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Religion and its Publics (Part 2)

In the last feature of the “semester” we’re continuing with the video format. A couple of months ago the RSP attended the Open University’s conference on Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives. I went about asking the pundits a couple of questions about Religion and its Publics. This week we have the second question (link for Part 1 in the sidebar).  Read more

Spirituality

To discuss ‘spirituality’, we are joined by Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe. We discuss the genealogy of ‘spirituality’, and its contemporary significance, with particular reference to the New Age movement. The second half focuses on how spirituality may trouble the religion / secular distinction, and its implications for the critical study of religion.

‘Spirituality’ is a term with enormous currency in contemporary discourse on religion, but despite this, it remains under-theorised. Little consideration is given to its development, and most scholarly work simply dismisses ‘spirituality’ as shallow and commercialised. Boaz Huss argues that “the vehement and disparaging criticism of contemporary spirituality is stimulated by the threat that this new cultural category poses to entrenched scholarly assumptions and research practices” (2014, 58).

To discuss ‘spirituality’, we are joined by Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe. We discuss the genealogy of ‘spirituality’, and its contemporary significance, with particular reference to the New Age movement. The second half focuses on how spirituality may trouble the religion / secular distinction, and its implications for the critical study of religion.

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

Spirituality

Podcast with Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe (11 June 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Huss and Sutcliffe – Spirituality 1.1

David Robertson (DR): Spirituality is a term with enormous currency in contemporary discourse in religion but, despite this, it remains under-theorised. Little consideration is given to its development, and most scholarly work simply dismisses it as shallow and commercialised. To discuss spirituality I’m joined today by Boaz Huss, a professor of Jewish thought at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and also by Steve Sutcliffe who is senior lecturer in Religious Studies, here at the University of Edinburgh, where we’re speaking today. So, we thought we could maybe start, then, by setting out . . . well, setting out the stall. Tell us about spirituality, and particularly the way it emerges as an identifier during the New Age and the post-war period.

Steven Sutcliffe (SS): Ok. Well I could start and say something about that. But it’s very good to have Boaz here to join in the discussion. So, welcome to Boaz.

Boaz Huss (BH): It’s good to be here.

SS: I came across spirituality, and became pretty-much convinced of its significance as a cultural category, when I was researching the so-called New Age movement. And in the work that I did on that, I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a very strong movement that we could call New Age. There was a term New Age, which was mobilised in a whole series of networks, but, increasingly, what scholars were calling the New Age movement after the 1970s was better understood as a network of people whose preferred term was becoming spirituality, sometimes qualified by “mind-body-spirit spirituality”, and sometimes “holistic spirituality”. Often just “spirituality”. And that this kind of shift seems to have been happening particularly, I would say, since after the 1960s, or the post-war period, is important as well. But of course there’s also a complicated and lengthy genealogy of the term emerging, and a number of different groups as well. So it’s a very complex but lively cultural category about which we still know very little, I think.

DR: And what are some of the sort-of themes and motifs that we can pick out in this discourse of spirituality, and the various other terms?

SS: Well I think, I mean, Boaz will have his own ideas here. For me, I’ve been interested in how it is often a kind of signifier for a form of what we might call vitalism, in some ways. There’s something more bubbling away in social life, and beyond social life, that the old category of religion, for users, doesn’t adequately tackle. Spirituality – a bit more nebulous, a bit more amorphous, but actually does quite a good job, through that nebulosity and amorphousness, in pointing to something that people feel. You know: “There’s a something more going on here. Things have got more life to them. They’ve got more energy. There’s something else going on.” So that’s been the route which I’ve been interested in, in the term. Why people are using it to point to this feeling that there’s something more going on in life.

DR: And maybe we can turn to Boaz, then. How does this . . . ? There’s a shift there. When spirituality starts to get picked up by the New Age movement, it changes its meaning. It’s not a new term, but it takes on a new set of connotations.

BH: Yes, yes definitely. I think there is . . . . Very similar to Steven, I was very much impressed by the prominent presence of spirituality as a term in contemporary New Age movements when I was working on in Israel – contemporary Kabbalistic movements – and, actually, also amongst my friends. It’s a term that’s very much alive and very easily used by people to define themselves. Now what, for me, was striking – maybe because I’m a historian and I started my work working on evil in Judaism and religions in the early modern period – is this really significant shift of meaning in spirituality. Because spirituality is a very old term, actually. It is a Biblical term, very prominent, signifying spirit in contrast to the body, to materiality, corporeality. And it played a very important role in medieval Christian theology, in translation – also in Jewish theology. And it seemed to me that the use today is very different and, actually, I think the two main centres of the use of the term in early modern period changed (5:00). One is the juxtaposition of spirituality to corporeality and materiality, which was very central. And today people use the term spiritual applying it to corporeal, material things: yoga, sports, martial arts, healing etc. And the other thing was the detachment from religion. Because spirituality was considered the core of religion, related, part of religion, and really the core of Christianity and religion. And today, I think the term that caught my attention was “spiritual but not religious”. Which . . . I think people tend to dismiss it. Well a lot of people use it, but some scholars, at least, dismiss this notion as they’re saying it. But actually they are religious or secular. But I think we should take it very seriously that people choose to define secularity in opposition to a term that spirituality came from and that is religious.

DR: Except, yes, as well as the “spiritual but not religious”, you are seeing very recently – in the last ten years or so – the churches making a kind-of reclaiming of that. And you’ll see “spiritual AND religious” pop up. So it’s not so much that . . . . I mean, from the point of view of these religious practitioners, spirituality is still the ur-concept with religion being part of that. So it’s shifting in different ways, even in the last few years.

SS: Well it’s a very user-friendly concept, isn’t it? And it’s also a multi-functional concept, I think. So the user-friendliness is that it’s got a warmth and a vitality to it, I think, that religion doesn’t have. And religion in popular parlance has been demonised, in a sense – stereotyped as this oppressive, institutional force. You’ll often hear the term “institutional religion” which is juxtaposed to “free-floating spirituality” or something like that. So it’s a kind of attractive word for people. But it’s also multi-functional, I think. It does various things at different levels for different audiences. And I think, for the folks who might have been involved in New Age and related networks, it fulfils that function of a fairly free-wheeling, personal, networked approach and discourse. But it’s also been picked up – and this is interesting as well, I think – it’s also been picked up in sort-of Government policy, educational health circles. So we have, here in the UK – as you probably know, Boaz – we’ve got spiritual chaplains now, in NHS hospitals. We have spirituality as a kind of perennial all-encompassing term in interfaith circles. We have various think-tank’s exploring the meaning of spirituality in cultural life. And so it’s a term . . . these uses of the term are not all doing the same thing. Sometimes they’re camouflaging various positions behind them. They’re ways of putting new pawns on the chess board to advance rather concealed causes. And other times they’re much more grass-roots and naive in their use.

DR: And that reminds me of the way that interfaith is often used, with a rather ecumenical agenda behind it: “We might as well team up in order to promote religion in the public sphere.” And spirituality is another way of doing that, of course. Because if you accept that, “OK, maybe religions don’t have a place, but spirituality does.” And so, “Who shall we get to speak for spirituality? Let’s get, you know, somebody from the Church of England.”

SS: Yes. Indeed

BH: I think it shows the cultural power of this term, that it’s adopted. Now what’s interesting . . . you know the people related to churches don’t go back to, I don’t know, early spiritual practices. They adopt spirituality from its modern, unchurched use and it comes together. It enters the churches with yoga, with Tai Chi classes, with other New Age . . . . So I see that as part of, really, the language of New Age and spirituality, also entering new places. And you said, also, of course medicine, government and business.

SS: Yes – business, indeed.

BH: Business is very strong. So I think that shows really, somehow, the relevance: it’s a good term for people today – if not, they wouldn’t use it. There’s something very, I think, serious and significant about it. (10:00) And I think the tendency of some scholars to dismiss it – it’s really, you know, not looking at something very interesting that’s going on around us.

SS: Yes. Yes. That might be an opportunity, some of the scholars . . . two books come to mind that have been very critical, often in a slightly polemical way about this, which is Kimberley Lau’s book: New Age Capitalism, and then, also, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book: Selling Spirituality. Now, both of those books have got a similar purpose. Kimberley Lau works out quite a sophisticated account of ideology, and how spirituality is an ideology, in her book – but she’s still got this kind of criticism. In the case of Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book, it seems to be more about a slightly nostalgic reach back to authentic, good-old religion, as opposed to this nasty, sort-of . . .

BH: Capitalist . . .

SS: Yes. However, what I was going to say is, if it is a multi-functional term, there is one angle of it that it seems to me in which the Carrette and King critique is correct: in businesses, as we just mentioned, there can be a sense in which spirituality is a way of producing a happier work force, a more comfortable workforce, a more productive workforce. But that doesn’t seem to me to be the whole of the picture. So that was what I was saying about how it’s a multifunctional kind of discourse. It’s layered or stacked with different kinds of uses or goals.

DR: I think an important aspect of it, to take in parallel with that sort-of neoliberal critique, is the Jungian kind of psychological idea. And those aren’t separate, but you see the growth of psychological Jungian ideas in the business sphere, particularly because it’s well, you know . . . . The Marxist critique is that by treating the mental health issues that arise because of neoliberalism, then it allows neoliberalism to continue as an economic model. But of course, that’s also the foundational model of large parts of the New Age movement.

SS: Right.

DR: You know – the sense of the self, and the purpose of life being to develop the self. Which, as well, maybe points to this blurring between the idea of the spirit as something not the body, but simultaneously also the body.

SS: Yes, that reminds me a bit of Paul Heelas’ work on self-spirituality or self-religion that he was developing a while ago, where- I mean he’s been critiqued by Matthew Wood and others, for having a rather asocial model of the self – which I think is right. But nevertheless he was pointing, in some of his early work, to one of these telephone marketing companies who were working on the idea that if you were in touch with your “true whole self” when you were at work, you would get better business results in your cold-calling of people. If you were doing that, and were “present in yourself”, that would have an impact.

DR: You would have authenticity.

SS: Yes. And you would be “at cause” and not “at effect”, which is what happens if you are not in touch with yourself – you are just acted upon. So there seems to be something about being in touch with the self that is an important part of the ideology of spirituality – whether that comes through practice is another thing.

BH: I want to go back to this point of neoliberalism, because I think it’s important. I think, definitely, the recognition that there is a connection is true. I think it merges neoliberal ideology, and post-modern culture, and post-capitalistic global economics: they and spirituality all emerge at the same period, and sometimes there’s an overlap between the social compositions of the people who are involved. But I think the fact that there are similarities, and there is interconnection between, doesn’t mean that spirituality is a disguised neoliberal ideology. It can be also a response, sometimes, to neoliberalism. So, from that point of view, I think the connection is definitely there. As I said, we can look at spirituality as a kind of post-modern, new cultural formation, and New Age also, but that doesn’t mean that it identifies with other post-modern cultural formations. And, again sometimes it is. I think, on the one hand, you can show points where it strengthens neoliberal ideology, but also other groups – there are so many varieties of spiritualties and New Age – that are a response and trying to undermine it. But still, again, I’ve seen it’s something very relevant. And, you know, we live in a post-modern, late-capitalistic society. The cultural formations that we use – and I think all of us are part of them, to a certain degree – you know, they are those which are relevant to our society, and of course they are interconnected (15:00). But this nostalgia that you mentioned, I think it’s not relevant to criticise spirituality. I don’t see my role as a scholar to give marks or grade religious and spiritual phenomena, but to try to understand the function.

SS: Yes.

DR: Because of course, I mean, the churches in the early twentieth century or earlier – kind-of in the earlier economic systems with the nation state and these kind of things – there are examples of institutional religion working with the state, and working against the state, then. And there are examples of New Age and spirituality working with the state and against the state now. It’s no different. But, of course, if you’re looking at it from a nostalgic point of view, with this modern organisation of the state, and you’re looking for things that look like the church you grew up in, then maybe you are going to come to that conclusion.

SS: In terms of that counter-cultural impetus, I think Paul Heelas talks about what he most recently calls New Age Spiritualties of Life. He says something like “a gentle counter-flow” or something like that. He’s kind-of not going full on for the kind of counter-cultural stances of the ’60s, but he’s saying there is some kind of modest critique here, in the stuff he’s looking at. And sort-of connected with that, with the data for the Kendal project – that Spiritual Revolution book that Paul did with Linda Woodhead. And there they did quite a lot of valuable data – I mean, now it’s a little bit old perhaps, the early 2000s it was – but there was clearly a correlation between the folks participating in the holistic milieu in Kendal and environmental, ecological, Green values. And there was also a correlation, when asked in the various questionnaires and interviews, with left-of-centre political attitudes as well. So I go some way towards saying, here’s one small body of evidence that bears out what you’re saying, Boaz. It’s not only a question of being subsumed by neoliberal positions. There is agency here in a more political – small p . . . .

DR: But this language is also taken up wholesale amongst the sort of New Right, and the conspiracy milieu that I look at. I mean, when I was down looking at . . . . Ok, so most of the case studies I looked at were left-leaning. But certainly in the right wing – it’s a little bit blurred because we tend to focus on US data, and of course US data strongly identifies as Christian. But if you look at the right outside of the US, there’s a strong association with spirituality. And you can find, for example, Red Ice Radio podcast, on a TV show out of Sweden, started off doing very much kind of New Age and healing kind of stuff and have gradually moved over until they’re now just completely right-wing, pagan-identifying. But you can see in the space of a few years there, as they make that shift, you still have language of spirituality and “higher purpose” and all these kind of things, focus on health practices – all of these things are still there, so that discourse is not restricted to the left at all.

BH: A few years ago we had a project on the politics of the New Age. Actually, my interest in spirituality started from that project. And, again, it became very clear first of all that, in difference to the self-declaration of many spiritualist and New Agers, “We are not interested in politics”, they are involved in politics. But you can find the combination, you can find New Age practices and use of spiritual terminology in the extreme right, religious, national right in Israel and, of course – what you would more expect – in the left and Green movements, etc. So it really is applied . . . and I think, again, showing that it’s a key cultural concept that can be used by very different political and ideological agendas. And I think it’s interesting. Actually, I think the use is quite similar. It’s not that they just use it and each one gives it a completely different . . . . They integrate it in very different ideologies, but the practices themselves: you go and do some kind of violent political act in the evening, and in the morning you grow organic vegetables and do meditation practices etc., and connect with the nature around you!

SS: (Laughs) OK. Yes!

DR: And lots of food! (20:00) You know, like eating pro-biotic and vegetarian diets and all this stuff. It’s right across the board.

BH: It’s very interesting, the use of the New Age terminology to justify, for instance, violence. That’s a natural, you know, part of the . . . . But the extreme right movements will say revenge is something very basic. And because of that, we can do revenge acts. Because that’s part of going back to nature, connecting with the earth. It’s amazing to see this combination!

SS: And so that raises the question: it sounds to me as though you’re saying that spirituality, as a concept, has travelled very well in Israel for example, in non-Christian contexts. Because it’s often seemed to me that there are some kind of affinities with a kind of a post-Christian culture and a spirituality discourse. But it seems clear, even if that’s the case, that it can acculturate elsewhere quite happily. So there’s no problem with secular Jews, religious Jews, all kinds of folk picking up the term in an Israeli context?

BH: Yes. I think it would be all across the board. But I think you will find some kind of American / Western connection. Even in ultra. Because many of the ultra-Orthodox movements, many of the people, of the members, are actually returning to religion. So, actually, they’ve had that grounding or acquaintance. But it’s so available and present here, that even if you grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family you know, it’s available, the practices and terminology are there. So they are easily reached. And I believe it’s similar in, at least in Westernised and middle-class populations also in other non-Christina cultures: Turkey, Indonesia, Morocco, you will find, again, language of spiritual and definitely the New Age practices.

SS: Yes.

BH: Very interesting to look at . . .

DR: And in Asia as well. In Japan and China, particularly.

BH: Japan, definitely, yes.

DR: Yes. Which you actually mentioned something about this, Boaz, in one of the papers I read, about how this was essentially swapping a dualistic Western model for an Eastern monistic model. And I wonder if actually that would indicate that this would have quite a lot of currency in Asian countries? Because it kind of maps much better than the imported model of religion, and spirituality.

BH: Yes, I’m not sure how it goes in all this. It’s the pizza effect. You know of coming . . . receiving back Indian meditation practices after they were Westernised, and then incorporating them back. Similar things with Kabbalah for instance, with New Kabbalah and then integrated. So there is some kind of coming back, but I think I would be hesitant to say that there’s something . . . . Definitely many practices were borrowed from non-Christian cultures, but to say that they’re more open to them because of that . . . . I would put more emphasis on the globalisation. This is part of that.

DR: I haven’t made myself very clear. What I mean is that the model of talking about spirituality, rather than talking about religion and the secular, makes more sense in an Asian country where they were never things that were separate to start with.

SS: Oh I see, right, right.

DR: So if you were going to import a Western construct, then spirituality works better than religion and the secular. Does that make sense?

SS: Yes. That’s clearer, yes. But I mean, so what is it? It starts the same . . . . I mean, I’m not convinced that there is one discourse. There are several different layered and stacked discourses, but they probably share something in common. What is it they share in common? And why are these discourses so attractive? What are they doing? What kind of empowerment, or status or capital are they giving people? Do you have any developed thoughts on this, Boaz? What’s the attraction?

BH: Not today! (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs) Not right now, yes!

SS: (Laughs) But this is the million-dollar question, I think, yes.

BH: But again, I think some of the emphasis of the New Age practices and this concept spirituality are really in line with contemporary ideologies, ways of living. As I suggested, and as you just said, the strict separation between religious and secular had its role in modernity. And it seems it doesn’t have that role (now) (25:00). And people can use something new – which, again, I don’t want to say it’s a new way of going back to religion, because I think it’s something different. But, really, having a position which they don’t have to define as secular or religious, and making those borders between them, and then really giving what is called spiritual meaning for body practices, for instance, seems positive, in a positive way, regarding the body – giving it a value that wasn’t there, I think, in Christian medieval early modern culture. Maybe the globalisation tendency . . . I think of all of us, of tourism, of cultural consumption etc. – so you can pick from many different cultures, all those practices – this is something the concept of spirituality enables, which the concept of religion didn’t. You know, you couldn’t go to church and practice yoga. It was uncomfortable, I assume, in the early twentieth century! Today, you can go to church and have a yoga practice. And, exactly as you said, this is justified using the term spirituality.

DR: And I suspect, as well, that modern communications technology means that although people would have been doing heterodox practices – sometimes practices from outside but sometimes folk kind of things – the degree to which we were aware that other people were doing them was limited. You know, you’d have to know somebody pretty well to know that they were also making charms or doing healings or these kind of things. Whereas now we know that everywhere . . . It’s vernacular and there are all sorts of heterodox things going on in every Christian group. But when we didn’t have those ways of communicating, and all the knowledge was mandated from the church authorities, that wasn’t the impression you would have got. So it’s not only changed the degree to which these are available, it’s changed the fact that we now know that it’s been available and everybody does it. And it’s fine.

BH: The idea of self, for instance: it’s so central to our culture. Criticise it or not, we are not in a communal culture any more. And so the self – I think that’s a wonderful expression. And Paul has hit the nail, you know, with this “self-spirituality”. It’s not God spirituality and it’s not . . . the self is in the centre. Self-improvement, self-progress: that’s the core value of our society. I think, in a way, we’re all part of it. I think similar things happen in the university. What happens now . The whole concept of knowledge as something practical, something that improves our life. That’s the most important thing. And that’s exactly what spirituality offers people: a way of having something practical that doesn’t take too much of your time – which, again, it’s not necessarily negative.

SS: Is it a bit like having your cake and eating it? You know that phrase where you kind-of can have the best of both worlds. You can – at the personal, embodied and relational level – you can have something more than is vouchsafed by a purely secular materialist regime. But one does not have to go the whole hog. One does not have to go the whole way into a more developed, or fully blown, practice or identification.

BH: Yes, I think it’s a bit too critical for my part . . .

SS: (Laughs).

BH: Because, again, I . .

SS: Well, I mean it descriptively rather than . . .

DR: (Laughs).

BH: You want your cake and not! (Laughs).

SS: Well, that’s true!

BH: I don’t know. The difference between psychoanalysis and contemporary clinical psychology, which is treatment: I think it’s the same direction, and it’s not necessarily bad. You don’t have the time, or you don’t have the justification of, you know, digging into your past for hours on the sofa. That’s something that was ok for certain people, of course – quite limited to people in the early mid-twentieth century! Now, today, people want to go to a session that will improve their mental or psychological (wellbeing), going for three or four times, having some time. And I think that’s also what spirituality . . . . You don’t have to read the whole Hindu literature in order to do yoga! (Laughs).

DR: Yes. Well, you know, in which case that fits neoliberalism quite well! Because we’re getting to increasing productivity and minimalising work (30:00).

SS: (Laughs).

BH: Yes, that’s part of it. But it’s not necessarily the same.

SS: OK. Well in that case, what about the question of secularisation? Because in one or two of your writings you have suggested that there is some kind of push back here, or a reversing of the conditions of secularisation, or of the qualifications, shall we say, of the conditions of secularisation. But in fact what you’ve just said would be used by strong secularisation theorists to say, “Well, that’s exactly it! This is just a kind-of boost of secular conditions.”

BH: No I think secularisation and religionisation . . . . We’re speaking about secularisation, but actually the interesting term – one interesting term – is “religionisation”

SS: Religionisation.

BH: Because the assumption that there is a process of . . . . Secularisation assumes that before, there was a state of religion, of religiosity, and then secularisation came and started, you know, going forth and maybe now coming back. I see the process of secularisation working in tandem with the process of religionisation. These are two concepts that started in Western Europe in early-modern/ modern period and were applied to other cultures. It wasn’t there before – neither religion, nor secularity. And then we had this process. And I think now we have a different process. It’s not that it’s going back. It’s still in play, of course. Religionisation is looking at things and saying, “Ahh! This is a religion.” Or looking at myself and saying, “I’m religious, so I’m behaving in such and such. . . . That’s what I believe.” That’s the process of religionisation. Or secularisation – the same thing: “This is secular, so it’s supposed to behave like secular. . . . I’m secular so there are certain things that I do, and that I don’t do.” And I think that’s not relevant to many people today, who say, “No I’m not secular, I’m not religious, it’s not relevant, I’m spiritual.”

SS: Yes. Right.

BH: And then they start doing things which are really . . . and look – kind-of things like yoga and going to church sometimes, and swimming. And saying, “Wow, I have a spiritual experience now!” And all those new things. So I don’t see it as part of secularisation. It’s something basically different.

SS: So is it the case that just as people like Timothy Fitzgerald have argued that the religious and the secular are kind-of co-constitutive, so secularisation and religionisation are kind-of mutually generating each other? And what we have here is now a different kind of situation that transcends that, or has moved beyond those kinds of concerns?

BH: Yes. I think that spirituality actually corroborates and strengthens the position of Fitzgerald and McCutcheon and Talal Asad, because it shows that not only in non-Western cultures or pre-modern cultures, there was no concept of religion and secular – also in our society, Western society, they knew it. It didn’t disappear, this concept. I don’t think they will disappear. But there is a new option which is neither secular nor religion. So I think that strengthens their point that it’s not something universal.

DR: Yes. Well. Any last thoughts on the sort-of . . . the situation in the field, in our field? How do we move forward? How do we start to deal with this within Religious Studies?

SS: Good question. Well I don’t know about you, Boaz, and I know a bit about David, but teaching this material is an interesting challenge. And here, in many ways, this is a whole topic in itself. David has written an edited work on this. But we tend to still . . . . In Religious studies, or the Study of Religions, we’re very much constrained by a very hegemonic model of religion as World Religions: these big institutional blocks of things that are almost like corporate institutions that are said to have these kinds of identities. And that really does constrain how you can insert this material into the curriculum to teach to students. Because I do think as well as theorising this material, and researching it, we need to be able to try and educate the next generation of students who will come and take our place so that we can get more work done on this. I mean it’s not just an idle contemporary issue. One would say that they – whole worlds of what gets called the occult, the esoteric – have been very, very important in the last couple of hundred years at least, but are scarcely researched at all (35:00). They scarcely get the resources to work with them that, you know, Judaism, the various Christianities, the various Judaisms get. So, it’s a real question about how we can bring to people’s attention the significance of this stuff, working with such conservative paradigms of religion – which themselves are the product of the very conditions you’re describing.

DR: Religionisation!

SS: I mean, I teach a course called “New Spiritualties” and I’ve been beavering away at this course for years. I don’t know if you do any teaching in this line, about this material, where you are, Boaz?

BH: Yes. I’m in a different position, because I’m in a department of Jewish Studies. But in a way, it’s similar, because it’s also very conservative. I think not many departments of Jewish thought would . . . But, definitely, I give courses on New age Kabbalah, contemporary Kabbalah, sometimes even wider New Age ( topics) – although that’s stepping the line, because it’s not even Jewish!

All: (Laugh).

BH: But definitely, I think – and it’s good that we are doing it. When I started, I received very negative reactions from some of my colleagues who really sneered at: “You’re not doing serious scholarship! What happened Boaz? You were a serious scholar. How can you leave manuscripts and go and study . . . !” But I think, slowly – that was twenty years ago – I think our work is . . . . I think it’s changing, and people are much more in academia now, open to working, and recognising the significance of the (audio unclear) or what you’re calling spirituality or New age or religiosity.

SS: Well I do think the key there, in terms of the academic capital of the project, is to connect the debates with larger debates about religion and modernity, religion and secularisation, consumption, political ideologies, economics, all that kind of thing. And, I think, when we start to do that we find more colleagues taking us seriously, both in the field of various studies of religion, but outside of that in cultural studies and Sociology. Do you think that’s the case, David? Because you’ve always connected these things to wider processes.

DR: Yes. And partly the problem is that there also hasn’t been a lot of work on this kind of material from within the Critical Religion . . . you know, that approach. That’s tended to focus more on historical genealogy. And we’re now starting to get things like Aaron Hughes’ work on Islam, for instance. But there still needs to be a focussed project looking at the emergence of New Age spirituality and other alternative religious movements, within the critical history of the idea of religion and the category of religion. But absolutely, yes, that’s how we need to establish the importance of what we’re doing. And that will also help us to move . . . as so much of that work is done from an insider perspective, unfortunately. It’s a whole other conversation, but it’s worth mentioning. But yes, absolutely, I agree with what both of you are saying. We just need to get enough of a foothold in the academy that we can actually do this work. And I think, with hindsight, it will be clear what the importance of it was.

SS: Right.

BH: I think it’s also a question of connecting. Because I think there’s more work done than you’re aware of. Sometimes I meet someone: “Wow! You’re doing the same! I didn’t know that you were working on that!” So there’s a group working on new religiosities in Turkey – very interesting. Quite a large group. Many of them Francophones – so that maybe where there’s less connection. There’s also the question of different academic cultures. But there are people working on it in Morocco, and I think that’s fascinating. And I ‘m very happy to be here to meet you! I think those connections between scholars who are working, sometimes, in corners – that’s also very important.

DR: Because, of course, there are no institutes where we can do this work! That’s the problem!

SS: No, I think that’s right. I mean Jean-Francois Mayer, the Swiss scholar, put me onto a paper, through his Relgioscope Foundation, about new spiritualties in Azerbaijan, for example. Very interesting paper. And then as you say, there’s Morocco, there’s Turkey, but there’s also new spiritualties in sort-of Catholic contexts like Mexico, as well. So you’re probably right.

BH: South America – there’s a lot going on there.

SS: Sure. So here’s . . . It’s a question of connecting, and a question of resources to do the connecting as well, of course. Because, in my view, academia doesn’t free-float. It’s always dependent on money and institutional support.

DR: OK. Well that’s a good point to end on, I think. It’s relatively positive, but realistic! (40:00)

All: (Laugh).

DR: So – thanks to you, Boaz, and to Steve, for this very stimulating conversation. Thank you both.

BH: Thank you, David.

SS: Thank you.

Citation Info: Huss, Boaz, Steven Sutcliffe and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 11 June 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/spirituality/

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

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Muslim Superheroes

A. Dave Lewis joins us again for a discussion of representations of Muslims in superhero comics. We talk about some positive representations, like Kamala Khan, Marvel’s new Ms Marvel, and some less-than-positive portrayals, like Frank Millar’s Holy Terror! We talk about American comics as a product of the immigrant experience, and how comics made by Muslims play with the conventions of the genre. And we talk about how to use these texts in the classroom, as a powerful tool for exploring representation, media and religion. And what is the “wormhole sacred”?

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

Muslim Superheroes

Podcast with A. David Lewis (28 May 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Lewis- Muslim Superheroes 1.1

David Robertson (DR): Well, it’s my pleasure to welcome A. Dave Lewis to the podcast once again. Dave is one of the few, if not the only one of our regular guests to be both an interviewer and an interviewee. Well I might be the only other one, strangely enough! But it’s certainly . . . it’s been a little while since he’s been on. So it’s my pleasure to welcome him back. So thanks, once again, for joining us!

David Lewis (DL): Alright, ok. It’s good to be here!

DR: Good. Well this time we are going to be talking about Muslim superheroes, partly jumping off your recent edited volume with Martin Lund, called Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam and Representation. Obviously, there’s quite a lot for us to unpack here. So maybe we could start with you just telling us a little bit about why you decided to focus specifically on Muslim superheroes?

DL: Actually it comes from an earlier collection that I did, called Graven Images, with Christine Hoff Kraemer And when we did that collection, we had a number of contributors give us perspectives from religion all over the world, and historically. But to be frank we, as the editors even, found the Islam section to be light. And given that that was growing as a focus of my own studies, given that that was growing as focus in my own personal life, it’s something that I, in part, wanted to remedy. Now there had been some work out there done, particularly on Islam and comics as a medium in general, but not on this hallmark genre. So I approached Martin and said that I was interested in this – not just the dearth of research on Muslim superheroes, but also the increasing number of Muslim superheroes that we were steadily finding in mainstream US comics. And from there we reached out, and put a call for papers out. And I also tapped a few people that we knew had similar interests. And we tried to synthesise the limited information that was out there, in this volume, as well as inject it with new ways in which we could explore the topic.

DR: Great. And as a topic I think there’s a number of really interesting aspects that make Islam and superhero comic, specifically, a particularly rich field for us to explore. We can talk about those in a little bit more depth, then. For a lot of people – and I’m a comic fan so I ‘m playing devil’s advocate a bit here – the idea of the superhero seems to be particularly tied to an American context. It seems to have a lot to do with the American dream of America’s role in the world. So, looking at the way that particularly the American comics have dealt with Muslims is particularly fraught with interesting data.

DL: Oh, hugely. And not only is it fraught with . . . particularly in a post-September 11 context, or even earlier than that, during the hostage crisis of the ’80s . . . . But, really, so much of this engagement has been passed over and forgotten, not necessarily chronicled. I reached back as far as I could, looking for not the earliest Arab character in superhero comics, nor the earliest Muslim character across all genres, but I was really trying to pinpoint: when did this genre in its infancy begin to engage other religions, other than ostensibly the Christian norm? And I became, actually, rather enamoured with what I found, which was a character in 1944, going back just a few years into the first superhero boom (5:00), called Kismet, Man of Fate . And not only did I start studying this character I found that I took sort-of a shine to him and wanted to start writing further adventures from him, since he had fallen into the public domain.

DR: It would be quite interesting to look and see if there were similar portrayals of Muslim characters in the British wartime comics. There was a lot of those still around when I was a kid, you know, telling these true life World War Two stories. Because, of course, at that time a lot of soldiers would have come into contact with Muslim soldiers, especially those serving in North Africa and places like that.

DL: Absolutely.

DR: Much different contexts than we have now.

DL: Without question. Although I won’t say it’s surprising that it would have entered the British consciousness far earlier than the US popular consciousness, given as you said, you know, colonial engagement and, more widely speaking, the theatre of battle. Whereas, for the US, we have been very slow to become aware of Islamic culture, despite it being not only important in the 20th century – being important historically, classically, without the classic philosophers. But no, it would not surprise me in the least to see more Muslim representation – both good and bad, you know, both fair and then highly stereotypical – in British war genre comics than in US superhero comics, as a latecomer.

DR: Indeed. Of course, superhero comics as a genre – I don’t need to tell you that there’s many other genres of comics of course – but the superhero genre, in particular, seems to be tied to the American immigrant experience, doesn’t it? So, I mean, that’s another resonance.

DL: Very much so. In fact I think it was Danny Fingeroth’s book, Disguised as Clark Kent, where he points out that the American superhero genre really is largely reflective of the immigrant experience. And you can just look at the pantheon of superheroes. You either have aliens of very different varieties, Atlantis like Aquaman, Kryptonians like Superman, Amazonians like Wonder Woman, or you have the dispossessed, sort of orphans in either the literal or the figurative sense- that’s where you get your Batman, your Captain America, your Spider-Man. But the genre – particularly when it was formed in the late 30s – early 40s, here in the US – was absolutely about congealing into a shared American experience, rather than there being one quintessential, pure American experience. And that has gotten, many times, lost in the history of the genre. I think if there’s been any time to best recapture it, it might be now – as superheroes are moving from comics as a fringe medium, largely speaking, to cinematic blockbusters. And people who may never have been caught dead with a comic book are now shelling out however-many-bucks to go see them live on the big screen.

DR: Yes. That’s something which has changed dramatically, even in the time I’ve known you and we’ve been talking about comics. It’s gone from a very fringe interest, as you say, into the biggest genre in cinema right now. And perhaps that’s why we’re seeing a number of very high profile Muslim characters coming into mainstream comics at the moment. Now Ms Marvel is an obvious example. Can we talk about her a little bit, maybe?

DL: Absolutely Kamala Khan Ms Marvel: born and bred Jersey girl, but with a Pakistani background, who is a fan of superheroes – who’s actually a fan fiction writer – finds that she is incredibly imbued with the power of a polymorph, meaning that she can change the size and shape of her body at will (10:00). She has been become, really, the frontline character – I don’t like using the word frontline – maybe the banner character for Muslims, in superhero comics. She certainly caught on with a large section of readers, especially with Marvel attempting this diversity initiative. The problem with her, if there is any problem – it’s a terrific character, and written by a terrific team with G. Willow Wilson – if there’s any problem with the character it’s that most people just know her for being Muslim.

DR: Right, yes.

DL: The character doesn’t come off as often in discussions where religion is not the focus, or where diversity is not the focus. And I only say that’s a problem because that does give her an upper limit, a ceiling of sorts. We can talk about, and generalise, what Captain America does, right, or what Ironman does, or even what Superman does, but we don’t yet have – as popular as Ms Marvel is, or as Simon Baz the new Green Lantern is, or any number of characters – we don’t yet have that Muslim character who is transcending their Muslim-ness, necessarily, into storylines so compelling and so iconic that audiences are keeping up with them. Maybe Ms Marvel is starting to tilt that way. She is a member of The Avengers and The Champions now. But I think the only context a lay person would know about her in, is in this religious and diversity-centred context.

DR: Right. And she reminds me, actually, a lot of Miles Morales. I think there’s a few clear parallels. I mean, Miles Morales is the black Superman

DL: Spider-Man.

DR: Spider-Man, yes, sorry. The black Spider-Man, introduced around the same time in Marvel.

DL: Black and Latino, he’s actually . . .

DR: That’s right. Yes, he is. He is similar to Ms Marvel, has become a hugely popular character, is also a superhero fan, interestingly. I hadn’t thought of that until you mentioned it, just now. But similarly, he has had difficulty crossing . . . has had some success crossing into the mainstream, but is still almost always talked about in terms of his ethnicity, rather than simply his being a compelling character. But that might be starting to change now. I don’t know if you know that when they made “Spider-Man: Homecoming” they were talking about whether they should use Miles Morales, because they were facing the fact that they had to relaunch this character for the third time. And it was decided against it, because: “a black superhero film can’t make any money at the box office, right?”

DL: That’s changed. I think that’s been disproven pretty solidly, recently.

DR: Yes, I think we’ve completely thrown that out the window! But there is now a Miles Morales animated movie coming out.

DL: That’s true and, just going back to “Spiderman: Homecoming” for one minute – not to stray too far from the subject of comics and religion – I do want to point out that they did cast Donald Glover in that movie in a small part, but his part there is actually playing the uncle of Miles Morales. So we haven’t been introduced to his character yet, but they have laid down the groundwork for integrating his character.

DR: Absolutely.

DL: But I think you put your finger on one of the problems there, David, which is that these characters are always becoming known as a subset of another character. I mentioned Simon Baz, he’s now the Muslim Green Lantern; we mentioned Miles Morales, he is the Black or Latino Spider-Man.

DR: We also had the female Thor as well, recently.

DG: Female Thor; there’s the Batman of Paris, a Muslim Batman of Paris, Nightrunner, And even Ms Marvel is inheriting a mantel from the former Ms Marvel, now Captain Marvel – who’s going to get her own movie. So we haven’t quite gotten to the point where we have a Muslim character whose core identity, partly, is Muslim but also is forging a superhero narrative in their own right (15:00). And the reason I keep coming back to superheroes – I feel like this is worth saying: you are absolutely right, there are any number of genres out there when it comes to comics. Almost as limitless as any other medium. However, A: comics are often judged in terms of superheroes, and B: as you mentioned earlier, superheroes are largely an American-made product, or an American-originating product. They’re the closest we have to what Richard Reynolds calls a Modern Mythology. So the reason I keep returning to the superhero is, basically, this has to be the testing space for whatever religious theory or criticism we’re bringing to this medium. Is comics superheroes and superheroes comics? No, absolutely not. And I would never limit either one in that way. But if we can’t talk about the superhero comic in terms of the subject that interests us here, religion and representation, then that challenge is going to keep presenting itself. Until it can be brought into this space it will always be penultimate.

DR: I had a thought, actually, when I was reading the book. You mentioned that . . . most of the examples we’ve given today, in fact, except for the Green Lantern, are Marvel characters. And what you’re saying there, about modern mythology, I think is the reason why. DC characters are harder to represent as having a religion, because DC write more mythologically. DC characters are essentially gods. So it’s much harder to represent religion, ethnicity, gender issues and these kinds of things, because they relate to humans. But the classic argument is that while DC are gods, Marvel are always telling metaphors for being a teenager. So Marvel characters are much better suited to these kinds of discussions about identity and representation, because that is the Marvel style.

DL: And I think that’s true historically, right? DC has been around longer as a unified company. And Batman and Superman reach back further than the Fantastic Four, or Spiderman or the X- Men. But I think there is the opportunity to challenge that just the same. I mean, we could focus on Superman’s alien-ness instead of his godliness. Or we could focus on The Flash – he really is your most mortal and your most human of heroes but he gets elevated to this god-like Hermes status, at least in popular consumption. So I don’t think that either company has to be locked into these positions. And there have been a number of times that Marvel has experimented with sort-of the more godly figure with its characters. But, yes, I think if you had to do a fast summary of each one, you get Marvel with its very human heroes being raised to an elevated status that they may or may not be able to handle, and DC superheroes being sort-of gods – but more gods with feet of clay, or gods with an affection or a tie to humanity. That said, neither approach precludes any spiritual or religious material. I thought it was when . . . . This was a Justice League annual back in the year 2000. It was pre-September 11. But they did try to introduce a Muslim character at that time called The Janissary. And The Janissary, she was a fine character. But the more interesting thing that came out of that particular issue is, does Wonder Woman, an Amazonian, a princess, a goddess-like character – and, at certain times, practically portrayed as a goddess – does she wear a hijab? Is she either subject to the cultural norms of the society she finds herself featured in, or does she transcend that (20:00)? Or does she even find it alien to her? Because she has proof of her own gods and not of an unseen Allah. So these can be engaged in any number of ways, if the companies, frankly, see a profit motive for it.

DR: Yes. I’d like to dig into some other examples. Ms Marvel: there’s been a few papers and stuff and people can go and read more widely, and obviously we can point them to your book where there’s a lot of good examples. But I want to bring up a few sort-of perhaps more problematic examples. One that you don’t talk about directly in the book, but was the first time I became aware of this as an issue in comics, was Holy Terror.

DL: Oh, yes.

DR: Which was originally going to be a Batman book.

DL: It was originally going to be Holy Terror Batman, punning on the whole 1960’s television Robin catchphrase: “Holy terror, Batman!” And it was pitched by Frank Miller of “Dark Knight Returns“ and “Sin City“ and “300“ fame, to DC. And DC thought about it and ultimately rejected it. So he reworked it as his own independent book, I believe with Legendary Comics.

DR: Yes. And I don’t know an awful lot about Frank Miller, but I’m guessing his politics must definitely be towards the more right-wing end of the spectrum?

DL: They have absolutely grown that way over the years. I can’t say if he’s always held a right-wing position. But I do recall that shortly after September 11th there were any number of charity relief books that were being published by various companies. And it struck me that he contributed a very militaristic piece. Like: “Get ready for our thunder! Get ready for our power! You’ve woken a sleeping giant!” And since that time his work has turned quite . . . I would almost say radically to the right. And in Holy Terror he reworks a Batman archetype into a character that I believe he calls The Fixer.

DR: That’s right.

DL: And The Fixer is intent on wiping out terrorism. But the only form of terrorism showcased in the book . . . basically terrorism becomes synonymous with radical Islam, with extremist militaristic radical Islam. And having it enjoin us . . . that lens really portrays an Islamophobia that’s concern isn’t terrorism – or else we could look at spots around the world that are unrelated to Islam, where terrorism is being employed. He really takes a turn there towards a xenophobic fearing of “the other” and one that stands, in his view, in opposition to America and the American norms and democracy. It’s worth noting that one of the works that he did which followed this up, which followed up Holy Terror, was that he returned to Dark Knight Returns for a third time. He did Dark Knight Returns, Dark Knight Strikes Back– which happened right as September 2001 struck, and may have actually changed the way he concluded that story. But then he returned with Dark Knight III: The Master Race, which is, in very brief summary, all about basically Kryptonians – Superman’s people – coming to terrorise and dominate humankind. And only Batman and Superman can save us. And it rings the same bells of, basically, this xenophobia against an outside religious group that seems to be, from his perspective, aggressive, and attempting to conquer. So these are things that he has pursued in a rather, I find, distasteful manner – but definitely in a forthright manner. He’s not hiding or being cute about it (25:00). There are a number of other comic creators who are injecting anti-Islamic themes into their content without saying so explicitly. But when we focussed on Muslim Superheroes as a book we said that that’s less our concern, tracking Islamophobia in comics – which is its own tremendous topic, and there has been some great work done it – but more looking at how they’re trying to integrate the heroism and the principles of, frankly, US heroism or Western heroism to interface with what are perceived Islamic ideals.

DR: I would be quite interested to know a little bit about black Muslim superheroes, because obviously that’s another important aspect of Islam in a America, historically speaking. Presumably here we’re going to be mostly talking about the pre-9/11 situation.

DL: One of our chapters is a terrific piece on basically reading earlier black superheroes and we can point to John Stewart as a Green Lantern or point to The Falcon, Captain America’s partner, as I believe our contributor calls them, “crypto-Muslims” or “proto-Muslims”. Basically, if you’re a New York writer of comics, which is where the two – DC and Marvel, the two major superhero companies – were stationed, what you’re seeing of black strengths and black presence, in the news and in your environment, is either the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam. Black Panthers being not the superhero Black Panther, but the group.

DR: Although there is a direct connection there. Stan Lee took the name of the character directly from the Black Panthers.

DL: Yes, I’d heard different reports on that. I’ve heard that it either entered his consciousness, or he did conspicuously think . . . I don’t know the exact details, there. But yes, you can read a lot of black characters in comics, in the 60s as well as the 70s, as what we call crypto-Muslims. But then you can go forward and find actual black Muslims in a number of comics, particularly around the 1990s. Milestone comics had Wise Son. Marvel comics featured Josiah X who was a Muslim, a black Muslim preacher who also had a family member experimented on in Captain America’s super soldier programme. So they definitely exist. But even here, they did not have yet the nuance or just the enjoyability of characters like Simon Baz; like Kamala Khan, Ms Marvel; like Excalibur; and a number of others. These were very serious, angry, severe characters. And being included is terrific; being represented is important. But often their full humanity wasn’t portrayed, I dare say. And that could be because they were not being written by black creators, or minority creators. They were white – usually male – creators’ imagination of the black man and of the black Islamic man, rather than a more authentic experience. I don’t want to be mischaracterised as saying that only black writers can write black characters, only Muslim writers can write Muslim characters. That’s not what I’m suggesting at all. But I am suggesting that when you have a gulf, and a conspicuous gulf, between such characters and their creators that’s something that has to be examined and looked at cautiously.

DR: Yes. Absolutely. It’s actually quite a good link, then, into my next question which was (30:00):foundationsuperhero comics which come out of the Islamic world, and which perhaps play with and reframe some of the American context, in the creation of their own superheroes and superhero teams. Can you give us a couple of quick examples of those?

DL: Yes, absolutely. And, again, we dedicate at least two, if not three, chapters in the book to this topic. The most notable of them – the Ms Marvel equivalent, the most well-known – would be The 99, which came out of Kuwait. And this was actually spearheaded by a professional psychologist, Naif Al-Mutawa. And the issue they ran into – at least according to our contributor in the book – is that there were any number of superhero genre elements that they could reproduce with Muslim characters, except for two. And that was the hyper-sexualised nature of the superhero – and you could start with the skin-tight costumes if you like, but you can also look at their physique and physicality and go from there. The other thing that they were cautious about – other companies were less cautious, but this was a challenge for The 99 – was their resolving everything, or nearly everything, with violence, which was very much an image that Dr Al-Mutawa wanted to move away from. He wanted these comics to be inspirational of solving conflicts with other powers, with other abilities, with conflict resolution or with building and such. So they struggled with that. Other companies like AK Comics – which were admittedly less successful – out of Egypt, they were more embracing of those two additional elements, but they did not last nearly as long as The 99. So we don’t yet have . . . now there are more publishers, even today. One that comes to mind is Youneek Studios, and that’s spelled Y-O-U-N-E-E-K, which is an African company. And I think they’re doing a terrific job of sort-of trying to thread the needle in the way that the Black Panther movie does: being genuinely African, right, but also still delivering on narrative elements that audiences have come to expect, rather than being some weak copy of an American superhero or diverging into its own sub-genre. This is a challenge because the American superhero has characteristics not only that may not translate into other cultures and religions, but may have ones that the American superhero industry itself doesn’t want to fix: again referring back to the issues of violence and sexuality; also looking at misogyny, patriarchy, heteronormativity. How much it can be changed by a non-white and non-Christian group, before it becomes unrecognisable, is the challenge of the day.

DR: Indeed. We’ve been talking a while now and we could go on quite a while more, I’m sure. But I’ve got a couple of questions to wrap up, then. One is: I particularly liked the little chapter at the end of the book that you and Martin Lund contributed, which talks about the idea of using these in schools. I absolutely love the idea of using an issue of Ms Marvel, for instance, as a text for students to engage with these issues.

DL: It seems like not only the natural outgrowth of these things, but also the raison d’être, you know, the whole: are we just studying these things for our amusement? And just as an exercise? Or is there something to be done here? Can we include a call to action? And, as I said, the most natural call to action is to bring this into the classroom, and let students have a foundation where they can engage with it (35:00). And I think, as we know in the final chapter, this doesn’t have to be head-on. We’re not proposing that we need Muslim superhero classes, and we need Muslim superhero curriculum and degrees given out on Muslim superheroes. We’re actually suggesting that instead this genre, and this religious interaction with the genre, can be a powerful way to explore historical events, to explore cultural differences, to explore media bias and media studies. So we really just want to open this to the educator, who may not be an expert in comics, or may not be an expert in Islam – and certainly not the two combined – but will see the inherent value of working on materials that access student’s attention in a novel way.

DR: Right, and using popular cultural texts – be they comic, or television, or films, or whatever – I think, actually, can be a more powerful way of introducing the students, and teaching the students the critical skills. If we start with academic texts then getting the students to be able to read the biases and the positionality of the papers can be quite tricky, because academic language is very qualified and very specific. But using popular texts to start with, and teaching them to read them as media texts, we can do a lot to train them in that way of critical reading that they can then take on and apply to more obviously academic texts.

DL: And this has long been true. Educators have tried to incorporate music in the classroom, and incorporate film in the classroom. And really, any medium that isn’t a text book that can sort-of take these students unawares into learning, or into critical thought, is always welcome. We highlight the comic book because of our fascination with comics in its dual-channel delivery system: its verbal, visual, creative engagement with the reader that will work for a number of students in particular, who don’t have to be comic book fans themselves but may be looking to light up different hemispheres of their brain at the same time. That, a lecture, or a strictly prose textbook, would not be able to do.

DR: Absolutely. As a final closing kind-of point here: is there any further thought on how the work that you’re doing in the book and elsewhere . . . what can it tell RS? How can these kinds of analyses, then, enhance Religious Studies more broadly?

DL: Well, I think that a particular area . . . two come to mind. The first is that we talk often about lived religion, right? And we often want to explore how religions are either evolving or being expressed in a modern context, and then tracking that against the religion, historically or classically. And I want to point out that comics are a relatively cheap and very evocative space in which to track that sort of lived religious experience. Whereas television is highly scripted and highly censored in many cases. And film, while perhaps less censored, is again driven by a huge profit motive. Comics, while a business and while a business that wants to sustain itself, has a greater freedom with the most reach. So, that would be my first response. That if we’re trying to do a present-day lived anthropological read of religion in popular culture or interpretation, comics is an ideal space. One further argument to have – and this is a little more radical on my part . . .

DR: OK, we like that.

DL: I wrote about this for an up-coming book (40:00). This is going to sound wonky, but I have the perspective that comics, when read intensely, when read seriously, when read genuinely, can lead to their own transcendent experience. Now, this is going to make me sound like someone who’s drunk the Kool-Aid . . .

DR: (Laughs).

DL: Inasmuch as we say frescos, and tapestries, and stained glass windows, and sculpture can all really unlock, as arts, the human mind to some spiritual dimension, I want to suggest that there are comics out there that could do similar. That can actually, by their . . . . And I think the way I phrase it in this up-coming text is that, by basically going down into the mundane, down into the print, and the ink, and the paper of the comic, it can actually trip us and flip us towards the sacred, towards what lies behind it: the “real real” – and here I’m being very Eliade in my language. But I’m exploring that more and more. I’m not necessarily saying you’re going to get that from your average Superman comic off the rack, right? And I’m not saying it’s better to read Ms Marvel than go to a Mosque. I’m not saying anything of that sort. But I am suggesting that we can’t rule out this medium as having its own access to potentially transcendent experience. And in the chapter that’ll be coming out I think later this year, I make the argument for why it’s not just legitimate but actually might be favourable to view them in this way.

DR: There are some inklings of that in Graven Images. We can maybe pick this conversation up in a year’s time, when I interview you the next time. It does sound a bit wonky – but as somebody who reads The Invisibles every year, you know you’re not going to get an argument from me!

DL: That actually is a terrific example of precisely the sort of comic that you can deal with. And, actually, I came up with a fantastic, really out-there, crazy term for it! We’ll talk about it next year.

DR: Yes. We’ll pick it up next time.

DL: I call it the “wormhole sacred”. So, be sure to ask me next year about the wormhole sacred!

DR: Excellent. I will do that. Let’s put it in the diary already! Until then, though, I would urge listeners who’ve enjoyed the conversation to check out Muslim Superheroes. And I’ll just say thanks, A. Dave Lewis, for joining us again!

DL: I love coming back. Thank you so much for having me!

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Lewis, A. David and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Muslim Superheroes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslim-superheroes/

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

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

Children in New Religious Movements

In the complex and sometimes fraught relationship between New Religious Movements and the wider culture and state, why is it that children are so often a focus? Children are seen as needing special protection and therefore legitimising dramatic state intervention, but are also seen as of particular importance to the future of these movements, and in some more millennial groups, of the world itself. To discuss this, we are once again joined by Susan Palmer, who draws on her vast ethnographic work with such groups to give real-world examples, showing the complexity of the issue. children, it seems, become the central focus of the ideological struggle between the state and the alternative offered by these groups. Who will imprint their ideology onto the children most successfully – and will they resort to violence to do so?

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

Children in New Religious Movements

Podcast with Susan Palmer (4 December 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Palmer_-Children_in_New_Religious_Movements_1.1

 

DR: I’m here in Bedford. It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon at the last day of the CenSAMM conference on Millenarianism and violence. I’m happy to be speaking today with Susan Palmer, welcoming her back to Religious Studies Project – one of the small group of people who’ve made a return visit! So, first of all, thanks for returning to the Religious Studies Project.

SP: It’s a pleasure, David.

DR: We’re going to be talking today about children in new religious movements, which Susan did her keynote presentation here about. But she’s also just about to start a major research project on the subject. Maybe the best place for us to start, then, is for you to tell us how you got interested in the idea of children, in particular, in these movements.

SP: Well, it all started with my PhD thesis which was on women’s roles in new religions. And at the time I had two young children when I was doing my research. So when I would go to visit these groups – the Hare Krishna, the Unification Church – I would sometimes have to drag my children along, because I didn’t have a babysitter, you know. So then the focus would be on . . . they would ask me about my children, and they’d introduce me to their children, and we’d be talking about motherhood. And I wasn’t really that interested, but I was humouring them! And then my children used to go off and play with their children, and I would realise on the way home that my children found out much more about what was really going on than I did!

DR: (Laughs)

SP: So I sort-of inadvertently got interested in the idea of children in new religions. And I ended up co-editing a book, with Charlotte Hardman, called Children in New Religions. And recently I’ve come back to the topic because several of the groups I’m interested in have had quite lot of conflict with society about their children. In fact, James Richardson made the point, which I agree with, that the old brainwashing allegation or controversy has sort-of, pretty well, died down. And one way you can attack new religions or criticise them is by focussing on their children. And certainly groups that are sectarian, who live in a commune or who live out in the country and have a lot of children, make people nervous, make their neighbours nervous, make social workers nervous, because they don’t really know what’s going on. And in today’s system children go to school, children go to doctors and you have close neighbours so everyone can keep an eye on how you’re raising your children. But if you’re off in a millenarian commune, somewhere in the country, that doesn’t practice medicine or does home-schooling, you know, authorities get suspicious. And the anti-cult movement has, I think, exploited the situation by publishing materials in which, well: an ex-member might say they were abused, or had a miserable childhood; or they take isolated statements by the leaders and show that these children are in danger. I mean, of course there are some groups, in fact, where children have been badly treated and abused – there’s no doubt about that. But there is this tendency – certainly in anti-cult literature in recent years – to assume that children in cults are separated from their parents, or that the parents are following orders from the charismatic leader. And Margaret Singer says parents are “middle management” in cults; she uses that term over and over again. So what struck me is there’s so much variety in how children are perceived. You know: the role of a child, how they’re brought up, and also in the patterns of the family as you look at the different groups. (5:00) And it’s an ephemeral period. Childhood is over quite quickly and many of the groups aren’t even prepared for children; they weren’t even thinking about children when they started. And then they have to improvise, make up education and so on. So it’s not very well documented. Many of the groups don’t really document their own process. Some of them do. The Children of God have a very rich documentation on all their experiments in their communal life – even like how they wash dishes! So I think it’s an important thing to study, but also it’s difficult to study, because many of the groups have had problems with social workers and, of course, custody battles. When there’s a couple who join a commune and one of them leaves and wants their children to leave with them, they might contact the anti-cult movement and, you know, use their philosophy or their theories in court to get their kid out. So there’s a lot of social forces today that are putting pressure on alternative religions to raise their children in the same way as secular children. And I’ve witnessed raids on children with this group I was studying in France with the Twelve Tribes. And they were raided. Their children were raided in Vermont and then in Germany and when I was visiting them in France there was actually a raid right under my nose, but in this case they were picking the fathers. And then there was the polygamous Mormons in Texas, the Yearning for Zion people, whose children were taken away. And this seems to be something that’s happening today and there are severable forces at work. First of all, there’s this idea that our mainstream secular culture is the highest type of culture, the right culture, so we want to give children an opportunity to develop, and choose their lifestyle, and get a good education, so they can have a decent profession. And if a child grows up in a Mormon polygamous compound, or the Twelve Tribes, or the Hare Krishna, inevitably they’re being deprived and it’s sort of our duty to give them all the rights as a citizen and remove them. And, of course, this violates the rights of the parents to practise their religion and raise their children in their own faith. And it also violates the rights of the children to be able to live with their parents and their brothers and sisters. So it’s a terrible thing that the children experience when they’re taken away. And often they’re put in these orphanages. Well, in the case of the Twelve Tribes these children were put in orphanages, or homes for troubled teens, or foster homes: rather cold environments, not very nice environments with terrible food, and so on. In the case of the Yearning for Zion, these children were just plonked in various foster homes and it was even hard to organise to get them back, because they were so widely scattered. So that’s one thing, and then the other thing is there seems to be this concern . . . well you were talking today about conspiracy theories about paedophile rings . . . . So, there’s often this idea that if there’s a charismatic prophet who’s a spiritual mystic, he must also be a paedophile. Somehow it’s a package, today. (10:00) And of course, you do have the odd charismatic leader who does fancy very young women or has anti-social tendencies or sexual appetites. But I get the impression, in many cases, that this is just mud that’s thrown at them randomly, and it appears in the media, and has a devastating effect.

DR: And you’ve made this point before, in your book on the Nuwaubian Nation. You make the point that this is not only quite a common allegation against cult leaders, but against black cult leaders in particular. And, presumably, that allegation relates to this idea of the child as vulnerable that you were taking about before.

SP: So I feel it’s really important that we study different groups and get a lot of data: and we look at the variety in child-rearing patterns; the variety in how children are perceived; and also in the family, and how the families integrate in with the community. And so we won’t have these monolithic stereotypes about children in cults.

DR: How does the child work as a symbol? What is it that makes the child such a powerful discursive unit in all of this?

SP: Well, Mary Douglas, in her book, Natural Symbols, she looks at the idea of the body as the perfect vessel that represents the whole group. And the idea that the group is inviolable and has no cracks. And there’s tremendous concern in some minority religions, or minority cultures, with diet and sexuality. And she sees that as: those are the two holes in which foreign elements could come in. And so, if the group can control the diet and who the person marries then they can protect their culture from assimilation. So she talks about the virgin, as an example, as a symbol of the community. You know, the Virgin Mary among the Early Christians. And she doesn’t actually talk about the child but, you know, you can see how, in the literature of some of these groups, or in their ritual practices, some of these groups are very child-centred. So their whole community is looking at the children and intent on breeding these perfect children, and the children are their hope for the future, the children will usher in the Millennium, the children will fight Armageddon, the children will be the 24 elders who will rule beside Jesus in the Millennium, the children will be 144000 elite, and so on. Some groups, of course, have zero interest in children, and they’re not allowed at their meetings, and they don’t even care if they join or not – like the Raëlians, for example. But in other groups it’s extremely important that the children carry on the religious mission of their parents, and their education is very important, and the control is very important. And they are the hope and so . . . . I read this book recently called The Child in Post-Apocalyptic Cinema, which had a lot of great ideas which applied to this situation. And the editor, whose name is Debbie Olsonn, said the child is this idea of the future, but also the past. So, for example in the Twelve Tribes, they dress their children to look like, you know, pioneers from 1800 or something. So when you go there you feel a sense of nostalgia, you feel you’re stepping into early America. (15:00) And their children represent the goodness and the simplicity and the beauty of country children 150 years ago, before things got all screwed up. And also, this idea that the child represents this new humanity that will arise after the destruction of the world.

DR: Well that’s nice, because that ties into this millenarian model of time that we’ve been talking about today – but we’ve talked about it on the Religious Studies Project a few times – that millennialism, although it seems so focussed on the future, is actually a way of tying the past and using the future as a lens. But, ultimately, with the pivotal point of it being the present day. So, for somebody who’s involved in one of these relatively exclusive or . . . I don’t know what the word is . . . the kind of new religions that, to some degree, shuts itself off . . .

SP: A sectarian group

DR: . . . a sectarian kind of movement, then you can see why children would be so important. Because, as you say, they’re not only embodying the future but they embody the movement of the ideas of the past. And the parent is almost creating that perfected version of the past in the future, by creating these children and controlling their particular set of circumstances and the influences that they have.

SP: Yes.

DR: Is the importance that children have in these kind of sectarian groups, is that the reason that they’re so often the site of conflict?

SP: Yes it is, I think. I mean, it is of course very upsetting to the parents and the leaders of these groups if somebody leaves and wants to take the child out. There’s this right-wing Catholic group in Quebec called the Apostles of Infinite Love: Apôtres de l’amour infini. Their leader was a mystical pope – he died recently. And they had a monastery which families would join, and then the couple would split up and become celibate monks and nuns. And the children would become the children of the monastery and live this very Spartan life. When people left – usually it was fathers who left, actually, and wanted to take their children out – the attitude of the group seemed to be, “But the world is an evil place, it’s going to be destroyed very soon, and we can’t let these poor children go.”

DR: Right

SP: So they felt it was very much their responsibility not to let the children leave the group, which was like a Noah’s Ark. So they had some very intense conflict and struggle that involved four police raids and helicopters and so on. And, you know, hiding children. And their mystical pope actually went to prison for a few years for séquestration des enfants, you know, kidnapping or hiding children. And, of course, we don’t really know if he did or not. Because he said the mothers just left and sort-of went underground, so that’s possible. He said “My people are free to do what they want. I don’t tell them what to do.” So anyway on one hand in these groups, often there’s a very strong reluctance to let the children go. And from society’s point of view, there’s the idea that we can’t let these poor children be deprived, and warped, and indoctrinated in an unrealistic worldview that thinks the word’s going to end, or is patriarchal and sees women as second class citizens who should get married as soon as they turn 18, and so on. So it’s very intense . . . there’s a very intense struggle going on there, a cultural battle.

DR: Yes, in a number of cases these conflicts have led to the state visiting violence upon children in these situations. I mean, we could mention Waco, for instance. Tell us a little bit about the situation that you mentioned – this bombing.

SP: Yes, I was talking yesterday about MOVE, in Philadelphia. And I find it amazing that many people don’t know about MOVE. I teach a course on New Religions at Concordia, and when I mention MOVE everyone looks blank. (20:00) But my students have all heard of Waco and the Branch Davidians and David Koresh.

DR: I had never heard of this.

SP: But in 1985 in the city of Philadelphia, the orders of the Mayor were to drop two bombs from a helicopter on a row (terraced) house, in which a new religious movement called MOVE lived. And they’re usually depicted as religious anarchists. And they were mainly black, although there were quite a lot of white people living there too. And five children were killed in the bombing, plus six adults.

DR: When you say bombing . . .

SP: They literally dropped two bombs! It’s unbelievable.

DR: That’s insane. This was 1989?

SP: 1985. May 13th.

DR: Right.

SP: And it was mainly to get rid of . . . . They’d created a fortress, a sort of bunker, on the top and they had rifles. And they used to patrol this bunker and shout out criticism with loudspeakers. And all the neighbours hated them. And so, it was mainly to get rid of that bunker and make sure that they all just left. But the trouble was, they had police surrounding the house shooting the people who left. So they couldn’t win. And then the mayor didn’t want the fire trucks to come in. He wanted to wait, because he wanted to make sure the place was really burned out. But, unfortunately, the rest of the neighbourhood caught fire and sixty-one houses burned to the ground. It’s incredible when you look at the pictures. It’s amazing. And the people who lived there, the neighbours had be warned to leave. So the houses had been evacuated. But a lot of them had left their pets at home and all the pets had died, too. It was terrible.

DR: Yes.

SP: So, as I mentioned in my talk, at the meeting between the police and the mayor and the city councillors, before this happened, they were talking about the children. And they were a bit worried that if they went in and arrested the men, the children would be used as hostages by the MOVE people. And they were also worried that these children could be dangerous because they were “like little wild animals” and they might have weapons. So they saw them as little guerrilla warriors or something. So the point that’s made in this book by Robin Wagner-Pacifici is that, you know, they probably wouldn’t have dropped a bomb if it had just been ordinary American kids. But they saw them as either being little wild animals or being guerrilla warriors or . . . . And you often find that in anti-cult books, or in media reports, looking at children in cults. They can be seen as sort-of scary, like in the Village of the Damned by John Wyndam; like little aliens. Or they could be seen as brainwashed little zombies.

DR: Deadthroat children, yeah! My girlfriend once pointed out to me that – this shift of seeing the child as . . . putting so much importance on the children, and their innocence and their importance and how much you have to nurture them, and childhood as this magical time – it’s quite modern. It arises in the Victorian era. But there’s this tension then between, you know, the Victorian era is the classic example of: yes, for some Victorian children it was a magical time, where they got to be free and innocent; but you also had the vast majority who were living in absolute squalor, ridden with disease, high infant mortality, child prostitution, all the rest of it. And so there’s this dichotomy: this feeling of embodying innocence in children happens at times when there’s an awareness of inequality of power. And I wonder if there’s something going on there about our relationship with power, and our ability to . . . maybe compromise in the position of being an adult, or something? I don’t know. How do you think this relationship to power structures is working here?

SP: (25:00) Yes, I think that’s a very interesting idea. Well, a lot of parents who go into new religions are rejecting the state, they’re rejecting the authority of the state. But of course, they then find themselves under sometimes even more controlling kinds of authority within the group. But they can accept that because it’s spiritual . . . .

DR: And it’s personal, maybe, rather than an impersonal distant power of the state.

SP: Yes. It’s charismatic, it’s not bureaucratic. But then if you read, you know, media reports or anti-cult literature, they tend to think that within with these groups people don’t know how to think. Children are discouraged from independent critical thought. So they grow up very, very passive and rather stupid. But if you read some of the literature by ex-members, for example, by Pierrepont Noyes who was one of the sons of the leader of the cult of Perfectionists. And he is the most rebellious, mischievous, critical kid you ever imagine. And he describes his childhood with a tremendous humour and so much vitality, and so many little rebellious escapades. And then you have Krishnamurti, of course, who was raised to be the avatar and basically refused, and rejected his role, and spent the rest of his life criticising religion and coming up with his own philosophy. And also I find, just going to these groups, you find that the children often have a sub-culture. Like, I went to one group and the parents were telling me that the children were – I won’t mention what the group is – they said, “We don’t believe in giving our children an allowance, we never give them money, we never let them eat candy and we don’t let them play with toys.” And my kids were there, and they’d said, “Go off in the woods and play,” to get them out of my hair. So my kids went off in the woods. And on the way home I said to them in the car, “So, what did you do?” And they said “Oh! Our friends took us in the woods and we dug up a treasure chest!” And I said, “What was in it?” And they said, “Money and candies and trucks!”

DR: (Laughs)

SP: They were doing the real research! But actually, Charlotte Hardman makes this point, too, in our early book – I think it was published in 1998 – that children – she’s’ an anthropologist who’s done work on the anthropology of children – she notices that children often have this kind of subculture within a culture. And they see things differently. And I’ve certainly found that, visiting some of these groups, that the children have their own little “cult within a cult”, if you like.

DR: That’s often the case in my work as well. Even in a relatively small group, you would get the official version, but when you hung around . . . . I used to always hang around, or try and have a drink with people, or go to the kitchen and help with the cooking, and things like that. And the more gossipy side of it would start to come out. And you realise that, you know: this situation is just as complex as any other social situation, with all sorts of different levels of discourse going on. You know, a lot of the conversation that we’ve been having has reminded me of . . . well, obviously there’s been quite a lot of stuff about Scientology recently, “Going Clear” being the most obvious example. And it ties into a number of different things. First of all, this movement away from the idea of brainwashing towards, you know, children being in the frame . . .

SP: Indoctrinated.

DR: Yes, indoctrinated, but also physically harmed. There’s been much more of a shift recently towards looking at L. Ron Hubbard‘s relationship with his own kids.

SP: Oh really?

DR: Yes. One of his children committed suicide and another attempted suicide.

SP: That’s right.

DR: That’s probably wrong but . . .

SP: I know one of them committed suicide.

DR: But I think the other one also, yeah, I can’t remember now. I think the other one attempted it as well. But also in “Going Clear”, the guy – is it Paul Haggis? It was his daughter coming out as homosexual that caused him to leave the church. So again, his children were involved. But when you were talking about this portrayal of people not being able to think properly and having their information limited – that’s exactly the narrative that he gives: that when you’re in Scientology you don’t get to question it (30:00). Except, of course, we’re hearing this from somebody who did question it from within Scientology. So the narrative doesn’t really work. And it’s playing into so many of these little discourses that you’re talking about there.

SP: Yes.

DR: Thank you so much for speaking to us again. Another big subject, but this has been a really exciting introduction. And, bringing in the idea of generationality, maybe in a year’s time we can meet up and talk about old people in new religions?!

SP Well thank you, David! (Laughs)

DR: But thanks, as always, for speaking to me.

SP: Old people are fun, too!

DR: Yes, absolutely!

Citation Info: Palmer, Susan and David Robertson. 2017. “Children in New Religious Movements”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 4 December 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 November 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/children-in-new-religious-movements/

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

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

Islamic Millennialism

We may tend to think of millennialism as something typical of New Religious Movements and christian fundamentalism, but it has a long and interesting history in the Islamic world too. Rob Gleave, Professor of Arabic Studies at Exeter, takes us through the history of Islamic millennialism, and explains how it has been tied up with political events in the past, as well as the present. He raises interesting points about how the unusual form of Twelver Shi’ite millennialism developed from Islamic theological discourse.

This podcast was generously supported by cenSAMM, the centre for the study of Apocalyptic and Millennial Movements. This podcast is also sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more here.

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

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

Islamic Millennialism

Podcast with Rob Gleave (18 September 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Gleave – Islamic Millennialism 1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Bedford at the CenSAMM Conference on Millennialism and Violence and I’m joined by Rob Gleave, who is the Director  for the Study of Islam at Exeter University.

Rob Gleave (RG): Yes.

DR: First of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

RG: Thanks very much.

DR: Today we’re going to talk about millennialism and violence in Islam, in the Islamic world. Maybe a good place to start is to tell us a little bit about the whole idea of millennialism and messianism in Islam. Is this something that comes from the Qur’an, or what’s the. . . ?

RG: Yes, there are clear indications in the Qur’an about an end time. There’s a shortage on detail as to what’s going to happen and a time as to when things are going to happen, but there’s a discussion – an extensive discussion – of something called the the Hour. And this Hour – the Hour that will come – is the time when the world will be brought to a an end and a judgement will happen and a resurrection of people who have died will occur: people from the graves. And there’s some indication in the Qur’an itself about some of the violent , catastrophic events that will happen, in terms of the sky and mountains being torn asunder and those sort of things. But there’s not a great detail and there’s not a description of a series of events that will eventually lead up to this event. So there’s a strong notion in the Qur’an that the world will come to an end, but, like many things in the Qur’an, it’s indicative. Or rather, it indicates something but it doesn’t always spell it out in detail. And that was left to Muslim theologians to try and discover what it was that the scriptures were referring to.

DR: OK.

RG: And for that they used some sayings of the Prophet Muhammad – and there were sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Of course, there’s huge debates about the authenticity of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. But, nonetheless, there was a sort of residue of statements by the Prophet Muhammad which described various things that were going to happen at the end of the world. And from these sources a number of different versions, if you like, of the end times were developed in Muslim theology. And the crucial point is that whilst belief in the eventual day of judgement is an essential element of Islamic belief, precisely what will happen at the those end times – the details, the sequence of events, if you like – this is not an essential element of Muslim belief. It’s not something which determines whether someone is a believer or not a believer. So, it was left open for the Muslim theologians to interpret this material in ways which was highly imaginative. There are some stock elements that always reoccur. The first one was with the return of Jesus. So this was an important element. The return of Jesus was seen as a crucial element of the end times.

DR: Which might come as quite a surprise to some of our listeners, I think.

RG: Well, yes. Jesus, of course, is highly regarded in Muslim theology as one of the Prophets sent by God. But the Qur’an itself indicates that Jesus will return, or that the return of Jesus is one of the signs of the end times. And it’s linked . . .  often it’s linked, by theologians, to the Qur’anic ambiguity about whether or not Jesus died on the cross. The Qur’anic phrase seems to indicate that he appeared to die, but didn’t die, and therefore it left the way open for a return of Jesus at the end times. And it’s very likely, historically, that this was incorporated into the Muslim theological framework from Christian roots about the return of Jesus. But it was a crucial element of the end time narrative for Muslims, the belief that Jesus will come. Another crucial element was also the return of another figure, known as the Mahdi. And the Sunni and Shi’i branches of Islam have slightly different notions of what this Mahdi will do and what his role is, theologically as well as physically, in the end times. (5:00) So they have slightly different notions of that. But these two elements are always conjoined: that the Mahdi and the return of Jesus together will bring about the ushering in, if you like, of the end of the world.

DR: And a lot of the imagery, as you say, is very reminiscent of the Christian story and the imagery of . . . well, imagery which carries on into some of the new religious kind of millenialisms we’ve been talking about this week.

RG: I think apocalyptic imagery is something which . . . well, it’s a discourse which is shared across the Jewish, Christian and Muslim milieux, and used across these different religious traditions, and re-used again and again.  You find it reinvented in new religious movements within Islam as well, which emphasised the coming of the end times. So, it’s a stock of imagery which is not exclusive to an individual tradition. And quite often, the ability for apocalyptic imagery to cross-fertilise between religious traditions . . .  there’s sometimes more potential for that than in other areas of theology, or in ethics or in law. In apocalyptics, somehow a shared stock of images about the Beast, the Antichrist, the notion of the return of Jesus: all of these things together can be shared across traditions.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: And you also find, with a lot of apocalyptic movements, that they’re quite willing to borrow from different traditions and they don’t feel any reticence about the sources of their religious imagery. Muslim religious movements, they will take something which we find in the Jewish or Christian traditions which have made their way into Islam, in one way or another through the history of Islam. And they’re not worried about the sources of these things when they’re constructing their end of time narrative.

DR: Of course not.

RG: So it makes for an enormously creative image of the end of the world, when apocalyptic writers are able to draw on a great wealth of writings and sources in their creative imagination about what the end of the world will look like.

DR: The theology – and ideas about the Mahdi in particular – is quite important in the history of the schism between the Sunni and Shi’i traditions, am I right?

RG: Absolutely. For the Sunni traditions, the Mahdi is a figure sent by God who will lead a battle and bring about the preparations, if you like, for the day of judgement. In the Shiite tradition, the Mahdi is the return of someone – or the reappearance of someone – who disappeared in the ninth century and who will return and re-establish their rightful, legitimate, political rule at some time in the future. So,  the Sunni and Shiite traditions didn’t divide over the question of the end times: at the beginning, it was a question of who should lead the community and what the role of that leader should be. The way in which the Shiite tradition developed was that following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, in 632, there was a series of leaders coming from amongst his family, his descendents, who were seen as blessed with special religious knowledge. And for one particular branch of that Shiite tradition there were twelve such leaders, and the last of these has gone into hiding. And this is the promised Mahdi, the promised messianic figure that will reappear at some point in the end of time – no one knows when. But Twelver Shiites, as they’re called – because they believe in twelve leaders after the Prophet Muhammad – Twelver Shiites have a very strong notion of the patience that’s required in expectation of the return of the Mahdi, and the internal striving to be a perfect servant. So the internal striving to be a perfect servant becomes a crucial element of Shiite identity, in the expectation of the return of the Mahdi at some point in time in the future. (10:00) And, when the Mahdi returns, it’s not simply that this person will be a military leader and bring about the end of days. This is the return of the person who should have been the leader of the Muslim community for all of these centuries. It’s the reappearance, if you like, of the Mahdi who is present in the community but unknown, suddenly making himself known again. So this is quite a different dynamic for Shiites about the end times, compared to Sunnis. And since the Mahdi is someone who’s seen as having perfect knowledge of divine matters, including the law, this means that he’s looked to, by Shiites , as a guide for daily living. And the Mahdi doesn’t fulfil such a role in Sunni theology.

DR: It’s a really fascinating, and – I think – kind-of unique situation: this idea of the Mahdi being this occulted figure who has gone into hiding but is still in the world, but hidden.  And they’re waiting on his . . . it’s not like a physical reincarnation or anything like that, it’s a re-emergence of this hidden figure. It’s really interesting.

RG: It was a belief which emerged in early Islam, through a series of descendents of the Prophet Muhammad who went into hiding in order to protect themselves, and the community, from oppression from a majority Sunni community. And the theme of a hidden Imam who will make themselves known again when the conditions are right became incorporated into Twelver Shiite doctrine and became an official element of Twelver Shiite belief. And so that’s something which is unusual, since most apocalyptic movements which have a messianic element think of the Messiah as returning to earth from somewhere else. Whereas, for the Shiites, the presence of the hidden Imam – the Mahdi – in the community means that at certain points they can find out what his opinion is.

DR: Yes.

RG: Which is the crucial element for Shiites: how do you know what the Imam’s opinion might be on this or that? So, for example, if all the community agree on something – on a particular doctrine – then Shiites have imagined that, well, one of the people who agree must be the hidden Imam.

DR: Yes.

RG: So the agreement suddenly becomes authoritative because the Imam’s opinion must be amongst the people who are agreeing. We don’t know which opinion it is, we don’t know the identity of the individual. But, because everyone’s agreed, the Imam must be within that agreement. And the result is that certain new doctrines might be validated by a community agreement. The theoretical possibility, if you like, of communication from the hidden Imam through community agreement, becomes possible.

DR: And I can see that being a very powerful narrative. Because in other traditions, where you want to have the prophetic figure – who is no longer with you – refer to present events, you either have to create a new revelation through a new prophet, or you discover or reveal some previously unknown writings – in the way that has happened in Buddhism quite a lot, for instance. But this . . . you can actually, quite legitimately have this figure referring to events of the day quite contemporaneously. Because he’s still around, we just don’t know where.

RG: He’s present, yes. And that creates a notion of immanence within the community which has become very important for Shiite devotional practice, in the sense that the Twelver Shiites will often pray to hasten the appearance of the Mahdi as part of their personal devotional prayers. They believe that through devotional acts one is contributing to the situation where the Imam ,who is present, can make themselves known. And it creates an internal – what you might call – piety within the religious tradition, which is a dynamic you can’t find in Sunni Islam. Because of the imagined presence of the Imam in the community, it means that there’s a emphasis on the importance, if you like, of ensuring community cohesion.(15:00)

DR: And does that spill out, then, into how millenarian ideas and prophetic ideas affect the community, then? Would we see a difference between the way that Shiites and Sunnis relate to how messianism plays into their actions in the political sphere?

RG: Well certainly within Shi’ism, the fact that the Imam is present and needs to be revealed has enabled certain claimants at different point in time to be “the man”. When, without them claiming this from the very beginning . . . . Because the revealing notion – of them being present but then revealing that they’re the Mahdi – is, in a sense, an extension of the basic theological doctrine.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: So you often find that, within the Shiite tradition, when an individual has claimed to be the Mahdi they haven’t needed to claim it straight away. Because their presence in the community, without being the Mahdi, isn’t a source of scandal – if you see what I mean – to their claim.

DR: Yes.

RG: Because the Imam decides when the time is right to appear. And the claimant can reliably or legitimately claim, “Well, it wasn’t the right time for me to make to make my personality known.” And it means that within the Twelver Shiite tradition, claiming the appearance of the Mahdi – or claiming to be the Mahdi through appearance – has a very strong potential. It’s like a trigger which is always loaded and ready to be fired at any point in time when the conditions are right, or the individual personality believes themselves to be fulfilling that particular role. And so there have been claims of people being the messianic figure throughout history of Islam, not just in Shi’i Islam. But when the claim happens in Shi’i Islam the individual is claiming more than just being a military leader. They’re claiming a special sort of knowledge which is, I suppose, akin to a form of prophecy. Although the Muslim theological doctrine means that prophecy ends with the Prophet Muhammad, even for Shiites. It’s another form of divine knowledge communicated to an individual. But the potentiality within Shi’ism for a claimant to put themselves forward is always there, because of the notion of an Imam present within the community who is just waiting to be revealed.

DR: You don’t have to posit a new prophet or messiah or anything like that. The potential is already there as part of the actual theological position.

RG: And, of course, there is a huge taboo in Islam around positing yourself as a new prophet.

DR: Yes, exactly. Yes.

RG: Because it contravenes one of the basic doctrines of Islam which is that Muhammad is the seal of the Prophets and that there is no prophet after Muhammad. And so Sunni groups, or groups which have emerged out of Sunnism such as the Ahmadi movement, for example, have been treated with such strong criticism by the rest of the Sunni Muslim community because they have contravened this notion of the end of prophecy with the Prophet Muhammad. They’ve claimed to have a leader who is a new prophet. In the view of Sunni Islam, you know, the Ahmadi community has claimed that its founder is a new prophet. In Shi’i Islam the messianic figure is the hidden Imam, rather than a new prophet. Which, in a sense is slightly less of a taboo element within the theological framework.

DR: Really interesting. To move to the Sunni world, then, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t ask you about Isis. And there seems to be some debate about the degree to which they should be seen as a millennial, even apocalyptic, kind of movement. I, myself, would like to hear something from you. Your take on this is the apocalyptic millennial aspects of it being overplayed by the West, because of fears and ignorance. (20:00) Or is this something that is theologically driving . . . ?

RG: Well, my own view is that there has been a certain hyping up of the apocalyptic element, because it makes good journalism!

DR: (Laughs) Yes!

RG: Apocalypticism is always a sensationalist story for journalists in the contemporary period, because it’s seen as so “out there” and weird and bizarre. And, in a sense, accusations of being over-apocalyptic or . . . . The attraction, if you like, of the story of an apocalyptic movement, is a reflection of much of the state of – I’ll say – “British” society, and the nature of secularism and so-called rationality, and these [movements] are seen as hyper -irrational and consequently extremely interesting. And that’s certainly been, I think, an element in the attraction of journalists, and commentators as well, to the apocalyptic element of the Islamic State message. Having said that, there are strong elements within the Islamic State propaganda machine which indicate that they are quite willing to use apocalyptic imagery to describe and recruit for their military campaign. So, the most famous one being the small Syrian village of Dabiq, which is mentioned in a Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad – a saying of the Prophet Muhammad – that this will be a place where the end times battle will take place. So it became very important that Islamic State captured this village and that they used it in their propaganda in particular their English language propaganda magazine, which they titled the Dabiq. And so they are quite happy to try and use that rhetoric within their propaganda. The big question is, how much of their activities are driven by apocalyptic beliefs? And, in that, I’m slightly less convinced of the primacy of apocalypticism within their military strategy and the ways in which they organise their state. Because most of the ways in which they argue for this policy or that policy, or this action or that action, you can trace back to traditional ways of thinking about the assessment of actions within the Islamic legal tradition. They argue using legal reasoning which you find in the traditional sources. And they themselves are always trying to demonstrate that their opinion is not an unusual opinion, compared to the traditional sources. So apocalypticism doesn’t really figure, I don’t think, in the internal organisation of Islamic State and the justification for some of their actions. It’s extremely important in the way in which they project themselves to the outside world. And this notion that they can recruit through this rhetoric – the fear of missing out on the success and ultimate end times, which Islamic State play a role in – is an incredibly powerful tool for them to attract new recruits.

DR: Absolutely. So that interest that comes from the media, they’re doing exactly the same thing and using it to attract attention to what they’re talking about. And, as you say as well, this is such a powerful set of imagery and deep-set, long-running narrative in human culture that it always seems to be there as a little reservoir that you can tap into.

RG: And don’t underestimate Islamic State’s awareness of this.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: They know. . . . They have quite a sophisticated media machine, which produces quite sophisticated propaganda materials. And they know that apocalyptic fears are an element within Western society, and Muslims living outside of Muslim majority contexts are the prime targets for that propaganda and recruitment. And the result is that they know how to use that in order to gain recruits. (25:00) And so it’s an element, it’s certainly an element of their rhetoric and their propaganda. How instrumental it is – how much they instrumentally use it in order to do this and how much it’s embedded within the movement – is a matter of some debate. Part of the problem is the actual internal workings of Islamic State are quite secretive, by necessity, or inevitably you might say. So precisely what the apocalyptic beliefs of their leader, Abu Bakr al-Bhagdadi, might be, outside of the propaganda element, is actually quite difficult to identify. But it’s certainly a form of religiosity that they are very happy to project outside of the territory that they control.

DR: That’s an excellent comparative point to end on, I think. It’s very important that we don’t simply ascribe naive beliefs to any of these millennial apocalyptic discourses, be they in Islam, Christianity, new religions or popular culture. There are multiple levels of discourse going on all the time and they’re being used sometimes for their media impact, or their interest, as much as they are themselves driving actions.

RG: Yes, we make a mistake if we think that an organisation like Islamic State is a simple organisation with a single message that it’s always churning out. It’s actually quite a complicated, multi-tiered, multi-faceted organisation which knows – and which through experience has learnt – what works and what doesn’t work in different contexts. And, like all organisations, it promotes itself in appropriate ways to appropriate audiences.

DR: And, that people are driven naively by beliefs and ideologies: in fact it’s much more complicated and they are mutually creating . . .

RG: No, certainly. And we make a mistake if we think that all we need to do is really try and show these people what the truth is, and how mistaken they are, through forceful argumentation – that we’re going to convince them in some way. No: people believe things and belief, as we know, is a really complex set of factors which lead to an individual settling upon a particular doctrine which they believe is right for them. And belief in the providential nature of Islamic State is one such belief. It’s not simple. It’s actually extremely complicated and complex as a process. Just as complicated as any process of religious commitment.

DR: Rob Gleave thank you so much for taking part in our sophisticated media and propaganda machine at the Religious Studies Project.

RG: (Laughs) That’s alright.

DR: I’m afraid it’s time for us to look to the future, and the next panel, here at the conference. So thanks very much for taking part.

RG: Thanks very much for inviting me.

DR: You’re quite welcome.

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Angel Spirituality

1a7fd1627b3543072b5c994419e40076In Northern Europe today, many people are engaging with angels, and Tehri Utriainen has been researching them. What is angel spirituality, and who does it appeal to (hint: women)? As with many vernacular systems, it is both ad hoc and highly practical, with a strong focus on healing. She tells us how these practices challenge preconceptions about the relationship between new spiritualities and Christianity, and raise interesting questions about gender, and vernacular religion in supposedly post-Christian Europe.

For more of Tehri’s work on angels, see:

Healing Enchantment: How Does Angel Healing Work?
Utriainen, T. 2017 Spirit and Mind – Mental Health at the Intersection of Religion & Psychiatry. Basu, H., Littlewood, R. & Steinforth, A. (eds.). Berlin: Lit Verlag, p. 253-273 19 p.

Desire for Enchanted Bodies: The Case of Women Engaging in Angel Spirituality
Utriainen, T. 2016 Contemporary Encounters in Gender and Religion: European Perspectives. Gemzöe, L., Keinänen, M-L. & A. M. (eds.). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 175-193 19 p.

Listeners might also be interested in David’s interview with Ingvild Gilhus from three years ago, on the topic “Unruly Angels”.

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

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

Angel Spirituality

Podcast with Tehri Utriainen (5 June 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Utriainen_-_Angel_Spirituality_1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh today. I’m joined by Tehri Utriainen, from the University of Helsinki, where she is Professor in the Study of Religions. And today, we’re going to be talking about angels in kind-of popular spirituality, particularly in Finland, but hopefully also in a slightly larger context as well. So, first of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Tehri Utriainen (TU): Thank you so much David.

DR: Let’s start just with . . . .Tell us a little about these angel practices, angel spirituality. You know – who are we talking about, what are the practices? Just set it up for us.

TU: Ok. Well my context, of course, is Finland but, as you said, it is more wide – you can find it elsewhere. You can find it in the UK. There’s been studies done in the UK, the US, in Norway and in Estonia, for instance, recently. Whom are we talking about? We’re talking about women. This is really the most extremely women-dominated religiosity that you can imagine. Usually people say that: in grassroots religion the practitioners are 60% female; in holistic spiritualities (if you want to use that term ) it’s like around 80% – this was the Kendal Project numbers, for instance; and with angels the figures go much higher. They are over 90%, as far as my research is concerned. So we’re talking about women interested in angels.

DR: What kind of women? Are we talking about the same sort of women that we would expect to find in holistic spiritualities, for instance? You know, generally, from the Kendal Project, for instance, mostly . . . kind-of middle class, fairly well-educated, fairly well-off – these kinds of things?

TU: “Fairly well” women! Yes. Yes, more-or-less, we are. Well, when we go to Finland it’s perhaps a little bit different society from the UK. We like to think that we are more equal in the social way. We don’t have these social strata as much as you have here. But it’s a kind-of, you know . . . . We fool ourselves, of course, with these things, always. But it is middle class . . . I would say that it’s mostly lower to mid-middle class, but all middle classes. But very varied educational backgrounds. A lot of women who work in caring and education professions, for instance. These women are also interested in other practices, not only angels, and all sorts of holistic practices. Something that all my interviewees mentioned, really, was like Reiki. Reiki healing is one form of energy healing which is now so popular in all of the Western world, I guess. It comes from Japan, and through Hawaii, but it’s become popular all over. But these women with angels tend to be, I would say, a little bit more towards Christianity, because there is the central figure. But I see quite a variation with the people that I have interviewed. And I have made, also, a smallish survey and some of them consider themselves Lutheran – Lutheranity is our like home religion in Finland. But then, there is the other end who are kind-of completely disconnected from the church and have their background, for instance, in esotericism, theosophy, spiritualism, anthroposophy. But then, there is a third group of women who come from secular families and, at least, tell me that they don’t really have very much religious background at all. And they got into religion through this.

DR: What sort of religious make-up are we talking about in Finland, just for the benefit of our listeners? I mean here, obviously, we’re somewhere between 70-55%, depending on what part of the country you’re in.

TU: Like, Church of England or those big churches, or altogether?

DR: Yes, well, the sort-of state churches, yes. I mean, England’s sitting at about 65% and Scotland’s a little bit lower about 58%.

TU: Yes. So the numbers go down regularly all the time in Finland, at the moment. And last year’s survey gives us something like 72%, and the women a bit more than men. And then the next biggest church in Finland would be the Orthodox church, but that is a very low number of participants or members. (5:00) So we are a very Lutheran country, still, but the figures are going down.

DR: Part of the reason I asked that is that I have a kind of personal interest in this subject. Some people in my family are involved in this kind of stuff. My grandmother and my aunty – her youngest daughter – both do these  kind-of angel cards. Now my family is not a strongly religious family, but have become so over time. My granny is now in her early eighties and she converted to Anglicanism when my grandad died, a couple of decades ago . . .

TU: Yes

DR: . . . whereas my aunty converted to Catholicism because she married an Irishman. So they’re the two . . . they’re really the only two properly Christian members of the family. They’re different – you know, one’s Protestant, one’s Catholic – but they have these angel practices in common. Now, they’re a little bit secretive about actually what it is. The few things I’ve been picking up is that there are some cards . . . . But as much as I got was that they sort-of identified with particular figures, and these figures were associated with various qualities, and colours, and things like that. Could you fill us in, a little bit, about that kind of aspect of the practical side of it – what it involves?

TU: Sure. First of all I want to say that I’m pleased that now, through my research, you get the possibility that you can learn something about your family members!

DR: Yes.

TU: I’ve had several men tell me, “Now I understand my mother better!” “Now I understand my sister better!” Or something like this, you know? Because they kind-of get a little glimpse of it. And then the women tell something about it, but don’t open up the whole stuff, immediately. Yes, there are these practices and, the angel is a Christian figure, and we have all this Christian sort of mythology, and narrative, and image traditions on angels, the idea in Christianity is that angels are like Godly power and God gives us angels and angelic power when he wants to do [something]. [Whereas], this contemporary practice is much more practical for the women. It is practical religion: an everyday practical religion that uses several kinds of techniques and means. You mentioned cards – angel card reading is quite popular, and the first angel cards I met in Finland were cards coming from your country, in fact, or the US. Now there are also some indigenous Finnish angel card traditions, too. That goes a bit like Tarot card reading. You can either make a table of them, or you can just take one card for the day, or one card for a puzzling question that you have in your mind. And so, you read an enigmatic answer, just a word: the word might be like, “happiness”; the word might be, like, “balance”; or, you know, these kinds of things that you also might find in horoscopes. So that is one thing, but they also have their imagery. And, like you said, certain angels might be linked to certain colours, for instance, which might give this woman a kind of glance into her life. In the sense that when she learns – either though cards or through somebody – that her colour is linked to the colour green [for example], which would then, perhaps, be the colour of the Archangel Raphael, then, every time she’s drawn to green she gets a message. So, it could go like this. But then there are meditations, several kinds of angel meditations, often like a visual journey: you are led to a sacred garden where you meet your angel; you talk to your angel; you ask something; your angel gives you a symbol or a word, or something; you are led back from the meditation; and then you are there, either with yourself or a group of friends – angel minded friends. And you integrate this thing that you got, and you relate it to your life’s bigger or smaller things. And then, of course, this more-or-less . . . the thing that connects with this holistic milieu even more is the angel healing aspect. (10:00) There are angel healing courses, and you can learn to become a healer – a bit like a Reiki healer – who heals others or who heals yourself. The angel healing, as far as I know , is mostly used for what we might call emotional issues and emotional problems. And I think that this highlights the topic of emotions, and how important emotions are – perhaps particularly to women in the contemporary world – is extremely interesting because, then, it’s related to the high numbers of depression and emotion work in very many ways.

DR: Yes. Which also might . . . . I think there’s quite high rates of depression and suicide and stuff in some of the Northern European countries. But that trajectory of women and the  kind-of therapeutic culture is very, very common. You see that a lot in . . . . Well, you see it a lot in the holistic, mind-body-spirit  kind-of world, here. Particularly female, but you also see the same trajectory with men and also in the conspiracy theory world. I looked at this in my work, for instance, David Icke: his passage into conspiracy theory world was looking for alternative therapies to treat his arthritis. He ended up going to a medium who channelled messages to him.

TU: Yes. Mediumship is present here.

DR: But those discourses on healing, and on holistic healing as well – the idea that your emotions and your body are linked – are found right across that  kind-of cultic milieu, not only in the more overtly spiritual aspects of . . .

TU: Definitely. I think of one other notion that is very, very closely connected to emotions- another “e” word is energy: emotions and energy. And the way that you can sort-of manage them, or you can make use of them, but you can also sort-of control them – like you said, channelling or something. Emotions, in my materials, are often considered as one sort of type of energy, one type of energy that works a lot in the human world. And as energy it’s power and it can be used into good. But it can also be, sort of, if it’s like all loose, it can do bad things.

DR: Yes. And, when we were talking about the colours earlier on, that’s immediately what I thought of was the rays of the theosophical tradition – where the colours represent different frequencies of energy or different energies, you know. And that, by selecting a particular colour, you can encourage that particular emotion or energy. Which leads to my next question, which is: all of this stuff that you’ve been describing so far, from using cards for readings, healings, visualisation, the idea of correspondences of colours attracting particular energies, you know – even the use of cards themselves, and the association with therapeutic culture – this all seems taken exactly from 19th century esotericism, what we would call Western esotericism nowadays. Yet [it] has this Christian kind-of – I don’t want to say veneer – but it’s a Christian framing of those practices.

TU: Yes, well, there always was a kind of Christian esotericism as well. They have never been completely apart – even though, probably, some ruling churches and ruling theologies would like them apart – but there have been much more linkages. But I might also say that – particularly in the context of Finland perhaps, but maybe this applies even larger settings – esotericism earlier on used to be a bit elitist. It was not for everybody, for all the people in Finland, anyway, and openly, anyway. But now, what we see is something like the democratisation and popularisation of this esotericism, and bringing it openly in connection with Christianity.

DR: Yes.

TU: And this, of course, has to do with many things – like things that are marketed to us and how popular culture circulates. (15:00) But it also has to do with the grip of the church loosening: the church doesn’t have the normative power any more in people’s everyday lives. In Finland, for instance – perhaps here too, but in Finland – where the ruling church was the Lutheran Church, Lutheranity meant . . . . For those people who were not very religious or very pious, Lutheranity was mostly a normative system, saying what you do in public life, what you don’t do, but this is less so now.

DR: I wonder if it’s not only its normativity in the society, it’s also the normativity of the scholars in the categories that we’re looking at. I wonder if this stuff was always going on, but it was kind-of hidden from our view, because it wasn’t considered suitable for us to look at, and so on.

TU: For the scholars of religion?

DR: Yes.

TU: Yes: because it was not funded, and it was not taken seriously; because it was not the serious religion, it was the fringe stuff. And I have seen a lot, and I suppose a lot of people have seen it, that bigger money always goes to religion which is considered as cultural heritage stuff,  kind-of elevated, sublime thing, more-or-less. Whereas these hobby-level religions with their crazy knowledge systems . . .

DR: Yes. Well, there is a sense in which you get the impression that people think: “Well, we don’t really want to encourage this . . . “

TU: Yes

DR: “If we pay this too much attention it might be seen that we’re taking it seriously.”

TU: Yes. Exactly!

DR: So tell us, then, how did you get to looking at this stuff? What was your passage into this?

TU: My complete passage into this was that I was involved in a larger project, that was led by Professor Peter Nynäs in Abo Akademi university, which is a Swedish speaking university in Finland, in Turku. And I was lucky enough to jump on that project when it started. And the project was called Post-Secular Culture and the Changing Religious Landscape in Finland. And we wanted to look into the margins and outside fields from Lutheranism, and what was happening there. And we were several people and we had several case studies. We started to pick something that we were interested in, or something that somebody was already engaged with, or something, anyway, that could sort-of give us a good palette, a sort of mosaic-view to things that were happening. And since I was more-or-less kind-of a specialist, if you like, in women’s popular religion . . . . It was not my own idea at all, but we started to think about: what is it that happens in this type of religiosity today? One possible thing would have been, like, healing and Reiki and stuff. But then we decided that angels were, just at that time, becoming so popular in Finland that we thought, “that opens up a window, through which we can see some interesting things”. And so it happened. And some books came out and people got really interested in the angel stuff. And I had a lot of fun doing this for a couple of years. And still have, writing on it, fun in many ways. Not only in the hilarious way, but also that I had very nice fieldwork experiences and I learned very much about both the serious sides of religion and life, but also about the less serious sides of it.

DR: Tell us about how you went about the study, then. Was it predominantly kind-of ethnographic work?

TU: It was ethnographically oriented, multi-method stuff. I love working ethnographically, well. I went to . . . I collected . . . sort-of . . . just went to see what happened. And I took myself into those happenings and situations. Like, for instance, there was a yoga school, when I started my ethnography. In one yoga school they have their yearly “angel week”. So I went through that week and saw how the angels popped into the yoga classes! Which was a good start, in the sense that it brought me into meeting young people – mostly young people – who were interested in this. So I couldn’t work only with the idea that this is only middle-aged women, or women in their late-middle age and stuff. So I started with that and started to contact people. I used the snowball method to get interviews. I went for courses, I contacted people and said, “Can I come?” (20:00) And then there was this very popular Irish – I don’t know how popular she is here, but – woman who writes autobiographies and the books where she recounts her life with angels, Lorna Byrne, whose books, just then, became translated in Finnish and who paid visits to Finland. And all the visits were sold out, there were 1000 women with a handful of men who came there (hand-in-hand with their female friends ) to listen to how this Irish . . . contemporary Irish mystic tells how she sees the place full of angels and describes people’s angels. Well, I made a survey in one of her visits, wanting to know about the backgrounds of these women who came to listen to her, etc, etc. Then I sort-of followed the media reactions, I followed the church reactions. I did sort-of a multi-angle thing.

DR: So it was very much ethnography, then, in all of the senses it can be, so: sort-of qualitative interviewing, but participant observation and media discourse analysis as well.

TU: Yes and also the smallish survey – I had 263 answers, so that I could see the demographic things and stuff.

DR: And how did they take to you? I mean, how open about your research were you? And how interested . . . ?

TU: I was very open about my research. I was open even in the bigger settings. Particularly when I was distributing the questionnaire, of course, I told them what it was about. And I was open when I went to study an angel healer – that was the most participant part of it.

DR: Right.

TU: And well, they were . . . everybody was, at that time, so happy about this thing happening. And they probably considered me as a possible advocate for them, and taking the whole thing to the academy. I remember . . . may I tell you one nice interview situation where there was this woman who channelled angels?

DR: Yes.

TU: I knew that she channelled angels, and that was one of my reasons for contacting her. And she also wanted her husband to be in the interview, so I interviewed the two of them. Before we started the interview she said to me – we had a cup of coffee, we were at their home – she said to me: “What if my angel also wants to become interviewed?” – the angel that she channelled.

DR: Oh, so the angel was present, then?

TU: She said, “What if she comes?”

DR: Oh, what if? Yes.

TU: I said, “Well, I’m very happy of course . . . ” and I tried to make a joke. I said, “I probably don’t have the informed consent for the angel!” (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs)

TU: Because I wasn’t prepared. I had two copies, you know. I had one for the husband and one for her.

DR: It would be an interesting subject to come up at the ethics commission . . .

TU: Well what happened after some time of interview, maybe one hour – it was one of the longest interviews that I made – she says, “Now, I think she wants to come, my angel wants to come.” And I said, “OK.” It was  kind-of exciting, I have to admit.

DR: And did the angel contribute to the conversation?

TU: Yes! Then I have 40 minutes of interview with the angel in my tape.

DR: Oh fantastic!

TU: And after that the angel goes away, and the woman comes back, and we continue. And while the woman has a bit of difficulty – as her husband tells me – in coming back, resuming her own like mortal role, the husband gives me the explanation that, “Well it often is a bit difficult for her to come back after the angel has gone,” because there is this liminal period. Well, what I have there is a sub-chapter in a book that I’m going to publish – in Finnish, unfortunately. But I have one sub-chapter interview with an angel!

DR: Fantastic.

TU: But that is  kind-of a . . . that is interesting also, in the sense of: “What did the angel say, in the interview?” Well several things, but one important thing was that I had my small recorder on the table and the angel goes very close to the recorder and says, “And I want to say this to science, and please go and tell this to Abo Akademi of science!”

DR: (Laughs)

TU: So, it was a very intricate dynamics that was going on there. (25:00) Because was she making fun of me? Or was she really, like, making the angel meet science, not through just meeting the people, but mediating it. It was interesting. I haven’t really found a way to talk about this so far.

DR: What that suggests to me is that, you know . . . . The spirit guide is often . . . there’s a kind of yin/yang relationship, so they’re like the animus and the anima in Jungian psychology or, you know, the various sort of spirit animals are often the opposite gender. So, if she is existing in the modern, rational, secular – well, supposedly so – world, then her spirit companion is the opposite.

TU: Yes

DR: So, represents to her the spiritual world and that is one which is often set up against science: science as the disenchanted . . . you know, the “black iron prison”.

TU: Yes, that’s true.

DR: Whereas the spiritual world is the enchanted one and so, naturally, would be pitted against the rationalism represented by science.

TU: But there I had the two coming together, and the enchanted world coming directly to shout at the disenchanted world represented by the recorder.

DR: Yes. So the recorder is actually representing that as well, yes.

TU: The recorder is there as a hard fact there, and the angel goes into that hard machine.

DR: But happy to use science to make a point . . .

TU: Yes, but also . . .

DR: And capable of doing so . . .

TU: And very capable of doing so. Even considered that it was a small girl angel!

DR: Oh, ok!

TU: Six years old, or something like this. But, nevertheless, very skilful in that.

DR: So, for this woman, the angel was a child? That’s interesting.

TU: Yes, this was a woman in her 50s and the angel was a female child.

DR: That’s interesting. Because that’s not usually the case, is it?

TU: Ah, the angel asked me that!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: “Do you know . . . Can you guess why I appear as a small girl?” And the answer was . . . .Well, I was a bit silly – I offered the answer. I offered my guess and she took it. I don’t know, maybe I should have done something else, but I said, “Maybe it is because we are not afraid of children or small girls?” And she said, “Yes. The enormous power that I bring is kind-of less feared when . . . ”

DR: She was in her 50s , you said? Had they had children?

TU: They had a child together: a boy – early teens. And one of them – I don’t remember which one of them – had bigger children, too.

DR: Ah right, ok. But, generally speaking, the angel is a male figure.

TU: Often, in my material.

DR: And in my experience, as well. What is the appeal, then? Why is it the angel that’s at the centre of this, not fairies, or dragons, or Thor, or Spiderman?

TU: It is . . . . Well, some of these women have a lot of things going on with a lot of other spirits, as well. But some – I might say that those who consider themselves mostly as Lutheran – they don’t take other spirits as easily, but an angel is something that they allow in their lives. Well angels . . . I wouldn’t mind having a male angel in my life, considering how beautiful they are, how wonderful they are depicted!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: They come with their baby faces, but they have strong, wonderful wings and things. And I sometimes play with this idea. Because, you know, in Finland we have . . . like, we think about the mortal men, like the normal, ordinary men. We have a big number of engineers. Engineers are considered, in Finland – this is a bit jokingly said – but men [who are], like, reliable and practical, but not so good always in talking about emotions, with the women.

DR: (Laughs) Yes. I don’t think that’s unique to Finland, to be honest.

TU: Maybe. So these women sometimes even talked about their men who sometimes really were engineers. And they were, sort-of, not replacing these husbands with these male angels, but complementing the scene with this figure which had something male, something masculine in it – a protective sense, for instance, but which was also the perfect male, in the sense that he understood their emotions. Isn’t that good?

DR: Yes. It does make sense, absolutely.

TU: It does make sense. And yes, not all of them were male, but a lot of them were and it appeared that the Archangel Michael, who is the protector of soldiers, was pretty much popular.

DR: (30:00) Yes. There’s going to be a class in here shortly, so we should wrap up. There are so many other questions I could’ve asked. I literally have a page of them written down in front of me, but I’m afraid we’re out of time. Thanks so much for taking part in the Religious Studies Project. If you’re interested in Tehri’s work, do seek out her publications. And best of luck when the book comes out. I hope it comes out in English as well, later on.

TU: If you translate it!

DR: I’d have to learn Finnish first. We’ll see . . .

TU: There are articles in English. Plenty of them came out recently: some related to ritual studies; some related to ritual and healing; and some related to more to general aspects, various theoretical angles.

DR: Fantastic. And if you’re on the website, then the links below will guide you to them. But in the meantime, thanks for taking part.

TU: And thank you.

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Utriainen, Tehri 2017. “Angel Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/angel-spirituality/

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Millennialism and Violence?

Descriptions of the End Times are full of violent imagery, of mass destruction through earthquakes, tidal waves, fire and ice. These images are written deeply into our culture through the book of Revelation, but are by no means limited to the Christian imagination. Often, our idea of modern millennial groups is informed by images of violent confrontations between them and the state, for example at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, or of mass suicide, such as with Heaven’s Gate or the People’s Temple at Jonestown.

Are we right to connect millennialism and violence? Are these groups typical, or rare exceptions, magnified out of proportion by the lens of the media – and scholarship? How do we account for the popularity of millennialism outside of religious traditions, new, extreme or otherwise?

This audio/visual episode was produced in collaboration with CenSAMM, the Centre for the Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements.

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


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


Podcast with Eileen Barker, Moojan Momen, Joseph Webster and Tristan Sturm (22 May 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available CenSAMM conference – Millennialism and Violence 1.1.

David Robertson (DR): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. I’m here today, in the grounds of the Panacea Museum in sunny Bedford, for the inaugural CenSAMM conference on the subject of Millenarian Groups and Violence. I’m joined today by Moojan Momen, by Joseph Webster, by Eileen Barker and by Tristan Sturm. And we’re going to discuss the issues around millenarianism, millennialism and violence. And all of the talks from this conference have been streamed and there’ll be a link to that below. But just to get the ball rolling, I’m going to ask: what is it we’re talking about? I mean “millenarianism”, “millennialism”, “apocalypticism”: are these different terms? What do they mean? Joe, maybe you could get the ball rolling on that?

Joseph Webster (JW): OK, yes. It’s an interesting question. I’m not so sure that I have a clear answer, possibly because a clear answer doesn’t exist. I think these terms have been used for a very long time, interchangeably. Sometimes, that’s because of potentially sloppy scholarship on behalf of those who are using the terms. On the other hand, part of the answer might be that these terms – particularly millenarianism and millennialism – have been, to some extent, interchangeable. The OED – which isn’t the final word on these conversations but still, nevertheless – the OED does define these terms as synonyms. The way that millenarianism is used in anthropology – the discipline that I come from – tends to see millennialism as more distinctly Christian than millenarianism; millenarianism being treated as a broader term that has resonances with the Cargo Cult literature and the Ghost Dance literature. However, again, that’s not universally true. Some scholars within anthropology do use millennialism as a way to refer to Cargo Cults and the Ghost Dance. So, whilst I don’t think there’s any clear definitional answer, my assumption would be that the best way to proceed is how the groups themselves use these terms. And they don’t, actually, tend to use of either of those terms for themselves. So let’s take it from there.

Tristan Sturm (TS): I would add to that “apocalypticism”. And I think we can think about apocalypticism versus millennialism – which is the distinction I would use – as two sides of the same coin. The Apocalypse or apocalypticism, meaning unveiling, happens before the Millennium: 1000 years, or a period of time after which the world ends. So, I would understand it that way; I would teach that to my students. I would say apocalypticism is the events before the sort-of  Revelation – or the end of the world – and the Renewal is the Millennium. That’s how I would understand it. And I think, using apocalypticism versus millennialism is important in certain cases. Apocalypticism is useful, of course, for various secular movements who don’t believe in a Renewal, a new world, right? Whether that would come from climate change; Trumpism – potentially – for some individuals; and for others, equally, Barrack Obama, right? That doesn’t have, necessarily, a Christian or any religious overlay over it. We can still use the term apocalypticism – and I think many social theorists do – to talk about things like climate change and the severity of the series of events that would happen from that.

DR: We’re often, when we hear about apocalypticism, millennialism, we’re often hearing about these cults, these controversial new religious movements. Eileen, maybe you’d speak to this? Is there some necessary connection between new religious movements and apocalyptic millennial thinking?

Eileen Barker (EB): No.

DR: Then why is it so often connected in the public mind?

EB: Well, it’s quite frequent that millennial groups, or millenarian groups or apocalyptic groups will be termed cults. And cults, sort-of technically, usually means some kind of religious or non-religious movement that’s in tension with society in some ways. There’s a sort-of classic division between the cult and the sect, which are in tension with society and a denomination of the church, which aren’t. But, technically, that’s one thing. But just generally, in popular parlance, to say something is a cult means: “it’s a religion I don’t like”. And it’s not really very much more than that. (5:00) I mean, I often get asked: “Is it a real religion, a genuine religion, or is it a cult?” And you’ve just got to say, “Well, what do you mean by a cult?” and one man’s, or one woman’s cult is a another person’s religion. Nobody says, “I belong to a cult.” Not seriously. They might say it as a joke, or in self-defence. Now, some of these movements on which people put the label of cult are millenarian, but most of them are not. Well, I wouldn’t like to say how many are and how many aren’t, but the two don’t necessarily go together – except that it’s more likely that the millenarian groups are a sub-group of cult. But you get millenarianism in denominations and in church – if you’re just looking at the tension with society – so it goes either way. You’ve got to be terribly clear what you’re talking about. And sometimes such categories are useful, but quite often they just obscure.

DR: Indeed.

EB: So, say what you’re talking about!

Moojan Momen (MM): And I think we need to bear in mind that, even Christianity itself , when it first arose – if you read the Gospels – you’ll see there that they are talking about how Christianity is fulfilling prophecy. So Christianity is, therefore, a millenarian movement in Judaism and was probably regarded as a cult by other Jews. So, we’re talking about a history of religion developing gradually from being a cult, to being a sect, to being a religion.

DR: And how important is prophecy? Is this an essential aspect here?

EB: I think so, almost by definition. Because you’re expecting something to happen. So you have some kind of knowledge that’s come from somewhere. Now it might just be in your own little brain, but usually there’s somebody who says . . . or a book or something that can be read as saying . . . . So, there’s some sort of “saying” what’s going to happen in the future. It’s future-oriented.

DR: Yes. But it’s not entirely about the future?

EB: Oh no. No, I’m not saying that. It’s necessary but not sufficient.

DR: It’s a good in.

JW: Yes, I think that’s right. I think one of the key aspects to whether we’re talking about millenarian movements, or apocalyptic movements, or millennialism, is the way in which temporality and time are really central to what’s going on. And crucially, I think, the way in which parts of time, which we customarily think of as very distinct, actually end up collapsing into each other and becoming conflated. So: the present being seen as a very unique moment when prophecy is being fulfilled; when things that were said of the future are coming to pass right now; but also that the present is seen as deeply resonant with an ancient past. Look at the way in which the Christian groups, for instance, that are most dispensational – groups like the Brethren, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Baptist groups – certainly look at today’s age as morally bankrupt and immediately reach back into the Old Testament past for examples of the same: Sodom and Gomorrah, the days of Noah, the days of the Tower of Babel. And, immediately, what that does is it transforms the present into something that is not only future-oriented, but is deeply indebted to, and is seen as a replaying of ancient past Biblical events.

EB: Of course the Abrahamic faiths, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, have a linear view of history: that there’s a past, we’re in present and there is a future. And they’re promising something about the future. But we should remember that a lot of new religions, cults, sects, traditional religions, are cyclical. And they see time in this sort-of birth, death, rebirth etc. Now, sometimes it’s an upwards spiral. Sometimes you go through various ages. But they’re not just sort-of straight lineal like they are in the Abrahamic [faiths], which lend themselves more to apocalyptic visions because there’s something happening. But within Hinduism you can get different ages, which can be very different. And the New Age, indeed. There’s something very fundamental that’s changing in society, which is what’s expected in these kind of movements.

TS: I would agree, but I also think, prior to say the Enlightenment, prior to Hobbes or someone like that, you would see, I think, a cyclical idea within Christianity, still. (10:00) I’m taking this from Reinhart Koselleck and he says, you know, the ideas of the Apocalypse didn’t really emerge in the everyday life of Christians until, really, the period of the Enlightenment, with the idea of progress, and the Kantian idea that because the past is different, the future must also be different. And so we get this idea that the Apocalypse isn’t part of a cycle, a scaled-up everyday cycle of seasons, that we would see with a lot of individuals. So, I think there is a change actually happening around the end of the 16th century, where we’re moving even out of a Christian cyclicalism to a more linear idea of the future. And I would add to that that I think now the future is becoming more important. And it’s been studied I think, even across disciplines, it’s becoming this tag term, that we’re trying to theorise now. And I think here of Susan Harding, for example, who talks about “memories of the future”. And she talks about, you know, that the future is a kind of memory. We have an idea of the past and those are kind-of memories as well, outside of history. We’re selective about the memories that we want to bring to the present and give continuity to the way things are. In the same way, we do that with the future. We kind-of know how the future’s going to play out. We have a sort of selectivity of ideas. There are certain paths that we’re pretty sure are more likely to happen that others. And we go down those paths. And prophecy functions in a similar way. It tries to close off the way the future could go. It sort-of says, “Well, this is the likely space that the future will go.” And so it’s closing off of the future. And we have a kind of memory of the future. We re-member ideas from the future. And we all do this. We do this with our jobs, how we foresee our lives are going to go. And they more-or-less do take place the way we probably thought that they would, given a certain level of difference there. And so, I would say that about time. And I also . . . and there’s a book that I really like. It’s called “The Past is a Foreign Country” and he says that we’re selective about our pasts. But I would say that the future is also a foreign country where we’re selective about the future that we want to bring, to give meaning to our present. And, you know, St Augustine said this as well. He said that there’s no such thing as the past or the future. There’s only the present past, the present present, and the present future. And he’s referring to that kind of presentism, I think, that exists across religions and everyday life. And that’s really where we only exist.

DR: Well, I think an interesting and very important part of millennial thinking and prophetic thinking is that it places the individual right at this axis point of history. As you say, you know, it’s the memories of history: a narrative construction, leading to this point and you have various futures branching out. And something about apocalyptic and millennialism, when it becomes involved in violence particularly, is that sometimes it’s seen that in order for the future to go one way there has to be some sort of violent or cataclysmic change; which brings us to the issue of violence, then. Is there a necessary connection between millenarianism and violence? Or is that only in the popular imagination?

EB: Absolutely not.

JW: I couldn’t agree more. I see nothing within millenarianism that makes it essentially violent. And I think the other important point to make is that not only do we “other” millenarian groups, by often assuming that they are violent, but we normalise ourselves – the secular, the non-religious, the mainstream – as something that is somehow essentially non-violent. So we make cults and sects and millenarianism essentially violent and we make the mainstream somehow essentially non-violent. And I think both are completely false. The evidence just does not stack up.

MM: And, of course, we’re sitting here at the Panacea Society, which was a millenarian movement that was not at all violent, so . . . . And, in fact, probably the vast majority of millenarian movements are not violent. It requires a certain set of circumstances to lead a millenarian movement to violence. And the vast majority of them don’t have that set of circumstances.

TS: Can I add to that?

DR: Yes, absolutely.

TS: I guess I’m interested in the way we’re using the word “violence”, here. I think we’re talking about overt, coercive types of violence. But I think discourse or language can be violent as well. (15:00) I think certain other, “small v” forms of violence take place as well. And they take place outside of . . . they’re not exclusive or endemic to millennial movements, they happen in everyday life. I’m speaking here of a kind of power that we exact on all sorts of things. And millennial movements, apocalyptic movements are a different kind of normative discourse and they challenge the dominant normative discourses that Joe was just talking about, right? In a sense they’re kind-of doing a violence: they’re trying to change the way we think about the world. Our normative way that we think about the world is not the right way, it’s not the absolute truth. It’s truth because more people believe it than often the millennial and apocalyptic movements. That doesn’t mean there’s not a kind of violence that’s going on there: there is.

DR: Absolutely.

EB: I’d like to add that a lot of the movements are actually pacifist and they work hard for pacifism. And it’s very interesting that today, while this is being recorded – April 6th – the Jehovah’s Witnesses are – perhaps it’s already happened – being threatened with entire extinction from Russia, because they are absolutely non-violent. They’re in prison in places like South Korea because they’re conscientious objectors. They won’t kill. They’re prepared to be killed. They were killed in Auschwitz, for example. Unlike the Jews and the homosexuals and the Gypsies, who were going to suffer anyway, the Jehovah’s Witnesses could have said, “No, we’ll obey the state”, and they didn’t. They preferred to be killed rather than this.

DR: Mmm.

EB: Because they just refused to do certain things. And the group that you were talking about today, also tried to be pacifist. And so it’s not just that they’re not violent. They will work against sometimes. But of course, some are violent with a capital V.

MM: Yes, the group that I was talking about today was historically the Bábis of Iran. They were a precurser of what is today the Bahai faith. But in mid-19th century Iran they were a group that became very popular, spread very rapidly. And the leader of this group worked very hard to diffuse the violent possibilities, because he claimed to be the Mahdi – and people were expecting the Mahdi to come and lead an army to victory. So they were expecting a violent result from Mahdi coming, and the Báb worked very hard to diffuse that potential for violence. And, really, one of the main factors that eventually did lead to violence, as a result of this movement, was the fact that the Báb was removed from his ability to lead his followers. Because he was imprisoned in a fortress, right up in the northwest corner of the country, and therefore cut off from his followers and prevented from leading his followers in the way that he wanted to.

DR: Did you want to add something there, Joe?

JW: Well, this is an issue that we’ve been discussing throughout the day. I think, when we speak about violence, when we speak about the way in which pacifism within new religious movements is often ignored . . .

EB: Or, seen as dangerous and violent!

JW: Indeed. . . where the refusal to fight becomes a type of extremism. I think, connected to this, is the way in which, in some cases scholars, and in other cases political entities – governmental agents – try and explain away millenarian movements rather than explain them. And, I guess, by that I mean that they have a tendency to look for external causes of behaviour: explanations which, wholesale, refuse to countenance the possibility that the local native account – emerging from within the religious movement in question – might have something to contribute to an understanding of why that movement is doing what it’s doing; or in some cases, not doing what it’s not doing, for instance, fighting. So if we try, as scholars, to begin to break down the idea that religious movements are saying and doing one thing and on the other hand our job is to analyse them in ways that are alien to that movement and external to that movement; if we begin to break down that process of explanation, I think we might begin to have a more fertile understanding of what new religious movements are, or what millennial movements are. Because we can learn things from them in ways that very often we simply refuse to acknowledge.

DR: Absolutely. (20:00) And that’s something I talk about a lot, especially. . . . It’s part of the heritage of Religious Studies to be talking about beliefs, and particularly about deviant beliefs, and sometimes going as far as pathologising these kind of ways of viewing the world. But your work, I know, is talking about things that are very relevant to today: you mentioned Trump earlier on. And when these political movements, for instance, suddenly start to engage with other millenarian kind-of ideas, I think it shocks people when they actually realise, “ well, maybe this is more normal” than they perhaps realised.

TS: I think there’s a couple of things going on here, right? Let’s start with Trump. One of Trump’s main security advisers, Steve Bannon, has his own millennial perspective: something he calls the Fourth Turning. He gets this from a series of books on generations, which is a kind of secular apocalypse: that the world is getting bad, capitalism is being destroyed, traditional culture is being broken down, and he needs to take action to do something about that. In other ways, some millennial groups align themselves with political groups, right? And maybe their action is something as simple and normative as voting. It’s not really taking action. In fact, many of the groups that I study – Christian Zionists [for example] – are fatalistic. They’re pacifists, in the sense that they don’t actually take any kind of physical action, but they might vote. But we might even argue that doing nothing sometimes is still taking a side, right? So the groups that I study, the Pilgrims – the Christian Zionist programmes from the United States, going to Israel and Palestine – they’re not doing anything to contribute to the conflicts that I write about, directly. But indirectly they are, insofar as they support a tourism industry; they support a particular political ideology, both in Israel and America that might actually take physical violence, or take the form of physical violence. So, in a sense, they’re pacifists but they’re still involved, or part of the assemblage of violence, I would argue.

DR: So when violence does arise, then, what is difference? What happens there? What is the process by which a group minority or majority becomes violent? I mean, there are well-known cases, obviously: Waco seems to be the sort of paradigmatic account today, at the conference; but Heavens Gate as well; Jonestown. What is it that causes violence in these unusual cases?

EB: Well, they’re all different. Part of our job, as scholars, is to look at the particulars in order to try and compare them, in order to see the similarities and differences, and pull out some of the threads and similarities. But there aren’t a certain number of similarities, and the other things are different: there are groups; there are categories; there are clusters; bundles of things that seem to go together; and the sort of tension that Joe was talking about earlier between the internal reasons and the external reasons – and Stuart Wright had a paper, today, which talked about this – and the importance of seeing the interaction between the two. And you can’t predict by doing one or the other: it’s seeing how the two react on each other. And these can lead to spirals of what criminologists call “deviance amplification”: each side does something that’s slightly bad in the other side’s view and gives the other side permission to be slightly worse. And so it grows. . . and then – wham! And Waco is an example of that. But Waco is very, very unusual, thank goodness! There are cases where you can see this writ large – and they’re easy to see – and therefore we focus on them, because they give us a kind of template, or an idea, against which we can measure the other movements which are not like that. And I think it’s very important that we keep remembering that they’re not like that, and that we look at the other ones and take those into our calculation, as well. I think that’s important. I think the reason why Waco – or perhaps another example would be Aum Shinrikyo – becomes paradigmatic is because, there is some sense in which we’ve already come to the study of Millenarian movements having decided that they are somehow profoundly different to religions at large. And therefore, by a process of scholarly selection by us, we simply focus on those cases which fit the paradigm. (25:00) This is the classic case of “normal science”: that we simply look for evidence which fits pre-existing paradigms and conveniently – or, in some cases, very inconveniently – ignore all the other counter examples; and the theories – or, in some cases, prejudices – that we have of these groups are wrongly reinforced. And another consequence of this is, as Eileen says: many of the groups that are committed to non-violence – or don’t even feel the need to commit themselves to non-violence because they are so inherently non-violent that that commitment doesn’t need to made – that those groups are simply ignored. Many people don’t focus on those groups because they simply don’t fit the prejudices that we seem to have within the scholarship.

EB: I think we have to make the distinction between the violence that is done to a group and violence that the group does. And nearly all the violence is done – again with a capital V – is done to their own members. Some are done to people that they know, personally, who they don’t like. And very, very few are done to strangers: Aum Shinrikyo is an example, but one of the very few; the Manson family is another one. But, mostly, the harm is internal rather than externally directed. Most of them expect that God, or something, will happen: the Apocalypse or Armageddon will happen. Now, they might have to be the midwife – and that’s another quite interesting question that we haven’t touched on yet, is: what happens when prophecy fails, when they expect this great big change? But I think it’s important to remember that very, very few go around killing people. That tends to be the traditional major religions – the churches and the denominations – who’ve got the money and the armies. Now, of course, it might be different if they get hold of sarin gas or something, but this happened very much . . . .

DR: This ties into what you were saying before, about the importance . . . . We have to generalise, to some degree, to make cross-comparisons, but we have to remain aware of the important differences all the time. And, a lot of the time, these groups that we’re comparing – the actual violence that we’re talking about is very, very different. And you also have cases like Heaven’s Gate, where there’s very little evidence of coercion there. I mean, if you watch the exit videos that the members shot, for instance, they’re going quite happily into that situation with their eyes fully open. It’s only from our external point of view that it can be described as violence at all – largely because of going into it, or looking at it, with this kind of brainwashing mentality that earlier discourses on new religions bought into, which is very much discredited now.

EB: And they were only harming themselves.

DR: Exactly

EB: And Joe ought to jump down on me immediately, because they didn’t see themselves as harming . . . .

JW: Of course!

EB: They saw themselves as being ‘transitionised”, or whatever the word was?

JW: Going to the level above the human, TELAH. Yes, I think that’s a really interesting point: that what he have here is – to bring it back to your question about failed prophecy, and this does link to violence . . . . Whether or not we can genuinely point to groups like Heaven’s Gate; or classic historical case studies like the Millerites; or Festinger’s famous book about cognitive dissonance, using the Seekers – even if we leave violence in the equation, or if we take it out – there is still the enduring question about: does prophecy for these groups ever fail at all?

EB: Oh, it does!

JW: Well see, I’m not so sure about that. When I think about Heaven’s Gate I think about the fact that they ended their lives and – as far as we’re aware, as far as they’re aware – made a successful journey to where they were going. The same, I think, can be said with the Seekers and Mrs Keech: the idea that the prophecy did not fail, the flood didn’t fail to arrive, it wasn’t a failure, it was them successfully spreading enough light to call the floods off. The Seventh Day Adventists did not explain away a failure of Millerite prophecy. It seems to me that Ellen White simply realised that Miller’s prophecy was correct but that the revolution began in heaven, not on earth. So, I’m intrigued to hear your pushback on that. In what cases does prophecy really fail?

EB: Well there are some groups that have said, “Oops, we got it wrong!” (30:00) I can’t remember his name. The man who – it was May sometime about 4 or 5 years ago – Radio something . . .

All: Harold Camping

JW: Family Radio

EB: Now, he said . . .

DR: After a couple of events, yes!

EB: And, at that time, he said “God got it wrong”, according a newspaper headline!

DR: Which is one of the techniques mentioned in Festinger’s books, actually: that the transmission was garbled and – reception issues.

EB: You can get the reception wrong; you can have it happening in the spirit world – like with Joanna Southcott and lots of others; you can have people saying, “Well, because we did this, we stopped the terrible thing happening”; or you can say, “Because they didn’t do this, God didn’t come yet. We weren’t ready. We didn’t listen to the Messiah, telling us what to do.” There are a whole lot of different ways out. But there are those that . . . . There was a chap – again, I can’t remember, I want to say Garland – he was a Chinese chap in America. And he said, “I’ll come out and apologise if nothing’s happened.” And he came out and apologised. This was about ten years ago. He was Chinese, or he was Oriental of some kind.

DR: Well, hopefully, one of the listeners can tell us who it is in the comments.

EB: I’m sure they will. And provide other examples.

DR: I hope they do.

TS: I want to add to this conversation about “small v” versus “big V” violence. I think, one way in which small v violence takes place is . . . Harold Camping is a good example. A lot of people – thousands of people – sold their houses, they went into debt; they expected this to happen. That had a tremendous amount of violence on their families and their lives. They moved into forests, they bought bunkers. This is a form of violence, right? I think another form of violence, that wasn’t really talked about in the conference, is spatial violence: the way that these groups imagine spaces in particular ways; homogenised spaces; map spaces; understand whole groups of people in homogenised ways and treat them in certain ways. And some of these groups are aligned with state power. Sometimes the state see them as a threat, and disciplines them with large V Violence. And sometimes they align themselves with the state: with large V Violence; by their voting for them; by their interests. We’re seeing this at the moment with Donald Trump – he’s doing all sorts of violence to homosexuals, to women’s rights over their body, these sorts of things – aligning themselves with larger Christian movements like Christian Zionists, like pre-millennial dispensationalist, right. . . that are doing violence to all sorts of other people within the electorate. And also, in terms of foreign policy, the way that Americans understand Muslims, the war in Iraq, right? These are all contributing factors. I think maybe the mistake, then, is to look at just the millennial movement. You have to see the effects that they have outside of their movement, right? Their social effects. Look at Marxism, for example. This is a good example . . . . Or another point, maybe, I want to make is the difference between belief and practice. So, we have textual beliefs – we have written documents, for a lot of these groups – and then we have the way people actually act, which are two different things. You know, would someone say that Stalin was a true Communist – a true Marxist – who murdered millions of people? Is that an example? Marxism is a form of millennialism: it’s clearly interpreted and was influenced by Jewish and Christian thought, in the way that there is a kind of . . . . Capitalism kind-of reaches a point where it can’t abide, it fails, and then we have a kind of proletariat millennialism afterwards. So the practice and belief is also a discussion that we need to have, within these discussions.

DR: Unfortunately, I’m going to have to do small v violence to the conversation and to return to the subject of time! We have been talking about this all day. We could continue to talk about it all evening, and we will be talking about it again, tomorrow. For the viewer and listener I urge you to check out the millennialism, on new religious movements, on violence and these kind of issues. Other than that, I would like to thank all of our participants for taking part. And thanks for watching.


Citation Info:, Barker, Eileen, Moojan Momen, Joseph Webster, Tristam Strum. 2017. “Millennialism and Violence?” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 18 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/millennialism-and-violence/

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

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

Yoga in Museums

Yoga, in its modern form, should be of great interest to scholars of religion. While it certainly has roots in Vedic culture, the vast majority of Western practitioners do not see it as “religious”, but rather to do with health or “well-being”. Yoga’s status as religious has been in court, but nevertheless it continues to be practised in business, schools and, as Bruce Sullivan tells us, museums.

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

Sociology of Religion – and Religious Studies?

“You got your sociology of religion in my religious studies!” “You got religious studies in my sociology of religion!” – DELICIOUS

What makes the sociology of religion and Religious Studies distinct from each other – if anything? Paul-Francois Tremlett, Titus Hjelm and David Robertson discuss what the two approaches have in common, and how they differ. Importantly, they consider how they might learn from each other. Does the sociology of religion over-rely on surveys, or could RS benefit from such large-scale data? Is Religious Studies overly-concerned with theory and definitions, or could sociology benefit from a more critically-nuanced approach? Why is it that sociologists seem to have the ear of policy-makers when RS scholars do not?

This episode is the sixth in a series of seven entitled “New Directions in the Sociology of Religion”, co-produced with SOCREL to celebrate their 40th anniversary.

Be sure to check out the other podcasts in this series, such as ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan,  ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie, ‘Researching Radicalisation‘ with Matthew Francis, and ‘Religion, youth, and Intergenerationality‘ with Naomi Thompson.

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

 

An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion

What is the sociology of religion? What are its particular concerns, dominant themes and defining methodologies? Where did it begin, and how has it evolved? This interview with Grace Davie introduces this important and historically influential approach to the study of religion.

In conversation with David G Robertson, Professor Davie – herself a highly respected theorist of religious change – discuss the four tasks of the sociology of religion; some early sociologists and their relationship to the social changes of their time; modernity, secularisation and a more recent social shift, the Internet; and how Europe may be the exception in the modern world, rather than the model by which all other states will necessarily proceed. They conclude by reminding listeners that we must always keep our theories foremost in our thinking, because they are as socially and historically contextual as the data we use them to interpret.

The Changing Nature of Religion, or our podcasts on Emile Durkheim, Claude Levi-Strauss, Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture, Marxist Approaches, Bricolage and more…

RSP subscribers get a 30% discount on “Implicit Religion”!

Now published in collaboration with the Religious Studies Project, Implicit Religion was founded by Edward Bailey† in 1998 and formerly the Journal of the Centre for the Study of Implicit Religion and Contemporary Spirituality.

Subscribers to the RSP receive a 30% discount on subscriptions. Click here to access the journal’s subscription page and enter the code: DISCOUNT30

Exciting new directions for Implicit Religion:

This international journal offers a platform for scholarship that challenges the traditional boundary between religion and non-religion and the tacit assumptions underlying this distinction. It invites contributions from a critical perspective on various cultural formations that are usually excluded from religion by the gatekeeping practices of the general public, practitioners, the law, and even some scholars of religion. Taking a broad scope, Implicit Religion showcases analyses of material from the mundane to the extraordinary, but always with critical questions in mind such as: why is this data boundary-challenging? what do such marginal cases tell us about boundary management and category formation with respect to religion? and what interests are being served through acts of inclusion and exclusion?

Futures Found Wanting

In her recent book on confession and witchcraft in early modern France, French Studies scholar Virginia Krause argues that early modern demonology was a ‘science of the night’. The activities of the Devil, and of the witches who served him, occurred in the darkest hours, ‘when the shadows hide his shadow’ (2015, 49). Their influence was felt, but their crimes were hidden. For the period’s witch-hunting demonologists, ‘trying to understand witchcraft was like peering into the darkness of an impenetrable night’ (ibid. 55). To compensate for this visual obfuscation, several strategies were developed for gathering evidence of the witch’s occult acts. The ‘auricular regime’ of confession itself was the most prominent, creating a new epistemic framework within which testimony became seen as the guarantor of truth. Through this and other methods old and new, the demonologist came to believe he could at least perceive—if not necessarily pierce—the darkness that veiled demonological truths.

Krause’s work is distant in historical and geographical focus from David Robertson’s own, which explores the discursive function of the UFO in modern millennial conspiracist cultures. Both, however, share an attentiveness to the construction of socioreligious threats, and the epistemic strategies by which these constructions are realised. Figured as discursive objects, both the witch and the UFO exceeded (or were thought to exceed) the epistemic capacities of contemporary knowledge, necessitating the creation of new forms of knowing. Robertson explores such new forms both in terms of their epistemic strategies and their discursive function. Regarding the former, he analyses the role of epistemic capital (in millennial conspiracisms and as a concept more broadly) in creating counter-epistemic economies that seek to encapsulate and exceed normative epistemic frameworks, suturing traditional and scientific knowledge to alternative knowledges: experience, channelling, and the painstaking synthesis of data and connection. Regarding the latter, he identifies discourses of ‘prevention’ as a strategy of alleviating cognitive dissonance when prophecies fail. In these discourses, prophetic failures are coded not as the fault of the prophet or believers, but as the result of malevolent agencies blocking the advent of utopia. In doing so, it relocates blame from the self, and the community aligned with that self, and places it onto an Other, for which epistemic capital provides the means of discernment and delineation.

Such delineated qualities often mimic those of traditional, theological demons. Indeed, the idea that contemporary conspiracism’s malevolent forces might replicate features of Christian demonology is not itself a novel point. Robertson himself notes this, as have Michael Barkun (2013) and Christopher Partridge (2005). Millennial conspiracism thus comes to share much with more traditional Christian theodicies. Evil becomes its problem to solve. But while those theodicies might appeal to the unknowability of divine will or the demonically-induced fallenness of creation to explain the persistence of worldly evil, conspiracism (also) situates it in the machinations of shadowy networks of agents, more and less supernatural. It is here, more than anywhere else, that conspiracism truly meets demonology. It is simply not enough to name the source of evil or even to understand its nature. It must be located, codified, and catalogued. Its agents must be identified. Whether the means are the confessional regimes of the old scientia daemonis or the experiential, channelled, or synthesised strategies of millennial conspiracism, the conspiracy’s demonological truths—whether literal or metaphoric—must be unveiled.

As a discursive strategy of Othering, Robertson argues conspiracy is specific in that it constructs Others as both active malevolences and as originating from within society itself. The witch, often marginalised by class and gender, might seem an odd comparison here, but the crime of witchcraft was one of treason as much as heresy. Their messages encrypted in demonic languages and their actions concealed in deepest darkness, witches were discursively constructed as walking unseen among the good folk of Christendom, secretly turning society to demoniac ends. The witch was thus a part of Christendom, but its deviant part, the part that needed to be located and excised so that the Body might heal and world order could assume its proper path. For those who have spent time with conspiracist cultures, millennialist or otherwise, this image (albeit perhaps modernised, secularised, or overtly de-Christianised) will be a familiar one. Conspirators—whether human, alien, demonic, or some combination or hybridisation of the three—operate discursively to signal a world potentially being led astray. Their crimes are hidden, but their influence is felt.

Conspiracists, who often construct themselves as heretics and mavericks free of the constraints of socioreligious orthodoxy, would likely abhor any comparison to the witch-hunting demonologists of early modernity. Today’s hoarders of epistemic capital are rarely the rich or powerful. They work (or would like to think they work) at the societal margins, circulating in counter-economies of secrets and disregarded data. By contrast, the early modern demonologists were ultimately agents of regnant order. While they strove (at least theoretically) to maintain a world order constructed as under threat, millennial conspiracists strive to uncover those forces preventing its radical transformation. Both, however, depict a profound anxiety about the trajectory of their society and the desire to rectify it. They share that disorienting sense of crisis, exacerbated by events real and imagined, seen as driving many apocalyptic, millennialist and conspiracist narratives, and the identities of the communities that narrate and are narrated by them (O’Leary 1994). Their anxieties are formulated around perceived failures of historical progression. In millennial conspiracism and early modern demonology alike looms the threat of an unwilled and unwanted tomorrow. When prophecy fails, or the present simply becomes written as ‘the failure of the future’—to use Robyn Weigman’s formulation of apocalypse (2000, 807)—contingency measures become necessary, and the construction of malevolent counter-agencies can become a matter of cognitive and communal survival. Behind both conspiracism and demonology lies the ascription of agency to the shifts in a society, not just in the concatenation of disparate specificities—individuals, movements, organisations, events—but in gestalt. Society as a whole, and the future that society seemed to promise, is seen as failing to reach its fulfilment.

But the processes of societal transformation are often opaque. Thus the means for their detection requires the development of a new ‘science of the night,’ one which could piece the darkness veiling demonological truths. Robertson’s work lays bare many of the methods of this new scientia daemonis. Its means of accruing epistemic capital shares traits with both its historical forebears and its contemporary cousins. Such family resemblances point to another of Robertson’s observations: the lines drawn between ‘new’ religions and their older—more codified, more established, (ergo) more legitimate—kindred. When a Christian activist sits in prayer and the Holy Spirit reveals the demonic forces structuring the US Democratic Party—to use an example Sean McCloud reports on (2015, 32)—the line between traditional revelation and the channelled knowledge of a David Icke or Wilcock becomes at best nebulous. Both are inadmissible in the courts of dominant epistemic strategies, but they nonetheless draw on the same sources of knowledge and strategies of knowing to identify, codify, comprehend, and thereby either conquer or circumvent those worldly and otherworldly forces striving secretly in the service of futures found wanting.

References

  • Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Second Edition (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2013).
  • Virginia Krause, Demonology, Witchcraft, and Confession in Early Modern France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  • Sean McCloud, American Possessions: Battling Demons in the Contemporary United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
  • Stephen D. O’Leary, Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  • Christopher Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West, Volume 2: Alternative Spiritualities, Sacralization, Popular Culture, and Occulture (London and New York: Continuum, 2005).
  • Robyn Weigman, ‘Feminism’s Apocalyptic Futures,’ New Literary History 31:4 (2000), 805–825.

UFOs, Conspiracy Theories… and Religion?

Area 51, Ancient Aliens, endemic child abuse at the BBC, Reptilians, Watergate, 9/11, renegade preachers rising from the dead, the grassy knoll, The Da Vinci Code, Hydra, climate change, the moon landings, Satanic Ritual Abuse, The X Files… the popular imagination is rife with stories of secret plans and cover-ups, agencies working behind the scenes, grand plans carried without the knowledge of the unsuspecting masses, lies, deceit, and an elect few who know ‘the truth’. Sometimes, stories which at one time seemed far-fetched receive widespread acceptance and become the hegemonically accepted norm. At others, they remain the preserve of relatively small groups of “nutters”, and become designated as “conspiracy theories” by those who have the power to do so. What might this popular discursive trope be able to tell us about contemporary Western society? How might scholars go about studying it, particularly when they themselves are frequently implicated as working against the truth by “insiders”? And what might all of this have to do with the contemporary academic study of religion?

9781474253222To discuss this tantalizing subject, we are joined today by a scholar who will be no stranger to regular listeners of the Religious Studies Project, Dr David Robertson. The interview begins with David’s own journey to this research field, before considering some basic questions such as “what is a conspiracy theory?” David then lays out the historical context of the parallel development of contemporary millennial and conspiracist discourse, and his case studies – Whitley Streiber, David Icke, David Wilcock, and their audiences. Discussion then turns to the meat of Robertson’s theoretical conclusions concerning epistemic capital, popular epistemic strategies, the UFO as a discursive object connecting two fields of discourse, power, and prophecy. The interview concludes with discussion of the relevance of this field of study to Religious Studies more broadly, and some challenging admonitions to for the discipline.

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

Music, Marketing and Megachurches

During the 20th century, the media has exploded to include radio, television and most recently and perhaps influentially, the Internet. Music has been a big part of this new emerging “mediapolois”, moving from a mostly stand-alone medium, to part of a marketing matrix of  people, places and industries. Today, music’s meaning is more often part of a branded ecosystem, not limited to entertainment, but part of the experience of everyday life, including religion. Evangelical churches and, increasingly, New Religious Movements use music as part of a branding exercise that helps to transform them from local congregations into a transnational enterprise.

To discuss music, marketing and contemporary religion, David Robertson sat down with Dr. Tom Wagner, an ethnomusicologist, percussionist and lecturer at the Reid School of Music in Edinburgh. They discuss the long history of the use of music in promoting evangelical congregations, and the transformation that came with the development of recording and broadcast technologies. Tom describes his research and fieldwork with Hillsong, an evangelical church movement with an international reach who use music both in their worship and their branding. Later, they discuss the use of music in Scientology, to create and maintain a particular aesthetic, and how Tom sees this research developing in the future.

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

Minority Religions and the Law

cult” and “sect” uncritically. Nevertheless, outside of academia, the language of “cults” continues to be used, and particularly through the law, has an affect on the lives of real people. Susan J. Palmer joins David G. Robertson to discuss the intersection between new or minority religions and the law. Professor Palmer describes how she came to study these minority groups, and to realise that they were often being misrepresented, or at least unduly targeted. Discussion ranges from Scientology in France to the Branch Davidians and the Nuwaubians in the US, with issues of secularity, race and “brainwashing” come to the fore. A fascinating overview for anyone interested in how the discourse on “religion” operates in the contemporary world.

Religion and the Law (Winnifred F. Sullivan), Studying “Cults” (Eileen Barker), and Is Britain still a Christian country? (Linda Woodhead), and feature essays by Daniel SillimanEssi Mäkelä, and Kevin Whitesides. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, fake fir trees, playing cards, and more!

Podcasts

Religion and its Publics (Part 2)

In the last feature of the “semester” we’re continuing with the video format. A couple of months ago the RSP attended the Open University’s conference on Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives. I went about asking the pundits a couple of questions about Religion and its Publics. This week we have the second question (link for Part 1 in the sidebar).  Read more

Spirituality

To discuss ‘spirituality’, we are joined by Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe. We discuss the genealogy of ‘spirituality’, and its contemporary significance, with particular reference to the New Age movement. The second half focuses on how spirituality may trouble the religion / secular distinction, and its implications for the critical study of religion.

‘Spirituality’ is a term with enormous currency in contemporary discourse on religion, but despite this, it remains under-theorised. Little consideration is given to its development, and most scholarly work simply dismisses ‘spirituality’ as shallow and commercialised. Boaz Huss argues that “the vehement and disparaging criticism of contemporary spirituality is stimulated by the threat that this new cultural category poses to entrenched scholarly assumptions and research practices” (2014, 58).

To discuss ‘spirituality’, we are joined by Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe. We discuss the genealogy of ‘spirituality’, and its contemporary significance, with particular reference to the New Age movement. The second half focuses on how spirituality may trouble the religion / secular distinction, and its implications for the critical study of religion.

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

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

Spirituality

Podcast with Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe (11 June 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Huss and Sutcliffe – Spirituality 1.1

David Robertson (DR): Spirituality is a term with enormous currency in contemporary discourse in religion but, despite this, it remains under-theorised. Little consideration is given to its development, and most scholarly work simply dismisses it as shallow and commercialised. To discuss spirituality I’m joined today by Boaz Huss, a professor of Jewish thought at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and also by Steve Sutcliffe who is senior lecturer in Religious Studies, here at the University of Edinburgh, where we’re speaking today. So, we thought we could maybe start, then, by setting out . . . well, setting out the stall. Tell us about spirituality, and particularly the way it emerges as an identifier during the New Age and the post-war period.

Steven Sutcliffe (SS): Ok. Well I could start and say something about that. But it’s very good to have Boaz here to join in the discussion. So, welcome to Boaz.

Boaz Huss (BH): It’s good to be here.

SS: I came across spirituality, and became pretty-much convinced of its significance as a cultural category, when I was researching the so-called New Age movement. And in the work that I did on that, I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a very strong movement that we could call New Age. There was a term New Age, which was mobilised in a whole series of networks, but, increasingly, what scholars were calling the New Age movement after the 1970s was better understood as a network of people whose preferred term was becoming spirituality, sometimes qualified by “mind-body-spirit spirituality”, and sometimes “holistic spirituality”. Often just “spirituality”. And that this kind of shift seems to have been happening particularly, I would say, since after the 1960s, or the post-war period, is important as well. But of course there’s also a complicated and lengthy genealogy of the term emerging, and a number of different groups as well. So it’s a very complex but lively cultural category about which we still know very little, I think.

DR: And what are some of the sort-of themes and motifs that we can pick out in this discourse of spirituality, and the various other terms?

SS: Well I think, I mean, Boaz will have his own ideas here. For me, I’ve been interested in how it is often a kind of signifier for a form of what we might call vitalism, in some ways. There’s something more bubbling away in social life, and beyond social life, that the old category of religion, for users, doesn’t adequately tackle. Spirituality – a bit more nebulous, a bit more amorphous, but actually does quite a good job, through that nebulosity and amorphousness, in pointing to something that people feel. You know: “There’s a something more going on here. Things have got more life to them. They’ve got more energy. There’s something else going on.” So that’s been the route which I’ve been interested in, in the term. Why people are using it to point to this feeling that there’s something more going on in life.

DR: And maybe we can turn to Boaz, then. How does this . . . ? There’s a shift there. When spirituality starts to get picked up by the New Age movement, it changes its meaning. It’s not a new term, but it takes on a new set of connotations.

BH: Yes, yes definitely. I think there is . . . . Very similar to Steven, I was very much impressed by the prominent presence of spirituality as a term in contemporary New Age movements when I was working on in Israel – contemporary Kabbalistic movements – and, actually, also amongst my friends. It’s a term that’s very much alive and very easily used by people to define themselves. Now what, for me, was striking – maybe because I’m a historian and I started my work working on evil in Judaism and religions in the early modern period – is this really significant shift of meaning in spirituality. Because spirituality is a very old term, actually. It is a Biblical term, very prominent, signifying spirit in contrast to the body, to materiality, corporeality. And it played a very important role in medieval Christian theology, in translation – also in Jewish theology. And it seemed to me that the use today is very different and, actually, I think the two main centres of the use of the term in early modern period changed (5:00). One is the juxtaposition of spirituality to corporeality and materiality, which was very central. And today people use the term spiritual applying it to corporeal, material things: yoga, sports, martial arts, healing etc. And the other thing was the detachment from religion. Because spirituality was considered the core of religion, related, part of religion, and really the core of Christianity and religion. And today, I think the term that caught my attention was “spiritual but not religious”. Which . . . I think people tend to dismiss it. Well a lot of people use it, but some scholars, at least, dismiss this notion as they’re saying it. But actually they are religious or secular. But I think we should take it very seriously that people choose to define secularity in opposition to a term that spirituality came from and that is religious.

DR: Except, yes, as well as the “spiritual but not religious”, you are seeing very recently – in the last ten years or so – the churches making a kind-of reclaiming of that. And you’ll see “spiritual AND religious” pop up. So it’s not so much that . . . . I mean, from the point of view of these religious practitioners, spirituality is still the ur-concept with religion being part of that. So it’s shifting in different ways, even in the last few years.

SS: Well it’s a very user-friendly concept, isn’t it? And it’s also a multi-functional concept, I think. So the user-friendliness is that it’s got a warmth and a vitality to it, I think, that religion doesn’t have. And religion in popular parlance has been demonised, in a sense – stereotyped as this oppressive, institutional force. You’ll often hear the term “institutional religion” which is juxtaposed to “free-floating spirituality” or something like that. So it’s a kind of attractive word for people. But it’s also multi-functional, I think. It does various things at different levels for different audiences. And I think, for the folks who might have been involved in New Age and related networks, it fulfils that function of a fairly free-wheeling, personal, networked approach and discourse. But it’s also been picked up – and this is interesting as well, I think – it’s also been picked up in sort-of Government policy, educational health circles. So we have, here in the UK – as you probably know, Boaz – we’ve got spiritual chaplains now, in NHS hospitals. We have spirituality as a kind of perennial all-encompassing term in interfaith circles. We have various think-tank’s exploring the meaning of spirituality in cultural life. And so it’s a term . . . these uses of the term are not all doing the same thing. Sometimes they’re camouflaging various positions behind them. They’re ways of putting new pawns on the chess board to advance rather concealed causes. And other times they’re much more grass-roots and naive in their use.

DR: And that reminds me of the way that interfaith is often used, with a rather ecumenical agenda behind it: “We might as well team up in order to promote religion in the public sphere.” And spirituality is another way of doing that, of course. Because if you accept that, “OK, maybe religions don’t have a place, but spirituality does.” And so, “Who shall we get to speak for spirituality? Let’s get, you know, somebody from the Church of England.”

SS: Yes. Indeed

BH: I think it shows the cultural power of this term, that it’s adopted. Now what’s interesting . . . you know the people related to churches don’t go back to, I don’t know, early spiritual practices. They adopt spirituality from its modern, unchurched use and it comes together. It enters the churches with yoga, with Tai Chi classes, with other New Age . . . . So I see that as part of, really, the language of New Age and spirituality, also entering new places. And you said, also, of course medicine, government and business.

SS: Yes – business, indeed.

BH: Business is very strong. So I think that shows really, somehow, the relevance: it’s a good term for people today – if not, they wouldn’t use it. There’s something very, I think, serious and significant about it. (10:00) And I think the tendency of some scholars to dismiss it – it’s really, you know, not looking at something very interesting that’s going on around us.

SS: Yes. Yes. That might be an opportunity, some of the scholars . . . two books come to mind that have been very critical, often in a slightly polemical way about this, which is Kimberley Lau’s book: New Age Capitalism, and then, also, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book: Selling Spirituality. Now, both of those books have got a similar purpose. Kimberley Lau works out quite a sophisticated account of ideology, and how spirituality is an ideology, in her book – but she’s still got this kind of criticism. In the case of Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book, it seems to be more about a slightly nostalgic reach back to authentic, good-old religion, as opposed to this nasty, sort-of . . .

BH: Capitalist . . .

SS: Yes. However, what I was going to say is, if it is a multi-functional term, there is one angle of it that it seems to me in which the Carrette and King critique is correct: in businesses, as we just mentioned, there can be a sense in which spirituality is a way of producing a happier work force, a more comfortable workforce, a more productive workforce. But that doesn’t seem to me to be the whole of the picture. So that was what I was saying about how it’s a multifunctional kind of discourse. It’s layered or stacked with different kinds of uses or goals.

DR: I think an important aspect of it, to take in parallel with that sort-of neoliberal critique, is the Jungian kind of psychological idea. And those aren’t separate, but you see the growth of psychological Jungian ideas in the business sphere, particularly because it’s well, you know . . . . The Marxist critique is that by treating the mental health issues that arise because of neoliberalism, then it allows neoliberalism to continue as an economic model. But of course, that’s also the foundational model of large parts of the New Age movement.

SS: Right.

DR: You know – the sense of the self, and the purpose of life being to develop the self. Which, as well, maybe points to this blurring between the idea of the spirit as something not the body, but simultaneously also the body.

SS: Yes, that reminds me a bit of Paul Heelas’ work on self-spirituality or self-religion that he was developing a while ago, where- I mean he’s been critiqued by Matthew Wood and others, for having a rather asocial model of the self – which I think is right. But nevertheless he was pointing, in some of his early work, to one of these telephone marketing companies who were working on the idea that if you were in touch with your “true whole self” when you were at work, you would get better business results in your cold-calling of people. If you were doing that, and were “present in yourself”, that would have an impact.

DR: You would have authenticity.

SS: Yes. And you would be “at cause” and not “at effect”, which is what happens if you are not in touch with yourself – you are just acted upon. So there seems to be something about being in touch with the self that is an important part of the ideology of spirituality – whether that comes through practice is another thing.

BH: I want to go back to this point of neoliberalism, because I think it’s important. I think, definitely, the recognition that there is a connection is true. I think it merges neoliberal ideology, and post-modern culture, and post-capitalistic global economics: they and spirituality all emerge at the same period, and sometimes there’s an overlap between the social compositions of the people who are involved. But I think the fact that there are similarities, and there is interconnection between, doesn’t mean that spirituality is a disguised neoliberal ideology. It can be also a response, sometimes, to neoliberalism. So, from that point of view, I think the connection is definitely there. As I said, we can look at spirituality as a kind of post-modern, new cultural formation, and New Age also, but that doesn’t mean that it identifies with other post-modern cultural formations. And, again sometimes it is. I think, on the one hand, you can show points where it strengthens neoliberal ideology, but also other groups – there are so many varieties of spiritualties and New Age – that are a response and trying to undermine it. But still, again, I’ve seen it’s something very relevant. And, you know, we live in a post-modern, late-capitalistic society. The cultural formations that we use – and I think all of us are part of them, to a certain degree – you know, they are those which are relevant to our society, and of course they are interconnected (15:00). But this nostalgia that you mentioned, I think it’s not relevant to criticise spirituality. I don’t see my role as a scholar to give marks or grade religious and spiritual phenomena, but to try to understand the function.

SS: Yes.

DR: Because of course, I mean, the churches in the early twentieth century or earlier – kind-of in the earlier economic systems with the nation state and these kind of things – there are examples of institutional religion working with the state, and working against the state, then. And there are examples of New Age and spirituality working with the state and against the state now. It’s no different. But, of course, if you’re looking at it from a nostalgic point of view, with this modern organisation of the state, and you’re looking for things that look like the church you grew up in, then maybe you are going to come to that conclusion.

SS: In terms of that counter-cultural impetus, I think Paul Heelas talks about what he most recently calls New Age Spiritualties of Life. He says something like “a gentle counter-flow” or something like that. He’s kind-of not going full on for the kind of counter-cultural stances of the ’60s, but he’s saying there is some kind of modest critique here, in the stuff he’s looking at. And sort-of connected with that, with the data for the Kendal project – that Spiritual Revolution book that Paul did with Linda Woodhead. And there they did quite a lot of valuable data – I mean, now it’s a little bit old perhaps, the early 2000s it was – but there was clearly a correlation between the folks participating in the holistic milieu in Kendal and environmental, ecological, Green values. And there was also a correlation, when asked in the various questionnaires and interviews, with left-of-centre political attitudes as well. So I go some way towards saying, here’s one small body of evidence that bears out what you’re saying, Boaz. It’s not only a question of being subsumed by neoliberal positions. There is agency here in a more political – small p . . . .

DR: But this language is also taken up wholesale amongst the sort of New Right, and the conspiracy milieu that I look at. I mean, when I was down looking at . . . . Ok, so most of the case studies I looked at were left-leaning. But certainly in the right wing – it’s a little bit blurred because we tend to focus on US data, and of course US data strongly identifies as Christian. But if you look at the right outside of the US, there’s a strong association with spirituality. And you can find, for example, Red Ice Radio podcast, on a TV show out of Sweden, started off doing very much kind of New Age and healing kind of stuff and have gradually moved over until they’re now just completely right-wing, pagan-identifying. But you can see in the space of a few years there, as they make that shift, you still have language of spirituality and “higher purpose” and all these kind of things, focus on health practices – all of these things are still there, so that discourse is not restricted to the left at all.

BH: A few years ago we had a project on the politics of the New Age. Actually, my interest in spirituality started from that project. And, again, it became very clear first of all that, in difference to the self-declaration of many spiritualist and New Agers, “We are not interested in politics”, they are involved in politics. But you can find the combination, you can find New Age practices and use of spiritual terminology in the extreme right, religious, national right in Israel and, of course – what you would more expect – in the left and Green movements, etc. So it really is applied . . . and I think, again, showing that it’s a key cultural concept that can be used by very different political and ideological agendas. And I think it’s interesting. Actually, I think the use is quite similar. It’s not that they just use it and each one gives it a completely different . . . . They integrate it in very different ideologies, but the practices themselves: you go and do some kind of violent political act in the evening, and in the morning you grow organic vegetables and do meditation practices etc., and connect with the nature around you!

SS: (Laughs) OK. Yes!

DR: And lots of food! (20:00) You know, like eating pro-biotic and vegetarian diets and all this stuff. It’s right across the board.

BH: It’s very interesting, the use of the New Age terminology to justify, for instance, violence. That’s a natural, you know, part of the . . . . But the extreme right movements will say revenge is something very basic. And because of that, we can do revenge acts. Because that’s part of going back to nature, connecting with the earth. It’s amazing to see this combination!

SS: And so that raises the question: it sounds to me as though you’re saying that spirituality, as a concept, has travelled very well in Israel for example, in non-Christian contexts. Because it’s often seemed to me that there are some kind of affinities with a kind of a post-Christian culture and a spirituality discourse. But it seems clear, even if that’s the case, that it can acculturate elsewhere quite happily. So there’s no problem with secular Jews, religious Jews, all kinds of folk picking up the term in an Israeli context?

BH: Yes. I think it would be all across the board. But I think you will find some kind of American / Western connection. Even in ultra. Because many of the ultra-Orthodox movements, many of the people, of the members, are actually returning to religion. So, actually, they’ve had that grounding or acquaintance. But it’s so available and present here, that even if you grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family you know, it’s available, the practices and terminology are there. So they are easily reached. And I believe it’s similar in, at least in Westernised and middle-class populations also in other non-Christina cultures: Turkey, Indonesia, Morocco, you will find, again, language of spiritual and definitely the New Age practices.

SS: Yes.

BH: Very interesting to look at . . .

DR: And in Asia as well. In Japan and China, particularly.

BH: Japan, definitely, yes.

DR: Yes. Which you actually mentioned something about this, Boaz, in one of the papers I read, about how this was essentially swapping a dualistic Western model for an Eastern monistic model. And I wonder if actually that would indicate that this would have quite a lot of currency in Asian countries? Because it kind of maps much better than the imported model of religion, and spirituality.

BH: Yes, I’m not sure how it goes in all this. It’s the pizza effect. You know of coming . . . receiving back Indian meditation practices after they were Westernised, and then incorporating them back. Similar things with Kabbalah for instance, with New Kabbalah and then integrated. So there is some kind of coming back, but I think I would be hesitant to say that there’s something . . . . Definitely many practices were borrowed from non-Christian cultures, but to say that they’re more open to them because of that . . . . I would put more emphasis on the globalisation. This is part of that.

DR: I haven’t made myself very clear. What I mean is that the model of talking about spirituality, rather than talking about religion and the secular, makes more sense in an Asian country where they were never things that were separate to start with.

SS: Oh I see, right, right.

DR: So if you were going to import a Western construct, then spirituality works better than religion and the secular. Does that make sense?

SS: Yes. That’s clearer, yes. But I mean, so what is it? It starts the same . . . . I mean, I’m not convinced that there is one discourse. There are several different layered and stacked discourses, but they probably share something in common. What is it they share in common? And why are these discourses so attractive? What are they doing? What kind of empowerment, or status or capital are they giving people? Do you have any developed thoughts on this, Boaz? What’s the attraction?

BH: Not today! (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs) Not right now, yes!

SS: (Laughs) But this is the million-dollar question, I think, yes.

BH: But again, I think some of the emphasis of the New Age practices and this concept spirituality are really in line with contemporary ideologies, ways of living. As I suggested, and as you just said, the strict separation between religious and secular had its role in modernity. And it seems it doesn’t have that role (now) (25:00). And people can use something new – which, again, I don’t want to say it’s a new way of going back to religion, because I think it’s something different. But, really, having a position which they don’t have to define as secular or religious, and making those borders between them, and then really giving what is called spiritual meaning for body practices, for instance, seems positive, in a positive way, regarding the body – giving it a value that wasn’t there, I think, in Christian medieval early modern culture. Maybe the globalisation tendency . . . I think of all of us, of tourism, of cultural consumption etc. – so you can pick from many different cultures, all those practices – this is something the concept of spirituality enables, which the concept of religion didn’t. You know, you couldn’t go to church and practice yoga. It was uncomfortable, I assume, in the early twentieth century! Today, you can go to church and have a yoga practice. And, exactly as you said, this is justified using the term spirituality.

DR: And I suspect, as well, that modern communications technology means that although people would have been doing heterodox practices – sometimes practices from outside but sometimes folk kind of things – the degree to which we were aware that other people were doing them was limited. You know, you’d have to know somebody pretty well to know that they were also making charms or doing healings or these kind of things. Whereas now we know that everywhere . . . It’s vernacular and there are all sorts of heterodox things going on in every Christian group. But when we didn’t have those ways of communicating, and all the knowledge was mandated from the church authorities, that wasn’t the impression you would have got. So it’s not only changed the degree to which these are available, it’s changed the fact that we now know that it’s been available and everybody does it. And it’s fine.

BH: The idea of self, for instance: it’s so central to our culture. Criticise it or not, we are not in a communal culture any more. And so the self – I think that’s a wonderful expression. And Paul has hit the nail, you know, with this “self-spirituality”. It’s not God spirituality and it’s not . . . the self is in the centre. Self-improvement, self-progress: that’s the core value of our society. I think, in a way, we’re all part of it. I think similar things happen in the university. What happens now . The whole concept of knowledge as something practical, something that improves our life. That’s the most important thing. And that’s exactly what spirituality offers people: a way of having something practical that doesn’t take too much of your time – which, again, it’s not necessarily negative.

SS: Is it a bit like having your cake and eating it? You know that phrase where you kind-of can have the best of both worlds. You can – at the personal, embodied and relational level – you can have something more than is vouchsafed by a purely secular materialist regime. But one does not have to go the whole hog. One does not have to go the whole way into a more developed, or fully blown, practice or identification.

BH: Yes, I think it’s a bit too critical for my part . . .

SS: (Laughs).

BH: Because, again, I . .

SS: Well, I mean it descriptively rather than . . .

DR: (Laughs).

BH: You want your cake and not! (Laughs).

SS: Well, that’s true!

BH: I don’t know. The difference between psychoanalysis and contemporary clinical psychology, which is treatment: I think it’s the same direction, and it’s not necessarily bad. You don’t have the time, or you don’t have the justification of, you know, digging into your past for hours on the sofa. That’s something that was ok for certain people, of course – quite limited to people in the early mid-twentieth century! Now, today, people want to go to a session that will improve their mental or psychological (wellbeing), going for three or four times, having some time. And I think that’s also what spirituality . . . . You don’t have to read the whole Hindu literature in order to do yoga! (Laughs).

DR: Yes. Well, you know, in which case that fits neoliberalism quite well! Because we’re getting to increasing productivity and minimalising work (30:00).

SS: (Laughs).

BH: Yes, that’s part of it. But it’s not necessarily the same.

SS: OK. Well in that case, what about the question of secularisation? Because in one or two of your writings you have suggested that there is some kind of push back here, or a reversing of the conditions of secularisation, or of the qualifications, shall we say, of the conditions of secularisation. But in fact what you’ve just said would be used by strong secularisation theorists to say, “Well, that’s exactly it! This is just a kind-of boost of secular conditions.”

BH: No I think secularisation and religionisation . . . . We’re speaking about secularisation, but actually the interesting term – one interesting term – is “religionisation”

SS: Religionisation.

BH: Because the assumption that there is a process of . . . . Secularisation assumes that before, there was a state of religion, of religiosity, and then secularisation came and started, you know, going forth and maybe now coming back. I see the process of secularisation working in tandem with the process of religionisation. These are two concepts that started in Western Europe in early-modern/ modern period and were applied to other cultures. It wasn’t there before – neither religion, nor secularity. And then we had this process. And I think now we have a different process. It’s not that it’s going back. It’s still in play, of course. Religionisation is looking at things and saying, “Ahh! This is a religion.” Or looking at myself and saying, “I’m religious, so I’m behaving in such and such. . . . That’s what I believe.” That’s the process of religionisation. Or secularisation – the same thing: “This is secular, so it’s supposed to behave like secular. . . . I’m secular so there are certain things that I do, and that I don’t do.” And I think that’s not relevant to many people today, who say, “No I’m not secular, I’m not religious, it’s not relevant, I’m spiritual.”

SS: Yes. Right.

BH: And then they start doing things which are really . . . and look – kind-of things like yoga and going to church sometimes, and swimming. And saying, “Wow, I have a spiritual experience now!” And all those new things. So I don’t see it as part of secularisation. It’s something basically different.

SS: So is it the case that just as people like Timothy Fitzgerald have argued that the religious and the secular are kind-of co-constitutive, so secularisation and religionisation are kind-of mutually generating each other? And what we have here is now a different kind of situation that transcends that, or has moved beyond those kinds of concerns?

BH: Yes. I think that spirituality actually corroborates and strengthens the position of Fitzgerald and McCutcheon and Talal Asad, because it shows that not only in non-Western cultures or pre-modern cultures, there was no concept of religion and secular – also in our society, Western society, they knew it. It didn’t disappear, this concept. I don’t think they will disappear. But there is a new option which is neither secular nor religion. So I think that strengthens their point that it’s not something universal.

DR: Yes. Well. Any last thoughts on the sort-of . . . the situation in the field, in our field? How do we move forward? How do we start to deal with this within Religious Studies?

SS: Good question. Well I don’t know about you, Boaz, and I know a bit about David, but teaching this material is an interesting challenge. And here, in many ways, this is a whole topic in itself. David has written an edited work on this. But we tend to still . . . . In Religious studies, or the Study of Religions, we’re very much constrained by a very hegemonic model of religion as World Religions: these big institutional blocks of things that are almost like corporate institutions that are said to have these kinds of identities. And that really does constrain how you can insert this material into the curriculum to teach to students. Because I do think as well as theorising this material, and researching it, we need to be able to try and educate the next generation of students who will come and take our place so that we can get more work done on this. I mean it’s not just an idle contemporary issue. One would say that they – whole worlds of what gets called the occult, the esoteric – have been very, very important in the last couple of hundred years at least, but are scarcely researched at all (35:00). They scarcely get the resources to work with them that, you know, Judaism, the various Christianities, the various Judaisms get. So, it’s a real question about how we can bring to people’s attention the significance of this stuff, working with such conservative paradigms of religion – which themselves are the product of the very conditions you’re describing.

DR: Religionisation!

SS: I mean, I teach a course called “New Spiritualties” and I’ve been beavering away at this course for years. I don’t know if you do any teaching in this line, about this material, where you are, Boaz?

BH: Yes. I’m in a different position, because I’m in a department of Jewish Studies. But in a way, it’s similar, because it’s also very conservative. I think not many departments of Jewish thought would . . . But, definitely, I give courses on New age Kabbalah, contemporary Kabbalah, sometimes even wider New Age ( topics) – although that’s stepping the line, because it’s not even Jewish!

All: (Laugh).

BH: But definitely, I think – and it’s good that we are doing it. When I started, I received very negative reactions from some of my colleagues who really sneered at: “You’re not doing serious scholarship! What happened Boaz? You were a serious scholar. How can you leave manuscripts and go and study . . . !” But I think, slowly – that was twenty years ago – I think our work is . . . . I think it’s changing, and people are much more in academia now, open to working, and recognising the significance of the (audio unclear) or what you’re calling spirituality or New age or religiosity.

SS: Well I do think the key there, in terms of the academic capital of the project, is to connect the debates with larger debates about religion and modernity, religion and secularisation, consumption, political ideologies, economics, all that kind of thing. And, I think, when we start to do that we find more colleagues taking us seriously, both in the field of various studies of religion, but outside of that in cultural studies and Sociology. Do you think that’s the case, David? Because you’ve always connected these things to wider processes.

DR: Yes. And partly the problem is that there also hasn’t been a lot of work on this kind of material from within the Critical Religion . . . you know, that approach. That’s tended to focus more on historical genealogy. And we’re now starting to get things like Aaron Hughes’ work on Islam, for instance. But there still needs to be a focussed project looking at the emergence of New Age spirituality and other alternative religious movements, within the critical history of the idea of religion and the category of religion. But absolutely, yes, that’s how we need to establish the importance of what we’re doing. And that will also help us to move . . . as so much of that work is done from an insider perspective, unfortunately. It’s a whole other conversation, but it’s worth mentioning. But yes, absolutely, I agree with what both of you are saying. We just need to get enough of a foothold in the academy that we can actually do this work. And I think, with hindsight, it will be clear what the importance of it was.

SS: Right.

BH: I think it’s also a question of connecting. Because I think there’s more work done than you’re aware of. Sometimes I meet someone: “Wow! You’re doing the same! I didn’t know that you were working on that!” So there’s a group working on new religiosities in Turkey – very interesting. Quite a large group. Many of them Francophones – so that maybe where there’s less connection. There’s also the question of different academic cultures. But there are people working on it in Morocco, and I think that’s fascinating. And I ‘m very happy to be here to meet you! I think those connections between scholars who are working, sometimes, in corners – that’s also very important.

DR: Because, of course, there are no institutes where we can do this work! That’s the problem!

SS: No, I think that’s right. I mean Jean-Francois Mayer, the Swiss scholar, put me onto a paper, through his Relgioscope Foundation, about new spiritualties in Azerbaijan, for example. Very interesting paper. And then as you say, there’s Morocco, there’s Turkey, but there’s also new spiritualties in sort-of Catholic contexts like Mexico, as well. So you’re probably right.

BH: South America – there’s a lot going on there.

SS: Sure. So here’s . . . It’s a question of connecting, and a question of resources to do the connecting as well, of course. Because, in my view, academia doesn’t free-float. It’s always dependent on money and institutional support.

DR: OK. Well that’s a good point to end on, I think. It’s relatively positive, but realistic! (40:00)

All: (Laugh).

DR: So – thanks to you, Boaz, and to Steve, for this very stimulating conversation. Thank you both.

BH: Thank you, David.

SS: Thank you.

Citation Info: Huss, Boaz, Steven Sutcliffe and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 11 June 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/spirituality/

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Muslim Superheroes

A. Dave Lewis joins us again for a discussion of representations of Muslims in superhero comics. We talk about some positive representations, like Kamala Khan, Marvel’s new Ms Marvel, and some less-than-positive portrayals, like Frank Millar’s Holy Terror! We talk about American comics as a product of the immigrant experience, and how comics made by Muslims play with the conventions of the genre. And we talk about how to use these texts in the classroom, as a powerful tool for exploring representation, media and religion. And what is the “wormhole sacred”?

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

Muslim Superheroes

Podcast with A. David Lewis (28 May 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Lewis- Muslim Superheroes 1.1

David Robertson (DR): Well, it’s my pleasure to welcome A. Dave Lewis to the podcast once again. Dave is one of the few, if not the only one of our regular guests to be both an interviewer and an interviewee. Well I might be the only other one, strangely enough! But it’s certainly . . . it’s been a little while since he’s been on. So it’s my pleasure to welcome him back. So thanks, once again, for joining us!

David Lewis (DL): Alright, ok. It’s good to be here!

DR: Good. Well this time we are going to be talking about Muslim superheroes, partly jumping off your recent edited volume with Martin Lund, called Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam and Representation. Obviously, there’s quite a lot for us to unpack here. So maybe we could start with you just telling us a little bit about why you decided to focus specifically on Muslim superheroes?

DL: Actually it comes from an earlier collection that I did, called Graven Images, with Christine Hoff Kraemer And when we did that collection, we had a number of contributors give us perspectives from religion all over the world, and historically. But to be frank we, as the editors even, found the Islam section to be light. And given that that was growing as a focus of my own studies, given that that was growing as focus in my own personal life, it’s something that I, in part, wanted to remedy. Now there had been some work out there done, particularly on Islam and comics as a medium in general, but not on this hallmark genre. So I approached Martin and said that I was interested in this – not just the dearth of research on Muslim superheroes, but also the increasing number of Muslim superheroes that we were steadily finding in mainstream US comics. And from there we reached out, and put a call for papers out. And I also tapped a few people that we knew had similar interests. And we tried to synthesise the limited information that was out there, in this volume, as well as inject it with new ways in which we could explore the topic.

DR: Great. And as a topic I think there’s a number of really interesting aspects that make Islam and superhero comic, specifically, a particularly rich field for us to explore. We can talk about those in a little bit more depth, then. For a lot of people – and I’m a comic fan so I ‘m playing devil’s advocate a bit here – the idea of the superhero seems to be particularly tied to an American context. It seems to have a lot to do with the American dream of America’s role in the world. So, looking at the way that particularly the American comics have dealt with Muslims is particularly fraught with interesting data.

DL: Oh, hugely. And not only is it fraught with . . . particularly in a post-September 11 context, or even earlier than that, during the hostage crisis of the ’80s . . . . But, really, so much of this engagement has been passed over and forgotten, not necessarily chronicled. I reached back as far as I could, looking for not the earliest Arab character in superhero comics, nor the earliest Muslim character across all genres, but I was really trying to pinpoint: when did this genre in its infancy begin to engage other religions, other than ostensibly the Christian norm? And I became, actually, rather enamoured with what I found, which was a character in 1944, going back just a few years into the first superhero boom (5:00), called Kismet, Man of Fate . And not only did I start studying this character I found that I took sort-of a shine to him and wanted to start writing further adventures from him, since he had fallen into the public domain.

DR: It would be quite interesting to look and see if there were similar portrayals of Muslim characters in the British wartime comics. There was a lot of those still around when I was a kid, you know, telling these true life World War Two stories. Because, of course, at that time a lot of soldiers would have come into contact with Muslim soldiers, especially those serving in North Africa and places like that.

DL: Absolutely.

DR: Much different contexts than we have now.

DL: Without question. Although I won’t say it’s surprising that it would have entered the British consciousness far earlier than the US popular consciousness, given as you said, you know, colonial engagement and, more widely speaking, the theatre of battle. Whereas, for the US, we have been very slow to become aware of Islamic culture, despite it being not only important in the 20th century – being important historically, classically, without the classic philosophers. But no, it would not surprise me in the least to see more Muslim representation – both good and bad, you know, both fair and then highly stereotypical – in British war genre comics than in US superhero comics, as a latecomer.

DR: Indeed. Of course, superhero comics as a genre – I don’t need to tell you that there’s many other genres of comics of course – but the superhero genre, in particular, seems to be tied to the American immigrant experience, doesn’t it? So, I mean, that’s another resonance.

DL: Very much so. In fact I think it was Danny Fingeroth’s book, Disguised as Clark Kent, where he points out that the American superhero genre really is largely reflective of the immigrant experience. And you can just look at the pantheon of superheroes. You either have aliens of very different varieties, Atlantis like Aquaman, Kryptonians like Superman, Amazonians like Wonder Woman, or you have the dispossessed, sort of orphans in either the literal or the figurative sense- that’s where you get your Batman, your Captain America, your Spider-Man. But the genre – particularly when it was formed in the late 30s – early 40s, here in the US – was absolutely about congealing into a shared American experience, rather than there being one quintessential, pure American experience. And that has gotten, many times, lost in the history of the genre. I think if there’s been any time to best recapture it, it might be now – as superheroes are moving from comics as a fringe medium, largely speaking, to cinematic blockbusters. And people who may never have been caught dead with a comic book are now shelling out however-many-bucks to go see them live on the big screen.

DR: Yes. That’s something which has changed dramatically, even in the time I’ve known you and we’ve been talking about comics. It’s gone from a very fringe interest, as you say, into the biggest genre in cinema right now. And perhaps that’s why we’re seeing a number of very high profile Muslim characters coming into mainstream comics at the moment. Now Ms Marvel is an obvious example. Can we talk about her a little bit, maybe?

DL: Absolutely Kamala Khan Ms Marvel: born and bred Jersey girl, but with a Pakistani background, who is a fan of superheroes – who’s actually a fan fiction writer – finds that she is incredibly imbued with the power of a polymorph, meaning that she can change the size and shape of her body at will (10:00). She has been become, really, the frontline character – I don’t like using the word frontline – maybe the banner character for Muslims, in superhero comics. She certainly caught on with a large section of readers, especially with Marvel attempting this diversity initiative. The problem with her, if there is any problem – it’s a terrific character, and written by a terrific team with G. Willow Wilson – if there’s any problem with the character it’s that most people just know her for being Muslim.

DR: Right, yes.

DL: The character doesn’t come off as often in discussions where religion is not the focus, or where diversity is not the focus. And I only say that’s a problem because that does give her an upper limit, a ceiling of sorts. We can talk about, and generalise, what Captain America does, right, or what Ironman does, or even what Superman does, but we don’t yet have – as popular as Ms Marvel is, or as Simon Baz the new Green Lantern is, or any number of characters – we don’t yet have that Muslim character who is transcending their Muslim-ness, necessarily, into storylines so compelling and so iconic that audiences are keeping up with them. Maybe Ms Marvel is starting to tilt that way. She is a member of The Avengers and The Champions now. But I think the only context a lay person would know about her in, is in this religious and diversity-centred context.

DR: Right. And she reminds me, actually, a lot of Miles Morales. I think there’s a few clear parallels. I mean, Miles Morales is the black Superman

DL: Spider-Man.

DR: Spider-Man, yes, sorry. The black Spider-Man, introduced around the same time in Marvel.

DL: Black and Latino, he’s actually . . .

DR: That’s right. Yes, he is. He is similar to Ms Marvel, has become a hugely popular character, is also a superhero fan, interestingly. I hadn’t thought of that until you mentioned it, just now. But similarly, he has had difficulty crossing . . . has had some success crossing into the mainstream, but is still almost always talked about in terms of his ethnicity, rather than simply his being a compelling character. But that might be starting to change now. I don’t know if you know that when they made “Spider-Man: Homecoming” they were talking about whether they should use Miles Morales, because they were facing the fact that they had to relaunch this character for the third time. And it was decided against it, because: “a black superhero film can’t make any money at the box office, right?”

DL: That’s changed. I think that’s been disproven pretty solidly, recently.

DR: Yes, I think we’ve completely thrown that out the window! But there is now a Miles Morales animated movie coming out.

DL: That’s true and, just going back to “Spiderman: Homecoming” for one minute – not to stray too far from the subject of comics and religion – I do want to point out that they did cast Donald Glover in that movie in a small part, but his part there is actually playing the uncle of Miles Morales. So we haven’t been introduced to his character yet, but they have laid down the groundwork for integrating his character.

DR: Absolutely.

DL: But I think you put your finger on one of the problems there, David, which is that these characters are always becoming known as a subset of another character. I mentioned Simon Baz, he’s now the Muslim Green Lantern; we mentioned Miles Morales, he is the Black or Latino Spider-Man.

DR: We also had the female Thor as well, recently.

DG: Female Thor; there’s the Batman of Paris, a Muslim Batman of Paris, Nightrunner, And even Ms Marvel is inheriting a mantel from the former Ms Marvel, now Captain Marvel – who’s going to get her own movie. So we haven’t quite gotten to the point where we have a Muslim character whose core identity, partly, is Muslim but also is forging a superhero narrative in their own right (15:00). And the reason I keep coming back to superheroes – I feel like this is worth saying: you are absolutely right, there are any number of genres out there when it comes to comics. Almost as limitless as any other medium. However, A: comics are often judged in terms of superheroes, and B: as you mentioned earlier, superheroes are largely an American-made product, or an American-originating product. They’re the closest we have to what Richard Reynolds calls a Modern Mythology. So the reason I keep returning to the superhero is, basically, this has to be the testing space for whatever religious theory or criticism we’re bringing to this medium. Is comics superheroes and superheroes comics? No, absolutely not. And I would never limit either one in that way. But if we can’t talk about the superhero comic in terms of the subject that interests us here, religion and representation, then that challenge is going to keep presenting itself. Until it can be brought into this space it will always be penultimate.

DR: I had a thought, actually, when I was reading the book. You mentioned that . . . most of the examples we’ve given today, in fact, except for the Green Lantern, are Marvel characters. And what you’re saying there, about modern mythology, I think is the reason why. DC characters are harder to represent as having a religion, because DC write more mythologically. DC characters are essentially gods. So it’s much harder to represent religion, ethnicity, gender issues and these kinds of things, because they relate to humans. But the classic argument is that while DC are gods, Marvel are always telling metaphors for being a teenager. So Marvel characters are much better suited to these kinds of discussions about identity and representation, because that is the Marvel style.

DL: And I think that’s true historically, right? DC has been around longer as a unified company. And Batman and Superman reach back further than the Fantastic Four, or Spiderman or the X- Men. But I think there is the opportunity to challenge that just the same. I mean, we could focus on Superman’s alien-ness instead of his godliness. Or we could focus on The Flash – he really is your most mortal and your most human of heroes but he gets elevated to this god-like Hermes status, at least in popular consumption. So I don’t think that either company has to be locked into these positions. And there have been a number of times that Marvel has experimented with sort-of the more godly figure with its characters. But, yes, I think if you had to do a fast summary of each one, you get Marvel with its very human heroes being raised to an elevated status that they may or may not be able to handle, and DC superheroes being sort-of gods – but more gods with feet of clay, or gods with an affection or a tie to humanity. That said, neither approach precludes any spiritual or religious material. I thought it was when . . . . This was a Justice League annual back in the year 2000. It was pre-September 11. But they did try to introduce a Muslim character at that time called The Janissary. And The Janissary, she was a fine character. But the more interesting thing that came out of that particular issue is, does Wonder Woman, an Amazonian, a princess, a goddess-like character – and, at certain times, practically portrayed as a goddess – does she wear a hijab? Is she either subject to the cultural norms of the society she finds herself featured in, or does she transcend that (20:00)? Or does she even find it alien to her? Because she has proof of her own gods and not of an unseen Allah. So these can be engaged in any number of ways, if the companies, frankly, see a profit motive for it.

DR: Yes. I’d like to dig into some other examples. Ms Marvel: there’s been a few papers and stuff and people can go and read more widely, and obviously we can point them to your book where there’s a lot of good examples. But I want to bring up a few sort-of perhaps more problematic examples. One that you don’t talk about directly in the book, but was the first time I became aware of this as an issue in comics, was Holy Terror.

DL: Oh, yes.

DR: Which was originally going to be a Batman book.

DL: It was originally going to be Holy Terror Batman, punning on the whole 1960’s television Robin catchphrase: “Holy terror, Batman!” And it was pitched by Frank Miller of “Dark Knight Returns“ and “Sin City“ and “300“ fame, to DC. And DC thought about it and ultimately rejected it. So he reworked it as his own independent book, I believe with Legendary Comics.

DR: Yes. And I don’t know an awful lot about Frank Miller, but I’m guessing his politics must definitely be towards the more right-wing end of the spectrum?

DL: They have absolutely grown that way over the years. I can’t say if he’s always held a right-wing position. But I do recall that shortly after September 11th there were any number of charity relief books that were being published by various companies. And it struck me that he contributed a very militaristic piece. Like: “Get ready for our thunder! Get ready for our power! You’ve woken a sleeping giant!” And since that time his work has turned quite . . . I would almost say radically to the right. And in Holy Terror he reworks a Batman archetype into a character that I believe he calls The Fixer.

DR: That’s right.

DL: And The Fixer is intent on wiping out terrorism. But the only form of terrorism showcased in the book . . . basically terrorism becomes synonymous with radical Islam, with extremist militaristic radical Islam. And having it enjoin us . . . that lens really portrays an Islamophobia that’s concern isn’t terrorism – or else we could look at spots around the world that are unrelated to Islam, where terrorism is being employed. He really takes a turn there towards a xenophobic fearing of “the other” and one that stands, in his view, in opposition to America and the American norms and democracy. It’s worth noting that one of the works that he did which followed this up, which followed up Holy Terror, was that he returned to Dark Knight Returns for a third time. He did Dark Knight Returns, Dark Knight Strikes Back– which happened right as September 2001 struck, and may have actually changed the way he concluded that story. But then he returned with Dark Knight III: The Master Race, which is, in very brief summary, all about basically Kryptonians – Superman’s people – coming to terrorise and dominate humankind. And only Batman and Superman can save us. And it rings the same bells of, basically, this xenophobia against an outside religious group that seems to be, from his perspective, aggressive, and attempting to conquer. So these are things that he has pursued in a rather, I find, distasteful manner – but definitely in a forthright manner. He’s not hiding or being cute about it (25:00). There are a number of other comic creators who are injecting anti-Islamic themes into their content without saying so explicitly. But when we focussed on Muslim Superheroes as a book we said that that’s less our concern, tracking Islamophobia in comics – which is its own tremendous topic, and there has been some great work done it – but more looking at how they’re trying to integrate the heroism and the principles of, frankly, US heroism or Western heroism to interface with what are perceived Islamic ideals.

DR: I would be quite interested to know a little bit about black Muslim superheroes, because obviously that’s another important aspect of Islam in a America, historically speaking. Presumably here we’re going to be mostly talking about the pre-9/11 situation.

DL: One of our chapters is a terrific piece on basically reading earlier black superheroes and we can point to John Stewart as a Green Lantern or point to The Falcon, Captain America’s partner, as I believe our contributor calls them, “crypto-Muslims” or “proto-Muslims”. Basically, if you’re a New York writer of comics, which is where the two – DC and Marvel, the two major superhero companies – were stationed, what you’re seeing of black strengths and black presence, in the news and in your environment, is either the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam. Black Panthers being not the superhero Black Panther, but the group.

DR: Although there is a direct connection there. Stan Lee took the name of the character directly from the Black Panthers.

DL: Yes, I’d heard different reports on that. I’ve heard that it either entered his consciousness, or he did conspicuously think . . . I don’t know the exact details, there. But yes, you can read a lot of black characters in comics, in the 60s as well as the 70s, as what we call crypto-Muslims. But then you can go forward and find actual black Muslims in a number of comics, particularly around the 1990s. Milestone comics had Wise Son. Marvel comics featured Josiah X who was a Muslim, a black Muslim preacher who also had a family member experimented on in Captain America’s super soldier programme. So they definitely exist. But even here, they did not have yet the nuance or just the enjoyability of characters like Simon Baz; like Kamala Khan, Ms Marvel; like Excalibur; and a number of others. These were very serious, angry, severe characters. And being included is terrific; being represented is important. But often their full humanity wasn’t portrayed, I dare say. And that could be because they were not being written by black creators, or minority creators. They were white – usually male – creators’ imagination of the black man and of the black Islamic man, rather than a more authentic experience. I don’t want to be mischaracterised as saying that only black writers can write black characters, only Muslim writers can write Muslim characters. That’s not what I’m suggesting at all. But I am suggesting that when you have a gulf, and a conspicuous gulf, between such characters and their creators that’s something that has to be examined and looked at cautiously.

DR: Yes. Absolutely. It’s actually quite a good link, then, into my next question which was (30:00):foundationsuperhero comics which come out of the Islamic world, and which perhaps play with and reframe some of the American context, in the creation of their own superheroes and superhero teams. Can you give us a couple of quick examples of those?

DL: Yes, absolutely. And, again, we dedicate at least two, if not three, chapters in the book to this topic. The most notable of them – the Ms Marvel equivalent, the most well-known – would be The 99, which came out of Kuwait. And this was actually spearheaded by a professional psychologist, Naif Al-Mutawa. And the issue they ran into – at least according to our contributor in the book – is that there were any number of superhero genre elements that they could reproduce with Muslim characters, except for two. And that was the hyper-sexualised nature of the superhero – and you could start with the skin-tight costumes if you like, but you can also look at their physique and physicality and go from there. The other thing that they were cautious about – other companies were less cautious, but this was a challenge for The 99 – was their resolving everything, or nearly everything, with violence, which was very much an image that Dr Al-Mutawa wanted to move away from. He wanted these comics to be inspirational of solving conflicts with other powers, with other abilities, with conflict resolution or with building and such. So they struggled with that. Other companies like AK Comics – which were admittedly less successful – out of Egypt, they were more embracing of those two additional elements, but they did not last nearly as long as The 99. So we don’t yet have . . . now there are more publishers, even today. One that comes to mind is Youneek Studios, and that’s spelled Y-O-U-N-E-E-K, which is an African company. And I think they’re doing a terrific job of sort-of trying to thread the needle in the way that the Black Panther movie does: being genuinely African, right, but also still delivering on narrative elements that audiences have come to expect, rather than being some weak copy of an American superhero or diverging into its own sub-genre. This is a challenge because the American superhero has characteristics not only that may not translate into other cultures and religions, but may have ones that the American superhero industry itself doesn’t want to fix: again referring back to the issues of violence and sexuality; also looking at misogyny, patriarchy, heteronormativity. How much it can be changed by a non-white and non-Christian group, before it becomes unrecognisable, is the challenge of the day.

DR: Indeed. We’ve been talking a while now and we could go on quite a while more, I’m sure. But I’ve got a couple of questions to wrap up, then. One is: I particularly liked the little chapter at the end of the book that you and Martin Lund contributed, which talks about the idea of using these in schools. I absolutely love the idea of using an issue of Ms Marvel, for instance, as a text for students to engage with these issues.

DL: It seems like not only the natural outgrowth of these things, but also the raison d’être, you know, the whole: are we just studying these things for our amusement? And just as an exercise? Or is there something to be done here? Can we include a call to action? And, as I said, the most natural call to action is to bring this into the classroom, and let students have a foundation where they can engage with it (35:00). And I think, as we know in the final chapter, this doesn’t have to be head-on. We’re not proposing that we need Muslim superhero classes, and we need Muslim superhero curriculum and degrees given out on Muslim superheroes. We’re actually suggesting that instead this genre, and this religious interaction with the genre, can be a powerful way to explore historical events, to explore cultural differences, to explore media bias and media studies. So we really just want to open this to the educator, who may not be an expert in comics, or may not be an expert in Islam – and certainly not the two combined – but will see the inherent value of working on materials that access student’s attention in a novel way.

DR: Right, and using popular cultural texts – be they comic, or television, or films, or whatever – I think, actually, can be a more powerful way of introducing the students, and teaching the students the critical skills. If we start with academic texts then getting the students to be able to read the biases and the positionality of the papers can be quite tricky, because academic language is very qualified and very specific. But using popular texts to start with, and teaching them to read them as media texts, we can do a lot to train them in that way of critical reading that they can then take on and apply to more obviously academic texts.

DL: And this has long been true. Educators have tried to incorporate music in the classroom, and incorporate film in the classroom. And really, any medium that isn’t a text book that can sort-of take these students unawares into learning, or into critical thought, is always welcome. We highlight the comic book because of our fascination with comics in its dual-channel delivery system: its verbal, visual, creative engagement with the reader that will work for a number of students in particular, who don’t have to be comic book fans themselves but may be looking to light up different hemispheres of their brain at the same time. That, a lecture, or a strictly prose textbook, would not be able to do.

DR: Absolutely. As a final closing kind-of point here: is there any further thought on how the work that you’re doing in the book and elsewhere . . . what can it tell RS? How can these kinds of analyses, then, enhance Religious Studies more broadly?

DL: Well, I think that a particular area . . . two come to mind. The first is that we talk often about lived religion, right? And we often want to explore how religions are either evolving or being expressed in a modern context, and then tracking that against the religion, historically or classically. And I want to point out that comics are a relatively cheap and very evocative space in which to track that sort of lived religious experience. Whereas television is highly scripted and highly censored in many cases. And film, while perhaps less censored, is again driven by a huge profit motive. Comics, while a business and while a business that wants to sustain itself, has a greater freedom with the most reach. So, that would be my first response. That if we’re trying to do a present-day lived anthropological read of religion in popular culture or interpretation, comics is an ideal space. One further argument to have – and this is a little more radical on my part . . .

DR: OK, we like that.

DL: I wrote about this for an up-coming book (40:00). This is going to sound wonky, but I have the perspective that comics, when read intensely, when read seriously, when read genuinely, can lead to their own transcendent experience. Now, this is going to make me sound like someone who’s drunk the Kool-Aid . . .

DR: (Laughs).

DL: Inasmuch as we say frescos, and tapestries, and stained glass windows, and sculpture can all really unlock, as arts, the human mind to some spiritual dimension, I want to suggest that there are comics out there that could do similar. That can actually, by their . . . . And I think the way I phrase it in this up-coming text is that, by basically going down into the mundane, down into the print, and the ink, and the paper of the comic, it can actually trip us and flip us towards the sacred, towards what lies behind it: the “real real” – and here I’m being very Eliade in my language. But I’m exploring that more and more. I’m not necessarily saying you’re going to get that from your average Superman comic off the rack, right? And I’m not saying it’s better to read Ms Marvel than go to a Mosque. I’m not saying anything of that sort. But I am suggesting that we can’t rule out this medium as having its own access to potentially transcendent experience. And in the chapter that’ll be coming out I think later this year, I make the argument for why it’s not just legitimate but actually might be favourable to view them in this way.

DR: There are some inklings of that in Graven Images. We can maybe pick this conversation up in a year’s time, when I interview you the next time. It does sound a bit wonky – but as somebody who reads The Invisibles every year, you know you’re not going to get an argument from me!

DL: That actually is a terrific example of precisely the sort of comic that you can deal with. And, actually, I came up with a fantastic, really out-there, crazy term for it! We’ll talk about it next year.

DR: Yes. We’ll pick it up next time.

DL: I call it the “wormhole sacred”. So, be sure to ask me next year about the wormhole sacred!

DR: Excellent. I will do that. Let’s put it in the diary already! Until then, though, I would urge listeners who’ve enjoyed the conversation to check out Muslim Superheroes. And I’ll just say thanks, A. Dave Lewis, for joining us again!

DL: I love coming back. Thank you so much for having me!

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Lewis, A. David and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Muslim Superheroes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslim-superheroes/

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Children in New Religious Movements

In the complex and sometimes fraught relationship between New Religious Movements and the wider culture and state, why is it that children are so often a focus? Children are seen as needing special protection and therefore legitimising dramatic state intervention, but are also seen as of particular importance to the future of these movements, and in some more millennial groups, of the world itself. To discuss this, we are once again joined by Susan Palmer, who draws on her vast ethnographic work with such groups to give real-world examples, showing the complexity of the issue. children, it seems, become the central focus of the ideological struggle between the state and the alternative offered by these groups. Who will imprint their ideology onto the children most successfully – and will they resort to violence to do so?

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

Children in New Religious Movements

Podcast with Susan Palmer (4 December 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Palmer_-Children_in_New_Religious_Movements_1.1

 

DR: I’m here in Bedford. It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon at the last day of the CenSAMM conference on Millenarianism and violence. I’m happy to be speaking today with Susan Palmer, welcoming her back to Religious Studies Project – one of the small group of people who’ve made a return visit! So, first of all, thanks for returning to the Religious Studies Project.

SP: It’s a pleasure, David.

DR: We’re going to be talking today about children in new religious movements, which Susan did her keynote presentation here about. But she’s also just about to start a major research project on the subject. Maybe the best place for us to start, then, is for you to tell us how you got interested in the idea of children, in particular, in these movements.

SP: Well, it all started with my PhD thesis which was on women’s roles in new religions. And at the time I had two young children when I was doing my research. So when I would go to visit these groups – the Hare Krishna, the Unification Church – I would sometimes have to drag my children along, because I didn’t have a babysitter, you know. So then the focus would be on . . . they would ask me about my children, and they’d introduce me to their children, and we’d be talking about motherhood. And I wasn’t really that interested, but I was humouring them! And then my children used to go off and play with their children, and I would realise on the way home that my children found out much more about what was really going on than I did!

DR: (Laughs)

SP: So I sort-of inadvertently got interested in the idea of children in new religions. And I ended up co-editing a book, with Charlotte Hardman, called Children in New Religions. And recently I’ve come back to the topic because several of the groups I’m interested in have had quite lot of conflict with society about their children. In fact, James Richardson made the point, which I agree with, that the old brainwashing allegation or controversy has sort-of, pretty well, died down. And one way you can attack new religions or criticise them is by focussing on their children. And certainly groups that are sectarian, who live in a commune or who live out in the country and have a lot of children, make people nervous, make their neighbours nervous, make social workers nervous, because they don’t really know what’s going on. And in today’s system children go to school, children go to doctors and you have close neighbours so everyone can keep an eye on how you’re raising your children. But if you’re off in a millenarian commune, somewhere in the country, that doesn’t practice medicine or does home-schooling, you know, authorities get suspicious. And the anti-cult movement has, I think, exploited the situation by publishing materials in which, well: an ex-member might say they were abused, or had a miserable childhood; or they take isolated statements by the leaders and show that these children are in danger. I mean, of course there are some groups, in fact, where children have been badly treated and abused – there’s no doubt about that. But there is this tendency – certainly in anti-cult literature in recent years – to assume that children in cults are separated from their parents, or that the parents are following orders from the charismatic leader. And Margaret Singer says parents are “middle management” in cults; she uses that term over and over again. So what struck me is there’s so much variety in how children are perceived. You know: the role of a child, how they’re brought up, and also in the patterns of the family as you look at the different groups. (5:00) And it’s an ephemeral period. Childhood is over quite quickly and many of the groups aren’t even prepared for children; they weren’t even thinking about children when they started. And then they have to improvise, make up education and so on. So it’s not very well documented. Many of the groups don’t really document their own process. Some of them do. The Children of God have a very rich documentation on all their experiments in their communal life – even like how they wash dishes! So I think it’s an important thing to study, but also it’s difficult to study, because many of the groups have had problems with social workers and, of course, custody battles. When there’s a couple who join a commune and one of them leaves and wants their children to leave with them, they might contact the anti-cult movement and, you know, use their philosophy or their theories in court to get their kid out. So there’s a lot of social forces today that are putting pressure on alternative religions to raise their children in the same way as secular children. And I’ve witnessed raids on children with this group I was studying in France with the Twelve Tribes. And they were raided. Their children were raided in Vermont and then in Germany and when I was visiting them in France there was actually a raid right under my nose, but in this case they were picking the fathers. And then there was the polygamous Mormons in Texas, the Yearning for Zion people, whose children were taken away. And this seems to be something that’s happening today and there are severable forces at work. First of all, there’s this idea that our mainstream secular culture is the highest type of culture, the right culture, so we want to give children an opportunity to develop, and choose their lifestyle, and get a good education, so they can have a decent profession. And if a child grows up in a Mormon polygamous compound, or the Twelve Tribes, or the Hare Krishna, inevitably they’re being deprived and it’s sort of our duty to give them all the rights as a citizen and remove them. And, of course, this violates the rights of the parents to practise their religion and raise their children in their own faith. And it also violates the rights of the children to be able to live with their parents and their brothers and sisters. So it’s a terrible thing that the children experience when they’re taken away. And often they’re put in these orphanages. Well, in the case of the Twelve Tribes these children were put in orphanages, or homes for troubled teens, or foster homes: rather cold environments, not very nice environments with terrible food, and so on. In the case of the Yearning for Zion, these children were just plonked in various foster homes and it was even hard to organise to get them back, because they were so widely scattered. So that’s one thing, and then the other thing is there seems to be this concern . . . well you were talking today about conspiracy theories about paedophile rings . . . . So, there’s often this idea that if there’s a charismatic prophet who’s a spiritual mystic, he must also be a paedophile. Somehow it’s a package, today. (10:00) And of course, you do have the odd charismatic leader who does fancy very young women or has anti-social tendencies or sexual appetites. But I get the impression, in many cases, that this is just mud that’s thrown at them randomly, and it appears in the media, and has a devastating effect.

DR: And you’ve made this point before, in your book on the Nuwaubian Nation. You make the point that this is not only quite a common allegation against cult leaders, but against black cult leaders in particular. And, presumably, that allegation relates to this idea of the child as vulnerable that you were taking about before.

SP: So I feel it’s really important that we study different groups and get a lot of data: and we look at the variety in child-rearing patterns; the variety in how children are perceived; and also in the family, and how the families integrate in with the community. And so we won’t have these monolithic stereotypes about children in cults.

DR: How does the child work as a symbol? What is it that makes the child such a powerful discursive unit in all of this?

SP: Well, Mary Douglas, in her book, Natural Symbols, she looks at the idea of the body as the perfect vessel that represents the whole group. And the idea that the group is inviolable and has no cracks. And there’s tremendous concern in some minority religions, or minority cultures, with diet and sexuality. And she sees that as: those are the two holes in which foreign elements could come in. And so, if the group can control the diet and who the person marries then they can protect their culture from assimilation. So she talks about the virgin, as an example, as a symbol of the community. You know, the Virgin Mary among the Early Christians. And she doesn’t actually talk about the child but, you know, you can see how, in the literature of some of these groups, or in their ritual practices, some of these groups are very child-centred. So their whole community is looking at the children and intent on breeding these perfect children, and the children are their hope for the future, the children will usher in the Millennium, the children will fight Armageddon, the children will be the 24 elders who will rule beside Jesus in the Millennium, the children will be 144000 elite, and so on. Some groups, of course, have zero interest in children, and they’re not allowed at their meetings, and they don’t even care if they join or not – like the Raëlians, for example. But in other groups it’s extremely important that the children carry on the religious mission of their parents, and their education is very important, and the control is very important. And they are the hope and so . . . . I read this book recently called The Child in Post-Apocalyptic Cinema, which had a lot of great ideas which applied to this situation. And the editor, whose name is Debbie Olsonn, said the child is this idea of the future, but also the past. So, for example in the Twelve Tribes, they dress their children to look like, you know, pioneers from 1800 or something. So when you go there you feel a sense of nostalgia, you feel you’re stepping into early America. (15:00) And their children represent the goodness and the simplicity and the beauty of country children 150 years ago, before things got all screwed up. And also, this idea that the child represents this new humanity that will arise after the destruction of the world.

DR: Well that’s nice, because that ties into this millenarian model of time that we’ve been talking about today – but we’ve talked about it on the Religious Studies Project a few times – that millennialism, although it seems so focussed on the future, is actually a way of tying the past and using the future as a lens. But, ultimately, with the pivotal point of it being the present day. So, for somebody who’s involved in one of these relatively exclusive or . . . I don’t know what the word is . . . the kind of new religions that, to some degree, shuts itself off . . .

SP: A sectarian group

DR: . . . a sectarian kind of movement, then you can see why children would be so important. Because, as you say, they’re not only embodying the future but they embody the movement of the ideas of the past. And the parent is almost creating that perfected version of the past in the future, by creating these children and controlling their particular set of circumstances and the influences that they have.

SP: Yes.

DR: Is the importance that children have in these kind of sectarian groups, is that the reason that they’re so often the site of conflict?

SP: Yes it is, I think. I mean, it is of course very upsetting to the parents and the leaders of these groups if somebody leaves and wants to take the child out. There’s this right-wing Catholic group in Quebec called the Apostles of Infinite Love: Apôtres de l’amour infini. Their leader was a mystical pope – he died recently. And they had a monastery which families would join, and then the couple would split up and become celibate monks and nuns. And the children would become the children of the monastery and live this very Spartan life. When people left – usually it was fathers who left, actually, and wanted to take their children out – the attitude of the group seemed to be, “But the world is an evil place, it’s going to be destroyed very soon, and we can’t let these poor children go.”

DR: Right

SP: So they felt it was very much their responsibility not to let the children leave the group, which was like a Noah’s Ark. So they had some very intense conflict and struggle that involved four police raids and helicopters and so on. And, you know, hiding children. And their mystical pope actually went to prison for a few years for séquestration des enfants, you know, kidnapping or hiding children. And, of course, we don’t really know if he did or not. Because he said the mothers just left and sort-of went underground, so that’s possible. He said “My people are free to do what they want. I don’t tell them what to do.” So anyway on one hand in these groups, often there’s a very strong reluctance to let the children go. And from society’s point of view, there’s the idea that we can’t let these poor children be deprived, and warped, and indoctrinated in an unrealistic worldview that thinks the word’s going to end, or is patriarchal and sees women as second class citizens who should get married as soon as they turn 18, and so on. So it’s very intense . . . there’s a very intense struggle going on there, a cultural battle.

DR: Yes, in a number of cases these conflicts have led to the state visiting violence upon children in these situations. I mean, we could mention Waco, for instance. Tell us a little bit about the situation that you mentioned – this bombing.

SP: Yes, I was talking yesterday about MOVE, in Philadelphia. And I find it amazing that many people don’t know about MOVE. I teach a course on New Religions at Concordia, and when I mention MOVE everyone looks blank. (20:00) But my students have all heard of Waco and the Branch Davidians and David Koresh.

DR: I had never heard of this.

SP: But in 1985 in the city of Philadelphia, the orders of the Mayor were to drop two bombs from a helicopter on a row (terraced) house, in which a new religious movement called MOVE lived. And they’re usually depicted as religious anarchists. And they were mainly black, although there were quite a lot of white people living there too. And five children were killed in the bombing, plus six adults.

DR: When you say bombing . . .

SP: They literally dropped two bombs! It’s unbelievable.

DR: That’s insane. This was 1989?

SP: 1985. May 13th.

DR: Right.

SP: And it was mainly to get rid of . . . . They’d created a fortress, a sort of bunker, on the top and they had rifles. And they used to patrol this bunker and shout out criticism with loudspeakers. And all the neighbours hated them. And so, it was mainly to get rid of that bunker and make sure that they all just left. But the trouble was, they had police surrounding the house shooting the people who left. So they couldn’t win. And then the mayor didn’t want the fire trucks to come in. He wanted to wait, because he wanted to make sure the place was really burned out. But, unfortunately, the rest of the neighbourhood caught fire and sixty-one houses burned to the ground. It’s incredible when you look at the pictures. It’s amazing. And the people who lived there, the neighbours had be warned to leave. So the houses had been evacuated. But a lot of them had left their pets at home and all the pets had died, too. It was terrible.

DR: Yes.

SP: So, as I mentioned in my talk, at the meeting between the police and the mayor and the city councillors, before this happened, they were talking about the children. And they were a bit worried that if they went in and arrested the men, the children would be used as hostages by the MOVE people. And they were also worried that these children could be dangerous because they were “like little wild animals” and they might have weapons. So they saw them as little guerrilla warriors or something. So the point that’s made in this book by Robin Wagner-Pacifici is that, you know, they probably wouldn’t have dropped a bomb if it had just been ordinary American kids. But they saw them as either being little wild animals or being guerrilla warriors or . . . . And you often find that in anti-cult books, or in media reports, looking at children in cults. They can be seen as sort-of scary, like in the Village of the Damned by John Wyndam; like little aliens. Or they could be seen as brainwashed little zombies.

DR: Deadthroat children, yeah! My girlfriend once pointed out to me that – this shift of seeing the child as . . . putting so much importance on the children, and their innocence and their importance and how much you have to nurture them, and childhood as this magical time – it’s quite modern. It arises in the Victorian era. But there’s this tension then between, you know, the Victorian era is the classic example of: yes, for some Victorian children it was a magical time, where they got to be free and innocent; but you also had the vast majority who were living in absolute squalor, ridden with disease, high infant mortality, child prostitution, all the rest of it. And so there’s this dichotomy: this feeling of embodying innocence in children happens at times when there’s an awareness of inequality of power. And I wonder if there’s something going on there about our relationship with power, and our ability to . . . maybe compromise in the position of being an adult, or something? I don’t know. How do you think this relationship to power structures is working here?

SP: (25:00) Yes, I think that’s a very interesting idea. Well, a lot of parents who go into new religions are rejecting the state, they’re rejecting the authority of the state. But of course, they then find themselves under sometimes even more controlling kinds of authority within the group. But they can accept that because it’s spiritual . . . .

DR: And it’s personal, maybe, rather than an impersonal distant power of the state.

SP: Yes. It’s charismatic, it’s not bureaucratic. But then if you read, you know, media reports or anti-cult literature, they tend to think that within with these groups people don’t know how to think. Children are discouraged from independent critical thought. So they grow up very, very passive and rather stupid. But if you read some of the literature by ex-members, for example, by Pierrepont Noyes who was one of the sons of the leader of the cult of Perfectionists. And he is the most rebellious, mischievous, critical kid you ever imagine. And he describes his childhood with a tremendous humour and so much vitality, and so many little rebellious escapades. And then you have Krishnamurti, of course, who was raised to be the avatar and basically refused, and rejected his role, and spent the rest of his life criticising religion and coming up with his own philosophy. And also I find, just going to these groups, you find that the children often have a sub-culture. Like, I went to one group and the parents were telling me that the children were – I won’t mention what the group is – they said, “We don’t believe in giving our children an allowance, we never give them money, we never let them eat candy and we don’t let them play with toys.” And my kids were there, and they’d said, “Go off in the woods and play,” to get them out of my hair. So my kids went off in the woods. And on the way home I said to them in the car, “So, what did you do?” And they said “Oh! Our friends took us in the woods and we dug up a treasure chest!” And I said, “What was in it?” And they said, “Money and candies and trucks!”

DR: (Laughs)

SP: They were doing the real research! But actually, Charlotte Hardman makes this point, too, in our early book – I think it was published in 1998 – that children – she’s’ an anthropologist who’s done work on the anthropology of children – she notices that children often have this kind of subculture within a culture. And they see things differently. And I’ve certainly found that, visiting some of these groups, that the children have their own little “cult within a cult”, if you like.

DR: That’s often the case in my work as well. Even in a relatively small group, you would get the official version, but when you hung around . . . . I used to always hang around, or try and have a drink with people, or go to the kitchen and help with the cooking, and things like that. And the more gossipy side of it would start to come out. And you realise that, you know: this situation is just as complex as any other social situation, with all sorts of different levels of discourse going on. You know, a lot of the conversation that we’ve been having has reminded me of . . . well, obviously there’s been quite a lot of stuff about Scientology recently, “Going Clear” being the most obvious example. And it ties into a number of different things. First of all, this movement away from the idea of brainwashing towards, you know, children being in the frame . . .

SP: Indoctrinated.

DR: Yes, indoctrinated, but also physically harmed. There’s been much more of a shift recently towards looking at L. Ron Hubbard‘s relationship with his own kids.

SP: Oh really?

DR: Yes. One of his children committed suicide and another attempted suicide.

SP: That’s right.

DR: That’s probably wrong but . . .

SP: I know one of them committed suicide.

DR: But I think the other one also, yeah, I can’t remember now. I think the other one attempted it as well. But also in “Going Clear”, the guy – is it Paul Haggis? It was his daughter coming out as homosexual that caused him to leave the church. So again, his children were involved. But when you were talking about this portrayal of people not being able to think properly and having their information limited – that’s exactly the narrative that he gives: that when you’re in Scientology you don’t get to question it (30:00). Except, of course, we’re hearing this from somebody who did question it from within Scientology. So the narrative doesn’t really work. And it’s playing into so many of these little discourses that you’re talking about there.

SP: Yes.

DR: Thank you so much for speaking to us again. Another big subject, but this has been a really exciting introduction. And, bringing in the idea of generationality, maybe in a year’s time we can meet up and talk about old people in new religions?!

SP Well thank you, David! (Laughs)

DR: But thanks, as always, for speaking to me.

SP: Old people are fun, too!

DR: Yes, absolutely!

Citation Info: Palmer, Susan and David Robertson. 2017. “Children in New Religious Movements”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 4 December 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 November 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/children-in-new-religious-movements/

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Islamic Millennialism

We may tend to think of millennialism as something typical of New Religious Movements and christian fundamentalism, but it has a long and interesting history in the Islamic world too. Rob Gleave, Professor of Arabic Studies at Exeter, takes us through the history of Islamic millennialism, and explains how it has been tied up with political events in the past, as well as the present. He raises interesting points about how the unusual form of Twelver Shi’ite millennialism developed from Islamic theological discourse.

This podcast was generously supported by cenSAMM, the centre for the study of Apocalyptic and Millennial Movements. This podcast is also sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more here.

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

Islamic Millennialism

Podcast with Rob Gleave (18 September 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Gleave – Islamic Millennialism 1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Bedford at the CenSAMM Conference on Millennialism and Violence and I’m joined by Rob Gleave, who is the Director  for the Study of Islam at Exeter University.

Rob Gleave (RG): Yes.

DR: First of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

RG: Thanks very much.

DR: Today we’re going to talk about millennialism and violence in Islam, in the Islamic world. Maybe a good place to start is to tell us a little bit about the whole idea of millennialism and messianism in Islam. Is this something that comes from the Qur’an, or what’s the. . . ?

RG: Yes, there are clear indications in the Qur’an about an end time. There’s a shortage on detail as to what’s going to happen and a time as to when things are going to happen, but there’s a discussion – an extensive discussion – of something called the the Hour. And this Hour – the Hour that will come – is the time when the world will be brought to a an end and a judgement will happen and a resurrection of people who have died will occur: people from the graves. And there’s some indication in the Qur’an itself about some of the violent , catastrophic events that will happen, in terms of the sky and mountains being torn asunder and those sort of things. But there’s not a great detail and there’s not a description of a series of events that will eventually lead up to this event. So there’s a strong notion in the Qur’an that the world will come to an end, but, like many things in the Qur’an, it’s indicative. Or rather, it indicates something but it doesn’t always spell it out in detail. And that was left to Muslim theologians to try and discover what it was that the scriptures were referring to.

DR: OK.

RG: And for that they used some sayings of the Prophet Muhammad – and there were sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Of course, there’s huge debates about the authenticity of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. But, nonetheless, there was a sort of residue of statements by the Prophet Muhammad which described various things that were going to happen at the end of the world. And from these sources a number of different versions, if you like, of the end times were developed in Muslim theology. And the crucial point is that whilst belief in the eventual day of judgement is an essential element of Islamic belief, precisely what will happen at the those end times – the details, the sequence of events, if you like – this is not an essential element of Muslim belief. It’s not something which determines whether someone is a believer or not a believer. So, it was left open for the Muslim theologians to interpret this material in ways which was highly imaginative. There are some stock elements that always reoccur. The first one was with the return of Jesus. So this was an important element. The return of Jesus was seen as a crucial element of the end times.

DR: Which might come as quite a surprise to some of our listeners, I think.

RG: Well, yes. Jesus, of course, is highly regarded in Muslim theology as one of the Prophets sent by God. But the Qur’an itself indicates that Jesus will return, or that the return of Jesus is one of the signs of the end times. And it’s linked . . .  often it’s linked, by theologians, to the Qur’anic ambiguity about whether or not Jesus died on the cross. The Qur’anic phrase seems to indicate that he appeared to die, but didn’t die, and therefore it left the way open for a return of Jesus at the end times. And it’s very likely, historically, that this was incorporated into the Muslim theological framework from Christian roots about the return of Jesus. But it was a crucial element of the end time narrative for Muslims, the belief that Jesus will come. Another crucial element was also the return of another figure, known as the Mahdi. And the Sunni and Shi’i branches of Islam have slightly different notions of what this Mahdi will do and what his role is, theologically as well as physically, in the end times. (5:00) So they have slightly different notions of that. But these two elements are always conjoined: that the Mahdi and the return of Jesus together will bring about the ushering in, if you like, of the end of the world.

DR: And a lot of the imagery, as you say, is very reminiscent of the Christian story and the imagery of . . . well, imagery which carries on into some of the new religious kind of millenialisms we’ve been talking about this week.

RG: I think apocalyptic imagery is something which . . . well, it’s a discourse which is shared across the Jewish, Christian and Muslim milieux, and used across these different religious traditions, and re-used again and again.  You find it reinvented in new religious movements within Islam as well, which emphasised the coming of the end times. So, it’s a stock of imagery which is not exclusive to an individual tradition. And quite often, the ability for apocalyptic imagery to cross-fertilise between religious traditions . . .  there’s sometimes more potential for that than in other areas of theology, or in ethics or in law. In apocalyptics, somehow a shared stock of images about the Beast, the Antichrist, the notion of the return of Jesus: all of these things together can be shared across traditions.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: And you also find, with a lot of apocalyptic movements, that they’re quite willing to borrow from different traditions and they don’t feel any reticence about the sources of their religious imagery. Muslim religious movements, they will take something which we find in the Jewish or Christian traditions which have made their way into Islam, in one way or another through the history of Islam. And they’re not worried about the sources of these things when they’re constructing their end of time narrative.

DR: Of course not.

RG: So it makes for an enormously creative image of the end of the world, when apocalyptic writers are able to draw on a great wealth of writings and sources in their creative imagination about what the end of the world will look like.

DR: The theology – and ideas about the Mahdi in particular – is quite important in the history of the schism between the Sunni and Shi’i traditions, am I right?

RG: Absolutely. For the Sunni traditions, the Mahdi is a figure sent by God who will lead a battle and bring about the preparations, if you like, for the day of judgement. In the Shiite tradition, the Mahdi is the return of someone – or the reappearance of someone – who disappeared in the ninth century and who will return and re-establish their rightful, legitimate, political rule at some time in the future. So,  the Sunni and Shiite traditions didn’t divide over the question of the end times: at the beginning, it was a question of who should lead the community and what the role of that leader should be. The way in which the Shiite tradition developed was that following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, in 632, there was a series of leaders coming from amongst his family, his descendents, who were seen as blessed with special religious knowledge. And for one particular branch of that Shiite tradition there were twelve such leaders, and the last of these has gone into hiding. And this is the promised Mahdi, the promised messianic figure that will reappear at some point in the end of time – no one knows when. But Twelver Shiites, as they’re called – because they believe in twelve leaders after the Prophet Muhammad – Twelver Shiites have a very strong notion of the patience that’s required in expectation of the return of the Mahdi, and the internal striving to be a perfect servant. So the internal striving to be a perfect servant becomes a crucial element of Shiite identity, in the expectation of the return of the Mahdi at some point in time in the future. (10:00) And, when the Mahdi returns, it’s not simply that this person will be a military leader and bring about the end of days. This is the return of the person who should have been the leader of the Muslim community for all of these centuries. It’s the reappearance, if you like, of the Mahdi who is present in the community but unknown, suddenly making himself known again. So this is quite a different dynamic for Shiites about the end times, compared to Sunnis. And since the Mahdi is someone who’s seen as having perfect knowledge of divine matters, including the law, this means that he’s looked to, by Shiites , as a guide for daily living. And the Mahdi doesn’t fulfil such a role in Sunni theology.

DR: It’s a really fascinating, and – I think – kind-of unique situation: this idea of the Mahdi being this occulted figure who has gone into hiding but is still in the world, but hidden.  And they’re waiting on his . . . it’s not like a physical reincarnation or anything like that, it’s a re-emergence of this hidden figure. It’s really interesting.

RG: It was a belief which emerged in early Islam, through a series of descendents of the Prophet Muhammad who went into hiding in order to protect themselves, and the community, from oppression from a majority Sunni community. And the theme of a hidden Imam who will make themselves known again when the conditions are right became incorporated into Twelver Shiite doctrine and became an official element of Twelver Shiite belief. And so that’s something which is unusual, since most apocalyptic movements which have a messianic element think of the Messiah as returning to earth from somewhere else. Whereas, for the Shiites, the presence of the hidden Imam – the Mahdi – in the community means that at certain points they can find out what his opinion is.

DR: Yes.

RG: Which is the crucial element for Shiites: how do you know what the Imam’s opinion might be on this or that? So, for example, if all the community agree on something – on a particular doctrine – then Shiites have imagined that, well, one of the people who agree must be the hidden Imam.

DR: Yes.

RG: So the agreement suddenly becomes authoritative because the Imam’s opinion must be amongst the people who are agreeing. We don’t know which opinion it is, we don’t know the identity of the individual. But, because everyone’s agreed, the Imam must be within that agreement. And the result is that certain new doctrines might be validated by a community agreement. The theoretical possibility, if you like, of communication from the hidden Imam through community agreement, becomes possible.

DR: And I can see that being a very powerful narrative. Because in other traditions, where you want to have the prophetic figure – who is no longer with you – refer to present events, you either have to create a new revelation through a new prophet, or you discover or reveal some previously unknown writings – in the way that has happened in Buddhism quite a lot, for instance. But this . . . you can actually, quite legitimately have this figure referring to events of the day quite contemporaneously. Because he’s still around, we just don’t know where.

RG: He’s present, yes. And that creates a notion of immanence within the community which has become very important for Shiite devotional practice, in the sense that the Twelver Shiites will often pray to hasten the appearance of the Mahdi as part of their personal devotional prayers. They believe that through devotional acts one is contributing to the situation where the Imam ,who is present, can make themselves known. And it creates an internal – what you might call – piety within the religious tradition, which is a dynamic you can’t find in Sunni Islam. Because of the imagined presence of the Imam in the community, it means that there’s a emphasis on the importance, if you like, of ensuring community cohesion.(15:00)

DR: And does that spill out, then, into how millenarian ideas and prophetic ideas affect the community, then? Would we see a difference between the way that Shiites and Sunnis relate to how messianism plays into their actions in the political sphere?

RG: Well certainly within Shi’ism, the fact that the Imam is present and needs to be revealed has enabled certain claimants at different point in time to be “the man”. When, without them claiming this from the very beginning . . . . Because the revealing notion – of them being present but then revealing that they’re the Mahdi – is, in a sense, an extension of the basic theological doctrine.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: So you often find that, within the Shiite tradition, when an individual has claimed to be the Mahdi they haven’t needed to claim it straight away. Because their presence in the community, without being the Mahdi, isn’t a source of scandal – if you see what I mean – to their claim.

DR: Yes.

RG: Because the Imam decides when the time is right to appear. And the claimant can reliably or legitimately claim, “Well, it wasn’t the right time for me to make to make my personality known.” And it means that within the Twelver Shiite tradition, claiming the appearance of the Mahdi – or claiming to be the Mahdi through appearance – has a very strong potential. It’s like a trigger which is always loaded and ready to be fired at any point in time when the conditions are right, or the individual personality believes themselves to be fulfilling that particular role. And so there have been claims of people being the messianic figure throughout history of Islam, not just in Shi’i Islam. But when the claim happens in Shi’i Islam the individual is claiming more than just being a military leader. They’re claiming a special sort of knowledge which is, I suppose, akin to a form of prophecy. Although the Muslim theological doctrine means that prophecy ends with the Prophet Muhammad, even for Shiites. It’s another form of divine knowledge communicated to an individual. But the potentiality within Shi’ism for a claimant to put themselves forward is always there, because of the notion of an Imam present within the community who is just waiting to be revealed.

DR: You don’t have to posit a new prophet or messiah or anything like that. The potential is already there as part of the actual theological position.

RG: And, of course, there is a huge taboo in Islam around positing yourself as a new prophet.

DR: Yes, exactly. Yes.

RG: Because it contravenes one of the basic doctrines of Islam which is that Muhammad is the seal of the Prophets and that there is no prophet after Muhammad. And so Sunni groups, or groups which have emerged out of Sunnism such as the Ahmadi movement, for example, have been treated with such strong criticism by the rest of the Sunni Muslim community because they have contravened this notion of the end of prophecy with the Prophet Muhammad. They’ve claimed to have a leader who is a new prophet. In the view of Sunni Islam, you know, the Ahmadi community has claimed that its founder is a new prophet. In Shi’i Islam the messianic figure is the hidden Imam, rather than a new prophet. Which, in a sense is slightly less of a taboo element within the theological framework.

DR: Really interesting. To move to the Sunni world, then, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t ask you about Isis. And there seems to be some debate about the degree to which they should be seen as a millennial, even apocalyptic, kind of movement. I, myself, would like to hear something from you. Your take on this is the apocalyptic millennial aspects of it being overplayed by the West, because of fears and ignorance. (20:00) Or is this something that is theologically driving . . . ?

RG: Well, my own view is that there has been a certain hyping up of the apocalyptic element, because it makes good journalism!

DR: (Laughs) Yes!

RG: Apocalypticism is always a sensationalist story for journalists in the contemporary period, because it’s seen as so “out there” and weird and bizarre. And, in a sense, accusations of being over-apocalyptic or . . . . The attraction, if you like, of the story of an apocalyptic movement, is a reflection of much of the state of – I’ll say – “British” society, and the nature of secularism and so-called rationality, and these [movements] are seen as hyper -irrational and consequently extremely interesting. And that’s certainly been, I think, an element in the attraction of journalists, and commentators as well, to the apocalyptic element of the Islamic State message. Having said that, there are strong elements within the Islamic State propaganda machine which indicate that they are quite willing to use apocalyptic imagery to describe and recruit for their military campaign. So, the most famous one being the small Syrian village of Dabiq, which is mentioned in a Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad – a saying of the Prophet Muhammad – that this will be a place where the end times battle will take place. So it became very important that Islamic State captured this village and that they used it in their propaganda in particular their English language propaganda magazine, which they titled the Dabiq. And so they are quite happy to try and use that rhetoric within their propaganda. The big question is, how much of their activities are driven by apocalyptic beliefs? And, in that, I’m slightly less convinced of the primacy of apocalypticism within their military strategy and the ways in which they organise their state. Because most of the ways in which they argue for this policy or that policy, or this action or that action, you can trace back to traditional ways of thinking about the assessment of actions within the Islamic legal tradition. They argue using legal reasoning which you find in the traditional sources. And they themselves are always trying to demonstrate that their opinion is not an unusual opinion, compared to the traditional sources. So apocalypticism doesn’t really figure, I don’t think, in the internal organisation of Islamic State and the justification for some of their actions. It’s extremely important in the way in which they project themselves to the outside world. And this notion that they can recruit through this rhetoric – the fear of missing out on the success and ultimate end times, which Islamic State play a role in – is an incredibly powerful tool for them to attract new recruits.

DR: Absolutely. So that interest that comes from the media, they’re doing exactly the same thing and using it to attract attention to what they’re talking about. And, as you say as well, this is such a powerful set of imagery and deep-set, long-running narrative in human culture that it always seems to be there as a little reservoir that you can tap into.

RG: And don’t underestimate Islamic State’s awareness of this.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: They know. . . . They have quite a sophisticated media machine, which produces quite sophisticated propaganda materials. And they know that apocalyptic fears are an element within Western society, and Muslims living outside of Muslim majority contexts are the prime targets for that propaganda and recruitment. And the result is that they know how to use that in order to gain recruits. (25:00) And so it’s an element, it’s certainly an element of their rhetoric and their propaganda. How instrumental it is – how much they instrumentally use it in order to do this and how much it’s embedded within the movement – is a matter of some debate. Part of the problem is the actual internal workings of Islamic State are quite secretive, by necessity, or inevitably you might say. So precisely what the apocalyptic beliefs of their leader, Abu Bakr al-Bhagdadi, might be, outside of the propaganda element, is actually quite difficult to identify. But it’s certainly a form of religiosity that they are very happy to project outside of the territory that they control.

DR: That’s an excellent comparative point to end on, I think. It’s very important that we don’t simply ascribe naive beliefs to any of these millennial apocalyptic discourses, be they in Islam, Christianity, new religions or popular culture. There are multiple levels of discourse going on all the time and they’re being used sometimes for their media impact, or their interest, as much as they are themselves driving actions.

RG: Yes, we make a mistake if we think that an organisation like Islamic State is a simple organisation with a single message that it’s always churning out. It’s actually quite a complicated, multi-tiered, multi-faceted organisation which knows – and which through experience has learnt – what works and what doesn’t work in different contexts. And, like all organisations, it promotes itself in appropriate ways to appropriate audiences.

DR: And, that people are driven naively by beliefs and ideologies: in fact it’s much more complicated and they are mutually creating . . .

RG: No, certainly. And we make a mistake if we think that all we need to do is really try and show these people what the truth is, and how mistaken they are, through forceful argumentation – that we’re going to convince them in some way. No: people believe things and belief, as we know, is a really complex set of factors which lead to an individual settling upon a particular doctrine which they believe is right for them. And belief in the providential nature of Islamic State is one such belief. It’s not simple. It’s actually extremely complicated and complex as a process. Just as complicated as any process of religious commitment.

DR: Rob Gleave thank you so much for taking part in our sophisticated media and propaganda machine at the Religious Studies Project.

RG: (Laughs) That’s alright.

DR: I’m afraid it’s time for us to look to the future, and the next panel, here at the conference. So thanks very much for taking part.

RG: Thanks very much for inviting me.

DR: You’re quite welcome.

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Angel Spirituality

1a7fd1627b3543072b5c994419e40076In Northern Europe today, many people are engaging with angels, and Tehri Utriainen has been researching them. What is angel spirituality, and who does it appeal to (hint: women)? As with many vernacular systems, it is both ad hoc and highly practical, with a strong focus on healing. She tells us how these practices challenge preconceptions about the relationship between new spiritualities and Christianity, and raise interesting questions about gender, and vernacular religion in supposedly post-Christian Europe.

For more of Tehri’s work on angels, see:

Healing Enchantment: How Does Angel Healing Work?
Utriainen, T. 2017 Spirit and Mind – Mental Health at the Intersection of Religion & Psychiatry. Basu, H., Littlewood, R. & Steinforth, A. (eds.). Berlin: Lit Verlag, p. 253-273 19 p.

Desire for Enchanted Bodies: The Case of Women Engaging in Angel Spirituality
Utriainen, T. 2016 Contemporary Encounters in Gender and Religion: European Perspectives. Gemzöe, L., Keinänen, M-L. & A. M. (eds.). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 175-193 19 p.

Listeners might also be interested in David’s interview with Ingvild Gilhus from three years ago, on the topic “Unruly Angels”.

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

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

Angel Spirituality

Podcast with Tehri Utriainen (5 June 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Utriainen_-_Angel_Spirituality_1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh today. I’m joined by Tehri Utriainen, from the University of Helsinki, where she is Professor in the Study of Religions. And today, we’re going to be talking about angels in kind-of popular spirituality, particularly in Finland, but hopefully also in a slightly larger context as well. So, first of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Tehri Utriainen (TU): Thank you so much David.

DR: Let’s start just with . . . .Tell us a little about these angel practices, angel spirituality. You know – who are we talking about, what are the practices? Just set it up for us.

TU: Ok. Well my context, of course, is Finland but, as you said, it is more wide – you can find it elsewhere. You can find it in the UK. There’s been studies done in the UK, the US, in Norway and in Estonia, for instance, recently. Whom are we talking about? We’re talking about women. This is really the most extremely women-dominated religiosity that you can imagine. Usually people say that: in grassroots religion the practitioners are 60% female; in holistic spiritualities (if you want to use that term ) it’s like around 80% – this was the Kendal Project numbers, for instance; and with angels the figures go much higher. They are over 90%, as far as my research is concerned. So we’re talking about women interested in angels.

DR: What kind of women? Are we talking about the same sort of women that we would expect to find in holistic spiritualities, for instance? You know, generally, from the Kendal Project, for instance, mostly . . . kind-of middle class, fairly well-educated, fairly well-off – these kinds of things?

TU: “Fairly well” women! Yes. Yes, more-or-less, we are. Well, when we go to Finland it’s perhaps a little bit different society from the UK. We like to think that we are more equal in the social way. We don’t have these social strata as much as you have here. But it’s a kind-of, you know . . . . We fool ourselves, of course, with these things, always. But it is middle class . . . I would say that it’s mostly lower to mid-middle class, but all middle classes. But very varied educational backgrounds. A lot of women who work in caring and education professions, for instance. These women are also interested in other practices, not only angels, and all sorts of holistic practices. Something that all my interviewees mentioned, really, was like Reiki. Reiki healing is one form of energy healing which is now so popular in all of the Western world, I guess. It comes from Japan, and through Hawaii, but it’s become popular all over. But these women with angels tend to be, I would say, a little bit more towards Christianity, because there is the central figure. But I see quite a variation with the people that I have interviewed. And I have made, also, a smallish survey and some of them consider themselves Lutheran – Lutheranity is our like home religion in Finland. But then, there is the other end who are kind-of completely disconnected from the church and have their background, for instance, in esotericism, theosophy, spiritualism, anthroposophy. But then, there is a third group of women who come from secular families and, at least, tell me that they don’t really have very much religious background at all. And they got into religion through this.

DR: What sort of religious make-up are we talking about in Finland, just for the benefit of our listeners? I mean here, obviously, we’re somewhere between 70-55%, depending on what part of the country you’re in.

TU: Like, Church of England or those big churches, or altogether?

DR: Yes, well, the sort-of state churches, yes. I mean, England’s sitting at about 65% and Scotland’s a little bit lower about 58%.

TU: Yes. So the numbers go down regularly all the time in Finland, at the moment. And last year’s survey gives us something like 72%, and the women a bit more than men. And then the next biggest church in Finland would be the Orthodox church, but that is a very low number of participants or members. (5:00) So we are a very Lutheran country, still, but the figures are going down.

DR: Part of the reason I asked that is that I have a kind of personal interest in this subject. Some people in my family are involved in this kind of stuff. My grandmother and my aunty – her youngest daughter – both do these  kind-of angel cards. Now my family is not a strongly religious family, but have become so over time. My granny is now in her early eighties and she converted to Anglicanism when my grandad died, a couple of decades ago . . .

TU: Yes

DR: . . . whereas my aunty converted to Catholicism because she married an Irishman. So they’re the two . . . they’re really the only two properly Christian members of the family. They’re different – you know, one’s Protestant, one’s Catholic – but they have these angel practices in common. Now, they’re a little bit secretive about actually what it is. The few things I’ve been picking up is that there are some cards . . . . But as much as I got was that they sort-of identified with particular figures, and these figures were associated with various qualities, and colours, and things like that. Could you fill us in, a little bit, about that kind of aspect of the practical side of it – what it involves?

TU: Sure. First of all I want to say that I’m pleased that now, through my research, you get the possibility that you can learn something about your family members!

DR: Yes.

TU: I’ve had several men tell me, “Now I understand my mother better!” “Now I understand my sister better!” Or something like this, you know? Because they kind-of get a little glimpse of it. And then the women tell something about it, but don’t open up the whole stuff, immediately. Yes, there are these practices and, the angel is a Christian figure, and we have all this Christian sort of mythology, and narrative, and image traditions on angels, the idea in Christianity is that angels are like Godly power and God gives us angels and angelic power when he wants to do [something]. [Whereas], this contemporary practice is much more practical for the women. It is practical religion: an everyday practical religion that uses several kinds of techniques and means. You mentioned cards – angel card reading is quite popular, and the first angel cards I met in Finland were cards coming from your country, in fact, or the US. Now there are also some indigenous Finnish angel card traditions, too. That goes a bit like Tarot card reading. You can either make a table of them, or you can just take one card for the day, or one card for a puzzling question that you have in your mind. And so, you read an enigmatic answer, just a word: the word might be like, “happiness”; the word might be, like, “balance”; or, you know, these kinds of things that you also might find in horoscopes. So that is one thing, but they also have their imagery. And, like you said, certain angels might be linked to certain colours, for instance, which might give this woman a kind of glance into her life. In the sense that when she learns – either though cards or through somebody – that her colour is linked to the colour green [for example], which would then, perhaps, be the colour of the Archangel Raphael, then, every time she’s drawn to green she gets a message. So, it could go like this. But then there are meditations, several kinds of angel meditations, often like a visual journey: you are led to a sacred garden where you meet your angel; you talk to your angel; you ask something; your angel gives you a symbol or a word, or something; you are led back from the meditation; and then you are there, either with yourself or a group of friends – angel minded friends. And you integrate this thing that you got, and you relate it to your life’s bigger or smaller things. And then, of course, this more-or-less . . . the thing that connects with this holistic milieu even more is the angel healing aspect. (10:00) There are angel healing courses, and you can learn to become a healer – a bit like a Reiki healer – who heals others or who heals yourself. The angel healing, as far as I know , is mostly used for what we might call emotional issues and emotional problems. And I think that this highlights the topic of emotions, and how important emotions are – perhaps particularly to women in the contemporary world – is extremely interesting because, then, it’s related to the high numbers of depression and emotion work in very many ways.

DR: Yes. Which also might . . . . I think there’s quite high rates of depression and suicide and stuff in some of the Northern European countries. But that trajectory of women and the  kind-of therapeutic culture is very, very common. You see that a lot in . . . . Well, you see it a lot in the holistic, mind-body-spirit  kind-of world, here. Particularly female, but you also see the same trajectory with men and also in the conspiracy theory world. I looked at this in my work, for instance, David Icke: his passage into conspiracy theory world was looking for alternative therapies to treat his arthritis. He ended up going to a medium who channelled messages to him.

TU: Yes. Mediumship is present here.

DR: But those discourses on healing, and on holistic healing as well – the idea that your emotions and your body are linked – are found right across that  kind-of cultic milieu, not only in the more overtly spiritual aspects of . . .

TU: Definitely. I think of one other notion that is very, very closely connected to emotions- another “e” word is energy: emotions and energy. And the way that you can sort-of manage them, or you can make use of them, but you can also sort-of control them – like you said, channelling or something. Emotions, in my materials, are often considered as one sort of type of energy, one type of energy that works a lot in the human world. And as energy it’s power and it can be used into good. But it can also be, sort of, if it’s like all loose, it can do bad things.

DR: Yes. And, when we were talking about the colours earlier on, that’s immediately what I thought of was the rays of the theosophical tradition – where the colours represent different frequencies of energy or different energies, you know. And that, by selecting a particular colour, you can encourage that particular emotion or energy. Which leads to my next question, which is: all of this stuff that you’ve been describing so far, from using cards for readings, healings, visualisation, the idea of correspondences of colours attracting particular energies, you know – even the use of cards themselves, and the association with therapeutic culture – this all seems taken exactly from 19th century esotericism, what we would call Western esotericism nowadays. Yet [it] has this Christian kind-of – I don’t want to say veneer – but it’s a Christian framing of those practices.

TU: Yes, well, there always was a kind of Christian esotericism as well. They have never been completely apart – even though, probably, some ruling churches and ruling theologies would like them apart – but there have been much more linkages. But I might also say that – particularly in the context of Finland perhaps, but maybe this applies even larger settings – esotericism earlier on used to be a bit elitist. It was not for everybody, for all the people in Finland, anyway, and openly, anyway. But now, what we see is something like the democratisation and popularisation of this esotericism, and bringing it openly in connection with Christianity.

DR: Yes.

TU: And this, of course, has to do with many things – like things that are marketed to us and how popular culture circulates. (15:00) But it also has to do with the grip of the church loosening: the church doesn’t have the normative power any more in people’s everyday lives. In Finland, for instance – perhaps here too, but in Finland – where the ruling church was the Lutheran Church, Lutheranity meant . . . . For those people who were not very religious or very pious, Lutheranity was mostly a normative system, saying what you do in public life, what you don’t do, but this is less so now.

DR: I wonder if it’s not only its normativity in the society, it’s also the normativity of the scholars in the categories that we’re looking at. I wonder if this stuff was always going on, but it was kind-of hidden from our view, because it wasn’t considered suitable for us to look at, and so on.

TU: For the scholars of religion?

DR: Yes.

TU: Yes: because it was not funded, and it was not taken seriously; because it was not the serious religion, it was the fringe stuff. And I have seen a lot, and I suppose a lot of people have seen it, that bigger money always goes to religion which is considered as cultural heritage stuff,  kind-of elevated, sublime thing, more-or-less. Whereas these hobby-level religions with their crazy knowledge systems . . .

DR: Yes. Well, there is a sense in which you get the impression that people think: “Well, we don’t really want to encourage this . . . “

TU: Yes

DR: “If we pay this too much attention it might be seen that we’re taking it seriously.”

TU: Yes. Exactly!

DR: So tell us, then, how did you get to looking at this stuff? What was your passage into this?

TU: My complete passage into this was that I was involved in a larger project, that was led by Professor Peter Nynäs in Abo Akademi university, which is a Swedish speaking university in Finland, in Turku. And I was lucky enough to jump on that project when it started. And the project was called Post-Secular Culture and the Changing Religious Landscape in Finland. And we wanted to look into the margins and outside fields from Lutheranism, and what was happening there. And we were several people and we had several case studies. We started to pick something that we were interested in, or something that somebody was already engaged with, or something, anyway, that could sort-of give us a good palette, a sort of mosaic-view to things that were happening. And since I was more-or-less kind-of a specialist, if you like, in women’s popular religion . . . . It was not my own idea at all, but we started to think about: what is it that happens in this type of religiosity today? One possible thing would have been, like, healing and Reiki and stuff. But then we decided that angels were, just at that time, becoming so popular in Finland that we thought, “that opens up a window, through which we can see some interesting things”. And so it happened. And some books came out and people got really interested in the angel stuff. And I had a lot of fun doing this for a couple of years. And still have, writing on it, fun in many ways. Not only in the hilarious way, but also that I had very nice fieldwork experiences and I learned very much about both the serious sides of religion and life, but also about the less serious sides of it.

DR: Tell us about how you went about the study, then. Was it predominantly kind-of ethnographic work?

TU: It was ethnographically oriented, multi-method stuff. I love working ethnographically, well. I went to . . . I collected . . . sort-of . . . just went to see what happened. And I took myself into those happenings and situations. Like, for instance, there was a yoga school, when I started my ethnography. In one yoga school they have their yearly “angel week”. So I went through that week and saw how the angels popped into the yoga classes! Which was a good start, in the sense that it brought me into meeting young people – mostly young people – who were interested in this. So I couldn’t work only with the idea that this is only middle-aged women, or women in their late-middle age and stuff. So I started with that and started to contact people. I used the snowball method to get interviews. I went for courses, I contacted people and said, “Can I come?” (20:00) And then there was this very popular Irish – I don’t know how popular she is here, but – woman who writes autobiographies and the books where she recounts her life with angels, Lorna Byrne, whose books, just then, became translated in Finnish and who paid visits to Finland. And all the visits were sold out, there were 1000 women with a handful of men who came there (hand-in-hand with their female friends ) to listen to how this Irish . . . contemporary Irish mystic tells how she sees the place full of angels and describes people’s angels. Well, I made a survey in one of her visits, wanting to know about the backgrounds of these women who came to listen to her, etc, etc. Then I sort-of followed the media reactions, I followed the church reactions. I did sort-of a multi-angle thing.

DR: So it was very much ethnography, then, in all of the senses it can be, so: sort-of qualitative interviewing, but participant observation and media discourse analysis as well.

TU: Yes and also the smallish survey – I had 263 answers, so that I could see the demographic things and stuff.

DR: And how did they take to you? I mean, how open about your research were you? And how interested . . . ?

TU: I was very open about my research. I was open even in the bigger settings. Particularly when I was distributing the questionnaire, of course, I told them what it was about. And I was open when I went to study an angel healer – that was the most participant part of it.

DR: Right.

TU: And well, they were . . . everybody was, at that time, so happy about this thing happening. And they probably considered me as a possible advocate for them, and taking the whole thing to the academy. I remember . . . may I tell you one nice interview situation where there was this woman who channelled angels?

DR: Yes.

TU: I knew that she channelled angels, and that was one of my reasons for contacting her. And she also wanted her husband to be in the interview, so I interviewed the two of them. Before we started the interview she said to me – we had a cup of coffee, we were at their home – she said to me: “What if my angel also wants to become interviewed?” – the angel that she channelled.

DR: Oh, so the angel was present, then?

TU: She said, “What if she comes?”

DR: Oh, what if? Yes.

TU: I said, “Well, I’m very happy of course . . . ” and I tried to make a joke. I said, “I probably don’t have the informed consent for the angel!” (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs)

TU: Because I wasn’t prepared. I had two copies, you know. I had one for the husband and one for her.

DR: It would be an interesting subject to come up at the ethics commission . . .

TU: Well what happened after some time of interview, maybe one hour – it was one of the longest interviews that I made – she says, “Now, I think she wants to come, my angel wants to come.” And I said, “OK.” It was  kind-of exciting, I have to admit.

DR: And did the angel contribute to the conversation?

TU: Yes! Then I have 40 minutes of interview with the angel in my tape.

DR: Oh fantastic!

TU: And after that the angel goes away, and the woman comes back, and we continue. And while the woman has a bit of difficulty – as her husband tells me – in coming back, resuming her own like mortal role, the husband gives me the explanation that, “Well it often is a bit difficult for her to come back after the angel has gone,” because there is this liminal period. Well, what I have there is a sub-chapter in a book that I’m going to publish – in Finnish, unfortunately. But I have one sub-chapter interview with an angel!

DR: Fantastic.

TU: But that is  kind-of a . . . that is interesting also, in the sense of: “What did the angel say, in the interview?” Well several things, but one important thing was that I had my small recorder on the table and the angel goes very close to the recorder and says, “And I want to say this to science, and please go and tell this to Abo Akademi of science!”

DR: (Laughs)

TU: So, it was a very intricate dynamics that was going on there. (25:00) Because was she making fun of me? Or was she really, like, making the angel meet science, not through just meeting the people, but mediating it. It was interesting. I haven’t really found a way to talk about this so far.

DR: What that suggests to me is that, you know . . . . The spirit guide is often . . . there’s a kind of yin/yang relationship, so they’re like the animus and the anima in Jungian psychology or, you know, the various sort of spirit animals are often the opposite gender. So, if she is existing in the modern, rational, secular – well, supposedly so – world, then her spirit companion is the opposite.

TU: Yes

DR: So, represents to her the spiritual world and that is one which is often set up against science: science as the disenchanted . . . you know, the “black iron prison”.

TU: Yes, that’s true.

DR: Whereas the spiritual world is the enchanted one and so, naturally, would be pitted against the rationalism represented by science.

TU: But there I had the two coming together, and the enchanted world coming directly to shout at the disenchanted world represented by the recorder.

DR: Yes. So the recorder is actually representing that as well, yes.

TU: The recorder is there as a hard fact there, and the angel goes into that hard machine.

DR: But happy to use science to make a point . . .

TU: Yes, but also . . .

DR: And capable of doing so . . .

TU: And very capable of doing so. Even considered that it was a small girl angel!

DR: Oh, ok!

TU: Six years old, or something like this. But, nevertheless, very skilful in that.

DR: So, for this woman, the angel was a child? That’s interesting.

TU: Yes, this was a woman in her 50s and the angel was a female child.

DR: That’s interesting. Because that’s not usually the case, is it?

TU: Ah, the angel asked me that!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: “Do you know . . . Can you guess why I appear as a small girl?” And the answer was . . . .Well, I was a bit silly – I offered the answer. I offered my guess and she took it. I don’t know, maybe I should have done something else, but I said, “Maybe it is because we are not afraid of children or small girls?” And she said, “Yes. The enormous power that I bring is kind-of less feared when . . . ”

DR: She was in her 50s , you said? Had they had children?

TU: They had a child together: a boy – early teens. And one of them – I don’t remember which one of them – had bigger children, too.

DR: Ah right, ok. But, generally speaking, the angel is a male figure.

TU: Often, in my material.

DR: And in my experience, as well. What is the appeal, then? Why is it the angel that’s at the centre of this, not fairies, or dragons, or Thor, or Spiderman?

TU: It is . . . . Well, some of these women have a lot of things going on with a lot of other spirits, as well. But some – I might say that those who consider themselves mostly as Lutheran – they don’t take other spirits as easily, but an angel is something that they allow in their lives. Well angels . . . I wouldn’t mind having a male angel in my life, considering how beautiful they are, how wonderful they are depicted!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: They come with their baby faces, but they have strong, wonderful wings and things. And I sometimes play with this idea. Because, you know, in Finland we have . . . like, we think about the mortal men, like the normal, ordinary men. We have a big number of engineers. Engineers are considered, in Finland – this is a bit jokingly said – but men [who are], like, reliable and practical, but not so good always in talking about emotions, with the women.

DR: (Laughs) Yes. I don’t think that’s unique to Finland, to be honest.

TU: Maybe. So these women sometimes even talked about their men who sometimes really were engineers. And they were, sort-of, not replacing these husbands with these male angels, but complementing the scene with this figure which had something male, something masculine in it – a protective sense, for instance, but which was also the perfect male, in the sense that he understood their emotions. Isn’t that good?

DR: Yes. It does make sense, absolutely.

TU: It does make sense. And yes, not all of them were male, but a lot of them were and it appeared that the Archangel Michael, who is the protector of soldiers, was pretty much popular.

DR: (30:00) Yes. There’s going to be a class in here shortly, so we should wrap up. There are so many other questions I could’ve asked. I literally have a page of them written down in front of me, but I’m afraid we’re out of time. Thanks so much for taking part in the Religious Studies Project. If you’re interested in Tehri’s work, do seek out her publications. And best of luck when the book comes out. I hope it comes out in English as well, later on.

TU: If you translate it!

DR: I’d have to learn Finnish first. We’ll see . . .

TU: There are articles in English. Plenty of them came out recently: some related to ritual studies; some related to ritual and healing; and some related to more to general aspects, various theoretical angles.

DR: Fantastic. And if you’re on the website, then the links below will guide you to them. But in the meantime, thanks for taking part.

TU: And thank you.

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Utriainen, Tehri 2017. “Angel Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/angel-spirituality/

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Millennialism and Violence?

Descriptions of the End Times are full of violent imagery, of mass destruction through earthquakes, tidal waves, fire and ice. These images are written deeply into our culture through the book of Revelation, but are by no means limited to the Christian imagination. Often, our idea of modern millennial groups is informed by images of violent confrontations between them and the state, for example at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, or of mass suicide, such as with Heaven’s Gate or the People’s Temple at Jonestown.

Are we right to connect millennialism and violence? Are these groups typical, or rare exceptions, magnified out of proportion by the lens of the media – and scholarship? How do we account for the popularity of millennialism outside of religious traditions, new, extreme or otherwise?

This audio/visual episode was produced in collaboration with CenSAMM, the Centre for the Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements.

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


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


Podcast with Eileen Barker, Moojan Momen, Joseph Webster and Tristan Sturm (22 May 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available CenSAMM conference – Millennialism and Violence 1.1.

David Robertson (DR): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. I’m here today, in the grounds of the Panacea Museum in sunny Bedford, for the inaugural CenSAMM conference on the subject of Millenarian Groups and Violence. I’m joined today by Moojan Momen, by Joseph Webster, by Eileen Barker and by Tristan Sturm. And we’re going to discuss the issues around millenarianism, millennialism and violence. And all of the talks from this conference have been streamed and there’ll be a link to that below. But just to get the ball rolling, I’m going to ask: what is it we’re talking about? I mean “millenarianism”, “millennialism”, “apocalypticism”: are these different terms? What do they mean? Joe, maybe you could get the ball rolling on that?

Joseph Webster (JW): OK, yes. It’s an interesting question. I’m not so sure that I have a clear answer, possibly because a clear answer doesn’t exist. I think these terms have been used for a very long time, interchangeably. Sometimes, that’s because of potentially sloppy scholarship on behalf of those who are using the terms. On the other hand, part of the answer might be that these terms – particularly millenarianism and millennialism – have been, to some extent, interchangeable. The OED – which isn’t the final word on these conversations but still, nevertheless – the OED does define these terms as synonyms. The way that millenarianism is used in anthropology – the discipline that I come from – tends to see millennialism as more distinctly Christian than millenarianism; millenarianism being treated as a broader term that has resonances with the Cargo Cult literature and the Ghost Dance literature. However, again, that’s not universally true. Some scholars within anthropology do use millennialism as a way to refer to Cargo Cults and the Ghost Dance. So, whilst I don’t think there’s any clear definitional answer, my assumption would be that the best way to proceed is how the groups themselves use these terms. And they don’t, actually, tend to use of either of those terms for themselves. So let’s take it from there.

Tristan Sturm (TS): I would add to that “apocalypticism”. And I think we can think about apocalypticism versus millennialism – which is the distinction I would use – as two sides of the same coin. The Apocalypse or apocalypticism, meaning unveiling, happens before the Millennium: 1000 years, or a period of time after which the world ends. So, I would understand it that way; I would teach that to my students. I would say apocalypticism is the events before the sort-of  Revelation – or the end of the world – and the Renewal is the Millennium. That’s how I would understand it. And I think, using apocalypticism versus millennialism is important in certain cases. Apocalypticism is useful, of course, for various secular movements who don’t believe in a Renewal, a new world, right? Whether that would come from climate change; Trumpism – potentially – for some individuals; and for others, equally, Barrack Obama, right? That doesn’t have, necessarily, a Christian or any religious overlay over it. We can still use the term apocalypticism – and I think many social theorists do – to talk about things like climate change and the severity of the series of events that would happen from that.

DR: We’re often, when we hear about apocalypticism, millennialism, we’re often hearing about these cults, these controversial new religious movements. Eileen, maybe you’d speak to this? Is there some necessary connection between new religious movements and apocalyptic millennial thinking?

Eileen Barker (EB): No.

DR: Then why is it so often connected in the public mind?

EB: Well, it’s quite frequent that millennial groups, or millenarian groups or apocalyptic groups will be termed cults. And cults, sort-of technically, usually means some kind of religious or non-religious movement that’s in tension with society in some ways. There’s a sort-of classic division between the cult and the sect, which are in tension with society and a denomination of the church, which aren’t. But, technically, that’s one thing. But just generally, in popular parlance, to say something is a cult means: “it’s a religion I don’t like”. And it’s not really very much more than that. (5:00) I mean, I often get asked: “Is it a real religion, a genuine religion, or is it a cult?” And you’ve just got to say, “Well, what do you mean by a cult?” and one man’s, or one woman’s cult is a another person’s religion. Nobody says, “I belong to a cult.” Not seriously. They might say it as a joke, or in self-defence. Now, some of these movements on which people put the label of cult are millenarian, but most of them are not. Well, I wouldn’t like to say how many are and how many aren’t, but the two don’t necessarily go together – except that it’s more likely that the millenarian groups are a sub-group of cult. But you get millenarianism in denominations and in church – if you’re just looking at the tension with society – so it goes either way. You’ve got to be terribly clear what you’re talking about. And sometimes such categories are useful, but quite often they just obscure.

DR: Indeed.

EB: So, say what you’re talking about!

Moojan Momen (MM): And I think we need to bear in mind that, even Christianity itself , when it first arose – if you read the Gospels – you’ll see there that they are talking about how Christianity is fulfilling prophecy. So Christianity is, therefore, a millenarian movement in Judaism and was probably regarded as a cult by other Jews. So, we’re talking about a history of religion developing gradually from being a cult, to being a sect, to being a religion.

DR: And how important is prophecy? Is this an essential aspect here?

EB: I think so, almost by definition. Because you’re expecting something to happen. So you have some kind of knowledge that’s come from somewhere. Now it might just be in your own little brain, but usually there’s somebody who says . . . or a book or something that can be read as saying . . . . So, there’s some sort of “saying” what’s going to happen in the future. It’s future-oriented.

DR: Yes. But it’s not entirely about the future?

EB: Oh no. No, I’m not saying that. It’s necessary but not sufficient.

DR: It’s a good in.

JW: Yes, I think that’s right. I think one of the key aspects to whether we’re talking about millenarian movements, or apocalyptic movements, or millennialism, is the way in which temporality and time are really central to what’s going on. And crucially, I think, the way in which parts of time, which we customarily think of as very distinct, actually end up collapsing into each other and becoming conflated. So: the present being seen as a very unique moment when prophecy is being fulfilled; when things that were said of the future are coming to pass right now; but also that the present is seen as deeply resonant with an ancient past. Look at the way in which the Christian groups, for instance, that are most dispensational – groups like the Brethren, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Baptist groups – certainly look at today’s age as morally bankrupt and immediately reach back into the Old Testament past for examples of the same: Sodom and Gomorrah, the days of Noah, the days of the Tower of Babel. And, immediately, what that does is it transforms the present into something that is not only future-oriented, but is deeply indebted to, and is seen as a replaying of ancient past Biblical events.

EB: Of course the Abrahamic faiths, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, have a linear view of history: that there’s a past, we’re in present and there is a future. And they’re promising something about the future. But we should remember that a lot of new religions, cults, sects, traditional religions, are cyclical. And they see time in this sort-of birth, death, rebirth etc. Now, sometimes it’s an upwards spiral. Sometimes you go through various ages. But they’re not just sort-of straight lineal like they are in the Abrahamic [faiths], which lend themselves more to apocalyptic visions because there’s something happening. But within Hinduism you can get different ages, which can be very different. And the New Age, indeed. There’s something very fundamental that’s changing in society, which is what’s expected in these kind of movements.

TS: I would agree, but I also think, prior to say the Enlightenment, prior to Hobbes or someone like that, you would see, I think, a cyclical idea within Christianity, still. (10:00) I’m taking this from Reinhart Koselleck and he says, you know, the ideas of the Apocalypse didn’t really emerge in the everyday life of Christians until, really, the period of the Enlightenment, with the idea of progress, and the Kantian idea that because the past is different, the future must also be different. And so we get this idea that the Apocalypse isn’t part of a cycle, a scaled-up everyday cycle of seasons, that we would see with a lot of individuals. So, I think there is a change actually happening around the end of the 16th century, where we’re moving even out of a Christian cyclicalism to a more linear idea of the future. And I would add to that that I think now the future is becoming more important. And it’s been studied I think, even across disciplines, it’s becoming this tag term, that we’re trying to theorise now. And I think here of Susan Harding, for example, who talks about “memories of the future”. And she talks about, you know, that the future is a kind of memory. We have an idea of the past and those are kind-of memories as well, outside of history. We’re selective about the memories that we want to bring to the present and give continuity to the way things are. In the same way, we do that with the future. We kind-of know how the future’s going to play out. We have a sort of selectivity of ideas. There are certain paths that we’re pretty sure are more likely to happen that others. And we go down those paths. And prophecy functions in a similar way. It tries to close off the way the future could go. It sort-of says, “Well, this is the likely space that the future will go.” And so it’s closing off of the future. And we have a kind of memory of the future. We re-member ideas from the future. And we all do this. We do this with our jobs, how we foresee our lives are going to go. And they more-or-less do take place the way we probably thought that they would, given a certain level of difference there. And so, I would say that about time. And I also . . . and there’s a book that I really like. It’s called “The Past is a Foreign Country” and he says that we’re selective about our pasts. But I would say that the future is also a foreign country where we’re selective about the future that we want to bring, to give meaning to our present. And, you know, St Augustine said this as well. He said that there’s no such thing as the past or the future. There’s only the present past, the present present, and the present future. And he’s referring to that kind of presentism, I think, that exists across religions and everyday life. And that’s really where we only exist.

DR: Well, I think an interesting and very important part of millennial thinking and prophetic thinking is that it places the individual right at this axis point of history. As you say, you know, it’s the memories of history: a narrative construction, leading to this point and you have various futures branching out. And something about apocalyptic and millennialism, when it becomes involved in violence particularly, is that sometimes it’s seen that in order for the future to go one way there has to be some sort of violent or cataclysmic change; which brings us to the issue of violence, then. Is there a necessary connection between millenarianism and violence? Or is that only in the popular imagination?

EB: Absolutely not.

JW: I couldn’t agree more. I see nothing within millenarianism that makes it essentially violent. And I think the other important point to make is that not only do we “other” millenarian groups, by often assuming that they are violent, but we normalise ourselves – the secular, the non-religious, the mainstream – as something that is somehow essentially non-violent. So we make cults and sects and millenarianism essentially violent and we make the mainstream somehow essentially non-violent. And I think both are completely false. The evidence just does not stack up.

MM: And, of course, we’re sitting here at the Panacea Society, which was a millenarian movement that was not at all violent, so . . . . And, in fact, probably the vast majority of millenarian movements are not violent. It requires a certain set of circumstances to lead a millenarian movement to violence. And the vast majority of them don’t have that set of circumstances.

TS: Can I add to that?

DR: Yes, absolutely.

TS: I guess I’m interested in the way we’re using the word “violence”, here. I think we’re talking about overt, coercive types of violence. But I think discourse or language can be violent as well. (15:00) I think certain other, “small v” forms of violence take place as well. And they take place outside of . . . they’re not exclusive or endemic to millennial movements, they happen in everyday life. I’m speaking here of a kind of power that we exact on all sorts of things. And millennial movements, apocalyptic movements are a different kind of normative discourse and they challenge the dominant normative discourses that Joe was just talking about, right? In a sense they’re kind-of doing a violence: they’re trying to change the way we think about the world. Our normative way that we think about the world is not the right way, it’s not the absolute truth. It’s truth because more people believe it than often the millennial and apocalyptic movements. That doesn’t mean there’s not a kind of violence that’s going on there: there is.

DR: Absolutely.

EB: I’d like to add that a lot of the movements are actually pacifist and they work hard for pacifism. And it’s very interesting that today, while this is being recorded – April 6th – the Jehovah’s Witnesses are – perhaps it’s already happened – being threatened with entire extinction from Russia, because they are absolutely non-violent. They’re in prison in places like South Korea because they’re conscientious objectors. They won’t kill. They’re prepared to be killed. They were killed in Auschwitz, for example. Unlike the Jews and the homosexuals and the Gypsies, who were going to suffer anyway, the Jehovah’s Witnesses could have said, “No, we’ll obey the state”, and they didn’t. They preferred to be killed rather than this.

DR: Mmm.

EB: Because they just refused to do certain things. And the group that you were talking about today, also tried to be pacifist. And so it’s not just that they’re not violent. They will work against sometimes. But of course, some are violent with a capital V.

MM: Yes, the group that I was talking about today was historically the Bábis of Iran. They were a precurser of what is today the Bahai faith. But in mid-19th century Iran they were a group that became very popular, spread very rapidly. And the leader of this group worked very hard to diffuse the violent possibilities, because he claimed to be the Mahdi – and people were expecting the Mahdi to come and lead an army to victory. So they were expecting a violent result from Mahdi coming, and the Báb worked very hard to diffuse that potential for violence. And, really, one of the main factors that eventually did lead to violence, as a result of this movement, was the fact that the Báb was removed from his ability to lead his followers. Because he was imprisoned in a fortress, right up in the northwest corner of the country, and therefore cut off from his followers and prevented from leading his followers in the way that he wanted to.

DR: Did you want to add something there, Joe?

JW: Well, this is an issue that we’ve been discussing throughout the day. I think, when we speak about violence, when we speak about the way in which pacifism within new religious movements is often ignored . . .

EB: Or, seen as dangerous and violent!

JW: Indeed. . . where the refusal to fight becomes a type of extremism. I think, connected to this, is the way in which, in some cases scholars, and in other cases political entities – governmental agents – try and explain away millenarian movements rather than explain them. And, I guess, by that I mean that they have a tendency to look for external causes of behaviour: explanations which, wholesale, refuse to countenance the possibility that the local native account – emerging from within the religious movement in question – might have something to contribute to an understanding of why that movement is doing what it’s doing; or in some cases, not doing what it’s not doing, for instance, fighting. So if we try, as scholars, to begin to break down the idea that religious movements are saying and doing one thing and on the other hand our job is to analyse them in ways that are alien to that movement and external to that movement; if we begin to break down that process of explanation, I think we might begin to have a more fertile understanding of what new religious movements are, or what millennial movements are. Because we can learn things from them in ways that very often we simply refuse to acknowledge.

DR: Absolutely. (20:00) And that’s something I talk about a lot, especially. . . . It’s part of the heritage of Religious Studies to be talking about beliefs, and particularly about deviant beliefs, and sometimes going as far as pathologising these kind of ways of viewing the world. But your work, I know, is talking about things that are very relevant to today: you mentioned Trump earlier on. And when these political movements, for instance, suddenly start to engage with other millenarian kind-of ideas, I think it shocks people when they actually realise, “ well, maybe this is more normal” than they perhaps realised.

TS: I think there’s a couple of things going on here, right? Let’s start with Trump. One of Trump’s main security advisers, Steve Bannon, has his own millennial perspective: something he calls the Fourth Turning. He gets this from a series of books on generations, which is a kind of secular apocalypse: that the world is getting bad, capitalism is being destroyed, traditional culture is being broken down, and he needs to take action to do something about that. In other ways, some millennial groups align themselves with political groups, right? And maybe their action is something as simple and normative as voting. It’s not really taking action. In fact, many of the groups that I study – Christian Zionists [for example] – are fatalistic. They’re pacifists, in the sense that they don’t actually take any kind of physical action, but they might vote. But we might even argue that doing nothing sometimes is still taking a side, right? So the groups that I study, the Pilgrims – the Christian Zionist programmes from the United States, going to Israel and Palestine – they’re not doing anything to contribute to the conflicts that I write about, directly. But indirectly they are, insofar as they support a tourism industry; they support a particular political ideology, both in Israel and America that might actually take physical violence, or take the form of physical violence. So, in a sense, they’re pacifists but they’re still involved, or part of the assemblage of violence, I would argue.

DR: So when violence does arise, then, what is difference? What happens there? What is the process by which a group minority or majority becomes violent? I mean, there are well-known cases, obviously: Waco seems to be the sort of paradigmatic account today, at the conference; but Heavens Gate as well; Jonestown. What is it that causes violence in these unusual cases?

EB: Well, they’re all different. Part of our job, as scholars, is to look at the particulars in order to try and compare them, in order to see the similarities and differences, and pull out some of the threads and similarities. But there aren’t a certain number of similarities, and the other things are different: there are groups; there are categories; there are clusters; bundles of things that seem to go together; and the sort of tension that Joe was talking about earlier between the internal reasons and the external reasons – and Stuart Wright had a paper, today, which talked about this – and the importance of seeing the interaction between the two. And you can’t predict by doing one or the other: it’s seeing how the two react on each other. And these can lead to spirals of what criminologists call “deviance amplification”: each side does something that’s slightly bad in the other side’s view and gives the other side permission to be slightly worse. And so it grows. . . and then – wham! And Waco is an example of that. But Waco is very, very unusual, thank goodness! There are cases where you can see this writ large – and they’re easy to see – and therefore we focus on them, because they give us a kind of template, or an idea, against which we can measure the other movements which are not like that. And I think it’s very important that we keep remembering that they’re not like that, and that we look at the other ones and take those into our calculation, as well. I think that’s important. I think the reason why Waco – or perhaps another example would be Aum Shinrikyo – becomes paradigmatic is because, there is some sense in which we’ve already come to the study of Millenarian movements having decided that they are somehow profoundly different to religions at large. And therefore, by a process of scholarly selection by us, we simply focus on those cases which fit the paradigm. (25:00) This is the classic case of “normal science”: that we simply look for evidence which fits pre-existing paradigms and conveniently – or, in some cases, very inconveniently – ignore all the other counter examples; and the theories – or, in some cases, prejudices – that we have of these groups are wrongly reinforced. And another consequence of this is, as Eileen says: many of the groups that are committed to non-violence – or don’t even feel the need to commit themselves to non-violence because they are so inherently non-violent that that commitment doesn’t need to made – that those groups are simply ignored. Many people don’t focus on those groups because they simply don’t fit the prejudices that we seem to have within the scholarship.

EB: I think we have to make the distinction between the violence that is done to a group and violence that the group does. And nearly all the violence is done – again with a capital V – is done to their own members. Some are done to people that they know, personally, who they don’t like. And very, very few are done to strangers: Aum Shinrikyo is an example, but one of the very few; the Manson family is another one. But, mostly, the harm is internal rather than externally directed. Most of them expect that God, or something, will happen: the Apocalypse or Armageddon will happen. Now, they might have to be the midwife – and that’s another quite interesting question that we haven’t touched on yet, is: what happens when prophecy fails, when they expect this great big change? But I think it’s important to remember that very, very few go around killing people. That tends to be the traditional major religions – the churches and the denominations – who’ve got the money and the armies. Now, of course, it might be different if they get hold of sarin gas or something, but this happened very much . . . .

DR: This ties into what you were saying before, about the importance . . . . We have to generalise, to some degree, to make cross-comparisons, but we have to remain aware of the important differences all the time. And, a lot of the time, these groups that we’re comparing – the actual violence that we’re talking about is very, very different. And you also have cases like Heaven’s Gate, where there’s very little evidence of coercion there. I mean, if you watch the exit videos that the members shot, for instance, they’re going quite happily into that situation with their eyes fully open. It’s only from our external point of view that it can be described as violence at all – largely because of going into it, or looking at it, with this kind of brainwashing mentality that earlier discourses on new religions bought into, which is very much discredited now.

EB: And they were only harming themselves.

DR: Exactly

EB: And Joe ought to jump down on me immediately, because they didn’t see themselves as harming . . . .

JW: Of course!

EB: They saw themselves as being ‘transitionised”, or whatever the word was?

JW: Going to the level above the human, TELAH. Yes, I think that’s a really interesting point: that what he have here is – to bring it back to your question about failed prophecy, and this does link to violence . . . . Whether or not we can genuinely point to groups like Heaven’s Gate; or classic historical case studies like the Millerites; or Festinger’s famous book about cognitive dissonance, using the Seekers – even if we leave violence in the equation, or if we take it out – there is still the enduring question about: does prophecy for these groups ever fail at all?

EB: Oh, it does!

JW: Well see, I’m not so sure about that. When I think about Heaven’s Gate I think about the fact that they ended their lives and – as far as we’re aware, as far as they’re aware – made a successful journey to where they were going. The same, I think, can be said with the Seekers and Mrs Keech: the idea that the prophecy did not fail, the flood didn’t fail to arrive, it wasn’t a failure, it was them successfully spreading enough light to call the floods off. The Seventh Day Adventists did not explain away a failure of Millerite prophecy. It seems to me that Ellen White simply realised that Miller’s prophecy was correct but that the revolution began in heaven, not on earth. So, I’m intrigued to hear your pushback on that. In what cases does prophecy really fail?

EB: Well there are some groups that have said, “Oops, we got it wrong!” (30:00) I can’t remember his name. The man who – it was May sometime about 4 or 5 years ago – Radio something . . .

All: Harold Camping

JW: Family Radio

EB: Now, he said . . .

DR: After a couple of events, yes!

EB: And, at that time, he said “God got it wrong”, according a newspaper headline!

DR: Which is one of the techniques mentioned in Festinger’s books, actually: that the transmission was garbled and – reception issues.

EB: You can get the reception wrong; you can have it happening in the spirit world – like with Joanna Southcott and lots of others; you can have people saying, “Well, because we did this, we stopped the terrible thing happening”; or you can say, “Because they didn’t do this, God didn’t come yet. We weren’t ready. We didn’t listen to the Messiah, telling us what to do.” There are a whole lot of different ways out. But there are those that . . . . There was a chap – again, I can’t remember, I want to say Garland – he was a Chinese chap in America. And he said, “I’ll come out and apologise if nothing’s happened.” And he came out and apologised. This was about ten years ago. He was Chinese, or he was Oriental of some kind.

DR: Well, hopefully, one of the listeners can tell us who it is in the comments.

EB: I’m sure they will. And provide other examples.

DR: I hope they do.

TS: I want to add to this conversation about “small v” versus “big V” violence. I think, one way in which small v violence takes place is . . . Harold Camping is a good example. A lot of people – thousands of people – sold their houses, they went into debt; they expected this to happen. That had a tremendous amount of violence on their families and their lives. They moved into forests, they bought bunkers. This is a form of violence, right? I think another form of violence, that wasn’t really talked about in the conference, is spatial violence: the way that these groups imagine spaces in particular ways; homogenised spaces; map spaces; understand whole groups of people in homogenised ways and treat them in certain ways. And some of these groups are aligned with state power. Sometimes the state see them as a threat, and disciplines them with large V Violence. And sometimes they align themselves with the state: with large V Violence; by their voting for them; by their interests. We’re seeing this at the moment with Donald Trump – he’s doing all sorts of violence to homosexuals, to women’s rights over their body, these sorts of things – aligning themselves with larger Christian movements like Christian Zionists, like pre-millennial dispensationalist, right. . . that are doing violence to all sorts of other people within the electorate. And also, in terms of foreign policy, the way that Americans understand Muslims, the war in Iraq, right? These are all contributing factors. I think maybe the mistake, then, is to look at just the millennial movement. You have to see the effects that they have outside of their movement, right? Their social effects. Look at Marxism, for example. This is a good example . . . . Or another point, maybe, I want to make is the difference between belief and practice. So, we have textual beliefs – we have written documents, for a lot of these groups – and then we have the way people actually act, which are two different things. You know, would someone say that Stalin was a true Communist – a true Marxist – who murdered millions of people? Is that an example? Marxism is a form of millennialism: it’s clearly interpreted and was influenced by Jewish and Christian thought, in the way that there is a kind of . . . . Capitalism kind-of reaches a point where it can’t abide, it fails, and then we have a kind of proletariat millennialism afterwards. So the practice and belief is also a discussion that we need to have, within these discussions.

DR: Unfortunately, I’m going to have to do small v violence to the conversation and to return to the subject of time! We have been talking about this all day. We could continue to talk about it all evening, and we will be talking about it again, tomorrow. For the viewer and listener I urge you to check out the millennialism, on new religious movements, on violence and these kind of issues. Other than that, I would like to thank all of our participants for taking part. And thanks for watching.


Citation Info:, Barker, Eileen, Moojan Momen, Joseph Webster, Tristam Strum. 2017. “Millennialism and Violence?” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 18 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/millennialism-and-violence/

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

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Yoga in Museums

Yoga, in its modern form, should be of great interest to scholars of religion. While it certainly has roots in Vedic culture, the vast majority of Western practitioners do not see it as “religious”, but rather to do with health or “well-being”. Yoga’s status as religious has been in court, but nevertheless it continues to be practised in business, schools and, as Bruce Sullivan tells us, museums.

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Sociology of Religion – and Religious Studies?

“You got your sociology of religion in my religious studies!” “You got religious studies in my sociology of religion!” – DELICIOUS

What makes the sociology of religion and Religious Studies distinct from each other – if anything? Paul-Francois Tremlett, Titus Hjelm and David Robertson discuss what the two approaches have in common, and how they differ. Importantly, they consider how they might learn from each other. Does the sociology of religion over-rely on surveys, or could RS benefit from such large-scale data? Is Religious Studies overly-concerned with theory and definitions, or could sociology benefit from a more critically-nuanced approach? Why is it that sociologists seem to have the ear of policy-makers when RS scholars do not?

This episode is the sixth in a series of seven entitled “New Directions in the Sociology of Religion”, co-produced with SOCREL to celebrate their 40th anniversary.

Be sure to check out the other podcasts in this series, such as ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan,  ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie, ‘Researching Radicalisation‘ with Matthew Francis, and ‘Religion, youth, and Intergenerationality‘ with Naomi Thompson.

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

 

An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion

What is the sociology of religion? What are its particular concerns, dominant themes and defining methodologies? Where did it begin, and how has it evolved? This interview with Grace Davie introduces this important and historically influential approach to the study of religion.

In conversation with David G Robertson, Professor Davie – herself a highly respected theorist of religious change – discuss the four tasks of the sociology of religion; some early sociologists and their relationship to the social changes of their time; modernity, secularisation and a more recent social shift, the Internet; and how Europe may be the exception in the modern world, rather than the model by which all other states will necessarily proceed. They conclude by reminding listeners that we must always keep our theories foremost in our thinking, because they are as socially and historically contextual as the data we use them to interpret.

The Changing Nature of Religion, or our podcasts on Emile Durkheim, Claude Levi-Strauss, Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture, Marxist Approaches, Bricolage and more…

RSP subscribers get a 30% discount on “Implicit Religion”!

Now published in collaboration with the Religious Studies Project, Implicit Religion was founded by Edward Bailey† in 1998 and formerly the Journal of the Centre for the Study of Implicit Religion and Contemporary Spirituality.

Subscribers to the RSP receive a 30% discount on subscriptions. Click here to access the journal’s subscription page and enter the code: DISCOUNT30

Exciting new directions for Implicit Religion:

This international journal offers a platform for scholarship that challenges the traditional boundary between religion and non-religion and the tacit assumptions underlying this distinction. It invites contributions from a critical perspective on various cultural formations that are usually excluded from religion by the gatekeeping practices of the general public, practitioners, the law, and even some scholars of religion. Taking a broad scope, Implicit Religion showcases analyses of material from the mundane to the extraordinary, but always with critical questions in mind such as: why is this data boundary-challenging? what do such marginal cases tell us about boundary management and category formation with respect to religion? and what interests are being served through acts of inclusion and exclusion?

Futures Found Wanting

In her recent book on confession and witchcraft in early modern France, French Studies scholar Virginia Krause argues that early modern demonology was a ‘science of the night’. The activities of the Devil, and of the witches who served him, occurred in the darkest hours, ‘when the shadows hide his shadow’ (2015, 49). Their influence was felt, but their crimes were hidden. For the period’s witch-hunting demonologists, ‘trying to understand witchcraft was like peering into the darkness of an impenetrable night’ (ibid. 55). To compensate for this visual obfuscation, several strategies were developed for gathering evidence of the witch’s occult acts. The ‘auricular regime’ of confession itself was the most prominent, creating a new epistemic framework within which testimony became seen as the guarantor of truth. Through this and other methods old and new, the demonologist came to believe he could at least perceive—if not necessarily pierce—the darkness that veiled demonological truths.

Krause’s work is distant in historical and geographical focus from David Robertson’s own, which explores the discursive function of the UFO in modern millennial conspiracist cultures. Both, however, share an attentiveness to the construction of socioreligious threats, and the epistemic strategies by which these constructions are realised. Figured as discursive objects, both the witch and the UFO exceeded (or were thought to exceed) the epistemic capacities of contemporary knowledge, necessitating the creation of new forms of knowing. Robertson explores such new forms both in terms of their epistemic strategies and their discursive function. Regarding the former, he analyses the role of epistemic capital (in millennial conspiracisms and as a concept more broadly) in creating counter-epistemic economies that seek to encapsulate and exceed normative epistemic frameworks, suturing traditional and scientific knowledge to alternative knowledges: experience, channelling, and the painstaking synthesis of data and connection. Regarding the latter, he identifies discourses of ‘prevention’ as a strategy of alleviating cognitive dissonance when prophecies fail. In these discourses, prophetic failures are coded not as the fault of the prophet or believers, but as the result of malevolent agencies blocking the advent of utopia. In doing so, it relocates blame from the self, and the community aligned with that self, and places it onto an Other, for which epistemic capital provides the means of discernment and delineation.

Such delineated qualities often mimic those of traditional, theological demons. Indeed, the idea that contemporary conspiracism’s malevolent forces might replicate features of Christian demonology is not itself a novel point. Robertson himself notes this, as have Michael Barkun (2013) and Christopher Partridge (2005). Millennial conspiracism thus comes to share much with more traditional Christian theodicies. Evil becomes its problem to solve. But while those theodicies might appeal to the unknowability of divine will or the demonically-induced fallenness of creation to explain the persistence of worldly evil, conspiracism (also) situates it in the machinations of shadowy networks of agents, more and less supernatural. It is here, more than anywhere else, that conspiracism truly meets demonology. It is simply not enough to name the source of evil or even to understand its nature. It must be located, codified, and catalogued. Its agents must be identified. Whether the means are the confessional regimes of the old scientia daemonis or the experiential, channelled, or synthesised strategies of millennial conspiracism, the conspiracy’s demonological truths—whether literal or metaphoric—must be unveiled.

As a discursive strategy of Othering, Robertson argues conspiracy is specific in that it constructs Others as both active malevolences and as originating from within society itself. The witch, often marginalised by class and gender, might seem an odd comparison here, but the crime of witchcraft was one of treason as much as heresy. Their messages encrypted in demonic languages and their actions concealed in deepest darkness, witches were discursively constructed as walking unseen among the good folk of Christendom, secretly turning society to demoniac ends. The witch was thus a part of Christendom, but its deviant part, the part that needed to be located and excised so that the Body might heal and world order could assume its proper path. For those who have spent time with conspiracist cultures, millennialist or otherwise, this image (albeit perhaps modernised, secularised, or overtly de-Christianised) will be a familiar one. Conspirators—whether human, alien, demonic, or some combination or hybridisation of the three—operate discursively to signal a world potentially being led astray. Their crimes are hidden, but their influence is felt.

Conspiracists, who often construct themselves as heretics and mavericks free of the constraints of socioreligious orthodoxy, would likely abhor any comparison to the witch-hunting demonologists of early modernity. Today’s hoarders of epistemic capital are rarely the rich or powerful. They work (or would like to think they work) at the societal margins, circulating in counter-economies of secrets and disregarded data. By contrast, the early modern demonologists were ultimately agents of regnant order. While they strove (at least theoretically) to maintain a world order constructed as under threat, millennial conspiracists strive to uncover those forces preventing its radical transformation. Both, however, depict a profound anxiety about the trajectory of their society and the desire to rectify it. They share that disorienting sense of crisis, exacerbated by events real and imagined, seen as driving many apocalyptic, millennialist and conspiracist narratives, and the identities of the communities that narrate and are narrated by them (O’Leary 1994). Their anxieties are formulated around perceived failures of historical progression. In millennial conspiracism and early modern demonology alike looms the threat of an unwilled and unwanted tomorrow. When prophecy fails, or the present simply becomes written as ‘the failure of the future’—to use Robyn Weigman’s formulation of apocalypse (2000, 807)—contingency measures become necessary, and the construction of malevolent counter-agencies can become a matter of cognitive and communal survival. Behind both conspiracism and demonology lies the ascription of agency to the shifts in a society, not just in the concatenation of disparate specificities—individuals, movements, organisations, events—but in gestalt. Society as a whole, and the future that society seemed to promise, is seen as failing to reach its fulfilment.

But the processes of societal transformation are often opaque. Thus the means for their detection requires the development of a new ‘science of the night,’ one which could piece the darkness veiling demonological truths. Robertson’s work lays bare many of the methods of this new scientia daemonis. Its means of accruing epistemic capital shares traits with both its historical forebears and its contemporary cousins. Such family resemblances point to another of Robertson’s observations: the lines drawn between ‘new’ religions and their older—more codified, more established, (ergo) more legitimate—kindred. When a Christian activist sits in prayer and the Holy Spirit reveals the demonic forces structuring the US Democratic Party—to use an example Sean McCloud reports on (2015, 32)—the line between traditional revelation and the channelled knowledge of a David Icke or Wilcock becomes at best nebulous. Both are inadmissible in the courts of dominant epistemic strategies, but they nonetheless draw on the same sources of knowledge and strategies of knowing to identify, codify, comprehend, and thereby either conquer or circumvent those worldly and otherworldly forces striving secretly in the service of futures found wanting.

References

  • Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Second Edition (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2013).
  • Virginia Krause, Demonology, Witchcraft, and Confession in Early Modern France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  • Sean McCloud, American Possessions: Battling Demons in the Contemporary United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
  • Stephen D. O’Leary, Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  • Christopher Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West, Volume 2: Alternative Spiritualities, Sacralization, Popular Culture, and Occulture (London and New York: Continuum, 2005).
  • Robyn Weigman, ‘Feminism’s Apocalyptic Futures,’ New Literary History 31:4 (2000), 805–825.

UFOs, Conspiracy Theories… and Religion?

Area 51, Ancient Aliens, endemic child abuse at the BBC, Reptilians, Watergate, 9/11, renegade preachers rising from the dead, the grassy knoll, The Da Vinci Code, Hydra, climate change, the moon landings, Satanic Ritual Abuse, The X Files… the popular imagination is rife with stories of secret plans and cover-ups, agencies working behind the scenes, grand plans carried without the knowledge of the unsuspecting masses, lies, deceit, and an elect few who know ‘the truth’. Sometimes, stories which at one time seemed far-fetched receive widespread acceptance and become the hegemonically accepted norm. At others, they remain the preserve of relatively small groups of “nutters”, and become designated as “conspiracy theories” by those who have the power to do so. What might this popular discursive trope be able to tell us about contemporary Western society? How might scholars go about studying it, particularly when they themselves are frequently implicated as working against the truth by “insiders”? And what might all of this have to do with the contemporary academic study of religion?

9781474253222To discuss this tantalizing subject, we are joined today by a scholar who will be no stranger to regular listeners of the Religious Studies Project, Dr David Robertson. The interview begins with David’s own journey to this research field, before considering some basic questions such as “what is a conspiracy theory?” David then lays out the historical context of the parallel development of contemporary millennial and conspiracist discourse, and his case studies – Whitley Streiber, David Icke, David Wilcock, and their audiences. Discussion then turns to the meat of Robertson’s theoretical conclusions concerning epistemic capital, popular epistemic strategies, the UFO as a discursive object connecting two fields of discourse, power, and prophecy. The interview concludes with discussion of the relevance of this field of study to Religious Studies more broadly, and some challenging admonitions to for the discipline.

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

Music, Marketing and Megachurches

During the 20th century, the media has exploded to include radio, television and most recently and perhaps influentially, the Internet. Music has been a big part of this new emerging “mediapolois”, moving from a mostly stand-alone medium, to part of a marketing matrix of  people, places and industries. Today, music’s meaning is more often part of a branded ecosystem, not limited to entertainment, but part of the experience of everyday life, including religion. Evangelical churches and, increasingly, New Religious Movements use music as part of a branding exercise that helps to transform them from local congregations into a transnational enterprise.

To discuss music, marketing and contemporary religion, David Robertson sat down with Dr. Tom Wagner, an ethnomusicologist, percussionist and lecturer at the Reid School of Music in Edinburgh. They discuss the long history of the use of music in promoting evangelical congregations, and the transformation that came with the development of recording and broadcast technologies. Tom describes his research and fieldwork with Hillsong, an evangelical church movement with an international reach who use music both in their worship and their branding. Later, they discuss the use of music in Scientology, to create and maintain a particular aesthetic, and how Tom sees this research developing in the future.

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Minority Religions and the Law

cult” and “sect” uncritically. Nevertheless, outside of academia, the language of “cults” continues to be used, and particularly through the law, has an affect on the lives of real people. Susan J. Palmer joins David G. Robertson to discuss the intersection between new or minority religions and the law. Professor Palmer describes how she came to study these minority groups, and to realise that they were often being misrepresented, or at least unduly targeted. Discussion ranges from Scientology in France to the Branch Davidians and the Nuwaubians in the US, with issues of secularity, race and “brainwashing” come to the fore. A fascinating overview for anyone interested in how the discourse on “religion” operates in the contemporary world.

Religion and the Law (Winnifred F. Sullivan), Studying “Cults” (Eileen Barker), and Is Britain still a Christian country? (Linda Woodhead), and feature essays by Daniel SillimanEssi Mäkelä, and Kevin Whitesides. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, fake fir trees, playing cards, and more!