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What we can learn from our Founding Fathers

Rudolf Otto’s stern founding father “look”.

In this discussion, Professor Schmidt discusses her keynote lecture at the Open University’s “Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives: Publics and Performances”. We turn back to discuss some of the “founding fathers” of the discipline of Religious Studies: Rudolf Otto, R.R. Marrett, and Andrew Lang. These three founding fathers all proposed a non-rational understanding of religion which is relevant today to our considerations of religion in terms of vernacular or “lived” religion.

In this week’s podcast we don’t actually have a podcast. Instead, we’ve branched out again and decided to finish this “semester” of the RSP with a video interview with the president elect of the BASR Bettina Schmidt.

In this discussion, Professor Schmidt discusses her keynote lecture at the Open University’s “Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives: Publics and Performances”. We turn back to discuss some of the “founding fathers” of the discipline of Religious Studies: Rudolf Otto, R.R. Marrett, and Andrew Lang. These three founding fathers all proposed a non-rational understanding of religion which is relevant today to our considerations of religion in terms of vernacular or “lived” religion.

Professor Schmidt explains how this emphasis on the “non-rational”, on the way that religion is danced out rather than thought out, is of relevance to the consideration of her own research field on Trance and Spirit Possession in South America. By looking at scholars who have been shelved in contemporary scholarships we can work towards making what seems visceral or extra-ordinary appear to be as mundane as it is for the people involved.

Apologies in advance for any dips in quality. Bear with as we are now pretty happy with the medium and will improve upon this in future episodes!

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, Maoam Stripes, golf balls, and more.

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

What Can We Learn from Our Founding Fathers?

Podcast with Bettina Schmidt (18 June 2018).

Interviewed by Jonathan Tuckett.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Schmidt – What Can We Learn from Our Founding Fathers 1.1

Jonathan Tuckett (JT): Hello. And welcome to an entirely new format of interview with the Religious Studies Project! You may now recognise my face as somebody even more familiar – I’m the Features Editor, Jonathan Tuckett. And we are, once again, testing out the video format. So this time we actually have Bettina Schmidt with us, who is now President Elect of the BASR, and also Senior Lecturer . . ?

Bettina Schmidt (BS): Professor.

JT: Professor – apologies – Professor at Trinity St David’s, in Wales. So, we are currently at the OU Conference on Religion and Its Publics. And we’re here today to talk a little bit about Bettina’s keynote speech, in which she was talking about some of the older figures in Religious Studies; figures that . . . one of whom, I personally feel should be buried, and never remembered! But I’m sure Bettina is going to give us a valid reason why we should be reading some of these people, even today, in the modern research university. So – just a quick summary of the keynote speech?

BS: Well, Jonathan, to give a quick summary is always difficult for a long speech – but I will do my best. So, in my keynote lecture yesterday, I wanted to highlight that we can learn something from historical figures in our field. In particular, from three of what I call “founding fathers” of the wider field of the Study of Religions. I quite consciously didn’t select old female scholars, which is a bit of a problem, because we also had a few “founding mothers”. But I highlight the work of three figures who are often described – and were even described in the beginning – in quite negative terms. For instance, one of the figures which probably you think we should bury is Rudolph Otto, who was the professor for Systematic Theology at my old alma mater, the University of Marburg. And for the 400-year anniversary of the university, in 1925, he was able to found a new museum – the first museum which has artefacts – which is called, still today, Religionskundliche Sammlung. In this museum – which he founded outside any faculty, but as a university collection – he gave home to a rich (collection of) religious artefacts from all over the world, in relationship to religion. However, some of the other theologians during his time, and their students, quite dismissively called it (audio unclear) – which is a very negative term in German. The other figure was Andrew Lang, who described himself as an outcast of Academia. He had held, for a couple of years, a Fellowship at Merton College in Oxford. He decided to be through with Merton, because he wanted to get married. And, in that time, a Fellow was not allowed to get married. And the third person I highlighted was Marett, the successor of Edward Tylor, at Oxford, as Reader in Social Anthropology. But he himself, and others, described him as an anomaly. Although he had a university position, in the wider recognition – nowadays – of the beginning of an interest in religion from an academic point of view, he is often just a footnote. The Oxford University still has the Marett Lectures, but people are no longer interested in his work – apart from looking at his early work on mana and other things. And I think we can still learn from these figures – of course, with reservations. They were children of their time and they were firmly linked to a certain belief system at the time: evolutionism, Social Darwinism, and so on. But, nonetheless, they all three had something which really made them special, from my own view.

JT: Sure. So the obvious question then is, in a certain respect: you’ve mentioned Rudolph Otto – who comes from a very theological background – and you mentioned Lang and Marett who both come from EB Tylor’s background. So it’s two very different backgrounds here. So what is it that unites the three of them together, as a kind of collective, for you that allows you to talk of them a single group, as it were, in this context?

BS: Yes. This is an interesting field. Why did I choose to include Otto in this mix, with two Classicists? When you look at their engagement with other religion, I find that they’re highly appreciative of the emotional draw to religion, the creative one, the imaginative one. So, for them, a huge element which interests them, in religion, was imagination. Otto, it was also a personal connection to the sacred, this idea of the holy. He, as a child of his time – in particular as a Lutheran professor of theology – he of course saw Christianity as very important for his own person. But he appreciated, also, that this concept of religion – like Schleiermacher before him – was present in all regions. And he travelled around. He did not do proper fieldwork overseas, but he travelled around. Already, as a student, he visited Great Britain and attended high church services. And then he went to Greece, and got acquainted with the Greek Orthodox. And then he went to Egypt and encountered Coptic Christians, but then, also, the different forms of Islam. And this led him, then, to further encounters with Islam in Northern Africa. Then, in particular, his journeys to Asia inspired him. That there are so many different forms of religious practice, but they all had in common this fascinating, this mysterium tremendum et fascinans: this concept of awe in the presence of the deity – the idea of God, or something else. And this is what still attracts people to Otto. Lang, on the other side, always argued against Tylor. Although he is always put in connection with Tylor, he was never a student of Tylor. And he disagreed with Tylor’s quite intellectualist approach to religion, that religion is belief in spirits. And he really argued more on an emotional, on a “felt” position. And this was even stronger in Marett who, although he was a successor of Tylor, criticised Tylor’s approach and definition of religion and argued that religion is something “danced”. I have a quote, if I may. It is in the time of Marett, so it was in the beginning of the 20th century. So he used the term “savage religion”, which we don’t use today – fortunately!

JT: (Laughs).

BS: But he wrote: “Savage religion is something not so much thought out, as danced out” And this is something which I also feel is present when I do my fieldwork. One of my fields is spirit possession and trance. And so I’ve attended rituals in various different countries. And there, people don’t discuss what religion is but they feel it in their body. And this is what I think is a common aspect in all three of them.

JT: Interesting. Because when you say imagination, an almost “go to” kind of understanding of imagination would be Tylor and the idea of the savage philosopher who is sitting in his cage, and is imagining all these things to explain the world around him. But the way you’re describing it, imagination seems to serve a very different kind of function within the thinking of Otto and Lang and Marett. So in the way that you’re now talking about dance, how does this idea of imagination and dance, for instance, connect together in this kind of thinking?

BS: Well, I think we have a different understanding of imagination. For me, imagination is really the creative aspect, the wonderful performance, the feeling . . . . The imagination leads an artist to paint. And so this is, for me, imagination. While Tylor’s minimal definition of religion is not . . . .You are right: he’d argue that people sat somewhere, and imagined, and invented it. But he really thought that this is a logical answer to the question, “How did religion get started?” That it’s really just a way to explain things. All three never went in this direction. It was never about, in the work that they wrote, religious justification, or something to explain (religion). It’s something to be felt – the emotional aspect – and then to imagine what it meant, like how the deity, the sacred, might be, might enact and might feel. And so it’s not something intellectually thought of, but emotionally responded to.

JT: OK, yes. So we have Tylor’s rationalistic kind-of response. I’m curious. I’m going to use the phrase anti-rationalist to now describe these three. Would you say that’s a fair way of describing their approach?

BS: Otto himself used an English translation of the term, “non-rational”. And I think this is also true – although they didn’t use the term non-rational – but it’s also in-between-the-lines in Lang and Marett’s work. It’s not a rationalistic, intellectualist definition of the beginning of religion, but an emotional, felt one. And therefore, yes, the focus is on the non-rational.

JT: I’m feeling a couple of questions coming on. And I know the RSP audience is probably thinking, “Oh No! It’s Jonathan. He’s going to ask her all about phenomenology!” So I’ll hold back on those questions for now. But on a more practical level – you’re now talking about dancing. What kind of methodological challenges does that kind-of throw up if we’re focussing on the non-rational side of religions? If we can no longer read a book and read a statement and understand what is going on there, what kind of challenges do you then face for studying and understanding religion?

BS: I’m going to start answering your question by saying: I’m not saying it’s either/ or. But my argument is that by acknowledging the non-rational as part of the study of religion, we ought to allow religious, spiritual experience and even non-religious experience to be studied within the Study of Religion. This does not mean that everything has to be, then, non-rational or experience. Of course the Study of Religion includes a wider range of aspects. But at the moment, or from the beginning, the Study of Religion focussed on the controversy with Theology, and the aim to be acknowledged as science – with academic value. And therefore people shied away from acknowledging that we are also studying counter-culture, that we are studying New Age, that we are also studying something like Spirit possession. And my argument is, by showing that at the beginning of the discipline, at the beginning of the 20th century, or the end of the 19th century, this was already covered by some scholars who were very important in creating the field of the Study of Religion, we can then have a trajectory that shows that this was a more-or-less open or visible part of our discipline from the beginning. And which . . . . My argument is that it might help us to acknowledge that today, when we study religions, we are studying all different kinds of religious practices and beliefs. We are not just looking at the dominant tradition. But we are looking at what people do, the lived experience, the lived practice, the vernacular traditions. And when we start focussing on this aspect we can study everything. We can still read books. We can still do the normal participant observation and interviews. It’s just that we don’t acknowledge the non-rational in our field.

JT: Interesting. So building on that . . . because now that you’ve tied it into the idea of lived religion and vernacular religion, as kind-of like the vogue trends of how to study religion these days, and tying it particularly to Otto. And – you can then probably correct me – on Lang and Marett if they do something similar. But when you talk about Otto’s’ mysterium tremendum et fascinans, it’s a very – to use one of the words from one of the earlier panels – it’s a visceral experience, in the language of Otto. It’s a very dramatic experience, in the same way that you’ve described trances and spirit possessions which are dramatic events and dramatic experiences. But how does this kind of approach, then, apply to the more humdrum, kind-of mundane understanding of lived religion and vernacular religion?

BS: Otto used these Latin terms because he thought there is no equivalent, no way to express what he felt, in ordinary languages. This is why he went back to Latin. We also have to understand that at that time, Latin was seen as the language of the Church. And therefore I think we should not over-emphasise that he used Latin phrases. But you are, of course, right with my spirit possession and trance studies. In particular, my field area is Latin America. And I mainly focus on the African diaspora. And these are very powerful performances. But from the beginning I also included, for instance, Spiritism. Spiritism is not very dramatic. It is more of less sitting around a table until the medium say that the medium sees something or hears something. So it is not very dramatic. And this is also part of my own fieldwork. And we also need to acknowledge the lived experience. It’s sometimes praying in your world, in your own place, or being alone on a beach. And this is also a religious or spiritual experience, and also part of what we should study. And so, it’s not just the dramatic performances, but also performances which perhaps have elements which are just inside of ourselves. I want to argue that we should not just focus on aspects and practices which happen in religious buildings – like a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque – but we also need to include what happens in the street, what happens when somebody is alone. This also is part of vernacular religious practice.

JT: It’s interesting, because you’re talking about the importance of Lang, and Otto, and of Marett. And that’s very much in the way of: it’s important for “us”, as scholars and academics. But one of the themes of the conference has been the public face of the university. And, particularly, the reason I asked about trance – and particularly in terms of the visceral experience – is, when it comes to things like spirit possession, that kind of thing will capture the public eye because it is kind-of a dramatic thing. And, in your own presentation, one of the photographs had a woman who was moving around with a blade, and so it’s very eye-catching. But now, as you say, we need to focus on the person who’s praying in their living room, or in a quiet corner somewhere. So how, on a slightly more practical level, do we present that kind of study of religion to the public in a way that is as captivating as some of the more visceral imagery that can sometimes be associated with religion?

BS: Before I answer your question about how we can speak about it, just another comment. Otto and Lang are both quite popular outside university. Otto’s Idea of the Holy is translated in over 20 languages, and some of them non-European. And people are still reading it. And Lang was very dominant in the (audio unclear) Society, and is still very important in the material. So both had quite an impact on the public, and still have. We have kicked them out of our history, but the public is still enchanted by them! And so, I think we ought to catch up with what the wider public reads of publications in our field. But, back to your question. This is always a problem. A while ago I wrote about animal sacrifice for a publication on sacrifice. And one of the questions was whether I had an illustration for the publication. And I said, “No.” Because I didn’t want the public to get the wrong impression. I wanted my article to explain the normality of the practice, and not the exoticism. So I don’t have illustrations, and I don’t give out illustrations, and I don’t show illustrations of sacrifice in any presentations, because it would give the wrong impression of the practice. Spirit possession is different, because sometimes, in publications, I include some images – or in presentations like the lecture, yesterday. I find them wonderful. I find these photos that I’ve chosen, a wonderful expression of creativity. The costumes are exotic, wonderful, and colourful. Of course in the photo we cannot hear, but the music is wonderful, the whole performance is just wonderful. It could be on stage. It could be in the theatre. It could be in an art gallery. And you can see, in some museums, costumes presented to a museum because they are so creative and wonderful to look at. And so I’ve chosen them, also, as a way for the wider audience to realise spirit possession is not something negative. It’s not about being possessed by the devil. It can also be a very positive experience. And this is what I want to convey with the photos I’ve chosen.

JT: So, in a way, what we’re doing is . . . we’re kind-of taking the things that are visceral to the public, and showing that they’re not actually visceral – they’re more mundane things. And then, that will hopefully generate (interest) in other things that they already recognise as mundane, as well.

BS: Also, it’s in order to counter-balance a stereotype image that they have, often, when they hear the term spirt possession.

JT: Thank you very much, Bettina Schmidt, for being my test subject with the video format. I hope you enjoyed the experience!

BS: Well, I hope it’s come over quite well!

JT: I hope so, too! All that it remains for me to say is: “thanks for watching” – this time – not just “thanks for listening”. So, thank you for watching!

Citation Info: Schmidt, Bettina and Jonathan Tuckett. 2018. “What Can We Learn from Our Founding Fathers?” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 18 June 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 11 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/what-can-we-learn-from-our-founding-fathers/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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

Studying “Non-Ordinary Realities”: A Roundtable Discussion

Bettina Schmidt and David Wilson organised a series of panels at the 2014 BASR Conference in Milton Keynes on the topic of “Studying Non-Ordinary Realities”, as part of the conference’s “Cutting Edge” sub-theme. We managed to make time to get Bettina and David, along with panel participants Fiona Bowie and RSP editor Jonathan Tuckett, to sit down to record a session with David Robertson (here, and part 2 here).

Bettina begins by outlining the aims and scope of the sessions, in which they hoped to bring together anthropologists, ethnographers and Religious Studies scholars with many different methodologies for looking at encounters with the non-ordinary. Fiona Bowie outlines her methodology for these kinds of studies, empathetic engagement, in which issues of ontological truth are set aside, but not ‘explained away’. She argues that such experiences may be at the root of “religious experience”, and are thus vital to the field. Davids Wilson and Robertson discuss whether the transformative nature of these experiences is epistemological at core. Remembering our critical approach, however, Jonathan challenges the emerging consensus that different methodologies require different epistemological postulates to be made sense of. It gets fairly heated.

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.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make, whether it is religious studies related or not. Remember, the holidays are coming…

Authors meet Critics: “New Age Spirituality”

Following from our interview on Monday with Ingvild Gilhus, today’s podcast presents an “authors meet critics” session on the new edited volume by Ingvild Gilhus and Steven Sutcliffe, New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion. This was recorded at the University of Edinburgh at the launch of the book, and features the editors, Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Gilhus, and critics Bettina Schmidt, Marion Bowman and David Robertson, and was ably hosted by Afe Adogame.

Steven Sutcliffe introduces the book, describing the plan to curate a volume which approaches empirical research into “New Age” religiosity through broader “theories of religion”. As Gilhus then suggests, our theoretical positions are impoverished if they don’t address “religion” in both classical and modern contexts.

Marion Bowman takes this up in her response, which addresses the similarity between this project and her own “vernacular religion” project. Bettina Schmidt addresses this disconnect between theories of popular and institutionalised religion from a anthropological point of view, pointing out that many phenomena have been removed from sociological view due to their perceived marginality, and because they don’t offer a clear box to be ticked in censuses. Finally, David Robertson critiques how the critique of “New Age” is positioned within academic, practitioner and popular discourses, and how it may reinforce, despite itself, the very categories it seeks to dissolve.

For anyone interested in New Age, the intersection between category formation – and the practicalities and politics of challenging them – this episode will be essential listening.

Religion in the 2011 UK Census

An ’emergency broadcast’ from the Religious Studies Project… featuring George Chryssides, Bettina Schmidt, Teemu Taira, Beth Singler, Christopher Cotter, and David Robertson.

The results of the 2011 census were published this Tuesday (11/12/2012), and immediately the media -old and new – were occupied with statistics about “religion” in England and Wales in 2011 as compared to 2001. We couldn’t avoid the opportunity to comment, and to apply the sort of analysis RS scholars are singularly qualified to apply. What did the census actually say, and how did the press report it? Why does it matter, and how can we use the data more constructively?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Some data:

Thanks to all for taking part at short notice:

 

George D. Chryssides is Honorary Research Fellow in Contemporary Religion at the University of Birmingham. He studied philosophy and theology at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford, and has taught in several British universities, becoming Head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton in 2001. He has a particular interest in new religious movements, on which he has published extensively. Recent publications include Christians in the Twenty-First Century (with Margaret Z Wilkins), published by Equinox (2010). His second edition of Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements is also out, dated 2012. His website, www.religion21.com, includes several resources which may be useful, including “From Jesus Christ to Father Christmas — an attempt to define the scope and subject-matter of Christianity”. You may also wish to see Russell T. McCutcheon’s edited volume The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion.

Dr Bettina Schmidt is Senior lecturer in the study of religions in the School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. Her PhD concerned ethnicity and religion, focusing on Santeria and Spiritism in Puerto Rico (University of Marburg, 1996), and she went on to post-doctoral work in cultural theories and Caribbean religions (University of Marburg, 2001). Dr Schmidt has worked as a lecturer in anthropology for various German universities, as well as Visiting Professor at the City University of New York and of the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad in Cusco, Peru. At the moment she is member of the board of editors of the journal Indiana, an annual journal of the Ibero American Institute in Berlin, and of the journalCurare, a journal of medical anthropology and transcultural psychiatry, published by the AG Ethnomedicine, and Secretary of the BASR.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see www.teemutaira.wordpress.com.

Beth Singler is a PhD candidate at Cambridge University, UK. Her research focuses on New Religious Movements of the 20th and 21st Centuries, particularly those with an online community or an experimental relationship with popular culture. Beth’s MPhil research on the development online of a religion of Anorexia has been presented in papers at Interface 2011 (“Theology in the 3rd Millennium: Studying New Religious Movements on the Internet, the Case of the Pro-Ana Movement and Anamadim”) and at BASR 2011 (“When Ritual Cannot End – The Pro-Ana Movement and Anamadic Asceticism”). Jediism was the focus of a paper for BASR 2012, (“Jedi Ltd. or Limited Jedi? Jediism and the Changing Domains of Religious Conflict in New Religious Movements”) and she is currently working on a chapter examining how online New Religious Movements such as Jediism and Freezone Scientology deal with disputes and legal issues for a forthcoming book on religion and legal pluralism. Her PhD thesis examines the evolution of a New Age category of Self, Indigo Children, and has the provisional title: “The Indigo Children: New Age Experiments with Self and Science”. See her Academia.edu page for more details, or follow her @bvlsingler on Twitter.

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Recent publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2013). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

What is the Public Benefit of the Study of Religion?

This year’s BASR annual conference at the University of Winchester included a panel on the ‘Public benefit in the study of religion’. The panel was organised by BASR Hon. Secretary, Bettina Schmidt, and Chair of BSA-SOCREL, Abby Day, representing the two main professional organisations representing the UK’s scholars of religion. The other speakers taking part were Eileen Barker of INFORM, Tim Jensen and Douglas Davies. Given that the Religious Studies Project has a manifesto of disseminating contemporary RS research to the public, we felt that we wanted to talk to scholars about this question. This edited podcast was the result.  

Does the public benefit from the social-scientific study of religion? Should it? How do we demonstrate benefit, measure it, communicate it? What are the practical and theoretical issues surrounding the idea of how the study of religion can operate in the, or perhaps as a, public good? For that matter, what do we mean by ‘public’ or ‘benefit’?

This question relates to our daily practice as researchers when asking for funding or having to present the outcomes of our research. Research Councils ask every applicant to explain the possible impact of a research project and in the coming years we will have to demonstrate as part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) the wider impact of our research. But are discussions of this type necessary in order to  understand and perhaps improve the relevance to the public of our research – and discipline – or are we simply looking for justifications to be able to continue research which has little public benefit?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Ethnographic Fieldwork: Falling in Love or Keeping your Distance?

Ethnographic Fieldwork: Falling in Love or Keeping your Distance?

By Dr Joseph Webster (Downing College, University of Cambridge)

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 28 March 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Bettina Schmidt on Athropological Approaches to the Study of Religion (26 March 2012).

Of all the methodological approaches that the ‘social sciences’ have at their disposal, none is more messy – and arguably none more rewarding – than ethnographic fieldwork. It is this dual nature of participant observation that emerges as the primary theme in this insightful interview with Dr Bettina Schmidt of the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David.

An anthropologist who has conducted fieldwork in Puerto Rico and in New York, examining, among other things, the lived experiences of possession and trance and as found among practitioners of Santería, Spiritism and other Afro-Cuban religious movements, Schmidt is well equipped to discuss the reality of undertaking ethnographic fieldwork on the topic of religion. Her approach is unapologetically anthropological, and rightly so. “We have to respond to the people we speak with, and [respond] to the field”. This involves, she admits, reinventing research projects according to the conditions of that field. The idea of preparing for this by reading books (and perhaps also by listening to podcasts?) is not something with which many anthropologists would feel comfortable, and Schmidt is no exception. Learning by doing seems to be the order of the day. And of course, she is right.

The fact that this is far from a new approach in no way diminishes its importance. Fieldwork still exists as a right of passage for any anthropologist worth their salt, and is often prepared for by receiving (what seems like flippant) advice from those who have gone into the field before us. I think it was Evans-Pritchard who mused that the last piece of advice he was given before departing for Sudan was “get a good desk for writing, take two tablets of quinine a day, and keep off the local women”. The last advice I received was even more insightful: “treat your fieldwork like a romance: you have to fall in love with them and you have to make them fall in love with you”.

This process of falling in love with the world of one’s informants is something that comes across strongly in Schmidt’s interview, to the point, she admits, that others have (somewhat bizarrely) criticised her admission that she finds Afro-Cuban religion “fascinating”. It seems unlikely that such critique would come from an anthropologist, encapsulating, as her admission does, the ‘true spirit’ of the ethnographic endeavour.

Schmidt also speaks with frankness about various methodological ‘problems’, from the insider/outsider conundrum, to data analysis while in the field, to the use of photography and sound recording, to problems of interviewer bias, to the ethics of anonymity, to imposing anthropological theory upon the experiences of one’s informants. I must admit that, depending on how they are framed, such issues feel rather peripheral to the actual experience of the ‘doing’ of fieldwork. Yet this too comes across during the interview. How does one get access to the field? Through a community gatekeeper. What happens if no onene will speak to you about your research topic? Change topic. What if people don’t want you taking photographs? Take fieldnotes after the event instead. Its ‘bread and butter’ stuff, but worth bearing in mind nonetheless, especially for those listeners about to undergo their own ethnographic ‘right of passage’.

A highlight of the interview, easy to miss because of its own (again, rather second nature) importance is Schmidt’s strong advocacy for the practice of writing fieldnotes. The need for a camera and a dictaphone in the field almost totally disappears assuming one has access to pen and paper (and possibly a good desk). This is serious. I remember having a discussion with a documentary filmmaker who said that if he didn’t capture the moment on tape, it might as well not have happened. In a very real sense, the same applies to fieldwork. If I don’t force myself to make my fieldnotes, I will forget all those little details about any given encounter, and soon enough, the very fact that the encounter ever happened. Tim Ingold once said “fieldnotes are time machines”. He couldn’t be more correct. Fieldnotes transport you back to the event, back to the field, back to the ‘ethnographic moment’ in which, to echo Geertz, you finally worked out “what the hell is going on”. Such a magical act of re-remembering, it seems to me, is all the more crucial when dealing not just with a foreign culture, but also a foreign cosmology and foreign ontology – a fact that will be familiar to many students of religion.

Furthermore, participant observation always takes the perspective of the anthropologist Schmidt tells us: “it is always me who is speaking and hearing and smelling” (methodologically speaking, of course) making true objectivity impossible. All I would want to add here – given the fact that I took to heart the advice to treat fieldwork “like a romance” – is that objectivity is also highly undesirable. Indeed, fieldwork demands, at some level at least, that one falls in love. And aspiring to an ‘objective romance’ seems to be missing the point, both philosophically and ethnographically.

Yet the interview draws to close on a rather puzzling note. “With religion”, Schmidt continues, “I always try to keep my distance”. My own fieldwork experiences – among born-again Scottish fishermen and more recently among Ulster Orangemen – suggests that this “distance” also runs the risk of missing the point of participant observation. Remember that you also have to make them fall in love with you. It seems that this would be a tricky task indeed if I were determined to keep my distance. One solution might be to return to our fieldnotes, seeing them not only as a time machine, but also as a wad of love letters, which, if the works of Jane Austin have anything to tell us, are very often written while sitting at a good desk.

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

Dr. Joseph Webster is the Isaac Newton – Graham Robertson Research Fellow in Social Anthropology and Sociology at Downing College, Cambridge. His doctoral research (Social Anthropology, University of Edinburgh) focused upon the folk-theologies of salvation and eschatology among Scottish fishermen in Gamrie, a small Aberdeenshire fishing village of 700 people and six Protestant churches. Ethnographically, he examined the connections between religion and fishing to show how words and language became charged with the power to enchant the world through a uniquely Protestant socio-spiritual experience of personhood, worship and time. The thesis, among other things, developed a new reading of Max Weber’s theory of enchantment, primarily by rethinking the relationship between immanence and transcendence.

As well as currently preparing his doctoral thesis for publication as a monograph, his Research Fellowship at Cambridge will be spent undertaking new fieldwork among Orangemen on the religion and politics of Unionism in Northern Ireland.

Doing Anthropological Fieldwork

“If we want to discover what [wo]man amounts to, we can only find it in what [wo]men are: and what [wo]men are, above all other things, is various. It is in understanding that variousness – its range, its nature, its basis, and its implications – that we shall come to construct a concept of human nature that, more than a statistical shadow, and less than a primitivists dream, has both substance and truth.” (Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973:52)

This quotation from Clifford Geertz, one of the canonical figures in anthropology, succinctly sums up what anthropology tries to do. Anthropology is essentially a comparative study of socio-cultural behaviour and attitudes, and is one of the most complex yet fundamental tools in the scholar of religions’ toolbox.

Some scholars make a career out of being an anthropologist of religion, others employ the techniques of ethnographic fieldwork in combination with other approaches and methodologies. And, of course, even those scholars who are attempting to be solely anthropologists of religion cannot divorce religion from the host of other contextual factors within which they believe they have found it. This week, David (and, briefly, Chris) are joined by Dr Bettina Schmidt of the University of Wales, Trinity St David, who gives an insightful personal account of the complex task of conducting anthropological fieldwork, with examples from a variety of contexts.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Insider/Outsider Problem, and/or reading Katie Aston’s response Insider and Outsider – An Anthropological Perspective. Anthropology is a complex beast, and something which can only truly be learned in the field. As our friend Damon Zacharias Lycourinos has said:

“Anthropology is the art and science of taking paradigms of ethnography from your supervisor, taking them into the field, realising that they are wrong due to their objectivity, re-shaping and introducing a new school of anthropological theory, and expecting your re-shaped paradigms to be annihilated by your future students.”

What is the Future of Religious Studies?

This week we decided to do something a bit different. Every time David and Chris have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: “What is the Future of Religious Studies?”

The result is this highly stimulating compilation of differing perspectives and levels of optimism on what has become one of the most hotly debated topics in the academic study of religion at the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

The underlying motivation behind placing this question on the agenda of the Religious Studies Project was one of finances. In the current economic climate – particularly in the UK – and with the increasing commodification of the Higher Education sector. It is no longer acceptable for academics to sit pontificating in their ivory towers, and every discipline (but particularly Religious Studies) is finding itself increasingly in the firing line in terms of funding and resources. This issue is so pressing that the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR) and the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) – the two professional organisations that together represent the UK’s leading scholars in the study of religion – have joined forces to present a joint panel on ‘Public benefit in the study of religion’ at the BASR annual conference, September 5-7 2012 University of Winchester, UK.

However, this is not the only issue on the table. Topics range from interdisciplinarity and institutional conflict, to innovative new methodologies, directions and foci. Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

We wanted to do something special with this podcast, because it is the tenth edition of the Religious Studies Project. We hope this has been a worthwhile exercise! Later in the week, we will be releasing a ‘unique’ response to this episode, and we hope it will prove similarly worthwhile.

If you stick with us for the next ten episodes, you’ll be treated to interviews with Bettina Schmidt (University of Wales), Markus Davidsen (Aarhus University), Bejamin Beit-Hallahmi (University of Haifa), Linda Woodhead (Lancaster University), Ariela Keysar (Trinity College, Massachusetts), Bron Taylor (University of Florida) and more…

 

Podcasts

What we can learn from our Founding Fathers

Rudolf Otto’s stern founding father “look”.

In this discussion, Professor Schmidt discusses her keynote lecture at the Open University’s “Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives: Publics and Performances”. We turn back to discuss some of the “founding fathers” of the discipline of Religious Studies: Rudolf Otto, R.R. Marrett, and Andrew Lang. These three founding fathers all proposed a non-rational understanding of religion which is relevant today to our considerations of religion in terms of vernacular or “lived” religion.

In this week’s podcast we don’t actually have a podcast. Instead, we’ve branched out again and decided to finish this “semester” of the RSP with a video interview with the president elect of the BASR Bettina Schmidt.

In this discussion, Professor Schmidt discusses her keynote lecture at the Open University’s “Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives: Publics and Performances”. We turn back to discuss some of the “founding fathers” of the discipline of Religious Studies: Rudolf Otto, R.R. Marrett, and Andrew Lang. These three founding fathers all proposed a non-rational understanding of religion which is relevant today to our considerations of religion in terms of vernacular or “lived” religion.

Professor Schmidt explains how this emphasis on the “non-rational”, on the way that religion is danced out rather than thought out, is of relevance to the consideration of her own research field on Trance and Spirit Possession in South America. By looking at scholars who have been shelved in contemporary scholarships we can work towards making what seems visceral or extra-ordinary appear to be as mundane as it is for the people involved.

Apologies in advance for any dips in quality. Bear with as we are now pretty happy with the medium and will improve upon this in future episodes!

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, Maoam Stripes, golf balls, and more.

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

What Can We Learn from Our Founding Fathers?

Podcast with Bettina Schmidt (18 June 2018).

Interviewed by Jonathan Tuckett.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Schmidt – What Can We Learn from Our Founding Fathers 1.1

Jonathan Tuckett (JT): Hello. And welcome to an entirely new format of interview with the Religious Studies Project! You may now recognise my face as somebody even more familiar – I’m the Features Editor, Jonathan Tuckett. And we are, once again, testing out the video format. So this time we actually have Bettina Schmidt with us, who is now President Elect of the BASR, and also Senior Lecturer . . ?

Bettina Schmidt (BS): Professor.

JT: Professor – apologies – Professor at Trinity St David’s, in Wales. So, we are currently at the OU Conference on Religion and Its Publics. And we’re here today to talk a little bit about Bettina’s keynote speech, in which she was talking about some of the older figures in Religious Studies; figures that . . . one of whom, I personally feel should be buried, and never remembered! But I’m sure Bettina is going to give us a valid reason why we should be reading some of these people, even today, in the modern research university. So – just a quick summary of the keynote speech?

BS: Well, Jonathan, to give a quick summary is always difficult for a long speech – but I will do my best. So, in my keynote lecture yesterday, I wanted to highlight that we can learn something from historical figures in our field. In particular, from three of what I call “founding fathers” of the wider field of the Study of Religions. I quite consciously didn’t select old female scholars, which is a bit of a problem, because we also had a few “founding mothers”. But I highlight the work of three figures who are often described – and were even described in the beginning – in quite negative terms. For instance, one of the figures which probably you think we should bury is Rudolph Otto, who was the professor for Systematic Theology at my old alma mater, the University of Marburg. And for the 400-year anniversary of the university, in 1925, he was able to found a new museum – the first museum which has artefacts – which is called, still today, Religionskundliche Sammlung. In this museum – which he founded outside any faculty, but as a university collection – he gave home to a rich (collection of) religious artefacts from all over the world, in relationship to religion. However, some of the other theologians during his time, and their students, quite dismissively called it (audio unclear) – which is a very negative term in German. The other figure was Andrew Lang, who described himself as an outcast of Academia. He had held, for a couple of years, a Fellowship at Merton College in Oxford. He decided to be through with Merton, because he wanted to get married. And, in that time, a Fellow was not allowed to get married. And the third person I highlighted was Marett, the successor of Edward Tylor, at Oxford, as Reader in Social Anthropology. But he himself, and others, described him as an anomaly. Although he had a university position, in the wider recognition – nowadays – of the beginning of an interest in religion from an academic point of view, he is often just a footnote. The Oxford University still has the Marett Lectures, but people are no longer interested in his work – apart from looking at his early work on mana and other things. And I think we can still learn from these figures – of course, with reservations. They were children of their time and they were firmly linked to a certain belief system at the time: evolutionism, Social Darwinism, and so on. But, nonetheless, they all three had something which really made them special, from my own view.

JT: Sure. So the obvious question then is, in a certain respect: you’ve mentioned Rudolph Otto – who comes from a very theological background – and you mentioned Lang and Marett who both come from EB Tylor’s background. So it’s two very different backgrounds here. So what is it that unites the three of them together, as a kind of collective, for you that allows you to talk of them a single group, as it were, in this context?

BS: Yes. This is an interesting field. Why did I choose to include Otto in this mix, with two Classicists? When you look at their engagement with other religion, I find that they’re highly appreciative of the emotional draw to religion, the creative one, the imaginative one. So, for them, a huge element which interests them, in religion, was imagination. Otto, it was also a personal connection to the sacred, this idea of the holy. He, as a child of his time – in particular as a Lutheran professor of theology – he of course saw Christianity as very important for his own person. But he appreciated, also, that this concept of religion – like Schleiermacher before him – was present in all regions. And he travelled around. He did not do proper fieldwork overseas, but he travelled around. Already, as a student, he visited Great Britain and attended high church services. And then he went to Greece, and got acquainted with the Greek Orthodox. And then he went to Egypt and encountered Coptic Christians, but then, also, the different forms of Islam. And this led him, then, to further encounters with Islam in Northern Africa. Then, in particular, his journeys to Asia inspired him. That there are so many different forms of religious practice, but they all had in common this fascinating, this mysterium tremendum et fascinans: this concept of awe in the presence of the deity – the idea of God, or something else. And this is what still attracts people to Otto. Lang, on the other side, always argued against Tylor. Although he is always put in connection with Tylor, he was never a student of Tylor. And he disagreed with Tylor’s quite intellectualist approach to religion, that religion is belief in spirits. And he really argued more on an emotional, on a “felt” position. And this was even stronger in Marett who, although he was a successor of Tylor, criticised Tylor’s approach and definition of religion and argued that religion is something “danced”. I have a quote, if I may. It is in the time of Marett, so it was in the beginning of the 20th century. So he used the term “savage religion”, which we don’t use today – fortunately!

JT: (Laughs).

BS: But he wrote: “Savage religion is something not so much thought out, as danced out” And this is something which I also feel is present when I do my fieldwork. One of my fields is spirit possession and trance. And so I’ve attended rituals in various different countries. And there, people don’t discuss what religion is but they feel it in their body. And this is what I think is a common aspect in all three of them.

JT: Interesting. Because when you say imagination, an almost “go to” kind of understanding of imagination would be Tylor and the idea of the savage philosopher who is sitting in his cage, and is imagining all these things to explain the world around him. But the way you’re describing it, imagination seems to serve a very different kind of function within the thinking of Otto and Lang and Marett. So in the way that you’re now talking about dance, how does this idea of imagination and dance, for instance, connect together in this kind of thinking?

BS: Well, I think we have a different understanding of imagination. For me, imagination is really the creative aspect, the wonderful performance, the feeling . . . . The imagination leads an artist to paint. And so this is, for me, imagination. While Tylor’s minimal definition of religion is not . . . .You are right: he’d argue that people sat somewhere, and imagined, and invented it. But he really thought that this is a logical answer to the question, “How did religion get started?” That it’s really just a way to explain things. All three never went in this direction. It was never about, in the work that they wrote, religious justification, or something to explain (religion). It’s something to be felt – the emotional aspect – and then to imagine what it meant, like how the deity, the sacred, might be, might enact and might feel. And so it’s not something intellectually thought of, but emotionally responded to.

JT: OK, yes. So we have Tylor’s rationalistic kind-of response. I’m curious. I’m going to use the phrase anti-rationalist to now describe these three. Would you say that’s a fair way of describing their approach?

BS: Otto himself used an English translation of the term, “non-rational”. And I think this is also true – although they didn’t use the term non-rational – but it’s also in-between-the-lines in Lang and Marett’s work. It’s not a rationalistic, intellectualist definition of the beginning of religion, but an emotional, felt one. And therefore, yes, the focus is on the non-rational.

JT: I’m feeling a couple of questions coming on. And I know the RSP audience is probably thinking, “Oh No! It’s Jonathan. He’s going to ask her all about phenomenology!” So I’ll hold back on those questions for now. But on a more practical level – you’re now talking about dancing. What kind of methodological challenges does that kind-of throw up if we’re focussing on the non-rational side of religions? If we can no longer read a book and read a statement and understand what is going on there, what kind of challenges do you then face for studying and understanding religion?

BS: I’m going to start answering your question by saying: I’m not saying it’s either/ or. But my argument is that by acknowledging the non-rational as part of the study of religion, we ought to allow religious, spiritual experience and even non-religious experience to be studied within the Study of Religion. This does not mean that everything has to be, then, non-rational or experience. Of course the Study of Religion includes a wider range of aspects. But at the moment, or from the beginning, the Study of Religion focussed on the controversy with Theology, and the aim to be acknowledged as science – with academic value. And therefore people shied away from acknowledging that we are also studying counter-culture, that we are studying New Age, that we are also studying something like Spirit possession. And my argument is, by showing that at the beginning of the discipline, at the beginning of the 20th century, or the end of the 19th century, this was already covered by some scholars who were very important in creating the field of the Study of Religion, we can then have a trajectory that shows that this was a more-or-less open or visible part of our discipline from the beginning. And which . . . . My argument is that it might help us to acknowledge that today, when we study religions, we are studying all different kinds of religious practices and beliefs. We are not just looking at the dominant tradition. But we are looking at what people do, the lived experience, the lived practice, the vernacular traditions. And when we start focussing on this aspect we can study everything. We can still read books. We can still do the normal participant observation and interviews. It’s just that we don’t acknowledge the non-rational in our field.

JT: Interesting. So building on that . . . because now that you’ve tied it into the idea of lived religion and vernacular religion, as kind-of like the vogue trends of how to study religion these days, and tying it particularly to Otto. And – you can then probably correct me – on Lang and Marett if they do something similar. But when you talk about Otto’s’ mysterium tremendum et fascinans, it’s a very – to use one of the words from one of the earlier panels – it’s a visceral experience, in the language of Otto. It’s a very dramatic experience, in the same way that you’ve described trances and spirit possessions which are dramatic events and dramatic experiences. But how does this kind of approach, then, apply to the more humdrum, kind-of mundane understanding of lived religion and vernacular religion?

BS: Otto used these Latin terms because he thought there is no equivalent, no way to express what he felt, in ordinary languages. This is why he went back to Latin. We also have to understand that at that time, Latin was seen as the language of the Church. And therefore I think we should not over-emphasise that he used Latin phrases. But you are, of course, right with my spirit possession and trance studies. In particular, my field area is Latin America. And I mainly focus on the African diaspora. And these are very powerful performances. But from the beginning I also included, for instance, Spiritism. Spiritism is not very dramatic. It is more of less sitting around a table until the medium say that the medium sees something or hears something. So it is not very dramatic. And this is also part of my own fieldwork. And we also need to acknowledge the lived experience. It’s sometimes praying in your world, in your own place, or being alone on a beach. And this is also a religious or spiritual experience, and also part of what we should study. And so, it’s not just the dramatic performances, but also performances which perhaps have elements which are just inside of ourselves. I want to argue that we should not just focus on aspects and practices which happen in religious buildings – like a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque – but we also need to include what happens in the street, what happens when somebody is alone. This also is part of vernacular religious practice.

JT: It’s interesting, because you’re talking about the importance of Lang, and Otto, and of Marett. And that’s very much in the way of: it’s important for “us”, as scholars and academics. But one of the themes of the conference has been the public face of the university. And, particularly, the reason I asked about trance – and particularly in terms of the visceral experience – is, when it comes to things like spirit possession, that kind of thing will capture the public eye because it is kind-of a dramatic thing. And, in your own presentation, one of the photographs had a woman who was moving around with a blade, and so it’s very eye-catching. But now, as you say, we need to focus on the person who’s praying in their living room, or in a quiet corner somewhere. So how, on a slightly more practical level, do we present that kind of study of religion to the public in a way that is as captivating as some of the more visceral imagery that can sometimes be associated with religion?

BS: Before I answer your question about how we can speak about it, just another comment. Otto and Lang are both quite popular outside university. Otto’s Idea of the Holy is translated in over 20 languages, and some of them non-European. And people are still reading it. And Lang was very dominant in the (audio unclear) Society, and is still very important in the material. So both had quite an impact on the public, and still have. We have kicked them out of our history, but the public is still enchanted by them! And so, I think we ought to catch up with what the wider public reads of publications in our field. But, back to your question. This is always a problem. A while ago I wrote about animal sacrifice for a publication on sacrifice. And one of the questions was whether I had an illustration for the publication. And I said, “No.” Because I didn’t want the public to get the wrong impression. I wanted my article to explain the normality of the practice, and not the exoticism. So I don’t have illustrations, and I don’t give out illustrations, and I don’t show illustrations of sacrifice in any presentations, because it would give the wrong impression of the practice. Spirit possession is different, because sometimes, in publications, I include some images – or in presentations like the lecture, yesterday. I find them wonderful. I find these photos that I’ve chosen, a wonderful expression of creativity. The costumes are exotic, wonderful, and colourful. Of course in the photo we cannot hear, but the music is wonderful, the whole performance is just wonderful. It could be on stage. It could be in the theatre. It could be in an art gallery. And you can see, in some museums, costumes presented to a museum because they are so creative and wonderful to look at. And so I’ve chosen them, also, as a way for the wider audience to realise spirit possession is not something negative. It’s not about being possessed by the devil. It can also be a very positive experience. And this is what I want to convey with the photos I’ve chosen.

JT: So, in a way, what we’re doing is . . . we’re kind-of taking the things that are visceral to the public, and showing that they’re not actually visceral – they’re more mundane things. And then, that will hopefully generate (interest) in other things that they already recognise as mundane, as well.

BS: Also, it’s in order to counter-balance a stereotype image that they have, often, when they hear the term spirt possession.

JT: Thank you very much, Bettina Schmidt, for being my test subject with the video format. I hope you enjoyed the experience!

BS: Well, I hope it’s come over quite well!

JT: I hope so, too! All that it remains for me to say is: “thanks for watching” – this time – not just “thanks for listening”. So, thank you for watching!

Citation Info: Schmidt, Bettina and Jonathan Tuckett. 2018. “What Can We Learn from Our Founding Fathers?” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 18 June 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 11 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/what-can-we-learn-from-our-founding-fathers/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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

Studying “Non-Ordinary Realities”: A Roundtable Discussion

Bettina Schmidt and David Wilson organised a series of panels at the 2014 BASR Conference in Milton Keynes on the topic of “Studying Non-Ordinary Realities”, as part of the conference’s “Cutting Edge” sub-theme. We managed to make time to get Bettina and David, along with panel participants Fiona Bowie and RSP editor Jonathan Tuckett, to sit down to record a session with David Robertson (here, and part 2 here).

Bettina begins by outlining the aims and scope of the sessions, in which they hoped to bring together anthropologists, ethnographers and Religious Studies scholars with many different methodologies for looking at encounters with the non-ordinary. Fiona Bowie outlines her methodology for these kinds of studies, empathetic engagement, in which issues of ontological truth are set aside, but not ‘explained away’. She argues that such experiences may be at the root of “religious experience”, and are thus vital to the field. Davids Wilson and Robertson discuss whether the transformative nature of these experiences is epistemological at core. Remembering our critical approach, however, Jonathan challenges the emerging consensus that different methodologies require different epistemological postulates to be made sense of. It gets fairly heated.

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.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make, whether it is religious studies related or not. Remember, the holidays are coming…

Authors meet Critics: “New Age Spirituality”

Following from our interview on Monday with Ingvild Gilhus, today’s podcast presents an “authors meet critics” session on the new edited volume by Ingvild Gilhus and Steven Sutcliffe, New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion. This was recorded at the University of Edinburgh at the launch of the book, and features the editors, Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Gilhus, and critics Bettina Schmidt, Marion Bowman and David Robertson, and was ably hosted by Afe Adogame.

Steven Sutcliffe introduces the book, describing the plan to curate a volume which approaches empirical research into “New Age” religiosity through broader “theories of religion”. As Gilhus then suggests, our theoretical positions are impoverished if they don’t address “religion” in both classical and modern contexts.

Marion Bowman takes this up in her response, which addresses the similarity between this project and her own “vernacular religion” project. Bettina Schmidt addresses this disconnect between theories of popular and institutionalised religion from a anthropological point of view, pointing out that many phenomena have been removed from sociological view due to their perceived marginality, and because they don’t offer a clear box to be ticked in censuses. Finally, David Robertson critiques how the critique of “New Age” is positioned within academic, practitioner and popular discourses, and how it may reinforce, despite itself, the very categories it seeks to dissolve.

For anyone interested in New Age, the intersection between category formation – and the practicalities and politics of challenging them – this episode will be essential listening.

Religion in the 2011 UK Census

An ’emergency broadcast’ from the Religious Studies Project… featuring George Chryssides, Bettina Schmidt, Teemu Taira, Beth Singler, Christopher Cotter, and David Robertson.

The results of the 2011 census were published this Tuesday (11/12/2012), and immediately the media -old and new – were occupied with statistics about “religion” in England and Wales in 2011 as compared to 2001. We couldn’t avoid the opportunity to comment, and to apply the sort of analysis RS scholars are singularly qualified to apply. What did the census actually say, and how did the press report it? Why does it matter, and how can we use the data more constructively?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Some data:

Thanks to all for taking part at short notice:

 

George D. Chryssides is Honorary Research Fellow in Contemporary Religion at the University of Birmingham. He studied philosophy and theology at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford, and has taught in several British universities, becoming Head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton in 2001. He has a particular interest in new religious movements, on which he has published extensively. Recent publications include Christians in the Twenty-First Century (with Margaret Z Wilkins), published by Equinox (2010). His second edition of Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements is also out, dated 2012. His website, www.religion21.com, includes several resources which may be useful, including “From Jesus Christ to Father Christmas — an attempt to define the scope and subject-matter of Christianity”. You may also wish to see Russell T. McCutcheon’s edited volume The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion.

Dr Bettina Schmidt is Senior lecturer in the study of religions in the School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. Her PhD concerned ethnicity and religion, focusing on Santeria and Spiritism in Puerto Rico (University of Marburg, 1996), and she went on to post-doctoral work in cultural theories and Caribbean religions (University of Marburg, 2001). Dr Schmidt has worked as a lecturer in anthropology for various German universities, as well as Visiting Professor at the City University of New York and of the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad in Cusco, Peru. At the moment she is member of the board of editors of the journal Indiana, an annual journal of the Ibero American Institute in Berlin, and of the journalCurare, a journal of medical anthropology and transcultural psychiatry, published by the AG Ethnomedicine, and Secretary of the BASR.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see www.teemutaira.wordpress.com.

Beth Singler is a PhD candidate at Cambridge University, UK. Her research focuses on New Religious Movements of the 20th and 21st Centuries, particularly those with an online community or an experimental relationship with popular culture. Beth’s MPhil research on the development online of a religion of Anorexia has been presented in papers at Interface 2011 (“Theology in the 3rd Millennium: Studying New Religious Movements on the Internet, the Case of the Pro-Ana Movement and Anamadim”) and at BASR 2011 (“When Ritual Cannot End – The Pro-Ana Movement and Anamadic Asceticism”). Jediism was the focus of a paper for BASR 2012, (“Jedi Ltd. or Limited Jedi? Jediism and the Changing Domains of Religious Conflict in New Religious Movements”) and she is currently working on a chapter examining how online New Religious Movements such as Jediism and Freezone Scientology deal with disputes and legal issues for a forthcoming book on religion and legal pluralism. Her PhD thesis examines the evolution of a New Age category of Self, Indigo Children, and has the provisional title: “The Indigo Children: New Age Experiments with Self and Science”. See her Academia.edu page for more details, or follow her @bvlsingler on Twitter.

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Recent publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2013). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

What is the Public Benefit of the Study of Religion?

This year’s BASR annual conference at the University of Winchester included a panel on the ‘Public benefit in the study of religion’. The panel was organised by BASR Hon. Secretary, Bettina Schmidt, and Chair of BSA-SOCREL, Abby Day, representing the two main professional organisations representing the UK’s scholars of religion. The other speakers taking part were Eileen Barker of INFORM, Tim Jensen and Douglas Davies. Given that the Religious Studies Project has a manifesto of disseminating contemporary RS research to the public, we felt that we wanted to talk to scholars about this question. This edited podcast was the result.  

Does the public benefit from the social-scientific study of religion? Should it? How do we demonstrate benefit, measure it, communicate it? What are the practical and theoretical issues surrounding the idea of how the study of religion can operate in the, or perhaps as a, public good? For that matter, what do we mean by ‘public’ or ‘benefit’?

This question relates to our daily practice as researchers when asking for funding or having to present the outcomes of our research. Research Councils ask every applicant to explain the possible impact of a research project and in the coming years we will have to demonstrate as part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) the wider impact of our research. But are discussions of this type necessary in order to  understand and perhaps improve the relevance to the public of our research – and discipline – or are we simply looking for justifications to be able to continue research which has little public benefit?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Ethnographic Fieldwork: Falling in Love or Keeping your Distance?

Ethnographic Fieldwork: Falling in Love or Keeping your Distance?

By Dr Joseph Webster (Downing College, University of Cambridge)

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 28 March 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Bettina Schmidt on Athropological Approaches to the Study of Religion (26 March 2012).

Of all the methodological approaches that the ‘social sciences’ have at their disposal, none is more messy – and arguably none more rewarding – than ethnographic fieldwork. It is this dual nature of participant observation that emerges as the primary theme in this insightful interview with Dr Bettina Schmidt of the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David.

An anthropologist who has conducted fieldwork in Puerto Rico and in New York, examining, among other things, the lived experiences of possession and trance and as found among practitioners of Santería, Spiritism and other Afro-Cuban religious movements, Schmidt is well equipped to discuss the reality of undertaking ethnographic fieldwork on the topic of religion. Her approach is unapologetically anthropological, and rightly so. “We have to respond to the people we speak with, and [respond] to the field”. This involves, she admits, reinventing research projects according to the conditions of that field. The idea of preparing for this by reading books (and perhaps also by listening to podcasts?) is not something with which many anthropologists would feel comfortable, and Schmidt is no exception. Learning by doing seems to be the order of the day. And of course, she is right.

The fact that this is far from a new approach in no way diminishes its importance. Fieldwork still exists as a right of passage for any anthropologist worth their salt, and is often prepared for by receiving (what seems like flippant) advice from those who have gone into the field before us. I think it was Evans-Pritchard who mused that the last piece of advice he was given before departing for Sudan was “get a good desk for writing, take two tablets of quinine a day, and keep off the local women”. The last advice I received was even more insightful: “treat your fieldwork like a romance: you have to fall in love with them and you have to make them fall in love with you”.

This process of falling in love with the world of one’s informants is something that comes across strongly in Schmidt’s interview, to the point, she admits, that others have (somewhat bizarrely) criticised her admission that she finds Afro-Cuban religion “fascinating”. It seems unlikely that such critique would come from an anthropologist, encapsulating, as her admission does, the ‘true spirit’ of the ethnographic endeavour.

Schmidt also speaks with frankness about various methodological ‘problems’, from the insider/outsider conundrum, to data analysis while in the field, to the use of photography and sound recording, to problems of interviewer bias, to the ethics of anonymity, to imposing anthropological theory upon the experiences of one’s informants. I must admit that, depending on how they are framed, such issues feel rather peripheral to the actual experience of the ‘doing’ of fieldwork. Yet this too comes across during the interview. How does one get access to the field? Through a community gatekeeper. What happens if no onene will speak to you about your research topic? Change topic. What if people don’t want you taking photographs? Take fieldnotes after the event instead. Its ‘bread and butter’ stuff, but worth bearing in mind nonetheless, especially for those listeners about to undergo their own ethnographic ‘right of passage’.

A highlight of the interview, easy to miss because of its own (again, rather second nature) importance is Schmidt’s strong advocacy for the practice of writing fieldnotes. The need for a camera and a dictaphone in the field almost totally disappears assuming one has access to pen and paper (and possibly a good desk). This is serious. I remember having a discussion with a documentary filmmaker who said that if he didn’t capture the moment on tape, it might as well not have happened. In a very real sense, the same applies to fieldwork. If I don’t force myself to make my fieldnotes, I will forget all those little details about any given encounter, and soon enough, the very fact that the encounter ever happened. Tim Ingold once said “fieldnotes are time machines”. He couldn’t be more correct. Fieldnotes transport you back to the event, back to the field, back to the ‘ethnographic moment’ in which, to echo Geertz, you finally worked out “what the hell is going on”. Such a magical act of re-remembering, it seems to me, is all the more crucial when dealing not just with a foreign culture, but also a foreign cosmology and foreign ontology – a fact that will be familiar to many students of religion.

Furthermore, participant observation always takes the perspective of the anthropologist Schmidt tells us: “it is always me who is speaking and hearing and smelling” (methodologically speaking, of course) making true objectivity impossible. All I would want to add here – given the fact that I took to heart the advice to treat fieldwork “like a romance” – is that objectivity is also highly undesirable. Indeed, fieldwork demands, at some level at least, that one falls in love. And aspiring to an ‘objective romance’ seems to be missing the point, both philosophically and ethnographically.

Yet the interview draws to close on a rather puzzling note. “With religion”, Schmidt continues, “I always try to keep my distance”. My own fieldwork experiences – among born-again Scottish fishermen and more recently among Ulster Orangemen – suggests that this “distance” also runs the risk of missing the point of participant observation. Remember that you also have to make them fall in love with you. It seems that this would be a tricky task indeed if I were determined to keep my distance. One solution might be to return to our fieldnotes, seeing them not only as a time machine, but also as a wad of love letters, which, if the works of Jane Austin have anything to tell us, are very often written while sitting at a good desk.

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

Dr. Joseph Webster is the Isaac Newton – Graham Robertson Research Fellow in Social Anthropology and Sociology at Downing College, Cambridge. His doctoral research (Social Anthropology, University of Edinburgh) focused upon the folk-theologies of salvation and eschatology among Scottish fishermen in Gamrie, a small Aberdeenshire fishing village of 700 people and six Protestant churches. Ethnographically, he examined the connections between religion and fishing to show how words and language became charged with the power to enchant the world through a uniquely Protestant socio-spiritual experience of personhood, worship and time. The thesis, among other things, developed a new reading of Max Weber’s theory of enchantment, primarily by rethinking the relationship between immanence and transcendence.

As well as currently preparing his doctoral thesis for publication as a monograph, his Research Fellowship at Cambridge will be spent undertaking new fieldwork among Orangemen on the religion and politics of Unionism in Northern Ireland.

Doing Anthropological Fieldwork

“If we want to discover what [wo]man amounts to, we can only find it in what [wo]men are: and what [wo]men are, above all other things, is various. It is in understanding that variousness – its range, its nature, its basis, and its implications – that we shall come to construct a concept of human nature that, more than a statistical shadow, and less than a primitivists dream, has both substance and truth.” (Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973:52)

This quotation from Clifford Geertz, one of the canonical figures in anthropology, succinctly sums up what anthropology tries to do. Anthropology is essentially a comparative study of socio-cultural behaviour and attitudes, and is one of the most complex yet fundamental tools in the scholar of religions’ toolbox.

Some scholars make a career out of being an anthropologist of religion, others employ the techniques of ethnographic fieldwork in combination with other approaches and methodologies. And, of course, even those scholars who are attempting to be solely anthropologists of religion cannot divorce religion from the host of other contextual factors within which they believe they have found it. This week, David (and, briefly, Chris) are joined by Dr Bettina Schmidt of the University of Wales, Trinity St David, who gives an insightful personal account of the complex task of conducting anthropological fieldwork, with examples from a variety of contexts.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Insider/Outsider Problem, and/or reading Katie Aston’s response Insider and Outsider – An Anthropological Perspective. Anthropology is a complex beast, and something which can only truly be learned in the field. As our friend Damon Zacharias Lycourinos has said:

“Anthropology is the art and science of taking paradigms of ethnography from your supervisor, taking them into the field, realising that they are wrong due to their objectivity, re-shaping and introducing a new school of anthropological theory, and expecting your re-shaped paradigms to be annihilated by your future students.”

What is the Future of Religious Studies?

This week we decided to do something a bit different. Every time David and Chris have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: “What is the Future of Religious Studies?”

The result is this highly stimulating compilation of differing perspectives and levels of optimism on what has become one of the most hotly debated topics in the academic study of religion at the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

The underlying motivation behind placing this question on the agenda of the Religious Studies Project was one of finances. In the current economic climate – particularly in the UK – and with the increasing commodification of the Higher Education sector. It is no longer acceptable for academics to sit pontificating in their ivory towers, and every discipline (but particularly Religious Studies) is finding itself increasingly in the firing line in terms of funding and resources. This issue is so pressing that the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR) and the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) – the two professional organisations that together represent the UK’s leading scholars in the study of religion – have joined forces to present a joint panel on ‘Public benefit in the study of religion’ at the BASR annual conference, September 5-7 2012 University of Winchester, UK.

However, this is not the only issue on the table. Topics range from interdisciplinarity and institutional conflict, to innovative new methodologies, directions and foci. Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

We wanted to do something special with this podcast, because it is the tenth edition of the Religious Studies Project. We hope this has been a worthwhile exercise! Later in the week, we will be releasing a ‘unique’ response to this episode, and we hope it will prove similarly worthwhile.

If you stick with us for the next ten episodes, you’ll be treated to interviews with Bettina Schmidt (University of Wales), Markus Davidsen (Aarhus University), Bejamin Beit-Hallahmi (University of Haifa), Linda Woodhead (Lancaster University), Ariela Keysar (Trinity College, Massachusetts), Bron Taylor (University of Florida) and more…