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Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond: Part 2

In October, RSP interviewer Paulina Kolata was able to sit down with Professor Ian Reader to discuss his publication ‘Pilgrimage in the Marketplace’ (October 2013), which explores the very ‘worldly’ conditions of development, popularisation, and ultimately, survival of pilgrimage centres in connection to the dynamics of the marketplace through which the ‘sacred’ as a category can be sustained. In this interview, Ian offers an insight into the meaning of pilgrimage, particularly in the Japanese context, and discusses the competitiveness of the pilgrimage market, the practice’s connection to tourism, playfulness of religion, and the survival of pilgrimage practice. After a fascinating conversation and a couple of cups of coffee later, we hope that listeners will enjoy this podcast as much as Paula and Ian enjoyed recording it, and we look forward to your discussions.

For ease of listening, we decided to split this week’s interview into two parts. For full podcast notes, and the first part, please click here. Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Eoin O’Mahony on “Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland“, and Alex Norman on “Spiritual Tourism“.

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

Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond: Part 1

The practice of pilgrimage is generally held to be a core feature of religious traditions. Pilgrimage developed as a practice available to only a few. The danger of the road, the cost of travel, and restrictions of class and feudal systems made it impossible for the common people to travel to remote sacred places. Similar to the situation in Early Medieval Europe (Sumption 1975: 11-12), political instability in pre-Tokugawa Japan (pre-1603) and an overall hostility to travelling strangers discouraged even some willing pilgrims from visiting many famous sites.  Whether it was wandering Buddhist monks circuiting Medieval Japan and performing healing rituals or Heian-aristocracy visiting Buddhist sites famous for their wish-granting powers, the practice of pilgrimage, and the special benevolence of the deities that went along with it, was reserved for a handful of people who had time and wealth to spare in order to afford the travel and to secure their safety on the dangerous routes.

Since then, pilgrimage has undergone a number of transitions that have shaped and redefined the way it is practiced and perceived. Various socio-economic and political changes, as well as technological developments, the establishment of modern tourism, and the expansion of the media have changed the way individuals ‘do’ pilgrimage, and shaped scholars’ understandings of modern religious travel, facilitating the transition of pilgrimage from obscure ascetic practice to widely popular touristic activity.

The element of journey, the importance of material culture, the role of media and technology, as well as the commercialisation of the practice of pilgrimage are dictate the conditions of survival and the popularity of pilgrimage today. Pilgrimage is a vivid representation of the way religion interacts with tourism, as we have seen before in our interview with Alex Norman on ‘Spiritual Tourism’. However, the exposure of pilgrimage practice to the influences of tourism and commodification does not necessarily diminish the ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ character of the practice. The utilization of the technological advancements of ‘this world’ is an important element in the survival of pilgrimage in Japan and elsewhere, helping it to become a kind of religious ‘pop culture’.

Within Religious Studies, discussion has rarely focused on the so-called this-worldliness of pilgrimage. Yet,  in October, RSP interviewer Paulina Kolata was able to sit down with Professor Ian Reader to discuss his publication ‘Pilgrimage in the Marketplace’ (October 2013), which explores the very ‘worldly’ conditions of development, popularisation, and ultimately, survival of pilgrimage centres in connection to the dynamics of the marketplace through which the ‘sacred’ as a category can be sustained. In this interview, Ian offers an insight into the meaning of pilgrimage, particularly in the Japanese context, and discusses the competitiveness of the pilgrimage market, the practice’s connection to tourism, playfulness of religion, and the survival of pilgrimage practice. After a fascinating conversation and a couple of cups of coffee later, we hope that listeners will enjoy this podcast as much as Paula and Ian enjoyed recording it, and we look forward to your discussions.

For ease of listening, we decided to split this interview into two parts. The second part is available below, or at this link, where it was originally published.

 

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Eoin O’Mahony on “Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland“, and Alex Norman on “Spiritual Tourism“.

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

References/Further Reading

  • Reader, Ian (2013) Pilgrimage in the Marketplace. New York and London: Routledge
  • Reader, Ian. and Swanson, Paul (1997) “Editors’ Introduction: Pilgrimage in the Japanese Religious Tradition”, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1997 24/3-4 pp.225-270
  • Sumption, Jonathan. (1975) Pilgrimage: an image of medieval religion. London: Faber & Faber

Now We Know Religion is Not Disappearing

Postsecular, like postmodern, is a title applied to phenomena in society that do not seem fit into an earlier paradigm and has thus been named post-something because it perhaps is not yet visible what comes next. It is an end of an era but also a shift towards another and has the academic world digging out all the blind spots of the earlier theories, suddenly noticing a variety of things that weren’t perceived before. The secularisation theories saw traditional institutionalised religion slowly disappearing: less people in churches, less belief in God and more non-Christians answering surveys. When the shift arrived this time, it was noted that religion is not disappearing. Secularisation was defined in less all-inclusive ways – or even as a minority phenomenon of the educated elite, as Peter Berger saw it (eg. Berger: 2002: p. 291–294.) – and new theories appeared. Only, now the question became ‘how is religion changing’ instead of ‘how is religion disappearing’.

Gray mentions 9/11 as an example of how religiosity has become very visible in the political sphere. Another, less grim, example is the various new religious movements that seek to establish a presence in politics through challenging the hegemony of traditional churches in a very peculiar way. I am referring especially to the Pastafarians in Europe and the US, the Kopimists in Sweden, and the Satanists in Oklahoma. These groups have very different religious views, but what they have in common is that they were born after the World Wars and have received some attention in the media due to their critique of the social definition of religion. I do not want to entirely omit all the pagan and other movements that have a similar agenda, but what I see as a connection between these three examples are their recent public campaigns seeking legitimation through invoking laws on religious equality.

Whether you are a Pastafarian demanding to wear a colander for your driver’s license or wearing it while taking your oath of office, a Kopimist seeking to register your religious community sacralizing file sharing on the Internet, or a Satanist wishing to publicly announce the love of Baphomet or to have your kids in school taught the Satanist way, the officials and courts of several countries have had to deal with your religious interpretations. Making claims for religious equality while maintaining close connections between the state and the Christian Churches has long been a point of cultural critique, especially in Europe (Eg. Martin: 2010). These movements, mentioned above, have put this message into action. For instance, Pastafarianism was born as a critique of the teaching of intelligent design in schools in Kansas. These movements have pretty much everything imaginable it takes to be a religion: holy books such as The Satanic Bible or the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster; rituals and holy days such as the sharing of files for Kopimists, a Kopimist wedding, Satanic baptism, wedding and funeral, Pastafarian Talk Like a Pirate Day and Ramedan; and of course religious symbols.

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Spageti

 

Because religions are defined in books of law and scholars of religion have found many ways to classify religion (eg. Ninian Smart’s Seven Dimensions of Religion) – none of which is explicit enough to include everything ‘commonly considered as religious’ and to exclude everything ‘not commonly considered as religious’ – these definitions can be used by the people to create their own sets of belief systems, to venerate their ideals, and to celebrate worldviews separate from the institutionalised churches that seem to have been the main focus of many theorists of religion. This focus on a specific type of religion was indeed one of the factors which gave rise to the secularisation theories.

Now, one may argue that some of the movements mentioned above have been created to celebrate secularisation and rationalisation of the world and merely to mock religiosity. However, it is not uncommon for such a ‘parody’ or critique to become more than just a joke. The Pastafarians in Poland and Finland have sought to be registered as a religious community. Both attempts, so far, having been declined. However, the Polish Pastafarians have had some more positive rulings from the Polish courts on the way, and both groups keep on fighting for recognition. The Kopimist community is registered as a religious community in Sweden, and the Satanists were organised as The Church of Satan already in the 1960’s. I believe the level of commitment has to be strong to some extent for a community to seek an official status as a religious community and to apply for bureaucratic legitimacy for their movement.

I am hesitant to use terms such as ‘serious’ or ‘meaningful’ in this context because of their vague connotations as definitive adjectives for religious practice. What is ‘serious’ or ‘meaningful’ religiosity? Is belonging without believing ‘meaningful’ and how does it differ from, for example, Pastafarian belonging? Is the Jewish holiday of Purim ‘serious’? Does the carnival atmosphere of it make Judaism less of a religion? I, myself, have been studying Discordianism, which is a very interesting example of how a group with critical or satirical origins can create profoundly life changing ideas, which could be viewed as religious or spiritual for even the creators of the movement (Mäkelä & Petsche: 2013).

No matter how we classify the movements stated above, their claims for religious rights within society (even a community of Finnish Discordians have their registration application on it’s way) show a certain meaning behind the rhetorics of religious equality. As Gray mentions in the podcast, postsecularism is in many ways about dealing with everyone: the religious, the atheists, the agnostics, and all the religious identities in between. It is not about trying to force religious speech into politics or trying to force it out of the public domain, like the secular discourse in many ways tried, it is about dealing with the fact that now we know religion is not disappearing.

References

Peter Berger: ‘Secularization and De-Secularization’ in Religions in the Modern World, ed. Linda Woodhead. 2002. Routledge, London.

Craig Martin: Masking Hegemony. 2010. Equinox, London.

Ninian Smart: The World’s Religions. 1989. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Mäkelä & Petsche: ‘Serious Parody: Discordianism as Liquid Religion’ in Culture and Religion Journal Vol.14 Issue 4. 2013. Taylor & Francis Group.

The Postsecular

In his 2011 Presidential Address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Milwaukee, James Beckford focused upon a contested term that has grown in prominence in recent years in the social scientific study of religion – the notion of the ‘postsecular’. In this address – published in the JSSR in 2012, Beckford noted a number of problems associated with the concept.

First, there is enormous variety in the meanings attributed to the ‘postsecular’, and there are many tensions between these meanings. Second, ‘the variety of meanings attributed to “postsecularity” is partly a function of the unusually wide range of intellectual disciplines and fields with an interest in it’. However, Beckford is keen to emphasise that this breadth of disciplinary interest does not imply that there actually is such a phenomenon as ‘postsecularity’. Third, ‘the orientation of many writings about the postsecular is normative and speculative’. (2012, 12-13)

With these issues in mind, Chris took some time to speak solely on this contested topic with Kevin W. Gray while in Belfast for the ESA Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference in September. Discussion focuses upon the history of the term, potential definitions, disciplinary and geographical differences, and ultimately suggests that ‘postsecularity’ is effectively dressing up ‘secularity’ in obfuscating clothing.

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

 

References

  • Beckford, James A. 2012. “SSSR Presidential Address Public Religions and the Postsecular: Critical Reflections.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51 (1): 1–19. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01625.x.

The Invention of the Emerging Church Movement

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Social scientists frequently employ contested categories or concepts (Beckford 2003, 13) in the description and analysis of ethnographic data. In other words, a conceptual gap often exists between emic self-description and etic secondary formulation. Informants don’t always acknowledge or accept scholarly terms and definitions. Using Gladys Ganiel’s recent and informative interview as a springboard which with to address her and sociologist Gerardo Marti’s book, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emergence Christianity (OUP 2014), the following response considers such a conceptual gap by briefly exploring the politics of secondary appropriation, i.e., the implementing of first-order terms for second-order purposes. Before weighing the implications of informant resistance to secondary definitional work, however, it might help to consider what exactly terms like “The Emerging Church Movement” (ECM) and its terminological correlates (e.g., emerging, emergence, or emergent) intend to describe.

According to one of Marti and Ganiel’s informants, the ECM is “Christianity for people who don’t like Christianity” (7). The movement—assuming for a moment that it constitutes such an entity—arose in the 1990s in a series of critiques of popular evangelical subcultures, ecclesiology, and theology. Marti and Ganiel define Emerging Christians as a particular group “sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction” and characterize the ECM as “an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization” (25-26). Other social scientists have qualified the phenomena as consisting of (post- or quasi-) evangelical discontents who, experiencing a “severe disenchantment” with broader evangelicalism, engage in a particularly intentional movement of religio-cultural critique (Bielo 2011, 5-6), or as a do-it-yourself, postmodern, inclusive, grassroots, anti-institutional force (Packard 2012). Individuals engaging in these conversations of inevitably structuring, institutional resistance to institution itself often describe themselves as undergoing processes of de-churching (i.e., as de-churched; Packard 2012) or de-conversion (Bielo 2011). Much more might be said about the people who identify through non- or anti-identification maneuvers along these lines. But what I find especially interesting is the secondary, scholarly work that goes into proposing an authoritative definition and subsequent definitional criteria and then determining, via elaborated definitional grids, who counts as part of the proposed order.

Marti and Ganiel, to be sure, are well aware of the issues involved in the positing and defending of secondary taxonomies. “In attempting a social scientific analysis,” the authors clarify early in the introduction to The Deconstructed Church, “we acknowledge that we focus on a set of groups that resist definition.” Such resistance, they continue, is at times even “passionate and obsessive” (5). Few dialogical insiders, further, are willing to define whatever it is that the moniker “ECM” attempts to delineate, as its diverse constituents embrace irony and contradiction and lack “systematic coherence” (5). In fact, “avoiding labels is part of avoiding stigma” and even socio-cultural identities based in rejection of labels might indeed constitute a group identity if enough persons coalesce within and around a similar critical stance. All of this strategic secondary work of naming and defining seems justified, at least to a point. I’d argue, recalling Jonathan Z. Smith, that the job of the scholar is to produce and defend illustrative, second-order, taxonomic terms; classifying for reasons of elucidation and illumination is at the heart of the academic and religious studies endeavor (Smith 1982).

But regardless of the ECM’s amorphous and messy self-descriptions, such ambiguity does not dissuade Marti and Ganiel from formulating a definition. Instead, “rather than noting its ‘anti-institutional’ orientation and succumbing to a hopeless lack of definition,” the scholars delineate not only a definition but a multiple-part characterization of (or criteria list for) the entity (for lists of qualifying attributes or characteristics, see Marti and Ganiel 2014, 29-30; Packard 2012, 7-10, 145-165; Bielo 2011, 10-16). The ECM, then, as a nebulous “congregational movement” (55-56), mostly resists insider definitional clarification even though, as Bielo demonstrates, “The Emerging Church” label itself has emic—not etic—origins. Even though social scientists employ the term, Bielo considers its dubiousness. “The [‘Emerging Church’] label itself is increasingly of little interest to adherents as a meaningful self-identifier,” he writes, “but the movement it was intended to capture continues to thrive” (2011, 5). Here we witness the categorical resistance followed abruptly by a deliberate scholarly adoption or appropriation of the term. Bielo’s strategy, along with those of social scientists to follow, is a secondary maneuver; theological terms become academically productive and useful as they move from native to exterior domains.

Late-modern informants well versed in post-modern, anti-essentialist philosophy and post-colonial theologies don’t often like labels. Ascribing to a particular category is not simply a theological choice made in some imaginary free market arena of American spirituality; self-identifying is a politically laden and significant act, a tactic that requires potential constituents to make close consideration of the implications that aligning with a certain collective will have (and especially a non-traditional, boundary pushing, and theologically suspect one, according to some sectors of evangelicalism). With the use of secondary terms such as emergence Christianity or even “the ECM” we witness emic rejection but subsequent etic adoption, a veritable domain switch in a terminological sense.

“Invention,” a word I used in the title of this response, is surely too strong of an action word to use in this case. But the ECM is nonetheless a thoroughly problematic category. Not many people, if we take the existing works on the phenomenon as standard, self-identify with or see as meaningful proposed (i.e., adopted/adapted) scholarly descriptive terms. But Marti and Ganiel have given us one of the most important analyses to date of a set of events and developments we might at least provisionally agree to categorize under the heading(s) in question. Personally, however, I find questions of terminological genealogy most interesting. Why emerging or emergent church or emergence Christianity as classifications and not, say, post-evangelical or missional as ones? (I wonder if most scholars might agree that the application of entirely generic, social scientific terms, in place of emically derived ones, would prove an unproductive exercise. Don’t our informants need to recognize themselves in the works about them we produce?) In the staking out of what terms denote—academically, secondarily—Ganiel and Marti’s book is a helpful example of the ways scholars and collaborators mete out meaning, in a quasi-collaborative sense, through words, labels, titles, and terminologies in a relational, dialogical, even circular, fashion. No, “invention,” then, is too simple a qualification. We might amend the title of this response, more appropriately, to something like “The Invention of the Emerging Church Movement as a Productive Scholarly Taxon.”

[An extended version of this post can be found at the author’s blog site.]

Works Referenced

 Beckford, James A. 2003. Social Theory and Religion. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bielo, James S. 2011. Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity. New York University Press.

Douglas, Mary. 1980 [1966]. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Marti, Gerardo and Gladys Ganiel. 2014. The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Packard, Josh. 2012. The Emerging Church: Religion at the Margins. Boulder, CO: First Forum Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. The University of Chicago Press.

The Emerging Church

What do you get when you mix a dash of pub culture, a splash of irreverence, a healthy dose of conversation, a smattering of postmodernist critique, a drizzle of discourse on problematic concepts such as ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’, and a host of other eclectic and idiosyncratic ingredients to taste? Depending upon the measures, one possible outcome could be an ideal-typical podcast from your friends at The Religious Studies Project. Prepare in a slightly different manner and your culinary exploits could produce a manifestation of the Emerging Church. However, in the case of the latter, similar results might be obtained from a completely different set of ingredients.

The Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is notoriously difficult to define. What are scholars of ‘religion’ to do with a trend seemingly emerging both within and without many contemporary manifestations of (Western) Christianity, that is both anti-institutional and ecumenical, aims to avoid hierarchies and power structures, embraces creativity, deconstruction and experimentation, and actively promotes a ‘neutral’ and ‘non-judgmental religious space’ where almost anything goes? In this week’s podcast, Chris is joined by Dr Gladys Ganiel to discuss this ‘problematic’, important and boundary-pushing phenomenon.

In The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford, 2014), Ganiel and co-author Gerardo Marti write:

“We define Emerging Christians in terms of sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction. We characterize the ECM as an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization. As such, the ECM is best seen as a mix of both reactive and proactive elements, vying for the passion and attention of Christians and nonbelievers. Emerging Christians react primarily against conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism but also against other forms of traditional Christianity that they have experienced as inauthentic. At the same time, they proactively appropriate practices from a range of Christian traditions […] to nourish their individual spirituality and to enhance their life together as communities.” (25-26)

What is it that makes this movement ‘Christian’? What does it do to traditional understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘secularization’? How does one research such a seemingly diffuse and unbounded phenomenon? Is it only a matter of time before this movement undergoes a process of systematization? These questions and more form the basis of a discussion which took place in May 2014, at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin in Belfast, a couple of days after the 3rd Annual Conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion.

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

 

Religion and memory

The RSP interview with Alexandra Grieser established some useful connections between the study of religion and the study of memory. Probably the most helpful aspect of this relationship is methodological, namely teasing out ways in which the concepts of ‘religion’ and ‘memory’ may be brought into contact, thus opening new ways of inquiry into ‘religion’. But this is also where the greatest pitfalls of this relatively recent ‘cultural turn’ in the study of religion lie.

The relatively late reception of Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s Religion as a chain of memory (French 1993, English 2000) in the English-speaking world of religious studies brought with it a time-lag in the assimilation of the social and historical study of memory which had originated with Durkheim and Halbwachs’ work in the early twentieth century and was picked up in the 1980s in the work of Pierre Nora and Jan Assman. Even in 2011 Tuula Sakaranaho cannot take awareness of the field of social memory studies for granted among the readership of the journal Temenos, and thus he rehearses a few of the (many varied) turns in the study of memory before tentatively outlining its possible relevance to the study of religion.

Sakaranaho, as much as Grieser, seeks to make the study of memory methodologically relevant to the study of religion. Grieser’s interview is strongest when she discusses the relevance of the study of memory in analysing the significance of religion in the creation of a historical past for communities and individuals and the linking of research on religion with research in other fields of the Humanities. Memory as embodied by the particular forms and uses of narrative are relevant here, both in understanding how people relate religious change in their lives and in accessing how religious narratives can be used to interpret the lives of individuals. The value of the study of memory and narrative is most tangible for the scholar of religion not only when social-scientific methods are brought into play but also in contemporary neuroscientific research which focuses on the ‘location’ and ‘shape’ of memory in the brain, seeking to understand precisely what memory is.

However, the noble desire to utilise the study of memory to soften the lurking essentialisation of ‘religion’ by focusing on cultural and contextual specificities of particular expressions and enactments of religion historically, materially, ritually, and intellectually, proves challenging. Grieser maintains that it would be unhelpful to be pulled back into the discussions on the definition of religion, this being a question of disciplinary formation, rather than focusing on exploring relationships between the terms memory and religion. She prefers to use memory to tease out what religion may be in a given context. And yet relating ‘religion’ and ‘memory’ is fraught with the danger of essentialising. Grieser argues that ‘religion’ is invoked as a legitimiser of memory, bestowing authority on narrative, experience, ritual and so on, demonstrating how a group identity can be maintained for millennia through specific strategies of remembrance. This observation of the powerful strategies of remembering (which might helpfully be distinguished from the study of memory) can then be made useful to understand other expressions of collective identity which borrow their strategies of legitimisation from religion, such as modern nationalism. The danger of essentialising ‘religion’ is apparent here, seeing that such analysis relies on the notion of ‘religion’ doing / embodying / rehearsing something. The focus in this description is on ‘religion’ and not on people who may do / embody / or evoke particular articulations of their understanding of ‘religion’. The study of ‘religion and memory’, ‘religion and society’ etc. appear to focus away from the intellectual, bodily, material, or historical practices of people and on abstract categories with all the definitional problems this entails. Hence, the inquiry almost inevitably shifts back to the definition of ‘religion’ and, thereby, of religious studies.

Drawing on neuroscience may at first appear to diffuse the issue of essentialism, though it does have the danger of essentialising ‘memory’ by focusing on its physical embodiment in the brain. Scientific inquiry to locate memory and to explore the differences between animal and human abilities of recall and awareness of things past can be brought into dialogue with interpretations of religion. Grieser suggests that it could be helpful to understand religious systems as answers to the problem of memory, namely between the reality we aspire to as recalled in formative narratives and the reality as we find it. The scholarly focus here would be on the diversity in the approaches taken to bridging this gap. Yet, positing ‘religion’ as an alternative reality which acts as a stabiliser in an unstable world again appeals to a rather essentialised version of religion.

I would suggest an alternative perspective which may have the possibility of avoiding essentialisation of ‘religion’. Rather than seeing ‘religion’ as the norm which is invoked to legitimise, stabilise, or authorise, the focus can be placed on the person appealing to religion or a tradition. Thus one would analyse the appeal to religion as a norm, a tradition which may or may not be known, remembered, or understood by the person invoking it. Then, ‘religion’ as such would not be important, but rather the category ‘religion’ as understood by the practitioner would be the focus. By shifting attention to the performance of religion, neuroscience might help understand the processes in the brain which support or bring forth such practices. This could then lead to better understandings of the workings of memory, the invocation of ‘religion’, and the relations between these, without essentialising strategies.

Bibliography

A Response by James Cox to Bjørn Ola Tafjord on the Classification ‘Indigenous Religions’

Bjorn Tafjord begins his interview for the Religious Studies Project helpfully by outlining three usages of the term Indigenous Religions: 1) as a class or classification into which certain characteristics fit or they do not fit; 2) as a relational, historically conditioned term; 3) as an ethno-political category that has been used, for example, in land claims by indigenous peoples. He does not see these as contradictory ways of speaking of Indigenous Religions, but in many ways as complementary, although towards the conclusion of his interview, he appears to be advocating for a relational-historical use of the term. He makes it clear that how the category is used depends on the context of those employing it, whether academics, colonial or post-colonial powers or indigenous peoples themselves. In other words, no language use is neutral; it always has implications both for those doing the describing and that which is being described.

Bjorn Tafjord claims that one consequence of the way I have defined Indigenous Religions, first in my book From Primitive to Indigenous and then in my own article in my edited book Critical Reflections on Indigenous Religions,as restricted to communities that are kinship-orientated and identified by location or place, is that I have ‘boxed’ them in, or trapped them in a rigid conceptual framework. Only in one sense is this correct, since my intention was to identify unambiguously the meaning of a term about which so much loose language has been employed that in some cases it is impossible to know what content is being conveyed when it is used. We seldom allow such imprecise language in ordinary speech as we do when we employ the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religion’. I am not referring here just in terms of popular understandings or even how the terms are used in the media, but I am drawing attention to the common practice even among academics where frequently the meaning of these terms is simply taken for granted, or at the very least remains entirely implicit. I have argued that we need to begin by stating what we mean by the language we employ, not as a final or definitive claim to have circumscribed a category, but as a pragmatic way of beginning dialogue by being absolutely explicit about our meanings and intentions. Rather than ‘boxing in’ the category ‘Indigenous Religions’ this opens it up by encouraging scholars to clarify their denotative and connotative uses of terms and thereby make it possible to debate their interpretations analytically and critically.

What I find most confusing about Bjorn’s argument, which he makes towards the conclusion of the interview is when, after complaining that the term Indigenous Religions has been reified, he then calls ‘dangerous’ the assumption that Indigenous Religions are the religions of indigenous peoples. He seems to suggest that we need to dissociate the category ‘Indigenous Religion’ from the people who can fit into this classification. This is like saying ‘Christianity’ is a religion devoid of Christians. This doubly confuses the situation by moving the historical study of religion backward at least a century while at the same time re-enforcing the ‘world religions paradigm’. What I think Bjorn wants to suggest is not that we divorce a religion from its adherents, but that for historical and even political reasons we do not imply that indigenous peoples cannot be indigenous if they adhere to Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions with cosmologies that are non-local and that we do not ignore the dynamic interactions that historically have transformed the global and local interactions when religious adherents meet and mutually influence one another. This is how I understand the meaning of the late Kwame Bediako, a leading African theologian, when he claimed that Christianity is Africa’s new indigenous religion. He meant that Christianity had been so transformed in Africa that it had taken on indigenous roots, but at the same time had transformed traditional indigenous world-views. In this sense, of course, the academic study of Indigenous Religions cannot exclude Christian, Buddhist or other historical and relational contexts, but this is not the same as saying that the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religions’ do not refer to those who practise the traditions under study.

This then brings me back to my own definition, which I have always insisted provides a starting-point for discussion. I am fully aware that the study of Indigenous Religions is not a study of ‘disappearing’ peoples. This idea was held quite firmly by early anthropologists such as Baldwin Spencer in Australia who studied the central desert peoples as living remnants of a ‘Stone Age’ people soon to become extinct. By defining Indigenous Religions as focused primarily on ancestors and as rooted in location, I have restricted the term in a way that then opens up wide permutations of ancestral and localised traditions as they are affected by modernity, globalisation, travel and mass communication, including indigenous people living in diaspora and those who, as in the case of the Yoruba of Nigeria, have transmitted their traditions around the world almost as missionaries by providing a universal source of healing and well-being.

I want to add just one last word on the overall interview (not attributable entirely to Bjorn Tafjord), which, if left unstated, would leave the persistent barrage against belief in religion still unchallenged. The current reaction against the role belief plays in religion is built somewhat naively on the assumption that scholars of religion continue to depict, describe and teach religion as if it were obtained from a textbook on systematic Christian theology. This, of course, could be said to characterise flawed earlier books written about the religions of the world, but this does not mean that the cognitive side of religion should be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant. For example, it would be impossible for a spirit medium to go into a trance and for the assembled community to speak to the spirit directly if an underlying belief in the power of spirits to influence human circumstances were not present. It simply would not happen. What we believe affects how we experience the world and how we behave in it. Of course, this is not just a one-directional dynamic: experiences influence beliefs and behaviours, just as behaviours have an impact on our experiences and beliefs. Nonetheless, the current tendency to debunk beliefs as a Protestant left-over is too obvious and does not take into account the complex relationships between cognitions, experiences and actions, as is being shown increasingly within the cognitive science of religion and has been evident in cognitive-behavioural psychology for a very long time.

Religion, threskeia (θρησκεία) and the Return of the Hellenes: On Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion

Ever since the publication of Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion (1962), various scholars have engaged themselves with the issue of religion not being “a universally applicable first-order concept that matches a native discursive field in every culture across time and throughout history” (Nongbri 2013, p. 158). Nongbri’s approach to this issue is influenced by the work of scholars like Talal Asad, Jonathan Z. Smith, Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzerald, Tomoko Masuzawa, and David Chidester to name a few. However, his approach differs, from say Fitzgerald’s, in that he does not dismiss the term altogether. Instead, for Nongbri, the realization that religion is a modern concept with a specific history and that all our concepts are virtually anachronistic when we apply them to antiquity, allows us to use the term ‘religion’ in a more creative way. For example, by drawing on the work of the church historian Eusebius (4th century CE), Nongbri argues that religion is not “the most useful tool for trying to describe ancient practices” since Eusebius was not dividing the world up into different religions.

Writing for an English speaking audience, Nongbri justifiably dedicates most of his work on the Latin term religio from which derives the modern western concept of religion. However, the Greek term threskeia (that one would conventionally translate into English as religion) remains a marginal term both in the field of religious studies and in the discourse on the concept of religion. Nongbri dedicates little space on this term in his work (Nongbri 2013, pp. 34-8), but manages to show its different meanings with references ranging from Herodotus in the 5th century BCE to Photius in the 8th century CE, while he stresses the absence of a detailed study of how the term was used in the Byzantine era. The term threskeia still is the standard term that Greek-speaking people use when referring to religion. The problem of understanding how this particular term was used both in antiquity and during early Christianity within the Greek speaking world is simultaneously at the root of the problems that stem from the very fact that ancient Greek threskeia (arhaia Helleneke threskeia) remains the standard modern Greek terminology employed when referring to ancient Greek religion.

Modern Greeks Re-Enacting Ancient Practices

Modern Greeks Re-Enacting Ancient Practices

A peculiar case that touches upon – and could well be studied with the help of – Nongbri’s work is a relatively new movement in Greece known as The Return of the Hellenes. As Matthew Brunwasser wrote last June on the BBC official webpage, every 21st of June (summer solstice) the members of this movement participate in their annual festival of the Prometheia, a celebration of the Greek Titan Prometheus (see picture below). What is interesting, however, is the statement given to Brunwasser by the founder of the Hellenes movement, the philosophy professor Tryphon Olympios: “They [Orthodox church officials/priests] have understood that we are not dangerous and we are not pagans and Satanists… We are peaceful people that come with ideas that are useful for society”. These religious (theskeutikes) practices that, according to the members of this movement, go “back to the roots” and generate the feeling of “continuation through the millennia” virtually allow people to “identify with something in the past – where they come from – so as to know where they are going”.

Prometheus

Prometheus

 

I find such phraseology extremely interesting and at the same time deeply problematic. One could argue that, like Eusebius, the members of the Hellenes movement do not adhere to a religious but rather to a different classification of the world by seeing the ancient Greek practices (including but not confined to the threskeutikes) as a means of identity formation that link the modern to the ancient Greeks. Herodotus in the 5th century BCE, in describing the Greek nation, spoke of “the common blood, the common language and the common sanctuaries and sacrifices” (Histories 8.144.2). Even though Herodotus does not use the word threskeia in this passage he nevertheless sees the world through the lens of different elements constitutive of a specific group, in this case the Greeks. Likewise, the Hellenes movement acknowledges the importance of both sanctuaries and sacrifices as a constitutive element that links them to the ancient Greeks in, as it were, a Herodotian way. It comes as no surprise, as Brunwasser informs us, that the followers of the movement include “New Age types who revere ancient traditions, leftists who resent the power of the Orthodox Church, and Greek nationalists who see Christianity as having destroyed everything that was truly Greek” (emphasis added).

Nongbri’s work, as I see it, offers a very valuable tool not only in approaching and interpreting the ancient usage of terms such as religio and threskeia and their respective history but also how those ambiguous terms are adopted and used by modern people who long for those ancient practices that scholars label “religious” in order to establish claims that touch upon different matters: from regional politics to ethnicity and from nationalism to anarchism to mention just a few. As with the term religion, threskeia does not so much need a definition but rather an examination of the various connotations that the term employs when in the hands of different people with different agendas. As Russell McCutcheon put it in another podcast published in the Religious Studies Project some time ago, “I am really not interested in what religion is or isn’t or even if there is such a thing that pairs up to that word; instead it’s a word I am using defined in this or that way that allows me to do this or that with the world; that allows me to talk about this versus that”.

I think that Before Religion, which draws heavily on McCutcheon’s work as Nongbri himself acknowledges in his interview, can contribute to the study of those identity formation and classificatory systems employed by people that are today conventionally called neo-pagans. The very fact that the Hellenes and their umbrella group known as the Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes are “campaigning to get their form of ancient worship classed as an “ethnic religion [threskeia]” of Greece” shows in the most vivid way that to define the term threskeia (and religion alike in other places of the world) offers less than the more promising study of the ideologies that accompany the term in its different contexts, both in antiquity and in the modern world.

Tomato: Fruit or Vegetable? Discuss.

Budding theorists may find themselves conscripted into the ideological battles over the nature of religion or, to put a finer point on the argument, how scholarship in religious studies should be done. For even if one has not openly sided with a particular group regarding what ‘religion’ is, it is very likely you do have some inkling regarding how scholarship in religious studies should be done. As Russell McCutcheon notes in this interview one of his teaching texts is a brief opinion from a lawsuit in 1893 (Nix v. Hedden) regarding the nature of tomatoes. Are tomatoes fruits or are they vegetables? And why does it matter?

For the Purposes of…

McCutcheon, like the presiding judge in this case, is not terribly interested in the intrinsic nature or essence of the ‘tomato’ but rather what the tomato will be for purposes of trade and tariffs. This case upheld the Tariff Act of 1883 which did not charge a tax on imported fruit but did charge a tax for imported vegetables. If this case appears to have nothing to do with the battles over ‘religion’ look again and ask what happens when you supplement the word ‘tomato’ with ‘religion.’ Make the categorical division not between ‘fruit’ or ‘vegetable’ but rather envision a litany of possible interpretations such as ‘religion’ is at heart really about wielding knowledge and power, money and manipulation, primordial man’s explanation of the terrors and wonders of the natural world, individual neurosis, or a deep, personal and private encounter with an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity, etc. How quickly seemingly solid categories come unraveled… suddenly, I am much more comfortable becoming an arbitrator on anything, tomatoes included, than on what I supposedly study.

Okay, let’s return to the tomato argument for a moment as perhaps it will shed some light on our predicament. In order to come to a conclusion we must look at precedent (i.e. how has the word been used before). We can also compare dictionary entries and call ‘expert’ witnesses. Oxford Dictionaries even weighs in on the argument… it seems that this issue arose because scientists and cooks use the word differently. According to Oxford Dictionaries, scientifically speaking, a tomato is a fruit. In the culinary world, the tomato is referenced as a vegetable because it is savory. Notice that the argument has morphed from pertaining to what category the tomato is in based on its qualities to a matter of who is doing the speaking.

One need only remember that Gershwin classic “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” to know that how one pronounces a word denotes not just dialectic difference but class distinction as well.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZ3fjQa5Hls]

The tomato has a long and varied history. A native to South America, the term originates from the Nahuatl tomatl. Although recently heralded as a cancer-fighting food, historically the tomato has an infamous reputation.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) Film Poster

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) Film Poster

A member of the night shade family, the tomato has sporadically been labeled as poisonous, or at least suspect, and some naysayers have even gone so far as to dedicate websites to (www.tomatoesareevil.com) or make cult classic films about their true diabolical nature like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. And many readers are probably aware of the tales of throwing rotten tomatoes at bad actors! What may come as a surprise to these same readers is that tourists in Spain can pay $13 to participate in the world’s largest tomato fight!

Who knew that the tomato could be so polarizing?! Who knew this tiny fruit/vegetable could arouse such vitriol?! Fruit? Vegetable? Poisonous? Nutritious? Good? Evil? Is it a panacea or pandemic? It seems that the tomato defies our categories. It appears to transcend barriers. It is irreducible. And yet where are the departments of Tomato Studies? Where are the calls for the study of sui generis Tomato?

So before we sharpen the pitchforks and enter the fray, we should note that this doesn’t seem to be an either/ or (as in a tomato must be either a fruit or a vegetable) battle at all but a squabble addressed best by thinking about context. Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Is it good or evil? My answer to the ‘tomato’ question is one I offer frequently regarding the ‘religion’ question, much to the chagrin of my students, when they ask questions like “are Mormons Christians?”… it depends on who you ask and it depends on the context. And in a classic McCutcheon twist, I might ask them, who gains and who loses if we admit or deny Mormons (or tomatoes) entry into the halls of Christendom (or fruitdom)? And are any Mormons (or grocers or botanists) stopping by our classroom to ask our opinion?

Essence of Tomato

So we may never know the true, deep meaning, of ‘religion’ or ‘tomato.’ ‘Tomato’ as a Platonic ideal may always elude us. ‘Tomato’ like ‘religion’ may defy our categories. By using this example, McCutcheon is pointing out to us that perhaps we are too wedded to our conceptions of sui generis (unique, irreducible, pristine) ‘religion’ to see the social and political implications on our scholarship. Suddenly, the situation is a lot less dire when I apply these same questions to the enigma of the tomato. But before we dismiss the tomato controversy, we need to remember that the above case was judged by the Supreme Court. So, what do we do if declaring the true essence of ‘tomato’ or ‘religion’ is not within our jurisdiction as academics?

The judge in this case, along with McCutcheon, appears to nudge us towards a more terrestrial interpretation. Perhaps we will never know what a tomato, vegetable, or a fruit really is (ontologically speaking) but for purposes of trade and tariff, we can decide what a tomato will be. After all, our categories themselves (fruit and vegetable) as well as the term ‘tomato’ are products of language. Our categories and words could have been otherwise and in other cultures often are. As McCutcheon might argue our categories and words are contingent, conditional, and contextual.

The Problem with Myth

One of the things that has become persistently clear to me throughout my PhD work is that we have to be pedantic about our terminology. The vast majority of our technical terms are used “out there” by people in their everyday lives. But how “they” use a word and how “we” use it can often be markedly different. In fact, how “we” use a word is an overgeneralisation that assumes “we” all use the word in the same way. So as interesting as Paul-François Tremlett’s introduction to the work of Levi-Strauss was, one thing persistently bugged me throughout the interview: what is a myth?

“Myth” is a fairly common occurrence throughout the interview and not once is it defined. Is the meaning of myth so obvious that all the listeners know what it means? Perhaps it might be, perhaps the meaning of myth is self-evident to all who hear the word. But I wonder, while it might be self-evident to many, if pressed on the matter and forced into giving verbal expression would they all say the same thing? Perhaps not:

  • Mircea Eliade:

Every myth shows how a reality came into existence, whether it be the total reality, the cosmos, or only a fragment – an island, a species of plant, a human institution … [it] becomes the paradigmatic model for all human activities’(1957[1987]:97-98).

  • Ninian Smart:

A story which forms the identity of an individual, his/her fellows, and/or the cosmos in which they inhabit (Smart, 1981:26).

  • Alan Dundes:

A myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and man came to be in their present form … The critical adjective sacred distinguishes myth from other forms of narrative such as folktales, which are ordinarily secular and fictional (Dundes, 1984:1).

  • David Leeming:

the expression of a social ethos’ or the ‘basic assumptions that define a person, a family, or a culture – with the informing reality that resides at the centre of being (Leeming, 1990:4).

  • William Hansen:

a traditional oral story of alleged historicity (Hansen, 2002:2-5).

  • Joseph Nagy:

a collectively shared story about supernaturally powerful beings whose adventures and interactions are set in some primeval time before the “historical time” of legend (2002:125)

  • Finally, Levi-Strauss:

a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (1955[1993]:229)

This is to mention but a handful of the various definitions of “myth” and what should be obvious is that they do not all cohere. Hansen and Nagy, for example, in speaking of “primeval time” and “alleged historicity” understand myth as something inherently false. A definition which many argue corresponds to myth’s everyday use: e.g. ‘in ordinary English to say ‘It’s a myth” is just a way of saying “It’s false”’ (Smart, 1969:18). Further, Eliade, Dundes and Nagy confine themselves to an understanding of myth that indicates that it can only occur within religions. But for both Eliade and Dundes the extent to which we apply myth is dependent on a definition of religion which in both cases relies on a definition of “sacred” (and its dichotomous “secular”). And as Bascom points out in Dundes’ volume, the distinction between the sacred and the secular is a fairly messy matter (Bascom, 1984:12). Indeed, could we not then include Evolution and Big Bang as myths? Both explain how the world and man came to be in their present form. Such is certainly possible in the case of Smart, Leeming, and Levi-Strauss. The latter in particular put the point quite vividly: ‘the kind of logic in mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science, and […] the difference lies, not in the quality of the intellectual process, but in the nature of things to which it is applied’ (Levi-Strauss, 1993:230). All that is perhaps consistent across these definitions and more is that myth is a kind of story.

What is interesting about this latter problem – that myth can be applied to religious and non-religious things alike – is that it nevertheless reduces to the former problem of the implied falsity of a myth. But perhaps more vividly than the former problem it gives us good reason not to use “myth” within our scholarly language. Take the following point from Tremlett’s extremely useful introduction to the work of Levi-Strauss: ‘Levi-Strauss argues that what “we” in “the West” call history is in fact myth by another name’ (Tremlett, 2008:56). Conversely, what we call myth is also history. But if so, what difference is there in calling a story myth or history? If Evolution can be called both history and myth what differs between each usage? It is, I suggest, the fact that when we speak, for example, of the Evolution myth we think of something that is false-prone and when we speak of the Evolution theory (here a synonym for history) we think of it as true-prone. The question of which is used depends on who is speaking. Smart points out that an anthology of mythology is unlikely to include the stories of Jesus’ life, death, and rebirth: ‘This is a leftover from Christian (and Jewish and Muslim, be it said) tendencies to treat their own stories as true and historical and other people’s stories as unhistorical and untrue’ (Smart, 1996:130). While Christian stories may well find themselves included in anthologies these days, the point to be taken from this is that for the Christian these stories are true and not regarded as myth. No one, I hazard, thinks of their own stories as myths.

Fitness-Myths

Stealing some terminology from Smart’s “Interpretation and Mystical Experience” (1965[2009]) and applying them to Schutz’s discussion in “Equality and the Meaning Structure of the World” (1957[1964]) I suggest the following: to call something a “myth” is to engage in a particular way of hetero-interpreting the stories of others. Schutz makes a distinction between subjective and objective interpreting. All subjective interpreting is meaning constituted in terms of “Me” or “Us” and all objective interpreting is meaning constituted in terms of “Him/Her” or “Them” (Schutz, 1964:251-257). I replace “subjective” and “objective” here with Smart’s terminology of auto-interpreting and hetero-interpreting. The reason for this is because Schutz accepts that objective interpreting is nevertheless subjective in that it is performed in the “Here and Now”, an idea expounded earlier in “On Multiple Realities” (1945[1962b]). That is, all subjective interpretations are those interpretations which are framed in terms of the “Here and Now” that I occupy. By auto-interpreting I conceive whatever is being interpreted as within my “Here”. Thus my “Here” may extend to a number of fellows (my in-group) when I speak in terms of “We/Us”. By hetero-interpreting something I conceive it as not within my “Here”. Anything that is not “Here” is “There”. But this “There” of the out-group is understood in terms of my “Here”. Underwritten in any positive definition of “Them” is the implied “I/We are not Them”.

Both the in-group and the out-group have their own stories. When auto-interpreting the stories of our in-group we conceive these stories as history (true-prone) because to do otherwise would be to call into question the “Here and Now” we occupy. When it comes to hetero-interpreting the stories of the out-group we can conceive them as either history or myth. The most common reason for calling these hetero-interpreted stories myths is because they contradict the stories that have been auto-interpreted as history. E.g. if Evolution is part of our history, Creation becomes a myth. If the two stories are contradictory and the former has been accepted then the latter must be denied. Insofar as the stories of the out-group do not contradict the stories of the in-group they may be hetero-interpreted as history. The in-group might be quite happy to accept the out-group’s story of a bloke called Jesus who went around preaching. The example of the “Historical Jesus” also indicates the complexity involved in some hetero-interpretations as while there may be universal agreement that Jesus was baptised by St. John and was crucified by Pontius Pilate, other elements of the story of Jesus may still be regarded as myth. The point to be taken is that hetero-interpreting can conclude that stories are history or myth but the same cannot be said of auto-interpreting. If the in-group auto-interprets a story as myth this begs the question of against what this story is being compared to. What happens in moments of “mythicisation” – when history becomes myth – is not auto-interpreting but rather partitioning whereby the in-group is divided into a new in-group and out-group. Such an example would be the inclusion of Christian stories in anthologies of myth. What occurs here is not that the story is auto-interpreted as myth, but rather the stories are removed from the “Here and Now”. This partitioning is affected by shifting the stories “There” if some members of the group try to retain them as history and/or “Then” if the distinction is one between contemporaries and predecessors.

Based on this sketchy argument the point to be emphasised is that even if we accept Levi-Strauss’ line that what “we” call history is really myth by another name it nevertheless does not escape the fact that to call a story myth is to render it false. The critical issue for scholars of religion is how, then, to use “myth”. Can we call a story a myth if the members of that group who tell it do not regard the story in question a myth? Surely to do so would be to treat them as an out-group and in calling those stories myth imply their falsity, and thereby imply the stupidity of the out-group for taking them to be true. The problem here is not in treating them as an out-group. It would be quite unproblematic to speak in terms of myth if we are studying the out-group’s responses to the stories of another out-group. But this involves objective interpretation: interpreting, that Schutz suggests in “Common-sense and Scientific Interpretation” (1953[1962a]), involves no “Here”. Properly speaking the “Here and Now” is never lost, rather the objective interpreter attempts to reconstruct the “Here and Now” of the out-group. The question is whether as scholars of religion we engage in this objective interpretation, or engage in subjective interpretation establishing our own new “Here and Now”, or continue to uphold the wider “Here and Now” of some in-group. The problem of myth is not the term in itself but rather the sort of “Here and Now” from which it is deployed. The recognition of Levi-Strauss and others that myth is no different from history contains within it a call to further reflexivity about the “Here and Now” of we scholars of religion.

References

  • Bascom, W. (1984); “The Forms of Folklore: The Prose Narrative” in Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth; University of California Press, London; pg.5-29
  • Dundes, A. (ed.) (1984); Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth; University of California Press, London
  • Hansen, W. (2002); The Handbook of Classical Mythology; ABC-CLIO, California
  • Leeming, D. (1990); The World of Mythology; Oxford University Press, Oxford
  • Levi-Strauss (1993); “The Structural Study of Myth” in Structural Anthropology vol.1; trans. by C. Jocobson and B. Schoepf; Penguin, Harmondsworth; pg.206-231
  • Nagy, J. (2002); “Myth and Legendum in Medieval and Modern Ireland” in Myth: a New Symposium; ed. by G. Schrempp & W. Hansen; Indian University Press, Bloomington; pg.124-138
  • Schutz, A. (1962a); “Common-sense and Scientific Interpretation of Human Action” in Collected Papers I: The Problem of Social Reality; ed. by M. Natanson; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg.3-47
  • Schutz, A. (1962b); “On Multiple Realities” in Collected Papers I: The Problem of Social Reality; ed. by M. Natanson; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg. 207-259
  • Schutz, A. (1964); “Equality and the Meaning Structure of the Social World” in Collected Papers II: Studies in Social Theory; ed. by A. Brodersen; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg.226-268
  • Smart, N. (1969); The Religious Experience of Mankind; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (1981); Beyond Ideology; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (1996); Dimensions of the Sacred; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (2009); “Interpretation and Mystical Experience” in Ninian Smart on World Religions vol.1: Religious Experience and Philosophical Analysis; ed. by J. Shepherd; Ashgate, Farnham; pg.53-62
  • Tremlett, P.F. (2008); Levi-Strauss on Religion: The Structuring Mind; Equinox, London

Concepts and Symbols, What Does It All Mean? Examining Immigrant Buddhists in Toronto

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 13 November 2013, in response to D. Mitra Barua’s interview on Immigrant Buddhism in the West  (11 November 2013).

Talal Asad, in Genealogies of Religion, sets out an argument by which he hopes to improve upon Clifford Geertz’s anthropological method of examining a culture’s symbols in an effort to analyze the meanings that these symbols hold “of” and “for” a culture’s religious character. He points out that although “[r]eligious symbols… cannot be understood independently of their historical relations with nonreligious symbols…” (53) “It does not follow that the meanings of religious practices and utterances are to be sought in social phenomena, but only that their possibility and their authoritative status are to be explained as products of historically distinctive disciplines and forces. (54) In short, any culture cannot be said to be a fixed point to be dissected as such, but rather, a stream or flow of histories whose “power” and influence received from prior discourse must be taken into account as a process of cultural, and therefore religious, creation.

Webb Keane takes Asad’s emphasis upon socio-historical discourse being a process through which meanings can be analysed and provides a term for this concept that he feels is better able to be wielded by the ethnographer, namely, the utilisation of “semiotic forms”. Semiotic forms, Keane argues, are “social categories” which are “recognizable as something knowable”. He continues, “they must, that is, have some material manifestation that makes them available to, interpretable by, and, in most cases, replicable by other people: bodily actions, speech, the treatment of objects, and so forth.” (114) Seeing as how, for Keane, “[s]emiotic forms are public entities…” they are “objects for the senses…” and “as such, they have distinctive temporal dimensions…” however, “[b]ecause they are repeatable, they have the potential to persist over time and across social contexts.” (114-115). In this specific context, Keane only examines one example of a semiotic form for the sake of illustration- speech; however, Mitra Barua hits upon this exact idea in his conversation with Chris Silver. We start to get an idea of Barua’s work when he tells us of his interest in how Buddhism has been transmitted into new locations (inter-cultural dimensions of Buddhist transmission) and between first- and second-generation immigrants living in diaspora (inter-generational dimensions).

Working with Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhists (presumably Sinhalese) who form a disaporic group in Toronto, Canada, Barua is able to link his work with that of Asad and Keane by adding to his two dimensions of Buddhist transmissions an overall sense of time, or discourse. He identifies three primary historical periods of migration within which he frames his work; namely, the Colonial, Post-Colonial and Diaspora periods. None of these have any ontological purchase independently; rather, only as a spectrum, each blending into the next (ignoring firm historical dates one must assume and only focusing on the state of transmission of teachings which does not generally change, or stop-start, with any firm temporal grounding). His interest lies in how Buddhism has been and continues to be transmitted from older, first-generation migrants who came from Ceylon to Canada, to their children who were raised in Canadian culture; or, inter-cultural and inter-generational dimensions of transmission and the problems that arise therefrom.

What he finds is perhaps a bit unsurprising; the younger generation who have grown up in a “secular”, Western culture have different views and emphases regarding how to balance their secular and their religious livesthan their parents. Additionally, Barua finds that there is a serious concern within the older members of the community regarding the “religiosity” of Buddhism being not only separated out, but also lost in favour of a more secular, functional usage of concepts like samatha/vipassana or group temple worship.

Concerning this worry surrounding the “dilution” of Buddhism that Barua identifies amongst the Buddhist immigrants in Toronto, some important questions arise for scholars of religion as a whole. Throughout the interview terms like “religion”, “faith”, “theology” are thrown about, ironically often in close proximity to discussions on how Buddhism is tied into not just the immigrants religious lives but also and perhaps most importantly their culture. During the first third of the interview, Dr. Barua even explains how these immigrants have changed the adjectives of the Buddhist Eight-fold Path, from “right” speech, thought, action, etc. to “harmonious”. Why does this bi-polarity seem to weigh so heavily on this group of immigrants, on the one hand being self-conscious enough to feel it necessary to change the language of one of their most fundamental principles, while at the same time wanting to save the “religiosity” of Buddhism from complete secularisation? Further, do Christo-centric terms like faith and theology even work within a Buddhist setting, and if not, why does this community feel it useful or indeed necessary to use them? Does the very act of using foreign, Christian terms contribute to the undermining of the very sense of importance and individuality that the Buddhist elders are trying to stave off; and most intriguingly, if religion (in this case Buddhism) is indeed not sui generis but rather, linked wholly with a society’s culture; are these immigrants not so much concerned with the loss of their religion, but instead and more disconcerting, with a loss of their culture and self-identity? In a response to a similar question from Chris Silver, Dr. Barua does give us a related answer when he affirms, that he found these Buddhists to self-identify as indeed in some ways more religious in Canada than they were in Sri Lanka.

By way of conclusion with the understanding that cultural (and therefore religious) symbols and concepts are intrinsically intertwined within the socio-temporal spectrum of a group of people, as scholars of religion some pressing questions now pop up for further inspection, perhaps most importantly are some that are self-reflexive: are we truly Post-Orientalist/Colonialist? Do we, living in primarily First and Second World countries, take for granted our contemporary cultural hegemony? What can we learn about immigrant groups who find their most effective recourse to be utilising OUR terminology to describe THEIR culture? Perhaps the era of colonisation is not quite over.

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

References

  • Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York. Basic Books
  • Keane, Webb. 2008. ‘The evidence of the senses and the materiality of religion’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Volume 14: 110-127.

Ayahuasca as a Gateway Drug (Toward a Less Stigmatized Academic Discussion of Drugs and Religion)

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 6 November 2013, in response to Andrew Dawson’s interview on Santo Daime  (4 Novemberr 2013).

With the presumption that one of the major purposes of the Religious Studies Project is not simply to describe various religions but to act as a focal point for broader discussions of the academic study of religion, I intend to focus my attention on the apparent sticky areas that discussion of Santo Daime seems to move us into rather than on the specifics of Santo Daime itself.  While Andrew Dawson provided an abundance of insightful food for thought on issues of globalization and modernization, it is apparent that the most salient and polarizing feature of Santo Daime is simply that their rituals consist of the use of a hallucinogenic drug.  In fact, I suspect that if Dawson’s research were on a non-drug-using syncretic Brazilian church, it’s very likely that this podcast would never have happened and that very few of us beyond specialists in that arena would pay any attention.  It is the added ayahuasca component that draws both our attention and our suspicion, and I suspect that it is partly the ways in which such substances are characteristically represented to us and the fact that they are typically illegal which influences our, often unconscious and unreasoned, bias against attributions of religious import to drugs or drug-related experiences. The assertion that an experience which takes place while under the influence of a drug should not be construed as having religious import implicitly makes a value-judgment about what true or valid religion can consist of, whereas an examination of how hermeneutic and discursive resources are drawn upon to develop a personal or communal account in which drugs and the experiences they elicit are ‘deemed religious’ (Taves 2009) is likely to provide significantly more analytical purchase.

My goal in this essay is simply to propose that the discussion of the role of ayahuasca in a contemporary Brazilian church may provide a conceptual framework which could be used to advance the level of academic discourse surrounding the use of psychotropic substances into a broader range of contexts in which the consumption of such substances are deemed religious.  As a heuristic effort, then, relative to this goal, I would like to make an attempt to bridge the ethnographic efforts of Andrew Dawson with the theoretical and corrective aims of Wouter Hanegraaff (2012).  To this effect, Dawson is interested in documenting and contextualizing a Brazilian new religion that, in almost every sense, fits our general intuitions and definitions of what constitutes a religion (it’s community-based, it’s about God and communing with spiritual beings, it involves ritualized communal services, it has a founder who is understood to have been divinely inspired, etc.).  Hanegraaff, with a much broader scope, is interested in overcoming an academically-untenable and methodologically-inconsistent negative response to emic attributions of religious significance to the use of drugs as well as to attempts at etic analysis of the same.  As Hanegraaff notes, “The ‘drugs’ category… causes [such beliefs and practices] to be associated with hedonistic, manipulative, irresponsible, or downright criminal attitudes, so that claims of religious legitimacy are weakened even further” (Hanegraaff 2012, 395).  In contrast to such dismissive attitudes, Hanegraaff endorses an approach which would “treat entheogenic esotericism as just another form of contemporary religion that requires our serious attention” (Ibid).

Editor’s insertion: The album cover Entheogenic’s self-titled album “Entheogenic” (simply because it seemed tangentially relevant, and Chris and Kevin both like them, and think they’re worth checking out!)

The term ‘entheogen’, which Hanegraaff has taken up in discussing this issue, is itself a very good example of the need for a proper academic study of the place of drug-use in the contemporary religious world.  It was expressly coined in an emic framework intended to reorient the discussion of these substances away from terms stressing psychological or sensory effects toward a discourse in which the substances were understood to possess distinctly religious import.  One of the originators of the term, Gordon Wasson, defined it as “’God within us’, those plant substances that, when ingested, give one a divine experience, in the past commonly called ‘hallucinogens’, ‘psychedelics’, ‘psychoto-mimetics’, etc, to each of which serious objections can be made” (Wasson 1980, xiv).  In the face of such obvious efforts of individuals to frame their drug experiences in religious terms, what possible objection could there be to analyzing such instances with all of the theoretical force that a Religious Studies perspective can muster toward the effort?

What I would like to suggest (which struck me as I was listening to this interview) is that opening the door to the discussion of drugs and religion with examples such as Santo Daime and research such as Dawson’s might provide a stepping stone that could allow us to face and address some of the broader and more contentious issues regarding drugs and the study of religion.  Since Santo Daime, without the ayahuasca, fits very easily into almost any academic definition of religion, we can, perhaps, begin to discuss the ‘drug issues’ that inevitably arise but do so in a less contested space before moving the discussion further on into the role of drugs in even more challenging areas of research in the academic study of religion, such as ‘alternative,’ ‘esoteric,’ ‘occult,’ ‘new age,’ ‘popular,’ and similar such amorphous religious frameworks.  Hanegraaff’s chapter on ‘entheogenic religion’ focuses very much on this latter grouping and it is in this milieu (which is often understood to be highly individualistic and shallow) that we are more likely to encounter the kinds of accusations of hedonism and irresponsibility that he expresses concern over.  So, perhaps Santo Daime can be used as a bridge to allow for the venting of worries about drugs on the way toward achieving Hanegraaff’s goal of opening up a perfectly legitimate, prevalent, influential, and, ultimately, theoretically fruitful object of study, which has so often be treated with misapprehension, suspicion, derision, or simply dismissed as unimportant.

Dawson himself suggests a similar ‘bridging’ aim in discussing his underlying interest in “the ways in which the rather exotic, non-mainstream profile of Santo Daime allows us to think about what constitutes religion, religious belief, religious practice in a new way.”  While my own essay is, in effect, an endorsement of this very effort, to use Santo Daime as a heuristic means of addressing broader trends, I take the need for this statement to be incredibly unfortunate in that I don’t believe that the existence of contemporary drug-use, even if it is understood to be ‘exotic’, requires thinking newly about what constitutes religion (though we should certainly continue to do that, as well).  As far as I can tell, there seems to be very little reason to suspect that Santo Daime should be an issue for any of the most prominent contemporary academic definitions of religion.  It involves belief in God and putative engagement with spiritual beings.  It involves communal ritual participation relative to those beliefs.  It is Catholic.  It is soteriological.  It is international.  It is acknowledged by national governments as a religious organization.  As Dawson points out, when you get over the sensationalized notion of Santo Daime as a “drug-fueled religion,” you find that “they are, in many ways, quite traditional in appearance when you look at what goes on.”  In other words, in the case of Santo Daime, it is predominantly the use of drugs that gives people pause.

So, if, as Dawson has admirably done, we can communicate clearly and effectively that a psychotropic substance plays a fundamental role in an otherwise patently obvious example of religion (although, I suppose diminutive reactions to syncretism are also not uncommon), then we stand in a better position to move onto a more mature further discussion of the religious significance of drugs in our own cultures and countercultures where attitudes are typically more highly contentious, as is apparent when Santo Daime attempts to find a home in countries with negative overall views on drug-use (typically excepting alcohol and other already sanctioned drugs).

Assessments of the validity of the source of a religious attribution is not the prerogative of the scholar of religion, or, at best, is relatively uninteresting theoretically.  If someone tells us that drugs or the experiences they render are understood to possess religious import, especially if they then orient their lives around that understanding and influence others to take up a similar position, then there is no case to argue, “but it was only a drug experience.”  For all of the analytical purchase that such a stance provides us, we may as well tell a Catholic at mass, “but it’s only a wafer.”  Such appellations tell us little about the cognitive, social, historical, and other factors which lead the psychonaut or Catholic to hold the religious attributions that they do and even less about how the experience and attribution affect their lives and behavior.  If an informant tells me that he was divinely inspired on a mushroom trip, I wouldn’t bat an eye any more than if he told me that he was divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit during communion.  That is his attribution to make and mine to document and analyze.  In fact, as a scholar of religion, the primary data of import is that he did, in fact, make that attribution.  Our informants provide us with the data about what is and isn’t deemed religious.  If people are telling us, in unequivocal terms, that they attribute religious meaning to their drug experiences, we trivialize them not at our peril but merely at our bias, and in doing so we miss out on important data about the religious lives of a large number of people in the contemporary world who may hold more of a sway over the collective imagination than many might think.  For instance, to use my own research as an example, the recent bout of millennialist expectations for the year 2012 was developed in and propagated by circles of entheogenic enthusiasts, and it is actually very difficult to understand the development of that widespread millennial phenomenon without understanding and addressing the role of drug-experiences in the production of prophecy.  In fact, in many cases, it was the very fact that the prophecy was understood as having arisen from a drug-experience that was seen by an audience as assuring its authenticity.  If we close our eyes to the religious import of drugs in a globalized modern context, there are significant religious phenomena in the world that we will simply fail to see and thereby fail to take into account in our models.

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

References

  • Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 2012. “Entheogenic Esotericism.” In Contemporary Esotericism, edited by Egil Asprem and Kennet Granholm. Sheffield: Equinox.
  • Taves, Ann. 2009. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. 1980. The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Situational Belief

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David and Martin Stringer (and Eileen Barker) in the Great Hall of Durham Castle!

“Belief” is a critical category in the study of religion. Indeed, for some scholars, it is the very essence of religion; as Clifford Geertz wrote, “To know, one must first believe.” Others, however, see the emphasis on belief as part of the Protestant bias in the development of the discipline, and have proposed various ways of avoiding talking about it at all. In this interview recorded at the recent SOCREL conference in Durham, Martin Stringer explains his model of situational belief to David, and explains how it not only better represent how beliefs actually function for individuals, but also challenges preconceived notions of what “religion” “is” in several ways.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

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Professor Martin Stringer is Professor of Liturgical and Congregational Studies and Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham. He trained as a social anthropologist, and his research has focused on Christian groups in the UK and diversity among inner-city communities. His theoretical approach is to use anthropological methods of ethnography in detailed and extended studies of real life situations, where he believes religion can be most fruitfully understood.

His recent publications include Rethinking the Origins of the Eucharist (SCM, 2011) and A Sociological History of the Christian Worship (Cambridge University Press, 2005). However, of particular relevance to this interview is Contemporary Western Ethnography of the Definition of Religion (Continuum, 2008). Also of interest is his paper ‘Towards a Situational Theory of Belief’ (Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, Vol XXVII, No 3, Michaelmas 1996, pp217-234).

Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies

How we can position the study of non-religion within the discipline of Religious Studies? Sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Those of you who have been listening to the Religious Studies Project for some time will be somewhat familiar with the emerging sub-field of ‘non-religion’ studies. Perhaps you have listened to our podcast with Lois Lee, the founder of the Non-religion and Secularity Research Network, and wanted to know more? Or maybe you have heard Chris’s incessant ‘yes, but what about the ‘ non-religious?’ question in interviews and roundtables and wondered what this all has to do with Religious Studies? Whether or not either of these happened, we hope that you will enjoy this roundtable discussion with Dr Louise Connelly, Christopher Cotter, Dr Frans Jespers, Ethan Quillen, Dr Steven Sutcliffe, and Dr Teemu Taira.

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

At the suggestion of Dr Steven Sutcliffe, Chris convened a group of scholars to discuss the study of non-religion within a Religious Studies framework. How do we define non-religion? What does such a demarcation have to offer our discipline? What is the scholar’s role in assigning labels such as ‘religious’ or ‘non-religious to individuals or groups who may eschew such labels? Are the ‘spiritual but not religious’ to be considered ‘non-religious’? And why would we even want to use the term ‘non-religion’ anyway? These questions and more form the basis of what became quite a lively discussion.

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

 

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, oracademia.edu page for a full CV.

Frans Jespers is associate professor of Science of Religion at the Faculty of Theology of Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands (Frans, please do send a bio when you get a chance – sorry about our lack of information in English!)

 

 

Steven Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh where he teaches and researches in the areas of ‘new age religion’ and ‘holistic spirituality’, in the effects of the discourse and practice of ‘religion’ in contemporary culture and society, and on theory and method in the study of religion, including the history of its modern academic study. He is the author of Children of the New Age, editor of Religion: Empirical Studies, and co-editor (with Marion Bowman) of Beyond the New Age.

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

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see www.teemutaira.wordpress.com.

Podcasts

Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond: Part 2

In October, RSP interviewer Paulina Kolata was able to sit down with Professor Ian Reader to discuss his publication ‘Pilgrimage in the Marketplace’ (October 2013), which explores the very ‘worldly’ conditions of development, popularisation, and ultimately, survival of pilgrimage centres in connection to the dynamics of the marketplace through which the ‘sacred’ as a category can be sustained. In this interview, Ian offers an insight into the meaning of pilgrimage, particularly in the Japanese context, and discusses the competitiveness of the pilgrimage market, the practice’s connection to tourism, playfulness of religion, and the survival of pilgrimage practice. After a fascinating conversation and a couple of cups of coffee later, we hope that listeners will enjoy this podcast as much as Paula and Ian enjoyed recording it, and we look forward to your discussions.

For ease of listening, we decided to split this week’s interview into two parts. For full podcast notes, and the first part, please click here. Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Eoin O’Mahony on “Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland“, and Alex Norman on “Spiritual Tourism“.

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

Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond: Part 1

The practice of pilgrimage is generally held to be a core feature of religious traditions. Pilgrimage developed as a practice available to only a few. The danger of the road, the cost of travel, and restrictions of class and feudal systems made it impossible for the common people to travel to remote sacred places. Similar to the situation in Early Medieval Europe (Sumption 1975: 11-12), political instability in pre-Tokugawa Japan (pre-1603) and an overall hostility to travelling strangers discouraged even some willing pilgrims from visiting many famous sites.  Whether it was wandering Buddhist monks circuiting Medieval Japan and performing healing rituals or Heian-aristocracy visiting Buddhist sites famous for their wish-granting powers, the practice of pilgrimage, and the special benevolence of the deities that went along with it, was reserved for a handful of people who had time and wealth to spare in order to afford the travel and to secure their safety on the dangerous routes.

Since then, pilgrimage has undergone a number of transitions that have shaped and redefined the way it is practiced and perceived. Various socio-economic and political changes, as well as technological developments, the establishment of modern tourism, and the expansion of the media have changed the way individuals ‘do’ pilgrimage, and shaped scholars’ understandings of modern religious travel, facilitating the transition of pilgrimage from obscure ascetic practice to widely popular touristic activity.

The element of journey, the importance of material culture, the role of media and technology, as well as the commercialisation of the practice of pilgrimage are dictate the conditions of survival and the popularity of pilgrimage today. Pilgrimage is a vivid representation of the way religion interacts with tourism, as we have seen before in our interview with Alex Norman on ‘Spiritual Tourism’. However, the exposure of pilgrimage practice to the influences of tourism and commodification does not necessarily diminish the ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ character of the practice. The utilization of the technological advancements of ‘this world’ is an important element in the survival of pilgrimage in Japan and elsewhere, helping it to become a kind of religious ‘pop culture’.

Within Religious Studies, discussion has rarely focused on the so-called this-worldliness of pilgrimage. Yet,  in October, RSP interviewer Paulina Kolata was able to sit down with Professor Ian Reader to discuss his publication ‘Pilgrimage in the Marketplace’ (October 2013), which explores the very ‘worldly’ conditions of development, popularisation, and ultimately, survival of pilgrimage centres in connection to the dynamics of the marketplace through which the ‘sacred’ as a category can be sustained. In this interview, Ian offers an insight into the meaning of pilgrimage, particularly in the Japanese context, and discusses the competitiveness of the pilgrimage market, the practice’s connection to tourism, playfulness of religion, and the survival of pilgrimage practice. After a fascinating conversation and a couple of cups of coffee later, we hope that listeners will enjoy this podcast as much as Paula and Ian enjoyed recording it, and we look forward to your discussions.

For ease of listening, we decided to split this interview into two parts. The second part is available below, or at this link, where it was originally published.

 

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Eoin O’Mahony on “Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland“, and Alex Norman on “Spiritual Tourism“.

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

References/Further Reading

  • Reader, Ian (2013) Pilgrimage in the Marketplace. New York and London: Routledge
  • Reader, Ian. and Swanson, Paul (1997) “Editors’ Introduction: Pilgrimage in the Japanese Religious Tradition”, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1997 24/3-4 pp.225-270
  • Sumption, Jonathan. (1975) Pilgrimage: an image of medieval religion. London: Faber & Faber

Now We Know Religion is Not Disappearing

Postsecular, like postmodern, is a title applied to phenomena in society that do not seem fit into an earlier paradigm and has thus been named post-something because it perhaps is not yet visible what comes next. It is an end of an era but also a shift towards another and has the academic world digging out all the blind spots of the earlier theories, suddenly noticing a variety of things that weren’t perceived before. The secularisation theories saw traditional institutionalised religion slowly disappearing: less people in churches, less belief in God and more non-Christians answering surveys. When the shift arrived this time, it was noted that religion is not disappearing. Secularisation was defined in less all-inclusive ways – or even as a minority phenomenon of the educated elite, as Peter Berger saw it (eg. Berger: 2002: p. 291–294.) – and new theories appeared. Only, now the question became ‘how is religion changing’ instead of ‘how is religion disappearing’.

Gray mentions 9/11 as an example of how religiosity has become very visible in the political sphere. Another, less grim, example is the various new religious movements that seek to establish a presence in politics through challenging the hegemony of traditional churches in a very peculiar way. I am referring especially to the Pastafarians in Europe and the US, the Kopimists in Sweden, and the Satanists in Oklahoma. These groups have very different religious views, but what they have in common is that they were born after the World Wars and have received some attention in the media due to their critique of the social definition of religion. I do not want to entirely omit all the pagan and other movements that have a similar agenda, but what I see as a connection between these three examples are their recent public campaigns seeking legitimation through invoking laws on religious equality.

Whether you are a Pastafarian demanding to wear a colander for your driver’s license or wearing it while taking your oath of office, a Kopimist seeking to register your religious community sacralizing file sharing on the Internet, or a Satanist wishing to publicly announce the love of Baphomet or to have your kids in school taught the Satanist way, the officials and courts of several countries have had to deal with your religious interpretations. Making claims for religious equality while maintaining close connections between the state and the Christian Churches has long been a point of cultural critique, especially in Europe (Eg. Martin: 2010). These movements, mentioned above, have put this message into action. For instance, Pastafarianism was born as a critique of the teaching of intelligent design in schools in Kansas. These movements have pretty much everything imaginable it takes to be a religion: holy books such as The Satanic Bible or the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster; rituals and holy days such as the sharing of files for Kopimists, a Kopimist wedding, Satanic baptism, wedding and funeral, Pastafarian Talk Like a Pirate Day and Ramedan; and of course religious symbols.

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Spageti

 

Because religions are defined in books of law and scholars of religion have found many ways to classify religion (eg. Ninian Smart’s Seven Dimensions of Religion) – none of which is explicit enough to include everything ‘commonly considered as religious’ and to exclude everything ‘not commonly considered as religious’ – these definitions can be used by the people to create their own sets of belief systems, to venerate their ideals, and to celebrate worldviews separate from the institutionalised churches that seem to have been the main focus of many theorists of religion. This focus on a specific type of religion was indeed one of the factors which gave rise to the secularisation theories.

Now, one may argue that some of the movements mentioned above have been created to celebrate secularisation and rationalisation of the world and merely to mock religiosity. However, it is not uncommon for such a ‘parody’ or critique to become more than just a joke. The Pastafarians in Poland and Finland have sought to be registered as a religious community. Both attempts, so far, having been declined. However, the Polish Pastafarians have had some more positive rulings from the Polish courts on the way, and both groups keep on fighting for recognition. The Kopimist community is registered as a religious community in Sweden, and the Satanists were organised as The Church of Satan already in the 1960’s. I believe the level of commitment has to be strong to some extent for a community to seek an official status as a religious community and to apply for bureaucratic legitimacy for their movement.

I am hesitant to use terms such as ‘serious’ or ‘meaningful’ in this context because of their vague connotations as definitive adjectives for religious practice. What is ‘serious’ or ‘meaningful’ religiosity? Is belonging without believing ‘meaningful’ and how does it differ from, for example, Pastafarian belonging? Is the Jewish holiday of Purim ‘serious’? Does the carnival atmosphere of it make Judaism less of a religion? I, myself, have been studying Discordianism, which is a very interesting example of how a group with critical or satirical origins can create profoundly life changing ideas, which could be viewed as religious or spiritual for even the creators of the movement (Mäkelä & Petsche: 2013).

No matter how we classify the movements stated above, their claims for religious rights within society (even a community of Finnish Discordians have their registration application on it’s way) show a certain meaning behind the rhetorics of religious equality. As Gray mentions in the podcast, postsecularism is in many ways about dealing with everyone: the religious, the atheists, the agnostics, and all the religious identities in between. It is not about trying to force religious speech into politics or trying to force it out of the public domain, like the secular discourse in many ways tried, it is about dealing with the fact that now we know religion is not disappearing.

References

Peter Berger: ‘Secularization and De-Secularization’ in Religions in the Modern World, ed. Linda Woodhead. 2002. Routledge, London.

Craig Martin: Masking Hegemony. 2010. Equinox, London.

Ninian Smart: The World’s Religions. 1989. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Mäkelä & Petsche: ‘Serious Parody: Discordianism as Liquid Religion’ in Culture and Religion Journal Vol.14 Issue 4. 2013. Taylor & Francis Group.

The Postsecular

In his 2011 Presidential Address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Milwaukee, James Beckford focused upon a contested term that has grown in prominence in recent years in the social scientific study of religion – the notion of the ‘postsecular’. In this address – published in the JSSR in 2012, Beckford noted a number of problems associated with the concept.

First, there is enormous variety in the meanings attributed to the ‘postsecular’, and there are many tensions between these meanings. Second, ‘the variety of meanings attributed to “postsecularity” is partly a function of the unusually wide range of intellectual disciplines and fields with an interest in it’. However, Beckford is keen to emphasise that this breadth of disciplinary interest does not imply that there actually is such a phenomenon as ‘postsecularity’. Third, ‘the orientation of many writings about the postsecular is normative and speculative’. (2012, 12-13)

With these issues in mind, Chris took some time to speak solely on this contested topic with Kevin W. Gray while in Belfast for the ESA Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference in September. Discussion focuses upon the history of the term, potential definitions, disciplinary and geographical differences, and ultimately suggests that ‘postsecularity’ is effectively dressing up ‘secularity’ in obfuscating clothing.

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

 

References

  • Beckford, James A. 2012. “SSSR Presidential Address Public Religions and the Postsecular: Critical Reflections.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51 (1): 1–19. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01625.x.

The Invention of the Emerging Church Movement

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Social scientists frequently employ contested categories or concepts (Beckford 2003, 13) in the description and analysis of ethnographic data. In other words, a conceptual gap often exists between emic self-description and etic secondary formulation. Informants don’t always acknowledge or accept scholarly terms and definitions. Using Gladys Ganiel’s recent and informative interview as a springboard which with to address her and sociologist Gerardo Marti’s book, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emergence Christianity (OUP 2014), the following response considers such a conceptual gap by briefly exploring the politics of secondary appropriation, i.e., the implementing of first-order terms for second-order purposes. Before weighing the implications of informant resistance to secondary definitional work, however, it might help to consider what exactly terms like “The Emerging Church Movement” (ECM) and its terminological correlates (e.g., emerging, emergence, or emergent) intend to describe.

According to one of Marti and Ganiel’s informants, the ECM is “Christianity for people who don’t like Christianity” (7). The movement—assuming for a moment that it constitutes such an entity—arose in the 1990s in a series of critiques of popular evangelical subcultures, ecclesiology, and theology. Marti and Ganiel define Emerging Christians as a particular group “sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction” and characterize the ECM as “an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization” (25-26). Other social scientists have qualified the phenomena as consisting of (post- or quasi-) evangelical discontents who, experiencing a “severe disenchantment” with broader evangelicalism, engage in a particularly intentional movement of religio-cultural critique (Bielo 2011, 5-6), or as a do-it-yourself, postmodern, inclusive, grassroots, anti-institutional force (Packard 2012). Individuals engaging in these conversations of inevitably structuring, institutional resistance to institution itself often describe themselves as undergoing processes of de-churching (i.e., as de-churched; Packard 2012) or de-conversion (Bielo 2011). Much more might be said about the people who identify through non- or anti-identification maneuvers along these lines. But what I find especially interesting is the secondary, scholarly work that goes into proposing an authoritative definition and subsequent definitional criteria and then determining, via elaborated definitional grids, who counts as part of the proposed order.

Marti and Ganiel, to be sure, are well aware of the issues involved in the positing and defending of secondary taxonomies. “In attempting a social scientific analysis,” the authors clarify early in the introduction to The Deconstructed Church, “we acknowledge that we focus on a set of groups that resist definition.” Such resistance, they continue, is at times even “passionate and obsessive” (5). Few dialogical insiders, further, are willing to define whatever it is that the moniker “ECM” attempts to delineate, as its diverse constituents embrace irony and contradiction and lack “systematic coherence” (5). In fact, “avoiding labels is part of avoiding stigma” and even socio-cultural identities based in rejection of labels might indeed constitute a group identity if enough persons coalesce within and around a similar critical stance. All of this strategic secondary work of naming and defining seems justified, at least to a point. I’d argue, recalling Jonathan Z. Smith, that the job of the scholar is to produce and defend illustrative, second-order, taxonomic terms; classifying for reasons of elucidation and illumination is at the heart of the academic and religious studies endeavor (Smith 1982).

But regardless of the ECM’s amorphous and messy self-descriptions, such ambiguity does not dissuade Marti and Ganiel from formulating a definition. Instead, “rather than noting its ‘anti-institutional’ orientation and succumbing to a hopeless lack of definition,” the scholars delineate not only a definition but a multiple-part characterization of (or criteria list for) the entity (for lists of qualifying attributes or characteristics, see Marti and Ganiel 2014, 29-30; Packard 2012, 7-10, 145-165; Bielo 2011, 10-16). The ECM, then, as a nebulous “congregational movement” (55-56), mostly resists insider definitional clarification even though, as Bielo demonstrates, “The Emerging Church” label itself has emic—not etic—origins. Even though social scientists employ the term, Bielo considers its dubiousness. “The [‘Emerging Church’] label itself is increasingly of little interest to adherents as a meaningful self-identifier,” he writes, “but the movement it was intended to capture continues to thrive” (2011, 5). Here we witness the categorical resistance followed abruptly by a deliberate scholarly adoption or appropriation of the term. Bielo’s strategy, along with those of social scientists to follow, is a secondary maneuver; theological terms become academically productive and useful as they move from native to exterior domains.

Late-modern informants well versed in post-modern, anti-essentialist philosophy and post-colonial theologies don’t often like labels. Ascribing to a particular category is not simply a theological choice made in some imaginary free market arena of American spirituality; self-identifying is a politically laden and significant act, a tactic that requires potential constituents to make close consideration of the implications that aligning with a certain collective will have (and especially a non-traditional, boundary pushing, and theologically suspect one, according to some sectors of evangelicalism). With the use of secondary terms such as emergence Christianity or even “the ECM” we witness emic rejection but subsequent etic adoption, a veritable domain switch in a terminological sense.

“Invention,” a word I used in the title of this response, is surely too strong of an action word to use in this case. But the ECM is nonetheless a thoroughly problematic category. Not many people, if we take the existing works on the phenomenon as standard, self-identify with or see as meaningful proposed (i.e., adopted/adapted) scholarly descriptive terms. But Marti and Ganiel have given us one of the most important analyses to date of a set of events and developments we might at least provisionally agree to categorize under the heading(s) in question. Personally, however, I find questions of terminological genealogy most interesting. Why emerging or emergent church or emergence Christianity as classifications and not, say, post-evangelical or missional as ones? (I wonder if most scholars might agree that the application of entirely generic, social scientific terms, in place of emically derived ones, would prove an unproductive exercise. Don’t our informants need to recognize themselves in the works about them we produce?) In the staking out of what terms denote—academically, secondarily—Ganiel and Marti’s book is a helpful example of the ways scholars and collaborators mete out meaning, in a quasi-collaborative sense, through words, labels, titles, and terminologies in a relational, dialogical, even circular, fashion. No, “invention,” then, is too simple a qualification. We might amend the title of this response, more appropriately, to something like “The Invention of the Emerging Church Movement as a Productive Scholarly Taxon.”

[An extended version of this post can be found at the author’s blog site.]

Works Referenced

 Beckford, James A. 2003. Social Theory and Religion. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bielo, James S. 2011. Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity. New York University Press.

Douglas, Mary. 1980 [1966]. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Marti, Gerardo and Gladys Ganiel. 2014. The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Packard, Josh. 2012. The Emerging Church: Religion at the Margins. Boulder, CO: First Forum Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. The University of Chicago Press.

The Emerging Church

What do you get when you mix a dash of pub culture, a splash of irreverence, a healthy dose of conversation, a smattering of postmodernist critique, a drizzle of discourse on problematic concepts such as ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’, and a host of other eclectic and idiosyncratic ingredients to taste? Depending upon the measures, one possible outcome could be an ideal-typical podcast from your friends at The Religious Studies Project. Prepare in a slightly different manner and your culinary exploits could produce a manifestation of the Emerging Church. However, in the case of the latter, similar results might be obtained from a completely different set of ingredients.

The Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is notoriously difficult to define. What are scholars of ‘religion’ to do with a trend seemingly emerging both within and without many contemporary manifestations of (Western) Christianity, that is both anti-institutional and ecumenical, aims to avoid hierarchies and power structures, embraces creativity, deconstruction and experimentation, and actively promotes a ‘neutral’ and ‘non-judgmental religious space’ where almost anything goes? In this week’s podcast, Chris is joined by Dr Gladys Ganiel to discuss this ‘problematic’, important and boundary-pushing phenomenon.

In The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford, 2014), Ganiel and co-author Gerardo Marti write:

“We define Emerging Christians in terms of sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction. We characterize the ECM as an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization. As such, the ECM is best seen as a mix of both reactive and proactive elements, vying for the passion and attention of Christians and nonbelievers. Emerging Christians react primarily against conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism but also against other forms of traditional Christianity that they have experienced as inauthentic. At the same time, they proactively appropriate practices from a range of Christian traditions […] to nourish their individual spirituality and to enhance their life together as communities.” (25-26)

What is it that makes this movement ‘Christian’? What does it do to traditional understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘secularization’? How does one research such a seemingly diffuse and unbounded phenomenon? Is it only a matter of time before this movement undergoes a process of systematization? These questions and more form the basis of a discussion which took place in May 2014, at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin in Belfast, a couple of days after the 3rd Annual Conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion.

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Religion and memory

The RSP interview with Alexandra Grieser established some useful connections between the study of religion and the study of memory. Probably the most helpful aspect of this relationship is methodological, namely teasing out ways in which the concepts of ‘religion’ and ‘memory’ may be brought into contact, thus opening new ways of inquiry into ‘religion’. But this is also where the greatest pitfalls of this relatively recent ‘cultural turn’ in the study of religion lie.

The relatively late reception of Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s Religion as a chain of memory (French 1993, English 2000) in the English-speaking world of religious studies brought with it a time-lag in the assimilation of the social and historical study of memory which had originated with Durkheim and Halbwachs’ work in the early twentieth century and was picked up in the 1980s in the work of Pierre Nora and Jan Assman. Even in 2011 Tuula Sakaranaho cannot take awareness of the field of social memory studies for granted among the readership of the journal Temenos, and thus he rehearses a few of the (many varied) turns in the study of memory before tentatively outlining its possible relevance to the study of religion.

Sakaranaho, as much as Grieser, seeks to make the study of memory methodologically relevant to the study of religion. Grieser’s interview is strongest when she discusses the relevance of the study of memory in analysing the significance of religion in the creation of a historical past for communities and individuals and the linking of research on religion with research in other fields of the Humanities. Memory as embodied by the particular forms and uses of narrative are relevant here, both in understanding how people relate religious change in their lives and in accessing how religious narratives can be used to interpret the lives of individuals. The value of the study of memory and narrative is most tangible for the scholar of religion not only when social-scientific methods are brought into play but also in contemporary neuroscientific research which focuses on the ‘location’ and ‘shape’ of memory in the brain, seeking to understand precisely what memory is.

However, the noble desire to utilise the study of memory to soften the lurking essentialisation of ‘religion’ by focusing on cultural and contextual specificities of particular expressions and enactments of religion historically, materially, ritually, and intellectually, proves challenging. Grieser maintains that it would be unhelpful to be pulled back into the discussions on the definition of religion, this being a question of disciplinary formation, rather than focusing on exploring relationships between the terms memory and religion. She prefers to use memory to tease out what religion may be in a given context. And yet relating ‘religion’ and ‘memory’ is fraught with the danger of essentialising. Grieser argues that ‘religion’ is invoked as a legitimiser of memory, bestowing authority on narrative, experience, ritual and so on, demonstrating how a group identity can be maintained for millennia through specific strategies of remembrance. This observation of the powerful strategies of remembering (which might helpfully be distinguished from the study of memory) can then be made useful to understand other expressions of collective identity which borrow their strategies of legitimisation from religion, such as modern nationalism. The danger of essentialising ‘religion’ is apparent here, seeing that such analysis relies on the notion of ‘religion’ doing / embodying / rehearsing something. The focus in this description is on ‘religion’ and not on people who may do / embody / or evoke particular articulations of their understanding of ‘religion’. The study of ‘religion and memory’, ‘religion and society’ etc. appear to focus away from the intellectual, bodily, material, or historical practices of people and on abstract categories with all the definitional problems this entails. Hence, the inquiry almost inevitably shifts back to the definition of ‘religion’ and, thereby, of religious studies.

Drawing on neuroscience may at first appear to diffuse the issue of essentialism, though it does have the danger of essentialising ‘memory’ by focusing on its physical embodiment in the brain. Scientific inquiry to locate memory and to explore the differences between animal and human abilities of recall and awareness of things past can be brought into dialogue with interpretations of religion. Grieser suggests that it could be helpful to understand religious systems as answers to the problem of memory, namely between the reality we aspire to as recalled in formative narratives and the reality as we find it. The scholarly focus here would be on the diversity in the approaches taken to bridging this gap. Yet, positing ‘religion’ as an alternative reality which acts as a stabiliser in an unstable world again appeals to a rather essentialised version of religion.

I would suggest an alternative perspective which may have the possibility of avoiding essentialisation of ‘religion’. Rather than seeing ‘religion’ as the norm which is invoked to legitimise, stabilise, or authorise, the focus can be placed on the person appealing to religion or a tradition. Thus one would analyse the appeal to religion as a norm, a tradition which may or may not be known, remembered, or understood by the person invoking it. Then, ‘religion’ as such would not be important, but rather the category ‘religion’ as understood by the practitioner would be the focus. By shifting attention to the performance of religion, neuroscience might help understand the processes in the brain which support or bring forth such practices. This could then lead to better understandings of the workings of memory, the invocation of ‘religion’, and the relations between these, without essentialising strategies.

Bibliography

A Response by James Cox to Bjørn Ola Tafjord on the Classification ‘Indigenous Religions’

Bjorn Tafjord begins his interview for the Religious Studies Project helpfully by outlining three usages of the term Indigenous Religions: 1) as a class or classification into which certain characteristics fit or they do not fit; 2) as a relational, historically conditioned term; 3) as an ethno-political category that has been used, for example, in land claims by indigenous peoples. He does not see these as contradictory ways of speaking of Indigenous Religions, but in many ways as complementary, although towards the conclusion of his interview, he appears to be advocating for a relational-historical use of the term. He makes it clear that how the category is used depends on the context of those employing it, whether academics, colonial or post-colonial powers or indigenous peoples themselves. In other words, no language use is neutral; it always has implications both for those doing the describing and that which is being described.

Bjorn Tafjord claims that one consequence of the way I have defined Indigenous Religions, first in my book From Primitive to Indigenous and then in my own article in my edited book Critical Reflections on Indigenous Religions,as restricted to communities that are kinship-orientated and identified by location or place, is that I have ‘boxed’ them in, or trapped them in a rigid conceptual framework. Only in one sense is this correct, since my intention was to identify unambiguously the meaning of a term about which so much loose language has been employed that in some cases it is impossible to know what content is being conveyed when it is used. We seldom allow such imprecise language in ordinary speech as we do when we employ the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religion’. I am not referring here just in terms of popular understandings or even how the terms are used in the media, but I am drawing attention to the common practice even among academics where frequently the meaning of these terms is simply taken for granted, or at the very least remains entirely implicit. I have argued that we need to begin by stating what we mean by the language we employ, not as a final or definitive claim to have circumscribed a category, but as a pragmatic way of beginning dialogue by being absolutely explicit about our meanings and intentions. Rather than ‘boxing in’ the category ‘Indigenous Religions’ this opens it up by encouraging scholars to clarify their denotative and connotative uses of terms and thereby make it possible to debate their interpretations analytically and critically.

What I find most confusing about Bjorn’s argument, which he makes towards the conclusion of the interview is when, after complaining that the term Indigenous Religions has been reified, he then calls ‘dangerous’ the assumption that Indigenous Religions are the religions of indigenous peoples. He seems to suggest that we need to dissociate the category ‘Indigenous Religion’ from the people who can fit into this classification. This is like saying ‘Christianity’ is a religion devoid of Christians. This doubly confuses the situation by moving the historical study of religion backward at least a century while at the same time re-enforcing the ‘world religions paradigm’. What I think Bjorn wants to suggest is not that we divorce a religion from its adherents, but that for historical and even political reasons we do not imply that indigenous peoples cannot be indigenous if they adhere to Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions with cosmologies that are non-local and that we do not ignore the dynamic interactions that historically have transformed the global and local interactions when religious adherents meet and mutually influence one another. This is how I understand the meaning of the late Kwame Bediako, a leading African theologian, when he claimed that Christianity is Africa’s new indigenous religion. He meant that Christianity had been so transformed in Africa that it had taken on indigenous roots, but at the same time had transformed traditional indigenous world-views. In this sense, of course, the academic study of Indigenous Religions cannot exclude Christian, Buddhist or other historical and relational contexts, but this is not the same as saying that the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religions’ do not refer to those who practise the traditions under study.

This then brings me back to my own definition, which I have always insisted provides a starting-point for discussion. I am fully aware that the study of Indigenous Religions is not a study of ‘disappearing’ peoples. This idea was held quite firmly by early anthropologists such as Baldwin Spencer in Australia who studied the central desert peoples as living remnants of a ‘Stone Age’ people soon to become extinct. By defining Indigenous Religions as focused primarily on ancestors and as rooted in location, I have restricted the term in a way that then opens up wide permutations of ancestral and localised traditions as they are affected by modernity, globalisation, travel and mass communication, including indigenous people living in diaspora and those who, as in the case of the Yoruba of Nigeria, have transmitted their traditions around the world almost as missionaries by providing a universal source of healing and well-being.

I want to add just one last word on the overall interview (not attributable entirely to Bjorn Tafjord), which, if left unstated, would leave the persistent barrage against belief in religion still unchallenged. The current reaction against the role belief plays in religion is built somewhat naively on the assumption that scholars of religion continue to depict, describe and teach religion as if it were obtained from a textbook on systematic Christian theology. This, of course, could be said to characterise flawed earlier books written about the religions of the world, but this does not mean that the cognitive side of religion should be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant. For example, it would be impossible for a spirit medium to go into a trance and for the assembled community to speak to the spirit directly if an underlying belief in the power of spirits to influence human circumstances were not present. It simply would not happen. What we believe affects how we experience the world and how we behave in it. Of course, this is not just a one-directional dynamic: experiences influence beliefs and behaviours, just as behaviours have an impact on our experiences and beliefs. Nonetheless, the current tendency to debunk beliefs as a Protestant left-over is too obvious and does not take into account the complex relationships between cognitions, experiences and actions, as is being shown increasingly within the cognitive science of religion and has been evident in cognitive-behavioural psychology for a very long time.

Religion, threskeia (θρησκεία) and the Return of the Hellenes: On Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion

Ever since the publication of Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion (1962), various scholars have engaged themselves with the issue of religion not being “a universally applicable first-order concept that matches a native discursive field in every culture across time and throughout history” (Nongbri 2013, p. 158). Nongbri’s approach to this issue is influenced by the work of scholars like Talal Asad, Jonathan Z. Smith, Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzerald, Tomoko Masuzawa, and David Chidester to name a few. However, his approach differs, from say Fitzgerald’s, in that he does not dismiss the term altogether. Instead, for Nongbri, the realization that religion is a modern concept with a specific history and that all our concepts are virtually anachronistic when we apply them to antiquity, allows us to use the term ‘religion’ in a more creative way. For example, by drawing on the work of the church historian Eusebius (4th century CE), Nongbri argues that religion is not “the most useful tool for trying to describe ancient practices” since Eusebius was not dividing the world up into different religions.

Writing for an English speaking audience, Nongbri justifiably dedicates most of his work on the Latin term religio from which derives the modern western concept of religion. However, the Greek term threskeia (that one would conventionally translate into English as religion) remains a marginal term both in the field of religious studies and in the discourse on the concept of religion. Nongbri dedicates little space on this term in his work (Nongbri 2013, pp. 34-8), but manages to show its different meanings with references ranging from Herodotus in the 5th century BCE to Photius in the 8th century CE, while he stresses the absence of a detailed study of how the term was used in the Byzantine era. The term threskeia still is the standard term that Greek-speaking people use when referring to religion. The problem of understanding how this particular term was used both in antiquity and during early Christianity within the Greek speaking world is simultaneously at the root of the problems that stem from the very fact that ancient Greek threskeia (arhaia Helleneke threskeia) remains the standard modern Greek terminology employed when referring to ancient Greek religion.

Modern Greeks Re-Enacting Ancient Practices

Modern Greeks Re-Enacting Ancient Practices

A peculiar case that touches upon – and could well be studied with the help of – Nongbri’s work is a relatively new movement in Greece known as The Return of the Hellenes. As Matthew Brunwasser wrote last June on the BBC official webpage, every 21st of June (summer solstice) the members of this movement participate in their annual festival of the Prometheia, a celebration of the Greek Titan Prometheus (see picture below). What is interesting, however, is the statement given to Brunwasser by the founder of the Hellenes movement, the philosophy professor Tryphon Olympios: “They [Orthodox church officials/priests] have understood that we are not dangerous and we are not pagans and Satanists… We are peaceful people that come with ideas that are useful for society”. These religious (theskeutikes) practices that, according to the members of this movement, go “back to the roots” and generate the feeling of “continuation through the millennia” virtually allow people to “identify with something in the past – where they come from – so as to know where they are going”.

Prometheus

Prometheus

 

I find such phraseology extremely interesting and at the same time deeply problematic. One could argue that, like Eusebius, the members of the Hellenes movement do not adhere to a religious but rather to a different classification of the world by seeing the ancient Greek practices (including but not confined to the threskeutikes) as a means of identity formation that link the modern to the ancient Greeks. Herodotus in the 5th century BCE, in describing the Greek nation, spoke of “the common blood, the common language and the common sanctuaries and sacrifices” (Histories 8.144.2). Even though Herodotus does not use the word threskeia in this passage he nevertheless sees the world through the lens of different elements constitutive of a specific group, in this case the Greeks. Likewise, the Hellenes movement acknowledges the importance of both sanctuaries and sacrifices as a constitutive element that links them to the ancient Greeks in, as it were, a Herodotian way. It comes as no surprise, as Brunwasser informs us, that the followers of the movement include “New Age types who revere ancient traditions, leftists who resent the power of the Orthodox Church, and Greek nationalists who see Christianity as having destroyed everything that was truly Greek” (emphasis added).

Nongbri’s work, as I see it, offers a very valuable tool not only in approaching and interpreting the ancient usage of terms such as religio and threskeia and their respective history but also how those ambiguous terms are adopted and used by modern people who long for those ancient practices that scholars label “religious” in order to establish claims that touch upon different matters: from regional politics to ethnicity and from nationalism to anarchism to mention just a few. As with the term religion, threskeia does not so much need a definition but rather an examination of the various connotations that the term employs when in the hands of different people with different agendas. As Russell McCutcheon put it in another podcast published in the Religious Studies Project some time ago, “I am really not interested in what religion is or isn’t or even if there is such a thing that pairs up to that word; instead it’s a word I am using defined in this or that way that allows me to do this or that with the world; that allows me to talk about this versus that”.

I think that Before Religion, which draws heavily on McCutcheon’s work as Nongbri himself acknowledges in his interview, can contribute to the study of those identity formation and classificatory systems employed by people that are today conventionally called neo-pagans. The very fact that the Hellenes and their umbrella group known as the Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes are “campaigning to get their form of ancient worship classed as an “ethnic religion [threskeia]” of Greece” shows in the most vivid way that to define the term threskeia (and religion alike in other places of the world) offers less than the more promising study of the ideologies that accompany the term in its different contexts, both in antiquity and in the modern world.

Tomato: Fruit or Vegetable? Discuss.

Budding theorists may find themselves conscripted into the ideological battles over the nature of religion or, to put a finer point on the argument, how scholarship in religious studies should be done. For even if one has not openly sided with a particular group regarding what ‘religion’ is, it is very likely you do have some inkling regarding how scholarship in religious studies should be done. As Russell McCutcheon notes in this interview one of his teaching texts is a brief opinion from a lawsuit in 1893 (Nix v. Hedden) regarding the nature of tomatoes. Are tomatoes fruits or are they vegetables? And why does it matter?

For the Purposes of…

McCutcheon, like the presiding judge in this case, is not terribly interested in the intrinsic nature or essence of the ‘tomato’ but rather what the tomato will be for purposes of trade and tariffs. This case upheld the Tariff Act of 1883 which did not charge a tax on imported fruit but did charge a tax for imported vegetables. If this case appears to have nothing to do with the battles over ‘religion’ look again and ask what happens when you supplement the word ‘tomato’ with ‘religion.’ Make the categorical division not between ‘fruit’ or ‘vegetable’ but rather envision a litany of possible interpretations such as ‘religion’ is at heart really about wielding knowledge and power, money and manipulation, primordial man’s explanation of the terrors and wonders of the natural world, individual neurosis, or a deep, personal and private encounter with an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity, etc. How quickly seemingly solid categories come unraveled… suddenly, I am much more comfortable becoming an arbitrator on anything, tomatoes included, than on what I supposedly study.

Okay, let’s return to the tomato argument for a moment as perhaps it will shed some light on our predicament. In order to come to a conclusion we must look at precedent (i.e. how has the word been used before). We can also compare dictionary entries and call ‘expert’ witnesses. Oxford Dictionaries even weighs in on the argument… it seems that this issue arose because scientists and cooks use the word differently. According to Oxford Dictionaries, scientifically speaking, a tomato is a fruit. In the culinary world, the tomato is referenced as a vegetable because it is savory. Notice that the argument has morphed from pertaining to what category the tomato is in based on its qualities to a matter of who is doing the speaking.

One need only remember that Gershwin classic “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” to know that how one pronounces a word denotes not just dialectic difference but class distinction as well.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZ3fjQa5Hls]

The tomato has a long and varied history. A native to South America, the term originates from the Nahuatl tomatl. Although recently heralded as a cancer-fighting food, historically the tomato has an infamous reputation.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) Film Poster

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) Film Poster

A member of the night shade family, the tomato has sporadically been labeled as poisonous, or at least suspect, and some naysayers have even gone so far as to dedicate websites to (www.tomatoesareevil.com) or make cult classic films about their true diabolical nature like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. And many readers are probably aware of the tales of throwing rotten tomatoes at bad actors! What may come as a surprise to these same readers is that tourists in Spain can pay $13 to participate in the world’s largest tomato fight!

Who knew that the tomato could be so polarizing?! Who knew this tiny fruit/vegetable could arouse such vitriol?! Fruit? Vegetable? Poisonous? Nutritious? Good? Evil? Is it a panacea or pandemic? It seems that the tomato defies our categories. It appears to transcend barriers. It is irreducible. And yet where are the departments of Tomato Studies? Where are the calls for the study of sui generis Tomato?

So before we sharpen the pitchforks and enter the fray, we should note that this doesn’t seem to be an either/ or (as in a tomato must be either a fruit or a vegetable) battle at all but a squabble addressed best by thinking about context. Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Is it good or evil? My answer to the ‘tomato’ question is one I offer frequently regarding the ‘religion’ question, much to the chagrin of my students, when they ask questions like “are Mormons Christians?”… it depends on who you ask and it depends on the context. And in a classic McCutcheon twist, I might ask them, who gains and who loses if we admit or deny Mormons (or tomatoes) entry into the halls of Christendom (or fruitdom)? And are any Mormons (or grocers or botanists) stopping by our classroom to ask our opinion?

Essence of Tomato

So we may never know the true, deep meaning, of ‘religion’ or ‘tomato.’ ‘Tomato’ as a Platonic ideal may always elude us. ‘Tomato’ like ‘religion’ may defy our categories. By using this example, McCutcheon is pointing out to us that perhaps we are too wedded to our conceptions of sui generis (unique, irreducible, pristine) ‘religion’ to see the social and political implications on our scholarship. Suddenly, the situation is a lot less dire when I apply these same questions to the enigma of the tomato. But before we dismiss the tomato controversy, we need to remember that the above case was judged by the Supreme Court. So, what do we do if declaring the true essence of ‘tomato’ or ‘religion’ is not within our jurisdiction as academics?

The judge in this case, along with McCutcheon, appears to nudge us towards a more terrestrial interpretation. Perhaps we will never know what a tomato, vegetable, or a fruit really is (ontologically speaking) but for purposes of trade and tariff, we can decide what a tomato will be. After all, our categories themselves (fruit and vegetable) as well as the term ‘tomato’ are products of language. Our categories and words could have been otherwise and in other cultures often are. As McCutcheon might argue our categories and words are contingent, conditional, and contextual.

The Problem with Myth

One of the things that has become persistently clear to me throughout my PhD work is that we have to be pedantic about our terminology. The vast majority of our technical terms are used “out there” by people in their everyday lives. But how “they” use a word and how “we” use it can often be markedly different. In fact, how “we” use a word is an overgeneralisation that assumes “we” all use the word in the same way. So as interesting as Paul-François Tremlett’s introduction to the work of Levi-Strauss was, one thing persistently bugged me throughout the interview: what is a myth?

“Myth” is a fairly common occurrence throughout the interview and not once is it defined. Is the meaning of myth so obvious that all the listeners know what it means? Perhaps it might be, perhaps the meaning of myth is self-evident to all who hear the word. But I wonder, while it might be self-evident to many, if pressed on the matter and forced into giving verbal expression would they all say the same thing? Perhaps not:

  • Mircea Eliade:

Every myth shows how a reality came into existence, whether it be the total reality, the cosmos, or only a fragment – an island, a species of plant, a human institution … [it] becomes the paradigmatic model for all human activities’(1957[1987]:97-98).

  • Ninian Smart:

A story which forms the identity of an individual, his/her fellows, and/or the cosmos in which they inhabit (Smart, 1981:26).

  • Alan Dundes:

A myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and man came to be in their present form … The critical adjective sacred distinguishes myth from other forms of narrative such as folktales, which are ordinarily secular and fictional (Dundes, 1984:1).

  • David Leeming:

the expression of a social ethos’ or the ‘basic assumptions that define a person, a family, or a culture – with the informing reality that resides at the centre of being (Leeming, 1990:4).

  • William Hansen:

a traditional oral story of alleged historicity (Hansen, 2002:2-5).

  • Joseph Nagy:

a collectively shared story about supernaturally powerful beings whose adventures and interactions are set in some primeval time before the “historical time” of legend (2002:125)

  • Finally, Levi-Strauss:

a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (1955[1993]:229)

This is to mention but a handful of the various definitions of “myth” and what should be obvious is that they do not all cohere. Hansen and Nagy, for example, in speaking of “primeval time” and “alleged historicity” understand myth as something inherently false. A definition which many argue corresponds to myth’s everyday use: e.g. ‘in ordinary English to say ‘It’s a myth” is just a way of saying “It’s false”’ (Smart, 1969:18). Further, Eliade, Dundes and Nagy confine themselves to an understanding of myth that indicates that it can only occur within religions. But for both Eliade and Dundes the extent to which we apply myth is dependent on a definition of religion which in both cases relies on a definition of “sacred” (and its dichotomous “secular”). And as Bascom points out in Dundes’ volume, the distinction between the sacred and the secular is a fairly messy matter (Bascom, 1984:12). Indeed, could we not then include Evolution and Big Bang as myths? Both explain how the world and man came to be in their present form. Such is certainly possible in the case of Smart, Leeming, and Levi-Strauss. The latter in particular put the point quite vividly: ‘the kind of logic in mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science, and […] the difference lies, not in the quality of the intellectual process, but in the nature of things to which it is applied’ (Levi-Strauss, 1993:230). All that is perhaps consistent across these definitions and more is that myth is a kind of story.

What is interesting about this latter problem – that myth can be applied to religious and non-religious things alike – is that it nevertheless reduces to the former problem of the implied falsity of a myth. But perhaps more vividly than the former problem it gives us good reason not to use “myth” within our scholarly language. Take the following point from Tremlett’s extremely useful introduction to the work of Levi-Strauss: ‘Levi-Strauss argues that what “we” in “the West” call history is in fact myth by another name’ (Tremlett, 2008:56). Conversely, what we call myth is also history. But if so, what difference is there in calling a story myth or history? If Evolution can be called both history and myth what differs between each usage? It is, I suggest, the fact that when we speak, for example, of the Evolution myth we think of something that is false-prone and when we speak of the Evolution theory (here a synonym for history) we think of it as true-prone. The question of which is used depends on who is speaking. Smart points out that an anthology of mythology is unlikely to include the stories of Jesus’ life, death, and rebirth: ‘This is a leftover from Christian (and Jewish and Muslim, be it said) tendencies to treat their own stories as true and historical and other people’s stories as unhistorical and untrue’ (Smart, 1996:130). While Christian stories may well find themselves included in anthologies these days, the point to be taken from this is that for the Christian these stories are true and not regarded as myth. No one, I hazard, thinks of their own stories as myths.

Fitness-Myths

Stealing some terminology from Smart’s “Interpretation and Mystical Experience” (1965[2009]) and applying them to Schutz’s discussion in “Equality and the Meaning Structure of the World” (1957[1964]) I suggest the following: to call something a “myth” is to engage in a particular way of hetero-interpreting the stories of others. Schutz makes a distinction between subjective and objective interpreting. All subjective interpreting is meaning constituted in terms of “Me” or “Us” and all objective interpreting is meaning constituted in terms of “Him/Her” or “Them” (Schutz, 1964:251-257). I replace “subjective” and “objective” here with Smart’s terminology of auto-interpreting and hetero-interpreting. The reason for this is because Schutz accepts that objective interpreting is nevertheless subjective in that it is performed in the “Here and Now”, an idea expounded earlier in “On Multiple Realities” (1945[1962b]). That is, all subjective interpretations are those interpretations which are framed in terms of the “Here and Now” that I occupy. By auto-interpreting I conceive whatever is being interpreted as within my “Here”. Thus my “Here” may extend to a number of fellows (my in-group) when I speak in terms of “We/Us”. By hetero-interpreting something I conceive it as not within my “Here”. Anything that is not “Here” is “There”. But this “There” of the out-group is understood in terms of my “Here”. Underwritten in any positive definition of “Them” is the implied “I/We are not Them”.

Both the in-group and the out-group have their own stories. When auto-interpreting the stories of our in-group we conceive these stories as history (true-prone) because to do otherwise would be to call into question the “Here and Now” we occupy. When it comes to hetero-interpreting the stories of the out-group we can conceive them as either history or myth. The most common reason for calling these hetero-interpreted stories myths is because they contradict the stories that have been auto-interpreted as history. E.g. if Evolution is part of our history, Creation becomes a myth. If the two stories are contradictory and the former has been accepted then the latter must be denied. Insofar as the stories of the out-group do not contradict the stories of the in-group they may be hetero-interpreted as history. The in-group might be quite happy to accept the out-group’s story of a bloke called Jesus who went around preaching. The example of the “Historical Jesus” also indicates the complexity involved in some hetero-interpretations as while there may be universal agreement that Jesus was baptised by St. John and was crucified by Pontius Pilate, other elements of the story of Jesus may still be regarded as myth. The point to be taken is that hetero-interpreting can conclude that stories are history or myth but the same cannot be said of auto-interpreting. If the in-group auto-interprets a story as myth this begs the question of against what this story is being compared to. What happens in moments of “mythicisation” – when history becomes myth – is not auto-interpreting but rather partitioning whereby the in-group is divided into a new in-group and out-group. Such an example would be the inclusion of Christian stories in anthologies of myth. What occurs here is not that the story is auto-interpreted as myth, but rather the stories are removed from the “Here and Now”. This partitioning is affected by shifting the stories “There” if some members of the group try to retain them as history and/or “Then” if the distinction is one between contemporaries and predecessors.

Based on this sketchy argument the point to be emphasised is that even if we accept Levi-Strauss’ line that what “we” call history is really myth by another name it nevertheless does not escape the fact that to call a story myth is to render it false. The critical issue for scholars of religion is how, then, to use “myth”. Can we call a story a myth if the members of that group who tell it do not regard the story in question a myth? Surely to do so would be to treat them as an out-group and in calling those stories myth imply their falsity, and thereby imply the stupidity of the out-group for taking them to be true. The problem here is not in treating them as an out-group. It would be quite unproblematic to speak in terms of myth if we are studying the out-group’s responses to the stories of another out-group. But this involves objective interpretation: interpreting, that Schutz suggests in “Common-sense and Scientific Interpretation” (1953[1962a]), involves no “Here”. Properly speaking the “Here and Now” is never lost, rather the objective interpreter attempts to reconstruct the “Here and Now” of the out-group. The question is whether as scholars of religion we engage in this objective interpretation, or engage in subjective interpretation establishing our own new “Here and Now”, or continue to uphold the wider “Here and Now” of some in-group. The problem of myth is not the term in itself but rather the sort of “Here and Now” from which it is deployed. The recognition of Levi-Strauss and others that myth is no different from history contains within it a call to further reflexivity about the “Here and Now” of we scholars of religion.

References

  • Bascom, W. (1984); “The Forms of Folklore: The Prose Narrative” in Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth; University of California Press, London; pg.5-29
  • Dundes, A. (ed.) (1984); Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth; University of California Press, London
  • Hansen, W. (2002); The Handbook of Classical Mythology; ABC-CLIO, California
  • Leeming, D. (1990); The World of Mythology; Oxford University Press, Oxford
  • Levi-Strauss (1993); “The Structural Study of Myth” in Structural Anthropology vol.1; trans. by C. Jocobson and B. Schoepf; Penguin, Harmondsworth; pg.206-231
  • Nagy, J. (2002); “Myth and Legendum in Medieval and Modern Ireland” in Myth: a New Symposium; ed. by G. Schrempp & W. Hansen; Indian University Press, Bloomington; pg.124-138
  • Schutz, A. (1962a); “Common-sense and Scientific Interpretation of Human Action” in Collected Papers I: The Problem of Social Reality; ed. by M. Natanson; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg.3-47
  • Schutz, A. (1962b); “On Multiple Realities” in Collected Papers I: The Problem of Social Reality; ed. by M. Natanson; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg. 207-259
  • Schutz, A. (1964); “Equality and the Meaning Structure of the Social World” in Collected Papers II: Studies in Social Theory; ed. by A. Brodersen; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg.226-268
  • Smart, N. (1969); The Religious Experience of Mankind; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (1981); Beyond Ideology; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (1996); Dimensions of the Sacred; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (2009); “Interpretation and Mystical Experience” in Ninian Smart on World Religions vol.1: Religious Experience and Philosophical Analysis; ed. by J. Shepherd; Ashgate, Farnham; pg.53-62
  • Tremlett, P.F. (2008); Levi-Strauss on Religion: The Structuring Mind; Equinox, London

Concepts and Symbols, What Does It All Mean? Examining Immigrant Buddhists in Toronto

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 13 November 2013, in response to D. Mitra Barua’s interview on Immigrant Buddhism in the West  (11 November 2013).

Talal Asad, in Genealogies of Religion, sets out an argument by which he hopes to improve upon Clifford Geertz’s anthropological method of examining a culture’s symbols in an effort to analyze the meanings that these symbols hold “of” and “for” a culture’s religious character. He points out that although “[r]eligious symbols… cannot be understood independently of their historical relations with nonreligious symbols…” (53) “It does not follow that the meanings of religious practices and utterances are to be sought in social phenomena, but only that their possibility and their authoritative status are to be explained as products of historically distinctive disciplines and forces. (54) In short, any culture cannot be said to be a fixed point to be dissected as such, but rather, a stream or flow of histories whose “power” and influence received from prior discourse must be taken into account as a process of cultural, and therefore religious, creation.

Webb Keane takes Asad’s emphasis upon socio-historical discourse being a process through which meanings can be analysed and provides a term for this concept that he feels is better able to be wielded by the ethnographer, namely, the utilisation of “semiotic forms”. Semiotic forms, Keane argues, are “social categories” which are “recognizable as something knowable”. He continues, “they must, that is, have some material manifestation that makes them available to, interpretable by, and, in most cases, replicable by other people: bodily actions, speech, the treatment of objects, and so forth.” (114) Seeing as how, for Keane, “[s]emiotic forms are public entities…” they are “objects for the senses…” and “as such, they have distinctive temporal dimensions…” however, “[b]ecause they are repeatable, they have the potential to persist over time and across social contexts.” (114-115). In this specific context, Keane only examines one example of a semiotic form for the sake of illustration- speech; however, Mitra Barua hits upon this exact idea in his conversation with Chris Silver. We start to get an idea of Barua’s work when he tells us of his interest in how Buddhism has been transmitted into new locations (inter-cultural dimensions of Buddhist transmission) and between first- and second-generation immigrants living in diaspora (inter-generational dimensions).

Working with Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhists (presumably Sinhalese) who form a disaporic group in Toronto, Canada, Barua is able to link his work with that of Asad and Keane by adding to his two dimensions of Buddhist transmissions an overall sense of time, or discourse. He identifies three primary historical periods of migration within which he frames his work; namely, the Colonial, Post-Colonial and Diaspora periods. None of these have any ontological purchase independently; rather, only as a spectrum, each blending into the next (ignoring firm historical dates one must assume and only focusing on the state of transmission of teachings which does not generally change, or stop-start, with any firm temporal grounding). His interest lies in how Buddhism has been and continues to be transmitted from older, first-generation migrants who came from Ceylon to Canada, to their children who were raised in Canadian culture; or, inter-cultural and inter-generational dimensions of transmission and the problems that arise therefrom.

What he finds is perhaps a bit unsurprising; the younger generation who have grown up in a “secular”, Western culture have different views and emphases regarding how to balance their secular and their religious livesthan their parents. Additionally, Barua finds that there is a serious concern within the older members of the community regarding the “religiosity” of Buddhism being not only separated out, but also lost in favour of a more secular, functional usage of concepts like samatha/vipassana or group temple worship.

Concerning this worry surrounding the “dilution” of Buddhism that Barua identifies amongst the Buddhist immigrants in Toronto, some important questions arise for scholars of religion as a whole. Throughout the interview terms like “religion”, “faith”, “theology” are thrown about, ironically often in close proximity to discussions on how Buddhism is tied into not just the immigrants religious lives but also and perhaps most importantly their culture. During the first third of the interview, Dr. Barua even explains how these immigrants have changed the adjectives of the Buddhist Eight-fold Path, from “right” speech, thought, action, etc. to “harmonious”. Why does this bi-polarity seem to weigh so heavily on this group of immigrants, on the one hand being self-conscious enough to feel it necessary to change the language of one of their most fundamental principles, while at the same time wanting to save the “religiosity” of Buddhism from complete secularisation? Further, do Christo-centric terms like faith and theology even work within a Buddhist setting, and if not, why does this community feel it useful or indeed necessary to use them? Does the very act of using foreign, Christian terms contribute to the undermining of the very sense of importance and individuality that the Buddhist elders are trying to stave off; and most intriguingly, if religion (in this case Buddhism) is indeed not sui generis but rather, linked wholly with a society’s culture; are these immigrants not so much concerned with the loss of their religion, but instead and more disconcerting, with a loss of their culture and self-identity? In a response to a similar question from Chris Silver, Dr. Barua does give us a related answer when he affirms, that he found these Buddhists to self-identify as indeed in some ways more religious in Canada than they were in Sri Lanka.

By way of conclusion with the understanding that cultural (and therefore religious) symbols and concepts are intrinsically intertwined within the socio-temporal spectrum of a group of people, as scholars of religion some pressing questions now pop up for further inspection, perhaps most importantly are some that are self-reflexive: are we truly Post-Orientalist/Colonialist? Do we, living in primarily First and Second World countries, take for granted our contemporary cultural hegemony? What can we learn about immigrant groups who find their most effective recourse to be utilising OUR terminology to describe THEIR culture? Perhaps the era of colonisation is not quite over.

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

References

  • Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York. Basic Books
  • Keane, Webb. 2008. ‘The evidence of the senses and the materiality of religion’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Volume 14: 110-127.

Ayahuasca as a Gateway Drug (Toward a Less Stigmatized Academic Discussion of Drugs and Religion)

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 6 November 2013, in response to Andrew Dawson’s interview on Santo Daime  (4 Novemberr 2013).

With the presumption that one of the major purposes of the Religious Studies Project is not simply to describe various religions but to act as a focal point for broader discussions of the academic study of religion, I intend to focus my attention on the apparent sticky areas that discussion of Santo Daime seems to move us into rather than on the specifics of Santo Daime itself.  While Andrew Dawson provided an abundance of insightful food for thought on issues of globalization and modernization, it is apparent that the most salient and polarizing feature of Santo Daime is simply that their rituals consist of the use of a hallucinogenic drug.  In fact, I suspect that if Dawson’s research were on a non-drug-using syncretic Brazilian church, it’s very likely that this podcast would never have happened and that very few of us beyond specialists in that arena would pay any attention.  It is the added ayahuasca component that draws both our attention and our suspicion, and I suspect that it is partly the ways in which such substances are characteristically represented to us and the fact that they are typically illegal which influences our, often unconscious and unreasoned, bias against attributions of religious import to drugs or drug-related experiences. The assertion that an experience which takes place while under the influence of a drug should not be construed as having religious import implicitly makes a value-judgment about what true or valid religion can consist of, whereas an examination of how hermeneutic and discursive resources are drawn upon to develop a personal or communal account in which drugs and the experiences they elicit are ‘deemed religious’ (Taves 2009) is likely to provide significantly more analytical purchase.

My goal in this essay is simply to propose that the discussion of the role of ayahuasca in a contemporary Brazilian church may provide a conceptual framework which could be used to advance the level of academic discourse surrounding the use of psychotropic substances into a broader range of contexts in which the consumption of such substances are deemed religious.  As a heuristic effort, then, relative to this goal, I would like to make an attempt to bridge the ethnographic efforts of Andrew Dawson with the theoretical and corrective aims of Wouter Hanegraaff (2012).  To this effect, Dawson is interested in documenting and contextualizing a Brazilian new religion that, in almost every sense, fits our general intuitions and definitions of what constitutes a religion (it’s community-based, it’s about God and communing with spiritual beings, it involves ritualized communal services, it has a founder who is understood to have been divinely inspired, etc.).  Hanegraaff, with a much broader scope, is interested in overcoming an academically-untenable and methodologically-inconsistent negative response to emic attributions of religious significance to the use of drugs as well as to attempts at etic analysis of the same.  As Hanegraaff notes, “The ‘drugs’ category… causes [such beliefs and practices] to be associated with hedonistic, manipulative, irresponsible, or downright criminal attitudes, so that claims of religious legitimacy are weakened even further” (Hanegraaff 2012, 395).  In contrast to such dismissive attitudes, Hanegraaff endorses an approach which would “treat entheogenic esotericism as just another form of contemporary religion that requires our serious attention” (Ibid).

Editor’s insertion: The album cover Entheogenic’s self-titled album “Entheogenic” (simply because it seemed tangentially relevant, and Chris and Kevin both like them, and think they’re worth checking out!)

The term ‘entheogen’, which Hanegraaff has taken up in discussing this issue, is itself a very good example of the need for a proper academic study of the place of drug-use in the contemporary religious world.  It was expressly coined in an emic framework intended to reorient the discussion of these substances away from terms stressing psychological or sensory effects toward a discourse in which the substances were understood to possess distinctly religious import.  One of the originators of the term, Gordon Wasson, defined it as “’God within us’, those plant substances that, when ingested, give one a divine experience, in the past commonly called ‘hallucinogens’, ‘psychedelics’, ‘psychoto-mimetics’, etc, to each of which serious objections can be made” (Wasson 1980, xiv).  In the face of such obvious efforts of individuals to frame their drug experiences in religious terms, what possible objection could there be to analyzing such instances with all of the theoretical force that a Religious Studies perspective can muster toward the effort?

What I would like to suggest (which struck me as I was listening to this interview) is that opening the door to the discussion of drugs and religion with examples such as Santo Daime and research such as Dawson’s might provide a stepping stone that could allow us to face and address some of the broader and more contentious issues regarding drugs and the study of religion.  Since Santo Daime, without the ayahuasca, fits very easily into almost any academic definition of religion, we can, perhaps, begin to discuss the ‘drug issues’ that inevitably arise but do so in a less contested space before moving the discussion further on into the role of drugs in even more challenging areas of research in the academic study of religion, such as ‘alternative,’ ‘esoteric,’ ‘occult,’ ‘new age,’ ‘popular,’ and similar such amorphous religious frameworks.  Hanegraaff’s chapter on ‘entheogenic religion’ focuses very much on this latter grouping and it is in this milieu (which is often understood to be highly individualistic and shallow) that we are more likely to encounter the kinds of accusations of hedonism and irresponsibility that he expresses concern over.  So, perhaps Santo Daime can be used as a bridge to allow for the venting of worries about drugs on the way toward achieving Hanegraaff’s goal of opening up a perfectly legitimate, prevalent, influential, and, ultimately, theoretically fruitful object of study, which has so often be treated with misapprehension, suspicion, derision, or simply dismissed as unimportant.

Dawson himself suggests a similar ‘bridging’ aim in discussing his underlying interest in “the ways in which the rather exotic, non-mainstream profile of Santo Daime allows us to think about what constitutes religion, religious belief, religious practice in a new way.”  While my own essay is, in effect, an endorsement of this very effort, to use Santo Daime as a heuristic means of addressing broader trends, I take the need for this statement to be incredibly unfortunate in that I don’t believe that the existence of contemporary drug-use, even if it is understood to be ‘exotic’, requires thinking newly about what constitutes religion (though we should certainly continue to do that, as well).  As far as I can tell, there seems to be very little reason to suspect that Santo Daime should be an issue for any of the most prominent contemporary academic definitions of religion.  It involves belief in God and putative engagement with spiritual beings.  It involves communal ritual participation relative to those beliefs.  It is Catholic.  It is soteriological.  It is international.  It is acknowledged by national governments as a religious organization.  As Dawson points out, when you get over the sensationalized notion of Santo Daime as a “drug-fueled religion,” you find that “they are, in many ways, quite traditional in appearance when you look at what goes on.”  In other words, in the case of Santo Daime, it is predominantly the use of drugs that gives people pause.

So, if, as Dawson has admirably done, we can communicate clearly and effectively that a psychotropic substance plays a fundamental role in an otherwise patently obvious example of religion (although, I suppose diminutive reactions to syncretism are also not uncommon), then we stand in a better position to move onto a more mature further discussion of the religious significance of drugs in our own cultures and countercultures where attitudes are typically more highly contentious, as is apparent when Santo Daime attempts to find a home in countries with negative overall views on drug-use (typically excepting alcohol and other already sanctioned drugs).

Assessments of the validity of the source of a religious attribution is not the prerogative of the scholar of religion, or, at best, is relatively uninteresting theoretically.  If someone tells us that drugs or the experiences they render are understood to possess religious import, especially if they then orient their lives around that understanding and influence others to take up a similar position, then there is no case to argue, “but it was only a drug experience.”  For all of the analytical purchase that such a stance provides us, we may as well tell a Catholic at mass, “but it’s only a wafer.”  Such appellations tell us little about the cognitive, social, historical, and other factors which lead the psychonaut or Catholic to hold the religious attributions that they do and even less about how the experience and attribution affect their lives and behavior.  If an informant tells me that he was divinely inspired on a mushroom trip, I wouldn’t bat an eye any more than if he told me that he was divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit during communion.  That is his attribution to make and mine to document and analyze.  In fact, as a scholar of religion, the primary data of import is that he did, in fact, make that attribution.  Our informants provide us with the data about what is and isn’t deemed religious.  If people are telling us, in unequivocal terms, that they attribute religious meaning to their drug experiences, we trivialize them not at our peril but merely at our bias, and in doing so we miss out on important data about the religious lives of a large number of people in the contemporary world who may hold more of a sway over the collective imagination than many might think.  For instance, to use my own research as an example, the recent bout of millennialist expectations for the year 2012 was developed in and propagated by circles of entheogenic enthusiasts, and it is actually very difficult to understand the development of that widespread millennial phenomenon without understanding and addressing the role of drug-experiences in the production of prophecy.  In fact, in many cases, it was the very fact that the prophecy was understood as having arisen from a drug-experience that was seen by an audience as assuring its authenticity.  If we close our eyes to the religious import of drugs in a globalized modern context, there are significant religious phenomena in the world that we will simply fail to see and thereby fail to take into account in our models.

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

References

  • Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 2012. “Entheogenic Esotericism.” In Contemporary Esotericism, edited by Egil Asprem and Kennet Granholm. Sheffield: Equinox.
  • Taves, Ann. 2009. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. 1980. The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Situational Belief

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David and Martin Stringer (and Eileen Barker) in the Great Hall of Durham Castle!

“Belief” is a critical category in the study of religion. Indeed, for some scholars, it is the very essence of religion; as Clifford Geertz wrote, “To know, one must first believe.” Others, however, see the emphasis on belief as part of the Protestant bias in the development of the discipline, and have proposed various ways of avoiding talking about it at all. In this interview recorded at the recent SOCREL conference in Durham, Martin Stringer explains his model of situational belief to David, and explains how it not only better represent how beliefs actually function for individuals, but also challenges preconceived notions of what “religion” “is” in several ways.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

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Professor Martin Stringer is Professor of Liturgical and Congregational Studies and Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham. He trained as a social anthropologist, and his research has focused on Christian groups in the UK and diversity among inner-city communities. His theoretical approach is to use anthropological methods of ethnography in detailed and extended studies of real life situations, where he believes religion can be most fruitfully understood.

His recent publications include Rethinking the Origins of the Eucharist (SCM, 2011) and A Sociological History of the Christian Worship (Cambridge University Press, 2005). However, of particular relevance to this interview is Contemporary Western Ethnography of the Definition of Religion (Continuum, 2008). Also of interest is his paper ‘Towards a Situational Theory of Belief’ (Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, Vol XXVII, No 3, Michaelmas 1996, pp217-234).

Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies

How we can position the study of non-religion within the discipline of Religious Studies? Sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Those of you who have been listening to the Religious Studies Project for some time will be somewhat familiar with the emerging sub-field of ‘non-religion’ studies. Perhaps you have listened to our podcast with Lois Lee, the founder of the Non-religion and Secularity Research Network, and wanted to know more? Or maybe you have heard Chris’s incessant ‘yes, but what about the ‘ non-religious?’ question in interviews and roundtables and wondered what this all has to do with Religious Studies? Whether or not either of these happened, we hope that you will enjoy this roundtable discussion with Dr Louise Connelly, Christopher Cotter, Dr Frans Jespers, Ethan Quillen, Dr Steven Sutcliffe, and Dr Teemu Taira.

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At the suggestion of Dr Steven Sutcliffe, Chris convened a group of scholars to discuss the study of non-religion within a Religious Studies framework. How do we define non-religion? What does such a demarcation have to offer our discipline? What is the scholar’s role in assigning labels such as ‘religious’ or ‘non-religious to individuals or groups who may eschew such labels? Are the ‘spiritual but not religious’ to be considered ‘non-religious’? And why would we even want to use the term ‘non-religion’ anyway? These questions and more form the basis of what became quite a lively discussion.

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

 

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, oracademia.edu page for a full CV.

Frans Jespers is associate professor of Science of Religion at the Faculty of Theology of Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands (Frans, please do send a bio when you get a chance – sorry about our lack of information in English!)

 

 

Steven Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh where he teaches and researches in the areas of ‘new age religion’ and ‘holistic spirituality’, in the effects of the discourse and practice of ‘religion’ in contemporary culture and society, and on theory and method in the study of religion, including the history of its modern academic study. He is the author of Children of the New Age, editor of Religion: Empirical Studies, and co-editor (with Marion Bowman) of Beyond the New Age.

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

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see www.teemutaira.wordpress.com.