Posts

Unbelief as a Nuanced Phenomenon: The Sociality of Nonreligion across Europe

Unbelief has often been defined as either ignorance or rejection of religious systems, but this week’s guests David Herbert and Josh Bullock see far more diversity in the ways one can be nonreligious. Sharing lessons from their project “Reaching for a new sense of connection? Towards a deeper understanding of the sociality of generation y non-believers in northern and Central Europe,” we hear about a more nuanced phenomenon of unbelief, where a diverse array of positions are constantly anchored, defined, and recreated in social settings. Collected from nationwide surveys, social media, and interview data, the project presents the tendencies of nonreligious young adults in the UK, Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Poland, and Romania.

One of the takeaways from this podcast is that unbelief has widespread national differences as reflected in analysis of social media, but regional similarities from historical contexts show the effects of wider geo-political alignments. For example, in the Netherlands, Norway, and Eastern Germany non-religious people are more likely to express no interest in religious matters, while in Poland and Romania people vocally expressed their unbelief in politicized ways. For more perspectives on Hebert and Bullock’s project, visit https://newsenseofconnection.blog/

[Powerpress]

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sardines, popcorn, and more.


Unbelief as a Nuanced Phenomenon:

The Sociality of Nonreligion across Europe

 

Podcast with David Herbert and Josh Bullock (2 December 2019).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/unbelief-as-a-nuanced-phenomena-the-sociality-of-nonreligion-across-europe/

 

Sidney Castillo (SC): Hello! I’m here now with Josh Bullock and David Herbert. We are at the EASR Conference 2019 in Tartu, Estonia, and we are happy to be gathered here. We are going to talk about understanding unbelief and the way that they are working on it: Reaching for a New Sense of Connection: the sociality of nonrelgion in Europe. Welcome to both of you, professors.

David Herbert (DH): Thank you.

SC: I think if you could introduce yourselves, it would be great for our Listeners.

Josh Bullock (JB): Sure. So I am doing a post-doctoral research on the Understanding Unbelief project at Kingston University. My background’s in the Sociology of Religion but primarily nonreligion – so if it could just be “Sociology of Nonreligion” that would be fine with me. And my PhD was on looking at the Sunday Assembly, the secular congregation.

DH: Hi, I’m David Herbert. I’m Professor of Sociology at Kingston University, London. And I work on religion, and now nonreligion. And also on migration and integration issues across Europe.

SC: Thank you, and welcome again to the Religious Studies Project. So let’s just dive right into the questions. And since you’re working on the Understanding Unbelief project I would like to ask, firstly, what makes unbelief an analytical category different from others such as nonreligion, horizontal transcendence, secular worldviews and so on?

DH: Yes, so the way the whole Understanding Unbelief project was set up, they gave us a lot of scope to define our own terms. So the term that we’ve used is nonreligion, because that’s kind-of easy to define – in terms of people who say they have “no religion” when you ask them. And what we found interesting, looking at the survey data, was that people who say they have no religion – when you ask “what most closely fits with your point of view?” when you give them a choice of “personal God”, “life force” or “spirit” – then many of them say, actually, life force or spirit rather than, “there is definitely no God”. So there’s kind-of an area of nonreligious which includes both people who believe in supernatural-type stuff and kind-of what we’d call “harder” atheists – so, a softer agnosticism and a harder atheism.

JB: I think that’s summed it up perfectly for my way of using nonrelgion rather than unbelief. Also, when we were trying to find participants for the study, I think nonreligion is more of a category that people are likely to relate to – at least, saying that they have no religion rather than defining themselves as being an “unbeliever” or having “unbelief”. So it was more of a relational category which people could . . . .

DH: We also found when we looked at our data that clearly many of the people who we interviewed who very definitely said that they had no religion, also said they had beliefs. So they believed in fate, luck, some of them even use horoscopes – even if a kind-of half-ironic way. So there was actually a lot of belief going on. So, again, we saw nonreligion as better. Because they’re not identifying with religion, whatever they mean by that, but they do have some beliefs.

SC: So that seems more nuanced than unbelief.

DH: Yes.

SC: Sure. Excellent. And the next question I think you place an emphasis on a particular age group. Why does the project focus on Generation Y or the Millennials? How does this group differentiate from other age groups?

JB: Yes. So we know that Generation Y – so those born between around the 1980s to late ’90s – they were around nineteen to thirty-seven, our participants were, when we interviewed them. And we know, based on ESS and EVS data, that they’re going to be much less religious than their parents’ generation and even more so than their grandparents’ generation. And this indicates for pretty much all of the countries, apart from Slovenia, across the European social studies data set.

DH: Yes, I think across twenty-six countries there’s like one where there are fewer nonreligious in that age group than in older age groups. But everywhere else it’s a growing phenomenon.

JB: So that was our primary reason – because we thought the pool would be bigger. And it also gives us some scope, then, for longitudinal studies: we can follow this generation as their beliefs perhaps change over time. And then also, part of our project was looking at the kind-of sense of connection they take and their sociality. So we were interested in the social media side of it, and how they connect with others – whether it be on forums or, yeah, social media, Twitter, Facebook.

DH: Yes. We thought, as the most intensive social media users, they would be a really good sample for getting a sense of what’s happening at the cutting edge of . . . because within nonreligion there are some kind-of older institutions, like the Humanist Society and so on, but not so much. And so we thought “Ok, so do people fulfil a need to sort-of get together in being nonreligious in whatever way?” And we thought, “OK, social media is a good way in. These are high users. We should find something.”

SC: So even though they don’t relate to religion in this way, they still want to gather and get together – find like-minded people?

JB: Well, that was the kind-of question we set out with at the beginning of the project. Because it was off the back of my research on the Sunday Assembly, which is where nonreligious people are gathering to try to find community and belonging in the UK, Netherlands and US. And we were wondering if other kinds of institutions or organisations were happening elsewhere in Europe, and in what contexts? And what did they look like? Because we didn’t expect to find the Sunday Assembly in places like Poland and Romania but we were interested in what kinds of other groups might exist.

DH: Yes. And particularly in the question of where religion is playing a more active – maybe intrusive – role in public life, if that produces a kind-of counter-reaction; a kind-of organisation against the encroachment of religion, by kind-of secular societies, but maybe by people organising in new ways.

JB: Yes. So like a “resistance identity” over just a “need for congregational belonging”.

SC: Yes excellent. Because indeed I can see that there can be a contrast between these countries where they have a more prominent religious life, like Romania which is highly Catholic and (another context) with all the religious denominations. And that’s actually the next question: in contextualising nonbelief you focus on countries with post-Soviet populations, such as Poland, Romania and regions of former East Germany. How are percentages of religion and belief shaped by these experiences, compared to experiences of Northern Europe?

DH: Yes. So we had fifty/fifty samples – sort-of fifty Western European and fifty Eastern European – and half each, three in each. And we wanted to see what the differences were. And also there were big differences between those countries in terms of the number of nonreligious. So in Romania it was very low, maybe around the kind-of five percent mark. Maybe a little bit more in Poland.

JB: Yes about six or seven percent in Poland.

DH: And larger, much larger in East Germany. So what difference does being in a minority make to whether people feel the need to get together? And also, how politicised religion is – what difference does that make? When it comes to the post-Communist situation, of course, religion was treated in somewhat different ways in Communist countries. There were always political restrictions on it as a kind-of alternative source of loyalty to the Communist state. And so we expected that there may be effects in terms of the legacy on that. Whether it’s in terms of, say, in Poland – where the Church was very strong, resisted Communism, strongly attached to national identity – but playing a different role maybe in Eastern Germany, where it was much less a kind-of force for national unity. So if religion has been a source of national identity, as it was in Poland for resistance to Communism, then maybe the people who were not religious . . . . And particularly if the communist regime . . . the Soviet Communist regime was associated with atheism, then there’s likely to be more negative views to being nonreligious and especially atheist. So if that affected how people then felt similarly, in Romania? But we expected less of that in the German context, because religion was less politicised. So, yeah. And we saw some kind-of legacies of that in terms of how people relate now. There was much more, for example, political organisation of nonreligion in Poland than we found in the other contexts.

SC: And even though a lot of the countries share a Soviet background, there is a big difference between each one of them?

JB: Hugely so, yes.

DH: Yes, they have very different histories. And also history has taken a different turn. So in Poland, for example – where religion has become a force for populism, and used by various groups in society and the law and justice and government to support various kinds of controversial policies – we found the nonreligious very active in terms of organising, for example, for women’s right to choose.

JB: Yes, supporting LGBTQ rights as well, and also other kind-of causes for equality – within Poland, at least.

DH: Yes. So a strong voice for a kind-of resisting religion coming into public space, and a strong voice for kind-of pro-choice options on a range of levels.

SC: Right. And how can you lift these national contexts, the age group, and also the intersectionality of, like, race, gender, class? Is there also any kind of correspondence for the same age group that share differences in some way?

DH: Yes. We had some racial and religious background diversity in our sample. And actually one of the areas where that aspect of diversity came out was we found that amongst people from Hindu and Muslim backgrounds, in Western European contexts, that they were more inclined to express beliefs in the supernatural and have less reservations about doing so. So they’ll talk about, for example, “karma”, and “meaningful coincidences” in a way that was quite common in Eastern Europe, but much less so in Western Europe. So that was perhaps one source of diversity.

JB: Just following on from that. So we found these beliefs in about thirty-four percent of our participants. So just over a third. So I think it was twenty-three of them in total, and nine came out of Poland. Eight came out of Romania. The other six were from Western or Northern Europe. But their backgrounds were from Eastern Europe or Northern Africa. So really this was kind-of like an Eastern Europe phenomenon, having these karmic or cosmic beliefs.

DH: Beliefs in a range of kind-of meaningful connections and a sense that, as human beings, we’re somehow connected to the broader universe – that kind-of spiritual belief I guess you could call it. I think many of them would own that term. They saw that as being compatible with being nonreligious. It was something different from religion. But it was much more common in Eastern European and people of Eastern European heritage – as well as North African heritage, in one case.

SC: Also you are using this concept of yours of politicisation of religion. So how is this concept articulated in the data you’ve looked at so far?

DH: Yeah. So we were interested in investigating how the public role of religion makes a difference to how the nonreligious react. And religion is publicly prominent for different reasons in the different countries. So because of its politicisation in Poland, and in support of a kind-of folk nationalism and in relation to immigration issues, especially Muslim immigration, in Western Europe. So it’s a more controversial . . . . It’s controversial for different reasons.

SC: Right.

DH: And so, yeah, we wanted to look at the effects of that.

SC: Also I was wondering . . . I think you’ve given a very good macro overview. Because you devised your study on three levels: macro, meso and micro. What else have you identified on the micro level and the meso level?

JB: So, on the micro level I think one of our biggest findings is coming back to the diversity of the beliefs that the nonreligious hold. So this was coming back to these paranormal, supernatural, magical, superstitious beliefs. And despite them saying that they are nonreligious – in the sense that they don’t identify with an institutional religion – they still share a wide range of diverse beliefs and often these are paranormal, supernatural, magical beliefs. So that was on the micro level.

DH: Yes and those supernatural beliefs often seemed to serve to connect people to other people, whether it’s friends and family that they’re close to, or to give some sense of moral orientation in the universe. So quite a few of the stories, the meaningful coincidences were about being rewarded for some kind-of good behaviour. So, you do someone a good turn and then something good happens. So that almost sort-of golden rule projected onto the cosmos. And the kind-of sense that there’s some kind-of moral order. That was quite a strong theme that came through, as well as a connection to other people: a kind-of sense that there’s human significance . . . .

JB: Yeah. But often these beliefs were a kind-of source of tension during the interviews, or at least when we were reading back over them. So they would try to kind-of explain what had happened – these kind-of meaningful coincidences – in a scientific way, even thought there was no – at least to them – logical explanation for what had happened. So for things like . . . we had an example from a young Romanian woman who was living in London, who had lived within two hundred metres of the same person all her life – and ended up being best friends with this person – but had moved six times across different countries and still lived within two hundred metres of this person. They’d just kind-of followed the same route! So, for her, this was more than just a coincidence. And she . . . to quote her term, “It was meant to be.” So there’s kind-of this sense that there’s an “order of things”. But for others trying to explain these events, which seemingly are irrational – like books flying off shelves, or affinities with numbers, or knowing . . . or having a strange feeling when a family member is about to die – so trying to explain these rationally was often like a source of discomfort or tension. Maybe that was kind-of like an artefact of . . . because we were creating this tension by asking them to explain how they understand the event. It came out quite strongly, that sense of tension, when people were referring to superstitious beliefs that still affected them, but which at a rational level they challenge. So for example one guy talked about black cats and how he would avoid black cats. And he had a sense that it would give him bad luck even though he didn’t believe, rationally, that there was any kind-of causal process involved. And he actually said he found it really annoying. He said he found it really stressful, as well. Really annoying and really stressful. Because he didn’t believe it, but he would still actively avoid them.

SC: Right.

JB: I think his starting sentence was: “I’m not superstitious, but I don’t like black cats.” So there’s often contradictory statements which can co-exist, I guess, between the analytic and the intuitive, right?

DH: Yes. So we theorised that in terms of a distinction that’s made in the developmental psychology literature, between analytical modes of thinking – which develop from age kind-of four up to . . . well it keeps going through our lives I guess – and earlier intuitive beliefs, where agency – so, the ability to move and change things and to want things – is attributed to inanimate objects. And gradually, that kind-of moves out of daily use. But the theory is that we can code-switch between those two things. So that actually the intuitive stays alongside the analytic, and that maybe at moments of stress or something we don’t know how to deal with . . .

JB: It’s like we’re gaining control over the situation, isn’t it?

DH: It comes out to reinforce, like, a sense of control. So what we think may have been going on, and why people make . . . . Most of the people who reported the experiences didn’t feel a tension about it all the time. They just kind-of did it. But then, when we asked them to reflect on it, then they felt the tension. Some of them felt it in their daily life as well.

SC: I wanted to ask about, specifically . . . you mentioned that you have been studying self-reported individuals who they say that they are nonbelievers. But in which way did you carry out your interviews? I wondered if for some of them it was the first time that (they had been asked to consider these questions in a rational way). So, to build a growing narrative about their own non-belief. So did you have those cases where: “Oh. You didn’t ask me. I wasn’t warned about that.”?

DH: Yes, I mean, for lots of cases this was probably the first time they’d had to articulate their beliefs or put them onto paper, I guess. Some of them were part of discussions on social media and had relationships with the Rationalist Society. So they may have been used to thinking about those kind of things. But many of them, not. So I think we had a kind-of mixture in terms of how reflective they were. But because it was quite a wide-ranging interview, probably – well, hopefully – there was something new for everybody.

SC: Any concluding remarks you want to give about your results?

JB: I mean, just returning back to the micro, meso, macro: so if we go back to the medium level stuff, there are some examples which we found in Europe. For example, in Frankfurt in Germany they have a meet up group called Drinking and Socialising with Atheists. So you can go for a pint down the pub and talk existential questions, and big life politics, and religion. But it’s quite small. So we didn’t really come across very many meso groups. We have a medium-level group. But in terms of macro there were a few. So the Norwegian Humanists played quite a big role in providing ritual instruction for nonreligious.

DH: And that’s an unusual case, because it’s state-funded like the churches. So it has much more resources to draw on. So there’s a kind-of national structure with people working full-time for them. Whereas in other cases it’s kind-of self-start up networks, mostly. But we also found quite a lot of innovation in terms of practices. So, for example, the Polish, big, Atheist of the Year awards ceremony, goes with that.

JB: The KLF, the Kazimierz Lyszczynski Foundation – apologies for the pronunciation! Every year they hold like an annual march and they have atheist picnics throughout the summer. So there’s a kind-of sense of community and belonging building there – a bit similar to the Sunday Assembly. But primarily, it’s more to do with campaigning, as we mentioned earlier, for equal rights and women’s rights. But there’s some innovation there, in terms of atheist ceremonies to reward the biggest atheist of the year in terms of their contribution. Yeah.

DH: I guess our headline finding is that there is diversity: that the nonreligious category doesn’t mean that there aren’t some kind-of supernatural beliefs going on. Those might not be the most important things for those people but they definitely feature – at least for a sizeable minority. And also, I guess, that there did seem to be a kind-of an interaction with the broader society in terms of how active people are. So that where people are feeling that their nonreligious identity is under threat, then they kind-of get together to organise, particularly in the Polish case. Whereas, I guess, it’s more a sort-of looser network-type affiliation which you can see from looking at the social media data, quite a lot of them. Because most of our cohort, I guess, were bilingual – not maybe completely bilingual, but certainly use English as a functional language. And that’s pretty common amongst Millennials. And that enables them to follow people that they like in the UK or in other European countries, where there’s also English as a working language being used. So there’s a kind-of a nonreligious Eurosphere developing.

SC: That’s very interesting. I think we are going to wrap it up now. Thank you, again, for being on the Religious Studies Project, and we hope to have you again.

JB: Thank you very much.

DH: Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

‘Secular Humanism’

One axiological challenge facing the secular movement in America today relates to ethics and social value. Detractors often respond to ontological positions such as atheism and agnosticism with expostulation, and even impertinence. This said, there is plenty of evidence to support that secular movements can provide socially responsible and ethical structures, and the Council for Secular Humanism is one such organization which encourages dialogue and ethical responsibility beyond the boundaries of traditional religious ideologies.

Throughout history the dominating attitude towards Freethinkers and nonbelievers in a God or gods might be summed up best in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov when he famously wrote, “If there is no God, everything is permitted”. In other words, and turning this into a question worthy of inquiry, what can help structure the lives of the many people who are often labeled as having ‘no structure’ without God? Certainly, distrust of atheists has historical roots and even persists today (Norenzayan, 2013). While debates about the existence and necessity of God for moral imperatives and ethical obligations between theologians and atheologians alike may never cease, secular humanism offers at least one pragmatic alternative to a religious worldview by providing a normative cynosure of values, ethics and meaning with which to structure the lives of atheists and other nonreligious peoples.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn

In Thomas Coleman’s interview for the RSP with Tom Flynn, secular humanism is described as a “complete and balanced life stance” rejecting supernaturalism. Recorded at the Center For Inquiry’s 2013 Student Leadership Conference, Tom addresses whether secular humanism is a religion by covering the functionalist/substantive dichotomy, and discusses some of the common ‘tenets’ of secular humanism and outlines the growth of secularism, atheism and agnosticism in the United States. Tom departs by drawing parallels with current attempts in America from the LGBT movement, and their effort to gain acceptance, to that of the ongoing battle for equality, acceptance and ‘normality’ for nonbelievers in God leaving us with the following word of advice for atheists around the world: “If you’re in the closet come out”. This interview attempts to bring secular humanism under the academic eye of religious studies as a movement which should fruitfully be considered in discursive relationship to the category ‘religion’.

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

References:  Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

It’s the Fruits, not the Roots: A Response to Ralph Hood

IMG_1422-1Hood’s approach has no flaws from the standpoint of an observing scientist; but, on the personal level, one may have trouble distinguishing between the cause and the consequence.

It’s the Fruits, not the Roots: A Response to Ralph Hood

By Joshua James, Henderson State University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 22 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ralph Hood on Mysticism (20 May 2013)

When I began outlining my response to this interview—which is an intriguing psychological look at mystical experience through the filter of one of the most insightful minds dealing with the subject today—I wanted to remain as objective as possible and remove the influence of my personal experience. I found it nearly impossible. One method for addressing the intersection between lived experience and academia is through reflexivity.  In the article, “On Becoming a Qualitative Researcher: the Value of Reflexivity,” by Diane Watt, the author notes the importance of juxtaposing one’s self in relation to their research interest. By the researcher or author stating their worldview (or in some cases bias) the reader has a better understanding of not only the structure of inquiry but also the interpretive frame of the author’s position. In the case of Watt (2007), her experience as a school teacher informed her paradigm of inquiry.

Watt’s argument for reflexivity relaxed my reluctance. Watt kept a journal of her experience and combined her reflexive exploration with quantitative research to construct an academic product with multiple layers of depth in inquiry both in terms her research interests and in self-reflection of perceptions in analysis. Watt found her journal quite helpful: “Through the writing process, I was able to excavate memories of my own classroom practice.” I realized that when I listened to the interview with Ralph Hood, that I had “excavated” memories of my own. Thus I decided that not only would including my first-hand experience be helpful to my argument, it would be ill-advised not to include it, possibly even irresponsible.  This paper is written in relation to my own reflexive experience of understanding mysticism and the profound themes posed by Dr. Ralph Hood’s podcast.

When I first read William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, a text to which Dr. Ralph Hood refers liberally, I strongly connected with an account given by an agnostic man during a lecture entitled “The Reality of the Unseen.” James identifies him only as “a scientific man of my acquaintance.” A portion of the account follows:

Between twenty and thirty I gradually became more agnostic and irreligious, yet I cannot say that I ever lost that ‘indefinite consciousness’ which Herbert Spencer describes so well, of an Absolute Reality behind phenomena…I had ceased my childish prayers to God, and never prayed to It in a formal manner, yet my more recent experience show me to have been in a relation to It which practically was the same thing as prayer…I know now that it was a personal relation I was in to it, because of late years the power of communicating with it has left me, and I am conscious of a perfectly definite loss.[1]

While at the time of the writing, James’ acquaintance was over twenty years older than the age I am now, his early experience virtually mirrors my own.

I’m a skeptic. However, like the man to whom I refer above, I have, rarely, turned to prayer in times of desperation, and I have always had a sense that there was someone else involved with the world; someone to whom I owed thanks for undeserved good fortune, someone who heard my thoughts, someone who compelled me to feel guilty or embarrassed even when no human could possibly have known the mistake I made. I have had, in spite of my agnosticism, an experience that could be classified as a “mystical experience,” the details of which I shall not go into, but I did experience a degree of transcendence in the sense that I lost emotional control and it seemed as if someone else had this control. It occurred during a period of temporary desperation which prompted me to pray to whom I do not know for the first time since my childhood (which was spent in a Pentecostal church).

Hood makes clear in this interview that what he is interested in, with regard to spiritual experience, is the interpretation of an experience rather than the cause of an experience. That is to say that regardless if one’s spiritual experience occurs during prayer, deep self-reflection, or after swallowing a couple hits of blotter acid, the consequences and interpretation of the experience, usually involving a transcendence or “loss of self,” validates the experience. Hood’s approach has no flaws from the standpoint of an observing scientist; but, on the personal level, one may have trouble distinguishing between the cause and the consequence.

I will refer to my own experience to demonstrate my point. I could interpret my experience as evidence, or even proof, for the more fundamentally-minded reader, of the existence of God, and as confirmation of the validity of the scripture. It could have been the reassurance I had been looking for to readopt my faith.

But because I understand, or more appropriately, believe I understand the cause, my interpretation is different. I neither pretend to be an expert in the field of psychology nor do I deny that the human brain is still a mystery to those who are, but I know enough to know that the brain is powerful. And to know that suggestion is powerful. Therefore, given that I was in a state of desperation and asking an invisible, unknowable presence for a mercy of which I felt unworthy, my brain created the experience. My complexly constructed brain used overtly simple logic to rationalize a scenario where something special had happened to me: I asked someone—and I deeply hoped this someone existed—for something and I had received it, therefore that someone must have given it to me. Furthermore, as I previously stated, I felt undeserving of the mercy I received. Because I felt undeserving, it was natural to feel gratitude, and I don’t think I’m being too presumptuous when I suggest that it is the nature of human mentality to focus our gratitude or blame, anger or affection onto a person, or Supreme Being in this instance.

Make no mistake, Hood’s argument is not lost on me, neither do I disagree with it. Hood would likely argue that whether I had chosen to view the experience as faith-affirming or to view it in terms of Freudian reductionism, the experience occurred and I had interpreted it, therefore the experience is validated. The very fact that it happened makes it real, regardless of its roots. I am simply arguing that the roots are sometimes related to the “fruits,” as William James calls them.

Hood’s approach holds so long as we reject the possibility of objective truth. Take, for instance, the example given in the interview regarding psychedelic drugs. Hood argues that the experience should not be dismissed simply because it was caused by synthetic means, that is to say, only the cause is synthetic, the consequence is very much natural and real. On the one hand, if, while on an acid trip, one realizes through a transcendent experience that he or she has become angry and short-tempered recently, and as a result modifies his or her behavior, then the roots of the experience should not nullify the lesson learned. On the other hand, if, while on an acid trip one has, through a transcendent experience, become convinced whole-heartedly of the existence of God, then the validity could be called into question. Hood would argue that if one arrives at this conclusion through mystical experience, it should not be dismissed simply because the cause was hallucinogenic drugs rather than prayer. To his point, if one gained this same certainty through experience caused by other means, I would lend it no more validity; but, it becomes more difficult to distinguish the cause from the consequence.

Despite the rejection of my childhood religion, I have always wanted for the supernatural world of heaven and spirits to exist. The fact I want to believe only adds to my skepticism; I wish there was a heaven, therefore it becomes easier to convince me it is so, and thus I remain wary. If you have ever watched an episode of Ghost Hunters on the Syfy network and seen how disappointed people appear when they discover that their house is not haunted, then you understand what I mean. People would rather be in danger than be wrong, and we would choose almost anything over being alone and insignificant. If we have a heaven, or even a suggestion that there is something after death, say a spiritual experience, then we do not have to fear the loneliness of death. For centuries, the West believed unquestioningly that God created the Earth and all the plants and creatures specifically for us and that it was the center of the entire universe. This arrogant insistence upon being special has been deeply embedded in our collective unconscious for some time. The discoveries made along the road to the present were increasingly more difficult to deal with until we finally became the most dominant animal on one of many billions of rocks in a universe too big for us to even begin to measure. It is no surprise we want to believe. Thus even today any experience of some transcendence must be interpreted as special conversation between the individual and God himself, or whatever entity or realm in which one believes.

For Hood, my cynical interpretation only proves his point: the consequence of the experience is all that matters; the religious among us will interpret it religiously, and the non-religious among us will interpret it non-religiously. A spiritual world exists because people continue to experience it. It is a post-modern and pragmatic philosophy, and it serves him well. Take Hood’s and Paul Williamson’s work with the Lazarus Project for example. The addicts replace the drug experience with a spiritual experience, and if it benefits them, who could question its validity. And of course, if someone manages to reveal the spiritual world to be an objective part of the natural world, it will undoubtedly be discovered through the mythological agnostic approach used by scientists like Ralph Hood who refused to be limited by presumptions.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

IMG_1422-1Joshua James is in graduate school at Henderson State, Master of Liberal Arts with an emphasis in social science in progress. He received his B.A., major in History from Henderson also, and has worked in the restaurant business for years. Recently he has become passionate about writing and just this semester has taken an interest in journalism, something I never attempted as an undergrad.

References

  • James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penquin, 1982.
  • Watt, Diane. “On Becoming a Qualitative Researcher: The Value of Reflexivity.” The Qualitative Report. 12 (2007): 82-101.

[1] William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience. (New York: Penguin, 1982), 64-5.

Podcasts

Unbelief as a Nuanced Phenomenon: The Sociality of Nonreligion across Europe

Unbelief has often been defined as either ignorance or rejection of religious systems, but this week’s guests David Herbert and Josh Bullock see far more diversity in the ways one can be nonreligious. Sharing lessons from their project “Reaching for a new sense of connection? Towards a deeper understanding of the sociality of generation y non-believers in northern and Central Europe,” we hear about a more nuanced phenomenon of unbelief, where a diverse array of positions are constantly anchored, defined, and recreated in social settings. Collected from nationwide surveys, social media, and interview data, the project presents the tendencies of nonreligious young adults in the UK, Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Poland, and Romania.

One of the takeaways from this podcast is that unbelief has widespread national differences as reflected in analysis of social media, but regional similarities from historical contexts show the effects of wider geo-political alignments. For example, in the Netherlands, Norway, and Eastern Germany non-religious people are more likely to express no interest in religious matters, while in Poland and Romania people vocally expressed their unbelief in politicized ways. For more perspectives on Hebert and Bullock’s project, visit https://newsenseofconnection.blog/

[Powerpress]

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sardines, popcorn, and more.


Unbelief as a Nuanced Phenomenon:

The Sociality of Nonreligion across Europe

 

Podcast with David Herbert and Josh Bullock (2 December 2019).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/unbelief-as-a-nuanced-phenomena-the-sociality-of-nonreligion-across-europe/

 

Sidney Castillo (SC): Hello! I’m here now with Josh Bullock and David Herbert. We are at the EASR Conference 2019 in Tartu, Estonia, and we are happy to be gathered here. We are going to talk about understanding unbelief and the way that they are working on it: Reaching for a New Sense of Connection: the sociality of nonrelgion in Europe. Welcome to both of you, professors.

David Herbert (DH): Thank you.

SC: I think if you could introduce yourselves, it would be great for our Listeners.

Josh Bullock (JB): Sure. So I am doing a post-doctoral research on the Understanding Unbelief project at Kingston University. My background’s in the Sociology of Religion but primarily nonreligion – so if it could just be “Sociology of Nonreligion” that would be fine with me. And my PhD was on looking at the Sunday Assembly, the secular congregation.

DH: Hi, I’m David Herbert. I’m Professor of Sociology at Kingston University, London. And I work on religion, and now nonreligion. And also on migration and integration issues across Europe.

SC: Thank you, and welcome again to the Religious Studies Project. So let’s just dive right into the questions. And since you’re working on the Understanding Unbelief project I would like to ask, firstly, what makes unbelief an analytical category different from others such as nonreligion, horizontal transcendence, secular worldviews and so on?

DH: Yes, so the way the whole Understanding Unbelief project was set up, they gave us a lot of scope to define our own terms. So the term that we’ve used is nonreligion, because that’s kind-of easy to define – in terms of people who say they have “no religion” when you ask them. And what we found interesting, looking at the survey data, was that people who say they have no religion – when you ask “what most closely fits with your point of view?” when you give them a choice of “personal God”, “life force” or “spirit” – then many of them say, actually, life force or spirit rather than, “there is definitely no God”. So there’s kind-of an area of nonreligious which includes both people who believe in supernatural-type stuff and kind-of what we’d call “harder” atheists – so, a softer agnosticism and a harder atheism.

JB: I think that’s summed it up perfectly for my way of using nonrelgion rather than unbelief. Also, when we were trying to find participants for the study, I think nonreligion is more of a category that people are likely to relate to – at least, saying that they have no religion rather than defining themselves as being an “unbeliever” or having “unbelief”. So it was more of a relational category which people could . . . .

DH: We also found when we looked at our data that clearly many of the people who we interviewed who very definitely said that they had no religion, also said they had beliefs. So they believed in fate, luck, some of them even use horoscopes – even if a kind-of half-ironic way. So there was actually a lot of belief going on. So, again, we saw nonreligion as better. Because they’re not identifying with religion, whatever they mean by that, but they do have some beliefs.

SC: So that seems more nuanced than unbelief.

DH: Yes.

SC: Sure. Excellent. And the next question I think you place an emphasis on a particular age group. Why does the project focus on Generation Y or the Millennials? How does this group differentiate from other age groups?

JB: Yes. So we know that Generation Y – so those born between around the 1980s to late ’90s – they were around nineteen to thirty-seven, our participants were, when we interviewed them. And we know, based on ESS and EVS data, that they’re going to be much less religious than their parents’ generation and even more so than their grandparents’ generation. And this indicates for pretty much all of the countries, apart from Slovenia, across the European social studies data set.

DH: Yes, I think across twenty-six countries there’s like one where there are fewer nonreligious in that age group than in older age groups. But everywhere else it’s a growing phenomenon.

JB: So that was our primary reason – because we thought the pool would be bigger. And it also gives us some scope, then, for longitudinal studies: we can follow this generation as their beliefs perhaps change over time. And then also, part of our project was looking at the kind-of sense of connection they take and their sociality. So we were interested in the social media side of it, and how they connect with others – whether it be on forums or, yeah, social media, Twitter, Facebook.

DH: Yes. We thought, as the most intensive social media users, they would be a really good sample for getting a sense of what’s happening at the cutting edge of . . . because within nonreligion there are some kind-of older institutions, like the Humanist Society and so on, but not so much. And so we thought “Ok, so do people fulfil a need to sort-of get together in being nonreligious in whatever way?” And we thought, “OK, social media is a good way in. These are high users. We should find something.”

SC: So even though they don’t relate to religion in this way, they still want to gather and get together – find like-minded people?

JB: Well, that was the kind-of question we set out with at the beginning of the project. Because it was off the back of my research on the Sunday Assembly, which is where nonreligious people are gathering to try to find community and belonging in the UK, Netherlands and US. And we were wondering if other kinds of institutions or organisations were happening elsewhere in Europe, and in what contexts? And what did they look like? Because we didn’t expect to find the Sunday Assembly in places like Poland and Romania but we were interested in what kinds of other groups might exist.

DH: Yes. And particularly in the question of where religion is playing a more active – maybe intrusive – role in public life, if that produces a kind-of counter-reaction; a kind-of organisation against the encroachment of religion, by kind-of secular societies, but maybe by people organising in new ways.

JB: Yes. So like a “resistance identity” over just a “need for congregational belonging”.

SC: Yes excellent. Because indeed I can see that there can be a contrast between these countries where they have a more prominent religious life, like Romania which is highly Catholic and (another context) with all the religious denominations. And that’s actually the next question: in contextualising nonbelief you focus on countries with post-Soviet populations, such as Poland, Romania and regions of former East Germany. How are percentages of religion and belief shaped by these experiences, compared to experiences of Northern Europe?

DH: Yes. So we had fifty/fifty samples – sort-of fifty Western European and fifty Eastern European – and half each, three in each. And we wanted to see what the differences were. And also there were big differences between those countries in terms of the number of nonreligious. So in Romania it was very low, maybe around the kind-of five percent mark. Maybe a little bit more in Poland.

JB: Yes about six or seven percent in Poland.

DH: And larger, much larger in East Germany. So what difference does being in a minority make to whether people feel the need to get together? And also, how politicised religion is – what difference does that make? When it comes to the post-Communist situation, of course, religion was treated in somewhat different ways in Communist countries. There were always political restrictions on it as a kind-of alternative source of loyalty to the Communist state. And so we expected that there may be effects in terms of the legacy on that. Whether it’s in terms of, say, in Poland – where the Church was very strong, resisted Communism, strongly attached to national identity – but playing a different role maybe in Eastern Germany, where it was much less a kind-of force for national unity. So if religion has been a source of national identity, as it was in Poland for resistance to Communism, then maybe the people who were not religious . . . . And particularly if the communist regime . . . the Soviet Communist regime was associated with atheism, then there’s likely to be more negative views to being nonreligious and especially atheist. So if that affected how people then felt similarly, in Romania? But we expected less of that in the German context, because religion was less politicised. So, yeah. And we saw some kind-of legacies of that in terms of how people relate now. There was much more, for example, political organisation of nonreligion in Poland than we found in the other contexts.

SC: And even though a lot of the countries share a Soviet background, there is a big difference between each one of them?

JB: Hugely so, yes.

DH: Yes, they have very different histories. And also history has taken a different turn. So in Poland, for example – where religion has become a force for populism, and used by various groups in society and the law and justice and government to support various kinds of controversial policies – we found the nonreligious very active in terms of organising, for example, for women’s right to choose.

JB: Yes, supporting LGBTQ rights as well, and also other kind-of causes for equality – within Poland, at least.

DH: Yes. So a strong voice for a kind-of resisting religion coming into public space, and a strong voice for kind-of pro-choice options on a range of levels.

SC: Right. And how can you lift these national contexts, the age group, and also the intersectionality of, like, race, gender, class? Is there also any kind of correspondence for the same age group that share differences in some way?

DH: Yes. We had some racial and religious background diversity in our sample. And actually one of the areas where that aspect of diversity came out was we found that amongst people from Hindu and Muslim backgrounds, in Western European contexts, that they were more inclined to express beliefs in the supernatural and have less reservations about doing so. So they’ll talk about, for example, “karma”, and “meaningful coincidences” in a way that was quite common in Eastern Europe, but much less so in Western Europe. So that was perhaps one source of diversity.

JB: Just following on from that. So we found these beliefs in about thirty-four percent of our participants. So just over a third. So I think it was twenty-three of them in total, and nine came out of Poland. Eight came out of Romania. The other six were from Western or Northern Europe. But their backgrounds were from Eastern Europe or Northern Africa. So really this was kind-of like an Eastern Europe phenomenon, having these karmic or cosmic beliefs.

DH: Beliefs in a range of kind-of meaningful connections and a sense that, as human beings, we’re somehow connected to the broader universe – that kind-of spiritual belief I guess you could call it. I think many of them would own that term. They saw that as being compatible with being nonreligious. It was something different from religion. But it was much more common in Eastern European and people of Eastern European heritage – as well as North African heritage, in one case.

SC: Also you are using this concept of yours of politicisation of religion. So how is this concept articulated in the data you’ve looked at so far?

DH: Yeah. So we were interested in investigating how the public role of religion makes a difference to how the nonreligious react. And religion is publicly prominent for different reasons in the different countries. So because of its politicisation in Poland, and in support of a kind-of folk nationalism and in relation to immigration issues, especially Muslim immigration, in Western Europe. So it’s a more controversial . . . . It’s controversial for different reasons.

SC: Right.

DH: And so, yeah, we wanted to look at the effects of that.

SC: Also I was wondering . . . I think you’ve given a very good macro overview. Because you devised your study on three levels: macro, meso and micro. What else have you identified on the micro level and the meso level?

JB: So, on the micro level I think one of our biggest findings is coming back to the diversity of the beliefs that the nonreligious hold. So this was coming back to these paranormal, supernatural, magical, superstitious beliefs. And despite them saying that they are nonreligious – in the sense that they don’t identify with an institutional religion – they still share a wide range of diverse beliefs and often these are paranormal, supernatural, magical beliefs. So that was on the micro level.

DH: Yes and those supernatural beliefs often seemed to serve to connect people to other people, whether it’s friends and family that they’re close to, or to give some sense of moral orientation in the universe. So quite a few of the stories, the meaningful coincidences were about being rewarded for some kind-of good behaviour. So, you do someone a good turn and then something good happens. So that almost sort-of golden rule projected onto the cosmos. And the kind-of sense that there’s some kind-of moral order. That was quite a strong theme that came through, as well as a connection to other people: a kind-of sense that there’s human significance . . . .

JB: Yeah. But often these beliefs were a kind-of source of tension during the interviews, or at least when we were reading back over them. So they would try to kind-of explain what had happened – these kind-of meaningful coincidences – in a scientific way, even thought there was no – at least to them – logical explanation for what had happened. So for things like . . . we had an example from a young Romanian woman who was living in London, who had lived within two hundred metres of the same person all her life – and ended up being best friends with this person – but had moved six times across different countries and still lived within two hundred metres of this person. They’d just kind-of followed the same route! So, for her, this was more than just a coincidence. And she . . . to quote her term, “It was meant to be.” So there’s kind-of this sense that there’s an “order of things”. But for others trying to explain these events, which seemingly are irrational – like books flying off shelves, or affinities with numbers, or knowing . . . or having a strange feeling when a family member is about to die – so trying to explain these rationally was often like a source of discomfort or tension. Maybe that was kind-of like an artefact of . . . because we were creating this tension by asking them to explain how they understand the event. It came out quite strongly, that sense of tension, when people were referring to superstitious beliefs that still affected them, but which at a rational level they challenge. So for example one guy talked about black cats and how he would avoid black cats. And he had a sense that it would give him bad luck even though he didn’t believe, rationally, that there was any kind-of causal process involved. And he actually said he found it really annoying. He said he found it really stressful, as well. Really annoying and really stressful. Because he didn’t believe it, but he would still actively avoid them.

SC: Right.

JB: I think his starting sentence was: “I’m not superstitious, but I don’t like black cats.” So there’s often contradictory statements which can co-exist, I guess, between the analytic and the intuitive, right?

DH: Yes. So we theorised that in terms of a distinction that’s made in the developmental psychology literature, between analytical modes of thinking – which develop from age kind-of four up to . . . well it keeps going through our lives I guess – and earlier intuitive beliefs, where agency – so, the ability to move and change things and to want things – is attributed to inanimate objects. And gradually, that kind-of moves out of daily use. But the theory is that we can code-switch between those two things. So that actually the intuitive stays alongside the analytic, and that maybe at moments of stress or something we don’t know how to deal with . . .

JB: It’s like we’re gaining control over the situation, isn’t it?

DH: It comes out to reinforce, like, a sense of control. So what we think may have been going on, and why people make . . . . Most of the people who reported the experiences didn’t feel a tension about it all the time. They just kind-of did it. But then, when we asked them to reflect on it, then they felt the tension. Some of them felt it in their daily life as well.

SC: I wanted to ask about, specifically . . . you mentioned that you have been studying self-reported individuals who they say that they are nonbelievers. But in which way did you carry out your interviews? I wondered if for some of them it was the first time that (they had been asked to consider these questions in a rational way). So, to build a growing narrative about their own non-belief. So did you have those cases where: “Oh. You didn’t ask me. I wasn’t warned about that.”?

DH: Yes, I mean, for lots of cases this was probably the first time they’d had to articulate their beliefs or put them onto paper, I guess. Some of them were part of discussions on social media and had relationships with the Rationalist Society. So they may have been used to thinking about those kind of things. But many of them, not. So I think we had a kind-of mixture in terms of how reflective they were. But because it was quite a wide-ranging interview, probably – well, hopefully – there was something new for everybody.

SC: Any concluding remarks you want to give about your results?

JB: I mean, just returning back to the micro, meso, macro: so if we go back to the medium level stuff, there are some examples which we found in Europe. For example, in Frankfurt in Germany they have a meet up group called Drinking and Socialising with Atheists. So you can go for a pint down the pub and talk existential questions, and big life politics, and religion. But it’s quite small. So we didn’t really come across very many meso groups. We have a medium-level group. But in terms of macro there were a few. So the Norwegian Humanists played quite a big role in providing ritual instruction for nonreligious.

DH: And that’s an unusual case, because it’s state-funded like the churches. So it has much more resources to draw on. So there’s a kind-of national structure with people working full-time for them. Whereas in other cases it’s kind-of self-start up networks, mostly. But we also found quite a lot of innovation in terms of practices. So, for example, the Polish, big, Atheist of the Year awards ceremony, goes with that.

JB: The KLF, the Kazimierz Lyszczynski Foundation – apologies for the pronunciation! Every year they hold like an annual march and they have atheist picnics throughout the summer. So there’s a kind-of sense of community and belonging building there – a bit similar to the Sunday Assembly. But primarily, it’s more to do with campaigning, as we mentioned earlier, for equal rights and women’s rights. But there’s some innovation there, in terms of atheist ceremonies to reward the biggest atheist of the year in terms of their contribution. Yeah.

DH: I guess our headline finding is that there is diversity: that the nonreligious category doesn’t mean that there aren’t some kind-of supernatural beliefs going on. Those might not be the most important things for those people but they definitely feature – at least for a sizeable minority. And also, I guess, that there did seem to be a kind-of an interaction with the broader society in terms of how active people are. So that where people are feeling that their nonreligious identity is under threat, then they kind-of get together to organise, particularly in the Polish case. Whereas, I guess, it’s more a sort-of looser network-type affiliation which you can see from looking at the social media data, quite a lot of them. Because most of our cohort, I guess, were bilingual – not maybe completely bilingual, but certainly use English as a functional language. And that’s pretty common amongst Millennials. And that enables them to follow people that they like in the UK or in other European countries, where there’s also English as a working language being used. So there’s a kind-of a nonreligious Eurosphere developing.

SC: That’s very interesting. I think we are going to wrap it up now. Thank you, again, for being on the Religious Studies Project, and we hope to have you again.

JB: Thank you very much.

DH: Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

‘Secular Humanism’

One axiological challenge facing the secular movement in America today relates to ethics and social value. Detractors often respond to ontological positions such as atheism and agnosticism with expostulation, and even impertinence. This said, there is plenty of evidence to support that secular movements can provide socially responsible and ethical structures, and the Council for Secular Humanism is one such organization which encourages dialogue and ethical responsibility beyond the boundaries of traditional religious ideologies.

Throughout history the dominating attitude towards Freethinkers and nonbelievers in a God or gods might be summed up best in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov when he famously wrote, “If there is no God, everything is permitted”. In other words, and turning this into a question worthy of inquiry, what can help structure the lives of the many people who are often labeled as having ‘no structure’ without God? Certainly, distrust of atheists has historical roots and even persists today (Norenzayan, 2013). While debates about the existence and necessity of God for moral imperatives and ethical obligations between theologians and atheologians alike may never cease, secular humanism offers at least one pragmatic alternative to a religious worldview by providing a normative cynosure of values, ethics and meaning with which to structure the lives of atheists and other nonreligious peoples.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn

In Thomas Coleman’s interview for the RSP with Tom Flynn, secular humanism is described as a “complete and balanced life stance” rejecting supernaturalism. Recorded at the Center For Inquiry’s 2013 Student Leadership Conference, Tom addresses whether secular humanism is a religion by covering the functionalist/substantive dichotomy, and discusses some of the common ‘tenets’ of secular humanism and outlines the growth of secularism, atheism and agnosticism in the United States. Tom departs by drawing parallels with current attempts in America from the LGBT movement, and their effort to gain acceptance, to that of the ongoing battle for equality, acceptance and ‘normality’ for nonbelievers in God leaving us with the following word of advice for atheists around the world: “If you’re in the closet come out”. This interview attempts to bring secular humanism under the academic eye of religious studies as a movement which should fruitfully be considered in discursive relationship to the category ‘religion’.

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

References:  Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

It’s the Fruits, not the Roots: A Response to Ralph Hood

IMG_1422-1Hood’s approach has no flaws from the standpoint of an observing scientist; but, on the personal level, one may have trouble distinguishing between the cause and the consequence.

It’s the Fruits, not the Roots: A Response to Ralph Hood

By Joshua James, Henderson State University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 22 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ralph Hood on Mysticism (20 May 2013)

When I began outlining my response to this interview—which is an intriguing psychological look at mystical experience through the filter of one of the most insightful minds dealing with the subject today—I wanted to remain as objective as possible and remove the influence of my personal experience. I found it nearly impossible. One method for addressing the intersection between lived experience and academia is through reflexivity.  In the article, “On Becoming a Qualitative Researcher: the Value of Reflexivity,” by Diane Watt, the author notes the importance of juxtaposing one’s self in relation to their research interest. By the researcher or author stating their worldview (or in some cases bias) the reader has a better understanding of not only the structure of inquiry but also the interpretive frame of the author’s position. In the case of Watt (2007), her experience as a school teacher informed her paradigm of inquiry.

Watt’s argument for reflexivity relaxed my reluctance. Watt kept a journal of her experience and combined her reflexive exploration with quantitative research to construct an academic product with multiple layers of depth in inquiry both in terms her research interests and in self-reflection of perceptions in analysis. Watt found her journal quite helpful: “Through the writing process, I was able to excavate memories of my own classroom practice.” I realized that when I listened to the interview with Ralph Hood, that I had “excavated” memories of my own. Thus I decided that not only would including my first-hand experience be helpful to my argument, it would be ill-advised not to include it, possibly even irresponsible.  This paper is written in relation to my own reflexive experience of understanding mysticism and the profound themes posed by Dr. Ralph Hood’s podcast.

When I first read William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, a text to which Dr. Ralph Hood refers liberally, I strongly connected with an account given by an agnostic man during a lecture entitled “The Reality of the Unseen.” James identifies him only as “a scientific man of my acquaintance.” A portion of the account follows:

Between twenty and thirty I gradually became more agnostic and irreligious, yet I cannot say that I ever lost that ‘indefinite consciousness’ which Herbert Spencer describes so well, of an Absolute Reality behind phenomena…I had ceased my childish prayers to God, and never prayed to It in a formal manner, yet my more recent experience show me to have been in a relation to It which practically was the same thing as prayer…I know now that it was a personal relation I was in to it, because of late years the power of communicating with it has left me, and I am conscious of a perfectly definite loss.[1]

While at the time of the writing, James’ acquaintance was over twenty years older than the age I am now, his early experience virtually mirrors my own.

I’m a skeptic. However, like the man to whom I refer above, I have, rarely, turned to prayer in times of desperation, and I have always had a sense that there was someone else involved with the world; someone to whom I owed thanks for undeserved good fortune, someone who heard my thoughts, someone who compelled me to feel guilty or embarrassed even when no human could possibly have known the mistake I made. I have had, in spite of my agnosticism, an experience that could be classified as a “mystical experience,” the details of which I shall not go into, but I did experience a degree of transcendence in the sense that I lost emotional control and it seemed as if someone else had this control. It occurred during a period of temporary desperation which prompted me to pray to whom I do not know for the first time since my childhood (which was spent in a Pentecostal church).

Hood makes clear in this interview that what he is interested in, with regard to spiritual experience, is the interpretation of an experience rather than the cause of an experience. That is to say that regardless if one’s spiritual experience occurs during prayer, deep self-reflection, or after swallowing a couple hits of blotter acid, the consequences and interpretation of the experience, usually involving a transcendence or “loss of self,” validates the experience. Hood’s approach has no flaws from the standpoint of an observing scientist; but, on the personal level, one may have trouble distinguishing between the cause and the consequence.

I will refer to my own experience to demonstrate my point. I could interpret my experience as evidence, or even proof, for the more fundamentally-minded reader, of the existence of God, and as confirmation of the validity of the scripture. It could have been the reassurance I had been looking for to readopt my faith.

But because I understand, or more appropriately, believe I understand the cause, my interpretation is different. I neither pretend to be an expert in the field of psychology nor do I deny that the human brain is still a mystery to those who are, but I know enough to know that the brain is powerful. And to know that suggestion is powerful. Therefore, given that I was in a state of desperation and asking an invisible, unknowable presence for a mercy of which I felt unworthy, my brain created the experience. My complexly constructed brain used overtly simple logic to rationalize a scenario where something special had happened to me: I asked someone—and I deeply hoped this someone existed—for something and I had received it, therefore that someone must have given it to me. Furthermore, as I previously stated, I felt undeserving of the mercy I received. Because I felt undeserving, it was natural to feel gratitude, and I don’t think I’m being too presumptuous when I suggest that it is the nature of human mentality to focus our gratitude or blame, anger or affection onto a person, or Supreme Being in this instance.

Make no mistake, Hood’s argument is not lost on me, neither do I disagree with it. Hood would likely argue that whether I had chosen to view the experience as faith-affirming or to view it in terms of Freudian reductionism, the experience occurred and I had interpreted it, therefore the experience is validated. The very fact that it happened makes it real, regardless of its roots. I am simply arguing that the roots are sometimes related to the “fruits,” as William James calls them.

Hood’s approach holds so long as we reject the possibility of objective truth. Take, for instance, the example given in the interview regarding psychedelic drugs. Hood argues that the experience should not be dismissed simply because it was caused by synthetic means, that is to say, only the cause is synthetic, the consequence is very much natural and real. On the one hand, if, while on an acid trip, one realizes through a transcendent experience that he or she has become angry and short-tempered recently, and as a result modifies his or her behavior, then the roots of the experience should not nullify the lesson learned. On the other hand, if, while on an acid trip one has, through a transcendent experience, become convinced whole-heartedly of the existence of God, then the validity could be called into question. Hood would argue that if one arrives at this conclusion through mystical experience, it should not be dismissed simply because the cause was hallucinogenic drugs rather than prayer. To his point, if one gained this same certainty through experience caused by other means, I would lend it no more validity; but, it becomes more difficult to distinguish the cause from the consequence.

Despite the rejection of my childhood religion, I have always wanted for the supernatural world of heaven and spirits to exist. The fact I want to believe only adds to my skepticism; I wish there was a heaven, therefore it becomes easier to convince me it is so, and thus I remain wary. If you have ever watched an episode of Ghost Hunters on the Syfy network and seen how disappointed people appear when they discover that their house is not haunted, then you understand what I mean. People would rather be in danger than be wrong, and we would choose almost anything over being alone and insignificant. If we have a heaven, or even a suggestion that there is something after death, say a spiritual experience, then we do not have to fear the loneliness of death. For centuries, the West believed unquestioningly that God created the Earth and all the plants and creatures specifically for us and that it was the center of the entire universe. This arrogant insistence upon being special has been deeply embedded in our collective unconscious for some time. The discoveries made along the road to the present were increasingly more difficult to deal with until we finally became the most dominant animal on one of many billions of rocks in a universe too big for us to even begin to measure. It is no surprise we want to believe. Thus even today any experience of some transcendence must be interpreted as special conversation between the individual and God himself, or whatever entity or realm in which one believes.

For Hood, my cynical interpretation only proves his point: the consequence of the experience is all that matters; the religious among us will interpret it religiously, and the non-religious among us will interpret it non-religiously. A spiritual world exists because people continue to experience it. It is a post-modern and pragmatic philosophy, and it serves him well. Take Hood’s and Paul Williamson’s work with the Lazarus Project for example. The addicts replace the drug experience with a spiritual experience, and if it benefits them, who could question its validity. And of course, if someone manages to reveal the spiritual world to be an objective part of the natural world, it will undoubtedly be discovered through the mythological agnostic approach used by scientists like Ralph Hood who refused to be limited by presumptions.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

IMG_1422-1Joshua James is in graduate school at Henderson State, Master of Liberal Arts with an emphasis in social science in progress. He received his B.A., major in History from Henderson also, and has worked in the restaurant business for years. Recently he has become passionate about writing and just this semester has taken an interest in journalism, something I never attempted as an undergrad.

References

  • James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penquin, 1982.
  • Watt, Diane. “On Becoming a Qualitative Researcher: The Value of Reflexivity.” The Qualitative Report. 12 (2007): 82-101.

[1] William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience. (New York: Penguin, 1982), 64-5.