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‘Religious Innovation and Religious Change in the 21st Century’ – 2015 CESNUR Conference Report

CESNUR (Centre for Studies on New Religions, Torino) Annual Conference 2015, Tallinn University, Estonia, 17-20 June. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Prof. Carole M. Cusack, Department of Studies in Religion, The University of Sydney

The 2015 CESNUR conference was held at University of Tallin, Estonia, and was organized by Dr Ringo Ringvee (The Estonian Ministry of Interior). The theme was ‘Religious Innovation and Religious Change in the 21st Century’. There were no plenary lectures, although the interesting address by Massimo Introvigne (President of CESNUR) at the conference dinner at the Von Krahl Theatre, on Friday 19 June, ‘The Sociology of Religious Movements and the Sociology of Time in Conversation’ performed something of that function. As CESNUR is an organization that welcomes members of new religions, there were ‘insider’ papers and responses from members of the Twelve Tribes, the Plymouth Brethren, and the Church of Scientology, among others.

Academic presentations included: Liselotte Frisk and Sanja Nilsson (Dalarna University), ‘Upbringing and Schooling of the Children of the Exclusive Brethren: The Swedish Perspective’; Bernard Doherty (Macquarie University), ‘Spooks and Scientologists: Secrecy, Surveillance, and Subversion in Cold War Australia, 1954-1983’; Tommy Ramstedt (Abo Akademi University), ‘Credibility, Authority, and the Paranormal: The Relation Between Science and Paranormal Claims Within the Finnish Alternative Spiritual Milieu’; Timothy Miller (University of Kansas), ‘Will the Hutterites Survive the 21st Century?’; Carole M. Cusack (University of Sydney), ‘Gurdjieff and Sufism: A Contested Relationship’; and Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney), ‘Kenja: Unique Australian NRM or Auditing Without an E-Meter?’

Tallinn, Estonia

The International Society for the Study of New Religions (ISSNR) held its third two-yearly meeting since it began in 2009 during the conference. This was a successful gathering that acknowledged the quality of the first five years of the International Journal for the Study of New Religion (Volumes 1-4 under the editorship of Carole M. Cusack and Liselotte Frisk, and Volume 5 under the current editorial team of Alex Norman and Asbjørn Dyrendal) and developed plans for the future, as the new President, Milda Ališauskienė (Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania) was elected. The meeting thanked the outgoing President, Jean François Mayer (Religioscope Institute, Switzerland). The ISSNR sponsored sessions at CESNUR as did it at the EASR in Budapest in September 2011.

The conference was well-attended, though the absence of long-time CESNUR stalwart J. Gordon Melton (Baylor University and the Institute for the Study of American Religion) due to extreme weather conditions that presented him travelling was noted by all. At the conference’s close after lunch on Saturday 20 June, members were taken by bus to the first of a series of sacred sites in Tallin, the Song Festival Grounds (Lauluväljak). The bus then dropped the group off in Toompea, the upper town, and Ringo Ringvee guided through sites including: the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral (from the outside); St Mary’s Cathedral (Dome Church or Toomkirik), the oldest church in Tallinn, formerly Catholic and now Lutheran; and the fascinating Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is a unobtrusively nested within the town walls, with a crypt filled with folk art, and a church with a distinctive iconostasis. The dedication is to the Virgin With Three Hands, and the complex also houses a crafts business, a small monastery, and the Ukrainian Cultural Centre. CESNUR 2016 will be in Seoul, Korea, from 28-30 June.

— Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney

CSENUR 2015 online conference proceedings available HERE.

 

 

 

“For a Secret Teaching, They Sure Do Write A Lot About It” – Is There a Gurdjieff Studies or only a Gurdjieff Industry?

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In David Robertson’s interview with Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney and Steven Sutcliffe, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh, the Religious Studies Project has curated a rich and wide-ranging discussion introducing – if David and Chris’ evident excitement during the podcast is any indication – an increasingly receptive audience of the next generation of scholars to critical approaches to Gurdjieff and the study of religions, an embarrassment of riches against which I now have the great but difficult fortune of contributing some of my own observations from the field. The interview is based on their February 2015 special issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion on Gurdjieff and his followers and the book they are now writing on the subject.

As it’s not every day an ‘independent scholar’ who is invited to write about their narrow area of expertise is gifted with such an obvious self-reflexive starting point in order to begin with both disclosure and gratitude, I hope I can be forgiven quoting myself being quoted by one of the great contributors to religious studies, Carole Cusack:

“My former Ph.D. student David Pecotic who did a Ph.D. on Gurdjieff’s cosmology … used to say, the article he was living to write was ‘If Gurdjieffians are supposed to be so secretive, why the hell do they write so much?’ – and it really is true …”

This is not that article, but it is a question I hope they will address in their book. What I want to do here is to focus on the three themes raised in the interview that I think are the most bound up in whatever the answer to this question may look like – category formation/disciplinary boundaries of ‘Gurdjieff studies’; the epistemological problems/solutions of archival study of esotericism in the digital age; and the way academia is inescapably enmeshed in the ‘Gurdjieff industry’, i.e., revelations of primary sources that occur in the inevitable sectarian conflicts that arise in heterodox ‘invented traditions.’

Category formation/disciplinary boundaries – will the ‘real’ Gurdjieff please stand up?

 

While there is little disagreement as to the basic content of Gurdjieff’s spiritual teaching, there is currently no concrete proposal about the place of Gurdjieff within the broadly scientific study of religions. Various categories have been or are currently on offer; leaving aside the old saw of page102_1his soteriological mission to be able to consciously act as a different person to better ‘match’ different people. To approach in an integrated way a man that was, among other things, a composer, choreographer, author, paranormal powers, just to name a few, would require a more sustained inter-disciplinary and collaborative approach in the future, and Sutcliffe and Cusack’s current collaboration are steps in the right direction.

The epistemology of esoteric archives – the source(code) of and solution to the category problem

3As definitions and theories rely on availability of evidence, archival access and what counts as a primary source (and who gets to decide) is a consequential problem. I agree with their observations regarding basic chronology and the epistemological problems implicit in relying on practitioners for publication of and access to esoteric archives. Yet it was their brief point about the effect of the internet that resonated more for me as a researcher. An esoteric field is no longer about scarcity but abundance. Researchers increasingly have the opposite problem of managing an accelerating quantity of primary source materials. Indeed, there is a need for critical editions if only to better deal with the proliferation of online document access to which both scholars and practitioners alike find increasingly difficult to quality control I would argue that digital technologies began to turn the tide of access in 2004 when the Gurdjieff bibliographer J. Walter Driscoll moved from the print version of his standard reference to the online publication ‘Gurdjieff – A Reading Guide’. Even the more ‘orthodox’, hierarchical groups that teach Gurdjieffian principles and exercises in a formalised manner have taken to the Internet via the Gurdjieff International Review. But there are also crowdsourced domains like The Gurdjieff Internet Guide which despite being officially ‘retired’ in 2012, has 10, 000 visits a month and continues to be an online archive for even the wilder engagement.

Cusack was right to highlight the recent publication flurry of new source material on Gurdjieffian practices, something that has been a special focus of my research (akin to Jay Johnston’s interview on the ‘The Subtle Body’ and David Gordon White’s response) such as what_would_george_gurdjieff_do_swivel_usb_flash_drive_-r5321371fdba3422385fc1c395cf0e0ae_zkhjh_324ed what amounts to a ‘Gurdjieff industry.’ While it is important that institutions like Yale University Library have archived the Thomas de Hartmann Papers, Maurice Nicoll Papers, P. D. Ouspensky Memorial Collection, it also represents a lost opportunity for the reconstitution of a more critical study of Gurdjieff in the context of the digital humanities which can enable more critical cross-fertilisation if not deeper ethnographic collaboration between scholars and practitioners.

 

The industrial struggle of the magicians and unweaving the wicked Webb

There are also demographic and generational reasons why previously secreted Gurdjieffian source materials are coming online apace. As Johanna Petsche, another former Ph.D. student of Cusack’s has pointed out, dramatic changes were made by Jeanne de Salzmann after Gurdjieff’s death, when hierarchical ‘Foundation’ groups emerged that subsequently formalised Gurdjieffian principles and exercises. As Cusack noted, de Salzmann was the first Gurdjieffian and not Gurdjieff. Not all of Gurdjieff’s followers amalgamated into this network; an assortment of Gurdjieff-based groups remained outside of it. It is these ‘independent’ and ‘fringe’ groups that are experiencing the most rapid growth and reform; the more orthodox groups are literally being ‘outbred.’

It is in this context that ‘insider’ scholars like insider/outsider process — “where one stands determines what one sees and what one can know” Capps (1995: 334-5). Similar explosions of understanding have occurred in analogous new fields: Wouter Hanegraff (in a previous RSP interview) has described Western esotericism as ‘one of the biggest last undiscovered niches in the academic study of religions.’ For all the above reasons, Gurdjieff may be the next in the field to be discovered. I look forward with keen interest to any critical reflections on my own observations, as well as to Sutcliffe and Cusack’s contributions in the light of themes I hope they will be able to investigate.

References

Azize, Joseph. 2013. ‘“The Four Ideals”: A Contemplative Exercise by Gurdjieff’ Aries 13(2) 173-203.

Capps, Walter H. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Fortress Press: Minneapolis.

Hanegraaff, Wouter. 1996. New Age Religions and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

– 2006. The Brill Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

Heelas, Paul. 1996. The New Age Movement: Celebrating the Self and the Sacralisation of Modernity. Blackwell: Oxford.

Pecotic, David. 2004. ‘Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way: Giving Voice to Further Alterity in the Study of Western Esotericism’ Sydney Studies in Religion, 86-120.

Partridge, Christopher (ed). 2014. The Occult World. Routledge.

Rawlinson, Andrew. 1998. Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions. Open Court.

Petsche, Johanna. 2013. ‘A Gurdjieff Genealogy: Tracing the Manifold Ways the Gurdjieff Teaching has Travelled’ International Journal for the Study of New Religions 4(1), 1-25.

Gurdjieff and the Study of Contemporary Religion

gurdjieffGeorge Ivanovich Gurdjieff was born around 1866 in Russia and came to prominence in the inter-war years in Europe and the US as a “spiritual teacher” or proto-New Age guru. As well as a complex cosmology, Gurdjieff taught that the average human being was literally asleep, and that “waking up” required a great deal of work and “conscious suffering” His work was continued by his pupils following his death in 1949, and a number of books on his teachings remain in print today. To discuss his importance to the study of religion, David Robertson speaks to two remarkable scholars, Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney, and Steven Sutcliffe of the University of Edinburgh.

We discuss Gurdjieff’s image as a “guru”; how deliberate was it, and where did he learn about the Eastern teachers he modelled himself upon? We discuss how much we should treat Gurdjieff as a sui generis “special case”, as Gurdjieffian scholars have tended to, or whether we would be better to treat him as a type, like Blavatksy, Steiner, Crowley and others. This then turns the discussion to the issues of researching figures like Gurdjieff whose legacies (and archives) are tightly controlled by their followers, and who often aren’t seen as worthy of study by the academy and publishers. We conclude with a consideration of Gurdjieff’s importance (or lack thereof) on the later New Age milieu, and popular culture more broadly.

And did Robert Fripp hire Toy Levin for King Crimson because he looks like Gurdjieff?

You may enjoy our previous interviews with Carole Cusack on “Cultural Production” and “Invented Religions”.

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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, yoga mats, plant pots, llama-shaped snacks and more.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World

through examining [religions’] cultural DSC_0039_2products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World: Intention and Reception of Anthroposophical and Gurdjieffian Art Forms

By Dr Johanna Petsche, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 25 September 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production (23 September 2013)

The Religious Studies Project’s interview with Professor Carole M. Cusack of the University of Sydney covers an ambitious range of issues by tackling some huge open-ended questions: How does one define a cultural product of a religion? Must it be material? What makes a product religious or sacred? What about products that are secular, but traceable to a new religion? Does the culture of celebrity fit into this? Cusack’s rigorous unpacking of these topics, and the tangential issues explored along the way, make for scintillating listening. The interview loosely centres on the recently published Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (2012), which was edited by Cusack and Alex Norman. This comprehensive compendium examines the impact of new religions upon cultural production through a set of case studies exploring realms of music, architecture, food, art, books, film, video games, and more.

New religions have been increasingly emerging in the West and other regions since the beginning of the nineteenth century. They are, however, often ignored or devalued due to the common suspicion that they are not ‘real religions’ and cannot be equated with traditional, historical religions (Cusack and Norman 2012, 1). This human tendency to disregard new religions and new spiritualities is reflected in the way that the cultural products of different religions are perceived. Taking works of music as examples, it is clear that where J. S. Bach’s (1686-1750) ‘St Matthew Passion’, Handel’s (1685-1759) ‘Messiah’ (both overtly Christian works), and the Sufi devotional qawwali music of Pakistan are easily acknowledged as masterworks of religious music, the same dignity is not accorded to the reggae music of the Rastafarians or the piano music of G. I. Gurdjieff and his pupil Thomas de Hartmann (Cusack and Norman 2012, 2; Murrell and Snider 2012, 495-518; Petsche 2012, 271-295). Where the former have come to be celebrated as exemplary, timeless artistic achievements representative of reputable religions, the art associated with new religions is often considered trivial and unimportant, like new religions themselves. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the art of new religions has not yet ‘stood the test of time’, and also that it arose in the materialistic, largely secular world. In this way it seems less meaningful or ‘authentic’ than the art of past epochs, which we commonly admire with a sense of awe and nostalgia.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnaaXk9OxA0]

The cultural products of new religions are often produced by insiders for insiders, but many have attained a level of broader cultural acceptance through various means (see also Cusack and Norman 2012, 2). Take for example Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner’s (1861-1925) Goetheanum II in Dornach, Switzerland, which was completed in 1928. His Goetheanum I was built in 1913 but it was destroyed by fire in 1922, and then rebuilt as Goetheanum II. This is a building – known as “the Building” by Anthroposophists – set up deliberately as a spiritual centre embodying Anthroposophical ideals, with its symbolic, differently coloured windows representing Steiner’s colour theory, and special outside garden and water features designed to create specific effects on viewers. Goetheanum II seems to have been intentionally conceived by Steiner as a sacred site. Interestingly though, at the same time it has become a tourist attraction, with people being drawn to it purely for its aesthetic qualities. It is, after all, a beautiful example of Expressionist architecture (Cusack 2012, 175). Goetheanum II is actually a unique selling point for the village. In this way, the structure is simultaneously a desirable piece of architecture that tourists wish to visit and also, for Anthroposophists who must have much more nuanced, insider interpretations of it, a building imbued with spiritual meaning.

The Goetheanum

The Goetheanum

A number of modern architects, such as Swiss architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier), drew their influence from Steiner’s designs, without specifically calling upon Anthroposophical ideals. Other famous structures, such as the ING Bank headquarters in Amsterdam, built by Albert and van Huuts, have been erected to reflect Steiner principles (Cusack 2012, 188). One might also consider in this context the system of agriculture, known today as Biodynamic Agriculture or Biodynamics, which is discussed in Alex Norman’s chapter in the Handbook. Biodynamics has its starting point in Anthroposophical ideas (Steiner gave a series of eight lectures on the topic in 1924) but is now more concerned with the expression of terroir rather than spiritual development (Norman 2012, 213-234). G. I. Gurdjieff’s nine-pointed enneagram symbol is another example. The enneagram has, in recent years, been appropriated as a model for nine personality types, a model that has been widely promoted in business management and spiritual contexts, straying far from Gurdjieff’s use and teaching of the symbol. While cultural products might be inscribed with the intentions of their creators, it is social actors who make sense of the world and its cultural products (Cusack and Norman 2012, 4).

Another cultural product of a new religion is renowned theatre and film director Peter Brook’s 1979 film Meetings with Remarkable Men. The film is a cinematic adaptation of Armenian-Greek spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff’s (c.1866-1949) semi-autobiographical text of the same name. Brook’s film could be classed as a ‘Gurdjieffian film’ and a religious cultural product as it was created by a Gurdjieffian (Brook now heads the Gurdjieff Paris group), is based on one of Gurdjieff’s own books, and pays tribute to Gurdjieff. Unlike Steiner’s Goetheanum I and II, which were not really intended to cater for outsiders, Brook’s film about Gurdjieff was deliberately made for non-Gurdjieffian, as well as Gurdjieffian, audiences. It is interesting that spiritual meaning must be deeply embedded in the film, while Brook also intended it to fulfil the role of portraying the story of Gurdjieff’s life to ‘outsiders’, in an effective and entertaining way.

The study of new religions, a burgeoning area within the greater field of Religious Studies, gives a unique perspective on different facets of religion. Not only can we observe, through such a study, how religions begin, change, develop, and in some cases expire, but through examining their cultural products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

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.

 

Bibliography

  • Cusack, Carole and Alex Norman (eds). “Introduction,” Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Cusack, Carole. “‘And the Building Becomes Man’: Meaning and Aesthetics in Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Murrell, Nathaniel and Justin Snider. “Identity, Subversion, and Reconstruction ‘Riddims’: Reggae as Cultural Expressions of Rastafarian Theology” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Norman, Alex. “Cosmic Flavour, Spiritual Nutrition?: The Biodynamic Agricultural Method and the Legacy of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy in Viticulture” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Petsche, Johanna. “G. I. Gurdjieff’s Piano Music and its Application in and Outside the ‘Work’” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.

Academic Publishing Roundtable

Publish, or be damned! But the world of publishing can be esoteric, especially the cloistered world of academic publishing. In this special roundtable discussion, recorded during the Australian Association for the Study of Religion annual conference last year, Zoe Alderton leads a group of academics with experience of all levels of academic publishing in a discussion which aims to demystify the process.

George, Zoe and Carole begin by talking about editing special themed Issues of academic journals. They talk about networking – that you have to make yourself available, but you have to put the work in when it’s needed. Alex then describes how a larger edited book is constructed from the proposals received. Simon then describes his experience of writing for an edited volume. Alex shares a cautionary tale about authorship and competition, and Carole recounts some less-than-positive experiences with editors.

Conversation then turns to the experience of being an editor yourself. George reads an email which he composed in order to reject someone as kindly as he could. Carole’s closing advice is “Write what you want, and write clear.” This podcast is essential information not only for prospective Religious Studies scholars, not only the humanities and social scientists, but anyone aiming for a career in academia.

Thanks to Zoe for chairing this, to Carole and Don for opening their home, and to Annabel Carr for providing photographs. And thanks to all the participants for an informative and entertaining recording.

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, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Zoe Alderton is a PhD candidate in the department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. Her thesis concerns the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon and the nature of his audience reception. Zoe’s main interests are religion in modern art and religious communication via new media. Her recent publications include a discussion of the inheritance of Theosophy in Australian modernism, and an exploration of the contentious politics surrounding the Blake Prize for Religious Art. Upcoming publications concern imaginative pilgrimage in the work of Colin McCahon, and a discussion of the motifs in his beachside theology. Zoe is also a tutor in Sociology for the University of Western Sydney and reviews editor for the journal Literature & Aesthetics.

Carole M. Cusack (Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney) trained as a medievalist and her doctorate was published as Conversion Among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell, 1998). Since the late 1990s she has taught in contemporary religious trends, publishing on pilgrimage and tourism, modern Pagan religions, new religious movements, the interface between religion and politics, and religion and popular culture. She is the author of The Essence of Buddhism (Lansdowne, 2001), Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010), and The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), 2011. She has published in a number of edited volumes, and is the editor (with Christopher Hartney) of Religion and Retributive Logic: Essays in Honour of Garry W. Trompf (Brill, 2010). With Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney) she is editor of the Journal of Religious History (Wiley) and with Liselotte Frisk (Dalarna University) she is editor of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions (Equinox). She serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Literature & Aesthetics, and of the Sophia Monograph Series (Springer).

Alex NormanAlex Norman (“the Tourism Guy”) lectures at the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, where he completed his doctorate in 2010. His central research interests revolve around the confluence of travel practices and religious practices. His book Spiritual Tourism (Continuum 2011) examines the intersection of travel and secular spiritual practice by contemporary Westerners. His other main research interest is in new religious movements, and in 2012 he co-edited the Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (Brill 2012) with Carole M. Cusack. From 2010 to 2013 Alex was co-editor of Literature & Aesthetics, culminating in a special issue examining travel and literature published in 2012. His latest research project looks at the various ways in which travel events and traditions have impacted the formation of new religious movements.

George Ioannides studied comparative religion as part of his Undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, Australia.

 

 

Simon Theobold is a graduate student in the Archaeology and Anthropology department of the Australian National University. His current research examines food taboos in contemporary Australia.

Sarah K. Balstrup is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, and you can follow this link to read her paper Sentient Symbols: The Implications of Animal Cruelty Debates in Contemporary Australian Art.

 

Roundtable: Building an Academic Career

Jonathan, Chris, Kevin, Carole and the back of Louise’s head…

David was taking the photos this time

During her recent trip to the UK, the Religious Studies Project managed (with the promise of copious Pink Gin) to persuade Professor Carole Cusack to take part in a roundtable discussion. She suggested that we discuss how to build an academic career – advice which she has been generous with to many people in the past. That having been agreed, we rounded up a few of our regular discussants – and, for the first time, Louise Connelly, our hitherto silent third partner – in the imposing setting of the University of Edinburgh’s Rainy Hall. We think we managed to produce something which should be of at least some use to any aspiring academic in the social sciences… we’d love to hear if you think so too!

David: “Don’t wait to be given permission… if it is interesting, it will work!”

In these financially hard times, the role of the academic is changing; the reasons for people going to university are changing; and universities are constantly changing the configuration of their departments. Topics covered in this discussion include:

  • the importance of publication, and the relative merits of different publications;
  • getting teaching experience;
  • services to the discipline and the community
  • conferences and networking (Chris Cotter, of course)
  • what to put in your CV
  • how to keep up-to-date with your field
  • and much more…

It is worth mentioning, of course, that this is all just advice and should be taken as such. The experience of others may be entirely different and we cannot, of course, be held responsible for any unforeseen consequences of following the advice contained herein.

Carole: “One of the tragedies of academic work is that it sees no audience […] if [theses] only see an audience of two or three examiners they are essentially exercises in waste.”

Links mentioned in the podcast (likely not comprehensive):

Carole: “You can’t double-dip: [if] you put something into research [on your CV], it doesn’t go somewhere else”

 

Participants:

“Roundtable Regular” Kevin Whitesides completed his B.A. in Religious Studies at Humboldt State University. He has recently completed an MSc dissertation at the University of Edinburgh on ’2012′ millennialism as part of a broader emphasis on countercultural transmission. Kevin has contributed articles to ‘Archaeoastronomy’ and ‘Zeitschrift fur Anomalistik’, has contributed chapters for two anthologies on apocalypse and prophecy, and has presented widely on the ’2012′ milieu at academic conferences and universities.


What is Phenomenology? for the Religious Studies Project.


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. Forthcoming 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 (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.


Carole M. Cusack (Associate Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney) trained as a medievalist and her doctorate was published as Conversion Among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell, 1998). Since the late 1990s she has taught in contemporary religious trends, publishing on pilgrimage and tourism, modern Pagan religions, new religious movements, the interface between religion and politics, and religion and popular culture. She is the author of The Essence of Buddhism (Lansdowne, 2001), Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010), and The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), 2011. She has published in a number of edited volumes, and is the editor (with Christopher Hartney) of Religion and Retributive Logic: Essays in Honour of Garry W. Trompf (Brill, 2010). With Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney) she is editor of the Journal of Religious History (Wiley) and with Liselotte Frisk (Dalarna University) she is editor of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions (Equinox). She serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Literature & Aesthetics, and of the Sophia Monograph Series (Springer).


Christopher R. Cotter recently 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’. He is currently taking a year out from study to present at conferences, complete various writing projects, and work on projects such as this. His PhD research at Lancaster University (commencing October 2012) will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.


L Connelly ImageLouise Connelly, Ph.D., currently works as an Online Learning Advisor for the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. She also teaches short-courses in Hinduism and Buddhism through the Office of Lifelong Learning at the University of Edinburgh. Her Ph.D. thesis is titled “Aspects of the Self: An analysis of self reflection, self presentation and the experiential self within selected Buddhist blogs” (University of Edinburgh). Her research interests include early Buddhism, visual culture, the use of social media, and Buddhist ritual and identity in the online world of Second Life. Her recent publications include ‘Virtual Buddhism: An analysis of aesthetics in relation to religious practice within Second Life’, Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet (2010); ‘Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist ritual in Second Life’ in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Campbell (ed.) (2012); and Campbell and Connelly, ‘Religion and the Internet’ in the Encylopedia of Cyber Behavior,  Zang (ed.) (2012). See her personal blog or website for a full CV.


“Thanks for Listening”

It was somewhat fitting that this roundtable ends with these sage words from Mr Whitesides. We were very privileged to enjoy Kevin’s company during his eventful year in Edinburgh, and look forward to welcoming him back to the Religious Studies Project in the future. We hope you shall join us in wishing him the best for the coming months back at his home in California.

In the picture below, Dr Steven Sutcliffe, Dr Arkotong Longkumer, David Robertson and Kevin himself made some music at a recent University of Edinburgh event. We won’t embarrass them by putting up the video though…

Divine Inspiration Revisited

 

When encountered for the first time, the idea of a fiction-based religion might seem quite ’far out’ and counter-intuitive. How is it possible to mix together religion (that, supposedly, deals with faith and so with a truth of some sort) and works of popular culture, which are clearly created by human imagination, and so are by definition not true?

And yet, this mixing does not seem to be a problem to the adherents of Jediism, Matrixism, and so forth. There are several groups that draw their inspiration from works of fiction, and yet declare religiosity. Apparently, fiction can offer inspiration to spiritual activities just as well as material traditionally regarded as spiritual and religious. What we seem to have at hand is a phenomenon that leaks out of our previous categories of religion, and in doing so poses a challenge to our understanding of religion and especially its connection to wider social and cultural phenomena.

The interview with Markus Davidsen explains comprehensively the basic ideas of a fiction-based religion. Davidsen defines a fiction-based religion as ”real religion in the real world, – which takes much of its inspiration from a fictional text”. Davidsen argues that these movements are more than fandom. For example, even though the adherents to Jediism do recognize the fact that Star Wars is fictional story, they still maintain that it refers to something that is real on some level. They might also argue, according to Davidsen, that all other religions are based on human invention as well, and so make the distinction between ‘real religion’ and their fiction-based religion less clear.

The aspect that interests me the most is the apparent diffusion of different ‘spheres’ of culture and society. In a fiction-based religion, an overlap of two categories is clearly present: religion and popular culture. But there are also other overlaps. For example, the argument that all religions are based on fiction seems like a very ’secular’ statement. So it seems that adherents to these new religious or spiritual endeavors have adopted certain ideas from a society in which traditional religions with their exclusive truth claims have largely lost their plausibility. As this introductory video to Pastafarianism puts it: ”(W)ith so many to choose from, how do we know which, if any, holds the truth?” But even adopting this view does not mean that religiosity would vanish altogether. Apparently, equally false can be inverted to equally true. Furthermore, it legitimizes the use of rather unconventional sources of spiritual inspiration. If all religions are ultimately based on human invention, what divides old prophecies and mythologies from the new ones?

Like many other forms of diffuse religiosity and spirituality of present day, fiction-based religions operate in an environment of open-ended systems, in which individuals are free to combine a view that suits their spiritual needs. Teemu Taira has called this type of religiosity ”liquid”, a term derived from Zygmunt Bauman’s work on liquid modernity. His work emphasizes the fact that we cannot handle religion as a distinct phenomenon separated from the broader societal and cultural context (Taira, 2006, 7-8). Coming closer to fiction-based religions, Carole M. Cusack has worked on what she calls ”invented religions”, which are new religions that openly declare their origin in human creativity. This term encompasses fiction-based religions as well as others, such as Discordianism and Church of the SubGenius, which are usually deemed as parody religions. Cusack also emphasizes the socio-cultural context of these religions, and her monograph Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith shows how these forms of religiosity are a quite logical consequence of modern consumerism, individualism and appreciation for novelty. (Cusack, 2010 8-25.)

Taira describes liquid religiosity as being focused on the self. The experience of the individual is the most important religious authority. This is only logical in a liquid modern world, where great narratives have lost their plausibility, traditional identities are being deconstructed and external truths might prove fragile and change the next day (Taira 2006, 68-71,75). Consequently, what is ‘true’ for an individual is what matters to him or her individually. This is a very pragmatic sense of reality. If it works, it is true – at least true enough. This kind of view is naturally well suited for a highly pluralist situation, where increasing numbers of religious groups and identities exist next to each other. Taira also suggests that in liquid religiosity, there might be a shift in emphasis from intellectual content to the affective side of religiosity: meaningful feelings and experiences of empowerments it brings. (Taira 2006, 47-51.)

Fiction-based religions are a nice example of how different spheres of society and culture are actually tightly interntwined, and that they constantly affect and interfere with each others. Religion among other ‘spheres’ does not develop in a vaccuum. Also, as Davidsen concludes at the end of the interview, religion is ”something that happens in social interaction and negotiation”. Something is not religious per se, but it is made religious by people who claim it as such.

Religion does not disappear, even though some of its traditional forms might lose their value in the eyes of some people. But religion does change. Fiction-based religions are a good example of this change.

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.

 

References:

CUSACK, Carole M, 2010: Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

TAIRA, Teemu, 2006: Notkea uskonto.  Published in the Eetos julkaisuja series. Turku: Eetos

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…

 

Finding religiosity within a parody

Finding religiosity within a parody

By: Essi Mäkelä, University of Helsinki

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 3 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Carole Cusack on ”Invented Religions” (30 January 2012).

A parody of religion will include elements that are accepted as religious within the society. This makes sure the parody is recognized as being targeted towards religion. Hence, a parody of religion will tell us what is accepted as a legitimate part of religion in the society where a parody or a joke on religion would be at home. Intuitively this includes nonreligious, irreligious or ”indifferent” people who have not found the official religion(s) to attend to their needs in interpreting life and the world. From this perspective it is understandable such parodies of religion would spur to life on a university campus, among students.

As with other religious activities, there are different levels of participation in this parody. At one end, some find beauty in the cermonies of the local church so they get married, baptize their children and bury their relatives using the services the church provides. Some find meaning in these practices and will pray and think about religious texts and meanings while occasionally participating at the church. At the other end lies complete devotion , with religion being a way of life and consuming most of the participants’ time and interest. This is also true for ”alternative” religiosity, such as paganism or ”Witchcraft” (McGuire, 2002: 122) – why not for ”fiction-based” or ”invented religions” (Davidsen, 2011; Cusack, 2010) too? For some, the parodies and sci-fi narratives are simply entertainment and fun. However, others seem to contemplate more deeply, finding a seed of truth in the parody and so come to refer to these narratives more often and more (or less) seriously.

In Principia Discordia, the book of Discordianism, there is a concept of The Law of Fives. Principia claims that there is a memo in ”The Erisian Archives” from Mal-2 (Greg Hill) to Omar Ravenhurst (Kerry Thornley) which says: “I find the Law of Fives to be more and more manifest the harder I look.” Come to think of it, this applies to all things in life. If you are concentrating on something, you will tend to notice a connection between almost anything and the subject you are meditating on. If you find a joke or a fiction good enough – ”so good it should be true” as Cusack puts it (podcast 14:00-14:35)– you will probably start seeing it manifest in the world more often than not. Even if it begins as a joke, the more a joke is told and applied to incidents in real life, the closer you may come to accepting the narrative as true.

This process can be analogised to the process of converting to any other religious (or, indeed, explicitly ”nonreligious”) group, where individuals build new narratives for their past life and explain experienced incidents from the point of view of the new religious community of conversion. In the case of Discordianism or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the community might be no more than a collection of texts on the Internet. But the simple act of reading about someone who has – even jokingly – been reflecting on the original joke ”as if it was true”, might start a process of coming to believe in its literal truth.

For my Master’s Thesis, I have interviewed people who put a lot of emphasis on the philosophical worldview of Discordianism. According to questionnaires and face-to-face interviews conducted by myself and a student colleague, Hanna Lehtinen, in the winter of 2010/2011,  these individuals claimed to reflect on Discordianistic philosophical thought, and to utilise it in their everyday lives. When things get too tough, for example, a Discordian might find peace in the thought that this is just one point of view in the ultimate chaos within which everything is true, even false things… you just have to deal with it.

The terminological discussion surrounding these kinds of religions is indeed an interesting one. As Cusack points out (podcast 22:30-24:01), both invented and fiction-based religion have positive and negative connotations as definitions of a certain group of religious behaviours. Alternatively, David Chidester (2005) has used ”authentic fakes” as a description for religious behaviour which draws its inspiration from popular culture and which may be authentic religious behaviour but isn’t ”really” religious in the traditional sense – for example the First Church of Jesus Christ, Elvis. He takes Discordianism as an example of orchestrated fake religion which might bring about some authentic religious experiences. Having said that, ”authentic fakes” fails to describe these religions as well as ”invented” or ”fiction-based” religions, and includes the pejorative word ”fake”  which implies that these are merely parodies of religion.

As Discordianism is somewhat different from the religions that are explicitly built on an existent fictional narrative, in my thesis I don’t yet discuss the definition of the other religions. According to our small-scale study, Discordianism is more or less religious in its ”counter attack” on religious thought. Hence Hanna Lehtinen calls Discordianism a ”counter religion” in an article yet to be published. Starting from these building blocks, and the ongoing discussion surrounding ”invented religions”, I am sure it will be possible to derive new definitions for new religious behaviour, and bring the study of religion into the new millenium.

About the Author

Essi Mäkelä is a Master of Arts student in Comparative Religion at the University of Helsinki. She is writing her thesis on how Discordianism fits into the theoretic framework of “liquid religion” as developed from Zigmunt Baumann’s “liquid modernity” by Teemu Taira, a Finnish scholar of religion.

 

 

References

Chidester, David , 2005. Authentic Fakes. Religion and American Popular Culture (University of California Press, 2005, Los Angeles, USA)

Cusack, Carole, 2010. Invented Religions.  Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate Publishing Limited, Surrey, England)

Davidsen, Markus, 2011. “Jediism: a convergence of Star Wars fan culture and salad bar spirituality” (De Filosoof 51, Utrecht, May 2011, p.24)

McGuire, Meredith B. 2002. Religion. The Social Context (Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, USA)

Invented Religions

What is an “Invented Religion”? Why should scholars take these religions seriously? What makes these “inventions” different from the revelations in other religions? What happens when an author does not want their story to become a religious text?

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

In this interview with David, Carole M. Cusack (Associate Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney) answers these questions and more, exploring her notion of “Invented Religions” and introducing the listener to a wide variety of contemporary and unusual forms of religion. Discussion flows through a range of topics – from Discordianism and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to Scientology, Jediism and the New Atheism – and demonstrates how the works of authors such as Thomas Pynchon and Robert A. Heinlein can be transformed by others and take on a life of their own. In her own words, “This is a fiction so good it should be true…”

[N.B., Carole asked us to let you know that when she said that George Adamski founded the Aetherius Society, she meant George King. Both Georges encountered Venusians in 1954, but Adamski was in the US and King in the UK. A forgivable error, we’re sure.]

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions 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.

Of particular relevance to the topic of this interview is Carole’s article

Science Fiction as Scripture: Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and the Church of All Worlds in Christopher Hartney, Alex Norman, and Carole M. Cusack (eds), Creative Fantasy and the Religious Imagination, special issue of Literature & Aesthetics, Vol. 19, No. 2, SSLA, 2009, pp. 72-91. The full text is available here. If you have  access to the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, you may also find the following article of interest: Discordian Magic: Paganism, the Chaos Paradigm and the Power of Parody, International Journal for the Study of New Religions, Vol. 2, No. 1, May 2011.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with Carole M. Cusack on Invented Religions (30 January 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. Robertson (with Chris Cotter). Transcribed by Martin Lepage.

 

David Robertson (DR): What if you choose to believe in a faith that you knew had been made up? And what if it worked all the same? That’s what Carole Cusack, Associate Professor of Studies in Religions at the University of Sydney, asks in her recent book Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith, and she’s with us today. Hi Carole!

Carole Cusack (CC): Hi David!

DR: So? Why should scholars take invented religions seriously?

CC: I think the best way into that query is to understand that human beings create, to some extent, their reality in the sense that they, as individuals and then in communities, tell narratives that make meaning, and they externalise those narratives, those narratives gain an objective status, and then, they’re re-internalised by individualized and communities as something that has facticity outside of simply being a human cultural production. That is a kind of summary of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s social-constructionist model of reality-building, and religion is a kind of worldview and people do precisely the same thing with religions when they join a religion, when they take on a religion: they learn new vocabulary, they tell new stories to each other, new converts or people who are drifting close to joining are told those stories and rehearsed in actions, and language, so that they come to be part of the community. Where I’m going with this is that even though the phenomenon of religion sort of based explicitly on narratives that are known to be fictional seem to date only from the 1950s, there is a sense in which every religion has been invented in some sense, even those religions that claim revelation from an external deity. What happens is a person, a prophetic or charismatic leader, has an experience and communicates that experience as narrative to a group of people who haven’t had that experience, and they story-build, and talk about it, and externalize it, and objectivise it and then re-internalise it, and it becomes true… for them. And this is one of the issues with invented religions, as I term them in my book that came out in 2010. They are cases where the narrative actually predates the religion. The person who founds the religion already has in their possession a narrative that has been written by somebody else, and they think that this fictional narrative more accurately represents spiritual realities, values, meaning-conveying issues in life, than existent scriptures, and determine that they will make from a fiction a document that becomes a scripture, or a myth, or a program for human spiritual development.

DR: It begins with Discordianism, really, doesn’t it, that’s the first of these invented religions?

CC: Well, Discordianism is an interesting case because it’s not actually based on a pre-existent fiction, but it does, I think, kick off the phenomenon. It’s technically founded in 1957, and consequently, it’s the earliest of the religions that I study. There are other examples that fit almost exactly into that same milieu. For example, the quite highbrow American novelist, Thomas Pynchon, in 1958, founded what he calls a ‘micro-cult’, with Richard Fariña, the late folksinger, that was based on a novel, Oakley Hall’s Warlock, and this was a very specific campus-based thing. One thing fascinating about invented religion is the extent to which students, university and college students, are the people who create these stories, create these faiths from pre-existent stories. Discordianism is Greg Hill, later known as Malaclypse the Younger, and Kerry Thornley, later known as Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst, sitting in a bowling alley with some of their friends, over a few nights, and coming up with the idea that the world as they understood it, which was very much a Cold War view, is just completely chaotic, and that if there is a deity, the deity is the deity of chaos, Eris, the great goddess of discord, called Discordia in Latin, and deliberately inventing a kind of farcical burlesque of religion based on this goddess. What’s most interesting about them is that even though they didn’t work from a pre-existing fictional narrative, they both went and some of the other very important contributors to the religion, like Robert Anton Wilson or Camden Benares, went through the same sort of processes. They both went through a process where they began knowing that they had made it up. But by the time they were speaking with Margot Adler in the middle 70’s, when she was writing Drawing Down the Moon, her pioneering study of alternative religionists in America, they both had come to the position that they realized that something that they thought was a fiction, that they had spun, was in fact a reality that was true. And this seems to me to be related, though not identical, to the process of picking up a pre-existent fictional text and attempting to instantiate it. To an extent, they are the authors of the fictional text. You could argue Principia Discordia was a piece of fiction they produced, and rather than waiting for someone else to pick it up and decide that it should be made into a religion, they gradually became auto-converted.

DR : And the other major invented religion that you are concerned with,the Church of All Worlds, they didn’t create the texts themselves, rather they appropriated some else’s text, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. How are they different?

CC: Well, firstly, Discordianism begins as spirit of parody, as spirit of really kicking out against the culture of the 1950’s. It begins in rebellion. It begins in the desire to mock and to even vilify religion as hypocrisy, as ridiculous. And it becomes, to some extent, serious though there is still a strong element of parody, and Discordians tend to be chameleonic, irreverent, very difficult to pin down. The Church of all Worlds, which began at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, in 1962, on the 7th of April, precisely, if you want. That was founded by two college students, Tim Zell and Richard Lance Christie, and in a lot of ways, they’re a brilliant contrast, to Hill and Thornley, because Hill and Thornley’s friendship broke apart over the years. They came to understand Discordianism very differently and to, in many ways, become bitter, and to become essentially broken through their experience of it. It’s significant, I think, that Zell and Christie were both psychology majors, and in fact, Zell went on to graduate work in psychology, which he didn’t finish. They formed a friendship that Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, as Tim Zell in now known, he says: ‘He was Spock to my Kirk.’ They speak when… Christie was still alive, he died in 2010… they spoke of each other in terms that were familial, almost lover-like, the idea that when they met each other as friends, as undergraduates, it was the true recognition of the other person in the universe that they’d been missing up to that point. And consequently, they had a very strong shared program for what this religion was going to look like. They both read Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which was released in 1961. They both fell in love with the book as they had with each other, and with psychology, and with certain ideas about world transformation. In 1962, what was formed was two branches. The Church of All Worlds, which was the religious arm, with Zell in charge. He was the early developer of liturgy and of praxis, mostly derived from Heinlein. And the waterbrotherhood called Atl, which Christie was in charge of, which became essentially an environmentalist project, an ecological project. And they kept those roles throughout the whole of the next forty-odd years, where Zell is the flamboyant religious leader, the Pagan, the magician, the trickster, the person who garnered public opinion and worked tirelessly as a promoter of the worship of Gaia as a religion, whereas Christie worked as almost entirely as a secular environmental activist, having done graduate work in environment science. So their religion doesn’t have a parodic element. It’s serious. It’s devotional. There’s playfulness there, but that comes largely, I think, from the sense that Heinlein’s own novel is full of playfulness, and the wholehearted rejection, especially of mainstream sexual morays, and wage slavery, and other kinds of ideas that were considered to be the successful life in the 1960’s, places CAW in that hippie drop-out rebellious camp, but it’s a rebellion that is not characterised by parody or by savage satire of religion. It’s rather a religion characterized by rejection of mainstream standards, and a religious vision, which actually is entirely serious.

DR: The element of satire comes back strongly with what you described as the Third Millennium and invented religions with… and they’re going further into things like Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster being outright attacks on religion, not just playful satires. Is there anything behind that change?

CC: That’s an interesting one and actually I think it’s important at this point to just refer for one minute to what Robert A. Heinlein said himself. He actually, even though he shares some values with CAW, i.e. he was into nudism, and polyamory, and he was politically very radical, sometimes very right wing, sometimes very left wing. He is absolutely non-religious, and he did not want his novel to be read as a religious tract. That’s quite interesting because it’s a novel that largely about religion, in various forms. But there is a notion that wants that once an author releases a story into the world… I started with storytelling in the way that humans use stories to world-build and to create identities. Heinlein released this story into the world and it was enthusiastically taken up by enormous numbers of mostly young people in the 60s. And in the early 1970s, Tim Zell began corresponding with Heinlein, and Heinlein subscribed to Green Egg, the newsletter that CAW published, and he always maintained, in fact, there’s passages in his published letters, that he doesn’t believe any of it, and he doesn’t really think that it was a great idea to turn his novel into a religion. But nevertheless, he came to like Zell and to find value in the way that he was appropriating this story and making the story live in a different way.

The Third Millennium new religion you just mentioned, the Church of Flying Spaghetti Monster, of course, it doesn’t start as a religion at all. It starts as a narrative that is a mockery, a very funny, and very clever mockery of intelligent design, the latest largely Christian repackaging of Creationism, which is very important in America, where issues about religion are so much more debated than they are in Europe or Australia, where I’m from. And of course, Bobby Henderson released that story into the world. He wrote The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, an enormously funny book, and he created a mythology, he gave the FSM a noodle-y mess with meatballs for eyes as the creator of the universe. If you’re going to have to specify an intelligent designer, why shouldn’t it be the FSM? He created also a religion that would appeal to college students. Heaven has strippers and a beer volcano. So what happened of course was that people who read this and first thought what a hilarious piss-take it was, started saying exactly what Zell and Christie said about Stranger in a Strange Land: ‘This a is fiction so good, it should be true.’ So you have people starting sectarian branches of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in the spirit of parodic religion, and Henderson has declined ever to be considered a prophet. But he’s also said he doesn’t really care what people do with it. He released it onto the market, people can pick it up and they can do with it what they want. And so you have the guy who publishes ‘Spaghetti-grams’, which are anagrams done on the computer, using the words ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’ and say, for example, whatever issue that you want advice on… so ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster sexual morality’, and you get Spaghetti-grams, which are four line quatrains, arranged of anagrams from the letters that are available. This is a kind of divinatory advice. People who wear colanders, pasta strainers, on their heads as religious headgear, as a recent case in Austria where a young man requested that he’d be allowed to wear such headgear in the photograph featured on his driver’s license, was tried in the courts and found to be a valid religious headgear. And so the story is what’s important, and how people build that story into an identity formation, whether as an individual, or whether as a group who want to create a cell, a church, for the FSM in real life. And that’s very amusing and very good fun. And it does critique religion, but it critiques religion in an interesting way because, I think that scholars who, for a long time, have been comfortable with the idea that there could be religions that don’t have any gods, that in fact aren’t supra-empirical or supernaturally oriented, there are just really about what people do in their lives… this is not generally a view that the person in the street finds easy to accept. Usually, if you vox-pop, one of the first things you get, if you say ‘what do you think there has to be as a vital element to make something a religion?’, most people will say God or gods. But scholarship is very comfortable with the idea that religions are really about people, this is because scholarship is a secular activity. It’s not theology. It’s not confessional. We understand that human beings are makers of their own worlds. And so, those people who are making their religious world out of the Star Wars trilogy or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, they’re doing something that scholars are very comfortable with.

Chris Cotter: You’re raising very valid points which gel with my own work into the atheists, etc., and one of the big critiques that contemporary atheism or non-religion has of religion is that it is invented, and they spend an awful lot of time demonstrating that the Bible was written by people or this religion was just founded by some guys who wrote a novel or whatever, and they seem to think that this will make a difference. Does it?

CC: No… look, I think this is one of the great problems with atheism in the 21th century. I’m very sympathetic to atheist discourses and I think it is correct that they’re included among other religious discourses. But for me, the main problem is that atheists seem to think that if you can mount and knock down arguments that are based on either rationality or empiricism, the twin poles of the Enlightenment, that you won’t be able to make people realized that their beliefs or their practices are erroneous and should be abandoned, and it seems to me that this is entirely counter-intuitive. Human beings are capable of rationality, but very very few, even educated Westerners, operate consistently on principles of rationality, and you only have to look at statistics from the US, which often talk about the fact that people who have science degrees are very likely to be Creationists. Human beings have compartmentalised knowledges, issues of identity formation, and things that they considered precious and important, and these don’t often bleed into each other. So I’m afraid I think the atheist argument that you can demonstrate that religious texts were written by humans, or that you can demonstrate that the founder of a particular religion, like Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard, was in some sense a huckster or a fraud, I don’t see that these are important because they don’t take into account that the lived experience of people is more powerful to them than any kind of argument drawn from rational principles. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but it seems to me that it is how it is.

DR: Scientology is a white elephant in your book, isn’t? Is that a deliberate decision so as to not get sued or… I can’t imagine that’s the case, knowing you… or was it rather that you considered them or don’t consider them to be in the same class as the other invented religions?

CC: Scientology is really difficult. It comes out of exactly the same milieu. The Church of Scientology is founded in the 1950s, 1954 to be precise, on the back on Dianetics, and yes, it contained science fiction tropes, and in the 21th century, what we know about it looks a lot like an invented religion. I am ambivalent about Scientology, because I don’t think it begins as an invented religion. It begins as a critique of psychiatry. It begins as a therapy. It begins as a… an answer to the problems of modern life, and it’s not surprising that when Dianetics was released, major psychologists like Erich Fromm actually reviewed it, and it was treated as a work of amateur psychology. What’s interesting about it is that it goes along exactly the same track as the theosophical legacy, because L. Ron Hubbard begins with clearing engrams that are experiences that ones has had in the past in one’s life. They the engrams go back to in utero, then they go back to past lives, and before you know what happened, these past lives may be on other planets involving extraterrestrials. This is in fact exactly what happens with theosophical ascended masters. Madame Blavatsky’s masters where real Tibetans living in Tibet, who were alive in her life. After she died, mediumship contacted people who were dead, people who lived in Ancient Egypt, mythical figures like the Comte de Saint Germain for people like Guy Ballard and before you know it, it’s people from other planets, Venusians like Orthon who speak to George King. These sorts of things are a logical extension. So in some senses, I would place Scientology in a post-theosophical therapeutic milieu. And I think, as we came to know as scholars, a lot more about the Operating Thetan levels, the Xenu mythology in particular made it look a lot more like an invented religion, but at the moment, I’m just not 100% sure that I would put it in the same category.

DR: Well, this is absolutely cutting-edge research. Has anybody taken up your research and challenged it or taken it further?

CC: The interesting thing is that it’s evolving so fast, I’m not quite sure. I came up with the term ‘invented religions’, but I really wanted emphasis to be placed on the subtitle, which was Imagination, Fiction and Faith, ‘cause I think the human imagination creates the stories, the stories are fictions, people come to have faith in them, I think that’s really important. But very, very shortly before I completed the book, I met Markus Davidsen, who’s doing his PhD at the University of Leiden and the University of Aarhus, and he is working on what he calls ‘fiction-based religions’, because he’s working on Jediism and spirituality and religious groups that have grown out of the Tolkien mythos. I thought in some sense that was a better title. We discussed this privately and he went for ‘fiction-based religions’ because he thought that all religions are invented, which was where I started today. And I could see the sense of that, but then we linked up with Danielle Kirby, who’s at Monash University and who did her PhD on the Otherkin, and she argues that ‘fiction-based religions’ is no good because it’s too passive a term, and what we’re really looking at is a kind of actively constructed type of new spirituality, that… you need the dynamism of invention and you need the content of fiction, but what we’re still looking for now is a better term to characterize these groups. That being said, I’ve had very favourable email contacts from mostly Discordians and members of the Church of All Worlds, including Oberon Zell-Ravenheart who actually helped me a lot with the research that I did in that book, and they are very comfortable with my term ‘invented religions’. But these, of course, are not people within the academy and I think it’s within the academy, that the category, that area, whatever you want to call it, is going to be developed and refined, and that’s happening, it’s just not quite clear where it’s going to go yet.

DR: Professor Cusack, thank you.

CC: It’s been a pleasure.

Citation Info: Cusack, Carole M. and David G. Robertson, with Christopher R. Cotter. 2012. “Invented Religions.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 30 January 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.1, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-carole-cusack-on-invented-religions/

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‘Religious Innovation and Religious Change in the 21st Century’ – 2015 CESNUR Conference Report

CESNUR (Centre for Studies on New Religions, Torino) Annual Conference 2015, Tallinn University, Estonia, 17-20 June. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Prof. Carole M. Cusack, Department of Studies in Religion, The University of Sydney

The 2015 CESNUR conference was held at University of Tallin, Estonia, and was organized by Dr Ringo Ringvee (The Estonian Ministry of Interior). The theme was ‘Religious Innovation and Religious Change in the 21st Century’. There were no plenary lectures, although the interesting address by Massimo Introvigne (President of CESNUR) at the conference dinner at the Von Krahl Theatre, on Friday 19 June, ‘The Sociology of Religious Movements and the Sociology of Time in Conversation’ performed something of that function. As CESNUR is an organization that welcomes members of new religions, there were ‘insider’ papers and responses from members of the Twelve Tribes, the Plymouth Brethren, and the Church of Scientology, among others.

Academic presentations included: Liselotte Frisk and Sanja Nilsson (Dalarna University), ‘Upbringing and Schooling of the Children of the Exclusive Brethren: The Swedish Perspective’; Bernard Doherty (Macquarie University), ‘Spooks and Scientologists: Secrecy, Surveillance, and Subversion in Cold War Australia, 1954-1983’; Tommy Ramstedt (Abo Akademi University), ‘Credibility, Authority, and the Paranormal: The Relation Between Science and Paranormal Claims Within the Finnish Alternative Spiritual Milieu’; Timothy Miller (University of Kansas), ‘Will the Hutterites Survive the 21st Century?’; Carole M. Cusack (University of Sydney), ‘Gurdjieff and Sufism: A Contested Relationship’; and Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney), ‘Kenja: Unique Australian NRM or Auditing Without an E-Meter?’

Tallinn, Estonia

The International Society for the Study of New Religions (ISSNR) held its third two-yearly meeting since it began in 2009 during the conference. This was a successful gathering that acknowledged the quality of the first five years of the International Journal for the Study of New Religion (Volumes 1-4 under the editorship of Carole M. Cusack and Liselotte Frisk, and Volume 5 under the current editorial team of Alex Norman and Asbjørn Dyrendal) and developed plans for the future, as the new President, Milda Ališauskienė (Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania) was elected. The meeting thanked the outgoing President, Jean François Mayer (Religioscope Institute, Switzerland). The ISSNR sponsored sessions at CESNUR as did it at the EASR in Budapest in September 2011.

The conference was well-attended, though the absence of long-time CESNUR stalwart J. Gordon Melton (Baylor University and the Institute for the Study of American Religion) due to extreme weather conditions that presented him travelling was noted by all. At the conference’s close after lunch on Saturday 20 June, members were taken by bus to the first of a series of sacred sites in Tallin, the Song Festival Grounds (Lauluväljak). The bus then dropped the group off in Toompea, the upper town, and Ringo Ringvee guided through sites including: the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral (from the outside); St Mary’s Cathedral (Dome Church or Toomkirik), the oldest church in Tallinn, formerly Catholic and now Lutheran; and the fascinating Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is a unobtrusively nested within the town walls, with a crypt filled with folk art, and a church with a distinctive iconostasis. The dedication is to the Virgin With Three Hands, and the complex also houses a crafts business, a small monastery, and the Ukrainian Cultural Centre. CESNUR 2016 will be in Seoul, Korea, from 28-30 June.

— Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney

CSENUR 2015 online conference proceedings available HERE.

 

 

 

“For a Secret Teaching, They Sure Do Write A Lot About It” – Is There a Gurdjieff Studies or only a Gurdjieff Industry?

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In David Robertson’s interview with Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney and Steven Sutcliffe, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh, the Religious Studies Project has curated a rich and wide-ranging discussion introducing – if David and Chris’ evident excitement during the podcast is any indication – an increasingly receptive audience of the next generation of scholars to critical approaches to Gurdjieff and the study of religions, an embarrassment of riches against which I now have the great but difficult fortune of contributing some of my own observations from the field. The interview is based on their February 2015 special issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion on Gurdjieff and his followers and the book they are now writing on the subject.

As it’s not every day an ‘independent scholar’ who is invited to write about their narrow area of expertise is gifted with such an obvious self-reflexive starting point in order to begin with both disclosure and gratitude, I hope I can be forgiven quoting myself being quoted by one of the great contributors to religious studies, Carole Cusack:

“My former Ph.D. student David Pecotic who did a Ph.D. on Gurdjieff’s cosmology … used to say, the article he was living to write was ‘If Gurdjieffians are supposed to be so secretive, why the hell do they write so much?’ – and it really is true …”

This is not that article, but it is a question I hope they will address in their book. What I want to do here is to focus on the three themes raised in the interview that I think are the most bound up in whatever the answer to this question may look like – category formation/disciplinary boundaries of ‘Gurdjieff studies’; the epistemological problems/solutions of archival study of esotericism in the digital age; and the way academia is inescapably enmeshed in the ‘Gurdjieff industry’, i.e., revelations of primary sources that occur in the inevitable sectarian conflicts that arise in heterodox ‘invented traditions.’

Category formation/disciplinary boundaries – will the ‘real’ Gurdjieff please stand up?

 

While there is little disagreement as to the basic content of Gurdjieff’s spiritual teaching, there is currently no concrete proposal about the place of Gurdjieff within the broadly scientific study of religions. Various categories have been or are currently on offer; leaving aside the old saw of page102_1his soteriological mission to be able to consciously act as a different person to better ‘match’ different people. To approach in an integrated way a man that was, among other things, a composer, choreographer, author, paranormal powers, just to name a few, would require a more sustained inter-disciplinary and collaborative approach in the future, and Sutcliffe and Cusack’s current collaboration are steps in the right direction.

The epistemology of esoteric archives – the source(code) of and solution to the category problem

3As definitions and theories rely on availability of evidence, archival access and what counts as a primary source (and who gets to decide) is a consequential problem. I agree with their observations regarding basic chronology and the epistemological problems implicit in relying on practitioners for publication of and access to esoteric archives. Yet it was their brief point about the effect of the internet that resonated more for me as a researcher. An esoteric field is no longer about scarcity but abundance. Researchers increasingly have the opposite problem of managing an accelerating quantity of primary source materials. Indeed, there is a need for critical editions if only to better deal with the proliferation of online document access to which both scholars and practitioners alike find increasingly difficult to quality control I would argue that digital technologies began to turn the tide of access in 2004 when the Gurdjieff bibliographer J. Walter Driscoll moved from the print version of his standard reference to the online publication ‘Gurdjieff – A Reading Guide’. Even the more ‘orthodox’, hierarchical groups that teach Gurdjieffian principles and exercises in a formalised manner have taken to the Internet via the Gurdjieff International Review. But there are also crowdsourced domains like The Gurdjieff Internet Guide which despite being officially ‘retired’ in 2012, has 10, 000 visits a month and continues to be an online archive for even the wilder engagement.

Cusack was right to highlight the recent publication flurry of new source material on Gurdjieffian practices, something that has been a special focus of my research (akin to Jay Johnston’s interview on the ‘The Subtle Body’ and David Gordon White’s response) such as what_would_george_gurdjieff_do_swivel_usb_flash_drive_-r5321371fdba3422385fc1c395cf0e0ae_zkhjh_324ed what amounts to a ‘Gurdjieff industry.’ While it is important that institutions like Yale University Library have archived the Thomas de Hartmann Papers, Maurice Nicoll Papers, P. D. Ouspensky Memorial Collection, it also represents a lost opportunity for the reconstitution of a more critical study of Gurdjieff in the context of the digital humanities which can enable more critical cross-fertilisation if not deeper ethnographic collaboration between scholars and practitioners.

 

The industrial struggle of the magicians and unweaving the wicked Webb

There are also demographic and generational reasons why previously secreted Gurdjieffian source materials are coming online apace. As Johanna Petsche, another former Ph.D. student of Cusack’s has pointed out, dramatic changes were made by Jeanne de Salzmann after Gurdjieff’s death, when hierarchical ‘Foundation’ groups emerged that subsequently formalised Gurdjieffian principles and exercises. As Cusack noted, de Salzmann was the first Gurdjieffian and not Gurdjieff. Not all of Gurdjieff’s followers amalgamated into this network; an assortment of Gurdjieff-based groups remained outside of it. It is these ‘independent’ and ‘fringe’ groups that are experiencing the most rapid growth and reform; the more orthodox groups are literally being ‘outbred.’

It is in this context that ‘insider’ scholars like insider/outsider process — “where one stands determines what one sees and what one can know” Capps (1995: 334-5). Similar explosions of understanding have occurred in analogous new fields: Wouter Hanegraff (in a previous RSP interview) has described Western esotericism as ‘one of the biggest last undiscovered niches in the academic study of religions.’ For all the above reasons, Gurdjieff may be the next in the field to be discovered. I look forward with keen interest to any critical reflections on my own observations, as well as to Sutcliffe and Cusack’s contributions in the light of themes I hope they will be able to investigate.

References

Azize, Joseph. 2013. ‘“The Four Ideals”: A Contemplative Exercise by Gurdjieff’ Aries 13(2) 173-203.

Capps, Walter H. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Fortress Press: Minneapolis.

Hanegraaff, Wouter. 1996. New Age Religions and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

– 2006. The Brill Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

Heelas, Paul. 1996. The New Age Movement: Celebrating the Self and the Sacralisation of Modernity. Blackwell: Oxford.

Pecotic, David. 2004. ‘Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way: Giving Voice to Further Alterity in the Study of Western Esotericism’ Sydney Studies in Religion, 86-120.

Partridge, Christopher (ed). 2014. The Occult World. Routledge.

Rawlinson, Andrew. 1998. Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions. Open Court.

Petsche, Johanna. 2013. ‘A Gurdjieff Genealogy: Tracing the Manifold Ways the Gurdjieff Teaching has Travelled’ International Journal for the Study of New Religions 4(1), 1-25.

Gurdjieff and the Study of Contemporary Religion

gurdjieffGeorge Ivanovich Gurdjieff was born around 1866 in Russia and came to prominence in the inter-war years in Europe and the US as a “spiritual teacher” or proto-New Age guru. As well as a complex cosmology, Gurdjieff taught that the average human being was literally asleep, and that “waking up” required a great deal of work and “conscious suffering” His work was continued by his pupils following his death in 1949, and a number of books on his teachings remain in print today. To discuss his importance to the study of religion, David Robertson speaks to two remarkable scholars, Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney, and Steven Sutcliffe of the University of Edinburgh.

We discuss Gurdjieff’s image as a “guru”; how deliberate was it, and where did he learn about the Eastern teachers he modelled himself upon? We discuss how much we should treat Gurdjieff as a sui generis “special case”, as Gurdjieffian scholars have tended to, or whether we would be better to treat him as a type, like Blavatksy, Steiner, Crowley and others. This then turns the discussion to the issues of researching figures like Gurdjieff whose legacies (and archives) are tightly controlled by their followers, and who often aren’t seen as worthy of study by the academy and publishers. We conclude with a consideration of Gurdjieff’s importance (or lack thereof) on the later New Age milieu, and popular culture more broadly.

And did Robert Fripp hire Toy Levin for King Crimson because he looks like Gurdjieff?

You may enjoy our previous interviews with Carole Cusack on “Cultural Production” and “Invented Religions”.

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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, yoga mats, plant pots, llama-shaped snacks and more.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World

through examining [religions’] cultural DSC_0039_2products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World: Intention and Reception of Anthroposophical and Gurdjieffian Art Forms

By Dr Johanna Petsche, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 25 September 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production (23 September 2013)

The Religious Studies Project’s interview with Professor Carole M. Cusack of the University of Sydney covers an ambitious range of issues by tackling some huge open-ended questions: How does one define a cultural product of a religion? Must it be material? What makes a product religious or sacred? What about products that are secular, but traceable to a new religion? Does the culture of celebrity fit into this? Cusack’s rigorous unpacking of these topics, and the tangential issues explored along the way, make for scintillating listening. The interview loosely centres on the recently published Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (2012), which was edited by Cusack and Alex Norman. This comprehensive compendium examines the impact of new religions upon cultural production through a set of case studies exploring realms of music, architecture, food, art, books, film, video games, and more.

New religions have been increasingly emerging in the West and other regions since the beginning of the nineteenth century. They are, however, often ignored or devalued due to the common suspicion that they are not ‘real religions’ and cannot be equated with traditional, historical religions (Cusack and Norman 2012, 1). This human tendency to disregard new religions and new spiritualities is reflected in the way that the cultural products of different religions are perceived. Taking works of music as examples, it is clear that where J. S. Bach’s (1686-1750) ‘St Matthew Passion’, Handel’s (1685-1759) ‘Messiah’ (both overtly Christian works), and the Sufi devotional qawwali music of Pakistan are easily acknowledged as masterworks of religious music, the same dignity is not accorded to the reggae music of the Rastafarians or the piano music of G. I. Gurdjieff and his pupil Thomas de Hartmann (Cusack and Norman 2012, 2; Murrell and Snider 2012, 495-518; Petsche 2012, 271-295). Where the former have come to be celebrated as exemplary, timeless artistic achievements representative of reputable religions, the art associated with new religions is often considered trivial and unimportant, like new religions themselves. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the art of new religions has not yet ‘stood the test of time’, and also that it arose in the materialistic, largely secular world. In this way it seems less meaningful or ‘authentic’ than the art of past epochs, which we commonly admire with a sense of awe and nostalgia.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnaaXk9OxA0]

The cultural products of new religions are often produced by insiders for insiders, but many have attained a level of broader cultural acceptance through various means (see also Cusack and Norman 2012, 2). Take for example Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner’s (1861-1925) Goetheanum II in Dornach, Switzerland, which was completed in 1928. His Goetheanum I was built in 1913 but it was destroyed by fire in 1922, and then rebuilt as Goetheanum II. This is a building – known as “the Building” by Anthroposophists – set up deliberately as a spiritual centre embodying Anthroposophical ideals, with its symbolic, differently coloured windows representing Steiner’s colour theory, and special outside garden and water features designed to create specific effects on viewers. Goetheanum II seems to have been intentionally conceived by Steiner as a sacred site. Interestingly though, at the same time it has become a tourist attraction, with people being drawn to it purely for its aesthetic qualities. It is, after all, a beautiful example of Expressionist architecture (Cusack 2012, 175). Goetheanum II is actually a unique selling point for the village. In this way, the structure is simultaneously a desirable piece of architecture that tourists wish to visit and also, for Anthroposophists who must have much more nuanced, insider interpretations of it, a building imbued with spiritual meaning.

The Goetheanum

The Goetheanum

A number of modern architects, such as Swiss architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier), drew their influence from Steiner’s designs, without specifically calling upon Anthroposophical ideals. Other famous structures, such as the ING Bank headquarters in Amsterdam, built by Albert and van Huuts, have been erected to reflect Steiner principles (Cusack 2012, 188). One might also consider in this context the system of agriculture, known today as Biodynamic Agriculture or Biodynamics, which is discussed in Alex Norman’s chapter in the Handbook. Biodynamics has its starting point in Anthroposophical ideas (Steiner gave a series of eight lectures on the topic in 1924) but is now more concerned with the expression of terroir rather than spiritual development (Norman 2012, 213-234). G. I. Gurdjieff’s nine-pointed enneagram symbol is another example. The enneagram has, in recent years, been appropriated as a model for nine personality types, a model that has been widely promoted in business management and spiritual contexts, straying far from Gurdjieff’s use and teaching of the symbol. While cultural products might be inscribed with the intentions of their creators, it is social actors who make sense of the world and its cultural products (Cusack and Norman 2012, 4).

Another cultural product of a new religion is renowned theatre and film director Peter Brook’s 1979 film Meetings with Remarkable Men. The film is a cinematic adaptation of Armenian-Greek spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff’s (c.1866-1949) semi-autobiographical text of the same name. Brook’s film could be classed as a ‘Gurdjieffian film’ and a religious cultural product as it was created by a Gurdjieffian (Brook now heads the Gurdjieff Paris group), is based on one of Gurdjieff’s own books, and pays tribute to Gurdjieff. Unlike Steiner’s Goetheanum I and II, which were not really intended to cater for outsiders, Brook’s film about Gurdjieff was deliberately made for non-Gurdjieffian, as well as Gurdjieffian, audiences. It is interesting that spiritual meaning must be deeply embedded in the film, while Brook also intended it to fulfil the role of portraying the story of Gurdjieff’s life to ‘outsiders’, in an effective and entertaining way.

The study of new religions, a burgeoning area within the greater field of Religious Studies, gives a unique perspective on different facets of religion. Not only can we observe, through such a study, how religions begin, change, develop, and in some cases expire, but through examining their cultural products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

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.

 

Bibliography

  • Cusack, Carole and Alex Norman (eds). “Introduction,” Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Cusack, Carole. “‘And the Building Becomes Man’: Meaning and Aesthetics in Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Murrell, Nathaniel and Justin Snider. “Identity, Subversion, and Reconstruction ‘Riddims’: Reggae as Cultural Expressions of Rastafarian Theology” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Norman, Alex. “Cosmic Flavour, Spiritual Nutrition?: The Biodynamic Agricultural Method and the Legacy of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy in Viticulture” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Petsche, Johanna. “G. I. Gurdjieff’s Piano Music and its Application in and Outside the ‘Work’” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.

Academic Publishing Roundtable

Publish, or be damned! But the world of publishing can be esoteric, especially the cloistered world of academic publishing. In this special roundtable discussion, recorded during the Australian Association for the Study of Religion annual conference last year, Zoe Alderton leads a group of academics with experience of all levels of academic publishing in a discussion which aims to demystify the process.

George, Zoe and Carole begin by talking about editing special themed Issues of academic journals. They talk about networking – that you have to make yourself available, but you have to put the work in when it’s needed. Alex then describes how a larger edited book is constructed from the proposals received. Simon then describes his experience of writing for an edited volume. Alex shares a cautionary tale about authorship and competition, and Carole recounts some less-than-positive experiences with editors.

Conversation then turns to the experience of being an editor yourself. George reads an email which he composed in order to reject someone as kindly as he could. Carole’s closing advice is “Write what you want, and write clear.” This podcast is essential information not only for prospective Religious Studies scholars, not only the humanities and social scientists, but anyone aiming for a career in academia.

Thanks to Zoe for chairing this, to Carole and Don for opening their home, and to Annabel Carr for providing photographs. And thanks to all the participants for an informative and entertaining recording.

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, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Zoe Alderton is a PhD candidate in the department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. Her thesis concerns the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon and the nature of his audience reception. Zoe’s main interests are religion in modern art and religious communication via new media. Her recent publications include a discussion of the inheritance of Theosophy in Australian modernism, and an exploration of the contentious politics surrounding the Blake Prize for Religious Art. Upcoming publications concern imaginative pilgrimage in the work of Colin McCahon, and a discussion of the motifs in his beachside theology. Zoe is also a tutor in Sociology for the University of Western Sydney and reviews editor for the journal Literature & Aesthetics.

Carole M. Cusack (Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney) trained as a medievalist and her doctorate was published as Conversion Among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell, 1998). Since the late 1990s she has taught in contemporary religious trends, publishing on pilgrimage and tourism, modern Pagan religions, new religious movements, the interface between religion and politics, and religion and popular culture. She is the author of The Essence of Buddhism (Lansdowne, 2001), Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010), and The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), 2011. She has published in a number of edited volumes, and is the editor (with Christopher Hartney) of Religion and Retributive Logic: Essays in Honour of Garry W. Trompf (Brill, 2010). With Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney) she is editor of the Journal of Religious History (Wiley) and with Liselotte Frisk (Dalarna University) she is editor of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions (Equinox). She serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Literature & Aesthetics, and of the Sophia Monograph Series (Springer).

Alex NormanAlex Norman (“the Tourism Guy”) lectures at the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, where he completed his doctorate in 2010. His central research interests revolve around the confluence of travel practices and religious practices. His book Spiritual Tourism (Continuum 2011) examines the intersection of travel and secular spiritual practice by contemporary Westerners. His other main research interest is in new religious movements, and in 2012 he co-edited the Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (Brill 2012) with Carole M. Cusack. From 2010 to 2013 Alex was co-editor of Literature & Aesthetics, culminating in a special issue examining travel and literature published in 2012. His latest research project looks at the various ways in which travel events and traditions have impacted the formation of new religious movements.

George Ioannides studied comparative religion as part of his Undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, Australia.

 

 

Simon Theobold is a graduate student in the Archaeology and Anthropology department of the Australian National University. His current research examines food taboos in contemporary Australia.

Sarah K. Balstrup is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, and you can follow this link to read her paper Sentient Symbols: The Implications of Animal Cruelty Debates in Contemporary Australian Art.

 

Roundtable: Building an Academic Career

Jonathan, Chris, Kevin, Carole and the back of Louise’s head…

David was taking the photos this time

During her recent trip to the UK, the Religious Studies Project managed (with the promise of copious Pink Gin) to persuade Professor Carole Cusack to take part in a roundtable discussion. She suggested that we discuss how to build an academic career – advice which she has been generous with to many people in the past. That having been agreed, we rounded up a few of our regular discussants – and, for the first time, Louise Connelly, our hitherto silent third partner – in the imposing setting of the University of Edinburgh’s Rainy Hall. We think we managed to produce something which should be of at least some use to any aspiring academic in the social sciences… we’d love to hear if you think so too!

David: “Don’t wait to be given permission… if it is interesting, it will work!”

In these financially hard times, the role of the academic is changing; the reasons for people going to university are changing; and universities are constantly changing the configuration of their departments. Topics covered in this discussion include:

  • the importance of publication, and the relative merits of different publications;
  • getting teaching experience;
  • services to the discipline and the community
  • conferences and networking (Chris Cotter, of course)
  • what to put in your CV
  • how to keep up-to-date with your field
  • and much more…

It is worth mentioning, of course, that this is all just advice and should be taken as such. The experience of others may be entirely different and we cannot, of course, be held responsible for any unforeseen consequences of following the advice contained herein.

Carole: “One of the tragedies of academic work is that it sees no audience […] if [theses] only see an audience of two or three examiners they are essentially exercises in waste.”

Links mentioned in the podcast (likely not comprehensive):

Carole: “You can’t double-dip: [if] you put something into research [on your CV], it doesn’t go somewhere else”

 

Participants:

“Roundtable Regular” Kevin Whitesides completed his B.A. in Religious Studies at Humboldt State University. He has recently completed an MSc dissertation at the University of Edinburgh on ’2012′ millennialism as part of a broader emphasis on countercultural transmission. Kevin has contributed articles to ‘Archaeoastronomy’ and ‘Zeitschrift fur Anomalistik’, has contributed chapters for two anthologies on apocalypse and prophecy, and has presented widely on the ’2012′ milieu at academic conferences and universities.


What is Phenomenology? for the Religious Studies Project.


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. Forthcoming 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 (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.


Carole M. Cusack (Associate Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney) trained as a medievalist and her doctorate was published as Conversion Among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell, 1998). Since the late 1990s she has taught in contemporary religious trends, publishing on pilgrimage and tourism, modern Pagan religions, new religious movements, the interface between religion and politics, and religion and popular culture. She is the author of The Essence of Buddhism (Lansdowne, 2001), Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010), and The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), 2011. She has published in a number of edited volumes, and is the editor (with Christopher Hartney) of Religion and Retributive Logic: Essays in Honour of Garry W. Trompf (Brill, 2010). With Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney) she is editor of the Journal of Religious History (Wiley) and with Liselotte Frisk (Dalarna University) she is editor of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions (Equinox). She serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Literature & Aesthetics, and of the Sophia Monograph Series (Springer).


Christopher R. Cotter recently 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’. He is currently taking a year out from study to present at conferences, complete various writing projects, and work on projects such as this. His PhD research at Lancaster University (commencing October 2012) will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.


L Connelly ImageLouise Connelly, Ph.D., currently works as an Online Learning Advisor for the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. She also teaches short-courses in Hinduism and Buddhism through the Office of Lifelong Learning at the University of Edinburgh. Her Ph.D. thesis is titled “Aspects of the Self: An analysis of self reflection, self presentation and the experiential self within selected Buddhist blogs” (University of Edinburgh). Her research interests include early Buddhism, visual culture, the use of social media, and Buddhist ritual and identity in the online world of Second Life. Her recent publications include ‘Virtual Buddhism: An analysis of aesthetics in relation to religious practice within Second Life’, Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet (2010); ‘Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist ritual in Second Life’ in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Campbell (ed.) (2012); and Campbell and Connelly, ‘Religion and the Internet’ in the Encylopedia of Cyber Behavior,  Zang (ed.) (2012). See her personal blog or website for a full CV.


“Thanks for Listening”

It was somewhat fitting that this roundtable ends with these sage words from Mr Whitesides. We were very privileged to enjoy Kevin’s company during his eventful year in Edinburgh, and look forward to welcoming him back to the Religious Studies Project in the future. We hope you shall join us in wishing him the best for the coming months back at his home in California.

In the picture below, Dr Steven Sutcliffe, Dr Arkotong Longkumer, David Robertson and Kevin himself made some music at a recent University of Edinburgh event. We won’t embarrass them by putting up the video though…

Divine Inspiration Revisited

 

When encountered for the first time, the idea of a fiction-based religion might seem quite ’far out’ and counter-intuitive. How is it possible to mix together religion (that, supposedly, deals with faith and so with a truth of some sort) and works of popular culture, which are clearly created by human imagination, and so are by definition not true?

And yet, this mixing does not seem to be a problem to the adherents of Jediism, Matrixism, and so forth. There are several groups that draw their inspiration from works of fiction, and yet declare religiosity. Apparently, fiction can offer inspiration to spiritual activities just as well as material traditionally regarded as spiritual and religious. What we seem to have at hand is a phenomenon that leaks out of our previous categories of religion, and in doing so poses a challenge to our understanding of religion and especially its connection to wider social and cultural phenomena.

The interview with Markus Davidsen explains comprehensively the basic ideas of a fiction-based religion. Davidsen defines a fiction-based religion as ”real religion in the real world, – which takes much of its inspiration from a fictional text”. Davidsen argues that these movements are more than fandom. For example, even though the adherents to Jediism do recognize the fact that Star Wars is fictional story, they still maintain that it refers to something that is real on some level. They might also argue, according to Davidsen, that all other religions are based on human invention as well, and so make the distinction between ‘real religion’ and their fiction-based religion less clear.

The aspect that interests me the most is the apparent diffusion of different ‘spheres’ of culture and society. In a fiction-based religion, an overlap of two categories is clearly present: religion and popular culture. But there are also other overlaps. For example, the argument that all religions are based on fiction seems like a very ’secular’ statement. So it seems that adherents to these new religious or spiritual endeavors have adopted certain ideas from a society in which traditional religions with their exclusive truth claims have largely lost their plausibility. As this introductory video to Pastafarianism puts it: ”(W)ith so many to choose from, how do we know which, if any, holds the truth?” But even adopting this view does not mean that religiosity would vanish altogether. Apparently, equally false can be inverted to equally true. Furthermore, it legitimizes the use of rather unconventional sources of spiritual inspiration. If all religions are ultimately based on human invention, what divides old prophecies and mythologies from the new ones?

Like many other forms of diffuse religiosity and spirituality of present day, fiction-based religions operate in an environment of open-ended systems, in which individuals are free to combine a view that suits their spiritual needs. Teemu Taira has called this type of religiosity ”liquid”, a term derived from Zygmunt Bauman’s work on liquid modernity. His work emphasizes the fact that we cannot handle religion as a distinct phenomenon separated from the broader societal and cultural context (Taira, 2006, 7-8). Coming closer to fiction-based religions, Carole M. Cusack has worked on what she calls ”invented religions”, which are new religions that openly declare their origin in human creativity. This term encompasses fiction-based religions as well as others, such as Discordianism and Church of the SubGenius, which are usually deemed as parody religions. Cusack also emphasizes the socio-cultural context of these religions, and her monograph Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith shows how these forms of religiosity are a quite logical consequence of modern consumerism, individualism and appreciation for novelty. (Cusack, 2010 8-25.)

Taira describes liquid religiosity as being focused on the self. The experience of the individual is the most important religious authority. This is only logical in a liquid modern world, where great narratives have lost their plausibility, traditional identities are being deconstructed and external truths might prove fragile and change the next day (Taira 2006, 68-71,75). Consequently, what is ‘true’ for an individual is what matters to him or her individually. This is a very pragmatic sense of reality. If it works, it is true – at least true enough. This kind of view is naturally well suited for a highly pluralist situation, where increasing numbers of religious groups and identities exist next to each other. Taira also suggests that in liquid religiosity, there might be a shift in emphasis from intellectual content to the affective side of religiosity: meaningful feelings and experiences of empowerments it brings. (Taira 2006, 47-51.)

Fiction-based religions are a nice example of how different spheres of society and culture are actually tightly interntwined, and that they constantly affect and interfere with each others. Religion among other ‘spheres’ does not develop in a vaccuum. Also, as Davidsen concludes at the end of the interview, religion is ”something that happens in social interaction and negotiation”. Something is not religious per se, but it is made religious by people who claim it as such.

Religion does not disappear, even though some of its traditional forms might lose their value in the eyes of some people. But religion does change. Fiction-based religions are a good example of this change.

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.

 

References:

CUSACK, Carole M, 2010: Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

TAIRA, Teemu, 2006: Notkea uskonto.  Published in the Eetos julkaisuja series. Turku: Eetos

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…

 

Finding religiosity within a parody

Finding religiosity within a parody

By: Essi Mäkelä, University of Helsinki

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 3 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Carole Cusack on ”Invented Religions” (30 January 2012).

A parody of religion will include elements that are accepted as religious within the society. This makes sure the parody is recognized as being targeted towards religion. Hence, a parody of religion will tell us what is accepted as a legitimate part of religion in the society where a parody or a joke on religion would be at home. Intuitively this includes nonreligious, irreligious or ”indifferent” people who have not found the official religion(s) to attend to their needs in interpreting life and the world. From this perspective it is understandable such parodies of religion would spur to life on a university campus, among students.

As with other religious activities, there are different levels of participation in this parody. At one end, some find beauty in the cermonies of the local church so they get married, baptize their children and bury their relatives using the services the church provides. Some find meaning in these practices and will pray and think about religious texts and meanings while occasionally participating at the church. At the other end lies complete devotion , with religion being a way of life and consuming most of the participants’ time and interest. This is also true for ”alternative” religiosity, such as paganism or ”Witchcraft” (McGuire, 2002: 122) – why not for ”fiction-based” or ”invented religions” (Davidsen, 2011; Cusack, 2010) too? For some, the parodies and sci-fi narratives are simply entertainment and fun. However, others seem to contemplate more deeply, finding a seed of truth in the parody and so come to refer to these narratives more often and more (or less) seriously.

In Principia Discordia, the book of Discordianism, there is a concept of The Law of Fives. Principia claims that there is a memo in ”The Erisian Archives” from Mal-2 (Greg Hill) to Omar Ravenhurst (Kerry Thornley) which says: “I find the Law of Fives to be more and more manifest the harder I look.” Come to think of it, this applies to all things in life. If you are concentrating on something, you will tend to notice a connection between almost anything and the subject you are meditating on. If you find a joke or a fiction good enough – ”so good it should be true” as Cusack puts it (podcast 14:00-14:35)– you will probably start seeing it manifest in the world more often than not. Even if it begins as a joke, the more a joke is told and applied to incidents in real life, the closer you may come to accepting the narrative as true.

This process can be analogised to the process of converting to any other religious (or, indeed, explicitly ”nonreligious”) group, where individuals build new narratives for their past life and explain experienced incidents from the point of view of the new religious community of conversion. In the case of Discordianism or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the community might be no more than a collection of texts on the Internet. But the simple act of reading about someone who has – even jokingly – been reflecting on the original joke ”as if it was true”, might start a process of coming to believe in its literal truth.

For my Master’s Thesis, I have interviewed people who put a lot of emphasis on the philosophical worldview of Discordianism. According to questionnaires and face-to-face interviews conducted by myself and a student colleague, Hanna Lehtinen, in the winter of 2010/2011,  these individuals claimed to reflect on Discordianistic philosophical thought, and to utilise it in their everyday lives. When things get too tough, for example, a Discordian might find peace in the thought that this is just one point of view in the ultimate chaos within which everything is true, even false things… you just have to deal with it.

The terminological discussion surrounding these kinds of religions is indeed an interesting one. As Cusack points out (podcast 22:30-24:01), both invented and fiction-based religion have positive and negative connotations as definitions of a certain group of religious behaviours. Alternatively, David Chidester (2005) has used ”authentic fakes” as a description for religious behaviour which draws its inspiration from popular culture and which may be authentic religious behaviour but isn’t ”really” religious in the traditional sense – for example the First Church of Jesus Christ, Elvis. He takes Discordianism as an example of orchestrated fake religion which might bring about some authentic religious experiences. Having said that, ”authentic fakes” fails to describe these religions as well as ”invented” or ”fiction-based” religions, and includes the pejorative word ”fake”  which implies that these are merely parodies of religion.

As Discordianism is somewhat different from the religions that are explicitly built on an existent fictional narrative, in my thesis I don’t yet discuss the definition of the other religions. According to our small-scale study, Discordianism is more or less religious in its ”counter attack” on religious thought. Hence Hanna Lehtinen calls Discordianism a ”counter religion” in an article yet to be published. Starting from these building blocks, and the ongoing discussion surrounding ”invented religions”, I am sure it will be possible to derive new definitions for new religious behaviour, and bring the study of religion into the new millenium.

About the Author

Essi Mäkelä is a Master of Arts student in Comparative Religion at the University of Helsinki. She is writing her thesis on how Discordianism fits into the theoretic framework of “liquid religion” as developed from Zigmunt Baumann’s “liquid modernity” by Teemu Taira, a Finnish scholar of religion.

 

 

References

Chidester, David , 2005. Authentic Fakes. Religion and American Popular Culture (University of California Press, 2005, Los Angeles, USA)

Cusack, Carole, 2010. Invented Religions.  Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate Publishing Limited, Surrey, England)

Davidsen, Markus, 2011. “Jediism: a convergence of Star Wars fan culture and salad bar spirituality” (De Filosoof 51, Utrecht, May 2011, p.24)

McGuire, Meredith B. 2002. Religion. The Social Context (Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, USA)

Invented Religions

What is an “Invented Religion”? Why should scholars take these religions seriously? What makes these “inventions” different from the revelations in other religions? What happens when an author does not want their story to become a religious text?

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

In this interview with David, Carole M. Cusack (Associate Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney) answers these questions and more, exploring her notion of “Invented Religions” and introducing the listener to a wide variety of contemporary and unusual forms of religion. Discussion flows through a range of topics – from Discordianism and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to Scientology, Jediism and the New Atheism – and demonstrates how the works of authors such as Thomas Pynchon and Robert A. Heinlein can be transformed by others and take on a life of their own. In her own words, “This is a fiction so good it should be true…”

[N.B., Carole asked us to let you know that when she said that George Adamski founded the Aetherius Society, she meant George King. Both Georges encountered Venusians in 1954, but Adamski was in the US and King in the UK. A forgivable error, we’re sure.]

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions 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.

Of particular relevance to the topic of this interview is Carole’s article

Science Fiction as Scripture: Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and the Church of All Worlds in Christopher Hartney, Alex Norman, and Carole M. Cusack (eds), Creative Fantasy and the Religious Imagination, special issue of Literature & Aesthetics, Vol. 19, No. 2, SSLA, 2009, pp. 72-91. The full text is available here. If you have  access to the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, you may also find the following article of interest: Discordian Magic: Paganism, the Chaos Paradigm and the Power of Parody, International Journal for the Study of New Religions, Vol. 2, No. 1, May 2011.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with Carole M. Cusack on Invented Religions (30 January 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. Robertson (with Chris Cotter). Transcribed by Martin Lepage.

 

David Robertson (DR): What if you choose to believe in a faith that you knew had been made up? And what if it worked all the same? That’s what Carole Cusack, Associate Professor of Studies in Religions at the University of Sydney, asks in her recent book Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith, and she’s with us today. Hi Carole!

Carole Cusack (CC): Hi David!

DR: So? Why should scholars take invented religions seriously?

CC: I think the best way into that query is to understand that human beings create, to some extent, their reality in the sense that they, as individuals and then in communities, tell narratives that make meaning, and they externalise those narratives, those narratives gain an objective status, and then, they’re re-internalised by individualized and communities as something that has facticity outside of simply being a human cultural production. That is a kind of summary of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s social-constructionist model of reality-building, and religion is a kind of worldview and people do precisely the same thing with religions when they join a religion, when they take on a religion: they learn new vocabulary, they tell new stories to each other, new converts or people who are drifting close to joining are told those stories and rehearsed in actions, and language, so that they come to be part of the community. Where I’m going with this is that even though the phenomenon of religion sort of based explicitly on narratives that are known to be fictional seem to date only from the 1950s, there is a sense in which every religion has been invented in some sense, even those religions that claim revelation from an external deity. What happens is a person, a prophetic or charismatic leader, has an experience and communicates that experience as narrative to a group of people who haven’t had that experience, and they story-build, and talk about it, and externalize it, and objectivise it and then re-internalise it, and it becomes true… for them. And this is one of the issues with invented religions, as I term them in my book that came out in 2010. They are cases where the narrative actually predates the religion. The person who founds the religion already has in their possession a narrative that has been written by somebody else, and they think that this fictional narrative more accurately represents spiritual realities, values, meaning-conveying issues in life, than existent scriptures, and determine that they will make from a fiction a document that becomes a scripture, or a myth, or a program for human spiritual development.

DR: It begins with Discordianism, really, doesn’t it, that’s the first of these invented religions?

CC: Well, Discordianism is an interesting case because it’s not actually based on a pre-existent fiction, but it does, I think, kick off the phenomenon. It’s technically founded in 1957, and consequently, it’s the earliest of the religions that I study. There are other examples that fit almost exactly into that same milieu. For example, the quite highbrow American novelist, Thomas Pynchon, in 1958, founded what he calls a ‘micro-cult’, with Richard Fariña, the late folksinger, that was based on a novel, Oakley Hall’s Warlock, and this was a very specific campus-based thing. One thing fascinating about invented religion is the extent to which students, university and college students, are the people who create these stories, create these faiths from pre-existent stories. Discordianism is Greg Hill, later known as Malaclypse the Younger, and Kerry Thornley, later known as Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst, sitting in a bowling alley with some of their friends, over a few nights, and coming up with the idea that the world as they understood it, which was very much a Cold War view, is just completely chaotic, and that if there is a deity, the deity is the deity of chaos, Eris, the great goddess of discord, called Discordia in Latin, and deliberately inventing a kind of farcical burlesque of religion based on this goddess. What’s most interesting about them is that even though they didn’t work from a pre-existing fictional narrative, they both went and some of the other very important contributors to the religion, like Robert Anton Wilson or Camden Benares, went through the same sort of processes. They both went through a process where they began knowing that they had made it up. But by the time they were speaking with Margot Adler in the middle 70’s, when she was writing Drawing Down the Moon, her pioneering study of alternative religionists in America, they both had come to the position that they realized that something that they thought was a fiction, that they had spun, was in fact a reality that was true. And this seems to me to be related, though not identical, to the process of picking up a pre-existent fictional text and attempting to instantiate it. To an extent, they are the authors of the fictional text. You could argue Principia Discordia was a piece of fiction they produced, and rather than waiting for someone else to pick it up and decide that it should be made into a religion, they gradually became auto-converted.

DR : And the other major invented religion that you are concerned with,the Church of All Worlds, they didn’t create the texts themselves, rather they appropriated some else’s text, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. How are they different?

CC: Well, firstly, Discordianism begins as spirit of parody, as spirit of really kicking out against the culture of the 1950’s. It begins in rebellion. It begins in the desire to mock and to even vilify religion as hypocrisy, as ridiculous. And it becomes, to some extent, serious though there is still a strong element of parody, and Discordians tend to be chameleonic, irreverent, very difficult to pin down. The Church of all Worlds, which began at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, in 1962, on the 7th of April, precisely, if you want. That was founded by two college students, Tim Zell and Richard Lance Christie, and in a lot of ways, they’re a brilliant contrast, to Hill and Thornley, because Hill and Thornley’s friendship broke apart over the years. They came to understand Discordianism very differently and to, in many ways, become bitter, and to become essentially broken through their experience of it. It’s significant, I think, that Zell and Christie were both psychology majors, and in fact, Zell went on to graduate work in psychology, which he didn’t finish. They formed a friendship that Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, as Tim Zell in now known, he says: ‘He was Spock to my Kirk.’ They speak when… Christie was still alive, he died in 2010… they spoke of each other in terms that were familial, almost lover-like, the idea that when they met each other as friends, as undergraduates, it was the true recognition of the other person in the universe that they’d been missing up to that point. And consequently, they had a very strong shared program for what this religion was going to look like. They both read Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which was released in 1961. They both fell in love with the book as they had with each other, and with psychology, and with certain ideas about world transformation. In 1962, what was formed was two branches. The Church of All Worlds, which was the religious arm, with Zell in charge. He was the early developer of liturgy and of praxis, mostly derived from Heinlein. And the waterbrotherhood called Atl, which Christie was in charge of, which became essentially an environmentalist project, an ecological project. And they kept those roles throughout the whole of the next forty-odd years, where Zell is the flamboyant religious leader, the Pagan, the magician, the trickster, the person who garnered public opinion and worked tirelessly as a promoter of the worship of Gaia as a religion, whereas Christie worked as almost entirely as a secular environmental activist, having done graduate work in environment science. So their religion doesn’t have a parodic element. It’s serious. It’s devotional. There’s playfulness there, but that comes largely, I think, from the sense that Heinlein’s own novel is full of playfulness, and the wholehearted rejection, especially of mainstream sexual morays, and wage slavery, and other kinds of ideas that were considered to be the successful life in the 1960’s, places CAW in that hippie drop-out rebellious camp, but it’s a rebellion that is not characterised by parody or by savage satire of religion. It’s rather a religion characterized by rejection of mainstream standards, and a religious vision, which actually is entirely serious.

DR: The element of satire comes back strongly with what you described as the Third Millennium and invented religions with… and they’re going further into things like Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster being outright attacks on religion, not just playful satires. Is there anything behind that change?

CC: That’s an interesting one and actually I think it’s important at this point to just refer for one minute to what Robert A. Heinlein said himself. He actually, even though he shares some values with CAW, i.e. he was into nudism, and polyamory, and he was politically very radical, sometimes very right wing, sometimes very left wing. He is absolutely non-religious, and he did not want his novel to be read as a religious tract. That’s quite interesting because it’s a novel that largely about religion, in various forms. But there is a notion that wants that once an author releases a story into the world… I started with storytelling in the way that humans use stories to world-build and to create identities. Heinlein released this story into the world and it was enthusiastically taken up by enormous numbers of mostly young people in the 60s. And in the early 1970s, Tim Zell began corresponding with Heinlein, and Heinlein subscribed to Green Egg, the newsletter that CAW published, and he always maintained, in fact, there’s passages in his published letters, that he doesn’t believe any of it, and he doesn’t really think that it was a great idea to turn his novel into a religion. But nevertheless, he came to like Zell and to find value in the way that he was appropriating this story and making the story live in a different way.

The Third Millennium new religion you just mentioned, the Church of Flying Spaghetti Monster, of course, it doesn’t start as a religion at all. It starts as a narrative that is a mockery, a very funny, and very clever mockery of intelligent design, the latest largely Christian repackaging of Creationism, which is very important in America, where issues about religion are so much more debated than they are in Europe or Australia, where I’m from. And of course, Bobby Henderson released that story into the world. He wrote The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, an enormously funny book, and he created a mythology, he gave the FSM a noodle-y mess with meatballs for eyes as the creator of the universe. If you’re going to have to specify an intelligent designer, why shouldn’t it be the FSM? He created also a religion that would appeal to college students. Heaven has strippers and a beer volcano. So what happened of course was that people who read this and first thought what a hilarious piss-take it was, started saying exactly what Zell and Christie said about Stranger in a Strange Land: ‘This a is fiction so good, it should be true.’ So you have people starting sectarian branches of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in the spirit of parodic religion, and Henderson has declined ever to be considered a prophet. But he’s also said he doesn’t really care what people do with it. He released it onto the market, people can pick it up and they can do with it what they want. And so you have the guy who publishes ‘Spaghetti-grams’, which are anagrams done on the computer, using the words ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’ and say, for example, whatever issue that you want advice on… so ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster sexual morality’, and you get Spaghetti-grams, which are four line quatrains, arranged of anagrams from the letters that are available. This is a kind of divinatory advice. People who wear colanders, pasta strainers, on their heads as religious headgear, as a recent case in Austria where a young man requested that he’d be allowed to wear such headgear in the photograph featured on his driver’s license, was tried in the courts and found to be a valid religious headgear. And so the story is what’s important, and how people build that story into an identity formation, whether as an individual, or whether as a group who want to create a cell, a church, for the FSM in real life. And that’s very amusing and very good fun. And it does critique religion, but it critiques religion in an interesting way because, I think that scholars who, for a long time, have been comfortable with the idea that there could be religions that don’t have any gods, that in fact aren’t supra-empirical or supernaturally oriented, there are just really about what people do in their lives… this is not generally a view that the person in the street finds easy to accept. Usually, if you vox-pop, one of the first things you get, if you say ‘what do you think there has to be as a vital element to make something a religion?’, most people will say God or gods. But scholarship is very comfortable with the idea that religions are really about people, this is because scholarship is a secular activity. It’s not theology. It’s not confessional. We understand that human beings are makers of their own worlds. And so, those people who are making their religious world out of the Star Wars trilogy or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, they’re doing something that scholars are very comfortable with.

Chris Cotter: You’re raising very valid points which gel with my own work into the atheists, etc., and one of the big critiques that contemporary atheism or non-religion has of religion is that it is invented, and they spend an awful lot of time demonstrating that the Bible was written by people or this religion was just founded by some guys who wrote a novel or whatever, and they seem to think that this will make a difference. Does it?

CC: No… look, I think this is one of the great problems with atheism in the 21th century. I’m very sympathetic to atheist discourses and I think it is correct that they’re included among other religious discourses. But for me, the main problem is that atheists seem to think that if you can mount and knock down arguments that are based on either rationality or empiricism, the twin poles of the Enlightenment, that you won’t be able to make people realized that their beliefs or their practices are erroneous and should be abandoned, and it seems to me that this is entirely counter-intuitive. Human beings are capable of rationality, but very very few, even educated Westerners, operate consistently on principles of rationality, and you only have to look at statistics from the US, which often talk about the fact that people who have science degrees are very likely to be Creationists. Human beings have compartmentalised knowledges, issues of identity formation, and things that they considered precious and important, and these don’t often bleed into each other. So I’m afraid I think the atheist argument that you can demonstrate that religious texts were written by humans, or that you can demonstrate that the founder of a particular religion, like Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard, was in some sense a huckster or a fraud, I don’t see that these are important because they don’t take into account that the lived experience of people is more powerful to them than any kind of argument drawn from rational principles. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but it seems to me that it is how it is.

DR: Scientology is a white elephant in your book, isn’t? Is that a deliberate decision so as to not get sued or… I can’t imagine that’s the case, knowing you… or was it rather that you considered them or don’t consider them to be in the same class as the other invented religions?

CC: Scientology is really difficult. It comes out of exactly the same milieu. The Church of Scientology is founded in the 1950s, 1954 to be precise, on the back on Dianetics, and yes, it contained science fiction tropes, and in the 21th century, what we know about it looks a lot like an invented religion. I am ambivalent about Scientology, because I don’t think it begins as an invented religion. It begins as a critique of psychiatry. It begins as a therapy. It begins as a… an answer to the problems of modern life, and it’s not surprising that when Dianetics was released, major psychologists like Erich Fromm actually reviewed it, and it was treated as a work of amateur psychology. What’s interesting about it is that it goes along exactly the same track as the theosophical legacy, because L. Ron Hubbard begins with clearing engrams that are experiences that ones has had in the past in one’s life. They the engrams go back to in utero, then they go back to past lives, and before you know what happened, these past lives may be on other planets involving extraterrestrials. This is in fact exactly what happens with theosophical ascended masters. Madame Blavatsky’s masters where real Tibetans living in Tibet, who were alive in her life. After she died, mediumship contacted people who were dead, people who lived in Ancient Egypt, mythical figures like the Comte de Saint Germain for people like Guy Ballard and before you know it, it’s people from other planets, Venusians like Orthon who speak to George King. These sorts of things are a logical extension. So in some senses, I would place Scientology in a post-theosophical therapeutic milieu. And I think, as we came to know as scholars, a lot more about the Operating Thetan levels, the Xenu mythology in particular made it look a lot more like an invented religion, but at the moment, I’m just not 100% sure that I would put it in the same category.

DR: Well, this is absolutely cutting-edge research. Has anybody taken up your research and challenged it or taken it further?

CC: The interesting thing is that it’s evolving so fast, I’m not quite sure. I came up with the term ‘invented religions’, but I really wanted emphasis to be placed on the subtitle, which was Imagination, Fiction and Faith, ‘cause I think the human imagination creates the stories, the stories are fictions, people come to have faith in them, I think that’s really important. But very, very shortly before I completed the book, I met Markus Davidsen, who’s doing his PhD at the University of Leiden and the University of Aarhus, and he is working on what he calls ‘fiction-based religions’, because he’s working on Jediism and spirituality and religious groups that have grown out of the Tolkien mythos. I thought in some sense that was a better title. We discussed this privately and he went for ‘fiction-based religions’ because he thought that all religions are invented, which was where I started today. And I could see the sense of that, but then we linked up with Danielle Kirby, who’s at Monash University and who did her PhD on the Otherkin, and she argues that ‘fiction-based religions’ is no good because it’s too passive a term, and what we’re really looking at is a kind of actively constructed type of new spirituality, that… you need the dynamism of invention and you need the content of fiction, but what we’re still looking for now is a better term to characterize these groups. That being said, I’ve had very favourable email contacts from mostly Discordians and members of the Church of All Worlds, including Oberon Zell-Ravenheart who actually helped me a lot with the research that I did in that book, and they are very comfortable with my term ‘invented religions’. But these, of course, are not people within the academy and I think it’s within the academy, that the category, that area, whatever you want to call it, is going to be developed and refined, and that’s happening, it’s just not quite clear where it’s going to go yet.

DR: Professor Cusack, thank you.

CC: It’s been a pleasure.

Citation Info: Cusack, Carole M. and David G. Robertson, with Christopher R. Cotter. 2012. “Invented Religions.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 30 January 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.1, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-carole-cusack-on-invented-religions/