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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!

Discursive Approaches and the Crises of Religious Studies

Discursive analysis of one kind or another is perhaps the most prominent methodology in the study of religion today. The linguistic turn took longer to influence Religious Studies than many other areas of the social sciences, but in recent years this approach has produced some hugely influential works which challenge many of the traditional assumptions of the field. In this interview recorded at the 2015 IAHR Congress in Erfurt, Kocku von Stuckrad tells David G. Robertson how discursive approaches might help solve the challenges of contemporary Religious Studies: the crisis of representation; the situated observer; and the dilemma of essentialism and relativism.

Bruce Lincoln and Titus Hjelm, and feature essays by Ethan Quillen, David Gordon White, Martin Lepage, Emily Stratton, and Craig Martin. 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, wooden chess sets, monkey nuts, and more!

The Invention of the Secular Academy

The Religious Studies Project, as an academic endeavour studying religion, is of course devoutly secular. In fact, we tend to take the connection between secularity and the academy completely for granted. But was this always the case? If not, how did it become so? And what does secular mean in this context? In this interview recorded at the 2015 IAHR Congress in Erfurt, Tomoko Masuzawa tells David G. Robertson how the medieval university was transformed – first through the introduction of the collegiate system in the 1700s, which gave private donors a say in who could study, and then again in the late 19th Century, with the Berlin model being exported throughout Europe and the colonies. What we discover is not a dialogue between the religious and the secular, but between different Christian sects. What does this say about our present-day academic endeavours?

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, dried lentils, soft furnishings, and more!

The Supernatural and the New Comparativism

Jeffrey J. Kripal tells David G. Robertson about his approach to studying “paranormal” and “supernatural” phenomena.

The conversation begins by explaining how Kripal came to be studying figures like Charles Fort and Whitley Strieber from a background in Hinduism. He then argues for a New Comparativism within the study of religion that will put “the impossible” back on the table again, and encourage a more even conversation between the sciences and the humanities. His suggestion is that we should put consciousness at the centre of studies in religion, suggesting a new approach to the sacred, and opening up new theoretical avenues.

Studying Non-Ordinary Realities, and Religious Studies and the Paranormal.

Social Constructionism

What is social constructionism, and how is it important to the study of religion? In this interview, Titus Hjelm tells David Robertson about social constructionism – that is, a set of approaches which see social realities as built from language, rather than reflecting ontological realities. Hjelm outlines how these approaches emerged as part of the ‘linguistic turn’ in the social sciences more broadly, as well as pointing to some different interpretations of how these constructivist, discursive or critical approaches operate. Their importance, he suggests, is in challenging how we think about ontology, epistemology and power.

sui generis thing-in-itself, rather than a product of human culture. Despite – or because – of this, constructionism has not been broadly adopted as a theoretical approach in the field.

For much more on the subject, see Hjelm’s recent book Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religions. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, Finnish metal CDs, fishing tackle, and more.

Outside the Panels: Comics and Context

rcrumb

At several points during his most recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, A. David Lewis alludes to the prominence of religious themes and images in comic books. In fact, if anything, Lewis downplays just how obvious the connection is. There are at least three intersections. Firstly, and explored at length in this interview, are the implicit and frequent utilisation of religious and mythical stories – particularly concerning death and rebirth – recast with superheroes rather than deities, and often reframed in scientific (or “scientistic”) language. Second, explicit religious narratives are frequently found in comics – consider Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, Craig Thompson’s Habibi, Robert Crumb’s literal presentation of Genesis or more prosaically, Marvel’s Thor. Not forgetting the ubiquitous Christian fundamentalist comics, or Chick Tracts after their primary producer Jack Chick, which due to their massive print runs are often considered to be the world’s most-read comics. Finally, comic books frequently include alternative or heterodox religious ideas, something underscored by the fact that two of the most acclaimed writers working today (Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) are practising magicians, and their work frequently contains references to their practises.

For some reason, then, there is something about comics that makes them particularly suited to discussing such ideas. Here, I will suggest some structural reasons why this might be the case. But I will also present a more sociological possibility, that comics and a heterodox approach to religious ideas go hand in hand, because both are typical features of the cultic milieu (Campbell 1972). As such, the analysis of religious themes in comic books needs to go beyond merely structural analyses.

Structural connections

gmorrison

from Grant Morrison’s ‘The Invisibles’

Darby Orcutt’s chapter, “Comics & Religion: Theoretical Connections” (in the Lewis-edited Graven Images), suggests two reasons why the comics medium is particularly suited to narratives concerning religion. Firstly, drawing from McCloud’s seminal Understanding Comics (1993), he argues that comics allow a greater degree of identification than would be possible with a movie or a novel because of their ability to be deliberately vague about certain aspects.

McCloud notes that the iconic, simplified faces of the protagonists typical of the Japanese Manga comics style makes the protagonist more easily relatable, and this might suggest one reason for the many comics with simplistic protagonists in more realistically drawn worlds (Cerebus the Aardvark, Concrete, Bone, etc).

A second factor outlined by Orcutt is the manipulation of the readers’ perception of time and space. In comics, time can be slowed down and sped up, and future and past can be shown side-by-side. Moreover, by utilising the gutter – the space between the panels – it becomes very easy for the mythical world to be shown, literally outside of the bounded time of the panels, but interacting with the present. Douglas Rushkoff’s Testament makes great use of this technique, as does Alan Moore’s Promethea, from which the following page is drawn.

AMooreOne particularly striking and effective version of this – which also includes Lewis’ comment that comics seem unusually aware of the limitations of the genre – is to have enlightenment illustrated by having the characters fall out of the 2D, panel-bound pages, and see them from the three-dimensional point of view of the reader. This happens in Moore’s Promethea and Morrison’s The Invisibles, but there are many other examples. A striking variant found in recent works by both, Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier and Morrison’s Superman Beyond, have used 3-D colouring techniques to indicate when a character has stepped from the ‘flat’ world of the comics page and out into a world with (literally) more depth. While there are many literary examples of such metatextuality – notable examples being the characters meeting their author in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, although acknowledgement that the text was in fact a text dates back to Don Quixote, at least – the characters do not step off the page in quite the same way. Perhaps this is because comics combine both text and images, so one can be played off another. Interestingly, both Moore and Morrison take this further than mere analogy, and argue that when viewed from a higher level, we the readers are literally works of fiction ourselves… But that is a post for another day.

comics

Cultic milieu

As noted above, however, comics concern themselves disproportionately with heterodox and alternative religious ideas – lots of ‘funny ideas’ in these ‘funny books’. Comics are as much a part of the cultic milieu as alternative religions (see Kripal’s recent Mutants and Mystics) – what better place for ‘not real religion’ than in ‘not real literature’? As indicated by the frequency of the descriptor “alternative”, the cultic milieu exists not as a free-floating pool of religious ideas, but to a considerable degree as that which is self-consciously alternative to the social norm.

From this point of view, it is not so surprising that comics would be so prominent. Comics and cartoons (their non-sequential variant, although this is not always so clearly delineated) have a long history of operating as social critique, a tradition that goes back to Hogarth in the mid 18th century, and most recently played out in the Charlie Hebdo affair. I therefore ask, if the religious narratives concerned here operate in some way as a critique of more traditional religious narratives and institutions, does this therefore indicate that this critique is a particular concern among the demographic who read comics? Indeed, comics traditionally have a strong anti-clerical bias (Wilson 2010), suggesting an active attempt to reclaim these symbols of transcendence from elitist discourses. So long as we focus only on structural or narrative similarities, we may be missing the most interesting points.

Like religion(s), comics do not exist as sui generis artefacts, separate from their cultural context. We cannot treat them as naive material artefacts, nine-panel hierophanies which “manifest” or “embody” some eternal religious essence, but as a part of a much larger discourse on “religion” (term, not thing) – which goes on both in elite, official cultural products and unofficial, alternative ones, like comics. Therefore it is vitally important for a non-essentialist and non-elitist study of religion that we consider comics in their cultural and historical context. Without that, structural analyses may be merely repeating hegemonic categories and structures of power. As scholars we need to fall off the page, and see the panels which form the boundaries of our thought.

References

Campbell, C. (1972) “The Cult, the Cultic Milieu, and Secularization.” in A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain 5. (London: SCM Press), 119-136.

McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics: [the invisible art]. (New York: HarperPerennial).

Orcutt, D. (2010) “Comics and Religion: Theoretical Connections.” In Lewis, A. D., & Kraemer, C. H., Graven images: Religion in comic books and graphic novels (New York: Continuum), 93-106.

Wilson, G. W. (2010) “Machina ex Deus: Perennialism in Comics.” In Lewis, A. D., & Kraemer, C. H., Graven images: Religion in comic books and graphic novels (New York: Continuum), 249-257.

 

Gurdjieff and the Study of Contemporary Religion

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

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

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

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

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, yoga mats, plant pots, llama-shaped snacks and more.

The Brethren in Scotland

on-the-edgeIn this episode of the Religious Studies Project, David Robertson talks to Joseph Webster (lecturer in Anthropology at Queen’s University, Belfast) about his fieldwork in Gardenstoun (usually called Gamrie), a small fishing village on the Aberdeenshire coast in the North-East of Scotland. Despite a population of only 700, the village has six churches, four of which are branches of the Plymouth Brethren, an evangelical conservative Christian denomination which originated in Ireland in the 1820s.

The discussion begins by considering how Joe went about doing his fieldwork, and how to go about doing an anthropology “at home”; within our own culture, rather than that of some exotic Other. They consider how work like this is important in undermining many of the assumptions that the study of religion is based upon. For example, inasmuch as we tend to think of millennialism in contemporary Britain, it would tend to be in some exclusionary “cult”; yet here is an example among apparently ordinary working Christians. It becomes clear that anthropology, when applied to “ourselves”, still has the power to make “the strange familiar, and the familiar strange” (Muesse, 2011).

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

 

Spiritualism and Shamanism

Two firsts for the Religious Studies Project this week. Surprisingly, we’ve never talked about Shamanism, one of the watchwords of discourse on “indigenous religion” for scholars and laymen alike, insiders and outsiders. The term originates with the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, who took it from a specific group in the Tunguskee region of Russia, and applied it universally to describe individuals who communicate with spirits for the benefit of their communities. For Eliade, Shamanism was one more example of a heirophany, an interjection of an ineffable sacred into the mundane world. Unsurprisingly, however, when such sui generis notions are disregarded, and the category examined from the data up, the category ceases to be easily defined.

In this interview, David Wilson tells us that while studying shamanism while undertaking training as a medium in the Spiritualist Church, he noticed that both seemed to exhibit similar features; an emphasis on healing, communication with the dead, as well as other “spiritual beings”, but most importantly, a pattern of training  through apprenticeship. After telling us about his own experiences of training, he outlines how this pattern of apprenticeship – an initial ‘calling’, a process of direct training from established mediums, beginning public practise and finally acceptance by the broader community. Wilson’s ‘apprenticeship’ model not only gives us a way to conceptualise shamanism without recourse to sui generis discourse, but draws interesting parallels between indigenous cultures and the somewhat hidden world of heterodox religious practices in the West, particularly in regards to the frequent presence of healthcare.

David’s book, Redefining Shamanisms, is available in all formats now. You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

If you enjoyed this episode, the spirits tell me you may also enjoy our interview with Ann Taves on Religious Experience, our recent roundtable featuring David Wilson on Non-Ordinary Realities and our two-part collaboration with Jack Hunter on Religious Studies and the Paranormal (Part one. part two).

Religion and Literature

How can studying literature help us to study religion? And what the question even mean? In this interview, Alana Vincent, Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Chester, sets out some of the interesting intersections of these two fields. We can glean ethnographic or historical detail from literary works, and sometimes read particular insider discourses in their pages. We can read literature as a “sacred text” – or indeed, “sacred text” as literature”. Does literature, as a form where imagination is allowed free reign, provide a space for authors and readers to explore ‘matters of ultimate concern’, within or without religious institutions?

DSCF0481This interview was recorded LIVE! at the University of Chester on the 15th of October, 2014. Thanks to Chester and to Dawn Llewellyn for making the event possible. The interview leads directly onto the roundtable “Narrative, Ethnography and Reflexivity” which will be broadcast this Wednesday.

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

Studying “Non-Ordinary Realities”: A Roundtable Discussion

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

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

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make, whether it is religious studies related or not. Remember, the holidays are coming…

The Uses of “Indigenous Religion”

Since the 1980s, the category of “Indigenous Religion” – or “Religions” – has become a staple feature of the terminology of the study of religion. But what do we mean when we use it? Is it necessarily tied to a particular geographical area? Or something which originates with a particular ethnic group, or something that belongs to all ethnic groups across space and time? To complicate this further, the term has “gone native”, and is increasingly being mobilised in political and legal debates.

In this interview, Bjørn Ola Tafjord of the University of Tromsø tells David Robertson about the various uses of “Indigenous Religion”, and the theoretical issues which arise from them. Through his work with the Bribris in Talamanca, Tafjord demonstrates how claims to indigeneity are in no way as static, exclusive or obvious as they can at times be presented. Finally, he suggests a way forward, by using the term self-consciously as a relational term.

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

Further reading:

The report that David mentions in the interview is here, courtesy of occupy.com

 

Authors meet Critics: “New Age Spirituality”

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

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

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

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

“Unruly Angels”: An Interview with Ingvild Gilhus

What is an angel, and why have they exerted such a fascination on the public imagination since antiquity up to the present day? In this interview with David Robertson (our 100th “official” podcast!), Ingvild Gilhus, a historian of religion with considerable experience in dealing with popular religion in both the ancient and modern worlds, discusses where the concept of angels comes from and how they have been variously constructed, from the white-suited messengers of the New Testament to the embodiment of the “higher self” in New Age accounts.

In particular, she explains that angels seem always to break boundaries. Neither human nor god, male nor female, whether Christian or otherwise, angels seem always to have functioned as representatives of an unruly popular religious impulse which seems to sit just below the elite constructions with which the study of religion has traditionally concerned itself.

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

Oh, and stay tuned at the end for two special guest appearances!

“I Made It All Up and It Came True Anyway”

From Hell, Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell, 1994. Click to embiggen.

The story goes that somewhere on the West Coast of Africa, sometime in the 17th Century, some Portuguese colonials came upon natives worshiping idols made of wood and clay. “Have you made these yourself?” the Portuguese mockingly asked. The Africans answered in the affirmative. “Are they true Divinities?” Again, affirmative. “They cannot be both!” the Portuguese exclaimed, but the Africans simply didn’t see the distinction. The Portuguese laughed at their ignorant beliefs, and went back to their ships, their crucifixes and their saints (Latour 2010, 2-3).

I met Bruno Latour in the lobby of a swanky hotel in Edinburgh’s West End, where the receptionist was quick to ask if he could help mainly because I was clearly an outsider. Nor is continental philosophy or the anthropology of science an area of expertise for me. But I’d been exploring. In a week I’d read three of his books, including the proof of his then-forthcoming Rejoicing: On Religious Speech, which seemed a departure from his works on the philosophy of science, and Latour had provided me with the full text of his lecture series. I later discovered that mine was the only interview he’d undertaken while in the city.

I was extremely curious how an anthropologist of science comes to be giving the Gifford Lectures. Established in 1888 to ‘promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term”, previous presenters have included such luminaries as William James, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and E. B. Tylor. A year on, I still don’t understand Latour’s argument about Gaia. But a few things from my readings have resonated with things I’d been thinking about in the meantime.

The Dark Continent

RS has been slow to pick up on the work of European sociologists; although Foucault and Bourdieu are becoming familiar names, Hervieu-Leger, Beyart and Latour himself are little known in Anglophone academia, with their books appearing in English sometimes twenty years after their native publication. (That I cannot read them in their original language is partly my own failing and partly the fault of a post-imperial education system which saw European languages as less important than English—see how easily I wield post-structuralist critique?) And this affected Latour too; while Rejoicing seems like an unexpected direction after We Have Never Been Modern and Factish Gods, in the original French, Rejoicing came first, lending the later works a somewhat different reading. In fact, Latour, who identifies as a Catholic, began his academic career in Biblical Studies, which lends the destabilisation of the apparent certainties of modernity in his later writings a different perspective.

Rejoicing is an unusual book for Latour, personal, confessional, almost sermon-like. Ostensibly, it concerns not “religion”, nor “religions” but the adverb “religiously”; what does it mean to talk religiously? Is it still even possible?

Latour interview, Part 1:

Latour’s answer is yes, but not in the way one might expect. Rejoicing is at the same time a fierce attack on religions;

We have to go through this fundamental disappointment: religion leads nowhere. It is the absolute opposite of social or sociologizing explanations that think they’ve explained the need for religion as a bid to fill a world that’s too empty or, conversely, according to the chosen metaphor, as a means of carving out a bit of transcendence in a world that’s too full (2013, 33).

Latour argues that religion is not, never was, about the far-away things; rather, that is properly the domain of science. Religion should be about the near things, the everyday. I don’t know if I agree, but this simple shift of emphasis seemed to me a radical departure from how debates about the role of religion in modernity are typically framed. Rather, Latour suggests, religion is a way of speaking; a kind of language, if you will, about the everyday certainties of existence;

For instance, the word ‘God’, which once served as the premise of all arguing, could have been translated, when ways of life changed, as ‘indisputable framework of ordinary existence’ so that we could continue to really see that what was thereby designated was merely the preliminary and prelude to a conversion of meaning (2013, 8).

However, our invented scholarly creation—the category “religion”—comes back to bite us, and becomes real as agents begin to take sides in the argument;

But instead of this direct, painless, progressive translation, they started clinging for dear life to the term ‘God’ and pitting it against ‘non-God’, without seeing that they were dealing with two forms about as different as God, Deus and Theos for translating the same everyday reality. Thinking they were protecting their heritage, they squandered it (2013, 8).

Factish Gods

In Factish Gods, Latour argues that most critical writings on culture take one of two positions; “the fact position and the fairy position” (2010, 237). The fact position argues that categories of belief are merely empty terms onto which power is projected; alternatively, the “fairy position” has it that there are in fact forces which dominate and motivate individuals, albeit without their conscious acquiescence. To take just one of these categories, RS is largely split between those who see religion as a sui generis category, a thing in itself which exerts power over individuals, and those who see it as a socially constructed but powerful category (and I include myself in the latter camp).

…while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion—there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy (Smith 1982, xi)

Latour, however, is attempting to construct a third way. I asked him about this quote from J. Z. Smith; he replied that he was correct, religion is a constructed category, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t also real. So Latour takes the constructionist agenda of the post-structuralists a step further. Our categories are indeed invented, but not “merely” so, for they are also real. They become real through our wielding of them.

I have to be able to talk about religious elaboration without threatening voices, coming from inside as much as outside, immediately asking me to choose: ‘Is it real or is it made up?’ I have to be able to answer once more: ‘Both’ (2013, 144).

Just like the founders of Discordianism found. A few years after inventing their parody religion, Greg Hill stated that “if you do this type of thing well enough, it starts to work… If you take a goddess of confusion seriously, it will send you through as profound and valid a metaphysical trip as taking a god like Yahweh seriously” (Adler 1986, 335). As Kerry Thornley, ever playful, put it, “if I had realised that all of this was going to come true, I would have chosen Venus” (Adler 1986, 336).

So Latour argues that we have the categories wrong. Rather than seeking to “extend Science over religion’s territory through an offensive apologetics, or to protect religion’s territory from Science through a defensive apologetics” (2013, 24), Latour challenges the basis of these demarcations. There is no boundary between “manufactured” and “real”, between “knowledge” and “belief”. Latour’s work argues that we all, ostensibly religious or not, have an epistemology based on invented certainties. We have never been Modern. None of us hold beliefs that are any more naive than anyone else’s. There are other ways to think about religion, beyond the simple dichotomies which populate the field and that many of us are so tired of.

Latour interview, Part 2:

The future of the discipline, in short, whether RS can demonstrate its utility to the broader academy, may depend on us getting over such false dichotomies—religious/secular, faith/knowledge, object/subject, fact/fetish, invented/real. We need to stop talking about how some people believe, and instead analyse our multiple, competing, situational, invented epistemologies.

Actually, I’m not sure this is what Latour means at all. I just made it up.

It’s turned quite cold, hasn’t it? Shall we be heading back?

References

Adler, M. (1986). Drawing down the moon: Witches, Druids, goddess-worshippers, and other pagans in America today. Boston: Beacon Press.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2010). On the modern cult of the factish gods. Durham: Duke University Press.

Latour, B. (2013). Rejoicing: Or the torments of religious speech. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Moore, A., & Campbell, E. (1994). From hell. Northampton: Mad Love Pub. in association with Kitchen Sink Press.

Smith, J. Z. (1982). Imagining religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Podcasts

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!

Discursive Approaches and the Crises of Religious Studies

Discursive analysis of one kind or another is perhaps the most prominent methodology in the study of religion today. The linguistic turn took longer to influence Religious Studies than many other areas of the social sciences, but in recent years this approach has produced some hugely influential works which challenge many of the traditional assumptions of the field. In this interview recorded at the 2015 IAHR Congress in Erfurt, Kocku von Stuckrad tells David G. Robertson how discursive approaches might help solve the challenges of contemporary Religious Studies: the crisis of representation; the situated observer; and the dilemma of essentialism and relativism.

Bruce Lincoln and Titus Hjelm, and feature essays by Ethan Quillen, David Gordon White, Martin Lepage, Emily Stratton, and Craig Martin. 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, wooden chess sets, monkey nuts, and more!

The Invention of the Secular Academy

The Religious Studies Project, as an academic endeavour studying religion, is of course devoutly secular. In fact, we tend to take the connection between secularity and the academy completely for granted. But was this always the case? If not, how did it become so? And what does secular mean in this context? In this interview recorded at the 2015 IAHR Congress in Erfurt, Tomoko Masuzawa tells David G. Robertson how the medieval university was transformed – first through the introduction of the collegiate system in the 1700s, which gave private donors a say in who could study, and then again in the late 19th Century, with the Berlin model being exported throughout Europe and the colonies. What we discover is not a dialogue between the religious and the secular, but between different Christian sects. What does this say about our present-day academic endeavours?

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, dried lentils, soft furnishings, and more!

The Supernatural and the New Comparativism

Jeffrey J. Kripal tells David G. Robertson about his approach to studying “paranormal” and “supernatural” phenomena.

The conversation begins by explaining how Kripal came to be studying figures like Charles Fort and Whitley Strieber from a background in Hinduism. He then argues for a New Comparativism within the study of religion that will put “the impossible” back on the table again, and encourage a more even conversation between the sciences and the humanities. His suggestion is that we should put consciousness at the centre of studies in religion, suggesting a new approach to the sacred, and opening up new theoretical avenues.

Studying Non-Ordinary Realities, and Religious Studies and the Paranormal.

Social Constructionism

What is social constructionism, and how is it important to the study of religion? In this interview, Titus Hjelm tells David Robertson about social constructionism – that is, a set of approaches which see social realities as built from language, rather than reflecting ontological realities. Hjelm outlines how these approaches emerged as part of the ‘linguistic turn’ in the social sciences more broadly, as well as pointing to some different interpretations of how these constructivist, discursive or critical approaches operate. Their importance, he suggests, is in challenging how we think about ontology, epistemology and power.

sui generis thing-in-itself, rather than a product of human culture. Despite – or because – of this, constructionism has not been broadly adopted as a theoretical approach in the field.

For much more on the subject, see Hjelm’s recent book Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religions. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, Finnish metal CDs, fishing tackle, and more.

Outside the Panels: Comics and Context

rcrumb

At several points during his most recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, A. David Lewis alludes to the prominence of religious themes and images in comic books. In fact, if anything, Lewis downplays just how obvious the connection is. There are at least three intersections. Firstly, and explored at length in this interview, are the implicit and frequent utilisation of religious and mythical stories – particularly concerning death and rebirth – recast with superheroes rather than deities, and often reframed in scientific (or “scientistic”) language. Second, explicit religious narratives are frequently found in comics – consider Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, Craig Thompson’s Habibi, Robert Crumb’s literal presentation of Genesis or more prosaically, Marvel’s Thor. Not forgetting the ubiquitous Christian fundamentalist comics, or Chick Tracts after their primary producer Jack Chick, which due to their massive print runs are often considered to be the world’s most-read comics. Finally, comic books frequently include alternative or heterodox religious ideas, something underscored by the fact that two of the most acclaimed writers working today (Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) are practising magicians, and their work frequently contains references to their practises.

For some reason, then, there is something about comics that makes them particularly suited to discussing such ideas. Here, I will suggest some structural reasons why this might be the case. But I will also present a more sociological possibility, that comics and a heterodox approach to religious ideas go hand in hand, because both are typical features of the cultic milieu (Campbell 1972). As such, the analysis of religious themes in comic books needs to go beyond merely structural analyses.

Structural connections

gmorrison

from Grant Morrison’s ‘The Invisibles’

Darby Orcutt’s chapter, “Comics & Religion: Theoretical Connections” (in the Lewis-edited Graven Images), suggests two reasons why the comics medium is particularly suited to narratives concerning religion. Firstly, drawing from McCloud’s seminal Understanding Comics (1993), he argues that comics allow a greater degree of identification than would be possible with a movie or a novel because of their ability to be deliberately vague about certain aspects.

McCloud notes that the iconic, simplified faces of the protagonists typical of the Japanese Manga comics style makes the protagonist more easily relatable, and this might suggest one reason for the many comics with simplistic protagonists in more realistically drawn worlds (Cerebus the Aardvark, Concrete, Bone, etc).

A second factor outlined by Orcutt is the manipulation of the readers’ perception of time and space. In comics, time can be slowed down and sped up, and future and past can be shown side-by-side. Moreover, by utilising the gutter – the space between the panels – it becomes very easy for the mythical world to be shown, literally outside of the bounded time of the panels, but interacting with the present. Douglas Rushkoff’s Testament makes great use of this technique, as does Alan Moore’s Promethea, from which the following page is drawn.

AMooreOne particularly striking and effective version of this – which also includes Lewis’ comment that comics seem unusually aware of the limitations of the genre – is to have enlightenment illustrated by having the characters fall out of the 2D, panel-bound pages, and see them from the three-dimensional point of view of the reader. This happens in Moore’s Promethea and Morrison’s The Invisibles, but there are many other examples. A striking variant found in recent works by both, Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier and Morrison’s Superman Beyond, have used 3-D colouring techniques to indicate when a character has stepped from the ‘flat’ world of the comics page and out into a world with (literally) more depth. While there are many literary examples of such metatextuality – notable examples being the characters meeting their author in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, although acknowledgement that the text was in fact a text dates back to Don Quixote, at least – the characters do not step off the page in quite the same way. Perhaps this is because comics combine both text and images, so one can be played off another. Interestingly, both Moore and Morrison take this further than mere analogy, and argue that when viewed from a higher level, we the readers are literally works of fiction ourselves… But that is a post for another day.

comics

Cultic milieu

As noted above, however, comics concern themselves disproportionately with heterodox and alternative religious ideas – lots of ‘funny ideas’ in these ‘funny books’. Comics are as much a part of the cultic milieu as alternative religions (see Kripal’s recent Mutants and Mystics) – what better place for ‘not real religion’ than in ‘not real literature’? As indicated by the frequency of the descriptor “alternative”, the cultic milieu exists not as a free-floating pool of religious ideas, but to a considerable degree as that which is self-consciously alternative to the social norm.

From this point of view, it is not so surprising that comics would be so prominent. Comics and cartoons (their non-sequential variant, although this is not always so clearly delineated) have a long history of operating as social critique, a tradition that goes back to Hogarth in the mid 18th century, and most recently played out in the Charlie Hebdo affair. I therefore ask, if the religious narratives concerned here operate in some way as a critique of more traditional religious narratives and institutions, does this therefore indicate that this critique is a particular concern among the demographic who read comics? Indeed, comics traditionally have a strong anti-clerical bias (Wilson 2010), suggesting an active attempt to reclaim these symbols of transcendence from elitist discourses. So long as we focus only on structural or narrative similarities, we may be missing the most interesting points.

Like religion(s), comics do not exist as sui generis artefacts, separate from their cultural context. We cannot treat them as naive material artefacts, nine-panel hierophanies which “manifest” or “embody” some eternal religious essence, but as a part of a much larger discourse on “religion” (term, not thing) – which goes on both in elite, official cultural products and unofficial, alternative ones, like comics. Therefore it is vitally important for a non-essentialist and non-elitist study of religion that we consider comics in their cultural and historical context. Without that, structural analyses may be merely repeating hegemonic categories and structures of power. As scholars we need to fall off the page, and see the panels which form the boundaries of our thought.

References

Campbell, C. (1972) “The Cult, the Cultic Milieu, and Secularization.” in A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain 5. (London: SCM Press), 119-136.

McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics: [the invisible art]. (New York: HarperPerennial).

Orcutt, D. (2010) “Comics and Religion: Theoretical Connections.” In Lewis, A. D., & Kraemer, C. H., Graven images: Religion in comic books and graphic novels (New York: Continuum), 93-106.

Wilson, G. W. (2010) “Machina ex Deus: Perennialism in Comics.” In Lewis, A. D., & Kraemer, C. H., Graven images: Religion in comic books and graphic novels (New York: Continuum), 249-257.

 

Gurdjieff and the Study of Contemporary Religion

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

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

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

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

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, yoga mats, plant pots, llama-shaped snacks and more.

The Brethren in Scotland

on-the-edgeIn this episode of the Religious Studies Project, David Robertson talks to Joseph Webster (lecturer in Anthropology at Queen’s University, Belfast) about his fieldwork in Gardenstoun (usually called Gamrie), a small fishing village on the Aberdeenshire coast in the North-East of Scotland. Despite a population of only 700, the village has six churches, four of which are branches of the Plymouth Brethren, an evangelical conservative Christian denomination which originated in Ireland in the 1820s.

The discussion begins by considering how Joe went about doing his fieldwork, and how to go about doing an anthropology “at home”; within our own culture, rather than that of some exotic Other. They consider how work like this is important in undermining many of the assumptions that the study of religion is based upon. For example, inasmuch as we tend to think of millennialism in contemporary Britain, it would tend to be in some exclusionary “cult”; yet here is an example among apparently ordinary working Christians. It becomes clear that anthropology, when applied to “ourselves”, still has the power to make “the strange familiar, and the familiar strange” (Muesse, 2011).

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

 

Spiritualism and Shamanism

Two firsts for the Religious Studies Project this week. Surprisingly, we’ve never talked about Shamanism, one of the watchwords of discourse on “indigenous religion” for scholars and laymen alike, insiders and outsiders. The term originates with the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, who took it from a specific group in the Tunguskee region of Russia, and applied it universally to describe individuals who communicate with spirits for the benefit of their communities. For Eliade, Shamanism was one more example of a heirophany, an interjection of an ineffable sacred into the mundane world. Unsurprisingly, however, when such sui generis notions are disregarded, and the category examined from the data up, the category ceases to be easily defined.

In this interview, David Wilson tells us that while studying shamanism while undertaking training as a medium in the Spiritualist Church, he noticed that both seemed to exhibit similar features; an emphasis on healing, communication with the dead, as well as other “spiritual beings”, but most importantly, a pattern of training  through apprenticeship. After telling us about his own experiences of training, he outlines how this pattern of apprenticeship – an initial ‘calling’, a process of direct training from established mediums, beginning public practise and finally acceptance by the broader community. Wilson’s ‘apprenticeship’ model not only gives us a way to conceptualise shamanism without recourse to sui generis discourse, but draws interesting parallels between indigenous cultures and the somewhat hidden world of heterodox religious practices in the West, particularly in regards to the frequent presence of healthcare.

David’s book, Redefining Shamanisms, is available in all formats now. You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

If you enjoyed this episode, the spirits tell me you may also enjoy our interview with Ann Taves on Religious Experience, our recent roundtable featuring David Wilson on Non-Ordinary Realities and our two-part collaboration with Jack Hunter on Religious Studies and the Paranormal (Part one. part two).

Religion and Literature

How can studying literature help us to study religion? And what the question even mean? In this interview, Alana Vincent, Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Chester, sets out some of the interesting intersections of these two fields. We can glean ethnographic or historical detail from literary works, and sometimes read particular insider discourses in their pages. We can read literature as a “sacred text” – or indeed, “sacred text” as literature”. Does literature, as a form where imagination is allowed free reign, provide a space for authors and readers to explore ‘matters of ultimate concern’, within or without religious institutions?

DSCF0481This interview was recorded LIVE! at the University of Chester on the 15th of October, 2014. Thanks to Chester and to Dawn Llewellyn for making the event possible. The interview leads directly onto the roundtable “Narrative, Ethnography and Reflexivity” which will be broadcast this Wednesday.

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

Studying “Non-Ordinary Realities”: A Roundtable Discussion

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

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

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make, whether it is religious studies related or not. Remember, the holidays are coming…

The Uses of “Indigenous Religion”

Since the 1980s, the category of “Indigenous Religion” – or “Religions” – has become a staple feature of the terminology of the study of religion. But what do we mean when we use it? Is it necessarily tied to a particular geographical area? Or something which originates with a particular ethnic group, or something that belongs to all ethnic groups across space and time? To complicate this further, the term has “gone native”, and is increasingly being mobilised in political and legal debates.

In this interview, Bjørn Ola Tafjord of the University of Tromsø tells David Robertson about the various uses of “Indigenous Religion”, and the theoretical issues which arise from them. Through his work with the Bribris in Talamanca, Tafjord demonstrates how claims to indigeneity are in no way as static, exclusive or obvious as they can at times be presented. Finally, he suggests a way forward, by using the term self-consciously as a relational term.

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

Further reading:

The report that David mentions in the interview is here, courtesy of occupy.com

 

Authors meet Critics: “New Age Spirituality”

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

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

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

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

“Unruly Angels”: An Interview with Ingvild Gilhus

What is an angel, and why have they exerted such a fascination on the public imagination since antiquity up to the present day? In this interview with David Robertson (our 100th “official” podcast!), Ingvild Gilhus, a historian of religion with considerable experience in dealing with popular religion in both the ancient and modern worlds, discusses where the concept of angels comes from and how they have been variously constructed, from the white-suited messengers of the New Testament to the embodiment of the “higher self” in New Age accounts.

In particular, she explains that angels seem always to break boundaries. Neither human nor god, male nor female, whether Christian or otherwise, angels seem always to have functioned as representatives of an unruly popular religious impulse which seems to sit just below the elite constructions with which the study of religion has traditionally concerned itself.

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

Oh, and stay tuned at the end for two special guest appearances!

“I Made It All Up and It Came True Anyway”

From Hell, Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell, 1994. Click to embiggen.

The story goes that somewhere on the West Coast of Africa, sometime in the 17th Century, some Portuguese colonials came upon natives worshiping idols made of wood and clay. “Have you made these yourself?” the Portuguese mockingly asked. The Africans answered in the affirmative. “Are they true Divinities?” Again, affirmative. “They cannot be both!” the Portuguese exclaimed, but the Africans simply didn’t see the distinction. The Portuguese laughed at their ignorant beliefs, and went back to their ships, their crucifixes and their saints (Latour 2010, 2-3).

I met Bruno Latour in the lobby of a swanky hotel in Edinburgh’s West End, where the receptionist was quick to ask if he could help mainly because I was clearly an outsider. Nor is continental philosophy or the anthropology of science an area of expertise for me. But I’d been exploring. In a week I’d read three of his books, including the proof of his then-forthcoming Rejoicing: On Religious Speech, which seemed a departure from his works on the philosophy of science, and Latour had provided me with the full text of his lecture series. I later discovered that mine was the only interview he’d undertaken while in the city.

I was extremely curious how an anthropologist of science comes to be giving the Gifford Lectures. Established in 1888 to ‘promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term”, previous presenters have included such luminaries as William James, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and E. B. Tylor. A year on, I still don’t understand Latour’s argument about Gaia. But a few things from my readings have resonated with things I’d been thinking about in the meantime.

The Dark Continent

RS has been slow to pick up on the work of European sociologists; although Foucault and Bourdieu are becoming familiar names, Hervieu-Leger, Beyart and Latour himself are little known in Anglophone academia, with their books appearing in English sometimes twenty years after their native publication. (That I cannot read them in their original language is partly my own failing and partly the fault of a post-imperial education system which saw European languages as less important than English—see how easily I wield post-structuralist critique?) And this affected Latour too; while Rejoicing seems like an unexpected direction after We Have Never Been Modern and Factish Gods, in the original French, Rejoicing came first, lending the later works a somewhat different reading. In fact, Latour, who identifies as a Catholic, began his academic career in Biblical Studies, which lends the destabilisation of the apparent certainties of modernity in his later writings a different perspective.

Rejoicing is an unusual book for Latour, personal, confessional, almost sermon-like. Ostensibly, it concerns not “religion”, nor “religions” but the adverb “religiously”; what does it mean to talk religiously? Is it still even possible?

Latour interview, Part 1:

Latour’s answer is yes, but not in the way one might expect. Rejoicing is at the same time a fierce attack on religions;

We have to go through this fundamental disappointment: religion leads nowhere. It is the absolute opposite of social or sociologizing explanations that think they’ve explained the need for religion as a bid to fill a world that’s too empty or, conversely, according to the chosen metaphor, as a means of carving out a bit of transcendence in a world that’s too full (2013, 33).

Latour argues that religion is not, never was, about the far-away things; rather, that is properly the domain of science. Religion should be about the near things, the everyday. I don’t know if I agree, but this simple shift of emphasis seemed to me a radical departure from how debates about the role of religion in modernity are typically framed. Rather, Latour suggests, religion is a way of speaking; a kind of language, if you will, about the everyday certainties of existence;

For instance, the word ‘God’, which once served as the premise of all arguing, could have been translated, when ways of life changed, as ‘indisputable framework of ordinary existence’ so that we could continue to really see that what was thereby designated was merely the preliminary and prelude to a conversion of meaning (2013, 8).

However, our invented scholarly creation—the category “religion”—comes back to bite us, and becomes real as agents begin to take sides in the argument;

But instead of this direct, painless, progressive translation, they started clinging for dear life to the term ‘God’ and pitting it against ‘non-God’, without seeing that they were dealing with two forms about as different as God, Deus and Theos for translating the same everyday reality. Thinking they were protecting their heritage, they squandered it (2013, 8).

Factish Gods

In Factish Gods, Latour argues that most critical writings on culture take one of two positions; “the fact position and the fairy position” (2010, 237). The fact position argues that categories of belief are merely empty terms onto which power is projected; alternatively, the “fairy position” has it that there are in fact forces which dominate and motivate individuals, albeit without their conscious acquiescence. To take just one of these categories, RS is largely split between those who see religion as a sui generis category, a thing in itself which exerts power over individuals, and those who see it as a socially constructed but powerful category (and I include myself in the latter camp).

…while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion—there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy (Smith 1982, xi)

Latour, however, is attempting to construct a third way. I asked him about this quote from J. Z. Smith; he replied that he was correct, religion is a constructed category, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t also real. So Latour takes the constructionist agenda of the post-structuralists a step further. Our categories are indeed invented, but not “merely” so, for they are also real. They become real through our wielding of them.

I have to be able to talk about religious elaboration without threatening voices, coming from inside as much as outside, immediately asking me to choose: ‘Is it real or is it made up?’ I have to be able to answer once more: ‘Both’ (2013, 144).

Just like the founders of Discordianism found. A few years after inventing their parody religion, Greg Hill stated that “if you do this type of thing well enough, it starts to work… If you take a goddess of confusion seriously, it will send you through as profound and valid a metaphysical trip as taking a god like Yahweh seriously” (Adler 1986, 335). As Kerry Thornley, ever playful, put it, “if I had realised that all of this was going to come true, I would have chosen Venus” (Adler 1986, 336).

So Latour argues that we have the categories wrong. Rather than seeking to “extend Science over religion’s territory through an offensive apologetics, or to protect religion’s territory from Science through a defensive apologetics” (2013, 24), Latour challenges the basis of these demarcations. There is no boundary between “manufactured” and “real”, between “knowledge” and “belief”. Latour’s work argues that we all, ostensibly religious or not, have an epistemology based on invented certainties. We have never been Modern. None of us hold beliefs that are any more naive than anyone else’s. There are other ways to think about religion, beyond the simple dichotomies which populate the field and that many of us are so tired of.

Latour interview, Part 2:

The future of the discipline, in short, whether RS can demonstrate its utility to the broader academy, may depend on us getting over such false dichotomies—religious/secular, faith/knowledge, object/subject, fact/fetish, invented/real. We need to stop talking about how some people believe, and instead analyse our multiple, competing, situational, invented epistemologies.

Actually, I’m not sure this is what Latour means at all. I just made it up.

It’s turned quite cold, hasn’t it? Shall we be heading back?

References

Adler, M. (1986). Drawing down the moon: Witches, Druids, goddess-worshippers, and other pagans in America today. Boston: Beacon Press.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2010). On the modern cult of the factish gods. Durham: Duke University Press.

Latour, B. (2013). Rejoicing: Or the torments of religious speech. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Moore, A., & Campbell, E. (1994). From hell. Northampton: Mad Love Pub. in association with Kitchen Sink Press.

Smith, J. Z. (1982). Imagining religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.