RSP Master Archive -- Responses

Field Name Response to Episode , The Problem of Contextuality in Global Environmental Discourses
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PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/the-problem-of-contextuality-in-global-environmental-discourses/”
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DATE 2021-05-14 07:00:00
TITLE The Problem of Contextuality in Global Environmental Discourses
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 10
TERMS: Critical theory, Discourse, Environment, islamic studies
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: Decolonizing ecological studies or environmental humanities forces us to “return to the problem of context,” writes Rosemary Hancock in this response to our interview with Anna Gade.
SUMMARY:

A Response to Anna Gade’s Muslim Environmentalisms by Rosemary Hancock, The University of Notre Dame Australia

When I began studying Islamic environmental activism for my doctoral project in 2011, the phenomenon was perceived as marginal and received very little attention from scholars of both Islam, and the environment. So I was delighted to listen and respond to Gade’s interview, and see the positive reception to her recent book Muslim Environmentalisms. The book is an exciting and valuable contribution to Islamic studies and the environmental humanities. Her examination of the theoretical and discursive basis to Muslim environmentalisms – and in particular her empirical focus on Southeast Asia – significantly broadens the academic conversation that has been building around Islamic environmentalisms in the last decade.

Listening to her interview on the Religious Studies Project, what I found particularly appealing was that Gade seeks to expand our understanding of what can be environmental or Islamic through her case study of Southeast Asia. In doing so, she highlights the incredible diversity of practice and discourse that coalesces around the frame of Muslim or Islamic environmentalism, and the importance of engaging with phenomenon as they are in-context.

Gade is clearly critical of the ‘developmentalist’ discourse that applies a narrow and essential ‘Islamic’ framework to environmental work in Muslim-majority contexts, usually for instrumental reasons. She also critiques the use and widespread circulation of a small number of scriptural references within a global Islamic environmental discourse – scriptural quotations that can be ‘read’ to support Western-style environmentalism. Scholars examining religious environmentalism in other contexts have noted similar trends, for example, Emma Tomalin’s excellent work on Buddhism and Hinduism and the ascription of a supposedly ‘inherent’ environmentalism that misunderstands the religious and cultural nature of particular practices. Both environmental practitioners, and scholars of religious environmentalisms, have too often employed reductive and essential notions of what constitutes any given religious tradition – and indeed, what constitutes environmentalism.

However, the development of a ‘global’ and fairly narrow Islamic environmental discourse cannot entirely be reduced to the instrumentalising of religious tradition by development and environmental organisations. Gade’s acknowledgement of the ‘hybrid’ nature of Muslim environmentalisms is an important concession to the ways in which not only environmental and Islamic discourse circulates globally, but also to the fact Muslims environmentalisms emerge in a wide variety of global contexts. The conversation on ‘authenticity’ and whether one can claim something constitutes ‘true’ or ‘good’ Islam or environmentalism is, given the diversity of Muslim environmentalisms, fascinating. Whilst as a scholar Gade, like myself, resists any pressure to make claims of this kind, Muslim environmentalists themselves are sometimes concerned with authenticity.

My research with Muslim environmentalists was grounded in an entirely different context to that of Gade’s study in Southeast Asia: it examined Muslim environmentalists in the United States and Great Britain, and the groups operated in a context where ‘environmentalism’ – even in Muslim communities – is understood primarily through the classic framing Gade describes as inherent to her discipline of environmental humanities: a concern with the preservation of nature and wilderness, and practices aimed variously to modify, mitigate, or oppose the degradation and destruction of nature from human industry (Hancock 2018, 70-79; 2020a, 292).

Some activists in my study were located in Muslim communities where fear of bida’h (innovation) crippled any attempt to grow the support base of their environmental group or take environmental action (Hancock 2018, 94). The activists felt compelled to portray ‘environmentalism’ – which, as noted above, was typically understood through Western frameworks – as somehow inherent to the Islamic tradition. In these circles references to the stereotypical ‘environmental’ extracts from the Qur’an or collections of Hadith were common that Gade critiques were common. Where some organisations claimed this synthesis of Western environmentalism with Islamic scripture and tradition was effective at changing the behaviour of Muslims (Hancock 2018, 89-90), most continued to find theological interpretation and education alone insufficient to effect real change in their communities (Hancock 2020b, 156).

Whilst initially Gade’s work may present an opportunity for Muslim environmentalists concerned with the ‘authenticity’ of an environmentalism shaped by Western conceptions of nature and crisis to side-step the issue by adopting an environmentalism found entirely within Islamic tradition and cultures, I find that we return to the problem of context. The environmentalism Gade articulates as emerging from her fieldwork in Southeast Asia, and the ways in which the participants in her research understood and used Islamic tradition and scripture, is grounded in that particular geographical, historical, and cultural location. Just as forcing Western environmental concepts and frameworks onto their work would be inappropriate, so Muslim environmentalists in Western contexts need to construct an environmentalism that speaks to their geographical, historical, and cultural location.

One of the most exciting aspects of Gade’s work is her effort to decolonize the environmental humanities by showing how concepts from within the Islamic tradition can expand understandings of what constitutes ‘environment’. Resisting ‘theoretical colonization’ (Bayat 2005) by refusing to apply Western concepts to non-Western contexts is only the first step in decolonizing academic disciplines and discourse – Gade takes the second step in having the Islamic tradition speak back into Western theory. As Amanda Baugh pointed out in her response to Gretel Van Weiren’s interview on the Religious Studies Project in October 2020, the study of religion and ecology has a whiteness problem. This echoes the more general ‘whiteness problem’ of Western environmental movements – but, as Baugh argued in her response and I pointed out above, scholars who approach the study of religion and ecology ‘uncritically … perpetuate a colonial project’ that essentializes both “religion” and the “environment”. Gade’s discussion, and indeed her book, gestures to those of us who study religious environmentalisms a potential avenue out of both the trap of essentialism and of critique with no constructive alternative.

References

Bayat, Asef, 2005. “Islamism and Social Movement Theory.” Third World Quarterly 26 (6): 891-908.

Hancock, Rosemary. Islamic Environmentalism: Activism in the United States and Great Britain. (London: Routledge, 2018)

Hancock, Rosemary, 2020a. “Environmental Conversions and Muslim Activists: Producing Knowledge at the Intersection of Religion and Politics.” Social Movement Studies 19 (3): 287-302.

Hancock, Rosemary, “Islamic Environmentalists, Activism, and Religious Duty” in Mario Peucker and Merve Keyiki (eds.) Muslim Volunteering in the West: Between Islamic Ethos and Citizenship. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020b), 141-160.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Rosemary Hancock


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/rosemary-hancock/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Rosie_Portraits_EDITS8_-scaled.jpeg


Responses

RESPONSE: Beyond Ecological Essentialism: Critical and Constructive Muslim Environmentalisms

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/beyond-ecological-essentialism-critical-and-constructive-muslim-environmentalisms/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , It’s a kind of magic – Experiences with the Resisting Object
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/its-a-kind-of-magic/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Banners-by-Alina-Kokoschka.jpg
DATE 2021-05-07 07:00:00
TITLE It’s a kind of magic – Experiences with the Resisting Object
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 10
TERMS: Embodiment, Islam, Material Religion, Visual Culture
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: “The body alone cannot deal with the language problem that we have,” writes Alina Kokoschka in her response to our interview with Richard McGregor on images, aesthetics, and challenge of studying objects in Islam.
SUMMARY:

In the podcast episode on “Following the Objects: Seeing Religion in Egypt and Syria“ with Richard McGregor I find many aspects of my own research and its process. The – as I understand – rather “accidental“ change of direction towards the object. The many surprises along the trails, roads, and boulevards taken in order to track down the objects of choice. The necessity to give “aesthetics“ back its full dimension beyond notions of beauty. The struggle with stubborn Islamic Art History vocabulary and language deficiencies in general.

As a response to McGregor’s research on historical banners: Advertising banner for the opening of “Milk Way”-store and banner with religious calls (Syria, 2006 ), by Alina Kokoschka http://hawass.org/image/680

Let me focus on one of the terms that Richard McGregor thankfully came up with, in order to bring these strands together anew through the perspective of my “objects that resist“ (RM 13:11). This uncommon quality on the long list of attributes we give to objects brings together all the aspects that I just mentioned—aspects that describe well how Islamic Studies research can take new shapes when in dialogue with material culture.

Instead of further working out details of theories of the object-human-relation from, let’s say, Martin Heidegger to Bruno Latour to Jane Bennett, the format of the response allows me to jump back into my own stream of thing-exploration once more. That stream opened up when I needed to follow “my objects“ in order to shed light on Islamisation in Syria (2000-2011) from a different perspective. I “accidentally“ and happily decided on commodities and their aesthetics. Looking back, no other method would have been suitable, neither for the subject nor for me as a researcher. I started the process of seeing, listening and understanding with the vast world of talismans: the biggest group of commodities with an Islamic connotation. So please follow me on a little digression, the same I had to take.

Talismans “kind of magically” (RM 5:41) brought me to non-academic literature and German peculiarities when it comes to material culture. There is an expression in German language going back to a famous 19th c. novel by the unsuccessful philosopher and aesthetic but all the more successful writer Friedrich Theodor Vischer that has become proverbial: “The cussedness of the (inanimate) object” (Die Tücke des Objekts). It describes the experience that things seem to lead a life of their own and sometimes put a spoke in our wheel. It describes the experience of things we mean – and believe – to operate but then realize that it is us who are being handled, who are being determined by the realities things create (tellingly, in German language we “serve” a machine when we operate it): Tools fall apart when we need them most. Laces produce knots when we are on the run. Televisions fail just during the finals.  Throughout 19th and 20th c. German literature we find examples of objects that seem to have some kind of power and life of their own. Animate objects. Most parts of society tried to frame any kind of fetish-belief as “savage”, pathological, the Other. Hence, literature and arts became a playground for the “non-rational”, “non-modern” perspective on objects. In his story “The Cares of a Family Man“ (1917), Franz Kafka describes a thing – wooden, with many threads wrapped around, small and yet complex in shape – that seems to be beyond all known categories and uses. Reader and “family man“ follow it on its ways throughout the house:

“He lurks by turns in the garret, the stairway, the lobbies, the entrance hall. Often for months on end he is not to be seen; then he has presumably moved into other houses; but he always comes faithfully back to our house again (…) Many a time when you go out of the door and he happens just to be leaning directly beneath you against the banisters you feel inclined to speak to him. Of course, you put no difficult questions to him, you treat him – he is so diminutive that you cannot help it – rather like a child. ‘Well, what’s your name?’ you ask him. ‘Odradek,’ he says. ‘And where do you live?’ ‘No fixed abode,’ he says and laughs; but it is only the kind of laughter that has no lungs behind it. It sounds rather like the rustling of fallen leaves. And that is usually the end of the conversation.”

Franz Kafka, “The Cares of a Family Man” (1917)
“I am waiting for my circumcision” greeting card with ufo ( Turkey, 2011 ), Photo by Alina Kokoschka http://hawass.org/image/497

Unsatisfactory dialogues like that happen when a head loaded with ideas and concepts of Islam and Muslim practices encounters unexpected things, things in an unexpected use or place. This head would like to finally situate the object but that irritating thing just keeps moving. It could be a prayer rug that has left its place on the ground or shelf (or even museum!) and has become a simple awning to keep away the sun. It could be a talisman to ward off the Evil Eye that has the blue color and shape of the common Turkish Nazar but is decorated not with the usual abstract eye but with “Tom and Jerry” instead. It could be an Islamic gown decorated with not fewer than three international brand logos. It could be a greeting card for circumcision celebrations where the highly decorated boy is displayed in a UFO. “Häää?,” I remember my German inner voice saying.

To keep this conversation with the Resisting Object alive, new listening skills have to be developed. This is where the “aesthetic communication“ (RM 12:21) needs to set in. Though, when it comes to seemingly banal objects like commodities, Islamicists’ listening often stops. Materials that do not belong to the canon of Islamic Arts are excluded far too often from academic dialogue with the object (rather monologue though, many times). The same applies to mass-produced items.

If I understand Richard McGregor correctly, he aims for a new language, and it has yet to be discovered where that is to be found or learnt. Without question, the body has come into play with its own knowledge of how body and thing interact. Of how an Abaya dress made from polyester sticks to the skin and develops a smell. Of how prayer beads made from wood, glass, ceramics, tin or plastic sound and feel when slipping through the fingers. Of how a finger-long Zulfikar sword worn around the neck gives weight to every movement.

But the body alone cannot deal with the language problem that we have.

I plead for a daring exploration of words and categories that helps us to go beyond museal descriptions supplying era, material and a single use. One major problem on the way is those notions of beauty in the term “aesthetics.” They hinder communication at eye level. So we need to get rid of them for a bit. If contemporary Islamic and Muslim things and their aesthetics are shaped by shimmering crystal, neon light, and gold imitations then these have to be materials and aesthetics we communicate and think with. Hence, they do shape Muslim perception and life on a daily basis. And they will lead us back to Islamic concepts and to their expression in time. To the meaning of al-nur, the light, to visions of paradisical gold and to an Islamic canon of materials to be neglected: in this world.

I wish McGregor’s book had been out when I wrote mine. It would have made the long process less lonesome. Here is a very much incomplete list of works and authors I am indebted to:

Böhme, Hartmut. 2014. Fetishism and Culture. A Different Theory of Modernity. Berlin & Boston: de Gruyter.

Ingold, Tim. 2010.The Textility of Making. In: Cambridge Journal of Economics 34: 91–102.

Naef, Sylvia. 2000. Einige Überlegungen zur Unterscheidung zwischen sakralem und profanem Raum im Islam. In Religiöse Kartographie. Organisation, Darstellung und Symbolik des Raumes in religiösen Symbolsystemen edited by F. Stolz/D. Pezzoli-Oligiati. Berlin: 289–307.

Pinto, Paulo. 2007. Pilgrimage, Commodities, and Religious Objectification. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 27: 109-125.

Starrett, Gregory. 1995. The Political Economy of Religious Commodities in Cairo. In: American Anthropologist 97:. 51–68.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Alina Kokoschka


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/alina-kokoschka/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/K1A7627_korr_sRGB_8_1000x1500px_b.jpeg


Responses

RESPONSE: Following the Objects: Seeing Religion in Egypt and Syria

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/following-the-objects-seeing-religion-in-egypt-and-syria/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , Following Resistance
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/following-resistance/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Picture2.jpg
DATE 2021-04-30 07:00:00
TITLE Following Resistance
CATEGORY: Uncategorized
TERMS: islamic studies, Material Religion, Method and Theory, Visual Culture
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: How can Islamic Studies help advance the study of religion and visual and material culture, asks Anna Bigelow in this response to our interview with Richard McGregor. One way is through “close attention to the subtleties” of context, method, and discipline that characterize work that intently follows the objects and their “multiple, shifting registers.”
SUMMARY:

In his new book, Islam and the Devotional Object: Seeing Religion in Egypt and Syria (Cambridge 2020), Richard J. McGregor invites us to think of the way that objects communicate as emerging out of resistance. That is to say that objects do not glide through history on tracks well-greased by doctrine and practice, or ritual and law. Rather, they take complex routes that meander, shift, and double-back as they advance through time. These movements resist simple narratives and methods. So McGregor’s invitation to follow the objects (instead of the theologies or the political regimes that inform them) and note how they resist discursive reduction, allows the ways objects communicate in multiple, shifting registers to come into focus. By leaning into the points of resistance, without falling prey to the urge to narrativize and thereby smooth out rough edges and oil the sticky places of the resistant object, the particularities of an object’s aesthetic communications emerge. In McGregor’s conversation with Candace Mixon, the potential for this inherently interdisciplinary exploratory mode unfolds in several tantalizing ways.

A palanquin which carried the Holy Carpet. Black-and-white photograph. (1911) Sladen, Douglas Brooke Wheelton, 1856-1947 (Wikimedia commons)

            First, McGregor’s evocation of ‘resistance’ as the productive tension by which objects refuse to conform to the authorizing regimes that seek to define, interpret, and control them, brings to mind Sara Ahmed’s idea of the sticky quality of affects as they adhere to objects. “Objects become sticky, saturated with affects, as sites of personal and social tension.” (Ahmed 126) To follow an object means to account for these sticky places and to see how and when objects arrive at what Ahmed calls “conversion points.” In the case of the mahmal that not only means understanding changing political authority and relations, but also shifting legal-theological ideas about the status of such objects, and further to observe how the object “scatters,” as McGregor puts it, from its role in the kiswa procession between Cairo and Mecca, into multiple manifestations in processions related to saints’ shrines. As he digs into how a seven-hundred-year-old tradition like the mahmal and its procession could shift from a heavily guarded and patronized tradition, to an unstable and debated one, and finally to a scattered object that no longer transacts between the two cities, McGregor reveals both the contingency and the stickiness of objects. If we consider the effort required to create or change the affects that stick to the mahmal, this opens up additional lines of inquiry, such as the uneven access to the power necessary to change the affective attachments to objects. Further, considering the conversion points, as McGregor does, brings the intersection of multiple necessary analytics into sharp focus.

            It is perhaps not surprising, then, to find a procession from a Sufi tomb in Bengalaru, India with a palanquin, standard bearers, camels, and a replica of the Ka‘ba. [image 1] To mark the ‘urs (death day observations) of another Sufi saint of Baghdad, the famous ‘Abd al Qadir al Jilani (d. 1166), a julus (procession) goes out from the tomb shrine of a local Sufi, Hazrat Tawakkal Mastan Shah. In this southern Indian megacity the assembly includes faqirs carrying standards, a palanquin replica of the tomb shrine, several camels (carrying children), an enormous ship bearing a slogan invoking ‘Abd al Qadir al Jilani (“ya ghous al madad”) along with a model of his tomb, a giant fish, and an enormous replica of the Ka‘ba with the pilgrim’s refrain (“labayk allahuma labayk – I am here, my God, I am here”) written on its kiswa. This too may represent an instance of scattering, but which also demands attention to its own register of aesthetic communication. The urge to draw a straight line between processional aesthetics is certainly strong, but also requires attention to the points of resistance. The resonance helps to uncover the repertoire of objects and materials that authorize the practice, link the saint in India to a saint in Baghdad and to the Ka‘ba, and territorialize the shadow of the saint in whose protection the neighborhood lies. But these are also objects whose local affective attachments are simultaneous and contradictory – producing stickiness and resistance. A largely non-Muslim and non-Arabic script reading audience likely encounter these objects differently and in multiple ways. For some this is an opportunity to witness sacred objects that transmit blessing power (barakat) through the aura they project over the spaces they traverse. For others, these objects are manifestly foreign and the Ka‘ba image itself speaks to an unfamiliar power and allegiance that heightens a growing alienation between Muslim and non-Muslim Indians. Status among the faqirs, the shrine custodians, and the local Muslim population speaks to variable access to and understanding of the tradition. Though young girls ride the camels, no other female participants were present in the procession itself in the year I was present (2009). All these, and other, elements signify the importance of following objects as a means of illuminating a rich and complex world which cannot, as McGregor points out “be reduced to language… [or] to a narrative.” Instead, as he says in this conversation “the objects will resist discursive reduction, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not communicating.”

Image 1: A procession for the ‘urs (death day) observations for ‘Abd al Qadir al Jilani (d. 1166) proceeding from the tomb shrine of Hazrat Tawwakal Mastan Shah Suhrawardi (17th century) in Bengalaru, India (photo by the author)

Second, if we stay with one of the objects McGregor focuses on, the mahmal, as an example of an affective and aesthetic object, we must consider a number of questions – which mahmal? The one sent from Egypt by Sultan Ghawri in the early 16th century or King Fu’ad I in the early 20th? Competing mahmal’s from Mamluk Syria or Baghdad? Or the mahmals associated with Sa‘diyya Sufi shrines and rituals? Is one a template and the others iterative? What are the formal properties of the calligraphic bands, the medallions declaring their patrons, the finials of the corner posts and peaks? Who could have read them or were they meant for such discursive legibility? How are these palanquins produced, maintained, or disposed of? What affective responses did they enable and what continuities and disjunctures existed over time? And perhaps the most vexing question for material religious studies these days – what kind of agency (if any) does the mahmal possess? On the last question, religionists and new materialists find a great deal in common. Powerful objects – objects that do things through their own agency – are both ubiquitous and often debated in many traditions and times.

This leads to a final point that emerges in Mixon’s conversation when she asks what McGregor thinks that Islamic theories of materiality might bring to the field of religious studies more broadly. McGregor rightly reminds us that scholars of religion are often rooted in particular areas (Islamic Studies, Middle East Studies, etc.) but also are also seeking connection across fields as humanists that ask us to think more comparatively and more ethically. This is a question that has also preoccupied me of late – one result of which is a forthcoming edited volume Islam through Objects (Bloomsbury 2021) to which McGregor contributes an essay. Both in this conversation and in the chapters of that volume, various responses emerge to the question of how Islamic Studies can help to advance the study of religion and visual and material culture. Close attention to the subtleties of Islamic thought, the particularities of Islamic aesthetics, and the histories of Islamic cultures are necessary to engage – whether critically or in resonance with – the study of material religion. Without grounding in a particular field, as Mixon and McGregor point out, the comparative inquiry that characterizes the study of religion would be superficial. Attuning ourselves through objects opens up these productive fields of inquiry.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Anna Bigelow


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/anna-bigelow/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Bigelow.jpeg


Responses

RESPONSE: Following the Objects: Seeing Religion in Egypt and Syria

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/following-the-objects-seeing-religion-in-egypt-and-syria/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , New Types of Storytelling for the Non-Religious
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/new-types-of-storytelling-for-the-non-religious/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/pawel-czerwinski-6lQDFGOB1iw-unsplash.jpg
DATE 2021-04-23 07:00:00
TITLE New Types of Storytelling for the Non-Religious
CATEGORY: Uncategorized
TERMS: ethnography, Myth, Nonreligion
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: Maria Nita says we’ve gone beyond new stories for the nonreligious in this response to our episode with Tim Stacey. We see “new types of storytelling,” she contends, and this opens exciting ethnographic opportunities for future scholarship.
SUMMARY:

A brief response to Dr. Tim Stacey of Leiden University, on his talk with Chris Cotter, Myth-making, Environmentalism, and Non-Religion

Having thoroughly enjoyed Tim Stacey and Chris Cotter’s discussion of Stacy’s work around myth-making in relation to belief and non-belief, and in the context of environmental activism, I wanted to respond with a few insights from my own research, as well as others, interested in myth, stories and activism. Naturally, I fully agree with Stacey, that by researching belief we support that reified polarisation between ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’, and that by looking instead at people’s inner worlds, their imaginaries – as he puts it, we can attempt to transcend that binary and increasingly obsolete distinction. Looking instead at other categories and concepts, such as stories and agency, as Stacey points out, can also help us scholars and ethnographic researchers overcome other issues of access we may face as we try to navigate past the religion/ non-religion boundary.

Stacey’s perspective of ‘solidarity’ with other humans and non-human beings is very interesting, because the word has political overtones and may be a closer fit for many activists, for whom other notions – i.e. animism – do not really capture their motivations and understandings. The term ‘solidarity’ would definitely be preferred by some Green Christians in my own research, for whom the word ‘stewardship’ remains anthropocentric, despite all the apologetic interventions around it – i.e. humans are there to serve and protect other than humans. Stacey talks about understanding what motivates environmental activists by looking at the stories they tell, and he hints at the ‘new animism’ implicit in their stories. Graham Harvey talks about new animism as a religion, and Andy Letcher in his own ethnography of British Eco-Paganism provides a small treasure of animistic stories, experiences and representations.

My key point – which really aims to complement what Tim Stacey is saying – is that in my own research with religious climate activists (Nita, 2019, 2020), and certainly this was true of the spiritual or ‘non-religious’ activists as well, I found that it was not only new stories – but importantly new types of storytelling, new methodologies of engaging with stories, that really offered participants possibilities for new perspectives. These new ways of telling stories could take all sort of forms: from new types of contemplative practices and new rituals, to ad hoc experiments with traditional storytelling practices. This meant that if Christian activists were (re)told a biblical story, they would be asked to engage with this story differently, such as go on a walking meditation for example, or reflect on the choices of the characters in a workshop setting. In this way even the story of the Exodus became an opportunity to think and speak about environmental migration. I have found that participatory storytelling methods in the context of environmental activism are aimed at giving everyone a voice, inviting everyone to be a storyteller.

As an ethnographer myself I got really excited about the prospect of these new types of storytelling to elicit animist perspectives. I proposed a theoretical model called ‘inside story’ (Nita, 2020) as an eco-pedagogical methodology, referring to the fact that activists were often asked to ‘go inside’ the story (a method which draws on a Christian contemplative practice, Lectio Divina), and thus revisit old story-worlds and reflect on human and non-human relationships. So, I think that new ways of engaging with stories hold a lot of hope, and that it could help more of us see that we are needed in ‘the story’, persuade some of us to become actants in this rather frightening story of extinction that is being told. I reflect on this in this recent blog called ‘Divination as Storytelling: Dealing (with) Death and Extinction’, linked here.

As a last point, I loved how Tim Stacey talked about ethnography here, I liked the idea of starting with the city itself to get that in situ approach to local activism, and then zooming in on your area of study. I shall cite Stacey when I need a ‘in a nutshell’ explanation for my students for ‘how to do ethnography’: ‘“you ask “what do you do?” and “why do you do that?” And they start telling you stories.’

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Maria Nita


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/maria-nita/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/nita.jpeg


Responses

RESPONSE: Myth-making, Environmentalism, and Non-Religion

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/myth-making-environmentalism-and-non-religion/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , The Varieties of Environmental Myth-Making
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/the-varieties-of-environmental-myth-making/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/pipeline_protes-min.jpg
DATE 2021-04-16 07:00:00
TITLE The Varieties of Environmental Myth-Making
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 10
TERMS: environmental ethics, Myth, nonbelief, Nonreligion
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: Stories can “exert an agentic force” that makes them powerful tools for environmental action among the nonreligious for whom belief is a weak analytic category argues Lisa H. Sideris in this response to our interview with Tim Stacey.
SUMMARY:

A response to The Varieties of Environmental Myth-Making with Tim Stacey

by Lisa H. Sideris

Like many areas of research in religious studies, the intersection of religion and the environment—or religion and ecology, as it is often called—bears the imprint of an inordinate emphasis on belief. Consider the oft-repeated claim that climate skepticism among U.S. evangelical Christians springs from end-times beliefs that orient believers to the world to come, obviating any need to care for Earth. Or note the widespread assumption that dogmatic adherence to Biblical claims regarding human dominion over nature is the root cause of environmental harms in the Western world. Some religion scholars work to problematize these sweeping claims by exploring the subcultures and social worlds of religionists, or by highlighting the fragile and complex (and sometimes nonexistent) links between what people believe and what they actually do in and with nature. Still others investigate ostensibly secular but religion-resembling environmental practices, rituals, and communal activities—phenomena that might go unnoticed in a “world religions” approach that combs through the sacred texts and propositional beliefs of long-standing global traditions in search of environmentally friendly resources. What insights might be gained by attending instead to expressions of nature-spirituality inspired by Disney films, or forms of environmental activism prompted by childhood memories of witnessing the destruction of beloved landscapes?

Timothy Stacey’s work on “non-religious” imaginaries continues this promising trend away from a narrow focus on belief and nonbelief, but with particular emphasis on myth-making.  Preoccupation with belief and non-belief is unduly polarizing in its implication that believers and non-believers engage the world in radically different ways. It also obscures our understanding of how religious or religious-like imaginaries operate among individuals who do not consider themselves religious. Stacey’s attunement to storytelling practices and imaginative worlds of “implicitly or subtly non-religious” people—individuals for whom not being religious is not a central feature of their self-identification—casts new light on what motivates people to bond with nature. When asked what drives her community organizing work, one of his informants surprises Stacey by answering “whales.” Time and again, his informants express a kind of “new animism” couched in stories and myths that empower activists to push harder for the causes that concern and inspire them. Animals themselves sometimes figure prominently in these mythologies as agents or characters, as with tales of altruism among killer whales, or solidarity among salmon. “They start speaking of them … as characters in a story,” Stacey notes, “and that becomes transformative.”

Image provided by Lisa H. Sideris

These reports of animistic connection and “magical” moments between human and nonhuman (or fictional) worlds cohere with the findings of religion scholars who take an ethnographic approach or otherwise explore the environmental and spiritual imaginaries of their research subjects. Bron Taylor describes the affinity many activists feel for the tree-being Fanghorn, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In conversation with Taylor, primatologist Jane Goodall draws connections between her appreciation for tree-beings and the “great Greek myths in which nature is full of personalities” (p. 28-9). Sarah Pike interviews young eco-saboteurs who risk their lives in logging protests and pipeline blockades. These activists derive motivation for their work from the beauty of the forest camp they have christened “Middle Earth,” a reference to “Tolkien’s enchanted world of monstrous wolves and eagles, wizards and elves, shape-shifting bears and tree-like beings” (p. 77).

Stacey’s work similarly underscores the power of stories to exert an agentic force, often in ways we do not consciously recognize. When an individual confronts a moral dilemma, a character from film or fiction may spring to mind, bidden or unbidden, as a guiding light (Stacey himself admits to imaginatively invoking Tolkien’s character Frodo in this manner). It would make little sense for a scholar to inquire of informants whether or not they believe in such characters. Yet these “unreal” agents wield power that can have very real effects. Interestingly, as suggested by Chris Cotter’s line of questioning in his interview with Stacey, the same point applies to self-identifying religious believers. An affirmative answer to the question “Do you believe in God?” may not reveal much of interest because this query fails to elicit reflection on how that belief is narrated or performed, and how the storying of that belief places the individual within the narrative’s trajectory.

This insight calls to mind an environmental campaign launched in the early 2000s by the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN). In an effort to convince the faithful that climate concerns already are Christian concerns, EEN created a television ad that aired in parts of the Midwestern and Southern U.S. It depicts the harmful impacts of CO2 emissions from SUVs on children and the poor, and concludes by posing the question: “What would Jesus drive?” Here the issue is not so much whether one believes in Jesus, but how one imagines Jesus’s agentive power as modeling care and compassion. Viewers can locate their own values in relation to a storyline about an inspirational figure. A similar approach guides the work of climate scientist and evangelical Christian Katharine Hayhoe. In contrast to the insistence of some conservative pundits that Christians cannot believe in God and “believe” in climate change simultaneously, Hayhoe communicates climate concerns by constructing a narrative that connects the dots between Christians’ self-proclaimed values and the disproportionate impacts of climate disasters on the world’s poor and vulnerable. She sidesteps questions about belief, in favor of bringing “attitudes and actions more closely into line with who [Christians] already are and what we most want to be.”

Image provided by Lisa H. Sideris

While focusing on belief can be polarizing, Stacey suggests that myth-making may be an effective route to cultivating solidarity. My own work critically engages the environmental myth-making efforts of scholarly and popular initiatives commonly labeled “The Universe Story,” the “Epic of Evolution,” or “Big History.” These narratives tell the sweeping story of our universe, from the Big Bang up to the Anthropocene. By placing our species within a deep-time narrative, these storytellers hope to unite humanity around a common, science-based—i.e. true—origin story that can provide meaning and purpose, and collectively orient humanity toward environmental responsibility. It is interesting to juxtapose these myth-making activities with those Stacey describes. Like his informants, the target audience of my cosmic myth-makers includes many non- or implicitly religious people—individuals who lack particular religious commitments but incline toward the spiritual meanings and satisfactions of science (think: Unitarian Universalists).

Unlike Stacey’s “everyday” myth-makers, however, these storytellers construct grand and glossy narratives in ways that are anything but unconscious or spontaneous. These carefully curated cosmic stories select particular pieces of scientific information and stitch them together in widely-screened documentaries with slick production values. These myth-makers are decidedly fixated on belief and its benefits: belief in the evolutionary story as real and true, belief in its power to tell us who we really are. In short, they enshrine a religion of reality: “If it’s real, we believe in it.” In their investment in creation stories as integral to human existence, cosmic myth-makers enact a peculiar return to scriptural literalism by way of science. Stacey’s work illustrates how environmentalists construct their own worlds—“the plot of their own lives”—through personally meaningful stories, rather than receiving these myths from authoritative sources “on high,” whether religion or science. It may well be that potent forms of solidarity and motivation flow from the more organic, less systematized varieties of unbelief and myth-making his work uncovers.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Lisa H. Sideris


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/lisa-h-sideris/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Sideris_Lannan_photo.jpg


Responses

RESPONSE: Myth-making, Environmentalism, and Non-Religion

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/myth-making-environmentalism-and-non-religion/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , Abusing Religion and the Importance of Refocusing Gazes
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/abusing-religion-and-the-importance-of-refocusing-gazes/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/161q4APxWKJL-David-McConeghy.jpg
DATE 2021-04-09 07:00:00
TITLE Abusing Religion and the Importance of Refocusing Gazes
CATEGORY: Responses
TERMS: American religion, Minoritized Religions, Nationalism, Racism, Sexual Abuse
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: “One can refuse to be manipulated by sensationalist media priming the public to generate the outrage that will serve white supremacy,” writes Abimbola Adelakun in this response to our interview with Megan Goodwin on the theory of contraceptive nationalism in her book Abusing Religion
SUMMARY:

Abusing Religion and the Importance of Refocusing Gazes by Abimbola A. Adelakun

The book, Abusing Religion: Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals, and American Religions is such a delightful read, and I am grateful for the chance to share my thoughts on it. The author, Megan Goodwin, discerns what is at stake when the public gaze descends on minority religions such as Islam and Mormonism and puts them in the spotlight to be delegitimated. She calls this practice “contraceptive nationalism,” and uses the term to describe the various ways racialized and gendered supremacist Christian nativism gets its ebullience by compromising the credibility and security of these minority religious practices. Goodwin considers several written texts that have supplied the public with titillating details of the dynamics of sexual relations within these minority religions. These widely-read books have reinforced the idea of an “other” that threatens the American body politic—often allegorized as white womanhood/childhood that could be inseminated—and which should be preemptively aborted.

The texts Goodwin highlights include Michelle Remembers by Michell Pazder and Lawrence Smith, Not Without My Daughter by Betty Mahmoody, and Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. By supposedly providing the lurid details of sexual violation in somewhat closed religious communities, the writers of these books not only satiated the scopophilic instincts of the reading public but also provided the means by which they could be demonized. Through Goodwin’s analysis, one sees that these popular accounts have not only functioned as voyeuristic devices, they have also allowed the state to play the protagonist in the drama that attended the public reception of the books. Intervention by the state purports to resolve the issues after they have generated sufficient moral panic, but ultimately established the legitimate grounds to interrogate other people’s faith practices. This benevolence, Goodwin shows, ultimately serves to burnish America’s reputation and might even legitimize violence against the same people it claims to save.

This habitual tendency to exaggerate the sexual prowess of others to protect society from violation is a recurring pattern in American history. We see that racialized eros in how the myth of the black penis has loomed large in the white social imagination with immense social consequences such as lynching.[1] The trope of black women as sexually insatiable is as old as slavery. When European artists in the 19th century painted the harem, their depictions of the sexual life of Muslims was more telling of their oriental fantasy and legitimation of colonialism than the actual lives of those women.[2] This orientalist peep into the harem continued till the 20th century when Hollywood similarly used them as tell-tales of Muslim sexuality. Popular books like the ones Goodwin highlighted do similar damage because they reinforce the King Kong narrative—the white woman at the mercy of the beastly racial other, the barbarian that ever-circles around the gates of western civilization. The white male’s swooping in to save her asserts his role as the protector of the civilized order.

Goodwin pegs the literary accounts that have facilitated the project of contraceptive nationalism on Christianity and the ways it has shaped American social norms to the point that America’s civilization is intrinsically assumed to be “Christian.” This ethos prefigures these popular books, and the ways people react to them have been preinstalled into their consciousness through their subsistence within American social culture. On this score, she identifies Roman Catholicism as having played a “significant role in shaping and regulating American values since the 1970s.”[3] She calls it “the catholicization of public morality.” While I would agree that the publications gained their traction because they are read against the grain of Christian values that have diffused into the social culture, I do not think Catholicism is the culprit. Evangelicalism is also central to how Americans understand sexual morality, and recent political developments have more than confirmed that much. As Emile Townes has analyzed, these issues cannot be considered in isolation from the Puritanism that founded America right from inception.[4] That is the wellspring from which the values that structure the American social and political imaginary originate, and Catholicism is one way it is realized.

Catholicism itself has suffered what Goodwin terms “literary persecution” from both Gothic fictions to Hollywood. Books like MR, NWMD, and UTBH are not novel. There is a long tradition of such salacious publications by authors claiming to be “authoritative sources” and offering prurient details of what happens behind the doors in Catholic convents. We see that in the best-selling memoir of Rebecca Reed, Six Months in a Convent that led to riots, the razing of a convent, and stoked anti-Catholic sentiments. Then there was also Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed that alleged the convent was a harem for priests who routinely sexually abused nuns and practiced infanticide with the resulting babies. There is also the more recent fictional series by Dan Brown—the Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons—and the subsequent film productions that accuse Catholics of insidious practices. If writers are now doing the same with minority religions, it suggests that anti-Catholicism tropes have become worn and minority faith practices are the ones with reigning political valence that can support the project of contraceptive nationalism.

Contraceptive nationalism is thus a critical frame to perceive and react to accounts of sex abuse when they occur among minority religious communities. It enjoins us to pause and reflect when the stories of sex abuse are not about sex abuse as much as they are an evocation of latent sentiments about how the demonized other displays values that are antithetical to the norms of white Christian civilization. If viewed from such a perspective, one can refuse to be manipulated by sensationalist media priming the public to generate the outrage that will serve white supremacy. Rather than begging for salacious details, one can hold their gaze on what truly matters—the sex abuse itself and subsequent justice and healing for the victims.

References


[1] Fanon, Frantz. Black skin, white masks. Grove press, 2008.

[2] Ali, I. The harem fantasy in nineteenth-century Orientalist paintings. Dialect Anthropol 39, 33–46 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10624-015-9372-7

[3] Goodwin, Megan. Abusing religion: Literary persecution, sex scandals, and American minority religions. Rutgers University Press, 2020:10.

[4] Townes, Emilie M. Womanist ethics and the cultural production of evil. Springer, 2006.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Abimbola A. Adelakun


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/abimbola-a-adelakun/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Abimbola-min.jpg


Responses

RESPONSE: Sex Scandals and Minoritized Religions

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sex-scandals-and-minoritized-religions/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , Telling Stories to Change the World
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/telling-stories-to-change-the-world/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Save_the_World_Ghent_climate_march-min-scaled.jpg
DATE 2021-04-02 07:00:00
TITLE Telling Stories to Change the World
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 10
TERMS: category formation, Environment, Myth, narrative
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: “How is a myth different from a story or narrative?” Susannah Crockford says the answer “shifts dramatically with different disciplinary definitions and assumptions.” Read on to learn why this matters in her response to our episode with Tim Stacey on “Myth-Making, Environmentalism, and Non-Religion”
SUMMARY:

Telling Stories to Change the World: A Response to Timothy Stacey on “Myth-making, Environmentalism, and Non-Religion” by Susannah Crockford

In asking what is myth-making among the non-religious, Timothy Stacey approaches a central theoretical dilemma in the study of religion. If myths, rituals, magic, and tradition proliferate and motivate the ostensibly non-religious, do they then become implicitly religious? The problem is one long identified in the study of religion: the category ‘religion’.

Stacey defines myth as “stories of great events and characters and the telling of which has a kind of moral weight for the speaker and the listener” and as stories with “agentive force” that cause people to do things in their lives. The people that Stacey refers to are activists, and the stories they tell motivate them to commit to actions that aim towards changing the world, altering the political economic system to end fossil fuel capitalism and create a new world in which human flourishing is not powered by ecological ravishing. That such people might be motivated along lines similar to those who are overtly and self-descriptively religious is a fascinating subject within the study of religion, which continues to be explored. Bron Taylor has suggested a name for this phenomenon – dark green religion.

Stories influence people deeply, personally but also collectively. This influence is apparent when we think of ‘our’ stories, as both Chris Cotter and Timothy Stacey do in this interview, citing the influence of Lord of the Rings and Star Trek in their own personal understandings of morality. Both Lord of the Rings and Star Trek are easy choices to discuss the fiction-myth crossover, as storyworlds drawn from fantasy/science fiction genres that purposefully construct alternate universes populated by characters involved in multigenerational dramas that affect the social organization of those universes. This is a common strategy among work in the study of religion that addresses non-religion and secularism, arguing that as levels of church attendance and declared belief decrease people continue to engage in religion-like activities but by calling themselves a Jedi Knight rather than a Christian (for example). The implicit conclusion of much of this work seems to be how people are ‘still religious really’ while not going to church so much, while paying less attention to how such stories perpetuate and encode a whole host of assumptions derived from the cultures of the authors and readers simultaneously. Are they myths or retellings of myth? Lord of the Rings can be read as a retelling of the Jesus myth. And while such analyses, more common among fandoms than in academia, often rest upon formalist assumptions of mythical archetypes, it raises the question of what is being achieved by calling such stories ‘myth’.

While explicitly rejecting a definition of religion that centres belief, Stacey’s research proceeds from asking his interlocutors which stories motivate their commitment to activism, and then he calls these stories myth. If we allow that any story has the capacity for “agentive force”, what is left of his definition of myth? That myth involves “great” characters and events with moral implications for readers? We must also then consider that for many readers, discussions of morality are intrinsically connected to the category religion. Myth is, in vernacular definitions, religious stories. Myths tell of how worlds are built and what norms govern society and why.

Myths are also social and cultural, which is why anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss argued that the content of myths is irrelevant, what is important is what the structure of myth tells us about the structure of society. If myths are social, then they pervade the imaginal worlds of persons in society whether or not those people are explicitly ‘religious’. But if myth is religious, why would they not be rejected by those who reject religion? And in fact, Stacey dodges this concern by focusing his analysis on those who are “subtly” religious rather than those who consciously reject religion. Yet what we are left with is an implicit argument that myth is stories that motivate beliefs and that beliefs form religion. So non-religious people have myth which form beliefs, and therefore are religious. We have squared the circle of secularism once again. It seems to be exceptionally hard to theorize religion without using Eurocentric, anglophone concepts of belief, myth, and so on. 

Activists are driven by stories, an activity interpreted as myth-making. But the overall concern of Stacey’s work seems political: How to mobilize direct action? What motivates those who aim to create a movement to radically alter (or overthrow entirely) capitalism? If they are engaged in a political movement, capitalism neuters and neutralizes their challenge. By calling their stories myth, Stacey shifts environmental activism to a form of religious movement. Do movements need to be religious to be successful in changing the totalizing political-economic system of capitalism? Politics remains part of the system, whereas religion contains the possibility of change because its claims are explicitly world-altering.

Jesus Figure at the Leuven Climate March. Photography by Susannah Crockford.

How is a myth different from a story or narrative? The answer shifts dramatically with different disciplinary definitions and assumptions. When is a story ‘just’ a story and when does it acquire the status of a myth? Is Star Trek myth while Keeping Up With the Kardashians mere fiction? It is entirely plausible to read Kim Kardashian as a moral exemplar in the way Cotter and Stacey identify Captain Picard and Tolkien’s hobbits. Perhaps more provocatively, when is a complex, world-describing story called mythology as opposed to conspiracy theory? Through the deployment of these terms, some stories are validated and upheld, while others are dismissed and delegitimized. Which is to say, that calling the stories of activists a form of myth-making could be twisted to delegitimize what they are doing as ‘false’ and based on ‘myths’ of global warming and climate change. Stacey argues that categories from the study of religion can be used to build solidarity; they can equally be used to undermine it. Religion is the discourse in which alternative futures are imagined, and the moral justifications for those changes are made. Myths are the stories about how worlds change.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Susannah Crockford


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/susannah-crockford/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/headshot.jpg


Responses

RESPONSE: Myth-making, Environmentalism, and Non-Religion

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/myth-making-environmentalism-and-non-religion/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , The Challenge of “Soul Murder”: Disentangling Religion and Sexual Abuse
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/the-challenge-of-soul-murder-disentangling-religion-and-sexual-abuse/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Responses-to-child-sexual-abuse.jpg
DATE 2021-03-26 07:00:00
TITLE The Challenge of “Soul Murder”: Disentangling Religion and Sexual Abuse
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 10
TERMS: Catholicism, Sexual Abuse, sui generis, Trauma
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: “Is sexual abuse categorically different in religious contexts than in other institutional contexts,” ask Brian Clites in this response to our interview with Katherine McPhillips. Focusing on the concept of “soul murder,” Clites and McPhillips both argue the answer is yes. Read on to find out why.
SUMMARY:

Child sexual abuse happens everywhere, including in our families, at our children’s schools, and on university campuses. In her recent interview, “Surviving Sexual Abuse: The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse,” Kathleen McPhillips discussed her research on some of the Catholic survivors who testified at the official hearings. The Australian Royal Commission (ARC) was the largest investigation of its kind in modern history, and it investigated abuse across many different institutional contexts. The ARC’s final report is 17 volumes, only one of which covers abuse within religious institutions. As McPhillips emphasized, the Roman Catholic Church was “by far the most impacted” of all institutions involved, in part because it was found to have higher rates of abuse and more complex strategies of cover-up when compared to other institutional contexts.

McPhillips praises the Australian inquiry as “the most successful” of the dozens of high-profile inquiries into child sexual abuse that state and federal governments have launched over the past three decades. Like recent U.S. grand jury inquiries, the Australian Commission led immediately to stricter laws and regulations. Yet legal changes are only one metric, and in other contexts scholars have contested the value, risks, and limits of state commissions in addressing widescale traumas, as in the gacaca courts after the Rwandan genocide and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. In some of my research on U.S. Catholic survivors, I have noted that investigations and media spotlights can leave survivors feeling even more demoralized and isolated, even as pubic inquiries hold real potential to substantiate and de-stigmatize their suffering. Both in the American and Australian contexts, it remains to be seen whether government inquiries will significantly reduce rates of child sexual abuse in future generations.

In this response, I’m going to focus on the analytical value of a key term in McPhillips’ interview, “soul murder,” a concept that vividly conjures up images of the spiritual death described by many survivors of clergy sexual abuse. The history of the term “soul murder” helps orient us to the central question in the study of religion and sexual abuse, namely: Is sexual abuse categorically different in religious contexts than in other institutional contexts? The very design of the Australian Royal Commission suggests that it is not, and yet many scholars – including McPhillips and I – are invested in studying precisely how soul murder is distinctive within the Roman Catholic context. Our research suggests that soul murder is experienced differently not only within religious contexts (writ large), but also differently within and among various religious communities.

Mary Gail Frawley O’Dea (2007), Dr. McPhillips (2018) and myself (2019), are among the researchers who have used the term soul murder within our respective studies of clergy sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. In the Catholic context, soul murder names the lifelong spiritual trauma that many survivors suffer, including: survivors’ self-described inability to trust priests and bishops; the intense pain many survivors feel when they try to participate in Catholic sacraments, especially baptism, confession, and the Eucharist; and the deep damage to survivors’ relationship with God, Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Some American psychiatrists and psychologists use soul murder even more broadly, to refer to the damage of child sexual abuse, irrespective of whether the abuse occurred in a religious context.

The phrase “soul murder” dates back to at least 1887, when August Strindberk employed it in a review of Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. Ibsen later used the term in his own writing, and it was then made famous by Sigmund Freud. In his analysis of The Schreber Case, Freud used soul murder to support his theory that child sexual abuse resulted in mental illness. In the American therapeutic context, it was popularized by Leonard Shengold in the 1980s. Shengold, who was interested primarily in incest, defined soul murder as the annihilation of a child’s network of relationships and their ongoing loss, as adults, of the basic capacities to express and receive love, trust, and intimacy. Throughout the twentieth century, philosophers and theorists – most notably Jacques Lacan, and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari – argued that Freud seriously misread Schreber’s case. More recently, Alexander van der Haven has persuasively argued that Schreber’s use of “soul murder” (Seelenmord) was explicitly religious in its context. According to van der Haven, Schreber used soul murder to describe “when he began to experience penetration by divine forces,” and, later, to summarize a perceived “crisis in the relationship between God and humanity.”

Van der Haven’s analysis returns us to the central question: What, precisely, are we studying when we study religion and sexual abuse? This problem grounds the American Academy of Religion’s Contextualizing the Catholic Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis Seminar, which I co-chair with Megan McCabe, who is an expert on the intersections of Catholic theology and campus rape culture. The question has also been taken up from a more comparative religions approach by the Luce-funded Religion and Sexual Abuse Project. And it is a prominent undercurrent in one of McPhillips’ most recent projects, The Survivor Story Podcast, in which she talks with some Australian Catholic survivors about how the abuse has reshaped their faith as adults.

In spite of being such a useful and provocative analytical concept, I sometimes worry that “soul murder” risks fetishizing the conjunction of religion and sexual abuse, implying some causality, as though horrendous abuse happens only at the hands of priests – when, in fact, it also happens at the hands of parents, and coaches, and university professors. As Megan Goodwin demonstrates in her recent book, Abusing Religion, media coverage of religious abuse often becomes fodder for anti-religious bigotry.

Similarly, the conjunction of religion and sexual abuse risks obscuring the many non-religious wounds of priestly child sexual abuse. In addition to spiritual trauma, many of the survivors who I have worked with also struggle with combinations of post-traumatic stress, educational attrition, drug and alcohol addiction, poverty, and suicide. It is the task of scholars to demonstrate not just how soul murder is distinctive from other forms of child sexual abuse, but also to recognize the ways in which it is similarly devastating on children, their families, and religious communities.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Brian Clites


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/brian-clites/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/2020_Clites_Headshot-min.jpeg


Responses

RESPONSE: Surviving Sexual Abuse: The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/surviving-sexual-abuse-the-australian-royal-commission-into-institutional-responses-to-child-sexual-abuse/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , Lamenting the Lie
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/lamenting-the-lie/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/1024px-Lezing_James_Baldwin_in_de_serie_Another_Window_on_the_World_in_de_Bali_in_Amste_Bestanddeelnr_933-1680-min.jpg
DATE 2021-03-21 14:55:53
TITLE Lamenting the Lie
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 10
TERMS: Black Church, Identity, religion and race, Religion in America
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: “The struggle to fight for truth in an age of Lies must be relentless,” writes Darrius D. Hills in this week’s response to our episode with Eddie Glaude and his work on James Baldwin, Begin Again.
SUMMARY:

In preparation for the opportunity to offer a humble response to Eddie Glaude’s moving and poignant reflections on American identity, mythos, and telos as it pertains to the ghosts of our racist past (and present), I chose to re-read his new work on James Baldwin, Begin Again. In my reading, much like the experience of listening to his recent podcast, my imagination remained affixed on both the question of truth and iconoclasm in American life.

In American race relations, truth, as poet James Russell Lowell reminds us, is “forever on the scaffold” (and as we saw so often within the previous White House administration), “wrong forever on the throne.” Baldwin’s prophetic genius for truth-telling was best described in the late Toni Morrison’s eulogy for him in 1987: “Yours was the courage to live life in and from its belly as well as beyond its edges, to see and say what it was, to recognize and identify evil but never fear or stand in awe of it.” In our contemporary historical moment, what is needed is the radical embrace of the truth of Americanism in all its grotesquery. In confronting and naming the evils of our time, laying bare the consequences of their reach—the brutality of their impact, it may also come to pass that we, who have been gifted America’s future, have to deconstruct the national symbols and ideals that nourish the myriad evils that threaten democracy and obstruct human flourishing. We must, as Glaude observes, put aside the “myths and legends,” even if it means disturbing the peace to do so.

In looking at the life and work of Baldwin, therefore, it is paramount that Americans embrace the spirit of Baldwin’s racial truth-telling. It is our best hope of breaking apart the mythologies of black and brown inferiority and inhumanity that have perpetuated America’s racial sins.

Through the moral vision of James Baldwin, Glaude proffers the ethic of truth-telling as a response to “the Lie”; says Glaude: 

Since the publication of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin had insisted that the country grapple with the contradiction at the heart of its self-understanding: the fact that in this so-called democracy, people believed that the color of one’s skin determined the relative value of an individual’s life and justified the way American society was organized.  

The Lie, as Baldwin knew, is the distortion and debasement black and brown humanity, and yet, at once, a stark reminder of the grand contradiction staring America’s ethos of liberty and equality in the face. “The Lie” is the intentional hypocrisy of American democracy; it is the disconnect between the myth of equality for all lives, and the reality, which envelops lives that aren’t white, into the underbelly of an American nightmare.

It is on this score that Glaude’s attention to the “value gap,” the operationalizing of The Lie, comes into focus. There is an insidiousness woven into the American racial, political, and economic order that empowers the value gap: white lives matter more than the lives of non-white (O)thers, and the power of this existential given maintains the racial system as it stands. More horrifying, the value gap is never critiqued, or capable of being challenged, because the value gap pertaining to the proper race and place is permanently tethered to the corresponding myth of American goodness, innocence, and the always already above-reproach moral superiority of Whiteness.

Despair is an easy option in response to the Lie. Going further, nihilistic postures may even be considered a natural consequence of living in an America where the glimmer of hope is hard to maintain, and in which the exorcizing of its racist demons remains unresolved. Baldwin, too, was the occasional victim of such a pessimism, but as Glaude reveals, Baldwin also refused to allow pessimism to have the last word. Baldwin believed that all of us, black and white, can be better. If we are, as Americans, to realize some semblance of the Lincolnian vision of “the better angels of our nature,” and live into the promise of a multiracial democracy, part of our response must be to marshal the strength for a moral vision involving radical truth-telling, but we must also learn the value of collective lament as central to our response to the Lie.

Glaude centralizes James Baldwin because his writing forces an honest confrontation with the world as it is, sans the comfortable amnesia that falsely sanitizes and whitewashes our historical dirty laundry. If Baldwin is right, and it is “the responsibility of the Negro writer to excavate the real history of this country…to tell us what really happened to get us where we are now,” I propose collective lament as a new American social project in response to the Lie.

In Breaking the Fine Rain of Death, womanist Christian ethicist Emilie Townes centers communal lament as a corporate process of naming the roots of our collective sins, contradictions, and inhumane omissions, with the hope of living into a responsible faith that seeks healing along with the demand for justice. Collective lament, on this score, is a spiritual discipline. It is a way of applying our moral and spiritual imaginations toward the dismantling of the hierarchical and life-killing forces of our time. And while racism and the re-emergence of White nationalism is a significant boon to the power and reach of these forces, it would be a grave error to not, as Audre Lorde admonished, recognize sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny as linked to the same constellation of “isms” that are in need of our lament.

Following Townes, I would say that Americans must learn to lament the Lie, and all the Lies, that dehumanize us all.

In our charge to leave this world in better shape than whence we found it, naming, or in this case, indicting the Lie that has ruptured black and brown space, place, and being, is the core of any democratized vision of American greatness. Lamenting the Lie is not only a cultural and public act of contrition with the hope of reconciliation; it is also holding accountable those structures, institutions, and persons who have channeled the Lie into a mechanism of wielding power.
To be certain, such a shift in the outlining and mapping of our national identity is sure to include bruises along the way. No one likes being made aware of their respective pathologies and/or self-destructive tendencies, and we detest moreover being held accountable. But, as Glaude notes of the indispensability of Baldwin’s example for us in the present, the struggle to fight for truth in an age of Lies must be relentless. Our existence and identity as America depends on it.

In the conclusion of Begin Again, Glaude reflects upon his visit to Baldwin’s grave. He writes: “…I’ve been reading Jimmy for thirty years. He has been waiting for us. Waiting to see what this history of ours, once we pass through it, has made of us all. He still waits.” In the vein of the Black Church, my religious foundation, I could not help but read this as an invitation—an invitation to fellowship in the chapel of multiracial democracy, with Baldwin as the prophetic sage calling us to account. Baldwin has invited us.

Can we now offer our response?

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Darrius Hills


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/darrius-hills/"


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Responses

RESPONSE: The Lie at the Heart of America

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-lie-at-the-heart-of-america/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , Amplifying Survivors’ Voices
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/amplifying-survivors-voices/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Responses-to-child-sexual-abuse.jpg
DATE 2021-03-12 07:00:00
TITLE Amplifying Survivors’ Voices
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 10
TERMS: Catholicism, Sexual Abuse, Stigma, Trauma
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: In this response to our episode with Kathleen McPhillips on the Australian Royal Commission’s Report on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Jack Downey offers a wider global lens on the challenges the Catholic Church faces regarding sexual abuse.
SUMMARY:

In the world of Roman Catholicism, the term “sex abuse crisis” is a kind of shared code for the current era of global reckoning spearheadedby survivors and advocates; the crisis remained largely obscured from public attention until the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting in 2002 exposed both extensive incidences of clerical abuse and enabling institutional complicity. However, it has a long prehistory, including revelations from decades prior that remained unattended for the most part. Catholicism’s geographically-fragmented diocesan system fostered a hyper-local treatment of abuse, tethered to iconic priests and bishops in individual dioceses—like John Geoghan and Bernard Law in Boston—rather than a Church norm. This has stymied both slowed organizers’ calls for reparations and structural transformation and prevented sustained scholarly attention to abuse as a bedrock feature of modern Catholic history.

Scholars of the crisis work in tension between the singular dimensions of Catholic abuse and the much broader field of violence against minors. This invites them to consider the subject of Catholic exceptionalism, both causal and qualitative: Is Catholicism is uniquely conducive to producing and abetting serial abusers or is it just like every other insular patriarchal institution? And what, if anything, is distinctly Catholic about Catholic sex abuse? The first question has engendered several diagnostic theories, that alternately impugn the all-male priesthood, mandatory celibacy, and clericalism, or greater acceptance of sexual diversity. Homophobic inquisitors have used this latter theory as fodder for campaigns to purge the clerical ranks of queer seminarians by conflating homosexuality with pedophilia. Alternately, the sheer volume of documented abuse has at least given pause to historians of anti-Catholic tropes, which often peddled in the specter of the pernicious lecherous priest.

As Dr. McPhillips notes, the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse casts a broad net, well beyond the bounds of Roman Catholicism—indeed beyond the bounds of religious communities altogether. And yet, Roman Catholicism remains conspicuous: 37% of survivors reported being assaulted in Catholic contexts, a number that jumps to 62% if you’re looking specifically at religiously-affiliated incidences. So, it is reasonable that the Commission would dedicate space to attend to the particularity of Catholicism, within the larger context of Australian abuse. Unlike one of its closest analogues, The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States, 1950-2002, commonly referred to as the “John Jay Report,” the Royal Commission oscillates between the specificity of numerous offending institutions, and their shared history of violence against children. This allows it to avoid some of the vulnerabilities of the John Jay Report, which was critiqued for, among other things, making US-centric causal suggestions that might appear less persuasive with a wider comparative lens. Although its structure and aims are quite distinct from the Royal Commission’s, the newly-formed Religion and Sexual Abuse Project has gathered research specialists in diverse traditions, not for the purpose of constructing some unified comparative theory of religious abuse, but to explore the generative possibilities for collaborative research across institutional boundaries. A proliferation of diverse approaches to the study of abuse may also foster more complex structural analyses—e.g., contextualizing Catholic missions as sites of abuse and trauma for Indigenous youth, within a more comprehensive colonial framework.

McPhillips’ use of Erving Goffman illustrates the power of stigma as a coercive force that shields abusers by further marginalizing victims precisely because of their victimization. However, in many cases, pre-existing stigma was also one of the conditions of abuse in the first place: victims of clerical abuse have described themselves as having been socially ostracized, vulnerable to grooming, and disempowered to report their abuse—which may also set the stage for them to be met with skepticism if and when they did come forward. For instance, James Poole, SJ—one of the most prolific abuser priests in Alaska during the latter-half of the twentieth century—preyed on Indigenous girls and adult missionaries alike by exploiting pre-existing insecurities and social isolation, often under the guise of “ministry.”

The social stigma that comes from having been abused by a religious leader, and of publicly disclosing that abuse sets survivors apart from their community, and this stigma overflows like a contagion, which Goffman describes as “courtesy stigma.”[1] Generation Xers and beyond will recall Sinéad O’Connor’s infamous Saturday Night Live appearance in 1992, in which she retooled Bob Marley’s song “War” into a protest against juvenile sex abuse, before delivering the coup de grâce by shredding a photo of Pope John Paul II on live television. For this, O’Connor—herself a survivor of the Magdalene laundries—was pilloried by Catholic celebrities from Joe Pesci to Madonna, and was booed off stage the next evening at Madison Square Garden. Verklempt at the time, SNL creator-producer Lorne Michaels later described O’Connor’s performance as a “martyrdom.”

An important feature of the Royal Commission has been the amplification of survivors’ voices, which was significantly more sophisticated and empathetic than previous attempts, like the 1996 Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s Towards Healing protocol. The concept of “soul murder” has been compelling to contemporary readers of McPhillips because it points both to the increasing recognition of trauma as religious experience, but also signals a developing lexicon that might speak to the particularity of Catholic dimensions, without necessarily making exceptionalist claims. This attention to survivors’ subjectivity seems particularly important, giving the power of codes of silence and reflexive dismissal of survivor reports—traditions that both enabled abusers and compounded the violence of abuse. As Sara Ahmed has discussed, nominal movements towards institutional transformation are not inherently constitutive of a real investment in radical change.[2] Even while the Church magisterium has both expressed sympathy for survivors and committed to rectify the structural conditions that festered into what we now call “the abuse crisis,” substantial roadblocks continue to impede survivors and advocates—as well as researchers. Connected critics of Church traditions of abuse have been ignored, trivialized, and maligned as incarnated residual vestiges of anti-Catholicism. And yet, the Church hierarchy has demonstrated an incapacity to make good on its spiritual and material debts, absent external pressure. Dr. McPhillips’ work is part of a growing, but still modest, corpus of scholarship that frames the abuse crisis as core Catholic studies content and treats survivors’ experiences as integral to understanding modern Catholic life.


[1] Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963), 30.

[2] Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 94.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Jack Downey


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/jack-downey/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Downey_portrait-scaled.jpg


Responses

RESPONSE: Surviving Sexual Abuse: The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/surviving-sexual-abuse-the-australian-royal-commission-into-institutional-responses-to-child-sexual-abuse/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet