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Roundtable: Critics or Caretakers?

Anna, Ting, and the bear…

Here we are with yet another roundtable for you, following on from our epic compilation episode where world-famous academics answered the question, ‘Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?’ This discussion brings together a number of aspiring academics to reflect on some of the issues brought up in that podcast in a friendly and hilarious manner. The question cuts to the core of what academics who study religion are doing… are they taking care of religion? Are they antagonising it? What should they be doing? And judging by the various long tangents through which discussion meanders, the question certainly sparked our interest.

The participants were Katie Aston, Anna Clot i Garrell, Christopher Cotter, Ting Guo, Ethan Quillen, David Robertson and Jonathan Tuckett (biographical statements below). All of us had listened to the bulk of the podcast mentioned above… BUT none of us had yet heard Russell McCutcheon’s response to it (so, apologies that we probably fall afoul of his excellent critique).

If you are new to the podcast – this is not what we usually do. If you are a regular listener – you might enjoy this, or you might not. We hope you pick the former…

Jonathan: “…every action is going to be illegal to some state, it’s just a case of which state you’re pandering to at that point”

Discussion flows through what an academic ‘caretaker’ would look like, to whether we are being caretakers of the academic discipline of Religious Studies simply by perpetuating the discussion of religion. We discuss the nature of the ‘sacred’, the idea of ‘critical religion’, and get in to talking about ‘cultural Christians’, the ‘spiritual but not religious’ and the age-old problem of defining religion… and the newer but semantically parasitic problem of defining ‘nonreligion’.

We debate and attempt to answer such questions as:

  • If our research uncovers material which is relevant to the real world… make sure that people know? Should we be public intellectuals?
  • Should we just tell the truth no matter what the consequence?
  • Does this discussion depend on which definition of ‘religion’ we work with?
  • Where would we draw the line between being a scientific academic, and taking action against the conduct of a group we are studying?
  • Are ‘we’ in a position to judge? Would we be judging from intellectual grounds or ethical grounds?
  • Anna: What is the nature of academic criticism, as opposed to criticism in the common parlance?
  • Should we be methodologically atheist? Methodologically agnostic? Are these the same thing?

David and Anna showcase some hooded sweatshirts.

We should warn you that this is a little rough around the edges. The idea was not to present anyone with a sophisticated discussion, but to give you an idea of the vast amount of issues which a simple question can raise, and encourage others to have such discussions themselves and maybe come to different conclusions. It’s uncensored… it’s fun… we had a good time. Please don’t take anything too seriously… but try to enjoy it, to engage with us, to disagree with us, to criticise us. That’s what we’re here for. There is also a lot of discussion of paedophilia… this came up early on as a hypothetically abhorrent practice which some ‘religious’ group might engage in. As it is pretty difficult to trump this in terms of abhorrence we returned to the issue somewhat more regularly than it warranted. Suffice to say, this was most definitely a hypothetical example.

This podcast was recorded in Chris’ place of gainful employment – the University of Edinburgh Visitor Centre – and we are very grateful to them for providing the space. The participants were also all brought together by the Religion & Society Programme’s ‘Sacred Practice of Everyday Life’ conference, and we were very grateful to Linda Woodhead and the other organisers for allowing the Religious Studies Project to attend and record a number of podcasts with participants (to be released from September 2012).

Ethan: “When you define religion as a scholar, you’re essentially putting the last nail in your own coffin.”

Some choice quotations:

Ethan: “so, essentially what you’re promoting is that we all need to be defence attorneys?”

Chris: “Are we as scholars of religion by the very fact that we are scholars of religion… being caretakers?”

Katie: “Can I just clarify that I’m not a scholar of religion? Coz I’m not…”

Ethan: “That’s like saying it’s raining outside, this umbrella isn’t working, so I’ll open this canopy instead.”

And just so that we have a ‘proper’ academic involved, here is the quotation from Donald Wiebe which Chris cites in the recording as an example of the ‘critic’ side of the dichotomy:

 “Just as the knowledge produced in the humanities and by social scientists may bear on human problems and public concerns, so also the knowledge produced by students of religion may bear the same relationship to such issues. In this regard, however, it is important to note: first, that the “linkage” between the knowledge produced and the problems resolved is “external,” that is, it is of the same order, so to speak, as that between the natural sciences and engineering; second, that even though religious studies research may be relevant in that fashion, working out the policy/resolution implications of that knowledge is not the task of the student of religion. To take on that assignment is the task of policy makers, politicians, therapists, conflict managers, and other “public intellectuals.” And it is important, I think, that the scientific character of the study of religion not be compromised in any way by bringing such tasks in to the purview of Religious Studies”

Wiebe, Donald 2008. ‘The Scientific Study of Religion and Its Cultured Despisers’ in Willi Braun and Russell McCutcheon (eds.), Introducing Religion: Essays in Honor of Jonathan Z. Smith. London: Equinox, p. 477.

The Participants:


Having completed a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006, Katie Aston went on to complete her Masters in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University, with a dissertation investigating gender performance within contemporary Stand Up comedy in London. Building on a pilot study of the Atheist Bus Campaign,  she is currently undertaking an ethnographic study of non-religious value construction and material cultures. She is looking specifically at rationalism and the role Christian heritage within non-religious individuals and organisation, taking a historical perspective from the freethought archives of Bishopsgate Institute. Katie is an Assistant Editor at NSRN Online, the web presence of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.


Anna Clot i Garrell is currently a PhD candidate in the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). She received her degree in Sociology from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in 2010. In 2009, she became part of the research group ISOR (Investigations in Sociology of Religion) directed by Dr. Joan Estruch, collaborating in the research project Evangelical Churches in Barcelona: doctrinal heterogeneity, immigration and evangelization strategies directed by Dra Maria del Mar Griera. In 2011, she completed a Master of Arts in Religious Studies at Lancaster University and was awarded with the Ninian Smart prize for the best dissertation in Religious Studies for the dissertation Exploring New Religious Expressions in Catalunya supervised by Dr. Andrew Dawson. She is interested in the transformations of religion and the emergence of novel expressions of religiosity in the secular sphere and traditional religious contexts.


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


Ting Guo is a PhD candidate in religious studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her thesis is on the philosophy of artificial intelligence and how that might contribute to understanding the meaning of spirituality and who and what we are in the Information Age. She is also interested in the religious landscape in East and Southeast Asia, in particular the phenomenon of “underground church” in China, the notion of neo-colonialism, and Chinese diaspora in Britain.


Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.


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


What is Phenomenology? for the Religious Studies Project, as well as recording a number of interviews.

David Voas on Quantitative Research

Sociological research has followed two broad paradigms –  qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative studies seek depth, typically based on interviews and observation with a relatively small pool of subjects. Quantitative studies, on the other hand, survey a larger pool – in some cases, such as the UK National Census, practically the entire population of a country –  relying on mass methods such as questionnaires with a limited set of questions and responses. Such data sets allow cross-analyses of large groups in ways that qualitative methods never could. But without the reflexivity and personal relationship of an interviewer, are quantitative methods compromised by the biases in the specific questions asked? 

In our interviews with Callum Brown and Ariella Keysar, the team had a number of issues with the use of qualitative data in religious studies – which you’ll know if you’ve heard our roundtable response recorded at the SOCREL conference this year. So we decided we needed to speak to an acknowledged expert, to lay out the advantages – and deal with the issues – with quantitative data in the study of religions. In his interview, David Voas deals with the criticisms strongly and with good grace, while laying out a compelling case for the place of quantitative research in the contemporary study of religions.

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

David Voas is Professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex, and was formerly Simon Professor of Population Studies at the University of Manchester. He is the national programme director in Great Britain for the European Values Study and co-director of the British Religion in Numbers project (www.brin.ac.uk), an online centre for British data on religion. He serves on the editorial boards of the British Journal of Sociology and the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and on the council of the British Society for Population Studies.

Among his many publications, some relevant ones are Surveys of behaviour, beliefs and affiliation in Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, ed. J Beckford and NJ Demerath (Sage, 2007); Does religion belong in population studies? in Environment and Planning A 39:5 (2007); and Religious decline in Scotland: New evidence on timing and spatial patterns in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 45:1 (2006).

Vernacular Religion

Images of Jesus on a slice of toast; Koran verses in an aubergine; statues which cry blood; Angel Colour cards and Atlantean crystal therapies; popular religious expressions are everywhere. Over the past decades, a number of scholarly terms have been coined for such phenomena – ‘implicit religion’, ‘invisible religion’, ‘everyday religion’ or, the topic of this interview, ‘vernacular religion’. Each does different work, but each fundamentally acknowledges that what real people actually do on the ground, what they believe, what they identify with etc has a fundamentally greater impact upon religion as it exists in the real world than the discourses of theologians, philosophers and academics. In this interview, Marion Bowman showcases her fascinating research into the ways in which religion permeates everyday life, paying particular attention to the manifestations at the famous Glastonbury Festival.

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

Dr Marion Bowman is Senior Lecturer in the Religious Studies department at the Open University, former president of the BASR and of the Folklore Society, and currently on the executive board of SIEF’s Ethnology of Religion Working Group.

She began her academic career at Glasgow University, but switched to Lancaster University where she came under the influence of Professor Ninian Smart, a revolutionary figure who has acquired almost mythic status in the field of Religious Studies. Her research is concerned with vernacular/ folk/ popular religion – ‘religion as it is lived’ – contemporary religion (especially, New Age/Alternative Spirituality, Paganism, New Religious Movements, Vernacular Christianity) and contemporary Celtic Spirituality in Christianity, Paganism, Druidry, New Age/ Alternative Spirituality and New Religious Movements.

Marion’s Publications include Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief (2012) and Beyond the New Age: Exploring Alternative Spiritualities (2000). You can listen to Marion talking about airport chapels with Norman Winter at the Multi-Faith Spaces conference held at the University of Manchester.

Titus Hjelm on Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religions

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is indeed the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition, which needs illusions.

This famous quotation from German political philosopher Karl Marx’s unfinished Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) encapsulates his controversial and complex understanding of the social function of religion. It was a significant part of his theory of alienation – the worker was, in capitalist society, separated from their labour and its products; work had become outside of them, alien. Religion was part of the mechanism by which the bourgeois perpetuated this alienation and therefore the capitalist status quo. Life was unfair, but this was the price of entry into Heaven when you die. As Marx saw it, when the workers were no longer alienated from their work and society made equal, there would be no need for religion, and it would die away.

The theory, and in particular the decontextualised soundbyte, “Religion is the opium of the masses”, was practically a matter of faith among the left-leaning liberal intelligentsia of the 60s and 70s, but the popularity of Marxist analyses of religion (and society in general) lost capital during the 80s and early 90s with the fall of the USSR and the Berlin Wall. What place, then, do his theories have in the contemporary academy, given society’s reawakened concern with inequality? Marx’s theory anticipated both the work of Émile Durkheim, founder of sociology, and an emphasis on power relations which would later be picked up by post-structuralist theorists including Foucault and Bourdieu, all of whom have a profound.influence on contemporary studies of religion.

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

titus hjelmTitus Hjelm is Lecturer in Finnish Society and Culture at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College, London. His doctoral dissertation, at the University of Helsinki, was on the construction of Satanism in the Finnish news media. His research interests are wide-ranging, however, and include the sociology of religion, news media, popular culture (particularly the Nordic heavy metal scene and vampire fiction), and social theory, including Marxist theories. His two most recent books are Perspectives on Social Constructionism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and an edited volume titled Religion and Social Problems (Routledge, 2010). He is also bass guitar player for Thunderstone.

Apologies too for the background noise – we got locked out of our office.

In Saecula Saeculorum: Reflecting on the Age/Aeon in light of the Cappadocian Fathers

In Saecula Saeculorum: Reflecting on the Age/Aeon in light of the Cappadocian Fathers

By Mario Baghos, St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College and University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 23 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Tariq Modood on the Crisis of European Secularism (28 May 2012).

Introduction

Drawing on my own research and interdisciplinary interests, the following response to Professor Tariq Modood’s podcast entitled ‘The Crisis of European Secularism’ will consist in a summary of his main thesis, followed by a statement of the challenge I seek to address, namely the anthropocentrism inherent in (some forms of) contemporary secularism; particularly its neglect of religion/God and the cosmos.  This will be followed by an etymological analysis of the word ‘secular,’ which is analogous with the age/aeon, especially as it was envisaged by the Cappadocian fathers of the early Church, Ss Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian (or, ‘Nazianzus’). It is hoped that their holistic vision of the age, one in which God and the cosmos were in fact included, can inspire further reflection on the way we experience our ‘age.’

Summary, and Addressing the ‘Crisis’

David Robertson’s insightful interview with Professor Tariq Modood unfolds within the parameters of a very pertinent debate, namely, the relationship between secular nations or states and religious institutions; where secularism, in a broad sense, has to do with separation of these two spheres. Professor Modood distinguishes between three types of secularism that, historically, have conditioned the relationship between governments and religious establishments since the Enlightenment. These can be described as ‘soft,’ ‘strict,’ and ‘moderate,’ the latter implying that organised religion and political authority can be partners, albeit in a limited sense (i.e. whilst retaining their mutual autonomy). According to him, it is the ‘strict’ form of secularism – an outcome of the French concept of laïcité – that is unfortunately prevailing in British society at a time when a new religious pluralism is beginning to emerge with immigration by Muslim minorities. Indeed, Professor Modood is genuinely concerned with positing a framework (i.e. through moderate secularism), where British authorities and Muslim clerics can work together without compromising the secularism of the former and the religious convictions/way of life of the latter. Whilst appreciating the significance of Modood’s presentation, I am reluctant to comment on it further, insofar as I do not feel sufficiently equipped with the knowledge pertaining to the secular policies of our modern governments, nor the intricacies of immigration. However, Modood’s nuanced description of various secularisms does offer the opportunity to engage the ‘crisis’ in relation to my own research interests; for whilst the professor has pertinently observed their implications for the relationship between politics and religious/ethnic minorities, I will be presupposing that the general mentality (or, metanarrative) behind secularism can be both anthropocentric and reductionist, insofar as its promotion of a-religiosity (on a political level) and preoccupation for the interests of human beings precludes an appreciation for the ways in which the ‘age’ has been interpreted by ancient and traditional societies, wherein God and the cosmos were intimately bound with the human endeavour or history. As pretexts for this anthropocentrism, the increasing neglect of God and religion in public affairs (the latter pointed to by Modood with reference to the ‘strict’ model), Mircea Eliade’s characterisation of modern ‘man’ [or, people] as only existing “insofar as he makes himself, within history [i.e. apart from cosmos]” (2005: xxiii), as well as the scientifically proven and very obvious degradation to the planet since the Industrial Revolution in the name of our own progress, will have to suffice for such a short piece. But before moving forward I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Modood for drawing my attention to some very important and sensitive issues, apart from which I would have remained rather ignorant.

Scope and Definitions

As mentioned, I intend to begin with an etymological analysis. Presupposing that words or definitions are indicative of the mentalities that produce them, I will address the concept of the ‘age’ or aeon as implied by the secondary meaning of the Latin term saeculum, wherefrom the word ‘secular’ is derived. I am aware of the difficulties inherent in undertaking an etymological analysis without extensively considering the different ways in which the notion of secularism and its cognates (such as ‘secularisation,’ ‘secularity’) have been employed across a range of interpretive disciplines (the history of religion, the sociology of religion, the field of geo-politics, to name a few). Nevertheless, having recently explored the historical development and use of some of these definitions as set out both in Modood’s presentation and in the works of N. J. Demerath and Judith Fox, I believe that my approach is legitimated by etymological analyses of the words ‘culture’ (Demerath 2007: 71) and ‘secular’ (Fox 2005: 292) undertaken by the latter in order to demonstrate their respective theses. Of particular relevance is Fox’s demonstration that the derivation of this term, coming from “the same etymological root (L. saeculum) as the French word siecle, meaning ‘century’ or ‘age,’” is also evident in “the astronomical use of the word secular to talk about processes of change over long periods of time” (Fox: 292). Perhaps unintentionally hinting at the longue durée of the Annales school of historiography (Le Goff 1992: xxi-xxii), this astronomical definition is important, for it can be interpreted as pointing to a relationship between the Latin saeculum and the Greek aeon (αἰῶν); the latter being a more flexible term which can mean either a long period of time or eternity depending on the context. To this end, the Latin phrase in saecula saeculorum, included in my title, is the Vulgate translation of the New Testament phrase “into the ages of ages” (εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων/eis toūs aiōnas tōn aiōnōn) which is commonly mistranslated as the eternity of God, but in fact relates to a doxological (and hence, existential) appraisal of his sovereign presence and providential activity throughout both the present age and the eschatological ages to come (Cf. Gal 1:5, Eph 3:21, Phil 4:20, 1 Tim 1:17, 2 Tim 4:18, Heb 13:21, 1 Pet 4:11, Rev 1:18, 4:9, 10, 5:13, 7:12, 11:15, 22:5). Usually preceded by an invocation of the Holy Trinity, this doxological phrase commonly prefigured many prayers and hymns of the Christianity of the late antique and medieval periods, resounding today in its major branches, Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. So, as my title suggests, I will address the concept of the ‘age’ or aeon as implied by the secondary meaning of the Latin term saeculum as a long period of time (here to be understood as the duration of the cosmos), evoking the existential dimension of the Christian tradition with its antecedents in the scriptures and exemplified in material which is of immediate relevance to (and an outcome of) my own research, namely, the writings of the fourth century Cappadocian fathers Ss Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian. I will show that their conception of the age or aeon is one in which God and the cosmos are included, which, I will argue, stands in stark contradistinction to our anthropocentric and reductionist interpretations of secularism.

The Cappadocians on the Age/Aeon

The Basilian concept of the ‘age’ is associated with two other aspects of his thinking, namely, his exegetical approach to the scriptures – more particularly Genesis (i.e. protology) – and his eschatological vision; where the eschaton, the ‘last things’ of the historical continuum traditionally described as “Christ’s final judgment of humanity, the resurrection of the dead and the final ‘transformation of the cosmos’” (Baghos: 2010: 86) were envisaged as anticipated in the here and now in an ecclesial context. Concerning the former, which is expounded at length in his Hexaēmeron (or, Homilies on the Six Days of Creation), he notes that scripture [i.e. Gen 1:5] “calls the first day of creation ‘one day’ – ἡμέρα μία [heméra mía] – instead of the ‘first’ – πρώτη ἡμέρα [prótē heméra] – in a succession of days” (Baghos: 89). The Cappadocian allegorically interprets this ‘one’ day (heméra mía) as symbolising a totality that recapitulates within itself all of creation history from beginning to end as metaphorically represented by the creation narrative. He does this by suggesting that the very structure of the week of Genesis, which is paradigmatic for the duration of time we experience (i.e. all subsequent ‘weeks’), constitutes an image or approximation of eternity in its cyclical rotation. Hence, both the ‘one’ day and its consecutive ‘reiterations’ point to the aforementioned recapitulation of history which he also describes as the age/aeon (αἰῶν), which does not simply refer to the human endeavour undertaken for its own sake; but to the origin, rhythms and purpose of the entire created cosmos, consisting of both the “heavenly and earthly, human and biological, astronomical and mineral” (Costache 2010: 22), which he elucidates throughout the treatise. So, for this traditional thinker, there could be no separation between the notion of the age and the cosmic purpose that contained within itself the human endeavour (Costache: 23), thereby leaving no room for the sort of anthropocentrism characterising contemporary secularism(s). St Basil also refers to “the ages of ages” mentioned in the scriptures (see above), stating that, since they are not enumerated in a sequence (as the six days of creation in Genesis) they do not refer to ‘ages.’ Instead, they pertain to “differences of conditions and of various circumstances” (Hexaēmeron 2.8, at 35. PG 29, 49D-52A) that pertain to this very age designated by the ‘one’ day, the age or aeon, and also the ‘eighth day’ that occurs outside the week of time and hence our temporal experience. Days ‘one’ and ‘eight,’ inhering within the same aeon, not only point to the inextricable relationship between protology and eschatology in the saint’s thinking, but also to the fact that those aspects relating to the ‘last things’ mentioned above can be experienced in any epoch, thereby prefiguring the profoundly existential already/not yet of the eschaton put forward by contemporary scholarship; that although God’s kingdom has ‘already’ been established in the Church (with the advent of Christ), it is ‘not yet’ consummated – and won’t be until the second coming (Baghos: 85). In his On the Holy Spirit, St Basil highlights this ecclesial dimension by affirming that days ‘one’ and ‘eight’ coincide on a Sunday, which in Greek is literally the ‘Lord’s day’ – or Κυριακή (Kyriakē) – the principal day on which the Eucharistic liturgy was and still is celebrated (Baghos: 85). Herein lies the existential significance of the age for this Church father. For him, the ecclesial rhythms, but especially the liturgy, recapitulate God’s providential activity throughout the entire age understood cosmically; what has happened, is happening, and will happen is summed up within the Sunday, the ‘one’ day of creation, through which believers are able to have an immediate foretaste of the ‘eighth’ day, i.e. the eschatological life to come.

St Gregory the Theologian’s vision of the age/aeon is as holistic as that of his friend and peer, St Basil. At the beginning of the twenty-fifth chapter of his Fifth Theological Oration, he states that “there have been two transformations of life manifested out of the entire age [τοῦ παντὸς αἰῶνος/toū pantōs aiōnos]” (Fifth Theological Oration 25, at 136. PG 36, 160D). I have written elsewhere that this all-encompassing approach, resonating with Basil’s conception of the age, “attempts to give a comprehensive account of the historical drama and the persons and events that it includes” (Baghos 2011: 24). In other words, the Cappadocian’s perception was akin to what we today call a metanarrative, which, he went on to affirm, unfolded between the two covenants of the Old and New Testaments, which he also described as “earthquakes” marking two important existential changes in disposition of God’s people; from the pagan idols to the Mosaic Law, and from the Law to the Christian Gospel (Baghos: 24-25). For the Theologian, these two changes were analogously marked by the disclosure of God as Trinity; the first covenant proclaimed the Father, the second the Son, whilst also giving believers “a glimpse of the Spirit’s Godhead” (Fifth Theological Oration, 26, at 137; PG 36, 161C) before his revelation to the apostles and the ecclesial community. Here, we encounter a conception of the age/aeon that far from being interpreted anthropocentrically, is instead concerned with God’s self-disclosure that unfolds in stages proportionate to the capacity of human beings to receive it (Baghos 2011: 29). That this self-disclosure is again profoundly existential is exemplified by the saint’s insistence that the Spirit dwelt within the apostles, and his understanding of the eschatological experience as constituting the “third and final earthquake that will translate the cosmos into an unshaken, unmoved mode of being” (Baghos 2011: 31). And it is precisely here that the cosmic dimension of Gregory’s vision of the age is exhibited; for this eschatological rumination, when compared intertextually with chapters 11-13 of his Oration 38, denotes that whilst the historical continuum moves from one ‘covenantal earthquake’ to the next, it is in fact marked on either end (i.e. alpha and omega) by the Demiurge Logos (i.e. Christ), who, in his pre-incarnate existence created the spiritual and material worlds (Baghos: 30-31). For Gregory it is to this same Logos, now incarnate as Christ Jesus, towards which history, and hence the age, is oriented; thereby precluding the anthropocentric model in light of the inevitable teleological encounter of the universe and all it contains with God the Son.

Concluding Remarks

In an environment where secularism is often interpreted as a prerogative in human self-governance and even our perception and experience of the world, it is perhaps intriguing – if not often disquieting – to be confronted with how representative figures from other epochs, usually considered more religious than our own, viewed their own age and all it contained. Whilst there are many forms of secularism, such as those pointed out by professor Modood in his podcast, what I have been concerned with in this piece is to offer an alternative, holistic vision of the concept of the age/aeon based on the writings of two figures from fourth century Christianity. Whilst some might decry this diachronic, and in fact interdisciplinary approach, I am finding that it has become a staple of my own research, insofar as I am genuinely convinced that the religious perceptions and mentalities from any context can offer insights into contemporary situations, not the least secularism. In the beginning of this response I mentioned the fact that secularism can be, in a general sense, characterised by an anthropocentrism that is manifested in a neglect of God and religion in public affairs, as well as an a-cosmicism that has had an immediate effect on our environment. I then undertook an etymological analysis of the term ‘secular,’ in order to legitimate its use with reference to the age or aeon. This led me to a brief exploration of the conception of the ‘age’ in two representative figures of early Christianity, namely the Cappadocians Basil and Gregory. In the former, I identified the relationship between the age and the cosmic rhythms, outlining their existential dimension that is facilitated by the Eucharistic liturgy, wherein the entire salvific economy (or, God’s presence in the age) is anticipated with a foretaste of the future eschaton. In the latter, I observed a metanarrational vision of history (or the age) whereby God gradually discloses himself through the ‘covenantal earthquakes’; a vision which is not without its cosmic significance insofar as the age is marked by Christ’s presence on either end as creator and consummator. That the vision of these two saints is not without contemporary relevance is testified by their veneration, especially amongst Eastern Orthodox Christians, who moreover continue to refer to them with epithets established by tradition (‘the Great,’ ‘Theologian’) and to celebrate liturgies ostensibly written by them. It is perhaps worth pondering the ramifications of secularism on these Christians, both as it increases in popularity in their native countries and as they migrate abroad. As a final note, in focusing on these specifically Christian figures I did not mean to preclude the perception and experience of other religious traditions. On the contrary, it is hoped that their holistic perception and experience of the ‘age’ as one in which God and the cosmos are included will provide a meaningful alternative to our modern experience of it as interpreted from the viewpoint of various secularisms, which I have posited can be anthropocentric, and hence reductionist, in nature.

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

About the Author:

 

Mario Baghos is Associate Lecturer in Patristic Studies and Church History at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Redfern, Sydney. He is a PhD candidate in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. His research interests include the city of Constantinople, patristic eschatology, and the history of religions and mentalities.

 

References

Baghos, Mario (2010) ‘St Basil’s Eschatological Vision: Aspects of the Recapitulation of History and the Eighth Day’ Phronema 25, 85-103.

Baghos, Mario (2011) ‘The Meaning of History: Insights from St Gregory the Theologian’s Existential Metanarrative’ Colloquium 43:1, 17-38.

Costache, Doru (2010) ‘Christian Worldview: Understandings from St Basil the Great’ Phronema 25, 21-56.

Demerath III, N.J. (2007) ‘Secularization and Sacralization Deconstructed and Reconstructed’ in James A. Beckford and N.J. Demerath II (eds.) The Sage Handbook of the Sociology of Religion. London: Sage Publications, 57-79.

Eliade Mircea (2005) The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History, trans. W.R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fox, Judith (2005) ‘Secularization’ in John R. Hinnells (ed.) The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. Oxon: Routledge, 291-305.

Harrison, Nonna Verna (trans.) (2008) Festal Orations: Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, in Popular Patristics Series 36, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood NY: SVS Press.

Hildebrand, Stephen (trans.) (2011) St Basil the Great: On the Holy Spirit, in Popular Patristics Series 42, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Le Goff, Jacques (1992): History and Memory, trans. S. Rendall and E. Claman. New York: Columbia University Press.

Way, Agnes Clare (trans.) (2003) St Basil: Exegetical Homilies, The Fathers of the Church Series, vol. 46. Washington D.C: The Catholic University of American Press.

Williams, Frederick (trans.) (2002) St Gregory of Nazianzus: On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and the Two Letters to Cledonius, Popular Patristics Series 23, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Tariq Modood on the Crisis of European Secularism

Secularism – the separation of religion and state – has been a central narrative in the European political sphere since the Enlightenment. But with renewed calls in some countries to affirm a Christian identity, and problems in accommodating some Muslim communities, is Western secularism under threat?

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

Tariq Modood is Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy at the University of Bristol. He is founding Director of the University Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, and co-founding editor of the international journal, Ethnicities. As a regular contributor to the media and policy debates in Britain, he was awarded a MBE for services to social sciences and ethnic relations in 2001 and elected a member of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2004. He also served on the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, the IPPR Commission on National Security and on the National Equality Panel, which reported to the UK Deputy Prime Minister in 2010.

His recent publications include Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity and Muslims in Britain (Edinburgh University Press, 2005), Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea (Polity, 2007) and Still Not Easy Being British: Struggles for a Multicultural Citizenship (Trentham Books, 2010); and as co-editor, Secularism, Religion and Multicultural Citizenship (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Is There a Crisis of Secularism in Western Europe?, which expands considerably upon the issues in this interview, is now available at http://www.bris.ac.uk/ethnicity/news/2012/36.html.

Readers and listeners might also be interested in Linda Woodhead’s podcast on the Secularisation Thesis, and Bjoern Mastiaux’s essay on the same topic.

Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Violence and the Media

Discussions of religion in the media nowadays frequently revolve around issues of violence and social unrest. Religions and media can become collaborators in promoting peace and opening negotiations; at the same time the media can become host to extremist narratives which may incite violence. Does the media have a responsibility to promote peace? Are religions becoming more skilled at manipulating the media?

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

Before being appointed to the University of Edinburgh, Jolyon Mitchell worked as a producer and journalist for BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4. As Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues he directs a number of research projects and helps to host a wide range of public lectures and events.

His latest book, which this interview was structured around, is Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence (Routledge, to be published in Sept. 2011). Earlier publications include The Religion and Film Reader (co-editor with S. Brent Plate Routledge, 2007), and Mediating Religion: Conversations in Media, Religion and Culture (co-editor with Sophia Marriage, Continuum, 2003). Prof Mitchell is also co-editor of three research monograph series with Routledge, including on Media, Religion and Culture; and on Film and Religion. He was director of the Third International Conference on Media, Religion and Culture, Edinburgh, July 1999 and director of the Fourth International Conference on Peacemaking in the World of Film: from Conflict to Reconciliation, Edinburgh, July 2007.

Roundtable: Can We Trust the Social Sciences?

We have another ‘treat’ for you this week – we’ll let you decide whether that was an accurate description or not – in the form of another roundtable discussion, with a slightly different group of people. This was recorded late on the 28th of March at the University of Chester during the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL for short)’s conference (although, of course, this is an ‘unofficial’ discussion).

Ethan: “We ask a question on a survey, we get an answer… and then we have to fill in the space…”

The topic of discussion grew out of a presentation delivered by Callum Brown at the University of Edinburgh (at the same time as we recorded our podcast with him) on the topic of “People of no religion: The demographics of secularisation in the English speaking world since 1900”, which presented, amongst other things, some conclusions from large-scale demographic surveys of religious identification. Ethan Quillen disagreed forcefully that conclusions drawn from questionnaires and censuses can be used to draw large-scale conclusions, and tabled the motion, “Can We Trust the Social Sciences?”

If you are new to the podcast – this is not what we usually do. If you are a regular listener – you might enjoy this, or you might not; either way, we are back to normal with Jolyon Mitchell’s interview on Religion, Media and Violence on Monday. For an interesting and more rigorous response essay to this podcast, please see Tim Hutchings’ A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion.

David and Ethan

David and Ethan

Conversation ranges from the strengths and weaknesses of such data, whether there is more to the social sciences than quantitative methods, and the place of the social sciences within a multi-disciplinary Religious Studies field. Can we trust social sciences when we study religion? Is a social scientific approach the future of religious studies? What is an alternative to a social scientific approach?  These questions and more form the basis for what we intend to act as a bridge between our previous roundtable (“What is the Future of Religious Studies?”) and our forthcoming roundtable (“Should scholars of religion be critics or caretakers?”), timetabled for release on 6 June 2012.

Discussion largely focussed upon Quantitative Methods… something which future podcasts with Ariela Keysar and David Voas shall be focusing on more explicitly:

Do social scientists depend upon assumptive reasoning when it comes to filling in the blanks in their data? Does a decline in church attendance mean a decline in conviction, or simply a decline in one’s attendance at church? By providing boxes do we force people into boxes? What does one individual tell us about a category? What is it specifically about religion that makes this such an issue? How do we trust people to answer in a certain way?

Kevin: “Aren’t you better hypothesising by going out and asking people questions than by sitting around and hypothesising?”

Reference is made to the panel session on Religious Conspiracies at which David, Kevin and Ethan had presented earlier in the day. We also refer to Tom Rees’ excellent Epiphenom blog. Ethan plays Devil’s advocate, whilst Chris throws himself on the pyre and asks Ethan what he thought was wrong with his approach in his MSc Thesis.

Mat: “It’s not perfect, and I would love to go out and buy a tailored pair of trousers but… I’m not gonna get it. So I’ll go out and buy a pair that are closest to my size, and that’s the most economic way…”

It was late… two thirds of the panel had been up since 7 am travelling down from Edinburgh.

The conclusion? Should there be a balance between quantitative and qualitative approaches? Well… yes. But individual scholars may have to side with one or the other. We need a holistic approach, and this isn’t generally something one scholar can accomplish by themselves…

Sponsored by Pepsi Max, and pink gin.

Katie clearly found Ethan “hilarious”

The Discussants:

Katie Aston

Having completed a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006, Katie went on to complete her Masters in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University, with a dissertation investigating gender performance within contemporary Stand Up comedy in London. Building on a pilot study of the Atheist Bus Campaign,  she is currently undertaking an ethnographic study of non-religious value construction and material cultures. She is looking specifically at rationalism and the role Christian heritage within non-religious individuals and organisation, taking a historical perspective from the freethought archives of Bishopsgate Institute. Katie is an Assistant Editor at NSRN Online, the web presence of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.

Christopher R. Cotter

Chris recently completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. He is currently taking a year out from study to pursue PhD applications, present at conferences, and work on projects such as this. His future research will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Deputy Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Matthew Francis

Matthew graduated from Leeds with a joint-honours degree in Philosophy and Theology and Religious Studies. He subsequently undertook a Masters by Research, where he examined the ideas of Georges Bataille in relation to the problem of meaning in death in contemporary society. Matthew is the Postgraduate Officer for the Sociology of Religion study group (SocRel) of the British Sociological Association (BSA). He has taught on undergraduate and postgraduate modules on subjects including the Sociology of Religion and Religion in Modern Britain.

Matthew recently completed an AHRC-funded PhD at Leeds, which investigated the move to violence in the beliefs of groups. He is the editor for RadicalisationResearch.org, an AHRC/ESRC funded website which provides a resource for policy-makers and the media on radicalisation and extremism, and works at Goldsmiths University managing the Religious Literacy Leadership Project.

Ethan Quillen

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

David G. Robertson

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

Kevin Whitesides

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

Religion After Darwin

Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species  was published in 1859, and had an immediate and dramatic effect on religious narratives. Traditional religions were forced to adopt an evolutionary worldview, or to go on the offensive; whereas New Religious Movements like Wicca or New Age adopted an environmental concern as a central part of their belief. And possibly, for individuals and groups committed to protect, preserve or sacralise nature, environmentalism has become a kind of religion in itself.

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

Bron Taylor is Professor of Religion and Nature at the University of Florida. He is also a Carson Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. His central scholarly interest and personal passion is the conservation of the earth’s biological diversity and how human culture might evolve rapidly enough to arrest and reverse today’s intensifying environmental and social crises. He edits the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, as well as the two-volume Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. His latest book is Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2009) – the first chapter can be read on his website, along with a wealth of other supplimentary material including a piece on Bron’s thoughts on the movie Avatar, as discussed in the podcast

The Secularisation Thesis

The secularisation thesis – the idea that traditional religions are in terminal decline in the industrialised world – was perhaps the central debate in the sociology of religion in the second half of the 20th century. Scholars such as Steve Bruce, Rodney Stark and Charles Taylor argued whether religion was becoming less important to individuals, or that only the authority of religions in the public sphere was declining. Data from the US and South America, however, began to challenge many of their basic assumptions. Professor Linda Woodhead joins us to discuss the background and legacy of the secularisation thesis.

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

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation Thesis (16 April 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. Robertson. Transcribed by Martin Lepage.

 

David Robertson: The secularisation thesis is probably the biggest central theme and certainly the most hotly debated in the sociology of religion, certainly since the 1960’s. Why is it so important and how has it changed? To talk to us today about this, we’ve got Professor Linda Woodhead, from the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Perhaps, you could just begin at the beginning with where does the secularisation thesis come from? Where does it begin?

Linda Woodhead: Actually, the origins of secularisation theory are coterminous with the origins of sociology itself. It’s absolutely fundamental to the whole discipline and all the great fathers of sociology – Weber, Durkheim and Marx – believed and expounded some version of secularisation theory. At the very heart of the social sciences, this belief that, as societies modernized, religion will decline. And each had a different way of explaining that. For Weber, it was primarily about the rise of scientific knowledge and it was about the application of rational standards, bureaucratic standards, in life more generally. He thought that that way of thinking and reasoning disenchanted the world, it cast out the magical, the religious. Durkheim had a rather different explanation of why religion declines. He thought that religion binds societies together, and he particularly thought that religion binds small groups together, and they meet face to face and celebrate the sacred. He thought that as societies modernized and urbanized, those fundamental bonds are broken, and religion is broken in that process as people move to cities and are individualized more. And Marx thought, of course, that religion would die out once you get the perfect socialist communist State. He thought it was a symptom of all that was wrong with society, a way of coping with the oppressions and difficulties of society. Once we realised the perfect society, you won’t need religion. In different ways, all of those classical theories are evolutionary or they’re progressive.

DR: I was going to ask that. Are they strongly tied to this notion of the gradual perfection of society and the move out of the darkness and into the light?

LW: They are really, and that’s a kind of, in a way, a blind spot of classical secularisation theory, in modern forms, that they didn’t really, perhaps… they weren’t sociological enough about their own background and presuppositions. This early crop of the classical theories, are all bound up with Nation-States developing, growing, extending their power and with their new elites, including academic elites, like the sociologists establishing their status. There was a kind of implicit optimism that the way that European society is developing is at the cutting edge of social evolution. So all societies are going to follow, so eventually everyone will become secular like we are. That’s never quite said, but that really does lie behind this theory. That we are not just talking about the tie of religion and particularities of here and now, we’re talking about an inevitable, inextricable process that everyone is destined to go through.

DR: That’s a critique of the narrative of modernization and westernisation anyway, that this is inevitable and even desirable motif. Maybe we can move on to the… I don’t want to call them the classical theorists, but the most famous describers of the secularisation thesis in the simple form that we know it.

LW: You could say that those classical sociologists, Weber, Durkheim, Marx, are sort of phase one of secularisation. And then there’s been a phase two. Phase two came in the wake of the Second World War, really. It was really flourishing in the 1970’s, and around about then. Again, it was very much European. In the UK, one of the chief figures was Brian Wilson, of Oxford University. (5:00) He fully endorsed secularisation theory, he gave it thoughts of new twists and explanations and interpretations. He particularly emphasised that secularisation is about the decline in the social significance of religion. He didn’t deny that some people were still religious, but he said “what’s changed, is that religion doesn’t have the same status in society. For example, politicians don’t have to refer to it anymore. They go on and do their business according to their own logic, they don’t take any notice of religion, whereas before the political ruler and religious elites would have to be in compensation with each other. He talked about that in every sphere, how religion ceases to be a point of reference in the public life.

DR: Perhaps you could clarify that, that sounds like the first development of the secularisation thesis, isn’t it? It’s one of the explanations for it, that it’s not that religion is going to completely disappear from society, rather it moves out of public sphere and into the private sphere.

LW: Yes. He thought that was that. You could still be devoutly religious, but it will affect you in your private life rather than when you go to work, or when you’re being a politician or wherever that might be.

DR: It’s not a disappearance of religion, it’s just a radical change in its function?

LW: Yes, the sociological term is social differentiation. The different spheres of society become autonomous. In law, you don’t refer to religion anymore, and in politics, likewise, and in education likewise. All these things become autonomous and they run according to rational secular standards, not by reference to religion. Wilson thinks he sees that happening very clearly in the UK and gives lots of examples of that process in various spheres.

DR: Were there any other interpretations of the secularisation thesis?

LW: There were lots of clarifications at that time. There was another very important contribution by a European, a Belgian sociologist, called Karel Dobbelaere, and he made what’s become really well used in his account, is a distinction between three levels of secularisation. He talks about secularisation at the societal level, the meta level of society; secularisation at the organisational level, and he’s thinking in part of religious organisation themselves declining, like the churches having fewer members or attenders; and then thirdly, secularisation at the personal level, where fewer people believe or their lives are less guided by religion. He says : “Don’t just talk about secularisation. What sort are you meaning, or what level of society? The macro level, the meso level or the micro level?” And he thought that it could happen at different rates in different parts. That’s quite compatible with Wilson’s theory, really. It’s another clarification of secularisation theory. But the most important current exponent, still in post, is, of course, in Scotland, and that’s Steve Bruce at Aberdeen University, who’s probably the most important defender of secularisation theory now, even though it’s waned very very much, it’s very much fallen out of favour in the last ten or fifteen years. Steve is a true believer still in secularisation theory and defends it very very strongly. He combines really particularly Durkheim and Marx. He thinks that it is about individualisation, the Durkheimian theory that societies break down and we don’t need that bond anymore, and he thinks it’s about rationalisation, the more Weberian account and he restates it, but in those quite classical terms, and he accumulates a lot of data, and the data mainly has to do with Churches in Europe. So it’s about the demonstrable decline in the number of people who are members, attenders, who had their child baptised, who have a Christian wedding. There are lots of statistics that support his case, that he regularly cites.

DR: That’s a weakness of secularisation thesis, isn’t it? That it’s based on a very strict model of what religion is, on an institutionalised Church model of religion. And it wouldn’t really translate to less institutionalised forms of religion, say New Age.

LW: That’s a very good point, and Steve Bruce would reply to you, because he is criticised for that point, by saying New Age isn’t really a religion. He would say it’s just what he calls it, cults. It’s the kind of… like an entropy, (10:00) when religion get less and less and less important to people and New Age is just the very end of that process. It doesn’t really matter to them, it doesn’t have a big effect on their lives, they don’t give a lot of money to it, they’re not really committed, it’s just a sort of privatised leisure pursuit. That’s how he tries to explain new forms of spirituality’s growth. Is that convincing from your point of view?

DR: Not convincing to me, but I can follow his argument. We could get into a big debate about whether or not… you could argue that something like New Age is a different form, a more individualised rather than an institutionalised model of religion, for instance, in which case secularisation would be a change in the form of religion, which would go along with an individualised privatisation model.

LW: But you could say, in criticism of someone like Steve Bruce, you wouldn’t, say you’re looking up modern communications, you wouldn’t get the statistics for how many people send telegrams from 1950 to 2012, and say, “Well, it’s completely declined, so people don’t use instant messaging anymore”. You’d look at what new forms have taken its place, so why just look at the churches? Of course some forms of religions grown declined over time, because religion is constantly transforming. So why say that’s the only true religion and nothing else counts? And I personally think that’s a major weakness of the secularisation theory, which is only… if we’re looking at something very specific, the decline of particular sorts of European Church that had close connections with the State, and they have declined their question. They generalized from that very particular story to religion as a whole.

DR: Which is a perfect link to the second major weaknesses, I think, of the secularisation thesis, which is, it’s very culturally and geographically specific.

LW: That’s a great point and that brings us to the USA, because you’ll notice that all the theorists I’ve been talking about are European. And Europe is in many ways the most secular part of the globe. America never produced secularisation theory in a significant way partly because, even though America was as modernised as Europe, it didn’t suffer the same decline of religion, even of church going or congregation, they have different kinds of churches in the States of course. So Americans didn’t really believe in it, in the way Europeans did.

DR: It was never really accepted?

LW: It didn’t have the same theoretical importance. It was accepted by many social scientists, but in the study of religion, there aren’t great theorist of it who contributed new developments. And since the 1980’s, the most important critics of secularisation theory have been Americans in the sociology of religion. First, Peter Berger and then Jose Casanova. Berger’s particularly interesting because he was a secularisation theorist. So his career has spanned right from the 1960s through to today, for much of that carrier, he went along with the European secularisation theorists. But his interpretation was different. He thought religion declines because it becomes less plausible when there’s not just one worldview. So if you’re a Christian and you just live in a Christian village near a Christian town, you’re going to believe it. But it becomes less plausible when you meet an Hindu and a Buddhist. That was his theory of why it declined in modern societies. But then he had a complete conversion, he changed his mind in the 1990’s, and he said… I brought a quote, it’s a good one. He said :

“My point is that the assumption that we live in a secularised world is false. The world today, with some exceptions, is as furiously religious as ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists, loosely labeled secularisation theory, is essentially mistaken. In my early work, I contributed to this literature. I was in good company. Most sociologists of religion had similar views and we had good reasons for upholding them. Some of the writing we produced still stand up. Although the term ‘secularisation theory’ refers to works from the 50’s and 60’s, the key idea can be traced right back to the Enlightenment. The idea is simple. Modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals. And it’s precisely this key idea that turned out to be wrong.”

So a very strong change of mind, in his part.

DR: It’s rare to see a scholar doing that.

LW: It’s very rare and it’s particularly interesting. Then Jose Casanova had developed a very sophisticated theory of public religion which accepts that there’s differentiation, but it thinks religion continues to a public and not just a private role and he shows that (15:00) in relation to Poland and Spain and several other countries.

DR: Poland is a very good example. It’s obviously… the figures in Britain alone since the arrival of the Poles here shown a huge growth in church attendances. I think it was Casanova, I might be wrong, who argued that it was because the Church wasn’t identified with the controlling power but the Church was rather a revolutionary… that’s a bit strong, but… of the people, and that the Church hasn’t gone into decline in Poland as it has here. And where the Church is still seen as, perhaps, I think, cultural hegemony. I think those statistics have a very interesting thing to say about secularization.

LW: Yes, so the difficulty is to explain why the differential rates of secularization. Actually, I was going to come to the other kind of key figure who’s really the stand out figure in this whole story. He’s the one person who saw all this a long time before anyone else, long before Casanova or Berger, and that was David Martin, who’s an English sociologist of religion, still alive, retired now. In 1965, he wrote an essay criticizing secularization theory, and then in the late 1970’s, he wrote the famous book called A General Theory of Secularization. He didn’t completely throw it overboard, but he tried to refine it, and his point was just what you said. That it depends what role religion has in a particular society and what relationship it has to reactionary and revolutionary political power. So in a country like France, where all forces of liberalization and democracy who have opposed by the Catholic Church, you get a very very strong secularism. Because all progressive people want to overthrow this reactionary force. But, going across the Atlantic to America, where the churches were a force of democracy and liberation from colonial British rule, then religion becomes identified with those positive forces and it’s a very religious place. And he thinks he can do similar analyses across the world. So he rejected the general theory, an undifferentiated theory, long before anyone else. I think he gets sometimes slightly irritated today when everyone says “Oh, it’s a really great new theory!” He thinks “I was saying that forty years ago.”

DR: But it’s interesting that that’s, in that case, what we’re talking about really is a radical de-traditionalisation, particularly in Northern Europe. It’s a challenging of power bases and the decentralisation of power, and epistemological power as well, and in institutions rather than the other interpretation about the logic of religion not making sense.

LW: Yes, no, you’ve put it really raw, because the kind of general progressivist theories make it seem like it’s just a neutral historical process that inevitably happens, whereas people like David Martin say “No, look at the power relations here, there are power struggles going on. And what role is religion playing in relations to those struggles.” And I think that’s a much more interesting and convincing way of looking at it. And my own little contribution to this story in relation to the UK would be that a really important part of why secularisation theory was so powerfully developed here in the post-war period, was because of the welfare state settlement. The welfare state became a secular utopian kind of quasi-religious project. People really believed in the realization of a fairer and more just and equal society, symbolised by the National Health Service, which is a kind of sacred icon and the envy of the world. The doctor and the GP became like the parish priest, a trust-worthy father figure in the community. So you had a kind of secular faith.

DR: The NHS as sacred canopy then.

LW: In many ways, it was sacred. If you look at Harold Shipman, the murderer, the reason he killed so many people was that no one would believe that a doctor could behave like that, a bit like child abuse in churches. So there was such an alternative secular faith, such hope for that model, that religion became less important. Actually the churches played a big role, they threw in a lot with the welfare state (20:00) and tried to contribute to it. And that’s part of why there was the sense you didn’t need religion anymore. We found the right way to organise society. And as we lost a bit faith in that vision, people turned to religion again to find meaning and models of more just social order and so on. We’ve seen some pockets of interesting revival like the ones that you look at in Europe.

DR: So where does this allude to secularisation thesis? Is it still relevant to the study of religion?

LW: We can’t ever get rid of it, because it’s so engraved, for over a century, that everything we do is shaken by it. The questions we ask on questionnaires, the data we gather, the whole way we look at the world, it’s very hard to get rid of that framework, even if it’s not the most interesting framework anymore. But I think where it leaves us is, that we no longer think that it’s a purely descriptive neutral theory. We can see now that it belonged in a particular place and a particular time and it was ideological. It was a kind of faith in its own right, it supported a vision of Europe at the cutting edge of history of the secular Nation-State starting to take over a new role in society and so on. It was bound up with those very particular conditions, and in those conditions, it made a lot of sense of what was happening. But it’s not universally applicable timeless ahistorical theory.

DR: What I’m going to take away from this today is it’s a very good example of how we as scholars allow our ideologies or the ideologies of the culture that maybe we are not aware of to affect whole theories. When I started studying religions, the secularisation thesis was still essential part of what you learned and, yet, once you look at it, it kind of dissolves away, there was nothing really ever there.

LW: And people believed in it, that’s the right word.

DR: And argued furiously about it.

LW: And wrote passionately about it, because it stood for a certain vision of how society should be. It wasn’t just about interpreting the facts. It was always a bit more than that.

DR: That’s a perfect place to end, it’s absolutely fascinating. Thank you very much, Professor.

LW: My Pleasure.

DR: Thanks.

Citation Info: Woodhead, Linda, and David G. Robertson. 2012. “The Secularisation Thesis.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 April 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.2, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-linda-woodhead-on-the-secularisation-thesis/

Doing Anthropological Fieldwork

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

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

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

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

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

Roundtable: What is the Future of Religious Studies?

David Robertson, Chris Cotter, Ethan Quillen, Jonathan Tuckett, Kevin Whitesides & Liam Sutherland (NB: ‘we’ are not the future of Religious Studies – although some of us hope to be – that would just be silly)

After this week’s podcast, which involved eight scholars giving their views on the future of Religious Studies, there was really only one way we could create a suitably collective and varied response – six postgrads sitting around a table, accompanied by pink gin and our trusty dictaphone. Conversation ranges from the public perception of what Religious Studies does, what to do with a RS degree, to the financial practicalities of doing postgraduate research in the UK and US today. Mostly, though, it’s a collective rant about the cognitive study of religion (for a more educated discussion on cognitive approaches to the study of religion, see our interview with Armin Geertz)..

**Regular visitors please note – we have moved our weekly feature articles to Wednesdays instead of Fridays. This will continue until further notice, and is intended to promote more discussion**

If you are new to the podcast – this is not what we usually do. If you are a regular listener – you might enjoy this, or you might not; either way, we are back to normal with Bettina Schmidt’s interview on Anthropological Approaches on Monday.

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

The bleeping noises are Chris’s camera, and the clunks are Liam’s can of Gin. We hope you enjoy it, we certainly enjoyed recording it. We’ll be recording another at the SOCREL (Sociology of Religion) Annual Conference in just a few days time (with a more diverse range of participants!). If you’d like this to become a regular feature, please let us know.

Choice quotations:

“What do you do with a Religious Studies degree? You get a Master’s. What do you do with a Religious Studies Master’s? You get a PhD? What do you do with a Religious Studies Phd? You work in Starbucks.”

“I think of Religious Studies less as a discipline and more as the name of a department.”

“relativity… is one step up from subjectivity, which is the post-modernist quagmire of death and destruction that will consume all academic fields if it’s allowed to spread too far…”

The Discussants:

Christopher R. Cotter

Chris recently completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. He is currently taking a year out from study to pursue PhD applications, present at conferences, and work on projects such as this. His future research will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Deputy Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Ethan Quillen

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

David Robertson

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

Liam Sutherland

Liam is a Religious Studies Postgraduate student at Edinburgh University undertaking a Masters by Research, on the relevance of E.B Tylor for the contemporary theory of religion, defining religion and modern scholars with a ‘Neo-Tylorian’ influence or affinity. He is a native of Edinburgh where he also completed his undergraduate degree  in 2009, producing a dissertation on contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality and the politics of land rights. Though he began in Politics, and took many Politics and school of Social Science courses, he quickly fell in love with Religious Studies! Liam has also written the essay An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy for the Religious Studies Project.

Jonathan Tuckett

What is Phenomenology? for the Religious Studies Project.

Kevin Whitesides

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

What is the Future of Religious Studies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Video: The Religious Studies Project – What We’re All About…

Today marks a special occasion in the life of The Religious Studies Project – we’re giving our first ‘talk’. As part of Innovative Learning Week at the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, we’re presenting a session where students and staff can come and learn a bit more about the project and how it was put together, and offer some feedback on what they would like to see in the future.

Unfortunately, Chris will be arriving in London as the event itself starts, so we thought that a video posted on the website would be a way for him to participate from afar. The video is posted below, and isn’t focused specifically towards this one event, but provides a platform for David and Chris to discuss why they set up The Religious Studies Project, what they aim to do, what they DON’T aim to do, and how you can help out.

Let us know what you think…

Animism

Graham Harvey photo

Animism is often taken as referring to worldviews in which spirits are to be found not only in humans, but potentially in animals, in plants, in mountains and even natural forces like the wind. It was of central importance in early anthropological conceptions of religion, most notably in the work of E. B. Tylor. More recently, however, Graham Harvey has challenged the traditional conception of animism, seeking to understand it as “relational epistemologies and ontologies”; in other words, it is a way of living in a community of persons, most of whom are other-than-human.

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

Dr Graham Harvey has been Reader in Religious Studies at the Open University since 1993, and is also the President Elect of our sponsors, the British Association for the Study of Religions. Other than Animism, his work has covered a wide range of subjects, from Judaism, Paganism, Indigenous Religions and Shamanism.

His most important publication on animism is his 2005 book Animism: Respecting the Living World. It is supported by www.animism.org.uk, which features essays, articles and interviews which expand on the material in this podcast.

His paper, ‘Animals, Animists and Academics’, from Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 41.1 (2006), is available to download here, if you have University access.

If not, (or, indeed, as well,) “Animism rather than Shamanism”, from Spirit Possession and Trance : New Interdisciplinary Perspectives (edited by Bettina Schmidt and Lucy Huskinson, Continuum 2010) is available here.

Podcasts

Roundtable: Critics or Caretakers?

Anna, Ting, and the bear…

Here we are with yet another roundtable for you, following on from our epic compilation episode where world-famous academics answered the question, ‘Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?’ This discussion brings together a number of aspiring academics to reflect on some of the issues brought up in that podcast in a friendly and hilarious manner. The question cuts to the core of what academics who study religion are doing… are they taking care of religion? Are they antagonising it? What should they be doing? And judging by the various long tangents through which discussion meanders, the question certainly sparked our interest.

The participants were Katie Aston, Anna Clot i Garrell, Christopher Cotter, Ting Guo, Ethan Quillen, David Robertson and Jonathan Tuckett (biographical statements below). All of us had listened to the bulk of the podcast mentioned above… BUT none of us had yet heard Russell McCutcheon’s response to it (so, apologies that we probably fall afoul of his excellent critique).

If you are new to the podcast – this is not what we usually do. If you are a regular listener – you might enjoy this, or you might not. We hope you pick the former…

Jonathan: “…every action is going to be illegal to some state, it’s just a case of which state you’re pandering to at that point”

Discussion flows through what an academic ‘caretaker’ would look like, to whether we are being caretakers of the academic discipline of Religious Studies simply by perpetuating the discussion of religion. We discuss the nature of the ‘sacred’, the idea of ‘critical religion’, and get in to talking about ‘cultural Christians’, the ‘spiritual but not religious’ and the age-old problem of defining religion… and the newer but semantically parasitic problem of defining ‘nonreligion’.

We debate and attempt to answer such questions as:

  • If our research uncovers material which is relevant to the real world… make sure that people know? Should we be public intellectuals?
  • Should we just tell the truth no matter what the consequence?
  • Does this discussion depend on which definition of ‘religion’ we work with?
  • Where would we draw the line between being a scientific academic, and taking action against the conduct of a group we are studying?
  • Are ‘we’ in a position to judge? Would we be judging from intellectual grounds or ethical grounds?
  • Anna: What is the nature of academic criticism, as opposed to criticism in the common parlance?
  • Should we be methodologically atheist? Methodologically agnostic? Are these the same thing?

David and Anna showcase some hooded sweatshirts.

We should warn you that this is a little rough around the edges. The idea was not to present anyone with a sophisticated discussion, but to give you an idea of the vast amount of issues which a simple question can raise, and encourage others to have such discussions themselves and maybe come to different conclusions. It’s uncensored… it’s fun… we had a good time. Please don’t take anything too seriously… but try to enjoy it, to engage with us, to disagree with us, to criticise us. That’s what we’re here for. There is also a lot of discussion of paedophilia… this came up early on as a hypothetically abhorrent practice which some ‘religious’ group might engage in. As it is pretty difficult to trump this in terms of abhorrence we returned to the issue somewhat more regularly than it warranted. Suffice to say, this was most definitely a hypothetical example.

This podcast was recorded in Chris’ place of gainful employment – the University of Edinburgh Visitor Centre – and we are very grateful to them for providing the space. The participants were also all brought together by the Religion & Society Programme’s ‘Sacred Practice of Everyday Life’ conference, and we were very grateful to Linda Woodhead and the other organisers for allowing the Religious Studies Project to attend and record a number of podcasts with participants (to be released from September 2012).

Ethan: “When you define religion as a scholar, you’re essentially putting the last nail in your own coffin.”

Some choice quotations:

Ethan: “so, essentially what you’re promoting is that we all need to be defence attorneys?”

Chris: “Are we as scholars of religion by the very fact that we are scholars of religion… being caretakers?”

Katie: “Can I just clarify that I’m not a scholar of religion? Coz I’m not…”

Ethan: “That’s like saying it’s raining outside, this umbrella isn’t working, so I’ll open this canopy instead.”

And just so that we have a ‘proper’ academic involved, here is the quotation from Donald Wiebe which Chris cites in the recording as an example of the ‘critic’ side of the dichotomy:

 “Just as the knowledge produced in the humanities and by social scientists may bear on human problems and public concerns, so also the knowledge produced by students of religion may bear the same relationship to such issues. In this regard, however, it is important to note: first, that the “linkage” between the knowledge produced and the problems resolved is “external,” that is, it is of the same order, so to speak, as that between the natural sciences and engineering; second, that even though religious studies research may be relevant in that fashion, working out the policy/resolution implications of that knowledge is not the task of the student of religion. To take on that assignment is the task of policy makers, politicians, therapists, conflict managers, and other “public intellectuals.” And it is important, I think, that the scientific character of the study of religion not be compromised in any way by bringing such tasks in to the purview of Religious Studies”

Wiebe, Donald 2008. ‘The Scientific Study of Religion and Its Cultured Despisers’ in Willi Braun and Russell McCutcheon (eds.), Introducing Religion: Essays in Honor of Jonathan Z. Smith. London: Equinox, p. 477.

The Participants:


Having completed a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006, Katie Aston went on to complete her Masters in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University, with a dissertation investigating gender performance within contemporary Stand Up comedy in London. Building on a pilot study of the Atheist Bus Campaign,  she is currently undertaking an ethnographic study of non-religious value construction and material cultures. She is looking specifically at rationalism and the role Christian heritage within non-religious individuals and organisation, taking a historical perspective from the freethought archives of Bishopsgate Institute. Katie is an Assistant Editor at NSRN Online, the web presence of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.


Anna Clot i Garrell is currently a PhD candidate in the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). She received her degree in Sociology from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in 2010. In 2009, she became part of the research group ISOR (Investigations in Sociology of Religion) directed by Dr. Joan Estruch, collaborating in the research project Evangelical Churches in Barcelona: doctrinal heterogeneity, immigration and evangelization strategies directed by Dra Maria del Mar Griera. In 2011, she completed a Master of Arts in Religious Studies at Lancaster University and was awarded with the Ninian Smart prize for the best dissertation in Religious Studies for the dissertation Exploring New Religious Expressions in Catalunya supervised by Dr. Andrew Dawson. She is interested in the transformations of religion and the emergence of novel expressions of religiosity in the secular sphere and traditional religious contexts.


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


Ting Guo is a PhD candidate in religious studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her thesis is on the philosophy of artificial intelligence and how that might contribute to understanding the meaning of spirituality and who and what we are in the Information Age. She is also interested in the religious landscape in East and Southeast Asia, in particular the phenomenon of “underground church” in China, the notion of neo-colonialism, and Chinese diaspora in Britain.


Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.


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


What is Phenomenology? for the Religious Studies Project, as well as recording a number of interviews.

David Voas on Quantitative Research

Sociological research has followed two broad paradigms –  qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative studies seek depth, typically based on interviews and observation with a relatively small pool of subjects. Quantitative studies, on the other hand, survey a larger pool – in some cases, such as the UK National Census, practically the entire population of a country –  relying on mass methods such as questionnaires with a limited set of questions and responses. Such data sets allow cross-analyses of large groups in ways that qualitative methods never could. But without the reflexivity and personal relationship of an interviewer, are quantitative methods compromised by the biases in the specific questions asked? 

In our interviews with Callum Brown and Ariella Keysar, the team had a number of issues with the use of qualitative data in religious studies – which you’ll know if you’ve heard our roundtable response recorded at the SOCREL conference this year. So we decided we needed to speak to an acknowledged expert, to lay out the advantages – and deal with the issues – with quantitative data in the study of religions. In his interview, David Voas deals with the criticisms strongly and with good grace, while laying out a compelling case for the place of quantitative research in the contemporary study of religions.

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

David Voas is Professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex, and was formerly Simon Professor of Population Studies at the University of Manchester. He is the national programme director in Great Britain for the European Values Study and co-director of the British Religion in Numbers project (www.brin.ac.uk), an online centre for British data on religion. He serves on the editorial boards of the British Journal of Sociology and the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and on the council of the British Society for Population Studies.

Among his many publications, some relevant ones are Surveys of behaviour, beliefs and affiliation in Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, ed. J Beckford and NJ Demerath (Sage, 2007); Does religion belong in population studies? in Environment and Planning A 39:5 (2007); and Religious decline in Scotland: New evidence on timing and spatial patterns in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 45:1 (2006).

Vernacular Religion

Images of Jesus on a slice of toast; Koran verses in an aubergine; statues which cry blood; Angel Colour cards and Atlantean crystal therapies; popular religious expressions are everywhere. Over the past decades, a number of scholarly terms have been coined for such phenomena – ‘implicit religion’, ‘invisible religion’, ‘everyday religion’ or, the topic of this interview, ‘vernacular religion’. Each does different work, but each fundamentally acknowledges that what real people actually do on the ground, what they believe, what they identify with etc has a fundamentally greater impact upon religion as it exists in the real world than the discourses of theologians, philosophers and academics. In this interview, Marion Bowman showcases her fascinating research into the ways in which religion permeates everyday life, paying particular attention to the manifestations at the famous Glastonbury Festival.

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

Dr Marion Bowman is Senior Lecturer in the Religious Studies department at the Open University, former president of the BASR and of the Folklore Society, and currently on the executive board of SIEF’s Ethnology of Religion Working Group.

She began her academic career at Glasgow University, but switched to Lancaster University where she came under the influence of Professor Ninian Smart, a revolutionary figure who has acquired almost mythic status in the field of Religious Studies. Her research is concerned with vernacular/ folk/ popular religion – ‘religion as it is lived’ – contemporary religion (especially, New Age/Alternative Spirituality, Paganism, New Religious Movements, Vernacular Christianity) and contemporary Celtic Spirituality in Christianity, Paganism, Druidry, New Age/ Alternative Spirituality and New Religious Movements.

Marion’s Publications include Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief (2012) and Beyond the New Age: Exploring Alternative Spiritualities (2000). You can listen to Marion talking about airport chapels with Norman Winter at the Multi-Faith Spaces conference held at the University of Manchester.

Titus Hjelm on Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religions

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is indeed the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition, which needs illusions.

This famous quotation from German political philosopher Karl Marx’s unfinished Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) encapsulates his controversial and complex understanding of the social function of religion. It was a significant part of his theory of alienation – the worker was, in capitalist society, separated from their labour and its products; work had become outside of them, alien. Religion was part of the mechanism by which the bourgeois perpetuated this alienation and therefore the capitalist status quo. Life was unfair, but this was the price of entry into Heaven when you die. As Marx saw it, when the workers were no longer alienated from their work and society made equal, there would be no need for religion, and it would die away.

The theory, and in particular the decontextualised soundbyte, “Religion is the opium of the masses”, was practically a matter of faith among the left-leaning liberal intelligentsia of the 60s and 70s, but the popularity of Marxist analyses of religion (and society in general) lost capital during the 80s and early 90s with the fall of the USSR and the Berlin Wall. What place, then, do his theories have in the contemporary academy, given society’s reawakened concern with inequality? Marx’s theory anticipated both the work of Émile Durkheim, founder of sociology, and an emphasis on power relations which would later be picked up by post-structuralist theorists including Foucault and Bourdieu, all of whom have a profound.influence on contemporary studies of religion.

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

titus hjelmTitus Hjelm is Lecturer in Finnish Society and Culture at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College, London. His doctoral dissertation, at the University of Helsinki, was on the construction of Satanism in the Finnish news media. His research interests are wide-ranging, however, and include the sociology of religion, news media, popular culture (particularly the Nordic heavy metal scene and vampire fiction), and social theory, including Marxist theories. His two most recent books are Perspectives on Social Constructionism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and an edited volume titled Religion and Social Problems (Routledge, 2010). He is also bass guitar player for Thunderstone.

Apologies too for the background noise – we got locked out of our office.

In Saecula Saeculorum: Reflecting on the Age/Aeon in light of the Cappadocian Fathers

In Saecula Saeculorum: Reflecting on the Age/Aeon in light of the Cappadocian Fathers

By Mario Baghos, St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College and University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 23 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Tariq Modood on the Crisis of European Secularism (28 May 2012).

Introduction

Drawing on my own research and interdisciplinary interests, the following response to Professor Tariq Modood’s podcast entitled ‘The Crisis of European Secularism’ will consist in a summary of his main thesis, followed by a statement of the challenge I seek to address, namely the anthropocentrism inherent in (some forms of) contemporary secularism; particularly its neglect of religion/God and the cosmos.  This will be followed by an etymological analysis of the word ‘secular,’ which is analogous with the age/aeon, especially as it was envisaged by the Cappadocian fathers of the early Church, Ss Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian (or, ‘Nazianzus’). It is hoped that their holistic vision of the age, one in which God and the cosmos were in fact included, can inspire further reflection on the way we experience our ‘age.’

Summary, and Addressing the ‘Crisis’

David Robertson’s insightful interview with Professor Tariq Modood unfolds within the parameters of a very pertinent debate, namely, the relationship between secular nations or states and religious institutions; where secularism, in a broad sense, has to do with separation of these two spheres. Professor Modood distinguishes between three types of secularism that, historically, have conditioned the relationship between governments and religious establishments since the Enlightenment. These can be described as ‘soft,’ ‘strict,’ and ‘moderate,’ the latter implying that organised religion and political authority can be partners, albeit in a limited sense (i.e. whilst retaining their mutual autonomy). According to him, it is the ‘strict’ form of secularism – an outcome of the French concept of laïcité – that is unfortunately prevailing in British society at a time when a new religious pluralism is beginning to emerge with immigration by Muslim minorities. Indeed, Professor Modood is genuinely concerned with positing a framework (i.e. through moderate secularism), where British authorities and Muslim clerics can work together without compromising the secularism of the former and the religious convictions/way of life of the latter. Whilst appreciating the significance of Modood’s presentation, I am reluctant to comment on it further, insofar as I do not feel sufficiently equipped with the knowledge pertaining to the secular policies of our modern governments, nor the intricacies of immigration. However, Modood’s nuanced description of various secularisms does offer the opportunity to engage the ‘crisis’ in relation to my own research interests; for whilst the professor has pertinently observed their implications for the relationship between politics and religious/ethnic minorities, I will be presupposing that the general mentality (or, metanarrative) behind secularism can be both anthropocentric and reductionist, insofar as its promotion of a-religiosity (on a political level) and preoccupation for the interests of human beings precludes an appreciation for the ways in which the ‘age’ has been interpreted by ancient and traditional societies, wherein God and the cosmos were intimately bound with the human endeavour or history. As pretexts for this anthropocentrism, the increasing neglect of God and religion in public affairs (the latter pointed to by Modood with reference to the ‘strict’ model), Mircea Eliade’s characterisation of modern ‘man’ [or, people] as only existing “insofar as he makes himself, within history [i.e. apart from cosmos]” (2005: xxiii), as well as the scientifically proven and very obvious degradation to the planet since the Industrial Revolution in the name of our own progress, will have to suffice for such a short piece. But before moving forward I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Modood for drawing my attention to some very important and sensitive issues, apart from which I would have remained rather ignorant.

Scope and Definitions

As mentioned, I intend to begin with an etymological analysis. Presupposing that words or definitions are indicative of the mentalities that produce them, I will address the concept of the ‘age’ or aeon as implied by the secondary meaning of the Latin term saeculum, wherefrom the word ‘secular’ is derived. I am aware of the difficulties inherent in undertaking an etymological analysis without extensively considering the different ways in which the notion of secularism and its cognates (such as ‘secularisation,’ ‘secularity’) have been employed across a range of interpretive disciplines (the history of religion, the sociology of religion, the field of geo-politics, to name a few). Nevertheless, having recently explored the historical development and use of some of these definitions as set out both in Modood’s presentation and in the works of N. J. Demerath and Judith Fox, I believe that my approach is legitimated by etymological analyses of the words ‘culture’ (Demerath 2007: 71) and ‘secular’ (Fox 2005: 292) undertaken by the latter in order to demonstrate their respective theses. Of particular relevance is Fox’s demonstration that the derivation of this term, coming from “the same etymological root (L. saeculum) as the French word siecle, meaning ‘century’ or ‘age,’” is also evident in “the astronomical use of the word secular to talk about processes of change over long periods of time” (Fox: 292). Perhaps unintentionally hinting at the longue durée of the Annales school of historiography (Le Goff 1992: xxi-xxii), this astronomical definition is important, for it can be interpreted as pointing to a relationship between the Latin saeculum and the Greek aeon (αἰῶν); the latter being a more flexible term which can mean either a long period of time or eternity depending on the context. To this end, the Latin phrase in saecula saeculorum, included in my title, is the Vulgate translation of the New Testament phrase “into the ages of ages” (εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων/eis toūs aiōnas tōn aiōnōn) which is commonly mistranslated as the eternity of God, but in fact relates to a doxological (and hence, existential) appraisal of his sovereign presence and providential activity throughout both the present age and the eschatological ages to come (Cf. Gal 1:5, Eph 3:21, Phil 4:20, 1 Tim 1:17, 2 Tim 4:18, Heb 13:21, 1 Pet 4:11, Rev 1:18, 4:9, 10, 5:13, 7:12, 11:15, 22:5). Usually preceded by an invocation of the Holy Trinity, this doxological phrase commonly prefigured many prayers and hymns of the Christianity of the late antique and medieval periods, resounding today in its major branches, Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. So, as my title suggests, I will address the concept of the ‘age’ or aeon as implied by the secondary meaning of the Latin term saeculum as a long period of time (here to be understood as the duration of the cosmos), evoking the existential dimension of the Christian tradition with its antecedents in the scriptures and exemplified in material which is of immediate relevance to (and an outcome of) my own research, namely, the writings of the fourth century Cappadocian fathers Ss Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian. I will show that their conception of the age or aeon is one in which God and the cosmos are included, which, I will argue, stands in stark contradistinction to our anthropocentric and reductionist interpretations of secularism.

The Cappadocians on the Age/Aeon

The Basilian concept of the ‘age’ is associated with two other aspects of his thinking, namely, his exegetical approach to the scriptures – more particularly Genesis (i.e. protology) – and his eschatological vision; where the eschaton, the ‘last things’ of the historical continuum traditionally described as “Christ’s final judgment of humanity, the resurrection of the dead and the final ‘transformation of the cosmos’” (Baghos: 2010: 86) were envisaged as anticipated in the here and now in an ecclesial context. Concerning the former, which is expounded at length in his Hexaēmeron (or, Homilies on the Six Days of Creation), he notes that scripture [i.e. Gen 1:5] “calls the first day of creation ‘one day’ – ἡμέρα μία [heméra mía] – instead of the ‘first’ – πρώτη ἡμέρα [prótē heméra] – in a succession of days” (Baghos: 89). The Cappadocian allegorically interprets this ‘one’ day (heméra mía) as symbolising a totality that recapitulates within itself all of creation history from beginning to end as metaphorically represented by the creation narrative. He does this by suggesting that the very structure of the week of Genesis, which is paradigmatic for the duration of time we experience (i.e. all subsequent ‘weeks’), constitutes an image or approximation of eternity in its cyclical rotation. Hence, both the ‘one’ day and its consecutive ‘reiterations’ point to the aforementioned recapitulation of history which he also describes as the age/aeon (αἰῶν), which does not simply refer to the human endeavour undertaken for its own sake; but to the origin, rhythms and purpose of the entire created cosmos, consisting of both the “heavenly and earthly, human and biological, astronomical and mineral” (Costache 2010: 22), which he elucidates throughout the treatise. So, for this traditional thinker, there could be no separation between the notion of the age and the cosmic purpose that contained within itself the human endeavour (Costache: 23), thereby leaving no room for the sort of anthropocentrism characterising contemporary secularism(s). St Basil also refers to “the ages of ages” mentioned in the scriptures (see above), stating that, since they are not enumerated in a sequence (as the six days of creation in Genesis) they do not refer to ‘ages.’ Instead, they pertain to “differences of conditions and of various circumstances” (Hexaēmeron 2.8, at 35. PG 29, 49D-52A) that pertain to this very age designated by the ‘one’ day, the age or aeon, and also the ‘eighth day’ that occurs outside the week of time and hence our temporal experience. Days ‘one’ and ‘eight,’ inhering within the same aeon, not only point to the inextricable relationship between protology and eschatology in the saint’s thinking, but also to the fact that those aspects relating to the ‘last things’ mentioned above can be experienced in any epoch, thereby prefiguring the profoundly existential already/not yet of the eschaton put forward by contemporary scholarship; that although God’s kingdom has ‘already’ been established in the Church (with the advent of Christ), it is ‘not yet’ consummated – and won’t be until the second coming (Baghos: 85). In his On the Holy Spirit, St Basil highlights this ecclesial dimension by affirming that days ‘one’ and ‘eight’ coincide on a Sunday, which in Greek is literally the ‘Lord’s day’ – or Κυριακή (Kyriakē) – the principal day on which the Eucharistic liturgy was and still is celebrated (Baghos: 85). Herein lies the existential significance of the age for this Church father. For him, the ecclesial rhythms, but especially the liturgy, recapitulate God’s providential activity throughout the entire age understood cosmically; what has happened, is happening, and will happen is summed up within the Sunday, the ‘one’ day of creation, through which believers are able to have an immediate foretaste of the ‘eighth’ day, i.e. the eschatological life to come.

St Gregory the Theologian’s vision of the age/aeon is as holistic as that of his friend and peer, St Basil. At the beginning of the twenty-fifth chapter of his Fifth Theological Oration, he states that “there have been two transformations of life manifested out of the entire age [τοῦ παντὸς αἰῶνος/toū pantōs aiōnos]” (Fifth Theological Oration 25, at 136. PG 36, 160D). I have written elsewhere that this all-encompassing approach, resonating with Basil’s conception of the age, “attempts to give a comprehensive account of the historical drama and the persons and events that it includes” (Baghos 2011: 24). In other words, the Cappadocian’s perception was akin to what we today call a metanarrative, which, he went on to affirm, unfolded between the two covenants of the Old and New Testaments, which he also described as “earthquakes” marking two important existential changes in disposition of God’s people; from the pagan idols to the Mosaic Law, and from the Law to the Christian Gospel (Baghos: 24-25). For the Theologian, these two changes were analogously marked by the disclosure of God as Trinity; the first covenant proclaimed the Father, the second the Son, whilst also giving believers “a glimpse of the Spirit’s Godhead” (Fifth Theological Oration, 26, at 137; PG 36, 161C) before his revelation to the apostles and the ecclesial community. Here, we encounter a conception of the age/aeon that far from being interpreted anthropocentrically, is instead concerned with God’s self-disclosure that unfolds in stages proportionate to the capacity of human beings to receive it (Baghos 2011: 29). That this self-disclosure is again profoundly existential is exemplified by the saint’s insistence that the Spirit dwelt within the apostles, and his understanding of the eschatological experience as constituting the “third and final earthquake that will translate the cosmos into an unshaken, unmoved mode of being” (Baghos 2011: 31). And it is precisely here that the cosmic dimension of Gregory’s vision of the age is exhibited; for this eschatological rumination, when compared intertextually with chapters 11-13 of his Oration 38, denotes that whilst the historical continuum moves from one ‘covenantal earthquake’ to the next, it is in fact marked on either end (i.e. alpha and omega) by the Demiurge Logos (i.e. Christ), who, in his pre-incarnate existence created the spiritual and material worlds (Baghos: 30-31). For Gregory it is to this same Logos, now incarnate as Christ Jesus, towards which history, and hence the age, is oriented; thereby precluding the anthropocentric model in light of the inevitable teleological encounter of the universe and all it contains with God the Son.

Concluding Remarks

In an environment where secularism is often interpreted as a prerogative in human self-governance and even our perception and experience of the world, it is perhaps intriguing – if not often disquieting – to be confronted with how representative figures from other epochs, usually considered more religious than our own, viewed their own age and all it contained. Whilst there are many forms of secularism, such as those pointed out by professor Modood in his podcast, what I have been concerned with in this piece is to offer an alternative, holistic vision of the concept of the age/aeon based on the writings of two figures from fourth century Christianity. Whilst some might decry this diachronic, and in fact interdisciplinary approach, I am finding that it has become a staple of my own research, insofar as I am genuinely convinced that the religious perceptions and mentalities from any context can offer insights into contemporary situations, not the least secularism. In the beginning of this response I mentioned the fact that secularism can be, in a general sense, characterised by an anthropocentrism that is manifested in a neglect of God and religion in public affairs, as well as an a-cosmicism that has had an immediate effect on our environment. I then undertook an etymological analysis of the term ‘secular,’ in order to legitimate its use with reference to the age or aeon. This led me to a brief exploration of the conception of the ‘age’ in two representative figures of early Christianity, namely the Cappadocians Basil and Gregory. In the former, I identified the relationship between the age and the cosmic rhythms, outlining their existential dimension that is facilitated by the Eucharistic liturgy, wherein the entire salvific economy (or, God’s presence in the age) is anticipated with a foretaste of the future eschaton. In the latter, I observed a metanarrational vision of history (or the age) whereby God gradually discloses himself through the ‘covenantal earthquakes’; a vision which is not without its cosmic significance insofar as the age is marked by Christ’s presence on either end as creator and consummator. That the vision of these two saints is not without contemporary relevance is testified by their veneration, especially amongst Eastern Orthodox Christians, who moreover continue to refer to them with epithets established by tradition (‘the Great,’ ‘Theologian’) and to celebrate liturgies ostensibly written by them. It is perhaps worth pondering the ramifications of secularism on these Christians, both as it increases in popularity in their native countries and as they migrate abroad. As a final note, in focusing on these specifically Christian figures I did not mean to preclude the perception and experience of other religious traditions. On the contrary, it is hoped that their holistic perception and experience of the ‘age’ as one in which God and the cosmos are included will provide a meaningful alternative to our modern experience of it as interpreted from the viewpoint of various secularisms, which I have posited can be anthropocentric, and hence reductionist, in nature.

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

About the Author:

 

Mario Baghos is Associate Lecturer in Patristic Studies and Church History at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Redfern, Sydney. He is a PhD candidate in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. His research interests include the city of Constantinople, patristic eschatology, and the history of religions and mentalities.

 

References

Baghos, Mario (2010) ‘St Basil’s Eschatological Vision: Aspects of the Recapitulation of History and the Eighth Day’ Phronema 25, 85-103.

Baghos, Mario (2011) ‘The Meaning of History: Insights from St Gregory the Theologian’s Existential Metanarrative’ Colloquium 43:1, 17-38.

Costache, Doru (2010) ‘Christian Worldview: Understandings from St Basil the Great’ Phronema 25, 21-56.

Demerath III, N.J. (2007) ‘Secularization and Sacralization Deconstructed and Reconstructed’ in James A. Beckford and N.J. Demerath II (eds.) The Sage Handbook of the Sociology of Religion. London: Sage Publications, 57-79.

Eliade Mircea (2005) The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History, trans. W.R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fox, Judith (2005) ‘Secularization’ in John R. Hinnells (ed.) The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. Oxon: Routledge, 291-305.

Harrison, Nonna Verna (trans.) (2008) Festal Orations: Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, in Popular Patristics Series 36, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood NY: SVS Press.

Hildebrand, Stephen (trans.) (2011) St Basil the Great: On the Holy Spirit, in Popular Patristics Series 42, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Le Goff, Jacques (1992): History and Memory, trans. S. Rendall and E. Claman. New York: Columbia University Press.

Way, Agnes Clare (trans.) (2003) St Basil: Exegetical Homilies, The Fathers of the Church Series, vol. 46. Washington D.C: The Catholic University of American Press.

Williams, Frederick (trans.) (2002) St Gregory of Nazianzus: On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and the Two Letters to Cledonius, Popular Patristics Series 23, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Tariq Modood on the Crisis of European Secularism

Secularism – the separation of religion and state – has been a central narrative in the European political sphere since the Enlightenment. But with renewed calls in some countries to affirm a Christian identity, and problems in accommodating some Muslim communities, is Western secularism under threat?

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

Tariq Modood is Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy at the University of Bristol. He is founding Director of the University Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, and co-founding editor of the international journal, Ethnicities. As a regular contributor to the media and policy debates in Britain, he was awarded a MBE for services to social sciences and ethnic relations in 2001 and elected a member of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2004. He also served on the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, the IPPR Commission on National Security and on the National Equality Panel, which reported to the UK Deputy Prime Minister in 2010.

His recent publications include Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity and Muslims in Britain (Edinburgh University Press, 2005), Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea (Polity, 2007) and Still Not Easy Being British: Struggles for a Multicultural Citizenship (Trentham Books, 2010); and as co-editor, Secularism, Religion and Multicultural Citizenship (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Is There a Crisis of Secularism in Western Europe?, which expands considerably upon the issues in this interview, is now available at http://www.bris.ac.uk/ethnicity/news/2012/36.html.

Readers and listeners might also be interested in Linda Woodhead’s podcast on the Secularisation Thesis, and Bjoern Mastiaux’s essay on the same topic.

Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Violence and the Media

Discussions of religion in the media nowadays frequently revolve around issues of violence and social unrest. Religions and media can become collaborators in promoting peace and opening negotiations; at the same time the media can become host to extremist narratives which may incite violence. Does the media have a responsibility to promote peace? Are religions becoming more skilled at manipulating the media?

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

Before being appointed to the University of Edinburgh, Jolyon Mitchell worked as a producer and journalist for BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4. As Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues he directs a number of research projects and helps to host a wide range of public lectures and events.

His latest book, which this interview was structured around, is Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence (Routledge, to be published in Sept. 2011). Earlier publications include The Religion and Film Reader (co-editor with S. Brent Plate Routledge, 2007), and Mediating Religion: Conversations in Media, Religion and Culture (co-editor with Sophia Marriage, Continuum, 2003). Prof Mitchell is also co-editor of three research monograph series with Routledge, including on Media, Religion and Culture; and on Film and Religion. He was director of the Third International Conference on Media, Religion and Culture, Edinburgh, July 1999 and director of the Fourth International Conference on Peacemaking in the World of Film: from Conflict to Reconciliation, Edinburgh, July 2007.

Roundtable: Can We Trust the Social Sciences?

We have another ‘treat’ for you this week – we’ll let you decide whether that was an accurate description or not – in the form of another roundtable discussion, with a slightly different group of people. This was recorded late on the 28th of March at the University of Chester during the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL for short)’s conference (although, of course, this is an ‘unofficial’ discussion).

Ethan: “We ask a question on a survey, we get an answer… and then we have to fill in the space…”

The topic of discussion grew out of a presentation delivered by Callum Brown at the University of Edinburgh (at the same time as we recorded our podcast with him) on the topic of “People of no religion: The demographics of secularisation in the English speaking world since 1900”, which presented, amongst other things, some conclusions from large-scale demographic surveys of religious identification. Ethan Quillen disagreed forcefully that conclusions drawn from questionnaires and censuses can be used to draw large-scale conclusions, and tabled the motion, “Can We Trust the Social Sciences?”

If you are new to the podcast – this is not what we usually do. If you are a regular listener – you might enjoy this, or you might not; either way, we are back to normal with Jolyon Mitchell’s interview on Religion, Media and Violence on Monday. For an interesting and more rigorous response essay to this podcast, please see Tim Hutchings’ A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion.

David and Ethan

David and Ethan

Conversation ranges from the strengths and weaknesses of such data, whether there is more to the social sciences than quantitative methods, and the place of the social sciences within a multi-disciplinary Religious Studies field. Can we trust social sciences when we study religion? Is a social scientific approach the future of religious studies? What is an alternative to a social scientific approach?  These questions and more form the basis for what we intend to act as a bridge between our previous roundtable (“What is the Future of Religious Studies?”) and our forthcoming roundtable (“Should scholars of religion be critics or caretakers?”), timetabled for release on 6 June 2012.

Discussion largely focussed upon Quantitative Methods… something which future podcasts with Ariela Keysar and David Voas shall be focusing on more explicitly:

Do social scientists depend upon assumptive reasoning when it comes to filling in the blanks in their data? Does a decline in church attendance mean a decline in conviction, or simply a decline in one’s attendance at church? By providing boxes do we force people into boxes? What does one individual tell us about a category? What is it specifically about religion that makes this such an issue? How do we trust people to answer in a certain way?

Kevin: “Aren’t you better hypothesising by going out and asking people questions than by sitting around and hypothesising?”

Reference is made to the panel session on Religious Conspiracies at which David, Kevin and Ethan had presented earlier in the day. We also refer to Tom Rees’ excellent Epiphenom blog. Ethan plays Devil’s advocate, whilst Chris throws himself on the pyre and asks Ethan what he thought was wrong with his approach in his MSc Thesis.

Mat: “It’s not perfect, and I would love to go out and buy a tailored pair of trousers but… I’m not gonna get it. So I’ll go out and buy a pair that are closest to my size, and that’s the most economic way…”

It was late… two thirds of the panel had been up since 7 am travelling down from Edinburgh.

The conclusion? Should there be a balance between quantitative and qualitative approaches? Well… yes. But individual scholars may have to side with one or the other. We need a holistic approach, and this isn’t generally something one scholar can accomplish by themselves…

Sponsored by Pepsi Max, and pink gin.

Katie clearly found Ethan “hilarious”

The Discussants:

Katie Aston

Having completed a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006, Katie went on to complete her Masters in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University, with a dissertation investigating gender performance within contemporary Stand Up comedy in London. Building on a pilot study of the Atheist Bus Campaign,  she is currently undertaking an ethnographic study of non-religious value construction and material cultures. She is looking specifically at rationalism and the role Christian heritage within non-religious individuals and organisation, taking a historical perspective from the freethought archives of Bishopsgate Institute. Katie is an Assistant Editor at NSRN Online, the web presence of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.

Christopher R. Cotter

Chris recently completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. He is currently taking a year out from study to pursue PhD applications, present at conferences, and work on projects such as this. His future research will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Deputy Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Matthew Francis

Matthew graduated from Leeds with a joint-honours degree in Philosophy and Theology and Religious Studies. He subsequently undertook a Masters by Research, where he examined the ideas of Georges Bataille in relation to the problem of meaning in death in contemporary society. Matthew is the Postgraduate Officer for the Sociology of Religion study group (SocRel) of the British Sociological Association (BSA). He has taught on undergraduate and postgraduate modules on subjects including the Sociology of Religion and Religion in Modern Britain.

Matthew recently completed an AHRC-funded PhD at Leeds, which investigated the move to violence in the beliefs of groups. He is the editor for RadicalisationResearch.org, an AHRC/ESRC funded website which provides a resource for policy-makers and the media on radicalisation and extremism, and works at Goldsmiths University managing the Religious Literacy Leadership Project.

Ethan Quillen

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

David G. Robertson

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

Kevin Whitesides

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

Religion After Darwin

Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species  was published in 1859, and had an immediate and dramatic effect on religious narratives. Traditional religions were forced to adopt an evolutionary worldview, or to go on the offensive; whereas New Religious Movements like Wicca or New Age adopted an environmental concern as a central part of their belief. And possibly, for individuals and groups committed to protect, preserve or sacralise nature, environmentalism has become a kind of religion in itself.

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

Bron Taylor is Professor of Religion and Nature at the University of Florida. He is also a Carson Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. His central scholarly interest and personal passion is the conservation of the earth’s biological diversity and how human culture might evolve rapidly enough to arrest and reverse today’s intensifying environmental and social crises. He edits the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, as well as the two-volume Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. His latest book is Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2009) – the first chapter can be read on his website, along with a wealth of other supplimentary material including a piece on Bron’s thoughts on the movie Avatar, as discussed in the podcast

The Secularisation Thesis

The secularisation thesis – the idea that traditional religions are in terminal decline in the industrialised world – was perhaps the central debate in the sociology of religion in the second half of the 20th century. Scholars such as Steve Bruce, Rodney Stark and Charles Taylor argued whether religion was becoming less important to individuals, or that only the authority of religions in the public sphere was declining. Data from the US and South America, however, began to challenge many of their basic assumptions. Professor Linda Woodhead joins us to discuss the background and legacy of the secularisation thesis.

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

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation Thesis (16 April 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. Robertson. Transcribed by Martin Lepage.

 

David Robertson: The secularisation thesis is probably the biggest central theme and certainly the most hotly debated in the sociology of religion, certainly since the 1960’s. Why is it so important and how has it changed? To talk to us today about this, we’ve got Professor Linda Woodhead, from the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Perhaps, you could just begin at the beginning with where does the secularisation thesis come from? Where does it begin?

Linda Woodhead: Actually, the origins of secularisation theory are coterminous with the origins of sociology itself. It’s absolutely fundamental to the whole discipline and all the great fathers of sociology – Weber, Durkheim and Marx – believed and expounded some version of secularisation theory. At the very heart of the social sciences, this belief that, as societies modernized, religion will decline. And each had a different way of explaining that. For Weber, it was primarily about the rise of scientific knowledge and it was about the application of rational standards, bureaucratic standards, in life more generally. He thought that that way of thinking and reasoning disenchanted the world, it cast out the magical, the religious. Durkheim had a rather different explanation of why religion declines. He thought that religion binds societies together, and he particularly thought that religion binds small groups together, and they meet face to face and celebrate the sacred. He thought that as societies modernized and urbanized, those fundamental bonds are broken, and religion is broken in that process as people move to cities and are individualized more. And Marx thought, of course, that religion would die out once you get the perfect socialist communist State. He thought it was a symptom of all that was wrong with society, a way of coping with the oppressions and difficulties of society. Once we realised the perfect society, you won’t need religion. In different ways, all of those classical theories are evolutionary or they’re progressive.

DR: I was going to ask that. Are they strongly tied to this notion of the gradual perfection of society and the move out of the darkness and into the light?

LW: They are really, and that’s a kind of, in a way, a blind spot of classical secularisation theory, in modern forms, that they didn’t really, perhaps… they weren’t sociological enough about their own background and presuppositions. This early crop of the classical theories, are all bound up with Nation-States developing, growing, extending their power and with their new elites, including academic elites, like the sociologists establishing their status. There was a kind of implicit optimism that the way that European society is developing is at the cutting edge of social evolution. So all societies are going to follow, so eventually everyone will become secular like we are. That’s never quite said, but that really does lie behind this theory. That we are not just talking about the tie of religion and particularities of here and now, we’re talking about an inevitable, inextricable process that everyone is destined to go through.

DR: That’s a critique of the narrative of modernization and westernisation anyway, that this is inevitable and even desirable motif. Maybe we can move on to the… I don’t want to call them the classical theorists, but the most famous describers of the secularisation thesis in the simple form that we know it.

LW: You could say that those classical sociologists, Weber, Durkheim, Marx, are sort of phase one of secularisation. And then there’s been a phase two. Phase two came in the wake of the Second World War, really. It was really flourishing in the 1970’s, and around about then. Again, it was very much European. In the UK, one of the chief figures was Brian Wilson, of Oxford University. (5:00) He fully endorsed secularisation theory, he gave it thoughts of new twists and explanations and interpretations. He particularly emphasised that secularisation is about the decline in the social significance of religion. He didn’t deny that some people were still religious, but he said “what’s changed, is that religion doesn’t have the same status in society. For example, politicians don’t have to refer to it anymore. They go on and do their business according to their own logic, they don’t take any notice of religion, whereas before the political ruler and religious elites would have to be in compensation with each other. He talked about that in every sphere, how religion ceases to be a point of reference in the public life.

DR: Perhaps you could clarify that, that sounds like the first development of the secularisation thesis, isn’t it? It’s one of the explanations for it, that it’s not that religion is going to completely disappear from society, rather it moves out of public sphere and into the private sphere.

LW: Yes. He thought that was that. You could still be devoutly religious, but it will affect you in your private life rather than when you go to work, or when you’re being a politician or wherever that might be.

DR: It’s not a disappearance of religion, it’s just a radical change in its function?

LW: Yes, the sociological term is social differentiation. The different spheres of society become autonomous. In law, you don’t refer to religion anymore, and in politics, likewise, and in education likewise. All these things become autonomous and they run according to rational secular standards, not by reference to religion. Wilson thinks he sees that happening very clearly in the UK and gives lots of examples of that process in various spheres.

DR: Were there any other interpretations of the secularisation thesis?

LW: There were lots of clarifications at that time. There was another very important contribution by a European, a Belgian sociologist, called Karel Dobbelaere, and he made what’s become really well used in his account, is a distinction between three levels of secularisation. He talks about secularisation at the societal level, the meta level of society; secularisation at the organisational level, and he’s thinking in part of religious organisation themselves declining, like the churches having fewer members or attenders; and then thirdly, secularisation at the personal level, where fewer people believe or their lives are less guided by religion. He says : “Don’t just talk about secularisation. What sort are you meaning, or what level of society? The macro level, the meso level or the micro level?” And he thought that it could happen at different rates in different parts. That’s quite compatible with Wilson’s theory, really. It’s another clarification of secularisation theory. But the most important current exponent, still in post, is, of course, in Scotland, and that’s Steve Bruce at Aberdeen University, who’s probably the most important defender of secularisation theory now, even though it’s waned very very much, it’s very much fallen out of favour in the last ten or fifteen years. Steve is a true believer still in secularisation theory and defends it very very strongly. He combines really particularly Durkheim and Marx. He thinks that it is about individualisation, the Durkheimian theory that societies break down and we don’t need that bond anymore, and he thinks it’s about rationalisation, the more Weberian account and he restates it, but in those quite classical terms, and he accumulates a lot of data, and the data mainly has to do with Churches in Europe. So it’s about the demonstrable decline in the number of people who are members, attenders, who had their child baptised, who have a Christian wedding. There are lots of statistics that support his case, that he regularly cites.

DR: That’s a weakness of secularisation thesis, isn’t it? That it’s based on a very strict model of what religion is, on an institutionalised Church model of religion. And it wouldn’t really translate to less institutionalised forms of religion, say New Age.

LW: That’s a very good point, and Steve Bruce would reply to you, because he is criticised for that point, by saying New Age isn’t really a religion. He would say it’s just what he calls it, cults. It’s the kind of… like an entropy, (10:00) when religion get less and less and less important to people and New Age is just the very end of that process. It doesn’t really matter to them, it doesn’t have a big effect on their lives, they don’t give a lot of money to it, they’re not really committed, it’s just a sort of privatised leisure pursuit. That’s how he tries to explain new forms of spirituality’s growth. Is that convincing from your point of view?

DR: Not convincing to me, but I can follow his argument. We could get into a big debate about whether or not… you could argue that something like New Age is a different form, a more individualised rather than an institutionalised model of religion, for instance, in which case secularisation would be a change in the form of religion, which would go along with an individualised privatisation model.

LW: But you could say, in criticism of someone like Steve Bruce, you wouldn’t, say you’re looking up modern communications, you wouldn’t get the statistics for how many people send telegrams from 1950 to 2012, and say, “Well, it’s completely declined, so people don’t use instant messaging anymore”. You’d look at what new forms have taken its place, so why just look at the churches? Of course some forms of religions grown declined over time, because religion is constantly transforming. So why say that’s the only true religion and nothing else counts? And I personally think that’s a major weakness of the secularisation theory, which is only… if we’re looking at something very specific, the decline of particular sorts of European Church that had close connections with the State, and they have declined their question. They generalized from that very particular story to religion as a whole.

DR: Which is a perfect link to the second major weaknesses, I think, of the secularisation thesis, which is, it’s very culturally and geographically specific.

LW: That’s a great point and that brings us to the USA, because you’ll notice that all the theorists I’ve been talking about are European. And Europe is in many ways the most secular part of the globe. America never produced secularisation theory in a significant way partly because, even though America was as modernised as Europe, it didn’t suffer the same decline of religion, even of church going or congregation, they have different kinds of churches in the States of course. So Americans didn’t really believe in it, in the way Europeans did.

DR: It was never really accepted?

LW: It didn’t have the same theoretical importance. It was accepted by many social scientists, but in the study of religion, there aren’t great theorist of it who contributed new developments. And since the 1980’s, the most important critics of secularisation theory have been Americans in the sociology of religion. First, Peter Berger and then Jose Casanova. Berger’s particularly interesting because he was a secularisation theorist. So his career has spanned right from the 1960s through to today, for much of that carrier, he went along with the European secularisation theorists. But his interpretation was different. He thought religion declines because it becomes less plausible when there’s not just one worldview. So if you’re a Christian and you just live in a Christian village near a Christian town, you’re going to believe it. But it becomes less plausible when you meet an Hindu and a Buddhist. That was his theory of why it declined in modern societies. But then he had a complete conversion, he changed his mind in the 1990’s, and he said… I brought a quote, it’s a good one. He said :

“My point is that the assumption that we live in a secularised world is false. The world today, with some exceptions, is as furiously religious as ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists, loosely labeled secularisation theory, is essentially mistaken. In my early work, I contributed to this literature. I was in good company. Most sociologists of religion had similar views and we had good reasons for upholding them. Some of the writing we produced still stand up. Although the term ‘secularisation theory’ refers to works from the 50’s and 60’s, the key idea can be traced right back to the Enlightenment. The idea is simple. Modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals. And it’s precisely this key idea that turned out to be wrong.”

So a very strong change of mind, in his part.

DR: It’s rare to see a scholar doing that.

LW: It’s very rare and it’s particularly interesting. Then Jose Casanova had developed a very sophisticated theory of public religion which accepts that there’s differentiation, but it thinks religion continues to a public and not just a private role and he shows that (15:00) in relation to Poland and Spain and several other countries.

DR: Poland is a very good example. It’s obviously… the figures in Britain alone since the arrival of the Poles here shown a huge growth in church attendances. I think it was Casanova, I might be wrong, who argued that it was because the Church wasn’t identified with the controlling power but the Church was rather a revolutionary… that’s a bit strong, but… of the people, and that the Church hasn’t gone into decline in Poland as it has here. And where the Church is still seen as, perhaps, I think, cultural hegemony. I think those statistics have a very interesting thing to say about secularization.

LW: Yes, so the difficulty is to explain why the differential rates of secularization. Actually, I was going to come to the other kind of key figure who’s really the stand out figure in this whole story. He’s the one person who saw all this a long time before anyone else, long before Casanova or Berger, and that was David Martin, who’s an English sociologist of religion, still alive, retired now. In 1965, he wrote an essay criticizing secularization theory, and then in the late 1970’s, he wrote the famous book called A General Theory of Secularization. He didn’t completely throw it overboard, but he tried to refine it, and his point was just what you said. That it depends what role religion has in a particular society and what relationship it has to reactionary and revolutionary political power. So in a country like France, where all forces of liberalization and democracy who have opposed by the Catholic Church, you get a very very strong secularism. Because all progressive people want to overthrow this reactionary force. But, going across the Atlantic to America, where the churches were a force of democracy and liberation from colonial British rule, then religion becomes identified with those positive forces and it’s a very religious place. And he thinks he can do similar analyses across the world. So he rejected the general theory, an undifferentiated theory, long before anyone else. I think he gets sometimes slightly irritated today when everyone says “Oh, it’s a really great new theory!” He thinks “I was saying that forty years ago.”

DR: But it’s interesting that that’s, in that case, what we’re talking about really is a radical de-traditionalisation, particularly in Northern Europe. It’s a challenging of power bases and the decentralisation of power, and epistemological power as well, and in institutions rather than the other interpretation about the logic of religion not making sense.

LW: Yes, no, you’ve put it really raw, because the kind of general progressivist theories make it seem like it’s just a neutral historical process that inevitably happens, whereas people like David Martin say “No, look at the power relations here, there are power struggles going on. And what role is religion playing in relations to those struggles.” And I think that’s a much more interesting and convincing way of looking at it. And my own little contribution to this story in relation to the UK would be that a really important part of why secularisation theory was so powerfully developed here in the post-war period, was because of the welfare state settlement. The welfare state became a secular utopian kind of quasi-religious project. People really believed in the realization of a fairer and more just and equal society, symbolised by the National Health Service, which is a kind of sacred icon and the envy of the world. The doctor and the GP became like the parish priest, a trust-worthy father figure in the community. So you had a kind of secular faith.

DR: The NHS as sacred canopy then.

LW: In many ways, it was sacred. If you look at Harold Shipman, the murderer, the reason he killed so many people was that no one would believe that a doctor could behave like that, a bit like child abuse in churches. So there was such an alternative secular faith, such hope for that model, that religion became less important. Actually the churches played a big role, they threw in a lot with the welfare state (20:00) and tried to contribute to it. And that’s part of why there was the sense you didn’t need religion anymore. We found the right way to organise society. And as we lost a bit faith in that vision, people turned to religion again to find meaning and models of more just social order and so on. We’ve seen some pockets of interesting revival like the ones that you look at in Europe.

DR: So where does this allude to secularisation thesis? Is it still relevant to the study of religion?

LW: We can’t ever get rid of it, because it’s so engraved, for over a century, that everything we do is shaken by it. The questions we ask on questionnaires, the data we gather, the whole way we look at the world, it’s very hard to get rid of that framework, even if it’s not the most interesting framework anymore. But I think where it leaves us is, that we no longer think that it’s a purely descriptive neutral theory. We can see now that it belonged in a particular place and a particular time and it was ideological. It was a kind of faith in its own right, it supported a vision of Europe at the cutting edge of history of the secular Nation-State starting to take over a new role in society and so on. It was bound up with those very particular conditions, and in those conditions, it made a lot of sense of what was happening. But it’s not universally applicable timeless ahistorical theory.

DR: What I’m going to take away from this today is it’s a very good example of how we as scholars allow our ideologies or the ideologies of the culture that maybe we are not aware of to affect whole theories. When I started studying religions, the secularisation thesis was still essential part of what you learned and, yet, once you look at it, it kind of dissolves away, there was nothing really ever there.

LW: And people believed in it, that’s the right word.

DR: And argued furiously about it.

LW: And wrote passionately about it, because it stood for a certain vision of how society should be. It wasn’t just about interpreting the facts. It was always a bit more than that.

DR: That’s a perfect place to end, it’s absolutely fascinating. Thank you very much, Professor.

LW: My Pleasure.

DR: Thanks.

Citation Info: Woodhead, Linda, and David G. Robertson. 2012. “The Secularisation Thesis.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 April 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.2, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-linda-woodhead-on-the-secularisation-thesis/

Doing Anthropological Fieldwork

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

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

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

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

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

Roundtable: What is the Future of Religious Studies?

David Robertson, Chris Cotter, Ethan Quillen, Jonathan Tuckett, Kevin Whitesides & Liam Sutherland (NB: ‘we’ are not the future of Religious Studies – although some of us hope to be – that would just be silly)

After this week’s podcast, which involved eight scholars giving their views on the future of Religious Studies, there was really only one way we could create a suitably collective and varied response – six postgrads sitting around a table, accompanied by pink gin and our trusty dictaphone. Conversation ranges from the public perception of what Religious Studies does, what to do with a RS degree, to the financial practicalities of doing postgraduate research in the UK and US today. Mostly, though, it’s a collective rant about the cognitive study of religion (for a more educated discussion on cognitive approaches to the study of religion, see our interview with Armin Geertz)..

**Regular visitors please note – we have moved our weekly feature articles to Wednesdays instead of Fridays. This will continue until further notice, and is intended to promote more discussion**

If you are new to the podcast – this is not what we usually do. If you are a regular listener – you might enjoy this, or you might not; either way, we are back to normal with Bettina Schmidt’s interview on Anthropological Approaches on Monday.

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

The bleeping noises are Chris’s camera, and the clunks are Liam’s can of Gin. We hope you enjoy it, we certainly enjoyed recording it. We’ll be recording another at the SOCREL (Sociology of Religion) Annual Conference in just a few days time (with a more diverse range of participants!). If you’d like this to become a regular feature, please let us know.

Choice quotations:

“What do you do with a Religious Studies degree? You get a Master’s. What do you do with a Religious Studies Master’s? You get a PhD? What do you do with a Religious Studies Phd? You work in Starbucks.”

“I think of Religious Studies less as a discipline and more as the name of a department.”

“relativity… is one step up from subjectivity, which is the post-modernist quagmire of death and destruction that will consume all academic fields if it’s allowed to spread too far…”

The Discussants:

Christopher R. Cotter

Chris recently completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. He is currently taking a year out from study to pursue PhD applications, present at conferences, and work on projects such as this. His future research will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Deputy Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Ethan Quillen

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

David Robertson

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

Liam Sutherland

Liam is a Religious Studies Postgraduate student at Edinburgh University undertaking a Masters by Research, on the relevance of E.B Tylor for the contemporary theory of religion, defining religion and modern scholars with a ‘Neo-Tylorian’ influence or affinity. He is a native of Edinburgh where he also completed his undergraduate degree  in 2009, producing a dissertation on contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality and the politics of land rights. Though he began in Politics, and took many Politics and school of Social Science courses, he quickly fell in love with Religious Studies! Liam has also written the essay An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy for the Religious Studies Project.

Jonathan Tuckett

What is Phenomenology? for the Religious Studies Project.

Kevin Whitesides

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

What is the Future of Religious Studies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Video: The Religious Studies Project – What We’re All About…

Today marks a special occasion in the life of The Religious Studies Project – we’re giving our first ‘talk’. As part of Innovative Learning Week at the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, we’re presenting a session where students and staff can come and learn a bit more about the project and how it was put together, and offer some feedback on what they would like to see in the future.

Unfortunately, Chris will be arriving in London as the event itself starts, so we thought that a video posted on the website would be a way for him to participate from afar. The video is posted below, and isn’t focused specifically towards this one event, but provides a platform for David and Chris to discuss why they set up The Religious Studies Project, what they aim to do, what they DON’T aim to do, and how you can help out.

Let us know what you think…

Animism

Graham Harvey photo

Animism is often taken as referring to worldviews in which spirits are to be found not only in humans, but potentially in animals, in plants, in mountains and even natural forces like the wind. It was of central importance in early anthropological conceptions of religion, most notably in the work of E. B. Tylor. More recently, however, Graham Harvey has challenged the traditional conception of animism, seeking to understand it as “relational epistemologies and ontologies”; in other words, it is a way of living in a community of persons, most of whom are other-than-human.

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

Dr Graham Harvey has been Reader in Religious Studies at the Open University since 1993, and is also the President Elect of our sponsors, the British Association for the Study of Religions. Other than Animism, his work has covered a wide range of subjects, from Judaism, Paganism, Indigenous Religions and Shamanism.

His most important publication on animism is his 2005 book Animism: Respecting the Living World. It is supported by www.animism.org.uk, which features essays, articles and interviews which expand on the material in this podcast.

His paper, ‘Animals, Animists and Academics’, from Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 41.1 (2006), is available to download here, if you have University access.

If not, (or, indeed, as well,) “Animism rather than Shamanism”, from Spirit Possession and Trance : New Interdisciplinary Perspectives (edited by Bettina Schmidt and Lucy Huskinson, Continuum 2010) is available here.