methods, methodologies, etc. And then we ended the semester by reading and discussing Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés. And since it was the first time I taught from the book, I organised it as this: we’d meet three days a week, and I asked groups of students to present for a half hour. And so, you had two or three students each presenting a chapter. And they presented for about twenty minutes, and then we’d open up for Q and A for about ten minutes or so. And then I had some closing comments at the end of the class. And what I like about it is that it allowed me to see what the students took from the book, and what I thought they omitted. And it led to some really good discussions, because the students thought…or the students said, “Yes. Some of the clichés that we’ve identified, I embrace them.” Pretty much the entire class! And so to have someone call them out, and point out the history, and point out the problems with it – it did a lot of work in the class. It helped the students, because it overturned some things that they had just taken for granted. And actually, on the last day of class, we discussed the entire book. And the students tended to agree – obviously they knew that I was one of the editors, so they weren’t going to say too many harsh criticisms; they weren’t going to criticise it too much! But they thought that it was nice to end the semester by addressing these clichés, for the simple fact that it changed the way they were thinking, or that they had thought about religion, you know, for their young adult life.

CC: Fantastic.

BS: Not to over-romanticise it, right?!

CC: Oh, no.

BS: But they did find value in it.

CC: Excellent. I can totally see myself, the next time I’m marking a pile of essays . . . . And you see these clichés coming up all the time. One that’s not in the book is, you know: “Religion has been around since the beginning of time . . .” They’ll sort-of begin with that. But plenty of other ones come up. And I can imagine, immediately, just copying in a URL to the chapter on the library website, for any of these – rather than having to spend my own time deconstructing it! Just say, “Read that chapter, and then come back and write it again.”

BS: That’s a good one! Craig, take note: we should include that in the next edition, if there is one!

CC: Yes! (Laughs). Well, if there’s another one: “Religion is a choice” – you always hear that. People choose to believe, or choose to have a certain religion. So, yes, I’m already filling up the next volume! I guess an obvious question that would come up on the RSP quite often, is: why religion, here? Obviously this is our area of interest. We teach courses on this. But could you do a similar book for say stereotyping sport, or stereotyping gender, or, you know – is religion particularly problematic?

BS: Yes, you could. And I hope other people do!

CC: (Laughs).

BS: So, I have a little more of a substantive response to that question.

All: (Laugh).

BS: I think that, yes, obviously you could write such a book about any subject matter: stereotyping politics, stereotyping gender, stereotyping race. What I think sets Religious Studies apart is the fact that post-structuralism reached Religious Studies twenty years later than it hit all those other fields. And the popularisation of post-structuralist approaches is lagging. I don’t know, apart from Malory Nye‘s intro book, in Russell McCutcheon’s new book, I don’t know of any introductory material in Religious Studies that actually comes from a critical, poststructuralist perspective. And I’m pretty sure that people have been teaching poststructuralism to undergrads since the 80s. So it’s time that we went ahead, and picked up our slack, and tried to catch up by having some undergraduate literature to present. I mean it’s not like post-structuralism is brand new. It’s 50 years old, now! Our introductory textbooks still tend to ignore those types of critical approaches.

CC: Yes. So there are disciplinary reasons why such a book may not be written, necessarily, in other fields. And then also, like it or not, “religion” – this constructed political category – is something that has a lot of power in the modern Western world. To write a book called, I don’t know, “Stereotyping Golf”, or “Stereotyping Stamp Collecting”, whilst it might be interesting . . . . Unfortunately, stereotypes about stamp collecting probably aren’t quite as pervasive, or potentially harmful, as these clichés about “religion”. Every time I say “religion” it’s in scare quotes. But we all know that. We are coming up on about 25 minutes, here. So I’ll be wanting to wrap up, fairly soon. And I’m going to close the interview with Rebekka King‘s close to the book. But I just wondered if there’s anything more on this topic of prevalent stereotypes about religion that you would like to say, or that you’d hoped you were going to say?

CM: I think I would just want to say thanks to Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi for working with me on this project in the ancient past, and thanks to Brad for joining the project when I decided to resurrect it. And also thanks to Lalle Pursglove at Bloomsbury publishing, for showing some interest in the idea and taking me up on the offer.

CC: Absolutely. And it’s brilliant to see the sort of critical religion approach applied in this sense, sort-of applied systematically to a variety of clichés that . . . . When I was reading it myself I was doing a lot of, “Well, yes. Yes, that makes sense.” But there were a lot of things that were thoughts that I’d had, but were never actually put down on paper. And lots of interesting examples, and plenty that I’d never thought of before. And I can see it being really useful, both for students and to point students to – and potentially to do the sort of thing that Brad did, sort-of structuring some teaching around it. So do check out the book, Listeners. It’s called Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés, edited by Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin. It came out in paperback immediately, so it’s nice and . . . It’s not a typical academic book price, so you can get your hands on it quite easily, hopefully. And you can find the full list of all the stereotypes and clichés . . . we’ll put them on the page with this podcast. I just wanted to end with Rebekka King’s chapter on “Religion is bullshit”. And she begins by talking about how even the desire to correct the statement “religion is bullshit” is, in itself, bullshit. And she closes the book with the following words, which I thought would be a nice way to end the episode: “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether or not religion is bullshit. The term is an empty signifier. What matters is your ability to weigh evidence, locate sources and pay critical attention to both your scholarly process and product. You may find yourself mired in shit, but at least you’ll be in good company.” And I hope you’ve been in good company today. Thanks so much Craig and Brad.

CM: Thank you.

BS: Thanks so much for having us. We appreciate it.

Citation Info: Stoddard, Brad, Craig Martin and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 30 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 25 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/stereotyping-religion-critical-approaches-to-pervasive-clichés/

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.

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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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‘Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing

Toys, Rabbits, and Princess Diana – three things that may not seem at all connected. However, when one starts to question the notion of grief, bereavement, and death in the contemporary West, these three are more connected than appears. In this podcast, Breann Fallon interviews Professor Douglas Ezzy of the University of Tasmania on the power of symbols in creating relationships and world-repairing rituals in the context of grief and death. Ezzy discusses the misjudgments of Durkheim in his assessment of Australian Aboriginal symbols as well as the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit (1922), the death of Princess Diana, and his own interaction with symbols in this original take on grief and death. Here, the notions of ‘good’ grief, the use of ritual in creating ‘good’ grief, and the very notion of ‘religion’ bring to light the active role are able to play in dealing with death.

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, stuffed rabbits, Ramen, and more.

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

‘Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing

Podcast with Douglas Ezzy (5 March 2018).

Interviewed by Breanne Fallon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Ezzy- Good Grief- Rituals of World Repairing 1.1

 

Breann Fallon (BF): How do we deal with death and grief in our contemporary contexts? Do we avoid talking about death and grief? Is there a possibility for ‘good’ grief? What role do symbols and rituals play in managing bereavement? To talk about this topic, I have with me today Professor Doug Ezzy of the University of Tasmania. He’s editor of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion and President of the Australian Association for the Study of Religion. His research on contemporary religion includes religious diversity, contemporary paganisms, and Christianity. His books include LGBT Christians, with Bronwyn Fielder, Reinventing Church with Helen and James Collins, Sex Death and Witchcraft: Teenage Witches with Helen Berger, and Qualitative Analysis. Thank you very much for joining us today,

Doulas Ezzy (DE): Thank you. It’s pleasure.

BF: To begin, I was hoping you could give us some context for this discussion about death and grieving in the contemporary world. Do we avoid it? Are we focussing on something else instead? What sort of context do you think we’re sitting in?

DE: I guess, for me, the first move to make is I’m struck by the way in which we’re not talking about the grief or the sadness associated with climate change. When I look forward, over the next few decades, they seem to me to be a time of dramatic loss. We’re already experiencing quite profound losses. You can talk about refugees and migration as a consequence of climate change or, more broadly, about species extinction – the rate of species extinction at the moment is extraordinary. And, you know, also the costs associated with the values of neoliberalism. So there’s a whole bunch of things that will lead to dramatic losses and I don’t see many responses, in our contemporary culture, to those things. It seems strange, or odd, or bizarre. Why are all these sad losses happening and we’re not responding to it? They just get noted, maybe. And then we move on. Like, for me – one quite personal one – I’m a Tasmanian, I was born there, I go back generations. For me, I have a profound sense of a relationship with Tasmania as a place. And there was some seaweed along the East Coast of Tasmania – a really large kelp forest that would cover large areas. And in the last few years they’ve gone. And that’s a product of the warming waters. And for me that’s really sad, because I used to swim in them, we used to fish in them. And they’re gone. So there’s this: “How do I make sense of that? How do I respond to that?” And that very personal experience is reflected in so much broader, cultural experience of loss and change that we’re not responding to. So, while I don’t think we’re a death-denying society, which some people sort-of talk about, I do think that there’s something odd going on with the way that we’re not responding to grief and loss.

BF: Right, so, when you say there’s something going on with the way we’re not responding to it, do you think we’re focussing on something else? Success perhaps?

DE: Yes. That’s right. So, I think that we’re part of a culture that has a sort of a “heroic success” mythology. And I think you see that both in religious culture and in business culture and – to a lesser extent – also in medical ways of understanding the self. So, for example, here in Australia, Hillsong is a really big, popular, Pentecostal Church. And my friend and colleague, Helen Collins, did a content analysis of their music. And what she found was that, in Hillsong, they never sing about grief, loss or sadness. The songs of Hillsong are all about love, and joy, and the Power of God leading you to a successful life. If you compare that with the Australian hymnbook, Jesus is there present with you, walking through the valley of death and through your difficult times. So our religious cultures tend to be ones that celebrate success and overcoming and joy. And they are afraid, or shy away from sadness and death and loss. You see the same sort of thing in economic business narratives where you talk about autobiographies, with Mary Burgan’s study of American bestselling autobiographies. And all the men’s stories in those biographies are stories about success. And there’s not much space for ambiguity or loss, or those sorts of things. And also in the business papers it’s all about success and overcoming and achievement. (5:00) So I think, while there are experiences and stories of loss – we still bury people – all those sorts of things are still there, I don’t think we’ve got very many constructive cultural resources for dealing with the experiences of loss that I see coming, that are already here. There’s something strange going on there – the tension between the two.

BF: There seems to be . . . you’re talking about in those business magazines, in particular, sort of a real focus on the “I” and the individual person. And I was wondering if that sort-of played into this?

DE: Yes. Look, there’s broader story there about how we understand ourselves in the “contemporary West” – In inverted commas – that tends to be very individualistic. And I think that, when we look to indigenous cultures; or the Buddhist concept of co-dependent arising; or social theory, like the interactionist tradition; or hermeneutics that talk about a more relational distributed understanding of the self. And so, I think that moving away from the heroic narrative, is also moving towards a more complex understanding of what it means to be human. So for me, my sociology, I can now call it a relational theory of religion. And there’s a whole bunch of people writing about that at the moment. I particularly like Graham Harvey’s Food, Sex and Strangers, but there’s bunch of other people who are trying to think about religion more as a relational practice and achievement, rather than about “individuals who believe”. So, we’ll get on to thinking about that loss and sadness. But certainly, for me, I think we need to think more in that way, and to think about religion in that way. Because, when we think about religion as a relational practice rather than individuals believing, then I think symbols – including symbols of sadness – play a different role. They’re not about individuals believing in a symbol that represents something – which is the sort of modernist and individualistic understanding of religion – rather, I think, about religious symbols as things that draw people into relationships. And so, for me, the interesting thing about how symbols operate in religious practice, is about what relationships they draw people into, rather than what beliefs or objects they represent.

BF: Yes. So do you have a key example of that that you, maybe, wanted to share with us?

DE: So, I could talk about Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, where he does like the churinga is the key ritual object that aboriginal Australians in the  rite that he talks about in The Elementary forms of Religious Life. The churinga is the symbol that he focusses on. And he says that the Aboriginals are mistaken or misguided because the churinga is fabricated, and therefore not real. And he thinks they’re delusional because they believe in the churinga. I think that completely misunderstands what’s going on there, with the churinga, for the Aboriginal. It’s not that they believe in the churinga. It’s that the churinga is an important part of their ritual, that articulates their relationship to the land. And I think Durkheim misunderstands the role of the churinga in the ritual. He says it really represents the tribe. And it probably does represent the tribe. But it articulates the relationship between the individual and the tribe, and the individual and the land. And when we understand symbols as articulating relationships and ethical responsibilities, they make sense. It doesn’t really make sense to say they’re delusional – they’re belief is wrong – because the symbol articulates relationship, so it’s not true or false in that sort-of modernist way. Rather it’s significant, or not significant, because it articulates relationship and draws people into relationships. So that’s how I think about symbols.

BF: You gave another really interesting example this morning. For those of you who are listening, we’re at the Australian Association and New Zealand Association for the Study of Religion Conference at the University of Notre Dame. And, this morning, you talked about The Velveteen Rabbit. And for me, having read the book, it was just a really fabulous example of what you’re talking about.

DE: So my dear friend, Professor Allan Kellehear, wrote a book called Experiences Near Death. And in that book he devotes a whole chapter to The Velveteen Rabbit, which is a children’s story from 1922, by Margery Williams (10:00). And in the story – for those of you who don’t know it – there’s a young boy who has a toy rabbit that he really loves. And the young boy gets scarlet fever and is ill for a number of weeks, and the adults decide that the toy rabbit is infected with germs and needs to be destroyed. And, in the story, rather than the rabbit being destroyed the rabbit becomes real, and goes and lives with the rabbits at the end of the garden. And it’s a beautiful story, because it’s a story about how a symbol – not really a religious symbol in this case, but a symbol – draws the child into a sense of confidence and love. It’s like the rabbit allows the young boy to feel like he’s still loved. And I think that’s really important and interesting. Rather than: does the rabbit really become real? I think that’s the wrong question to ask. You completely misunderstand what’s going on for the child and the relationship. Are we tricking the child? Deluding them with thought police? That’s to misunderstand. The rabbit articulates the confidence that the child will continue to be loved and cared for. And so, when you see the rabbit in that way, the idea that the rabbit becomes real is a story that draws the child into living more confidently and hopefully in the world. So the symbol operates to draw people into relationships. And I think that’s how symbols operate.

BF: Yes. I think that it’s a really amazing example of what you’re talking about in this idea of the rabbit being part of . . . I think the words you used were “world-repairing”

DE: Yes

BF: Were they the words you used?

DE: Yes. So, I think the idea of world-repairing . . .  I’m still trying to think through exactly what that means. Because, I think symbols’ subjunctive, if you like, which is the concept that Seligman and his associates, in Ritual and Its Consequences – they talk about the way in which religion has a subjunctive aspect to it. And I think symbols can be thought of that way, in the sense that they create an “as if”, and by performing and relating to them in that way they draw you into possible worlds. So, if you think of somebody whose parent dies, for example, the ritual and the symbol of believing in the afterlife, burying them in the earth – or whatever it is – is world-repairing in the sense that it allows you to live with that grief and loss. The grief and loss is still sad and still hurts, but it’s bearable somehow. And I think symbols operate to work with our emotions, with those parts of ourselves that it’s really hard to articulate. Because we’re not all cognitive and rational. We can’t always explain things, and what we believe. There are emotions, there are experiences that are powerful, that shape us in really important ways. And the way we work with them is symbolically, not necessarily cognitively. Yes, I mean you can go to therapy. And for some people that works. Great. But other people, we need symbols that allow us to work with those parts of our lives that we find it hard to articulate. So, the example that I gave in my talk was: I showed a picture of a toy rabbit that was given to my son when he was born. And the toy rabbit, for me . . . . It’s sat there on my bedside table now for abut ten years. My daughter created a little bed in a cardboard box. And the toy rabbit, for me, articulates or symbolizes my relationship with my children. I only really realised this when I wrote this paper. I’d been thinking about this rabbit and thinking, “Oh it’s just a toy, I’ll get rid of it.” But actually, no. It’s important to me. Reflecting on it, it articulates a bunch of things about the way that I relate to my children. So it’s important to me. So I think rabbits and toys, religious symbols, crosses or Buddhas – or whatever they are – they help us. The trick here . . . . There’s an awkward tension between what might sound like a moral project and what is a descriptive project. Because religion is a moral act. And if religion is a moral act, then I’m not necessarily saying “I think you should do . . .” I’m not making moral claims here. What I’m trying to do is describe what I see as a moral practice within religion. And I think religion, and religious symbols, articulate the possible (15:00). And when we don’t do that, that creates certain sorts of problems for us. If we don’t articulate the positive possible worlds, then we get drawn into angry or despairing or frustrating possible worlds.

BF: You gave some sort-of interesting examples to help us think about this, this morning. The one that really struck me – as somebody who didn’t live though it – was Diana’s death. Because I’ve never really understood the fascination with that, because I wasn’t alive. So, for me, that one has always been something I’ve never been able to understand – until you talked about it this morning. And the process of that grieving sort-of started to make a bit more sense to me.

DE: Oh good. Why did it make sense, can I ask?

BF: I think, for me, it was what you said about . . . you know, there’s that image with all the flowers in front of . . . I think it’s Kensington Palace. And just the act of laying the flowers. Those people didn’t really know Diana, but then they’ve gone to do that. And that act of . . . . They never knew her, but the act of laying the flowers would have made them – as you said – deal with that. And there’s kind of sense to it.

DE: Yes, so there’s whole literature on Diana and whether she was a goddess, or a false goddess. And there’s all sorts of critiques of her as a problematic representation of femininity, and that sort of stuff. But for a lot of people, the laying of the flowers, or the remembering of Diana . . . Diana becomes a symbol of their own experience of grief, or their own experience of loss of someone they’ve loved, or the way that they understand themselves as a woman. And so the practice allows themselves to articulate a really important experience of grief. Sometimes it has good outcomes, sometimes it has problematic aspects to it. But I think, for people who study religion, it’s really important to understand symbol as something that operates to articulate relationships and helps people articulate emotions, as well. I think it’s really interesting.

BF: Yes. I think it’s really fascinating, this idea of the ritual. There may be some people out there who kind-of have a problem with focussing so much on actions and not thought. Is there anything you want to say to them?

DE: Look, I don’t want to say beliefs are irrelevant. I think, for some people, beliefs clearly operate in really important and powerful ways – particularly in some forms of Protestant traditions, but also in other religious traditions. But I think the focus on belief often misunderstands a lot of what religious people do. Their religions become important because of the way they fit into our lives – the practices and the symbols and the rituals allow us to find ourselves, to build relationships. And the beliefs are sort-of secondary, or part of what’s going on, but they’re not primary. So I think this idea of religion as believing in something and then “perform”, misunderstands what’s going on.  I think that we find ourselves in relationships, we work out etiquettes and ways of relating to each other, and they’re articulated by symbols. And then we articulate beliefs and their legal frameworks, on top, that justify what we’re doing. So that’s the way that I’d see them.

BF: Yes. And I think you’ve given us so much to think about in terms of how we understand religion, and particularly in a modern context. The thing that really came up, to me, when you were talking this morning, was the idea of sort-of avoiding death by social media. Like keeping a person’s Facebook profile going after they die. This sort-of really complex way that we deal death in a modern context.

DE: Indeed.

BF: We’ve run out of time. So is there anything you wanted to just finish off with?

DE: Um. No. Thank you very much for the opportunity. And it’s been great.

BF: Thank you so much for talking to us today.

Citation Info: Ezzy, Douglas and Breann Fallon. 2018. “’Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 March 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/good-grief-rituals-of-world-repairing/

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.

A student response to “Hinduism”

Edinburgh Masters students respond to Will Sweetman on “Against Invention: A Richer History for ‘Hinduism'”

by Whitney Roth and Lauren Flynn

Read more

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

In this interview Associate Professor Will Sweetman talks to Thomas White about the idea that ‘Hinduism’ and many of the other terms we use to classify religions—including the term religion itself—are modern inventions, emerging out of nineteenth-century inter-cultural contact and European colonialism. Will argues against this critique, and to make his case he draws on historical sources that discuss ‘Hinduism’ both outside of the anglophone experience and long before the nineteenth century. Through identifying alternative, non-anglophone sources of cross-cultural, West-East encounters, where comparative religion is the subject of reflection and description, the concept of ‘Hinduism’ is presented as obtaining a much richer history than the ‘invention thesis’ allows. Such sources include accounts by German Protestant missionaries and those by Jesuits writing in Portuguese, as well as native, expository works by self-reporting Indian religious thinkers. Will argues that ‘Hinduism’ as a concept is older, broader, and indeed more internal to India, than is currently assumed, but this is frequently missed through an overemphasis on relatively late sources almost exclusively in English. The interview goes on to discuss the implications of this research – and endeavours similar to it – for the study of religion in general. The interview closes with a brief chat about Otago’s hosting of the IAHR Congress in 2020.

*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.*

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

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

Podcast with Will Sweetman (19 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Sweetman_-_Against_Invention_-_A_richer_history_for__Hinduism__1.1

 

Thomas White (TW): Kiaora! And a warm welcome from the Otago University recording studios here in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, where I’m joined today by our very own Associate Professor, Will Sweetman. Professor Sweetman is an historian of religion, whose research focuses on the interactions between the religions of Asia and the West in the modern period, and has published three books and several academic articles that explore the historical and the theoretical aspects of the study of religion, with a theoretical focus on South Indian traditions. Will, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview and welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Will Sweetman (WS): My pleasure, thank you.

TW: Now, the topic I’m hoping to discuss today with you is what you described to me as a defence of the “ism” – with the particular ism in question being Hinduism. But perhaps, to ease our way in, we maybe should start at the beginning, or at least your academic beginning, as it were. So, Will, could you please describe your early training in the study of the history of religion and how this has shaped the trajectory of your research career?

WS: Sure. So it was very much a happy accident. I did my undergraduate degree at Lancaster, which is probably well-known to the listeners of this podcast, but it wasn’t to me. I had chosen to go to Lancaster to study Maths and Philosophy, and Religious Studies was . . . you were required to study a third subject in your first year. And for me, it was very much a toss-up between Religious Studies and Psychology. But the queues for Psychology were much longer!

TW: (Laughs)

WS: So I decided to choose Religious Studies, and really never looked back. So I switched to Philosophy and Religious Studies for the remainder of my degree. But what that meant was my understanding of the academic study of religion was shaped by that Lancaster tradition – which was open to all traditions and emphasised, really, none. And even though much of the work I did was, in fact, on the Christian tradition, because of my interest in Philosophy, and because there were papers in the Lancaster Religious Studies department that were focussed on . . . the paper was called: “Modern Religious and Atheistic Thought.” And it was focussed, really, on 18th century and after philosophical thinking about religion. My work was very much focussed on Western Christian thinkers and thought, coming out of that tradition. But I didn’t privilege that, in a way. Then when I went on, my initial aim was to do more philosophy of religion. And I went to Cambridge to do an MPhil in Philosophy of Religion and very quickly discovered that that wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. But partly because although Cambridge had a Religious Studies . . . the faculty of Divinity was teaching Theology and Religious studies, the assumptions were so different. And really, it was that jarring discovery that the Lancaster way was not the only way – because Lancaster really was my only experience of what it was to treat region in the academy. But at Cambridge it was very different, and that prompted in me the question: how did these two such different traditions emerge? And really, that led me to the 18th century and looking at foundational works, like Hume‘s Natural History of Religion – but how this naturalistic approach, that privileges no religious tradition, emerged. That in turn then led me to looking at the religions that were being studied – or the non-Christian or non-Western traditions that were being studied or discovered in Europe at that time. And because, I suppose, of the colonial expansion going on in India it was particularly Hinduism that was being discovered and discussed at that time. Which then led me to my doctoral work on the study of Hinduism and the conceptualisation of Hinduism from the 17th through to the 18th century. Originally, I intended to include the 19th century but . . .

TW: It got a bit too much?

WS: Yes – as many PhD students discover.

TW: Ok, great. It seem that you’ve got quite a personal narrative feeding into your research interests. In terms of the actual methods of the historical study of religion, particularly inter-religious contact, what would you say are the best habits of analysis, or the important things to watch out for when you’re engaging in such research?

WS: So for me, by temperament I think, as much as anything else – because I’m not really trained as a Historian, although that’s how I would describe myself – attention to the sources is absolutely paramount (5:00). And that means – particularly in the context of what we’re talking about, where most of my work is set, that is, the period of European expansion overseas, encounter with and study of Non-Western cultures – well, two things: first of all the European sources, but particularly, also, the sources on the other side. Now that’s always harder, I think, in . . . . There may be a few exceptions in some periods or highly literate cultures but certainly it’s much harder, generally, to recover the voice from the non-European side of the encounter. Harder but, I would say, not impossible. There are ways of doing it and it’s important, even though it’s difficult, not to short-cut that process. So there is a tendency, I think, even in the works of some scholars whose work otherwise I would admire . . . . I’m thinking here, particularly, of Urs Apps’ The Birth of Orientalism which is wonderful book, but he has a tendency to dismiss the sources that are described by Western scholars as their own inventions, to say that they simply made up the source: it doesn’t exist. Now that’s a possibility, but before you can say the source doesn’t exist, you have to do your damnedest to find out whether it does! And there is a particular example in my own work. This is an early 18th century Protestant German missionary who assembled a library of Tamil Sources, which he documented, he catalogued quite carefully, which is unusual for that period. More often, other similar writers – missionaries and others – would simply have done general term like: “in their books”. But he identifies the texts, and some of them are very well-known and it’s not difficult to identify them. But there’s one particular text which he said is the “most important of all Hindu texts”. It clearly isn’t. Particularly because there is no other reference to this text anywhere, so far as I can discover. I had the good fortune when I came to Otago to be given some research money that was pretty much . . . I didn’t have to compete very hard for it. I simply had to propose a project. So I proposed a project I thought nobody else would ever fund, which was a wild goose chase to go looking for this text.

TW: Yes.

WS: And courtesy of a brilliant research assistant, Ilakkuvan, who worked with me – a young Tamil Scholar. It took him about ten or twelve months going through archives very diligently and he found the source. So it is possible to recover the source. And it’s not the most important text. It was wrongly evaluated. But it was the most important text for this particular missionary. And by reading this source we can see what he’s doing with it, and how that’s shaping his own account of Hinduism. Which is, undoubtedly, shaped by his Protestant, Christian presupposition.

TW: So this is the missionary, Bartholomew?

WS: Ziegenbalg. Sorry. So it’s still . . . It is fed through his Christian presuppositions, but it isn’t sheer invention. He is following a text. And what’s interesting about this text is that it’s a basically monotheistic text. So when Ziegenbalg describes Hindus as monotheist this is not only a relic of Christian assumptions about the natural light of reason and a universal revelation, but the result of his close reading of a text – so we can now follow him, and read that text, and discover. . . . So that’s what I would say is the key to this: attention to those sources. On the European side of the encounter, I would also . . . I regularly bemoan the fact that because the sources are thickest in the 19th century, and because the vast majority of people who work – particularly Indian scholars, but not only – are Anglophone: that’s all they read, is English sources. And it’s really important, I think, to look at sources in other European languages. And there are, of course, people looking at those languages. I’ve recently started using Portuguese sources which are the most amazing mine of material. And they have been read, but largely they’ve been read by Portuguese scholars who tend to publish in Portuguese. Not exclusively, there are exceptions to that. So I would say that going beyond the Anglophone sources – or rather, the failure to go beyond the Anglophone sources is a particular problem in much of the historiography of colonial encounters of religion (10:00). Again, there are exceptions, but as a generalisation.

TW: So the importance of linguistic analysis, and making sure that you’re covering all the different cultural, colonial experiences of the European adventure. Perhaps relating to this, at the start of your book: Mapping Religion, Hinduism and the Study of Indian Religions 1600-1776, published in 2003, you equated the dominant history of religion in India as a “Just So Story”. What did you mean by this?

WS: So a “Just So Story”, as I’m sure you know, is Kipling’s stories of “How the Leopard got his Spots”, and so on. And I think there are a couple of accounts of how many of the terms that we are familiar with in the study of religion, how those terms came to be used. So, in the case of Hinduism, there’s a popular account that this was a matter of divide and rule: that the British, by dividing Muslims from Hindus were able to dominate both – set them against each other. Or there’s another story, which I first heard from one of my teachers at Lancaster, which was that the missionaries needed an opponent. They were used to systematic debates, and therefore they constructed an opponent with whom they could have a debate. Now what’s “Just So” about these stories is that though it could have happened like that, that may be how it happened, there’s no evidence that it did. Or, I would say that obviously there’s a grain of truth in both of those stories, but the real story is much more complicated, and involves, again, patient attention to the sources. So again, in that book, what I trace is how the emergence of the concept of Hinduism as a single pan-Indian religion, distinct from Buddhism and Jainism in particular, emerges – at least in part – from experience of Europeans in India and attention to texts. So the question of the spread of Hinduism as a religion throughout India, but confined to India – and therefore different from similar-looking or outwardly-similar religious traditions elsewhere in Asia – partly arose from Europeans observing phenomena like pan-Indian pilgrimage. There are pilgrims from the North of India coming to the major pilgrimage sites in the South. Or that some of the  . . . . For example, the mythology of Krishna: much of it is set in North India, but there were Europeans reading the mythology of Krishna in South India, in South Indian texts, in Tamil Sources, which describe Krishna in places in North India. So it was on the basis of this that Europeans began to connect phenomena of Hinduism in different parts of India. And then, the opposite part of the question is: what do you exclude? And again it was from looking at Indian sources that Europeans decided that Buddhism and Jainism were regarded as more-or-less beyond the pale. And again, if you look at South Indian religious sources, the Tamil texts are very clear. There’s one Tamil author who devotes one verse in each of his poems to denouncing the “filthy Jains”, and the “heretic Buddhists”. And it was through attention to these sources that Europeans worked out that there was a dividing line here, somewhere. There may well have been  . . . And no doubt this idea was consolidated by the practice of censuses by the British. And there was a degree of the other Just So Story that I mentioned, of the missionaries seeking an opponent: so, using Indian sources saying, “Not all Indians agree with us. The Buddhists disagree with you. They say the Veda is idol worship.” So there’s a grain of truth in those stories. But the full story is more interesting, I think. And it also shows a greater degree of Indian agency in the production of these classifications – or if not directly “agency”, at least “input”.

TW: So, the argument that Hinduism is actually a far more coherent, or far more collected systems of rituals, beliefs and institutions than perhaps the “Hinduisms narrative” presents. How do these arguments sit, perhaps, within more current debate about religion and the public space in India? Is there a way that this kind of scholarship can speak to contemporary issues, perhaps regarding the BJP or Hindutva or other current religious public sphere issues taking place in India at present?(15:00)

WS: It’s an interesting question. And there is a danger, I think, that arguing for a greater coherence in Hinduism will give succour to those who argue that Hinduism is the Indian religion and there should be no other. But there’s also a danger – and you can see this in the works of some modern Hindutva ideologues or thinkers, who present the critique of the idea of Hinduism as an attack on Hinduism. So, “You’re trying to tell us that our religion doesn’t exist.” So in a way, those who – not for that reason of course – but who have attempted to deconstruct the idea of Hinduism are also able to, or are in danger of giving succour to those who want to say, “See. The West is out to destroy you. Hinduism we need to unify and rise up!” So the dangers are. . . . So I guess, in the end, you can’t control how your ideas are going to be used. Some unusual people have cited my work in ways that don’t or were never part of my intention. But that’s . . . you can’t control that. You have to go where the sources lead you. And it’s not an argument, I think, to say, “We shouldn’t say this because it might be used in a way that’s not to our liking.”

TW: Yes. I’m finding similar questions and challenges in relation to my research in Fiji, in terms of: where do these ideas feed into other political agendas? But I think you’re right. You just have to go where the sources take you. Now, as I understand it, you’ve been collecting case studies regarding the conceptualisation of religion, or world religion-type concepts in pre-colonial and colonial encounters outside of India. Can you tell us a little about this?

WS: Yes, so this isn’t really something that I’ve done consciously. But I guess, over the last ten years or so, I have done little more than pay attention to where I have seen arguments similar to my own being made in the case of other traditions. And, for a while now, I’ve thought that it would be interesting to do some kind of survey or compilation of the kinds of evidence that’s being presented, and look at what that is telling us about – or what that suggests about – this broader critique of the formation of the “isms”. So I’ll be giving a paper at the Stephen Berkvitz has recently published an article challenging this idea that you find in the work of people like Philip Almond and others, that Buddhism was a 19th  century invention based on the study of text. And he’s showing that no, very clearly in the 16th and 17th century Portuguese, mostly Jesuits were communicating with each other across Asia, or travelling in some cases. So Loís Fróis, a 16th century Jesuit, spent a lot of time in India and then went to Japan. And he understood the connections between India and Japan, and the trajectory of Buddhism from one to the other (20:00). From the other perspective, or the other direction, Eva Pascal has recently written about Franciscan friars coming from the Philippines into Thailand or Siam and engaging with Buddhism. And again, like Fróis, who described Buddhism as a religion, making the same analogy. So that’s one set of case studies. There’s another which is looking, perhaps, more at indigenous understandings of this. So this would be the work, I’m think here of Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst who’s looked at Islamic South Asian Sources, which not only classify religions in a way that’s not dissimilar to the supposedly modern Western way in which we classify religions, but she’s also shown that the very scholars in the 19th century to whom this classification is usually attributed were influenced by . . . they were reading these sources. So Abu’l-Fazl– a Muslim intellectual, a Mughal intellectual, who describes the religions of India, was being studied intently by British scholars in the middle of the 19th century. And then finally – and again you could see that, the Mughal Empire, as a form of cross-cultural encounter, even though it’s an Empire. But there are even, on a deeper level, indigenous accounts. And here I’m thinking mostly of the work of Andrew Nicholson and his book, Unifying Hinduism. So he looks at pre-modern doxographies, from as early as the 6th Century, in India, which are concerned with classifying the different schools of thought that there are. And so these are not all Hindu, there are Buddhist and Jain texts and, perhaps, particularly Buddhist and Jain sources were interesting in this. But what’s very interesting is that he shows that toward the slightly later texts, but still very much pre-modern, there is a kind of coalescing of an idea of an āstika – so, texts that affirm the Vedas: a unification of . . . it’s not quite what we might call Hinduism,  but it’s not a million miles from it either. So, hence the title of his book is Unifying Hinduism. And again, this is not a reaction to either Muslim or Western incursions or colonial structures, it’s something coming from within the tradition and within different schools of thought within the Indian tradition. So, I think, there are some other older works as well, Michael Pye’s work on Tominaga Nakamoto – again pre-European influence – a Japanese intellectual discussing the three religions, san jiao, in China: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism . And again, coming up with a generic concept that’s not unlike the concept of religion which is supposedly invented, like everything else, in the 19th century.

TW: OK, Well, the argument seems to be that the use of the term religion is older, broader, transects outsider/insider distinctions. Does that mean that scholars of religion are safe? Can we rest easy? Are we no longer at risk from the conceptual tools of our analysis?

WS: I think the approach that I would take to this is to say that it’s better the devil you know. So the work that’s been done in deconstructing historicising the concept of religion is by no means valueless. I’m not saying we should discard that, and go back to a happy sense that this is a natural kind and it emerges from the world unproblematically. But I think the proposals from some scholars that we should replace religion with some other term – I mean, you go all the way back to Cantwell Smith and, I think, “cumulative traditions”, or Timothy Fitzgerald has made various proposals of things that we might . . . . The problem is that those terms are no less the result of our attempts to construct reality in accordance with our presuppositions. So the advantage, to my mind, of terms like religion and Hinduism is that we are now – because of the work of these scholars who’ve deconstructed them – much more keenly aware of their limitations. And I don’t think that they are applicable in every circumstance. So, I think there are scholars who’ve done ethnographic work on sites in India, where you will have people coming to a particular site which is, or might formerly have been described as Hindu, and what they’re showing is this label is very problematic (25:00). And the kinds of people who are coming to those sites aren’t, maybe, clearly identified, or can be labelled as Hindu, or Muslim, or Christian in some cases. And I would agree, in that context, the label Hinduism is perhaps not useful. But that doesn’t mean there’s no context in which it is useful. So it’s always a matter of what the context is, what the purpose is for us. I think one of the things that strikes me as a little bit odd, is – and again this is something I’ve kept track of over the years – is the number of times you will hear a speaker, or at the beginning of a book somebody will deconstruct the term Hinduism. And having cleared their throat and covered their bases with this term will then go on to use the term with exactly the same referent as the supposedly pre-critical scholars who used this. So, Donald Lopez had a nice joke about this. He said you could spot scholars of Hinduism by their over-developed pectoral muscles, from continually having to make “scare quotes” in the air . . .

TW: (Laughs)

WS: …every time they used the word Hinduism! But the point is, that they continue to use the word Hinduism and the scare quotes were there. So, I think we can and we should continue to use the term, and the danger of replacing it, or of replacing religion with some other term– because those terms haven’t been so thoroughly deconstructed – is we would be tempted to think of them as more closely corresponding to some actual reality and less constructed, in a way in which they aren’t really.

TW: Yes. That’s also a lot of heavy lifting to go and create these new terms, and try to describe how they can kind of convey meanings that aren’t subject to the same problems as previously.

WS: I think the other dimension here is that precisely because of their history, these terms have a purchase beyond the academy that we can’t ignore. And so this is sometimes described as, you know, people in Religious Studies sawing off the branch on which they sit. Now, if it were the case that there was a compelling argument for discarding the term and disbanding departments of the study of religion, our own financial self-interest wouldn’t be a reason to retain the term. But there are other reasons, as I’ve tried to explain, why I think we should. And given that, if we are to speak to the public sphere, we need to do so in ways that are intelligible. And talking about cumulative traditions or hierarchical structures simply doesn’t cut it.

TW: It doesn’t communicate.

WS: And we can go on to complicate what those terms mean, but we would be ill-advised, I think, to abandon them from that point of view, as well.

TW: Yes. I agree. I do agree. OK. Last question, Will. We’ve been talking about the historical study of religion and its importance to the broader discipline of Religious Studies and its methodologies. Now in 2020 the International Association for the History of Religion will host its next World Congress here in Dunedin. Now, as head of department for Religion and Theology at Otago, I’d imagine you’ve already started to think through what you hope this might look like, or what ambitions you might have for the event. Can you share some early thoughts that you might have on this, please?

WS: Sure. I think there’s a lot of reasons for doing this. Some of my colleagues think I’m mad for even contemplating it! But I think there’s a lot of benefits that I see in this. I mean, one of the primary aims is to share this wonderful part of the world with scholars from all over the world, and we hope many will come. And I think we should be honest about the fact that that’s a reason why many people will come! Because New Zealand is a wonderful place and it will be great to share it. But it’s also, for me, the other side of that is Religious Studies in New Zealand, as it is in many parts of the world, is a relatively small, and in some cases embattled discipline. We have lost departments of Religious Studies even in the short time that I’ve been in New Zealand. And those that do exist are small, for the most part, and not exactly directly threatened, but not as secure as they’d like to be. So I hope that hosting an event of this sort will help in a host of ways to consolidate the discipline here (30:00): to create visibility both internationally – for work that’s been done in New Zealand – but also within New Zealand, to bring to the attention of our academic colleagues and people more broadly, also, what the academic study of religion is. That’s a constant battle. New Zealand is a country where religion is – I would compare it often . . . . For many people what your religion is, or religion at all is about as much interest as whether you prefer strawberry or chocolate ice-cream. There’s a kind of apathy toward religion. Not always, but. . . . And I think, demonstrating the importance of what we do by bringing the best scholars from around the world to talk about what they’re doing, and why the study of religion is important will be important.  And also it will give our graduate students . . .  . We’re a remote location, we don’t get an opportunity to interact with these people. So it will be a once in a lifetime opportunity, I think, for younger scholars in New Zealand to really see the scope of what’s going on overseas and to interact personally with those people. There’s something irreplaceable about that opportunity which, I think, young scholars in New Zealand don’t have as much as scholars in other parts of the world.

TW: Thank you, Will. Well, on that rather optimistic and forward-looking note I think we’ll draw this interview to a close. But thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and expertise with us.

WS: Thank you. And we look forward to seeing you all in 2020!

TW: Indeed! Thank you.

Citation Info: Sweetman, Will and Thomas White. 2018. “Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/against-invention-a richer-history-for-hinduism/

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.

Blended/ing Religion

A Response to “African American Spiritual Churches”

by Justine Bakker

Read more

African American Spiritual Churches

Dr. Guillory teaches religion at the University of Rochester, but her first love is natural science. After receiving a B.A. in Chemistry, she taught high school science for several years. She draws inspiration from the sciences in her current research as a religion scholar. In her investigations of African American Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, Louisiana, Dr. Guillory describes a “dynamical self,” a fluid state of identity shifting between the individual and the collective. Her knowledge of chemistry directly influenced this theory.

The African American Spiritual Churches are combinatory religious sites, which blend Protestant, Catholic, Spiritualist, Haitian Voodoo, and Benin’s traditional Vodun practices. Female leadership and business management has been essential in the history of these churches. Dr. Guillory’s upcoming book draws on years of archival research, ethnographic observation, and oral history interviews to tell the story of these churches from 1920 to the present day. Hurricane Katrina looms large in this story. Most of the physical churches were destroyed in the flooding — or the former inhabitants were not allowed to return as the government began eminent domain proceedings. Yet this religious community endures. Guillory is one of the first scholars to work with the Spiritual Churches, whose affairs remain largely private. Our interview concludes with a discussion of anthropological ethics and practice — how to earn the trust of a community, and how to tell someone else’s story without “stealing” that story.

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, comic books, Haitian rum, and more.

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

African American Spiritual Churches

Podcast with Margarita Simon Guillory (29 January 2018).

Interviewed by Dan Gorman

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Guillory_-_African_American_Spiritual_Churches_1.1

 

Dan Gorman (DG): Professor Margarita Guillory, thank you for joining us today.

Margarita Guillory (MG): No problem. Thank you for inviting me.

DG: And today we’re going to be talking about your new book on African American Spiritual Churches in New Orleans. Although, I’ve been reading your book proposal. I understand the final title has changed.

MG: Yes, instead of More Than Conjurers being the primary title, it’s now the secondary title. So it’s Spiritual and Social Transformation in African American Spiritual Churches: More than Conjurers.

DG: So, perhaps the reverse order of what you wanted originally?

MG: Yes! But for marketing purposes, More than Conjurers took second place. They really believe that they can market the book better with the Spiritual Churches being in the primary title.

DG: Now, just so people have some brief background – is this what you wrote your dissertation about?

MG: My dissertation was actually based upon ethnographic research pulled from spiritual churches in New Orleans. However, the dissertation was a little bit more theoretical, in that it focussed on the ways in which spiritualists in New Orleans utilise rituals and altars – both personal and public altars – to articulate a complex form of subjectivity that I sort of coined in the dissertation, called the “dynamical self”. So the dissertation was little bit more theoretical. I sort-of was able to use the dissertation to write a peer review article and two edited volume essays. However, it was a little narrow for the publisher’s taste. So I sort-of had to rework . . . . I wrote an entire new book, basically!

DG: I see. So when you mention the idea of the dynamical self, it brings to mind the grandiose theatrical aspect of religious worship. I mean, you could say there’s a dynamic self in many religions. But what’s unique about the way that people express their religious beliefs in these churches?

MG: I would say that the way in which I saw the “dynamic” is this sort of fluidity. Within the dissertation I sort of expand upon this fluid conception of the dynamic – and it’s called the dynamical self. But the dynamical self is this identity form that is sort-of the simultaneous expression of both a public collective identity, based upon association with shared qualities with the grou, but it’s also the construction of a personal identity form that’s based upon one’s uniqueness. And this is a theory that . . . . I didn’t go into these communities with this theory. This theory was really formulated based upon the data that I collected from the communities. So it’s totally the reverse. I went in with no sort-of expectation of what I would actually find. I just thought the communities were really, really interesting. And the data yielded the theory.

DG: So, a data-derived argument, rather than a data-driven argument.

MG: Exactly, exactly.

DG: Now, you came into Religious Studies . . . it’s sort of a second career in some ways. You were a high school science teacher, originally. So, how did your first background in natural science . . . how did that inform how you approached the study of religion?

MG: That’s a great question. And it’s a question that I’m asked quite frequently when people find out that I have a Bachelors in Chemistry. I have a profound love of the physical sciences, specifically Chemistry. You know, Chemistry has allowed me to . . . it has armed me and equipped me with a particular interpretive lens. The dynamical self, even though it’s derived upon the data that I retrieved from these Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, it’s really based upon this equilibrium state that sort-of occurs when you look at certain chemical reactions. So the theory – while based on the data that I retrieved from these churches – the way that I sort of nuanced it, was based upon chemical formulations of just basic equations, something that you’d learn in general Chemistry. So science just gives me a unique lens to view religion. Does that answer your question?

DG: I think so. I think I’m curious to know, do you identify as a Humanist or do you identify as a Social Scientist?

MG: Oh. I don’t like to be placed in a box! I think I am a unique scholar in that way, that I still sort-of follow some of the general trends that are going on in Chemistry, I have a great relationship with a couple of Chemists, even on our campus (5:00). I do use sociological and anthropological approaches to the study of religion. And I do consider myself a Humanist. So in that way, I think I’m sort of like a quilt. Which can be problematic for some people, but it works for me. This is why I can have these really collaborative interdisciplinary projects with people across disciplines and not feel uncomfortable. Because I feel like a piece of me as a scholar is vetted in these multiple disciples.

DG: Which brings me back to your book, when the publisher releases it in a few weeks, what . . . not genre – we know it’s a non-fiction monograph – but, the little stamp on the top cover that says what genre it is and what topic: how is it being sold? Is it history? Is it religion?

MG: Yes. Very good question. It has multiple genres. Because the book I wrote, like I said: a lot of the data that I collected while doing research for the dissertation will be used, but the approach is different. It’s different than the dissertation. The book basically examines the socio-political activities and the spiritual-therapeutic elements that are found in the Spiritual Churches in a really, in a coalescing sort of way. And so, in that way, because the book is political – looking at the political and social activism of these churches – and because it looks at the therapeutic function of these churches, the sort-of tag lines will be history – because I start with the first church in the 1920s and by the end of the book, the chapter on Post Katrina Spiritual Churches – so it’s historical but it’s also being publicised as religion in society. So you see that sort-of band where the sociology is also coming in. So they have marketed it in a variety of fields. Interestingly, they’ve even promoted it in what we would call like “Africana Religions”, So if you do a google search with my name under Voodoo or Hoodoo, my book will actually pop up. So they really cast a wide net when publicising the book.

DG: So I suppose the next question is, what is a Spiritual Church? Aren’t all churches spiritual?

MG: That’s a great question. African American Spiritual Churches that I research are a blended religious group. And I like that term “blended”. And what they’ve done, they have conjoined all of these various elements from institutionalised religions – and I’ll talk about them in just a moment – and they’ve created their own, unique religion. Specifically, the Spiritual Churches in New Orleans have conjoined Protestant traditions with a focus on Pentecostalism; they draw from their worship style. Catholicism is a major bedrock in spiritual churches in New Orleans, just because Catholicism is still the predominant religion that’s practised in New Orleans, in particular, and Louisiana, in general. They also incorporate American Spiritualism: the ability to communicate with the dead, that was birthed in Western New York, in Hydesville; and they also sort of conjoin and mix into their faith Hoodoo and Voodoo. And this notion of Voodoo is derived directly from Haitian Vodou. So when you look at sort of their belief system, and their ritual practices, you can see a little of all of these religions.

DG: So when we talk about Hoodoo – this was sort of an older white term used to describe it in some cases. I’m thinking of sort-of 1920s, white attempts to understand black religion. But Voodoo itself is sort of a combinative thing. You’ve got influences of Islam, Native American and Caribbean religions, Christianity. And, of course, there’s a longstanding debate in the study of African American religions: are these religions more – quote unquote – “African” or are they more “American”? Do you have any thoughts on that?

MG: Well I would say, if we specifically look at the system of Voodoo and I mean V-o-o-d-o-o, I would totally say that that is an American religion (10:00). It is a blended religion that is primarily based – even though you have these other elements like Christianity – it’s primarily based upon Haitian Vodou, V-o-d-o-u, that Haitian immigrants who emigrated very early to New Orleans after the Haitian Revolution. A large population of Haitians immigrated to New Orleans and they took with them the religion. So, even though you have these other elements in Louisianan voodoo, the backbone of that religion is Haitian Vodou. And, of course, we know that Haitian Vodou -o-u- was derived from this combination of Catholicism but it comes directly from Benin.

DG: In West Africa?

MG: Exactly: Vodun. So, in that way, once the Vodou sort-of lands in New Orleans, in the South East, yes, it becomes this syncretic – and that’s not the term I like to use – but this sort-of blended type of religious tradition.

DG: So let’s walk through the genealogy from the top, then, beginning in Benin in West Africa. So this would be what kind of religion there? Are we talking about Islam or are we talking about traditional spiritual beliefs?

MG: So, Benin Vodun is an indigenous religion. It is a combination of – and that word might be seen as maybe a little charged – but it is sort-of a combination of the traditional religions that are being practised in Benin. But the scholarly term for it becomes Vodun.

DG: I see. So, then when slaves were brought to Haiti those indigenous religions are brought there. And then they encounter Spanish and French Catholicism, depending which side of the island they’re on.

MG: Exactly, yes.

DG: And then that finally goes to America, where you have the collisions that you’re describing.

MG: Right. Particularly in New Orleans.

DG: So how big a population are we talking about?

MG: That’s hard for me to say, like, quantitatively.

DG: Hundreds? Thousands?

MG: That’s hard for me to say quantitatively, off the cuff. But I could definitely have these sort of conversations, qualitatively. But that’s sort-of tough to derive. We can sort-of search and crunch the numbers but those numbers would be hard to derive.

DG: So let’s talk about some of the churches you studied, then. Were they packed to the gills on a Sunday?

MG: What’s interesting: pre –Katrina, the churches were packed. You had fifty-plus churches. Post-Katrina, those fifty-plus churches dwindled down to two churches in New Orleans.

DG: Is that because of population displacement?

MG: That’s part of the problem. So, part of the problem would be population displacement. And seventy percent of the fifty-plus churches that were operating in New Orleans pre-Katrina were located in the 9th Ward.

DG: (Whistles)

MG: So they were destroyed. And the last chapter of my book sort-of talks about that. The ways in which not only were some of them structurally destroyed but, because of some very difficult economical and political and structural changes that occurred in post-Katrina New Orleans, the lands of these churches – even if they were in a position where they could have restored the church – they were taken, and they were converted to green spaces.

DG: So was that eminent domain?

MG: Eminent domain. Many of the churches – I calculate about forty percent of the churches that were located in post-Katrina 9th Ward – were sort-of taken back by the City, via eminent domain.

DG: I see.

MG: So, there are multiple factors sort-of feeding into why these churches have dwindled down to two.

DG: Has gentrification also occurred?

MG: In the higher elevated levels of 9th Ward, gentrification is now occurring. They sort-of called this area Holy Cross. They built a school, they have a private developer that’s coming in. And I’m saying higher elevation, but it’s still below sea level! But it’s higher than the dominant part of the 9th Ward. It’s being gentrified.

DG: So they’re pushing out the poorer, mostly African American . . .

MG: Well they never let them back in, really. Because they never built . . . . In the 9th Ward, for people who did choose to come back they had no businesses, no stores. I think within the last two years they might have a health clinic. So the infrastructure wasn’t rebuilt for people to come back (15:00). So we can argue, was this intentional? Was this: “We’re going to let the 9th Ward return to nature so it can sort-of serve as the buffer, or the retention land, for other parts of New Orleans? So they won’t flood if we have another major storm, and if we have the breaching of the levees?” So it becomes very . . . and I try to unpack that in chapter five of my book. The ways in which the changing landscape around Spiritual Churches . . . . If you look at the changing landscape of spiritual churches it tells us a lot about other landscapes and shifting landscapes in New Orleans: demographic landscapes, social landscapes, economic landscapes, political landscapes. If you just focus on the Spiritual Churches we can see all of these sorts of dynamics that are going on, post-Katrina.

DG: So I’m assuming that the flood water has destroyed substantial amounts of material culture: archives . . .

MG: Oh, definitely.

DG: So what’s left? I mean, were you working in people’s attics, were you working in libraries?

MG: So no, actually, what was interesting is: when I first went to New Orleans it was in, maybe 2010, and many of the churches were still standing. They were in horrible condition, but they were still filled with all the material culture – covered in all sorts of mould and everything else. And of course I was in those places. So, some of the spiritual leaders who were really respected leaders in the city: Bishop Jackson, Bishop Stokes. He came from Detroit,to give me a tour. So before they began to tear these structures down . . . . Like, these structures are no longer standing in 2017 but I had the fortune to go while they were still there. Not only was I able to see what was in the inside, I took photos of the inside, I took photos of the outside. I do plan on publishing a book of photos of the before and after, so people can actually see what is happening in New Orleans, still today.

DG: But Spiritualists tend to be quite private. How did you gain this access? And this is something I’ve talked about in my past interviews: Douglas Brooks studying . . . . The only way to study some Hindu rituals is to gain the trust and become part of the community. Or Candy Gunther-Brown, who I spoke to – watching Evangelical yoga, but not participating. How did you get access to these communities?

MG: Well actually, one of the first scholars to publish a comprehensive work on Spiritual churches of New Orleans is Claude Jacobs. He’s now retired. He was at the University of Michigan. Him and my adviser at the time, Dr Anthony Pinn who’s also done some work on Spiritual Churches, they basically . . . . He went to Dr Jacobs and told him, “I have a student who’s interested in the Spiritual Churches.” And I was introduced to Archbishop William Stokes who has now passed on – as the Spiritualists say – to the other side. And it was through him. Because he had been a part of the Spiritual Churches. So he came to Houston – we flew him to Houston – and he and I basically spent two weeks together in Houston, just getting to know one another. I took him to different archives, I interviewed him. And so, basically, it was through him. But we had to sort-of . . . . He had to decide, in those two weeks, whether he was going to trust me, and actually introduce me and open the door or not. So, I guess, at the end of the two weeks – considering I’d published . . . like eighty percent of my scholarships is on Spiritual Churches – I must have gained his trust. Because he was coming from Detroit, he said he would be really excited about introducing me to people in New Orleans. So I won a Ford Dissertation Fellowship and I was able to pay for his travel and we spent a summer – this is how I actually first thought of it – we spent a summer in New Orleans together. And it was remarkable.

DG: Generating trust. . .

MG: Generating trust, and because

DG: . . . that you’re not stealing their stories.

MG: Exactly. And because he did not . . . . Because he had been a part of the Spiritual Churches, by that time over five decades, people trusted him. And they knew that he wouldn’t just bring, you know, anyone into the community that wasn’t going to sort-of take their religion and do something with it, in a really fundamental positive way (20:00).

DG: That’s the line between being curious and then between past scholars, who basically were stealing.

MG: Exactly. And I invested a lot of time. So this was like the groundwork. I wasn’t even really collecting data at this point. I was just building relationships. So, you asked me how did I get in – because they are very secretive. This is why there hasn’t been a lot of scholarship surrounding spiritual churches, because some people have mishandled what they’ve given the scholar. So I had to spend quite a bit of time building relationships. But once I’d built those relationships it was like the floodgates opened. They were so excited about sharing their faith with me.

DG: Professor Guillory, we’re almost out of time. I’d like to ask briefly: several of the early chapters in your book focus on female leaders in the church. Women like Mother Leafy Anderson. Could you just speak briefly about female leadership in the churches?

MG: I can. This is why I like the book that I’ve published, instead of turning the dissertation into a book. This book really highlights the political savviness, the entrepreneurial spirit of women in New Orleans, specifically from the early 1920s through the 1940s. These were women, women like Mother Leafy Anderson, Mother Catherine Seals, these were women who not only purchased property, but they built structures from the ground up. For instance Mother Leafy Anderson, she built her church from the ground up, property that she purchased, and the organisation that actually financed the building of her very lovely church for the 1920s, was the Italian Homestead Association. If you go and look at the history of the Italian Homestead Association in New Orleans they were not freely giving money to African Americans to build businesses and structure. That wasn’t their social function. They were committed to Italians, and Sicilians in particular, who were coming into New Orleans, actually utilising them as a pipeline to build and to invest in these communities. So it was really interesting that she was able to get them to finance . . . .

DG: And a completely different religion!

MG: Well what’s interesting is that her church – and I talk about this a bit in the book – was about thirty percent Sicilian.

DG: Well, that’s interesting! Which means the church was racially integrated in the1920s.

MG: It was. And also, Mother Catherine Seals, the manger was about twenty-five to thirty-five percent. We can’t get our hands wrapped around the exact number, but hers was also an integrated religious compound. And during her time there were segregation laws about cohabitation.

DG: And not only that, you had lynching!

MG: Exactly, exactly. And so these women – and this is what I love about the book – the book sort of highlights the courageous activities. And they were really savvy when it came to business, too. They had an entrepreneur sort-of model of earning money using a religion, in a way that was just . . . they were ahead of their time! They were like – I guess we would call them like our large megachurches today. They were like the megachurches of the 1920s, though the book really highlights the social activism and the ways in which these women also met the spiritual needs of the individuals, both black and white – which is amazing. The book sort-of talks about that, they were . . . . Yes, they wanted to be an anchor for the black community, but they also served the white population who were being marginalised by class and by ethnicity. They also served those populations as well.

DG: So just to wrap up, I’ll say that reminds me of – it’s a quite old book – but Arthur Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis

MG: Yes!

DG: So, for those of our listeners who aren’t familiar, Arthur Fauset, an African American scholar wrote this book in the 1940s about the urban religions, mostly in Philadelphia. And these were – like your Spiritual Churches – many of them small groups led by women, and they’re exercising creativity in ways that white society doesn’t want to allow them. And so Fauset also discusses the idea of, you know, foreign religions being translated in America. So, clearly, these questions are still viable and thought-provoking seventy years later.

MG: A perfect ending! (25:00)

DG: So, I will ask, what’s the next project?

MG: Oh. The next project? African American Religion in the Digital Age. So, while I’m still publishing essays and peer-reviewed articles on Spiritual Churches, I’m sort of moving in the direction of digital religion. Specifically, I’m looking at the ways in which people of African descent are utilising technical advances to express multiple forms of religion. So I’m working on a chapter now on black humanism and black atheism, and the way in which it’s promoted among Millennials using social media platforms.

DG: Be careful, you’ll be getting into transhumanism next!

MG: I know! (Laughs)

DG: Professor Guillory, thank you very much.

MG: Thank you very much, Dan.

Citation Info: Guillory, Margarita and Dan Gorman. 2018. “African American Spiritual Churches”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 26 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/african-american-spiritual-churches/

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.

Drawn to the Gods – Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programs

If you were asked to name the TV programs with the most religious content and references what would you name? 7th Heaven, Supernatural or perhaps Games of Thrones? How many of us would name animated television series such as The Simpsons, Family Guy or South Park? These television series are amongst the most religions on our screens. Indeed, 95% of The Simpsons episodes, 84% of Family Guy episodes, and 78% of South Park episodes contain explicit religious references. These animated comedy shows are critically influential in teaching viewers about religious people and religious institutions. The commentary created via the intersection between humour, satire, and religion in these TV shows, particularly in their own context of America, creates an interesting image of what it supposedly means to be a “good religious American”. In this podcast Associate Professor David Feltmate, author of Drawn to the Gods: Religion and Humor in The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy, chats to Breann Fallon about the manner in which these three television shows create a broad commentary on religion for the general public. Feltmate highlights the central place these animate programs have in the proliferation of ideas about the spiritual and the religious, as heavily consumed mediums of popular culture.

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, candy, pocket knives, and more.

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

Drawn to the Gods: Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programmes

Podcast with David Feltmate (11 December 2017).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Feltmate_-_Drawn_to_the_Gods_1.1

Breann Fallon (BF): If you were asked to name the TV programmes that were most religious, had the most religious content and references, which ones would you name? Seventh Heaven, maybe? Or Supernatural? Or perhaps Game of Thrones? Well, I was wondering how many of us would actually name The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or South Park. Because, did you know that 95% of Simpsons episode, 84% of Family Guy episodes and 78% of South Park episodes contain explicit religious references. These animated comedy shows are critically influential in teaching viewers about religious people and about religious institutions. The commentary created by the intersection between humour, satire and religion in these TV shows – and specifically their context of America, creates an interesting image of what is supposedly meant to be a good religious American. To discuss this topic today I have with me Associate Professor David Feltmate, the author of a fantastic new work entitled, Drawn to the Gods: Religion and Humour in the Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy. Dave is Associate Professor of Sociology at Auburn University at Montgomery. He received his PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Waterloo in 2011. His research areas include the Sociology of Religion, religion in popular culture, humour studies, social theory, new religious movements and religions and family. His book, Drawn to the Gods is available from New York University Press and is the topic of our discussion today. Thank you very much for joining us today, Dave.

David Feltmate (DF): Thank you for having me.

BF: So, I’m really interested in how this book came about. Why did you choose to write a book on The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy?

DF: So, this book really started in the winter of 2005. I was fresh out of my masters’ degree at Wilfrid Laurier University. I was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. And I was teaching sessionally, like a lot of people do. And I was teaching a course on religion and popular culture. And I had set the course up. We did a week on Christianity in popular culture. So we’d do a crash course in Christianity and then an example of Christianity in pop culture, or whatever. And what I realised was, these classes had 65 students in them each: I would have three students that really paid attention every day, five students who would tune in for the topic of the day, and most people were just kind-of there to get credit and they weren’t paying attention. And I thought, well, Jeez there’s a lot of really interesting and relevant pop culture stuff. But the way that I started to get them to listen was, I would start quoting Simpsons references at them at the front of the room. And at the time, in Canada, there was a Canadian comedian named Brent Butt. And he said with a good cable package you can get three hours of The Simpsons every day. And he was pretty close to correct at that point in time. And so this stuff was just ubiquitous, everywhere. And that’s what drew students back in. They knew these religious references but they had no understanding of the religious traditions at all. They were just coming in and experiencing it for the first time. Which led me . . . because I knew I was going to go on and do a PhD, which I did at the University of Waterloo. And I said, “Well, they’ve got to have learned something, what did they learn? What were they being taught through these jokes?” So that’s what I went off to study. And so I wrote my dissertation on The Simpsons and that’s sort-of, the very early awkward stages of the book that’s there now. And my supervisor, Doug Cowan, I remembered distinctly, one day he said, “OK. Your dissertation is done, but it’s not a book yet. It needs comparative data.” “Well,” I said, “The obvious comparative data is South Park and Family Guy.” And now they kind of look like legacy programmes, but that’s where it came from. These shows were widely known, they were critically acclaimed and people are learning religious material from them. And I wanted to know what they were learning. And over time it evolved into: how were they learning this through humour? (5:00) Because a lot of the literature that I was reading on The Simpsons or South Park – there’s still not much written on Family Guy – I just found that people did not ask the question: why are these things funny? They simply worked on the assumption that they were. But I know people that don’t find them funny. So I had to ask, what is it about humour that enables people to transmit this information – transmit it in a humorous way – but why are they seeing these things as humorous? Because I know that some people are not going to. They’re either not going to get the joke, or they don’t think the joke is funny in the first place. So that’s where this book comes from: from teaching and thinking about what it means to talk about religion and religious diversity through humour.

BF: So in the book you talk about this idea of sort of using satire and comedy, and how that is bringing religion to a broad audience, and this idea of broad commentary and how this is really teaching the general public about religious people and religious institutions. And I thought we could talk about some specific examples before we sort of talk about the general takeaways from the book. And there are some really interesting examples in the book. I personally like the ones from The Simpsons because – I don’t think I watched every episode of the Simpsons, like you probably did, but I’m pretty close – I do really love the Simpsons. And I’ve watched a lot of Family Guy as well. I think it’s really interesting that you say there’s not a lot written on Family Guy, actually. Because I would have thought there would have been quite a lot on Family Guy, which is an interesting point on the side.

DF: Unless it’s exploded in the last year or so after the book was finished, and it was out there, and I just kind of need a break from reading all of the literature. No there really wasn’t a lot on Family Guy.

BF: Well, there’s a project for any RSP listeners who are looking for a little article to punch out there: Family Guy there for you! But I thought, maybe, we could start with your favourite example from any of the shows, maybe a new religious movement example? I thought maybe you could start with one of those?

DF: Oh man! Do I have a favourite? I don’t know if I have a favourite. I know I’ve watched “Homer the Heretic” the most, but that’s not a new religious movements example. Well, it depends on how you define new religious movements.

BF: That’s a great example anyway.

DF: Yes, well that’s the classic. That’s the sort of Simpsons’ religion urtext from Season Four. And it used to be that I could pretty much close my eyes and see that entire episode playing out before me. So the reason that I really love that one is that it encapsulates so much of what would become the running narratives of religion in the Simpsons. There’s this sort-of back and forth with Christianity. There’s an open display of Hinduism and Judaism, and all of these different kinds of religious traditions that are on display, and a part of this – a part of Springfield but also a part of the American fabric. Which when you consider that that episode was released in what, ’92 . . . ?

BF: It’s early.

DF: I think it’s ’92. Well it’s season four, but I want to say it’s November ‘92. Just a second, I’ve got the book here. It’s going to drive me nuts if I don’t . . . .

BF: The interesting thing about Homer the Heretic – correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s the one where he eats the chilli isn’t it?

DF: No that is . . . the name is in Spanish and I can’t remember, but it’s “The Mysterious Voyage of Homer: El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer”. And that one is Season Eight. Yes, that one’s a great one, too. I love Johnny Cash as the Coyote that offers spiritual wisdom. And Homer says, “Should I get rid of my possessions?” And the Coyote just laughs at him and says, “No. If anything you need more possessions. You don’t even have a computer.” (10:00) And, yeah, “Homer the Heretic” was ’92.

BF: So what happens in “Homer the Heretic”?

DF: So in “Homer the Heretic”, Homer decides, “I don’t want to go the Church,” one day. And he has the best morning of his life, and he attributes it all to not going to church. But Marge has dragged the kids to Church, and so there becomes this marital strife between the two of them over Homer not going to church. He says he forms his own religion, and so he starts doing things like – one of my favourite examples is that he calls into work from the bar and says that he can’t come in, because it’s a religious feast day. And he looks up… They say “What feast day?” and he sees a sign that says “Maximum occupancy” and he says “Maximum Occupancy”. “Click”. Those kinds of jokes really play on this ongoing sentiment in the United States that to be a good American you’ve got to be religious. And you see this come about all the time in political discourse in the USA, when people are talking about candidates. Atheists are among the most distrusted groups, in terms of large polls in the USA. And that’s still today. And this part of the discourse and debate around Donald Trump, is that people can’t figure out why Evangelicals continue to support, or came out to support Donald Trump when he’s so opposed to the kinds of values that they claim to represent, certainly, in all of his actions and everything he espouses to. And The Simpsons was sitting there 25 years ago now, saying, “Hey, this is okay. It’s okay for people to drop out of church.” Then God visits Homer in a dream and says to Homer, “You’ve forsaken my church.” And Homer says, “Well, I try to be a good person and I love my kids. I just want to sleep in on Sunday mornings.” And God listens to Homer for a minute, because Homer says, “Why should I spend every Sunday morning hearing about why I’m going to Hell?” And God goes “Hmm. You’ve got a point there. You know, some Sundays I’d rather just be watching football.” And Homer says, “So, I figure I should just try to live right and worship you in my own way.” And God says, “It’s a deal!” and then ascends into Heaven. And that’s really part of this larger spiritual-seeker narrative – the ability to pick and choose among different religious options – that has become part of the way that Sociologists of Religion, anyway, talk about the United States. And all of these religious options . . . . Like, I live in a city of 200,000 people, roughly. And there are close to a thousand churches in the area. And if you don’t like what’s going on in one of them you can literally. . . . I mean, I went to Church this morning and there’s a church across the street and another church in the parking lot. I was like: “It’s church row over here!” And if I didn’t like what was being said in my church, I could literally walk out the back door and in two minutes be in another service. And that’s just among Christian denominations! At least, now, I live in the American south, so it’s different than other parts of the country. The United States is different in its different regions. But that narrative of spiritual seeking, anyway, by the ‘90s had become part-and-parcel, part of the fabric of the United States of America. And that’s what I like about “Homer the Heretic”. It really introduces this spiritual-seeking – worshipping God in your own way, do what you want to do, that’s fine, just don’t try to impose it on anybody else – that I really found became the core of The Simpsons. So, I don’t know if it’s my favourite, because I love other episodes. I love “The Joy of Sect”, which is the Movementarians, which is just such a great name for a new religious movement. And, as I show in the book there are all these kinds of quick visual references to numerous new religious movements. So it works really well as a display of the cult stereotype. (15:00) And in South Park the Blametologists, as well, are like that. And I really like to study that because again at the University of Waterloo I was working with Douglas Cowan and Lorne Dawson. And people who study new religious movements would be familiar with those names. And I never went in to study new religious movements, I went in to do religion and popular culture, but I said, “Well I’m working with two of the top scholars in the world in new religious movements, I’d be an idiot not to pick this up and learn from them.” And what I found was that these shows were able . . . . Let me go back here a second. If you go into a classroom now and you ask people what a cult is, they’ll usually be able to give you some kind of idea, like it’s a bad religion, it’s a group of people who follow some leader and they don’t think for themselves, they’re often associated with dangerous kind of religions. And then I say, “OK, so you know all of this. How many of you have ever met somebody who’s in a cult?” And nobody raises their hand. Or I shouldn’t say that: I’ve had one person who knew somebody who was in a group that he considered a cult. And so I had to start asking, “Well, where you get this idea from?” And Joseph Laycock has a good article in The Journal of the American Academy of Religion on this as well, called “Where do they get those ideas?” So I don’t want to steal Joe’s thunder. What it was is, over time, these images and ideas about cults were repeated through mass media, through jokes, through television, to the point that you could create completely fictitious groups like the Movementarians, with numerous references to all of these other different groups like Rajneeshpuram is in there, certainly the Unification Church. There’s a mass marriage scene which is just . . . . I like to, in classes, take a picture of a Unification Church mass marriage, and that scene – just a screen shot – from The Simpsons and say, “Look! They’re almost identical!” And what it was, it was able to play on a legacy of particular framing in terms of fear. So that now, generations who have never really encountered some of these movements have a heuristic with which to interpret them. So I thought that was really relevant. That’s definitely one that I like.

BF: This idea of, you know, the TV show being the lens through which a generation can interpret religious people and religious institutions . . . .You said that the Simpsons was sort-of advocating this idea of spiritual-seeking. Do you think that’s the same for South Park and Family Guy or do you think they advocate something different?

DF: No, I think each one advocates its own thing. I think South Park is all about individual creativity.

BF: OK

DF: So, there’s a couple of South Park episodes: “Go God Go” and “Go God Go XII”, I think is the number. And that came out when Richard Dawkins released The God Delusion, and it was a best seller. I think The God Delusion is really the book that made this sort of Four Horseman of the New Atheists movement with Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett who had books out before Dawkins and then Christopher Hitchens who had one out afterwards. But I think The God Delusion is really the book that broke the tidal wave for all four books to become this kind of marker in time. And when it came it in the audio commentary Trey Parker and Matt Stone were talking about how Penn Jillett of Penn and Teller was saying , “You guys have got to come out as atheists,” or whatever. And Trey Parker’s going “But, I’m not an atheist. I don’t necessarily believe in God the way that other theists do . . .  .”  (20:00) But with South Park they don’t like organised religions, but where individual creativity is promoted, enhanced, allowed to flourish through religious expression, they really don’t have a problem with it. What they have a problem with are hypocrites, or people who say things that they just think are stupid. Right? So their feud with Scientology, versus how they treat Latter Day Saints, is a good example of that. The episode “All about the Mormons” from South Park, which has (sings) “Joseph Smith was called a prophet, dum dum dum dum dum.” And dum dum dum eventually turns into “This whole thing is dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb!” But the Mormons are the nicest people ever to come to South Park. And at the end of the episode, the Mormon kid, Gary, just looks at Stan and says, “All I ever wanted to do was be your friend, but you were too high and mighty for that. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy.” And I won’t finish that quote because there might be children listening at home. That, compared to the Scientology episode, “Trapped in the Closet”, which basically came out of . . . . They were asking, “Can we say Tom Cruise is gay?” And they say, “Well, no. That would be libel.” “Well, can we put him in a closet and have him refuse to come out of the closet?” “Yeah, you could do that.” Well, they did that, but they also ended up making fun of Scientology at the same time. And they were just vicious towards Scientology, saying that it’s a big fat global scam. Well that’s because they see the two different religions very differently. They don’t think Scientology produces good people the way that the Latter Day Saints do. And that’s where you can find – in those comparative nuances – is where I think you can find the real standards that South Park puts out there. And Family Guy? Family Guy is atheist. Seth MacFarlane has come out as a very prominent voice in atheist circles and early on in the programme there was . . . . So, the first three seasons of Family Guy there’s more willingness to play with the possibility that religious identities might be good things. But by the time you hit about Season Six or Seven, all the religious traditions are treated as stupid, and in some cases, very dangerous.

BF: That’s really interesting that the three project something completely different, because what people can take from them – you know, the images that they’re getting about religious people in religious institutions, that kind of broad commentary – is so varied. And that idea of, you know, spiritual-seeking is so varied. And one thing I found really interesting in the book were the examples about atheism and spiritual-but-not-religious in the three different TV shows. Because talking about, just then, the different, you know: The Simpsons as being spiritual-seeking and South Park as being this idea of creativity and then Family Guy as being atheist. Then their representation of atheism and as spiritual-but-not -religious in each show is very different. And I think it’s very interesting to see atheism and spiritual-but-not-religious in this context. Because I don’t necessarily know if it’s something that we see on TV a lot.

DF: No. And for me one of the big things was . . . . So, I’m also trained as a Sociologist of Religion and in the United States, whenever a major survey of religious affiliation is released, so let’s say the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life releases a major survey, it gets boiled down to “the number of Christians versus everybody else” in media play. (25:00) And one of the things that I was noticing, really early on, is there’s almost a fight in political and popular culture in the United States over who owns the “unaffiliated”; who the unaffiliated are. Even that term is a problem because it assumes that they’re not just being themselves and their own distinct group, just like Christians and Jews and Muslims. And if you start looking at American religious statistics, there’s a couple of thousand different denominations that get lumped into different families for statistical purposes. But there was this real question, and I saw this coming from New Atheists, people like Domar, where he would claim that people who weren’t affiliated with religion were somehow atheists like him. And I started looking at the numbers and looking at what people in those groups were saying, and I went, “You know, spiritual-but-not-religious is really a catch-all category for all kinds of stuff.” In terms of what people are doing on the ground, it’s a very creative place, where two people would say, “Well, I’m spiritual, but not religious,” and the grounds you would have to compare what they’re doing is the fact that they both say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” And I think The Simpsons in one way, and South Park in another way, kind of capture that. And how they treat atheism in all three programmes is also distinct, right? Like South Park tends to treat atheists like they would other religious extremists. In one episode, “Red Hot Catholic Love”, which is on one hand about the Catholic sexual abuse scandals that were coming out of Boston at the time when that episode was released. When the people in town find out that the kids are being abused in the Catholic Church – not in the local Catholic Church but in the Catholic Church over all – they all decide to quit and become atheists. And one of the sub-plots in that episodes is that Cartman discovers that if you stuff food up your butt, you end up pooping out your mouth. And so, long story short, all the atheists, basically . . . . The surgeon general says, “Oh yes, this is a much healthier way to eat.” So all the atheists start shoving food up their butt and crapping out their mouths. And one of the punchlines in the episode is, Father Maxi, the Catholic priest says, “You just sit around spewing a bunch of crap out of your mouths”, while one of the atheist is busy literally crapping out his mouth. And that really, I think, is one of South Park’s attacks on atheism: they see it as too extreme. Going back to “Go God Go XII”, there’s really this sense that . . . . They’ve got this race of enlightened sea otters in the future and the Wise One comes out and says about Richard Dawkins, and I’m paraphrasing here: “He had some great ideas but that doesn’t mean that he was correct on everything. Maybe, just believing in God makes God exist.” And then all the other otters gang up and kill him. And in the future, you know atheists in those episodes, atheists are at war with each other over what all the atheists should call themselves. So it’s not like atheism solves the problem of religious violence, which is what a lot of atheists were claiming at the time – or at least prominent ones. So, yes. For me, anyway, in terms of writing the book, it was thinking about the ways that we can get people to think about atheists as atheists, and people who say they’re spiritual-but-not-religious as spiritual-but-not-religious. And maybe there’s some overlap in individuals, but maybe these should be two sort-of separate categories in the way that we start thinking about religious groups and publics, certainly within the United States. And you could speak better for the Australian situation than I can.

BF: (30:00) I think we probably should take a moment to talk about . . . . We’ve had all these really great examples about the different sort-of faiths in the TV shows that you bring up in the book. And I think there’s a lot that we could take away from the book as Religious Studies scholars or Sociologists, as well. What do you think the major take-aways from the book are?

DF: I think the first one is: popular culture is something you have to pay attention to. It should be part of the data of a Religious Studies education. In a lot of cases, we teach religion and popular culture as large cash-cow courses in universities, meant to kind-of pull students into the discipline and then get put into quote-unquote “real” coursework at upper levels. And I think that undervalues the work that’s going on, that popular culture producers are doing themselves. So, one of the first takeaways is: this is deep, detailed material. I read through the book and there are days when I go, “Oh man, why didn’t I include that example, or this example?” I threw out way more than I put in, which a lot of people will tell you about their books. So there’s still. . . . I’m done working on these three series. But hopefully, somebody else will pick it up and in four or five years go, “OK! There’s new material here!” Maybe there’s been a new direction taken. I mean, South Park, for the last two years has done really interesting serial episodes throughout their seasons that are completely different from the stuff they were doing when I was writing the book. And who knows? I mean, the next season could turn completely into a massive story arc in which a particular religion or combination of religious traditions become major players. And that could change the argument that I make about South Park. Because these are still ongoing programmes and South Park is able to change directions very quickly – depending on where Trey Parker and Matt Stone want to go – unlike The Simpsons and Family Guy, which are such big productions that trying to turn those ships at this point would be incredibly difficult. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is: jokes aren’t just jokes. . . would be the way that I would put it. Humour is grossly understudied as a means of transmitting religious information. And this is one of the arguments in the book that we haven’t talked about a whole lot. But I talk about religious satire as running on sort-of two different tracks in the book. There’s the sense of, it’s religious satire in that it’s jokes about groups that are considered religions. So there are Mormon jokes in there, there’s scientology jokes. There’s two chapters on all different types of Christians, there’s Jews, there’s Muslims, there’s Buddhist and Hindus, Native American religious traditions. Because that’s where the data was. But at the same time, I argue that the humour itself is doing this work of bringing people into, and here I use a modified version of William James’ definition of religion: socialising you into an unseen order. And that, to me, has become – for me personally – one of the major take-aways from this project; that humour itself really socialises people and audiences very quickly, but with a ton of information flying at you, into a particular worldview. And we don’t pay enough attention to the way that humour is doing that. (35:00) Humour is treated as something frivolous but, at least through working with this data, I found that it was far from just joking. I found it to be an incredibly powerful way of getting across that sense of “it’s funny because it’s true.” And this book is sort of written to say, “No, things are never funny because quote-unquote “they’re true”. It’s funny because people think they’re true. And what are the consequences of socialising people into a big picture of how religious diversity should work, based on the jokes that they tell about religious groups? So, I think those would be the two biggest . . . . There’s also this last one that I always find myself bringing out now because, yeah, I’ve been told I’m a crotchety old liberal arts professor even at the age of 35. But I really do think there’s something valuable to thinking through the stuff that we are consuming. A bad episode of The Simpsons will get millions, literally, more viewers than will ever read my book. Unless, by an act of God, this becomes some sort of international bestseller. And I’m sure University Press would love if that happened, I know I would! Sitting down, thinking critically, assessing why we find certain things funny, asking ourselves, what was actually portrayed in this episode? Why do I get this joke? Because one of the experiences that scholars of religion can bring to programmes like this is, if you have a history of studying anything in religious studies – let’s say you’re a specialist in reform Judaism – you know more about, Reform Judaism than I do, because I’m not a specialist at all. But you can sit down and you can ask: OK, when they portray Jews, how are they doing that? What images are they drawing upon? What additional information can I bring into this conversation to change the way that people would look at this joke, this data? What are the advantages and disadvantages? That old-fashioned critical thinking approach. And the reason that I really like the Simpsons and South Park far more than Family Guy is that I think the Simpsons and South Park have within them a spirit of keeping that critical thinking tradition alive, far more than Family Guy does. And you can do this just by turning on your TV. And I wrote this book, in part, for students in those religion and pop culture classes, those large classes where people will show them an episode of The Simpsons, or South Park, or Family Guy and you can learn to do this from the get go. And that’s a really important vital skill for sitting down and asking who you’re going to be as a person, as a citizen, in this world. Because, at least for me, for example, when I was much younger I would laugh at racist jokes, before I ever met people of different races. I grew up in a predominantly small town, white New Brunswick culture, although there was a large Native population nearby. And it was after meeting people from different backgrounds that I went back, and I thought about jokes that I used to laugh at, and I thought, “You know, they’re really not that funny, now that I know people that fit. So why did I laugh?” And I changed my behaviour accordingly. And thinking about laughter at jokes – why you laugh, what you’re doing when you laugh. Jokes transmit a ton of information, very quickly. (40:00) And the more you can think about them, and the better you can think about them, and the clearer you can think about them, the more you can understand the relationships that are going on in the society around you. And then you can start asking what you want to do with them. And that’s kind-of where I left the book at the end. I left it open-ended, in the sense that I want readers not to stop with the book. I want them to keep thinking after they’re done reading it. So that would be the third take-away.

BF: Well, I definitely found the book left me thinking about pop culture. And everything I watch now, you laugh and you think – you’re right – why did I laugh at that? Why is it funny? And, you know particularly with The Simpsons and South Park and Family Guy, there is so much thought that goes into every single episode. And I really think that, you know, the academy is really kind-of clicked onto the politics side of those shows. They’ve clicked onto the idea that they’re commenting about Trump, or they’re commenting about American politics. But they haven’t really clicked onto the idea that they really comment about religion. And I think you’ve really clicked onto that. And it’s something that we can go beyond those three shows and really look further into pop culture at things that, perhaps we thought – you know, I hope I can say this – things that we thought perhaps weren’t worthy of our time before; these shows were a bit low-brow and low-culture. But they’re actually bringing out these ideas that people are consuming en masse. And they are conveying these ideas about religion, and this broad commentary, that people are consuming en masse. So thank you so much for joining us today. There are so many things in this interview that we can take forward and we can think about and talk about. So thank you so much for joining us again, Dave.

DF: Thank you for having me.

Citation Info: Feltmate, David and Breann Fallon. 2017. “Drawn to the Gods: Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programmes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 11 December 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 8 December 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/drawn-to-the-gods-religion-comedy-and-animated-television-programmes/

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“Communicating Religion”. Annual Conference of the EASR

A conference report by Hans Van Eyghen

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