Myth-making, Environmentalism, and Non-Religion
Podcast with Tim Stacey (8 February 2021).
Interviewed by Chris Cotter
Transcribed by Andie Alexander
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/myth-making-environmentalism-and-non-religion/
Myth, Stories, Narrative, Meaning, Non-Religion, Climate, Environment, Activism, Politics, Solidarity
Chris Cotter (CC) 00:00
What is a myth? What might we mean by myth-making? And how could an approach to how people in their everyday lives, make myths, retell myths, and retell stories of great significance bring to the academic study of religion, but also the study of all of those many individuals who don’t quite fit into that overarching category of religion, either through disinterest, a relationship of rejection, or just through seeming irrelevance? Joining me today on The Religious Studies Project to discuss myth-making and its role amongst non-religious people and amongst climate activists and environmental activists is Dr. Timothy Stacey, who is a lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities at Leiden University. Tim Stacey has been on The Religious Studies Project before and he is the author of, among other things, the book Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World, published by Routledge in 2018. And a particularly relevant article from the journal of Secularism and Nonreligion, published in 2020, titled, “Imaginary Friends and Made Up Stories: How to Explore Non-religious Imaginaries without Asking Belief-Centred Questions.” First off, Tim Stacey, welcome back to The Religious Studies Project.
Tim Stacey (TS) 01:33
Thank you very much. Good to be here.
Well, good to be here. Virtually. (Laughs) You’re in the Netherlands. I’m in Edinburgh. And we’re speaking via the wonderful internet that we’ve all become so much more accustomed to in recent months…
Except unable to see one another’s faces.
(Laughs) Indeed, yeah. I noted when I started preparing for this podcast that the first time I’d contacted you about it was actually at the start of April 2020. So much has happened, and yet so little has happened in that amount of time, eh?
Hmm. Yeah. I don’t think anyone could have thought that it would still be going on now.
But here we are, and what better time to be discussing myth-making, and visions, shared visions, and imaginaries, and so on at a time when those are some of the things that will perhaps have been keeping many of us going?
So, now, obviously, I mentioned in the intro there that we’d spoken to you before—a number of years ago—around the same time of year, though, when your book, Myth and Solidarity had come out. It’s been a few years since then. My thoughts in these areas have developed somewhat. Yours have, as well, I think. I certainly have a much better grasp of what you were doing in that first book now than I did when I interviewed you for it. So I think I need to make sure and go back and read that again because I probably get a lot more out of it now that my thinking is, I think, develops more in tandem in recent years. But before we get into the nitty gritty of myth-making, I mean, you’ve been articulating this approach in publications that I’ve seen there to do with non-religion, whatever that is.
But—and you’re articulating myth-making as an alternative approach and perhaps a more productive approach than some existing approaches out there. So if you set the scene in terms of what’s already out there in the academic study of religion/non-religion that you think, you know, perhaps could be approached better through this myth-making approach?
Sure, well, I don’t want to set up a straw-man here, but—or straw women or whatever—but I got the feeling, I guess, that there’s this increasing focus, not increasing focus, but this ongoing focus on belief when it comes to studying religion: “Do people believe or do they not believe? What do they believe in?” And it kind of reifies this strong distinction between the believer and the non-believer as if they have this very different kind of way of imagining the world. And I think that’s actually problematic for both research reasons and political reasons. It’s problematic for research reasons because especially when you’re studying non-religion, it leads you to focus on what people are not believing in or refusing to believe, rather than the beliefs that they do actually have, or rather than the kind of faith that they hold. For political purposes, I think it’s problematic because when you reify—I’m noticing increasingly in the research I’m doing at the moment, into the environment and ecology, that reifying this strong distinction between belief and not belief, true and not true, real and not real, has in some sense, contributed to our no longer treating animals, plants, and the world as such, as sort of persons. So my feeling is that by researching belief, you’re actually contributing to that distinction between believing not believing, true not true.
Yeah, and that sort of, perhaps, somebody that’s been increasingly animating the contemporary world as well as that sharp dichotomy, you know, you’re in or you’re out, you’re with us or against us. That polarising—perhaps, a study of belief or unbelief, is inherently polarising, and what it does in a problematic way.
Yeah, and I think it’s also problematic, I guess, for the research reasons that I didn’t mention is that my interest has really always been in—how do… I always struggle with the terminology, I guess—but the implicitly or subtly non-religious, not those for whom not being religious is a very important thing, but just people who happen to not be a Christian or Hindu or Muslim or whatever. And then in thinking through, okay, well, what are their worlds? How can we imagine them? And I just find that focusing on belief can actually get in the way of revealing that.
Absolutely. Let’s see—our time time’s already moving on, and I wanted to get into… So myth-making, myth. And many people listening to this might be thinking of myth, as you know, something in terms of like ancient Greek myths, and so on or as things that are not true—that’s another common assumption with the word myth. Oh, what are you meeting here in your work by myth and myth-making? You know, are you saying that, you know, “I certainly, I don’t engage in myth-making. I am a rational academic, I don’t do myth.” So tell me, Tim, what are we talking about?
Yeah, sure. So I kind of think of it on two levels. What is something—how does something get to be called a myth? So I think, on one level, just in terms of the definition, I think of it as stories of great events and characters and the telling of which has a kind of moral weight for the speaker and the listener. I do think of it, then, as having elements like that, of people act in ways that, for instance, they might perform great deeds or there might be a catastrophic event. So there’s always an element of the unexpected or impossible about them. But the other way of looking at it, what makes a story a myth, I think, is the way it has a kind of agentive force over our lives. So a sense in which we don’t actually have control over the influence it has on us—it somehow invades that rational part of our imaginary and shapes who we are ethically. So one set of researchers call this experiential crossing, when a character from a book jumps into your head when you’re trying to make an ethical decision. And for me, those stories have the characteristics of myths.
Hmm, absolutely. So yeah, it’s the stories that we tell and the stories that we engage with through our lives? I mean, and use a good example in one of the articles by, you know, like the character of Gandalf from [J.R.R.] Tolkien’s Middle Earth world. And, you know, for many people out there, it wouldn’t make sense to ask them if they believe in Gandalf, in terms of “Do you think that he was or is a real character, a real person, real agent in in some sense?” But that would be to underestimate the agentive force of that character in the individual’s life?
Yeah, I mean, I use that example, because it’s quite close to my heart. Like, I really do think about hobbits in moral situations. I think of, for instance, the way a hobbit is supposed to be incorruptible, right? And that’s why they get to carry the [One] Ring.
And yeah, that will pop into my head in moments where I think, “Am I doing this for the money or for the fame or whatever?” And yeah, I do think to myself, “Yeah, I don’t know, how would”—sounds almost odd when you say it out loud, but yeah, “How would Frodo [Baggins] respond in this situation?” But of course, I don’t consider him to be a real person. And it’s not so much that… It’s just kind of, as you say, it’s odd, it’s almost irrelevant to ask me whether or not I believe in Frodo.
Absolutely, and it’s the same for me with Captain Picard. And it’s absolutely the same. I mean, and it comes up. You know, one of your informants—the thing you say in… to be asked to, you know, is the Bible real? Is the Bible true? That they were asking you a more relevant question of is it transformative? And also, I’m going to quote another passage from from your “Imaginary Friends” article that you talk about how for many people to ask them, “Do you believe in God?” or “Do you believe in supernatural entities?” would likely produce a fairly uninteresting “No” response. But if you do ask more comically clunky questions such as has a character from history or fiction ever invaded your imaginary and had an agentive force on your moral decision making? The answer could well be “Yes”—I mean, provided that they could parse the question, of course. If this is what we’re driving at here, it’s that even to ask people, “Do you believe in God?” and if they say yes, again, that doesn’t tell you, you know, you’re not getting anything about the power of that belief, and how that belief is narrated and storied throughout their existence. But you even—and just finally, before we get into some, perhaps empirical discussion—you even acknowledge that we’re engaging in myth-making, it’s not necessarily even these grand narratives of Captain Picard and Gandalf and Frodo and whatnot. But it can be when we share Netflix recommendations, or when we recite the narrative of how we fell in love with our partner—things which many of us do time and time again. And in that sense, we’re creating, we’re storifying, and mythologising, and, you know, constructing our world and our trajectory within it.
Absolutely, yeah, we take these events that feel particularly special, or even magical, to us, and we retell them to our friends, and in the process create—we’re creating a myth that both we and the listener end up living by.
Absolutely. So I promised the Managing Editors of the RSP that we’re going to talk about the nature and the environment during this interview, but I don’t think that’ll be a problem for you, given the extensive ethnographic research you’ve been doing. So perhaps you could, just for the benefit of the listener, briefly tell us about the work that you’ve done empirically. And then perhaps we could focus in on the environmentalism aspect and ask about, you know, the practical aspect of taking a sort of approach looking at myth-making. I mean, these milieus and also the potential this has for helping us understand what’s going on for many of these people.
Yeah, sure. So, my thing I guess was and still is exploring the work of community organisers—that’s in the [Saul] Alinsky tradition, which basically gets people to come together and find common issues, people from very diverse backgrounds who can nonetheless have a common issue like the need for access to health care or housing. And I was exploring that in London trying to understand what drives them. And I understood slowly I was this storytelling thing it was—it is myths, in a sense, that give people the confidence to push themselves harder than they ever have before or work on a cause that otherwise might have seemed irrelevant to them. Now, I initially went to Vancouver, simply to do a kind of almost comparative study. But what I discovered, while I was there, was just how very different the imaginaries of the people there were, and how focused on the environments they were. So it’s quite an embarrassing story in a way that I tell in an article that is currently under review, whereby when I first arrived in Vancouver, I’m so used to asking these community organisers these questions right—about what motivates you? why do you do what you do?—and I’m used to hearing stories about suffering and inequality. And one person just answered, when I said, you know, “What motivates you and your your friends to get involved in this work?” And she said, “whales.” And I just in voluntarily—and I am embarrassed about it, it was poor ethnography—but I giggled, I let out a giggle, accidentally, because I was so taken aback at that time, that people could be driven by, say, an animal or a tree in the way that the community organisers I’d worked with, had been motivated by human suffering and inequality. But within a year of being there, I too, became transformed by my friends, my research participants, who I, generally speaking, call my friends. And I started looking into exactly how it was that that happens. And it was partly through myth, you know, listening to the stories they told of great events and actions they’ve been involved in, and partly rituals and moments of magic and learning to share in a tradition with them. But yeah, I slowly notice more and more that they have what I am, at the moment, calling—this is not something I’ve yet published in but I think it’s the aim of my next writing project, to think of as a kind of new animism, that’s emerging amongst these people, as they question a first Christian and then secular non-religious mindset, ontology, and open themselves up to a different way of imagining the world. They end up treating trees and animals as if they are persons. And in a way, the thing that’s happening there is they’re simply involving non-human beings in their mythologies. And that then gives them this very strong power, they talk about acts of kindness that they’ve observed amongst, say, killer whales, or acts of solidarity amongst salmon, right? They start speaking of them and telling them as characters in a story, and that becomes transformative.
Just to get you to say a quick bit about your, you know, the data we’re talking about here. So you would have like three concentric rings of ethnographic engagement, a thing you speak of?
And then perhaps, you could maybe use an example—I mean, there was one individual called Elsa that you’ve used as an extended example—and maybe tell a little bit of her story and how it illustrates some of the points that you’re trying to make here.
Yeah, okay. So first of all, basically, yeah, as you said, the research was done in three ethnographic circles. So what I first of all did was the kind of outer layer of that circle is exploring what is going on activism-wise in Vancouver. So that’s looking at noticeboards checking Facebook and Twitter and other social media, looking at newspapers going to different community events, to try and find out what are people actually engaging with here. And I wanted to kind of just be led by that in my research, right? So what do people do? What do they care about? And then you go to them, and you say, “Hey, why do you do what you do? Why are you doing this?” and then you start to hear their stories unfold. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. Then the middle ethnographic circle was an extended period of time with Metro Vancouver Alliance, which is this Alinsky-style community organisation. And then the inner was, what I call, my Friends Project, and jokingly call—it was initially intended to have, it was going to be my 40 Friends Project, and it ended up being 36—and the joke is that I’m just not that good at making friends.
Yes, so I ended up spending quite a lot of time with these 36 people hanging out with them, going to parties with them, going for hikes with them, having dinner with them, going into action with them to campaign for things like access to housing, for example, or campaigning against the pipeline. Yeah, and so most of my findings really have ended up being much more about that final inner layer, that telling the stories of these few people that I ended up hanging out with and spending a great deal of time with, as they struggle with their ideas of what’s real and what’s not real, what’s important and what’s not important. And how can I build enough energy to fight the seemingly impossible fights, such as against an oil pipeline? And so Elsa was one of them. And I wanted to just get to understand more and more about—these are pseudonyms, by the way—…
… but get to understand more and more about what drives them. And for Elsa, it’s as if she’s kind of exploring with toying with the idea of wanting almost a religion like belief. It’s almost as if they talk about kind of religious ways of thinking as if there’s this intense purity to them, that they’re not subject to political or economic calculations. And they’re searching for that kind of purity, to empower them to stand up against capitalism, they think. As soon as you get into that kind of calculated way of thinking, you actually end up playing the same game as capitalism, and you’ve already lost the fight. So another person I spent a lot of time with, Jamie, had this wonderful story of how she began taking—she was engaging in an action to stop the destruction of a particular building in her part of town. And in order to do that, they had to mobilise a lot of people. And a lot of elderly people in particular. And what she found herself doing, she said was, rather than mobilising them, she ended up being in a kind of community with them and bringing jugs of milk to these elderly women. And she had, at first, she found this so frustrating, because she just wanted to devote all of her energy to the action. But then she slowly discovers that what capitalism does is to destroy social life. And so by engaging socially with these elderly women, she was being kind of anti-capitalist. And what I’m focusing on is all these different stories that the way that people imagine the world how they’re developing kind of alternative visions that can empower them to overcome capitalism, essentially.
Absolutely. And, and in that same chapter that I mentioned earlier, you talked about how, whilst religion might be one repertoire that could be mobilised here, you know, within the the capitalist system, it’s often either… It’s neutered, because it’s either privatised in some way, seen as being a private concern, or that if it—whatever “it” is—if it becomes public, it has to speak within the law, within the confines of the capitalist system, as it were. So the radical action is perhaps impossible?
Absolutely, and that’s kind of what I was saying in that chapter. I think that’s perfectly demonstrated by the fact that one judge was suggesting that both capitalism and communism could be protected as beliefs in law, and therefore used as justifications for certain actions. But the only world in which that’s possible is if it’s a completely politically muted belief.
You can’t give equal protection to two completely opposed ideologies, unless the condition of say doing is that they don’t actually have any political bite to them.
Yeah, bsolutely. And then you also speak about how a problem for, say, stances like environmentalism—whatever that is—or veganism, if they become… if they go down the route of becoming systematised and articulated, then they can themselves become sort of captured in neutered by that very capitalist system that he used the example of Tim Nicholson and then also extinction rebellion and the differences in treatment in those cases…
Well, that will be the most interesting thing, right, when people—if people do ever use environmentalist belief as a reason in court for having say, blocked a bridge, I’d be fascinated to see whether that could pass.
Yeah, because—sorry, for context, was it Tim Nicholson was able to… Did he refuse to fly for work and cited environmentalist concerns and that was deemed okay?
Whereas if one were to use environmentalist concerns and say, well, that’s why I engaged in this civil disobedience because I was acting on my belief, or my worldview, or whatever. Yes, it would be met with something different because, as we know, the state is generally fine with tolerating difference as long as it doesn’t actually challenge the status of the state.
So with them, you know, we’re talking on and we’re talking around and around this topic, but I think where you get to, towards the end of both the main articles I’m thinking of is the potential of an approach looking at the myth-making and the imaginaries that are being inhabited? The potential that as both for scholarly study, and for maybe mobilising and building solidarity? So if we maybe take each of those in turn? I mean, what does, let’s say the study of religion/non-religion—and everything that we might visually consider in this area—what does that have to gain, then, from this approach?
Yeah, well, I think, the main lesson it can learn is just how rich, in a sense, the data is once we start focusing on the stories people tell as demonstrative of their imaginaries. And that there’s just so much there in the way they tell a story—in what the story is actually about, what it influences them to do—that can really help us to understand, in much more profound ways, how people are motivated.
How does one actually do this? So I know that you’ve perhaps gained access to a lot of these stories and significant stories because of the amount of time and material to spend with these individuals and extended period of time, but I know that you ask questions as well, like “What makes you cry?” and that sort of thing. But you know, how might someone who doesn’t have the luxury of spending months hanging out with people, would we get into these imaginary?
Well, if you’ve also got time to interview people, I don’t know how much time this, you know, who doesn’t have time for ethnography has, but I think it comes out a lot quite quickly. You simply ask somebody, “What do you do?” And then you say, “Why do you do that?” And they start telling you stories. Sometimes I, you know, will prompt people by saying, “Is there anything that particularly inspires you? Are there any people that particularly inspire you? Are there any books or films?” But I think that the answer, in a sense is just you just have to ask them.
And these articulations can come in—well, they’re quite expected places, in a sense, but they’re just not the common—it’s not the common path trodden in perhaps the study of the profound and meaningful, such as RS [religious studies]. But beyond the sort of that narrow academic confines, I mean, what’s the potential of this more broadly? I know, you’ve got some sort of quite a liberating thoughts of your…
Well so, yeah, I mean, that’s, in a sense, the way around that, I think, in a much easier question for me to answer because, for me, I’ve always been interested in solidarity and increasingly with, with other humans, and now increasingly, with, with non-human beings. And so, I’m interested in the potential of categories from the study of religion for cultivating solidarity. And that’s actually what the book I’m currently writing is all about. It has a chapter on myths, rituals, magic, and tradition amongst these activists who happen to be non-religious. And I think the role it has to play is that if you can tap into the stories, and the rituals and the moments of magic, that entice people to do what they’re doing, then you really have this profound power to motivate them. And that both means getting more people involved in your cause by telling the kinds of stories that inspire them, but also further engaging those who are already committed. And I feel that this is something that has been lost in a kind of secular liberal modernity to a to a fault, in the sense that the title of the book is Saving Liberalism from Itself. And the kind of argument that I’m putting forward is that one of the reasons nativists across the world are doing so well, is because they tell really good stories. They’re not necessarily correct about any of the things that they say. And so what I want to encourage the rediscovery of is the process of storytelling, of ritual of seeking out moments of magic in activist circles. So it’s taking the qualities that the study of religion is really good at, namely, drawing out what people find profound, and using them to fight for the kinds of things that we’re interested in.
Yeah, so potentially—that has potential to be taken up perhaps by people who would not be of your particular ideological persuasion as well.
Yes. Yeah. Of course. That’s true of anything, right? So something that you’d be politically neutral and powerful and used for good or evil?
Indeed, yes. And that is never a reason for not doing the good work that you are doing—the thought that well, you know, the insights that might be—could potentially be used in ways that I would not agree with. I mean, obviously, in the real world, where you’re hoping your work is gonna have impact, the implications are perhaps more profound than they might be in academia, but it’s still no reason, because without the work being done, the positive in your eyes can be done, as well. Excellent. I think we could talk on forever there. It’s been wonderful to speak to you, Tim. And hopefully, the listeners have been inspired to think about, you know, what are the the myths that they tell? How is myth functioning out there in the world that they’re familiar with, and potentially just starting to think through how that could be mobilised, both to help them understand others around them better, but also perhaps to help further the causes that they are passionate about.
That would be wonderful.
Yeah, thank you.
Stacey, Timothy and Christopher R. Cotter. 2021. “Myth-making, Environmentalism, and Non-religion”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 8 February 2021. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 8 February 2021. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/myth-making-environmentalism-and-non-religion/
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