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Near Death Experiences

Accounts of Near Death Experiences will no doubt be very familiar to listeners of the RSP and the broader public. From fictional accounts such as the Wizard of Oz or Flatliners, to self-reports which grew in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, many of us will be know narrative tropes such as the tunnel, the life review, and the out of body experience. Existing research has tended to, on the one hand, focus on the pathological elements of Near Death Narratives – attempting to ‘explain away’ the phenomenon in reductionistic terms – or, on the other hand, view such accounts as substantive proof of a ‘world beyond’. In today’s podcast, we showcase an approach which accepts reports of Near Death Experiences as discourse, and attempts to understand them in their social, cultural, and historical context. Further, we ask what is the relationship between these narratives and contemporary discourse on ‘religion’? Joining Chris Cotter in this podcast is Professor Jens Schlieter, who has admirably addressed these questions and more in his recent book What Is It Like To Be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity, and the Occult (OUP 2018).

In this episode, we discuss definitions of Near Death Experiences, how one might study reports of such experiences from a critical study of religion perspective, how such reports are related to modern societal developments such as ‘secularization’, individualization, and advances in medical science, as well as the impact of ‘religious’ meta-cultures upon these reports and the potential ‘religious’ functions they appear to serve.

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Near-Death Experiences

Podcast with Jens Schlieter (13 April 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/near-death-experiences/

Christopher Cotter (CC): Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, and indeed in society beyond, will be very familiar, I imagine, with the notion of near-death experiences. They’ve become quite a predominant theme in fictional narratives and across the internet. But within academic study there have been two approaches, possibly, to these. One would be to be hyper-medicalised, physiological, psychological – seeing them as phenomena to be explained away. Another approach would be to be seeing them as proof of life beyond, and using them in that sort-of context. But what’s been largely absent, up until now, has been a Critical Religious Studies approach; looking at these narratives in their social and historical context, and what they can tell us about our society and about our lives. Joining me today, to talk about near-death experiences, is Professor Jens Schlieter of the University of Bern. Professor Schlieter studied Philosophy, and Buddhist Studies, and Comparative Religion, in Bonn and Vienna and got his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Bonn. And he has held research positions at the University of Munich and the University of Bonn. He is currently at the University of Bern, where he is Professor for the Systematic Study of Religion and also Co-director for the Institute of Science of Religion. And his publications comprise contributions on methodological and theoretical questions in the study of religion, and Buddhist bioethics, and comparative philosophy. But of particular relevance today is his 2018 book with Oxford University press called, What Is It Like to be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity and the Occult. So first off, Professor Schlieter, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Jens Schlieter (JS): Thank you, Chris, for inviting me here.

CC: It’s wonderful to have you here in Edinburgh on this crisp winter’s day! I could just start off by asking you: what is it like to be dead, Professor Schlieter?! But, although it may be fairly obvious what got you interested – because it is such an inherently tantalising topic – what was it that got you interested in studying and writing about near-death experiences?

JS: The title, of course, is a little bit provocative. But it is, indeed, to be found in the Scriptures on near-death experiences. But I thought of the famous article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel writing an article on “What it is like to be bat?” And he argues that we don’t know, because we usually imagine ourselves hanging in a cave from the top. But we do not know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. And so there is, of course, a very important topic and the whole . . . . People claimed that they were actually dead, but the definition of death . . . usually we would define death as a status of irreversibility. So one cannot come back to life. So there is a paradox there. But on the other hand, these experiences of people very close to death, they must be taken seriously. Because people change their lives. They write large autobiographic narratives in which they define this experience as absolutely life-changing in regard to new spiritual views on themselves, on the soul, on the beyond, etc. So that was my initial interest in the whole. How can people describe something that we usually consider as impossible? Because this standpoint of describing the status after death cannot be taken. But obviously we have these narratives. So what do we do?

CC: Absolutely, and it really comes to the core methodological issue in the study of religion, I suppose, where all we have to go on is discourse, and what people say, and putting indescribable experiences into natural language – in the sense of, whether we’re talking about any experience of the supernatural, it inherently has to be described in language and be articulated in that way. So, yes. It quite nicely captures one of the core issues in the study of religion (5:00). But before we get any further, and you’ve already hinted at it there, but, what is a near-death experience? Just so that we’re all talking from the same page.

JS: Yes. I started by defining the methodological point of view on near-death experiences in the book as, let’s say, historical discourse study. So I looked at who defined near-death experience for the first time. Usually people claim that it was Raymond Moody, an American medical professional, a doctor. And he published a book in 1975, Life after Life, and there he speaks of near-death experiences – near-death experiences in the plural – claiming that he used the category to describe those narratives which he encountered in hospitals by survivors of, for example, heart attack, or nearly-drowned, or something like that. But in my book I can show that the term near-death experience is somewhat earlier used already by John C Lilley, in 1972. And he wrote an autobiography, Centre of the Cyclone. And there he describes, interestingly, a near-death experience on the basis that he himself was close to death, using LSD. And so he had visionary experiences triggered by LSD, but on the other hand he was ill, and administered himself an antibiotics, but obviously something went wrong. And so he was actually really close to death and in an almost comatose-like state And Raymond Moody read the book. But of course, for him, it was rather unsettling that it was an LSD experience. But in the book I can show that the LSD and near-death experiences co-evolved in the 1970s as a discourse. And it is not a new phenomenon. Already in the early nineteenth century people spoke of experiences close to death and what happens there, namely: life-review, out of body experiences – Oh! Here I get back to the question of definition! Sorry . . .

CC: That’s alright!

JS: Near-death experiences usually, in what Raymond Moody first systematised, encompass roundabout 15 different topoi – one may say, from a discourse perspective – namely: to get out of one’s body and to encounter one’s dead body from an elevated perspective, looking down at oneself lying in the bed; then there is the idea expressed that you get into something like a summer land, or paradise; that you encounter heavenly beings, or sometimes they are of help and guide you through the netherworld, sometimes they are frightening; also experiences of encountering other family members and friends who have died already – so after-death experience in the meaning that you enter a space where these are already there; but also a kind-of a barrier; and a heavenly voice – an experience of the presence of God or Jesus. And finally, to get back into the body. So these are elements. And Raymond Moody’s idea was these are usually in a kind-of continuous narrative. So they follow each other because they are a universal experience, mirrored, of course, into the individual backgrounds and so on (10:00). But, in general, he believed they really tell something about the after-death realm, and therefore these are real experiences. For me, of course, this is a metaphysical assumption that I can neither deny nor affirm with my research. And therefore I looked at them only as reports – reports of experiences. So, ok, the word “experience” usually means that you truly encounter something that transforms your point of view, that transforms you, probably totally, if it is a life-changing experience. But one can also say experiences are construed in the aftermath. After surviving the whole thing, people usually will ask themselves, “How did it happen that I personally survived? Why didn’t I die?” And I think these are really questions of meaning, of meaningfulness. And very often, at least in our culture, people tend to think of religion as providing an answer, and therefore looking for an answer why they survived. They had maybe visions – we don’t know because there is no way to figure out if these visions happen the way they say they were. But for them, of course, they are real. And we will never know. But what I can say, at least, in the book . . . . I show with various examples that certain narratives, for example, the one of the life-review – that you remember scenes and things in your early life, in your life unfolding, etc. – and that this life-review actually emerged in the narratives. It is not yet there in medieval reports of near-death experiences – if one can say they are near-death experiences, because usually they are deathbed visions by monks and nuns.

CC: Yes. And indeed you make the point in the book that, until recent decades I suppose, these experiences tended to be narrated by others: people telling of someone else’s experience. Whereas, there was a point at which there was the turn to the individual and the self-narrative. Which I think we’re probably going to get onto fairly shortly. So just before we get there, you’ve already given some hints at your methodology there, and it’s a fairly standard Religious Studies approach in the sense of: regardless of whether there is a reality or not, what we have to go on are people’s accounts of their experiences. And these accounts have impact and social impact. So let’s look at them and treat them at face value and just deal with the content, and the meaning, and etc., etc. Is there anything else that you’d like to sort-of caveat what you’re saying? Like, what was the body of material that you consulted?

JS: Well I thought it would be good to start with personal narratives, not those – as you mentioned – by others, so third-hand evidence. And narratives from a first-person point of view are, of course, very much connected to the emergence of autobiographies, of subjectivity, and usually one of the major figure in this emerging tradition was the French philosopher Montaigne. And he, in his essays, unravels a near-death experience interestingly. And major elements, that were of importance for reporters of near-death experiences that inform Moody, are not yet there. They are simply not there. But then there is Francis Beaufort. He was an admiral with the British navy. And he is the first who really had a classical near-death experience, at the end of the eighteenth century (15:00). He fell into Portsmouth harbour and nearly drowned as a young man. And decades later he reported his experience. And for the first time, we have this life-review phenomenon. So he said, “I could see scenes from my early childhood. Memories that I were not aware of that . . . I had these experiences”. So this is an interesting element in itself. So from the sixteenth century up to 1975, this is what the book covers. I decided not to look at sources from non-European cultures. There is, of course, an extensive discussion about if near-death experiences are purely a Western phenomenon, or if near-death experiences can be seen in Indian, Japanese, Chinese traditions. A very important element that is usually pointed out is the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It has been published by Oxford University Press in 1927, translated by Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz in collaboration with native Tibetan Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup. And they were tremendously successful in popularising these Tibetan thoughts and rituals: what should be done if someone dies? And the idea is to guide them through the netherworld, of course, in the Tibetan context to encounter karmic delusions, and to be very frightened – because the consciousness principle has to navigate through its own complications, and so on. But to give you one example that it is quite important, to look very closely at the reported experiences. People usually say, “Well this is evidence that they are of a universal quality.” If you have Tibetans reporting such experiences in the fourteenth century or so, and modern Western evidence, so it seems to be . . . . But, for example, the idea that there is out-of-body experiences and one looks back at oneself. In the Western tradition it is very much the idea that you face yourself being dead. So the soul, or consciousness, hovering over the body, is interested to look at and to examine the body. Because the body is something foreign. Something that is no longer animated, but still a point of reference in this world etc. Whereas, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, of course, due to the idea of reincarnation etc., the body is of no importance. And we can see that it is much more a social reality in the Tibetan Buddhist account of this moment where the soul, or consciousness – to be more precise, in the Tibetan Buddhist context. So the consciousness principle looks not at its former body, but at the weeping family members, and tries to convince them, “Oh I’m fine. Please, you do not help me if you weep. I can see you, but you obviously can no longer see me. But please, that’s not good for me. Because now I have the task I shall move forward to my next existence.” And best would be, of course, no longer to be reincarnated at all. So at the first sight that seems to be, “Ok, that’s an out of body experience.” But the narrated content is totally different in terms of epistemology, in terms of soteriology, and so on and so forth.

CC: Absolutely. So you started to get into the socio-cultural historic contexts within which near-death narratives are occurring. And much of your book, I guess, is looking at Western contexts as you say. And you do an excellent job of charting some of the contextual factors that might have shaped and led, perhaps, to what you might call an explosion of near-death narratives. So if you can, maybe, tell us about some of these modern societal developments that have gone hand-in-hand with near-death narratives? (20:00)

JS: Yes. I think this is a very important aspect. And I think, so far, there was little interest to look at the correlations. What is astonishing is the fact that, in the 1970s, major developments in the Western medical system were going on. For example, to declare people no longer dead with the criterion of heart failure, and other classical criteria that were used for ages to declare people dead if there is no longer brain activity. And there are, of course, measurements from the EEG etc. But that’s led to the situation that people without a functioning brain were declared dead. But their body was still, let’s say, alive, in a way. And of course it was seen as a major advantage also for transplantation of organs. And many of them can only be used in the body is fully intact. And, of course, with artificial respiration and so on. And the phenomena like coma, and locked -in syndrome, they were described at a new level – more scientifically defined, and so on. But in the general society these developments were considered as extremely unsettling. Because there was now an ambivalence: is someone dead or not dead? Only dead if declared to be dead. And shall we trust the physicians, the doctors in the intensive care unit if they say he or she is dead? Then we accept that? And so that was really unsettling. And on the other hand if, of course, due to circumstances that people were able to survive a certain period of very low brain activity and some of them had visionary accounts or visionary experiences, or let’s say, near-death experiences returning from such a state they said, “Well, in your medical perspective maybe we were that close to death that it was only a second that you may have decided to close the artificial attempts of sustaining my life. But I survived – and not only that, I had certain experiences that are absolutely central for my life that I would like to live from now onwards with different values.”

CC: So yes, I’m just pushing through because of time. But yes, we have those medical developments and, you know, people being sustained longer. And you describe how they move from mostly dying out of the hospital context, and moving into hospital contexts. You’ve got, also, all the different forms of medication which might have hallucinogenic properties, legal or illegal. But then there’s also individualisation within religion, beyond religion: the importance of individual narratives of the self. And then also, I guess, that all ties into a secularisation narrative as well. So you’ve got all of this going on, and then “Easter”, in quotation marks, influences coming in. You’ve already described the Tibetan Book of the Dead. So there’s lot going on, in the sixties and seventies, in terms of just rapid social development in these areas – which understandably facilitates the development and, I guess, dissemination of these near-death narratives. But I’m keen to get to the “religion” word, because we need to on the Religious Studies Project! And towards the end of the book you tackle that head on, and talk about how religious meta-cultures might have influenced and shaped the form and content of these near-death narratives (25:00). And then, also, you talk about the potential, I guess you would say, “religious functions” of the narratives. So maybe you should take us through some of that.

JS: Yes. I think usually, books of reporting individuals themselves, they do not very openly quote sources that inspired them. But if you look more closely at the whole near-death reporting genre, one can see that there are many spiritualists, many who are close to Western esotericism, for example: parapsychological accounts are very often combined with near-death accounts. For example, Eben Alexander who published a very, very successful book. So there are people who are usually in a way religious, and at the same time they are distant in regard to dogmas of established churches. So usually there’s something like this: they were brought up in very religious families, and they had a background of, let’s say, intensive socialisation within a religious tradition. And then they moved on, studied, for example, something on the signs of nature and medicine, or whatever – became more critical towards religion and towards establishment in particular. And then this happens. An event that in which they almost died. And I think it is very plausible to look at the phenomenon with this perspective. At this moment they revive their former emotion and that was inspired and formed by a very religious family life. But of course they are already stuffed with critical rationality. They are distant in regard to unfounded claims of traditional religious tradition. So the individual experience is, from my point of view, a very vital element of this late modern religiosity. And therefore one can say near-death experiences are probably prototypical for the development. People no longer believe that there is, let’s say, a life after death in terms of words traditional – especially of course the Catholic Church had to offer, but they have their individual experiences. And they think this is authentic par excellence. Because it is individual. So, in a way, one can say the whole phenomenon mirrors recent developments in Western societies and, on the other hand, I think they offer a certain kind-of a solution for the whole, because people can still continue to believe. And very often, also, one can see that they have a kind-of missionary attitude. That they really speak very freely on their near-death experiences, even though, very often, they note, “OK, I know that you are sceptical, and this is a materialistic society, and no-one will believe me.” But this is part, again, of the whole authenticity that they feel that they are in.

CC: And, I guess, even someone who was notionally “non-religious” – in scare quotes there – they’re part of a context. And the experience, whatever it is, is felt. And their interpretation will be informed by their context within which . . . . And the context will, I suppose, also influence the experience itself in the first place. Because people bring things to an experience. And then, afterwards, interpret it with the resources that are available to them. And especially once there is such an economy of a near-death experiences, then it’s going to take . . . . (30:00).

JS: Absolutely. Although I think it is rather a rare case in which one will have a near-death experience without ever being introduced to religious thought, rituals, and traditions before. Because I think, indeed, one has to have a certain disposition, and a certain expectancy for things to happen, in such experiences. But nevertheless, as I said at the beginning, if you would imagine yourself in the situation, or someone else in the situation – maybe he was not very religious, but survives a very tragic accident. Maybe other companions in the car died. And then you have the question of contingency – what sociologists always say in regard to religion. So the question of the reduction of contingency, namely: “I could have died here. It didn’t happen. So who saved me?” We usually attribute such survival to a force. We are continuously looking for explanations. We cannot live with no explanation, and simply to say that it was by chance, there was no other force involved at all. And so I would say this way of looking at a situation . . . . And, of course, many suffer from, let’s say, the injuries they have. So they are in hospital, they are alone, they are under medication. I don’t want to simply say that’s an outcome of that. I hope that’s clear that I think the whole is meaningful. It’s not simply to be reduced to such factors. But these factors are, or should be, taken into consideration too. So people alone, thinking at, and on, their lives – probably the question of meaning pops up in their lives for the first time ever. And then they, maybe, “Oh yes, there was a certain kind of light. Was there a being behind the light? Did I see a being? Although I do not believe . . . . But probably it was a being. And haven’t I heard some kind of message?” Because the whole thing, for them, is of course complicated too. They have to remember ecstatic experiences. And they cannot say what they experience the moment they experience that. So they have an epistemological problem, too.

CC: Yes. And again we’re right back to that. But putting sort-of non-falsifiable experience into words, after the event. And going back earlier in the interview, you mentioned earlier Montaigne. I have a tattoo of some words by Montaigne: “Fortis imaginatio generat casum”: a strong imagination creates its own reality.

JS: Yes, yes, absolutely

CC: But yes, there’s a sense, after an experience, one is only going to be able to interpret and articulate . . . . And human memory is an awful thing. Memory . . . like these eyewitness reports in criminal cases will say . . . .

JS: Absolutely.

CC: And these experiences – because they’re so intense, and profound, and are current at traumatic circumstances – they are going to be revisited, and rearticulated, and pondered time and time again. So we can’t say too much about the actual experience itself. But what you’re doing is looking at how people are articulating it, and what are the themes, and how that has impacts. We’re pretty much out of time. But I just wanted to sort-of finish with what might be – again, it’s been implicit throughout the interview – but what would be some of your take-home messages for the study of religion? And from your work with near-death experience? And what do you think others can take and apply, perhaps more broadly, in their own studies in this religion thing that we’re all so obsessed with?!

JS: Well, I think one of the general insights that I would consider central is that extraordinary experiences were, for some years, less studied because people thought, “Well it is a discourse, by religious practitioners, to speak about their extraordinary experiences.” (35:00) But I think there is really something in there that may help also to look at recent developments. For example, these books about near-death experiences – they are incredibly successful. Very often you have them in Amazon ranking lists on places five to three – and for weeks. So there is not only the experience, but also a large audience interested in this experience. So to study this as the phenomenon – as a part of the phenomenon of no-longer-institutionalised religion, but never-the-less as a part of a religious discourse where experience matters. And experience that very often has been only psychologised. And there are a lot of neuroscientific theories that simply say, “Well, it’s a dysfunctional brain that produces such delusions and you cannot take it seriously” And I think this simply a very short-sighted view of the whole. Because people change their whole life after the experience. Although, it would be very important to have a closer look at this phenomenon. This has not yet been researched, from my knowledge: an empirical study, that not only considers that the autobiography may be also an oral narrative of what has happened after the experience is considered, but also to look more closely at families, friends and really to corroborate evidence that it was a life-changing matter.

CC: Absolutely. So there’s on that final note, a potential research project for a Listener, or perhaps that’s your next research project, I don’t know? Well thank you so much, Professor Schlieter, for joining us on the Religious Studies Project. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes down.

JS: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

CC: Good.

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

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

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This-Lifers and Afterlifers

A response to “Good Grief? Rituals of World Repairing”

by Douglas Davies

Read more

‘Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing

Toys, Rabbits, and Princess Diana – three things that may not seem at all connected. However, when one starts to question the notion of grief, bereavement, and death in the contemporary West, these three are more connected than appears. In this podcast, Breann Fallon interviews Professor Douglas Ezzy of the University of Tasmania on the power of symbols in creating relationships and world-repairing rituals in the context of grief and death. Ezzy discusses the misjudgments of Durkheim in his assessment of Australian Aboriginal symbols as well as the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit (1922), the death of Princess Diana, and his own interaction with symbols in this original take on grief and death. Here, the notions of ‘good’ grief, the use of ritual in creating ‘good’ grief, and the very notion of ‘religion’ bring to light the active role are able to play in dealing with death.

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

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

‘Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing

Podcast with Douglas Ezzy (5 March 2018).

Interviewed by Breanne Fallon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Ezzy- Good Grief- Rituals of World Repairing 1.1

 

Breann Fallon (BF): How do we deal with death and grief in our contemporary contexts? Do we avoid talking about death and grief? Is there a possibility for ‘good’ grief? What role do symbols and rituals play in managing bereavement? To talk about this topic, I have with me today Professor Doug Ezzy of the University of Tasmania. He’s editor of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion and President of the Australian Association for the Study of Religion. His research on contemporary religion includes religious diversity, contemporary paganisms, and Christianity. His books include LGBT Christians, with Bronwyn Fielder, Reinventing Church with Helen and James Collins, Sex Death and Witchcraft: Teenage Witches with Helen Berger, and Qualitative Analysis. Thank you very much for joining us today,

Doulas Ezzy (DE): Thank you. It’s pleasure.

BF: To begin, I was hoping you could give us some context for this discussion about death and grieving in the contemporary world. Do we avoid it? Are we focussing on something else instead? What sort of context do you think we’re sitting in?

DE: I guess, for me, the first move to make is I’m struck by the way in which we’re not talking about the grief or the sadness associated with climate change. When I look forward, over the next few decades, they seem to me to be a time of dramatic loss. We’re already experiencing quite profound losses. You can talk about refugees and migration as a consequence of climate change or, more broadly, about species extinction – the rate of species extinction at the moment is extraordinary. And, you know, also the costs associated with the values of neoliberalism. So there’s a whole bunch of things that will lead to dramatic losses and I don’t see many responses, in our contemporary culture, to those things. It seems strange, or odd, or bizarre. Why are all these sad losses happening and we’re not responding to it? They just get noted, maybe. And then we move on. Like, for me – one quite personal one – I’m a Tasmanian, I was born there, I go back generations. For me, I have a profound sense of a relationship with Tasmania as a place. And there was some seaweed along the East Coast of Tasmania – a really large kelp forest that would cover large areas. And in the last few years they’ve gone. And that’s a product of the warming waters. And for me that’s really sad, because I used to swim in them, we used to fish in them. And they’re gone. So there’s this: “How do I make sense of that? How do I respond to that?” And that very personal experience is reflected in so much broader, cultural experience of loss and change that we’re not responding to. So, while I don’t think we’re a death-denying society, which some people sort-of talk about, I do think that there’s something odd going on with the way that we’re not responding to grief and loss.

BF: Right, so, when you say there’s something going on with the way we’re not responding to it, do you think we’re focussing on something else? Success perhaps?

DE: Yes. That’s right. So, I think that we’re part of a culture that has a sort of a “heroic success” mythology. And I think you see that both in religious culture and in business culture and – to a lesser extent – also in medical ways of understanding the self. So, for example, here in Australia, Hillsong is a really big, popular, Pentecostal Church. And my friend and colleague, Helen Collins, did a content analysis of their music. And what she found was that, in Hillsong, they never sing about grief, loss or sadness. The songs of Hillsong are all about love, and joy, and the Power of God leading you to a successful life. If you compare that with the Australian hymnbook, Jesus is there present with you, walking through the valley of death and through your difficult times. So our religious cultures tend to be ones that celebrate success and overcoming and joy. And they are afraid, or shy away from sadness and death and loss. You see the same sort of thing in economic business narratives where you talk about autobiographies, with Mary Burgan’s study of American bestselling autobiographies. And all the men’s stories in those biographies are stories about success. And there’s not much space for ambiguity or loss, or those sorts of things. And also in the business papers it’s all about success and overcoming and achievement. (5:00) So I think, while there are experiences and stories of loss – we still bury people – all those sorts of things are still there, I don’t think we’ve got very many constructive cultural resources for dealing with the experiences of loss that I see coming, that are already here. There’s something strange going on there – the tension between the two.

BF: There seems to be . . . you’re talking about in those business magazines, in particular, sort of a real focus on the “I” and the individual person. And I was wondering if that sort-of played into this?

DE: Yes. Look, there’s broader story there about how we understand ourselves in the “contemporary West” – In inverted commas – that tends to be very individualistic. And I think that, when we look to indigenous cultures; or the Buddhist concept of co-dependent arising; or social theory, like the interactionist tradition; or hermeneutics that talk about a more relational distributed understanding of the self. And so, I think that moving away from the heroic narrative, is also moving towards a more complex understanding of what it means to be human. So for me, my sociology, I can now call it a relational theory of religion. And there’s a whole bunch of people writing about that at the moment. I particularly like Graham Harvey’s Food, Sex and Strangers, but there’s bunch of other people who are trying to think about religion more as a relational practice and achievement, rather than about “individuals who believe”. So, we’ll get on to thinking about that loss and sadness. But certainly, for me, I think we need to think more in that way, and to think about religion in that way. Because, when we think about religion as a relational practice rather than individuals believing, then I think symbols – including symbols of sadness – play a different role. They’re not about individuals believing in a symbol that represents something – which is the sort of modernist and individualistic understanding of religion – rather, I think, about religious symbols as things that draw people into relationships. And so, for me, the interesting thing about how symbols operate in religious practice, is about what relationships they draw people into, rather than what beliefs or objects they represent.

BF: Yes. So do you have a key example of that that you, maybe, wanted to share with us?

DE: So, I could talk about Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, where he does like the churinga is the key ritual object that aboriginal Australians in the  rite that he talks about in The Elementary forms of Religious Life. The churinga is the symbol that he focusses on. And he says that the Aboriginals are mistaken or misguided because the churinga is fabricated, and therefore not real. And he thinks they’re delusional because they believe in the churinga. I think that completely misunderstands what’s going on there, with the churinga, for the Aboriginal. It’s not that they believe in the churinga. It’s that the churinga is an important part of their ritual, that articulates their relationship to the land. And I think Durkheim misunderstands the role of the churinga in the ritual. He says it really represents the tribe. And it probably does represent the tribe. But it articulates the relationship between the individual and the tribe, and the individual and the land. And when we understand symbols as articulating relationships and ethical responsibilities, they make sense. It doesn’t really make sense to say they’re delusional – they’re belief is wrong – because the symbol articulates relationship, so it’s not true or false in that sort-of modernist way. Rather it’s significant, or not significant, because it articulates relationship and draws people into relationships. So that’s how I think about symbols.

BF: You gave another really interesting example this morning. For those of you who are listening, we’re at the Australian Association and New Zealand Association for the Study of Religion Conference at the University of Notre Dame. And, this morning, you talked about The Velveteen Rabbit. And for me, having read the book, it was just a really fabulous example of what you’re talking about.

DE: So my dear friend, Professor Allan Kellehear, wrote a book called Experiences Near Death. And in that book he devotes a whole chapter to The Velveteen Rabbit, which is a children’s story from 1922, by Margery Williams (10:00). And in the story – for those of you who don’t know it – there’s a young boy who has a toy rabbit that he really loves. And the young boy gets scarlet fever and is ill for a number of weeks, and the adults decide that the toy rabbit is infected with germs and needs to be destroyed. And, in the story, rather than the rabbit being destroyed the rabbit becomes real, and goes and lives with the rabbits at the end of the garden. And it’s a beautiful story, because it’s a story about how a symbol – not really a religious symbol in this case, but a symbol – draws the child into a sense of confidence and love. It’s like the rabbit allows the young boy to feel like he’s still loved. And I think that’s really important and interesting. Rather than: does the rabbit really become real? I think that’s the wrong question to ask. You completely misunderstand what’s going on for the child and the relationship. Are we tricking the child? Deluding them with thought police? That’s to misunderstand. The rabbit articulates the confidence that the child will continue to be loved and cared for. And so, when you see the rabbit in that way, the idea that the rabbit becomes real is a story that draws the child into living more confidently and hopefully in the world. So the symbol operates to draw people into relationships. And I think that’s how symbols operate.

BF: Yes. I think that it’s a really amazing example of what you’re talking about in this idea of the rabbit being part of . . . I think the words you used were “world-repairing”

DE: Yes

BF: Were they the words you used?

DE: Yes. So, I think the idea of world-repairing . . .  I’m still trying to think through exactly what that means. Because, I think symbols’ subjunctive, if you like, which is the concept that Seligman and his associates, in Ritual and Its Consequences – they talk about the way in which religion has a subjunctive aspect to it. And I think symbols can be thought of that way, in the sense that they create an “as if”, and by performing and relating to them in that way they draw you into possible worlds. So, if you think of somebody whose parent dies, for example, the ritual and the symbol of believing in the afterlife, burying them in the earth – or whatever it is – is world-repairing in the sense that it allows you to live with that grief and loss. The grief and loss is still sad and still hurts, but it’s bearable somehow. And I think symbols operate to work with our emotions, with those parts of ourselves that it’s really hard to articulate. Because we’re not all cognitive and rational. We can’t always explain things, and what we believe. There are emotions, there are experiences that are powerful, that shape us in really important ways. And the way we work with them is symbolically, not necessarily cognitively. Yes, I mean you can go to therapy. And for some people that works. Great. But other people, we need symbols that allow us to work with those parts of our lives that we find it hard to articulate. So, the example that I gave in my talk was: I showed a picture of a toy rabbit that was given to my son when he was born. And the toy rabbit, for me . . . . It’s sat there on my bedside table now for abut ten years. My daughter created a little bed in a cardboard box. And the toy rabbit, for me, articulates or symbolizes my relationship with my children. I only really realised this when I wrote this paper. I’d been thinking about this rabbit and thinking, “Oh it’s just a toy, I’ll get rid of it.” But actually, no. It’s important to me. Reflecting on it, it articulates a bunch of things about the way that I relate to my children. So it’s important to me. So I think rabbits and toys, religious symbols, crosses or Buddhas – or whatever they are – they help us. The trick here . . . . There’s an awkward tension between what might sound like a moral project and what is a descriptive project. Because religion is a moral act. And if religion is a moral act, then I’m not necessarily saying “I think you should do . . .” I’m not making moral claims here. What I’m trying to do is describe what I see as a moral practice within religion. And I think religion, and religious symbols, articulate the possible (15:00). And when we don’t do that, that creates certain sorts of problems for us. If we don’t articulate the positive possible worlds, then we get drawn into angry or despairing or frustrating possible worlds.

BF: You gave some sort-of interesting examples to help us think about this, this morning. The one that really struck me – as somebody who didn’t live though it – was Diana’s death. Because I’ve never really understood the fascination with that, because I wasn’t alive. So, for me, that one has always been something I’ve never been able to understand – until you talked about it this morning. And the process of that grieving sort-of started to make a bit more sense to me.

DE: Oh good. Why did it make sense, can I ask?

BF: I think, for me, it was what you said about . . . you know, there’s that image with all the flowers in front of . . . I think it’s Kensington Palace. And just the act of laying the flowers. Those people didn’t really know Diana, but then they’ve gone to do that. And that act of . . . . They never knew her, but the act of laying the flowers would have made them – as you said – deal with that. And there’s kind of sense to it.

DE: Yes, so there’s whole literature on Diana and whether she was a goddess, or a false goddess. And there’s all sorts of critiques of her as a problematic representation of femininity, and that sort of stuff. But for a lot of people, the laying of the flowers, or the remembering of Diana . . . Diana becomes a symbol of their own experience of grief, or their own experience of loss of someone they’ve loved, or the way that they understand themselves as a woman. And so the practice allows themselves to articulate a really important experience of grief. Sometimes it has good outcomes, sometimes it has problematic aspects to it. But I think, for people who study religion, it’s really important to understand symbol as something that operates to articulate relationships and helps people articulate emotions, as well. I think it’s really interesting.

BF: Yes. I think it’s really fascinating, this idea of the ritual. There may be some people out there who kind-of have a problem with focussing so much on actions and not thought. Is there anything you want to say to them?

DE: Look, I don’t want to say beliefs are irrelevant. I think, for some people, beliefs clearly operate in really important and powerful ways – particularly in some forms of Protestant traditions, but also in other religious traditions. But I think the focus on belief often misunderstands a lot of what religious people do. Their religions become important because of the way they fit into our lives – the practices and the symbols and the rituals allow us to find ourselves, to build relationships. And the beliefs are sort-of secondary, or part of what’s going on, but they’re not primary. So I think this idea of religion as believing in something and then “perform”, misunderstands what’s going on.  I think that we find ourselves in relationships, we work out etiquettes and ways of relating to each other, and they’re articulated by symbols. And then we articulate beliefs and their legal frameworks, on top, that justify what we’re doing. So that’s the way that I’d see them.

BF: Yes. And I think you’ve given us so much to think about in terms of how we understand religion, and particularly in a modern context. The thing that really came up, to me, when you were talking this morning, was the idea of sort-of avoiding death by social media. Like keeping a person’s Facebook profile going after they die. This sort-of really complex way that we deal death in a modern context.

DE: Indeed.

BF: We’ve run out of time. So is there anything you wanted to just finish off with?

DE: Um. No. Thank you very much for the opportunity. And it’s been great.

BF: Thank you so much for talking to us today.

Citation Info: Ezzy, Douglas and Breann Fallon. 2018. “’Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 March 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/good-grief-rituals-of-world-repairing/

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

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

Death, Music, and Ritual: Contemporary Requiems in the Commemoration of Death and Violence

Apparently, the only two certain things in life are death and taxes. In terms of the former, the requiem has held its grip up until contemporary times. While popular requiems, such as those composed by Mozart and Rutter are still performed, newly composed requiems, or requiem-like pieces are growing in popularity in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe. These requiems make use of previously employed lyrics and composition techniques, but some also rework these elements or leaving them behind entirely. From Mozart, to hip-hop, to haiku, contemporary music for the commemoration of death is variegated in its composition. In this interview, Breann Fallon discusses contemporary requiems with Associate Professor M.J.M. Hoondert of Tilburg University while at the 2016 European Association for the Study of Religions conference in Helsinki. Hoondert highlights the variety of contemporary requiems, noting their different styles, imagery, and convergences, but also the intended affect of the works. In particular, Hoondert discusses the step away from the liturgy associated with requiems as way for today’s individual to deal with death or violence in their own way. Still, it is clear that the ritual elements of the requiem remains, hence where this contemporary music fits into the sacral landscape is up for debate.

Also, be sure to check out DEATH, Religion, and Terror Management Theory with Jonathan Jong

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

DEATH, Religion, and Terror Management Theory

DeathfullOne year before his own death in 1790, Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to the French scientist Jean-Baptiste, codified a witty remark into popular history about two things anyone living can always count on: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” You might be able to dodge the taxman, but not death—we are all going to die. Roughly 100,000 years prior to Franklin’s quote the first evidence of intentional human burial appears in the archaeological record (Mithen, 2009). Humans have been thinking about death for a very long time and the threat of nonexistence can be a terrifying reality to face. According to terror management theory (TMT), cultural worldviews, which can manifest religious, political, or a bricolage of other meanings, serve to assuage this fear of our ever impending demise (Jong & Halberstadt, forthcoming). Interestingly, this TMT triage care for the existential self occurs outside of conscious awareness. However, in this podcast interview with Thomas Coleman for the Religious Studies Project, death researcher and psychologist Dr. Jonathan Jong, draws on experimental research as he teases the fear of death and the religious worldviews that may help confront this fear, into your conscious awareness.

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

References

Jong, J., & Halberstadt, J. (forthcoming). Death, anxiety, and religious belief. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.

Mithen, S. (2009). Peopling the World. In B. Cunliffe, C. Gosden & R. Joyce, The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology (pp. 281-304). New York: Oxford University Press.

Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Nonreligion

It is an unfortunate fact that in popular ‘Western’ imagination, the land of India is frequently orientalised, and naively conceptualized as ‘the quintessential land of religion, spirituality, and miracles.’ Although we would certainly not want to completely invert this stereotype by substituting one unnuanced and inaccurate construct for another, what happens when we take a closer look at a constituency who challenge this narrative, those who identify as ‘rationalists’ and engage in the criticism of ‘religion’ in India? One scholar who has done just that is Johannes Quack in his book Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India, published by Oxford in 2012. In this podcast, we discuss Johannes’ ‘relational’ approach to ‘nonreligion,’ before moving to concrete examples from his work in India.

What is a ‘relational approach’ to nonreligion? What does it achieve? What are some of the key characteristics of organized rationalism in India? What does all of this have to do with ‘religion’, ‘non-religion’, ‘atheism’ etc? What does this in-depth ethnographic work in this very particular context contribute to wider academic debates within the study of nonreligion, and religion more broadly?

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

Halloween Special: Religion’s Role in Terror Management Theory

mm2 When confronted with mortality, humans face the possibility of experiencing a significant amount of terror. Interestingly, many times, people are able to avoid this terror and actually enjoy the mortality themes that are presented. Consider the horror movie industry. To illustrate, Paranormal Activity (Blum & Peli, 2007) brought in $19,617,650 on its opening weekend alone (IMDB, n.d.). Further, consider the timeless horror classics such as Friday the 13th (Geiler & Cunningham, 1980) and Halloween (Hill & Carpenter, 1978) that are full of themes of death. Why do we enjoy these anxiety provoking situations? Research into Terror Management Theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Rosenblatt, Veeder, Kirkland, & Lyon, 1990; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991) suggests a possible explanation for this perplexing phenomenon. Humans engage in several cultural worldview defense mechanisms when cognizant of their own mortality in order to shield against the terror that is associated with it. More specifically, people observe their worldviews more strongly in order to give themselves a degree of self-purpose to combat the adverse effects that thoughts of their own mortality have on their well-being (Solomon et al., 1991). Further, religion has been found to be a strong buffer for death anxiety because it not only gives people the self-purpose inherent in successful death awareness coping, but it also gives followers a literal immortality in an afterlife (Bos et al, 2012). The following paper describes the role that religion plays in TMT and provides a possible explanation as to why it is able to buffer anxiety.

TMT Overview

Research into TMT is based primarily on the works of Ernest Becker (1962; 1973; 1975) in which a need for self-esteem allows us to think in self-reflective, symbolic, and temporal thought. Although this is evolutionarily adaptive, it also causes several problems associated with this type of thought. For example, humans have the ability to contemplate their purpose in life and reason for existing. Also, people can surmise that the world is an uncontrollable place and that we could cease to exist at any time. More specifically, we can anticipate that we will ultimately die.

In order to shield against the terror that is associated with this idea of the world, humans began to develop a sense of culture that allowed us to see the world as a predictable place of permanence and order. Each culture also provides a way to surmise the creation of this “just” world and a way to achieve immortality by living a life that is good and meaningful. This suggests the importance for self-esteem. Being cultural animals, we can assign a value to ourselves based primarily on whether or not we satisfy the cultural requirements for being good. By increasing our self-esteem, we believe that we are living a meaningful life that is deemed culturally good. Due to this, we can ultimately “deny” mortality and the terror that is associated with it. The denial of this mortality allows us to deny our creatureliness and further allows us to separate ourselves from the social animals that do not possess culture. By believing that we are good, we diminish terror and gain a degree of immortality because we live in a just world (Greenberg et al., 1986).

Religion’s fulfillment of TMT

It is important to note that when discussing religion’s role in TMT, most research has been conducted on Christianity and will thus be the primary subject of the current paper. Of the different worldview defense mechanisms, religion has been found to be very effective in mitigating the death anxiety that mortality salience evokes. When faced with their own mortality, religious people rely on teachings from their faith in order to buffet the negative aspects associated with the perception of death (Bos et al., 2012). For instance, consider the Biblical teachings paramount to Christianity. According to Romans 13:1 (New Revised Standard Version), God is in control of every aspect of life. Considering that God is viewed as a “just God” (2 Thessalonians 1:6, New Revised Standard Version), death anxiety can be mitigated by believing that God is in control of every aspect of life. So long as one believes in God and asks his forgiveness (John 3:16, New Revised Standard Version), the teachings suggest that there is no need to worry about invoking God’s wrath. TMT research corroborates this conjecture. Because the world and God are viewed as just, believers do not worry that they will be punished and therefore gain a figurative degree of symbolic immortality so long as they follow and uphold these beliefs (Greenberg et al., 1986; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, & Schimel, 2004).

5671121397_bc52022026_zPossibly the strongest defense against death anxiety as it relates to religion is the concept of an afterlife. When faced with thoughts of death, religion gives people an alternative to the terror that is associated with nonexistence after death (Pyszczynski et al., 2004). When considering Christianity, Heaven is considered to be a wonderful place where “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” and beautiful “as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2 – 6, New Revised Standard Version). Further, by following the teachings of Christianity, any believer can be part of this kingdom after they have died. Considering that the primary reason that death anxiety manifests is due to the fear of nonexistence (Greenberg et al., 1986), this literal afterlife should successfully mitigate this anxiety. The concept of Heaven allows believers to have a place where they will exist and be rewarded for their good behavior and belief after they have died, ultimately alleviating death anxiety.

One additional consideration regarding religion’s role in TMT is that of belonging. Symbolic immortality can be achieved by being part of something that is perceived as larger than oneself. Simply by identifying with a religion, people are shielded from some of the anxiety associated with death awareness (Pyszczynski et al., 2004). Generally, this sense of belonging is achieved through adherence to the religious tenets suggesting additional importance in following the religious beliefs in order to better shield against death anxiety (Dechesne, Pyszczynski, Arndt, Ransom, Sheldon, van Knippenberg, & Janssen, 2003).

Religious Reinforcement

As has been suggested, religious adherence is a successful method to mitigate death anxiety. Early research in TMT suggests that people react positively when others uphold their cultural worldviews and react negatively when they are violated. Further, this behavior reinforces the person’s worldview belief. Any person or belief that goes against these worldviews are considered a hazard to the belief’s validity and are reacted against negatively (Rosenblatt et al., 1989). Subsequent research on TMT and religion provides increased support for this finding. Christians have been found to react strongly against people and beliefs that go against the basic tenets of the religion. More specifically, they react very defensively against alternate worldviews. This has been postulated to be due to the importance that this religion plays in self-identification (Bos et al., 2012). Due to these defenses, Christians and people in general are more likely to react with hostility to people that hold different worldviews (Greenberg et al., 1990).

Conclusion

In regards to TMT, religion can be used to successfully mitigate the anxiety that is associated with death awareness. Primarily, adherence to the tenets of religion allows the believer to achieve both a symbolic and literal immortality (Bos et al., 2012). This dual function of religion may give one possible explanation as to why some religions are more widespread than others. Perhaps the larger religions provide more anxiety buffering defenses than do the smaller ones by providing more prominent tenets to follow and a more believable afterlife.

References

  • Becker, E. (1962). The birth and death of meaning. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Becker, E. (1975). Escape from evil. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Bos, K., Doosje, B., Loseman, A., Laarhoven, D., Veldhuizen, T., & Veldman, J. (2012). On shielding from death as an important but malleable motive of worldview defense: Christian versus Muslim beliefs modulating the self-threat of mortality salience. Social Cognition, 30(6), 778–802.
  • Blum, J. (Producer), & Peli, O. (Director). (2007). Paranormal Activity [Motion Picture]. United States of America: Paramount Pictures
  • Dechesne, M., Pyszczynski, T., Arndt, J., Ransom, S., Sheldon, K., van Knippenberg, A., & Janssen, J. (2003). Literal and symbolic immortality: The effect of evidence of literal immortalityon self-esteem striving in response to mortality salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 722-737.
  • Geiler, A. (Producer), & Cunningham, N. (Director). (1980). Friday the 13th. United States of America: Paramount Pictures.
  • Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In R.F. Baumeister (Ed.) Public Self and Private Self (p. 189 – 212). New York, New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., & Lyon, D. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(2), 308-318.
  • Hill, D. (Producer), & Carpenter, J. (Director). (1978). Halloween. United States: Compass International Pictures.
  • IMDB (n.d.). Paranormal Activity Box Office. Retrieved October 11, 2014. Retrieved from
  • http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1179904/business
  • Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., and Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 435-468.
  • Rosenblatt, A., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Lyon, D. (1989). Evidence for terror management theory: I. The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who violate or uphold cultural values. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(4), 681-690.
  • Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T (1991). A terror management theory of social behavior: The psychological functions of self-esteem and cultural worldviews. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 93-159.

Podcasts

Near Death Experiences

Accounts of Near Death Experiences will no doubt be very familiar to listeners of the RSP and the broader public. From fictional accounts such as the Wizard of Oz or Flatliners, to self-reports which grew in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, many of us will be know narrative tropes such as the tunnel, the life review, and the out of body experience. Existing research has tended to, on the one hand, focus on the pathological elements of Near Death Narratives – attempting to ‘explain away’ the phenomenon in reductionistic terms – or, on the other hand, view such accounts as substantive proof of a ‘world beyond’. In today’s podcast, we showcase an approach which accepts reports of Near Death Experiences as discourse, and attempts to understand them in their social, cultural, and historical context. Further, we ask what is the relationship between these narratives and contemporary discourse on ‘religion’? Joining Chris Cotter in this podcast is Professor Jens Schlieter, who has admirably addressed these questions and more in his recent book What Is It Like To Be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity, and the Occult (OUP 2018).

In this episode, we discuss definitions of Near Death Experiences, how one might study reports of such experiences from a critical study of religion perspective, how such reports are related to modern societal developments such as ‘secularization’, individualization, and advances in medical science, as well as the impact of ‘religious’ meta-cultures upon these reports and the potential ‘religious’ functions they appear to serve.

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Near-Death Experiences

Podcast with Jens Schlieter (13 April 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/near-death-experiences/

Christopher Cotter (CC): Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, and indeed in society beyond, will be very familiar, I imagine, with the notion of near-death experiences. They’ve become quite a predominant theme in fictional narratives and across the internet. But within academic study there have been two approaches, possibly, to these. One would be to be hyper-medicalised, physiological, psychological – seeing them as phenomena to be explained away. Another approach would be to be seeing them as proof of life beyond, and using them in that sort-of context. But what’s been largely absent, up until now, has been a Critical Religious Studies approach; looking at these narratives in their social and historical context, and what they can tell us about our society and about our lives. Joining me today, to talk about near-death experiences, is Professor Jens Schlieter of the University of Bern. Professor Schlieter studied Philosophy, and Buddhist Studies, and Comparative Religion, in Bonn and Vienna and got his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Bonn. And he has held research positions at the University of Munich and the University of Bonn. He is currently at the University of Bern, where he is Professor for the Systematic Study of Religion and also Co-director for the Institute of Science of Religion. And his publications comprise contributions on methodological and theoretical questions in the study of religion, and Buddhist bioethics, and comparative philosophy. But of particular relevance today is his 2018 book with Oxford University press called, What Is It Like to be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity and the Occult. So first off, Professor Schlieter, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Jens Schlieter (JS): Thank you, Chris, for inviting me here.

CC: It’s wonderful to have you here in Edinburgh on this crisp winter’s day! I could just start off by asking you: what is it like to be dead, Professor Schlieter?! But, although it may be fairly obvious what got you interested – because it is such an inherently tantalising topic – what was it that got you interested in studying and writing about near-death experiences?

JS: The title, of course, is a little bit provocative. But it is, indeed, to be found in the Scriptures on near-death experiences. But I thought of the famous article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel writing an article on “What it is like to be bat?” And he argues that we don’t know, because we usually imagine ourselves hanging in a cave from the top. But we do not know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. And so there is, of course, a very important topic and the whole . . . . People claimed that they were actually dead, but the definition of death . . . usually we would define death as a status of irreversibility. So one cannot come back to life. So there is a paradox there. But on the other hand, these experiences of people very close to death, they must be taken seriously. Because people change their lives. They write large autobiographic narratives in which they define this experience as absolutely life-changing in regard to new spiritual views on themselves, on the soul, on the beyond, etc. So that was my initial interest in the whole. How can people describe something that we usually consider as impossible? Because this standpoint of describing the status after death cannot be taken. But obviously we have these narratives. So what do we do?

CC: Absolutely, and it really comes to the core methodological issue in the study of religion, I suppose, where all we have to go on is discourse, and what people say, and putting indescribable experiences into natural language – in the sense of, whether we’re talking about any experience of the supernatural, it inherently has to be described in language and be articulated in that way. So, yes. It quite nicely captures one of the core issues in the study of religion (5:00). But before we get any further, and you’ve already hinted at it there, but, what is a near-death experience? Just so that we’re all talking from the same page.

JS: Yes. I started by defining the methodological point of view on near-death experiences in the book as, let’s say, historical discourse study. So I looked at who defined near-death experience for the first time. Usually people claim that it was Raymond Moody, an American medical professional, a doctor. And he published a book in 1975, Life after Life, and there he speaks of near-death experiences – near-death experiences in the plural – claiming that he used the category to describe those narratives which he encountered in hospitals by survivors of, for example, heart attack, or nearly-drowned, or something like that. But in my book I can show that the term near-death experience is somewhat earlier used already by John C Lilley, in 1972. And he wrote an autobiography, Centre of the Cyclone. And there he describes, interestingly, a near-death experience on the basis that he himself was close to death, using LSD. And so he had visionary experiences triggered by LSD, but on the other hand he was ill, and administered himself an antibiotics, but obviously something went wrong. And so he was actually really close to death and in an almost comatose-like state And Raymond Moody read the book. But of course, for him, it was rather unsettling that it was an LSD experience. But in the book I can show that the LSD and near-death experiences co-evolved in the 1970s as a discourse. And it is not a new phenomenon. Already in the early nineteenth century people spoke of experiences close to death and what happens there, namely: life-review, out of body experiences – Oh! Here I get back to the question of definition! Sorry . . .

CC: That’s alright!

JS: Near-death experiences usually, in what Raymond Moody first systematised, encompass roundabout 15 different topoi – one may say, from a discourse perspective – namely: to get out of one’s body and to encounter one’s dead body from an elevated perspective, looking down at oneself lying in the bed; then there is the idea expressed that you get into something like a summer land, or paradise; that you encounter heavenly beings, or sometimes they are of help and guide you through the netherworld, sometimes they are frightening; also experiences of encountering other family members and friends who have died already – so after-death experience in the meaning that you enter a space where these are already there; but also a kind-of a barrier; and a heavenly voice – an experience of the presence of God or Jesus. And finally, to get back into the body. So these are elements. And Raymond Moody’s idea was these are usually in a kind-of continuous narrative. So they follow each other because they are a universal experience, mirrored, of course, into the individual backgrounds and so on (10:00). But, in general, he believed they really tell something about the after-death realm, and therefore these are real experiences. For me, of course, this is a metaphysical assumption that I can neither deny nor affirm with my research. And therefore I looked at them only as reports – reports of experiences. So, ok, the word “experience” usually means that you truly encounter something that transforms your point of view, that transforms you, probably totally, if it is a life-changing experience. But one can also say experiences are construed in the aftermath. After surviving the whole thing, people usually will ask themselves, “How did it happen that I personally survived? Why didn’t I die?” And I think these are really questions of meaning, of meaningfulness. And very often, at least in our culture, people tend to think of religion as providing an answer, and therefore looking for an answer why they survived. They had maybe visions – we don’t know because there is no way to figure out if these visions happen the way they say they were. But for them, of course, they are real. And we will never know. But what I can say, at least, in the book . . . . I show with various examples that certain narratives, for example, the one of the life-review – that you remember scenes and things in your early life, in your life unfolding, etc. – and that this life-review actually emerged in the narratives. It is not yet there in medieval reports of near-death experiences – if one can say they are near-death experiences, because usually they are deathbed visions by monks and nuns.

CC: Yes. And indeed you make the point in the book that, until recent decades I suppose, these experiences tended to be narrated by others: people telling of someone else’s experience. Whereas, there was a point at which there was the turn to the individual and the self-narrative. Which I think we’re probably going to get onto fairly shortly. So just before we get there, you’ve already given some hints at your methodology there, and it’s a fairly standard Religious Studies approach in the sense of: regardless of whether there is a reality or not, what we have to go on are people’s accounts of their experiences. And these accounts have impact and social impact. So let’s look at them and treat them at face value and just deal with the content, and the meaning, and etc., etc. Is there anything else that you’d like to sort-of caveat what you’re saying? Like, what was the body of material that you consulted?

JS: Well I thought it would be good to start with personal narratives, not those – as you mentioned – by others, so third-hand evidence. And narratives from a first-person point of view are, of course, very much connected to the emergence of autobiographies, of subjectivity, and usually one of the major figure in this emerging tradition was the French philosopher Montaigne. And he, in his essays, unravels a near-death experience interestingly. And major elements, that were of importance for reporters of near-death experiences that inform Moody, are not yet there. They are simply not there. But then there is Francis Beaufort. He was an admiral with the British navy. And he is the first who really had a classical near-death experience, at the end of the eighteenth century (15:00). He fell into Portsmouth harbour and nearly drowned as a young man. And decades later he reported his experience. And for the first time, we have this life-review phenomenon. So he said, “I could see scenes from my early childhood. Memories that I were not aware of that . . . I had these experiences”. So this is an interesting element in itself. So from the sixteenth century up to 1975, this is what the book covers. I decided not to look at sources from non-European cultures. There is, of course, an extensive discussion about if near-death experiences are purely a Western phenomenon, or if near-death experiences can be seen in Indian, Japanese, Chinese traditions. A very important element that is usually pointed out is the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It has been published by Oxford University Press in 1927, translated by Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz in collaboration with native Tibetan Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup. And they were tremendously successful in popularising these Tibetan thoughts and rituals: what should be done if someone dies? And the idea is to guide them through the netherworld, of course, in the Tibetan context to encounter karmic delusions, and to be very frightened – because the consciousness principle has to navigate through its own complications, and so on. But to give you one example that it is quite important, to look very closely at the reported experiences. People usually say, “Well this is evidence that they are of a universal quality.” If you have Tibetans reporting such experiences in the fourteenth century or so, and modern Western evidence, so it seems to be . . . . But, for example, the idea that there is out-of-body experiences and one looks back at oneself. In the Western tradition it is very much the idea that you face yourself being dead. So the soul, or consciousness, hovering over the body, is interested to look at and to examine the body. Because the body is something foreign. Something that is no longer animated, but still a point of reference in this world etc. Whereas, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, of course, due to the idea of reincarnation etc., the body is of no importance. And we can see that it is much more a social reality in the Tibetan Buddhist account of this moment where the soul, or consciousness – to be more precise, in the Tibetan Buddhist context. So the consciousness principle looks not at its former body, but at the weeping family members, and tries to convince them, “Oh I’m fine. Please, you do not help me if you weep. I can see you, but you obviously can no longer see me. But please, that’s not good for me. Because now I have the task I shall move forward to my next existence.” And best would be, of course, no longer to be reincarnated at all. So at the first sight that seems to be, “Ok, that’s an out of body experience.” But the narrated content is totally different in terms of epistemology, in terms of soteriology, and so on and so forth.

CC: Absolutely. So you started to get into the socio-cultural historic contexts within which near-death narratives are occurring. And much of your book, I guess, is looking at Western contexts as you say. And you do an excellent job of charting some of the contextual factors that might have shaped and led, perhaps, to what you might call an explosion of near-death narratives. So if you can, maybe, tell us about some of these modern societal developments that have gone hand-in-hand with near-death narratives? (20:00)

JS: Yes. I think this is a very important aspect. And I think, so far, there was little interest to look at the correlations. What is astonishing is the fact that, in the 1970s, major developments in the Western medical system were going on. For example, to declare people no longer dead with the criterion of heart failure, and other classical criteria that were used for ages to declare people dead if there is no longer brain activity. And there are, of course, measurements from the EEG etc. But that’s led to the situation that people without a functioning brain were declared dead. But their body was still, let’s say, alive, in a way. And of course it was seen as a major advantage also for transplantation of organs. And many of them can only be used in the body is fully intact. And, of course, with artificial respiration and so on. And the phenomena like coma, and locked -in syndrome, they were described at a new level – more scientifically defined, and so on. But in the general society these developments were considered as extremely unsettling. Because there was now an ambivalence: is someone dead or not dead? Only dead if declared to be dead. And shall we trust the physicians, the doctors in the intensive care unit if they say he or she is dead? Then we accept that? And so that was really unsettling. And on the other hand if, of course, due to circumstances that people were able to survive a certain period of very low brain activity and some of them had visionary accounts or visionary experiences, or let’s say, near-death experiences returning from such a state they said, “Well, in your medical perspective maybe we were that close to death that it was only a second that you may have decided to close the artificial attempts of sustaining my life. But I survived – and not only that, I had certain experiences that are absolutely central for my life that I would like to live from now onwards with different values.”

CC: So yes, I’m just pushing through because of time. But yes, we have those medical developments and, you know, people being sustained longer. And you describe how they move from mostly dying out of the hospital context, and moving into hospital contexts. You’ve got, also, all the different forms of medication which might have hallucinogenic properties, legal or illegal. But then there’s also individualisation within religion, beyond religion: the importance of individual narratives of the self. And then also, I guess, that all ties into a secularisation narrative as well. So you’ve got all of this going on, and then “Easter”, in quotation marks, influences coming in. You’ve already described the Tibetan Book of the Dead. So there’s lot going on, in the sixties and seventies, in terms of just rapid social development in these areas – which understandably facilitates the development and, I guess, dissemination of these near-death narratives. But I’m keen to get to the “religion” word, because we need to on the Religious Studies Project! And towards the end of the book you tackle that head on, and talk about how religious meta-cultures might have influenced and shaped the form and content of these near-death narratives (25:00). And then, also, you talk about the potential, I guess you would say, “religious functions” of the narratives. So maybe you should take us through some of that.

JS: Yes. I think usually, books of reporting individuals themselves, they do not very openly quote sources that inspired them. But if you look more closely at the whole near-death reporting genre, one can see that there are many spiritualists, many who are close to Western esotericism, for example: parapsychological accounts are very often combined with near-death accounts. For example, Eben Alexander who published a very, very successful book. So there are people who are usually in a way religious, and at the same time they are distant in regard to dogmas of established churches. So usually there’s something like this: they were brought up in very religious families, and they had a background of, let’s say, intensive socialisation within a religious tradition. And then they moved on, studied, for example, something on the signs of nature and medicine, or whatever – became more critical towards religion and towards establishment in particular. And then this happens. An event that in which they almost died. And I think it is very plausible to look at the phenomenon with this perspective. At this moment they revive their former emotion and that was inspired and formed by a very religious family life. But of course they are already stuffed with critical rationality. They are distant in regard to unfounded claims of traditional religious tradition. So the individual experience is, from my point of view, a very vital element of this late modern religiosity. And therefore one can say near-death experiences are probably prototypical for the development. People no longer believe that there is, let’s say, a life after death in terms of words traditional – especially of course the Catholic Church had to offer, but they have their individual experiences. And they think this is authentic par excellence. Because it is individual. So, in a way, one can say the whole phenomenon mirrors recent developments in Western societies and, on the other hand, I think they offer a certain kind-of a solution for the whole, because people can still continue to believe. And very often, also, one can see that they have a kind-of missionary attitude. That they really speak very freely on their near-death experiences, even though, very often, they note, “OK, I know that you are sceptical, and this is a materialistic society, and no-one will believe me.” But this is part, again, of the whole authenticity that they feel that they are in.

CC: And, I guess, even someone who was notionally “non-religious” – in scare quotes there – they’re part of a context. And the experience, whatever it is, is felt. And their interpretation will be informed by their context within which . . . . And the context will, I suppose, also influence the experience itself in the first place. Because people bring things to an experience. And then, afterwards, interpret it with the resources that are available to them. And especially once there is such an economy of a near-death experiences, then it’s going to take . . . . (30:00).

JS: Absolutely. Although I think it is rather a rare case in which one will have a near-death experience without ever being introduced to religious thought, rituals, and traditions before. Because I think, indeed, one has to have a certain disposition, and a certain expectancy for things to happen, in such experiences. But nevertheless, as I said at the beginning, if you would imagine yourself in the situation, or someone else in the situation – maybe he was not very religious, but survives a very tragic accident. Maybe other companions in the car died. And then you have the question of contingency – what sociologists always say in regard to religion. So the question of the reduction of contingency, namely: “I could have died here. It didn’t happen. So who saved me?” We usually attribute such survival to a force. We are continuously looking for explanations. We cannot live with no explanation, and simply to say that it was by chance, there was no other force involved at all. And so I would say this way of looking at a situation . . . . And, of course, many suffer from, let’s say, the injuries they have. So they are in hospital, they are alone, they are under medication. I don’t want to simply say that’s an outcome of that. I hope that’s clear that I think the whole is meaningful. It’s not simply to be reduced to such factors. But these factors are, or should be, taken into consideration too. So people alone, thinking at, and on, their lives – probably the question of meaning pops up in their lives for the first time ever. And then they, maybe, “Oh yes, there was a certain kind of light. Was there a being behind the light? Did I see a being? Although I do not believe . . . . But probably it was a being. And haven’t I heard some kind of message?” Because the whole thing, for them, is of course complicated too. They have to remember ecstatic experiences. And they cannot say what they experience the moment they experience that. So they have an epistemological problem, too.

CC: Yes. And again we’re right back to that. But putting sort-of non-falsifiable experience into words, after the event. And going back earlier in the interview, you mentioned earlier Montaigne. I have a tattoo of some words by Montaigne: “Fortis imaginatio generat casum”: a strong imagination creates its own reality.

JS: Yes, yes, absolutely

CC: But yes, there’s a sense, after an experience, one is only going to be able to interpret and articulate . . . . And human memory is an awful thing. Memory . . . like these eyewitness reports in criminal cases will say . . . .

JS: Absolutely.

CC: And these experiences – because they’re so intense, and profound, and are current at traumatic circumstances – they are going to be revisited, and rearticulated, and pondered time and time again. So we can’t say too much about the actual experience itself. But what you’re doing is looking at how people are articulating it, and what are the themes, and how that has impacts. We’re pretty much out of time. But I just wanted to sort-of finish with what might be – again, it’s been implicit throughout the interview – but what would be some of your take-home messages for the study of religion? And from your work with near-death experience? And what do you think others can take and apply, perhaps more broadly, in their own studies in this religion thing that we’re all so obsessed with?!

JS: Well, I think one of the general insights that I would consider central is that extraordinary experiences were, for some years, less studied because people thought, “Well it is a discourse, by religious practitioners, to speak about their extraordinary experiences.” (35:00) But I think there is really something in there that may help also to look at recent developments. For example, these books about near-death experiences – they are incredibly successful. Very often you have them in Amazon ranking lists on places five to three – and for weeks. So there is not only the experience, but also a large audience interested in this experience. So to study this as the phenomenon – as a part of the phenomenon of no-longer-institutionalised religion, but never-the-less as a part of a religious discourse where experience matters. And experience that very often has been only psychologised. And there are a lot of neuroscientific theories that simply say, “Well, it’s a dysfunctional brain that produces such delusions and you cannot take it seriously” And I think this simply a very short-sighted view of the whole. Because people change their whole life after the experience. Although, it would be very important to have a closer look at this phenomenon. This has not yet been researched, from my knowledge: an empirical study, that not only considers that the autobiography may be also an oral narrative of what has happened after the experience is considered, but also to look more closely at families, friends and really to corroborate evidence that it was a life-changing matter.

CC: Absolutely. So there’s on that final note, a potential research project for a Listener, or perhaps that’s your next research project, I don’t know? Well thank you so much, Professor Schlieter, for joining us on the Religious Studies Project. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes down.

JS: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

CC: Good.

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

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Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Disenchanting India

This week, Ella Bock tells us why she thinks you should re-listen to our interview with Johannes Quack on Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Non-religion: “A great listen for better understanding the boundary between religion and non-religion, especially outside of a western context!”

This-Lifers and Afterlifers

A response to “Good Grief? Rituals of World Repairing”

by Douglas Davies

Read more

‘Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing

Toys, Rabbits, and Princess Diana – three things that may not seem at all connected. However, when one starts to question the notion of grief, bereavement, and death in the contemporary West, these three are more connected than appears. In this podcast, Breann Fallon interviews Professor Douglas Ezzy of the University of Tasmania on the power of symbols in creating relationships and world-repairing rituals in the context of grief and death. Ezzy discusses the misjudgments of Durkheim in his assessment of Australian Aboriginal symbols as well as the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit (1922), the death of Princess Diana, and his own interaction with symbols in this original take on grief and death. Here, the notions of ‘good’ grief, the use of ritual in creating ‘good’ grief, and the very notion of ‘religion’ bring to light the active role are able to play in dealing with death.

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

‘Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing

Podcast with Douglas Ezzy (5 March 2018).

Interviewed by Breanne Fallon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Ezzy- Good Grief- Rituals of World Repairing 1.1

 

Breann Fallon (BF): How do we deal with death and grief in our contemporary contexts? Do we avoid talking about death and grief? Is there a possibility for ‘good’ grief? What role do symbols and rituals play in managing bereavement? To talk about this topic, I have with me today Professor Doug Ezzy of the University of Tasmania. He’s editor of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion and President of the Australian Association for the Study of Religion. His research on contemporary religion includes religious diversity, contemporary paganisms, and Christianity. His books include LGBT Christians, with Bronwyn Fielder, Reinventing Church with Helen and James Collins, Sex Death and Witchcraft: Teenage Witches with Helen Berger, and Qualitative Analysis. Thank you very much for joining us today,

Doulas Ezzy (DE): Thank you. It’s pleasure.

BF: To begin, I was hoping you could give us some context for this discussion about death and grieving in the contemporary world. Do we avoid it? Are we focussing on something else instead? What sort of context do you think we’re sitting in?

DE: I guess, for me, the first move to make is I’m struck by the way in which we’re not talking about the grief or the sadness associated with climate change. When I look forward, over the next few decades, they seem to me to be a time of dramatic loss. We’re already experiencing quite profound losses. You can talk about refugees and migration as a consequence of climate change or, more broadly, about species extinction – the rate of species extinction at the moment is extraordinary. And, you know, also the costs associated with the values of neoliberalism. So there’s a whole bunch of things that will lead to dramatic losses and I don’t see many responses, in our contemporary culture, to those things. It seems strange, or odd, or bizarre. Why are all these sad losses happening and we’re not responding to it? They just get noted, maybe. And then we move on. Like, for me – one quite personal one – I’m a Tasmanian, I was born there, I go back generations. For me, I have a profound sense of a relationship with Tasmania as a place. And there was some seaweed along the East Coast of Tasmania – a really large kelp forest that would cover large areas. And in the last few years they’ve gone. And that’s a product of the warming waters. And for me that’s really sad, because I used to swim in them, we used to fish in them. And they’re gone. So there’s this: “How do I make sense of that? How do I respond to that?” And that very personal experience is reflected in so much broader, cultural experience of loss and change that we’re not responding to. So, while I don’t think we’re a death-denying society, which some people sort-of talk about, I do think that there’s something odd going on with the way that we’re not responding to grief and loss.

BF: Right, so, when you say there’s something going on with the way we’re not responding to it, do you think we’re focussing on something else? Success perhaps?

DE: Yes. That’s right. So, I think that we’re part of a culture that has a sort of a “heroic success” mythology. And I think you see that both in religious culture and in business culture and – to a lesser extent – also in medical ways of understanding the self. So, for example, here in Australia, Hillsong is a really big, popular, Pentecostal Church. And my friend and colleague, Helen Collins, did a content analysis of their music. And what she found was that, in Hillsong, they never sing about grief, loss or sadness. The songs of Hillsong are all about love, and joy, and the Power of God leading you to a successful life. If you compare that with the Australian hymnbook, Jesus is there present with you, walking through the valley of death and through your difficult times. So our religious cultures tend to be ones that celebrate success and overcoming and joy. And they are afraid, or shy away from sadness and death and loss. You see the same sort of thing in economic business narratives where you talk about autobiographies, with Mary Burgan’s study of American bestselling autobiographies. And all the men’s stories in those biographies are stories about success. And there’s not much space for ambiguity or loss, or those sorts of things. And also in the business papers it’s all about success and overcoming and achievement. (5:00) So I think, while there are experiences and stories of loss – we still bury people – all those sorts of things are still there, I don’t think we’ve got very many constructive cultural resources for dealing with the experiences of loss that I see coming, that are already here. There’s something strange going on there – the tension between the two.

BF: There seems to be . . . you’re talking about in those business magazines, in particular, sort of a real focus on the “I” and the individual person. And I was wondering if that sort-of played into this?

DE: Yes. Look, there’s broader story there about how we understand ourselves in the “contemporary West” – In inverted commas – that tends to be very individualistic. And I think that, when we look to indigenous cultures; or the Buddhist concept of co-dependent arising; or social theory, like the interactionist tradition; or hermeneutics that talk about a more relational distributed understanding of the self. And so, I think that moving away from the heroic narrative, is also moving towards a more complex understanding of what it means to be human. So for me, my sociology, I can now call it a relational theory of religion. And there’s a whole bunch of people writing about that at the moment. I particularly like Graham Harvey’s Food, Sex and Strangers, but there’s bunch of other people who are trying to think about religion more as a relational practice and achievement, rather than about “individuals who believe”. So, we’ll get on to thinking about that loss and sadness. But certainly, for me, I think we need to think more in that way, and to think about religion in that way. Because, when we think about religion as a relational practice rather than individuals believing, then I think symbols – including symbols of sadness – play a different role. They’re not about individuals believing in a symbol that represents something – which is the sort of modernist and individualistic understanding of religion – rather, I think, about religious symbols as things that draw people into relationships. And so, for me, the interesting thing about how symbols operate in religious practice, is about what relationships they draw people into, rather than what beliefs or objects they represent.

BF: Yes. So do you have a key example of that that you, maybe, wanted to share with us?

DE: So, I could talk about Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, where he does like the churinga is the key ritual object that aboriginal Australians in the  rite that he talks about in The Elementary forms of Religious Life. The churinga is the symbol that he focusses on. And he says that the Aboriginals are mistaken or misguided because the churinga is fabricated, and therefore not real. And he thinks they’re delusional because they believe in the churinga. I think that completely misunderstands what’s going on there, with the churinga, for the Aboriginal. It’s not that they believe in the churinga. It’s that the churinga is an important part of their ritual, that articulates their relationship to the land. And I think Durkheim misunderstands the role of the churinga in the ritual. He says it really represents the tribe. And it probably does represent the tribe. But it articulates the relationship between the individual and the tribe, and the individual and the land. And when we understand symbols as articulating relationships and ethical responsibilities, they make sense. It doesn’t really make sense to say they’re delusional – they’re belief is wrong – because the symbol articulates relationship, so it’s not true or false in that sort-of modernist way. Rather it’s significant, or not significant, because it articulates relationship and draws people into relationships. So that’s how I think about symbols.

BF: You gave another really interesting example this morning. For those of you who are listening, we’re at the Australian Association and New Zealand Association for the Study of Religion Conference at the University of Notre Dame. And, this morning, you talked about The Velveteen Rabbit. And for me, having read the book, it was just a really fabulous example of what you’re talking about.

DE: So my dear friend, Professor Allan Kellehear, wrote a book called Experiences Near Death. And in that book he devotes a whole chapter to The Velveteen Rabbit, which is a children’s story from 1922, by Margery Williams (10:00). And in the story – for those of you who don’t know it – there’s a young boy who has a toy rabbit that he really loves. And the young boy gets scarlet fever and is ill for a number of weeks, and the adults decide that the toy rabbit is infected with germs and needs to be destroyed. And, in the story, rather than the rabbit being destroyed the rabbit becomes real, and goes and lives with the rabbits at the end of the garden. And it’s a beautiful story, because it’s a story about how a symbol – not really a religious symbol in this case, but a symbol – draws the child into a sense of confidence and love. It’s like the rabbit allows the young boy to feel like he’s still loved. And I think that’s really important and interesting. Rather than: does the rabbit really become real? I think that’s the wrong question to ask. You completely misunderstand what’s going on for the child and the relationship. Are we tricking the child? Deluding them with thought police? That’s to misunderstand. The rabbit articulates the confidence that the child will continue to be loved and cared for. And so, when you see the rabbit in that way, the idea that the rabbit becomes real is a story that draws the child into living more confidently and hopefully in the world. So the symbol operates to draw people into relationships. And I think that’s how symbols operate.

BF: Yes. I think that it’s a really amazing example of what you’re talking about in this idea of the rabbit being part of . . . I think the words you used were “world-repairing”

DE: Yes

BF: Were they the words you used?

DE: Yes. So, I think the idea of world-repairing . . .  I’m still trying to think through exactly what that means. Because, I think symbols’ subjunctive, if you like, which is the concept that Seligman and his associates, in Ritual and Its Consequences – they talk about the way in which religion has a subjunctive aspect to it. And I think symbols can be thought of that way, in the sense that they create an “as if”, and by performing and relating to them in that way they draw you into possible worlds. So, if you think of somebody whose parent dies, for example, the ritual and the symbol of believing in the afterlife, burying them in the earth – or whatever it is – is world-repairing in the sense that it allows you to live with that grief and loss. The grief and loss is still sad and still hurts, but it’s bearable somehow. And I think symbols operate to work with our emotions, with those parts of ourselves that it’s really hard to articulate. Because we’re not all cognitive and rational. We can’t always explain things, and what we believe. There are emotions, there are experiences that are powerful, that shape us in really important ways. And the way we work with them is symbolically, not necessarily cognitively. Yes, I mean you can go to therapy. And for some people that works. Great. But other people, we need symbols that allow us to work with those parts of our lives that we find it hard to articulate. So, the example that I gave in my talk was: I showed a picture of a toy rabbit that was given to my son when he was born. And the toy rabbit, for me . . . . It’s sat there on my bedside table now for abut ten years. My daughter created a little bed in a cardboard box. And the toy rabbit, for me, articulates or symbolizes my relationship with my children. I only really realised this when I wrote this paper. I’d been thinking about this rabbit and thinking, “Oh it’s just a toy, I’ll get rid of it.” But actually, no. It’s important to me. Reflecting on it, it articulates a bunch of things about the way that I relate to my children. So it’s important to me. So I think rabbits and toys, religious symbols, crosses or Buddhas – or whatever they are – they help us. The trick here . . . . There’s an awkward tension between what might sound like a moral project and what is a descriptive project. Because religion is a moral act. And if religion is a moral act, then I’m not necessarily saying “I think you should do . . .” I’m not making moral claims here. What I’m trying to do is describe what I see as a moral practice within religion. And I think religion, and religious symbols, articulate the possible (15:00). And when we don’t do that, that creates certain sorts of problems for us. If we don’t articulate the positive possible worlds, then we get drawn into angry or despairing or frustrating possible worlds.

BF: You gave some sort-of interesting examples to help us think about this, this morning. The one that really struck me – as somebody who didn’t live though it – was Diana’s death. Because I’ve never really understood the fascination with that, because I wasn’t alive. So, for me, that one has always been something I’ve never been able to understand – until you talked about it this morning. And the process of that grieving sort-of started to make a bit more sense to me.

DE: Oh good. Why did it make sense, can I ask?

BF: I think, for me, it was what you said about . . . you know, there’s that image with all the flowers in front of . . . I think it’s Kensington Palace. And just the act of laying the flowers. Those people didn’t really know Diana, but then they’ve gone to do that. And that act of . . . . They never knew her, but the act of laying the flowers would have made them – as you said – deal with that. And there’s kind of sense to it.

DE: Yes, so there’s whole literature on Diana and whether she was a goddess, or a false goddess. And there’s all sorts of critiques of her as a problematic representation of femininity, and that sort of stuff. But for a lot of people, the laying of the flowers, or the remembering of Diana . . . Diana becomes a symbol of their own experience of grief, or their own experience of loss of someone they’ve loved, or the way that they understand themselves as a woman. And so the practice allows themselves to articulate a really important experience of grief. Sometimes it has good outcomes, sometimes it has problematic aspects to it. But I think, for people who study religion, it’s really important to understand symbol as something that operates to articulate relationships and helps people articulate emotions, as well. I think it’s really interesting.

BF: Yes. I think it’s really fascinating, this idea of the ritual. There may be some people out there who kind-of have a problem with focussing so much on actions and not thought. Is there anything you want to say to them?

DE: Look, I don’t want to say beliefs are irrelevant. I think, for some people, beliefs clearly operate in really important and powerful ways – particularly in some forms of Protestant traditions, but also in other religious traditions. But I think the focus on belief often misunderstands a lot of what religious people do. Their religions become important because of the way they fit into our lives – the practices and the symbols and the rituals allow us to find ourselves, to build relationships. And the beliefs are sort-of secondary, or part of what’s going on, but they’re not primary. So I think this idea of religion as believing in something and then “perform”, misunderstands what’s going on.  I think that we find ourselves in relationships, we work out etiquettes and ways of relating to each other, and they’re articulated by symbols. And then we articulate beliefs and their legal frameworks, on top, that justify what we’re doing. So that’s the way that I’d see them.

BF: Yes. And I think you’ve given us so much to think about in terms of how we understand religion, and particularly in a modern context. The thing that really came up, to me, when you were talking this morning, was the idea of sort-of avoiding death by social media. Like keeping a person’s Facebook profile going after they die. This sort-of really complex way that we deal death in a modern context.

DE: Indeed.

BF: We’ve run out of time. So is there anything you wanted to just finish off with?

DE: Um. No. Thank you very much for the opportunity. And it’s been great.

BF: Thank you so much for talking to us today.

Citation Info: Ezzy, Douglas and Breann Fallon. 2018. “’Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 March 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/good-grief-rituals-of-world-repairing/

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

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

Death, Music, and Ritual: Contemporary Requiems in the Commemoration of Death and Violence

Apparently, the only two certain things in life are death and taxes. In terms of the former, the requiem has held its grip up until contemporary times. While popular requiems, such as those composed by Mozart and Rutter are still performed, newly composed requiems, or requiem-like pieces are growing in popularity in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe. These requiems make use of previously employed lyrics and composition techniques, but some also rework these elements or leaving them behind entirely. From Mozart, to hip-hop, to haiku, contemporary music for the commemoration of death is variegated in its composition. In this interview, Breann Fallon discusses contemporary requiems with Associate Professor M.J.M. Hoondert of Tilburg University while at the 2016 European Association for the Study of Religions conference in Helsinki. Hoondert highlights the variety of contemporary requiems, noting their different styles, imagery, and convergences, but also the intended affect of the works. In particular, Hoondert discusses the step away from the liturgy associated with requiems as way for today’s individual to deal with death or violence in their own way. Still, it is clear that the ritual elements of the requiem remains, hence where this contemporary music fits into the sacral landscape is up for debate.

Also, be sure to check out DEATH, Religion, and Terror Management Theory with Jonathan Jong

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

DEATH, Religion, and Terror Management Theory

DeathfullOne year before his own death in 1790, Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to the French scientist Jean-Baptiste, codified a witty remark into popular history about two things anyone living can always count on: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” You might be able to dodge the taxman, but not death—we are all going to die. Roughly 100,000 years prior to Franklin’s quote the first evidence of intentional human burial appears in the archaeological record (Mithen, 2009). Humans have been thinking about death for a very long time and the threat of nonexistence can be a terrifying reality to face. According to terror management theory (TMT), cultural worldviews, which can manifest religious, political, or a bricolage of other meanings, serve to assuage this fear of our ever impending demise (Jong & Halberstadt, forthcoming). Interestingly, this TMT triage care for the existential self occurs outside of conscious awareness. However, in this podcast interview with Thomas Coleman for the Religious Studies Project, death researcher and psychologist Dr. Jonathan Jong, draws on experimental research as he teases the fear of death and the religious worldviews that may help confront this fear, into your conscious awareness.

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

References

Jong, J., & Halberstadt, J. (forthcoming). Death, anxiety, and religious belief. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.

Mithen, S. (2009). Peopling the World. In B. Cunliffe, C. Gosden & R. Joyce, The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology (pp. 281-304). New York: Oxford University Press.

Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Nonreligion

It is an unfortunate fact that in popular ‘Western’ imagination, the land of India is frequently orientalised, and naively conceptualized as ‘the quintessential land of religion, spirituality, and miracles.’ Although we would certainly not want to completely invert this stereotype by substituting one unnuanced and inaccurate construct for another, what happens when we take a closer look at a constituency who challenge this narrative, those who identify as ‘rationalists’ and engage in the criticism of ‘religion’ in India? One scholar who has done just that is Johannes Quack in his book Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India, published by Oxford in 2012. In this podcast, we discuss Johannes’ ‘relational’ approach to ‘nonreligion,’ before moving to concrete examples from his work in India.

What is a ‘relational approach’ to nonreligion? What does it achieve? What are some of the key characteristics of organized rationalism in India? What does all of this have to do with ‘religion’, ‘non-religion’, ‘atheism’ etc? What does this in-depth ethnographic work in this very particular context contribute to wider academic debates within the study of nonreligion, and religion more broadly?

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

Halloween Special: Religion’s Role in Terror Management Theory

mm2 When confronted with mortality, humans face the possibility of experiencing a significant amount of terror. Interestingly, many times, people are able to avoid this terror and actually enjoy the mortality themes that are presented. Consider the horror movie industry. To illustrate, Paranormal Activity (Blum & Peli, 2007) brought in $19,617,650 on its opening weekend alone (IMDB, n.d.). Further, consider the timeless horror classics such as Friday the 13th (Geiler & Cunningham, 1980) and Halloween (Hill & Carpenter, 1978) that are full of themes of death. Why do we enjoy these anxiety provoking situations? Research into Terror Management Theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Rosenblatt, Veeder, Kirkland, & Lyon, 1990; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991) suggests a possible explanation for this perplexing phenomenon. Humans engage in several cultural worldview defense mechanisms when cognizant of their own mortality in order to shield against the terror that is associated with it. More specifically, people observe their worldviews more strongly in order to give themselves a degree of self-purpose to combat the adverse effects that thoughts of their own mortality have on their well-being (Solomon et al., 1991). Further, religion has been found to be a strong buffer for death anxiety because it not only gives people the self-purpose inherent in successful death awareness coping, but it also gives followers a literal immortality in an afterlife (Bos et al, 2012). The following paper describes the role that religion plays in TMT and provides a possible explanation as to why it is able to buffer anxiety.

TMT Overview

Research into TMT is based primarily on the works of Ernest Becker (1962; 1973; 1975) in which a need for self-esteem allows us to think in self-reflective, symbolic, and temporal thought. Although this is evolutionarily adaptive, it also causes several problems associated with this type of thought. For example, humans have the ability to contemplate their purpose in life and reason for existing. Also, people can surmise that the world is an uncontrollable place and that we could cease to exist at any time. More specifically, we can anticipate that we will ultimately die.

In order to shield against the terror that is associated with this idea of the world, humans began to develop a sense of culture that allowed us to see the world as a predictable place of permanence and order. Each culture also provides a way to surmise the creation of this “just” world and a way to achieve immortality by living a life that is good and meaningful. This suggests the importance for self-esteem. Being cultural animals, we can assign a value to ourselves based primarily on whether or not we satisfy the cultural requirements for being good. By increasing our self-esteem, we believe that we are living a meaningful life that is deemed culturally good. Due to this, we can ultimately “deny” mortality and the terror that is associated with it. The denial of this mortality allows us to deny our creatureliness and further allows us to separate ourselves from the social animals that do not possess culture. By believing that we are good, we diminish terror and gain a degree of immortality because we live in a just world (Greenberg et al., 1986).

Religion’s fulfillment of TMT

It is important to note that when discussing religion’s role in TMT, most research has been conducted on Christianity and will thus be the primary subject of the current paper. Of the different worldview defense mechanisms, religion has been found to be very effective in mitigating the death anxiety that mortality salience evokes. When faced with their own mortality, religious people rely on teachings from their faith in order to buffet the negative aspects associated with the perception of death (Bos et al., 2012). For instance, consider the Biblical teachings paramount to Christianity. According to Romans 13:1 (New Revised Standard Version), God is in control of every aspect of life. Considering that God is viewed as a “just God” (2 Thessalonians 1:6, New Revised Standard Version), death anxiety can be mitigated by believing that God is in control of every aspect of life. So long as one believes in God and asks his forgiveness (John 3:16, New Revised Standard Version), the teachings suggest that there is no need to worry about invoking God’s wrath. TMT research corroborates this conjecture. Because the world and God are viewed as just, believers do not worry that they will be punished and therefore gain a figurative degree of symbolic immortality so long as they follow and uphold these beliefs (Greenberg et al., 1986; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, & Schimel, 2004).

5671121397_bc52022026_zPossibly the strongest defense against death anxiety as it relates to religion is the concept of an afterlife. When faced with thoughts of death, religion gives people an alternative to the terror that is associated with nonexistence after death (Pyszczynski et al., 2004). When considering Christianity, Heaven is considered to be a wonderful place where “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” and beautiful “as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2 – 6, New Revised Standard Version). Further, by following the teachings of Christianity, any believer can be part of this kingdom after they have died. Considering that the primary reason that death anxiety manifests is due to the fear of nonexistence (Greenberg et al., 1986), this literal afterlife should successfully mitigate this anxiety. The concept of Heaven allows believers to have a place where they will exist and be rewarded for their good behavior and belief after they have died, ultimately alleviating death anxiety.

One additional consideration regarding religion’s role in TMT is that of belonging. Symbolic immortality can be achieved by being part of something that is perceived as larger than oneself. Simply by identifying with a religion, people are shielded from some of the anxiety associated with death awareness (Pyszczynski et al., 2004). Generally, this sense of belonging is achieved through adherence to the religious tenets suggesting additional importance in following the religious beliefs in order to better shield against death anxiety (Dechesne, Pyszczynski, Arndt, Ransom, Sheldon, van Knippenberg, & Janssen, 2003).

Religious Reinforcement

As has been suggested, religious adherence is a successful method to mitigate death anxiety. Early research in TMT suggests that people react positively when others uphold their cultural worldviews and react negatively when they are violated. Further, this behavior reinforces the person’s worldview belief. Any person or belief that goes against these worldviews are considered a hazard to the belief’s validity and are reacted against negatively (Rosenblatt et al., 1989). Subsequent research on TMT and religion provides increased support for this finding. Christians have been found to react strongly against people and beliefs that go against the basic tenets of the religion. More specifically, they react very defensively against alternate worldviews. This has been postulated to be due to the importance that this religion plays in self-identification (Bos et al., 2012). Due to these defenses, Christians and people in general are more likely to react with hostility to people that hold different worldviews (Greenberg et al., 1990).

Conclusion

In regards to TMT, religion can be used to successfully mitigate the anxiety that is associated with death awareness. Primarily, adherence to the tenets of religion allows the believer to achieve both a symbolic and literal immortality (Bos et al., 2012). This dual function of religion may give one possible explanation as to why some religions are more widespread than others. Perhaps the larger religions provide more anxiety buffering defenses than do the smaller ones by providing more prominent tenets to follow and a more believable afterlife.

References

  • Becker, E. (1962). The birth and death of meaning. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Becker, E. (1975). Escape from evil. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Bos, K., Doosje, B., Loseman, A., Laarhoven, D., Veldhuizen, T., & Veldman, J. (2012). On shielding from death as an important but malleable motive of worldview defense: Christian versus Muslim beliefs modulating the self-threat of mortality salience. Social Cognition, 30(6), 778–802.
  • Blum, J. (Producer), & Peli, O. (Director). (2007). Paranormal Activity [Motion Picture]. United States of America: Paramount Pictures
  • Dechesne, M., Pyszczynski, T., Arndt, J., Ransom, S., Sheldon, K., van Knippenberg, A., & Janssen, J. (2003). Literal and symbolic immortality: The effect of evidence of literal immortalityon self-esteem striving in response to mortality salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 722-737.
  • Geiler, A. (Producer), & Cunningham, N. (Director). (1980). Friday the 13th. United States of America: Paramount Pictures.
  • Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In R.F. Baumeister (Ed.) Public Self and Private Self (p. 189 – 212). New York, New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., & Lyon, D. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(2), 308-318.
  • Hill, D. (Producer), & Carpenter, J. (Director). (1978). Halloween. United States: Compass International Pictures.
  • IMDB (n.d.). Paranormal Activity Box Office. Retrieved October 11, 2014. Retrieved from
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  • Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., and Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 435-468.
  • Rosenblatt, A., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Lyon, D. (1989). Evidence for terror management theory: I. The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who violate or uphold cultural values. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(4), 681-690.
  • Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T (1991). A terror management theory of social behavior: The psychological functions of self-esteem and cultural worldviews. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 93-159.