At the 2019 American Academy of Religion conference in San Diego, California, Brett Esaki sat down with Jolyon Thomas to discuss Thomas’ new book Faking Liberties and the complex intersection of religious freedom, empire, and racialization in the post-war relationship between Japan and the United States. The processes or projects of secularization, says Thomas, were instrument of American empire. By looking at the ways discourses about religious freedom regulated race, gender, and ritual practices in occupation-era Japan, we can see the double-standard of what America has advocated for abroad versus practiced at home. Thomas calls for deeper scholarly engagement with the category of “freedom” and how freedom of religious expression has been racially coded as white in the United States. It is a cautionary tale with important pedagogical and institutional lessons. If we find that discussing “diversity looks like activism,” he suggests, then “we have a huge problem” that reveals why diversity in the academy is essential for discussing secularism, religious freedom, and religion today.
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Race, Religious Freedom and Empire in Post- War Japan
Podcast with Jolyon Thomas (11 May 2020).
Interviewed by Brett Esaki.
Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.
Audio and transcript available at:
Brett Esaki (BE): Welcome to sunny San Diego. I’m Brett Esaki, and I’m really excited to talk about your book today. So the book, Faking Liberties, Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. It’s about a lot of things, but primarily in the area . . . about Japan before, during and after the American Occupation. But it’s also, interestingly, a reflection upon the United States and its projects abroad. So, can you briefly introduce the book’s thesis, and list a few of the items of comparison across the countries?
Jolyon Thomas (JT): Well, thank you for taking the time to do the interview. I’m Jolyon Thomas and I’m really pleased to be here. So the book’s main thesis is that there’s a story that’s been told that the United States brought religious freedom to Japan at the end of the Second World War. And, as I was looking at this history, I was really struck by the fact that it just seemed to not be true. Now it turns out that the United States did bring religious freedom to Japan, only it had brought religious freedom to Japan much earlier, in the 1850s, as part of a sort-of diplomatic package. And indeed, the concept of religion comes to Japan in that time. But the sort-of triumphalist Occupation era narrative about the United States bringing religious freedom to Japan is a really problematic story, because it sets up the Americans as being sort-of the holders of freedom and the Japanese as being these benighted people that need to be saved, or rescued, by the Americans. So I was really inspired by literature on secularism, and secularity studies, in thinking through the ways that religious freedom is a really good topic for thinking about what secularism is. But I was also trying to make an intervention in the history of Japan and the United States, thinking perhaps a little more critically about American empire. And then thinking perhaps a little bit more – what’s the way to put this? – in a sort-of radical credulity about one of these claims that Japanese people in the Pre-War and War-time period made, that Shinto was not a religion. And so one of the things I wanted to do was take that claim at face value and think, “Well, what would the history look like if that turned out to be true?”
BE: Right. And that kind-of explains one of the shifts you make from going from essentialist and functionalist definitions of freedom of religion to more of a project or claims-making. Can you walk us through that transition?
JT: Yes. So one of the things that really struck me in thinking about the Occupation era narrative about “Japanese people don’t have religious freedom”, is that it basically makes an essentialist claim, saying “Japanese people, as such, in their being, don’t get it.” And, you know, I think that many of us in the academy, in 2019, we’re well aware that we should avoid essentialising claims. But there are still a lot of them that sort-of lurk out there. They’re sort-of shambling around in our midst, right? So the first sort-of correction for that is the suspicious move to do the functionalist claim, like: “What’s really happening behind the scenes?” And I think that, for most of time that I’ve been professionally studying religions in Japan, I’ve seen more of the functionalist move where it’s like: “Well, Shinto is essentially a religion of Japanese people. And State Shinto is functionally the political co-option this benign ancient religion”, or whatever. It turns out that the scholarship has shown that both of those claims are just not accurate. And that one of things that I really push, in a more constructivist bent, is to look at who speaks about Shinto and about religious freedom, and how do they engage in projects of religion making? And so, you know, in this critical secularisms and secularities literature there’s a sort-of focus on the constructed nature of both . . . the co-constructed nature, I should say, of both religion and secularism. And so, as I was thinking through those issues, it was very obvious that religious freedom is a place where you see religion-making happening in real time. Because to free religion, people have to designate one thing as “religion” and something else as “not religion”. And so I find that to be endlessly fascinating, and fun to think through and with.
BE: So, to try and summarise that, there are these two projects of secularisation, or kind-of defining what religion and what non-religion is, both within pre-War Japan and also in the United States in its later Occupation. So it’s a nice line of comparison, having those two (5:00). So, one thing I’d like to turn to, is one of these provocative claims that you’ve made – and I think it’s actually – as the argument goes in your book – a quite tempered claim, for my view, that religious freedom and human rights have been used functionally as tools of empire – and that’s the term you use. Can you explain what you mean by that term, tool of empire? And maybe provide an example?
JT: Sure. So I think I’m not alone in making this sort of claim. And just to give a shout out to other scholars working in the field of Critical Religious Freedom Studies: Tisa Wenger‘s book Religious Freedom – I forget the subtitle . . . something about an American ideal – is . . . . She uses this idea about religious freedom. As white settlers move west then they take religious freedom with them, and it helps them occupy territory, and so forth. Writing in a more contemporary period, Elizabeth Shackman Hurd has talked about the global promotion of religious freedom, or what she calls international religious freedom. And, you know, this is something that the Trump administration takes very seriously. So did the Obama administration before it, and so forth. And the reason that this is a sort-of tool of empire is that it’s a way for Americans to do assert a certain type of moral superiority, and to . . . . Even if not dominating politically another territory and population, the language of religious freedom allows Americans to sort-of assert a certain degree of political hegemony. So in the book there are two main examples of this, I would say. Chapter Three looks at territorial Hawai’i, which is, at the time, you know, an American territory, not a state. I’m looking at Hawai’i in the 1910s and twenties, mostly. And there, under the plantation economy, religious freedom and the notion of white Christian supremacy work hand in hand. So, to make a long story very short, Japanese American Buddhists make an attempt to use the language of religious freedom, and they fail utterly. And this is partly . . . and the reason they fail is that there’s a very carefully constructed political economy of the Islands. And if Japanese people are allowed to use religious freedom, then that really calls into question the white supremacy that dominates that. And the other place is, of course, the Occupation itself. Japan is an autonomous state. It has its own sovereignty at this stage. I would say that it’s fair to describe Japan as a client state. It’s utterly dependent on the US military presence in a very conflicted way. And Japan is America’s . . . the forward base for the United States in East Asia that reflects the geopolitics of the Cold War. There’s a lot of emphasis on using Japan as a sort-of place to maintain freedom of navigation in the Pacific and so forth. All of that is to say, religious freedom was central to the Occupation project. It was one of the main rationales for why the United States needed to be in Japan in the first place. These people, we fought a war with them, they fought the war because of their religion: “Their religion was bad, we’re going to fix it. And, having fixed it, then we’re going to incorporate them under the sort-of military umbrella of the United States.” So, you know, we could parse the term empire all day. But I’m totally comfortable with thinking of America as an empire and that’s quite accurate in many respects.
BE: And we could also use the adjective empirical, like . . . things related to those goals. Can we also categorise other similar freedoms, spread abroad, with the same kind of analysis of projects?
JT: Yes, I think so. You know, other people have talked about this sort of thing. One of the things that immediately comes to mind when you ask this question is, sort-of gender and women’s rights. I think we see a lot of Americans really worked up about genital cutting and in a very complicated way. And there are a number of scholars who have worked on sort-of calling that into question. But sort-of saying like “Women need to be protected either from themselves or from the terrible men who are doing stuff”. And, of course, Saba Mahmood has talked about this sort of thing with veiling, and there are others like Rick Shweder at the University of Chicago, who have written articles on genital cutting and so forth, where there are double standards that are applied (10:00). So one of the things that I think is really interesting thinking about the US project of spreading freedoms abroad, is that we often operate under double standards, where what we do at home is a little bit different from what we project overseas. And I think that we really need to sort-of slow down, and pay attention to that dynamic. It’s insidious in its worst instantiations.
BE: From maybe my interests, and my lines of questioning, maybe you have like a presumption, maybe, of a kind-of underlying interest that I have. And that’s really your experiences of racialisation and how that informs your scholarly perspective. Now, I’m not imposing this on your book. But, in fact, it’s explicitly stated in the epilogue, you’re a multi-racial African American, if that’s the right term you’d like to use to identify yourself. And without giving away the book’s awesome finale – stated in musical form – really cool! – can you just touch upon, maybe, how your study of Asian religions, in particular, has been affected by your own experiences of racialisation.
JT: Yes. Thank you so much for asking that question. So one of the things that struck me as I was getting into the archival materials for this book, was how frequently the occupiers described themselves as white. And how they also positioned themselves as . . . they thought of America as white. And the American armed forces were still segregated at this time. America’s self-understanding was figured around whiteness. And as a non-white person, that really was jarring. But it also was one of the things that I . . . . You know, it’s part of this longer autobiography, I guess, that I share in a brief form in the epilogue, which is that if you’re a non-white person in the United States then it’s very obvious – I shouldn’t speak for all of us, but I’ll just speak for myself. It was really obvious to me growing up that when American’s talk about freedom that freedom is not extended to all of us equally. And so I saw a lot of work in the critical religious freedom literature, tearing apart the word religion. And very important to do. I saw less on freedom. And I thought that freedom was something that really needed to be addressed more directly. And to think about how there are both emancipatory and coercive qualities to freedom. And that different people, and different groups, get freedom in different ways. One of the things that . . . . So the Epilogue, as you’ve seen, is written in a very personal tone. I had a lot of trepidations putting it out there in the world. So far, when I’ve heard from people, they’ve generally . . . the response has been positive from people who have already read the book. But one thing that I notice is that a number of people said that it was . . . that my project was an activist project. And so, in the Introduction, I say very explicitly it’s not an activist project for all of these reasons. But one of the things that people are taking away, having read the Epilogue, was that this made the book an activist project. And I’ve been thinking about that recently. And this goes to your question about racialisation. Because I think that that reading is actually a racialised reading of the book. So, in other words, if I were like a white American and I close the book by being like, “Oh I went on the JET programme and I had this lovely experience in this small town in rural Japan.” Nobody would read that as activist. They would be like “Oh, that’s just a book.” Right? But because I’m talking about my experience as a racialised minority in the United States, and because it’s built into the apparatus of the book, suddenly the book becomes activist. And I think we really have to think about, you know, what sort of burden that places on racialised scholars of religion, and what we can do about that. Because – sorry, this is turning into a long rant! But one of the things that I think is that . . . . The Epilogue was designed to show, rather than tell. But it was showing the value of diversity in the academy. And if diversity looks like activism then we have a huge problem. So I think that one of the things that I really . . . like, my hope for people reading the Epilogue is that “Oh, this represents why diverse voices are valuable in the academy; this represents why we need to foster diversity in the lower ranks of the academy”, and so forth.
BE: Right. So there’s so much in there to unpack. I would like to actually walk back to more of your archival discussion.
BE: So let’s take us back into that time (15:00). You look at his archive, and then, over and over, you’re reading, with the name America, some reference – either explicitly or implicitly – to concepts of whiteness. What goes through your mind as you’re going through this archive? And again, I’m trying to help you out here, with the . . . and I do that myself, your experiences shape your lens. They don’t make your project activism. So I trying to help you articulate that process.
JT: Yes great, OK. So let me just talk about the archive in general. It’s actually multiple archives in the United States in Japan. So I’m looking at American military government records at the National Archives and Records Administration. That’s in College Park, Maryland. And also there is this fabulous collection at the University of Maryland called the Prange Collection. During the years of the Occupation, every document that was published in Japanese was censored. So, you know, there’s this irony in the Occupation to promote freedom of expression, that the occupiers censor everything! (Laughter). To promote religious freedom, they quash some religious groups, and so forth. I talk about this in great detail in the book. So the Prange Collection has all these censored documents. And then I was looking at archives in Southern California, in Oregon, for people who had been influential in Occupation policy, or active in the Occupation, as well as archives in Japan. So Government records, a lot of magazines and so forth. One of the things that I noticed, as I was going through the American military government records, was that they told a very sort-of hasty story of the Japanese past, the recent Japanese past. And their story was designed to make Japan look like it was an inferior, sort-of uncivilised place. So with the concept . . . . I want to stress the concept of civilisation here, for a second, like really spell that out. Because civilisation was the dominant frame for understanding the world in the first half of the twentieth century and the late nineteenth century. And so civilisation was basically equated with whiteness. And so any time the Americans are talking about civilisation, they’re often – if not explicitly, at least implicitly – sort-of tying this to “these people who are insufficiently white”. And, of course, those people who know the history will know that Japan has had this ambiguous status geopolitically, because Japan was an empire in its own right. Japan staved off being colonised by colonising the other countries of Asia. And that’s a very complicated history that I won’t go into in too much detail. But where does that leave the scholar? Well I felt like I had a responsibility, then, to unpack the stories the Japanese people were telling about themselves. How did they think of themselves? How did they mobilise the language of civilisation in a different way? And so, you know, at first I thought I was just writing a book about the years of the Occupation. But it turned out that I needed to write a whole half of the book that was about whatever was happening before the Occupation, to really let Japanese people speak in their own voices. And, strikingly, one of the things that happened was that a lot of them were saying a lot of things about religious freedom. And they’re laughing at the United States through a lot of it. A lot of them were just like, “Look at those crazy Americans! They are way too lapse with their laws about religious freedom! We’re going to use religious freedom, but we’re going do it our own way.” And I think that that’s a very important kind of story. And, of course, just amplifying the Japanese voices, and all of their complicated conflicted ways, is part of the project of the book.
BE: So, one thing you’re pointing to is that quick summarisation of what Japan used to be. So what are we doing now, as an American project? What was Japan before this? And one of the interesting things you point to is how they drew upon Religious Studies scholars to make this claim about what Japan used to be like. And so this actually discusses it . . . . It’s a major discussion you have about the politics of Religious Studies scholarship. And so here we have an example where . . . I don’t know if those scholars really thought of themselves as world-influencing in terms of their work. However, they ended up being it. And so one major portion of the book is called “The Occupation of Religious Studies” And obviously you have a double entendre there with the job, as well as the American Occupation. And there are some really interesting points made through this probably secondarily archival work, right? But there’s these terms of a spiritual vacuum, and also what happens after the American Occupation, the flourishing of new religions (20:00). And so this new term, “new religions and new religious movements”, and other terms that come out of there, actually come out of this definition of what Japan was like before and then what it was like after. So reflecting on these discussions and maybe – well, you can maybe parse out some of that for the Listeners. But also, maybe, words of advice about us as scholars of religion and what our potential political impact could be, based on our ways of framing religions.
JT: Great. Thanks so much for that question. OK. So I’m going to answer it by looping back to an earlier part of our conversation with the activism stuff. So the reason I said that it was deliberately not an activist project was precisely because so much stuff that I was seeing in the archive was scholars of religion adopting a prescriptive tone, saying “This is good religion, and that’s bad religion.”
JT: “This is superstition. That’s real religion.” And that sort of thing. I think the category of State Shinto, which I alluded to before, it had that whole story built into it. Two-words, whole story, right? And so I wanted to be very deliberate. Of course, there’s always going to be some sort of prescription that we’re doing. But I think in general, for me, I think the first order level of prescription is about scholarly method. And if there’s an intervention I’m making in the book, it’s: how do we periodise, how do we tell our stories? Whose voices are we paying attention to? And that sort of thing. Those are the kinds of things that I think I’m very explicit about in the book. On reflection, I think I could have been even more deliberate, or taken a little bit more time to – in this case – rather than show, actually tell people what I was doing, in terms of playing with chronological presentation. The book is organised chronologically, but it’s also not organised chronologically. And that was my way of sort-of doing the historical method, but also kind-of screwing with it at the same time! But in terms of the sort-of nitty-gritty of what was happening in the Occupation – before, during and immediately after the Occupation – we have scholars of religion who are really minor until they become major, because of a sudden policy need. So the person I have in mind is Daniel Clarence Holtom, who’s a Baptist Missionary, who’s a scholar of Shinto and nobody was reading his stuff really, right? He’s completely under-appreciated. I think a small number of people are looking at him. But after Pearl Harbour the sort-of dominant narrative at the time was that Japanese people were ultra-nationalist because of Buddhism, not Shinto. And then somebody in the state department or in the Office of Strategic Services finds Holtom’s work and they’re like: “Oh my God! This guy is this expert who’s been telling us all of this stuff about why Japanese people are the way they are!” And so, suddenly, Holtom’s work has this whole new life, where it’s explaining Japanese ultra-nationalism. So this guy comes to . . . and then he ends up having like an outsize role after being on the margins of the scholarly community. So his ideas about Shinto as the national faith of Japan, and so forth, come to inform a lot of policy. This is particularly the case in the fall of 1945, when the occupiers have a sudden policy change that’s dictated by Washington. And the people in Washington suddenly announce on American public radio that Shinto, as a state religion, is going to be abolished. For the occupiers, stationed in Japan, this was the first they were hearing of it, and then they suddenly had to come up with a policy to support this objective. They had to come up with a reason to support this objective, while also protecting and promoting religious freedom. Which is an impossible task! So the only way to make that work is to designate Japan’s – quote-unquote – “national religion” as not being religion. Or as being sort-of insufficiently distinguishing between the religious and the political. How do you do that? You go to scholarly experts. So they relied on Holtom’s work, and they also relied on local Japanese scholars of religion, particularly this guy Kishimoto Hideo, and were asking them to basically support this for ordained objective and sure enough by 15 December of that year, of 1945, you get this document called the Shinto Directive, which formally abolishes this thing that they have now come to call State Shinto. And one thing I just want to put here – a sort-of asterisk to all of this – is that the language of – quote-unquote – “State Shinto” doesn’t solidify until December 1945. It is not something that is widely used, in Japanese or in English, up until that point. And that’s really crucial (25:00).
BE: And, in the book, you do a really good job of pointing out the kind-of lineage of the debates within Japan about the relationship of religion to the state. And so, it’s very clear from that there is no solidification of the State Shinto idea. So I think what this is actually . . . it’s bringing it back to, maybe, one of the earlier points about racialisation. So instead of it being an activist work, it’s really –and you can rephrase this how you want – your experiences shape your lens. That lens would be obvious . . . that lens is obvious to anyone who’s had similar experience of racialisation. On the other hand, maybe another scholar would take some of these assumptions about State Shinto for granted. Can you maybe loop those together? Like, how your own experience of racialisation allows you to break free of that presumption that the previous Religious Studies scholarship was fully accurate.
JT: Yes. Thank you so much for that question. OK, so I’m going to sort-of build on what we were just talking about with State Shinto, and tie it to this other concept that may be lurking in some Listeners’ minds, which is civil religion. OK, so Robert Bellah starts off, as I understand it, Talcott Parsons tells Robert Bellah, “You’re going do Japan” And he writes this book, Tokugawa Religion. And then he ends up shifting focus, and he ends up the being one of the major sociologists of American religion and so forth, and we’re all very indebted to him. One of the things that . . . one of his most influential essays is about Americas’ civil religion. And I think one of the things that a lot of people forget – maybe a lot of our Americanist colleagues forget – is that Bellah’s experience studying Japan directly affects his civil religion essay. And there’s even a footnote in that essay where he’s like: “I’m not talking about an American Shinto” – which I think says exactly what he’s doing. Right? There’s a sort-of proleptic quality to that that I think is really, really telling. So there are maybe one or two pages in Chapter One, where I’m talking about how Bellah, writing in his time – 1967, I think it is – he’s capable of telling a story about America’s civil religion that picks a set number of saints and heroes and monuments and so forth, and he’s talking about things like national sacrifice. But look at who he’s including and not including. There is no mention of blackness. There is no . . . like, black people are not present in this stories.
BE: Let’s repeat the date.
JT: 1967. Yes! Exactly! And so it’s just utterly striking. And so I’ve had a number of colleagues say, “Well, actually, shouldn’t civil religion be helpful in talking through your critique of State Shinto?” and I want to say, “No!” I want to flip the table over and say. “No. This is not helpful. Because Bellah was both using a racialised notion of Japan to tacitly to build his argument about American civil religion. He was rejecting what was going on in Japan to say, “Well, what we do is actually really good. And it’s the healthy stuff that bonds us all together.” That’s exactly what Japanese people were saying about . . . what they did not call State Shinto, but they called like the Imperial Way or shrine rites, or whatever. They had lots of different names for this stuff. And, you know, one of the things that Bellah’s . . . I mention this explicitly in my discussion of Bellah’s piece. But there’s no reference to Martin Luther King. There’s certainly no reference to Malcolm X, I mean can you imagine?! Right? But these are people who were speaking in prophetic voices. They were talking about the problems of the American project. There’s . . . and so, I think, to answer your question directly, I see that because of the way that I am, and because of the circumstances of my embodiment. I’m sure that . . . and I would not say that a white person would not see that. I want to be very clear here. But I think that because of growing up with this sort of ambiguous racial identity, as a multi-racial person, it’s always been sort-of in my face. I’ve never been able to not think about race. And so it took me a long time to figure out why I was so dissatisfied with the civil religion explanation. And it actually wasn’t until very late in the book that I finally came up with an answer for it. But it has to do with this issue: the circumstances of who I am, the nature of where I was born, how I grew up and all that stuff affects how I approach the archive, and so forth (30:00).
BE: Thank you so much. One more thing. And this is just like a nuts-and-bolts thing. So, we’ve discussed all the origins of the creation of the term State Shinto. Yet still . . . and I have to admit it, for myself, when I ‘m doing an Introduction to World Religions, there it is: the term State Shinto’s there. And you discuss it. Is there a nuts-and-bolts better way to describe what was happening in pre-Occupation Japan?
JT: Yes. I think we just need to talk about Japanese secularism. I describe it as a secularism. I describe what I call the Meiji constitutional regime as a secularist system. It’s premised on the distinction between “religion” and “not religion”. And I mean that in two ways. There’s like the forbidden not religion, which is things that end up being called superstitions, and so forth. And then there are the permitted or even encouraged not religion, which is the compulsory shrine rites, where you’d get a bunch of school kids to go to the shrine and pay their respects, or, like, bow to a picture of the Emperor. That’s secularism. That’s what’s happening in America too, at exactly the same time. There’s a sort-of a sense. . . . This is what Bellah would call America’s civil religion. But I think it’s actually much more complicated than that. I don’t want to reduce things to religion. I want to maintain the complexity of the language games that people play, in terms of parsing things as being religion or not religion, right? And I think that collapsing everything into the category of religion actually misses part of the point. So it is not my job to police what other people say. I know that I will be shouting into the wind, and there are going to be people who insist on using the term State Shinto. But I really think that, historically, it’s just inaccurate. And so if you’re in the classroom, you’re teaching your world religions class or whatever, what do you do? Well, use Japan as an opportunity to talk through the issues of secularism more broadly. Say, “We used to tell the story this way. Our text books or readings use this term. But you know, this is actually reflective of a different sort of politics of good and bad religion. Let’s talk about that. Let’s tie it to contemporary things. Like, when people are saying ‘Islamism’, what are they doing?” I argue in the book that Islamism is basically like the State Shinto of our day. It’s taking something and describing it as being illegitimate, just by adding that “ism” to the end. And I think there are a lot of other example that we could use. That’s the one that immediately comes to mind. So, you know, in one of your earlier questions you asked about the sort-of impact of scholars of religion. And one of the things that I do in the last chapter of the book is to show how these things – categories like State Shinto, for example – they have echoes. And they continue to influence the academy, our classrooms, policy-making and so forth. And so, if we can attend to the moments when those categories are developed historically, if we can pay attention to the politics of that moment, then we can also pay attention to how those echoes are working in our contemporary moment. It’s not to be presentist. It’s just to say that there are problems in the State Shinto concept, so let’s deal with those.
BE: Well, thank you so much. You’ve given us a lot to think about: religious freedom, secularism, secularisation, the concepts we use, the politics that we – either implicitly or explicitly – work through as Religious Studies scholars. So, thank you so much for your time today, and your excellent work: Taking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American Occupied Japan.
JT: Thanks so much. I really enjoyed your questions and the conversation. I really appreciate it.
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