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UFOs, Conspiracy Theories… and Religion?

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

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

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

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 1 March 2016

Calls for papers

Freedom of/for/from/within Religion: Differing DImensions of a Common Right?

September 8–11, 2016

Oxford, UK

Deadline: March 31, 2016

More information

Public Religions and Their Secrets, Secret Religions and Their Publics

October 27–28, 2016

University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 1, 2016

More information: Conference, Master Class

CHAOS-symposium: Religion og materialitet

April 29–30, 2016

University of Bergen, Norway

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information (Norwegian)

AAR panel: Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

AAR panel: Religion, Media, and Culture Group

Deadline: March 1, 2016

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

More information

Events

Religious Diversity and Cultural Change in Scotland: Modern Perspectives

April 19, 2016

University of Edinburgh, UK

More information

Les Politiques du Blasphème: Perspectives Comparées

March 7, 2016

Paris, France

More information

Postgraduate Workshop on the Materiality of Divine Agency in the Graeco-Roman World

August 29–September 2, 2016

University of Erfurt, Germany

Deadline: May 31, 2016

More information

Open Access

Open Theology: Cognitive Science of Religion

Available here

Jobs and funding

Postdoctoral teaching fellowship

Kenyon College, OH, USA

Deadline: March 25, 2016

More information

Lecturer in Hebrew

University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

Deadline: April 30, 2016

More information

University Lectureship in Anthropology and Islamic Studies

Leiden University, The Netherlands

Deadline: May 18, 2016

More information

Editor: Shambhala and Snow Lion Publications

Boulder, CO, USA

Deadline: May 17, 2016

More information

Assistant professor of Religious Studies

Utrecht University, the Netherlands

Deadline: March 11, 2016

More information

Instructor in Religion and Culture

Virginia Tech, VA, USA

Deadline: March 14, 2016

More information

AAR-Luce Fellowships in Religion and International Affairs

Deadline: March 31, 2016

DC, USA

More information

Dean of Graduate Jewish Studies

Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership

Deadline: May 22, 2016

More information

Postdoctoral Fellow in Judaic Studies

Virginia Tech, VA, USA

March 14, 2016

More information

Funding

CSA Research Fellowship

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Two fully funded PhD positions, one Postdoctoral position in the Study of Religions

Creative Agency and Religious Minorities: “Hidden galleries” in the secret police archives in 20th Century Central and Eastern Europe

University College Cork, Ireland

Deadline: April 22, 2016

More information: PhDs, Postdoc

 

Discursive Approaches and the Crises of Religious Studies

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

Bruce Lincoln and Titus Hjelm, and feature essays by Ethan Quillen, David Gordon White, Martin Lepage, Emily Stratton, and Craig Martin. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, wooden chess sets, monkey nuts, and more!

Conference report: Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics

The postgraduate “Conference on Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics” was held 11-12 of September 2015 at the University of Aberdeen, in Aberdeen, Scotland. The conference was sponsored by the College of Arts and Social Sciences and Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law, University of Aberdeen. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

"Rethinking Boundaries" 2015 conference

“Rethinking Boundaries” 2015 conference

The conference included keynote talks from both Timothy Fitzgerald and Abby Day; it also included over 30 postgraduate presentations, workshop sessions offered by Aberdeen staff, and lots of tea breaks that allowed for participants to get to know each other, all within the walls of the historic King’s College. The conference was multidisciplinary and provided a place for participants to engage in dialogue on how to think about boundaries in the study of religion and politics (e.g. religious/secular, private/public, belief/practice and theism/atheism).

The conference began with a keynote address from Timothy Fitzgerald, Reader in Religion, University of Stirling, entitled “Religion and Politics as Modern Fictions.” Fitzgerald argued that liberal journalists and academics, while attempting to provide factual reportage, tend unconsciously to reproduce ancient “us and them” narratives. Fitzgerald described a basic discourse among journalists that legitimates rational liberal modernity against all perceived forms of backwardness and irrational barbarity (e.g. Fitzgerald offered the example of western views of Islamic countries). In western discourse, he said, the assumption is that faith, unlike nonreligious secularity, has a propensity to irrational violence. Thus western discourse pits rational western civility against the other’s medieval barbarity and western secular logical reasonableness against the other’s inability to settle their differences through negotiation, free market relations, and respect for private property. He drew attention to what he called “myths of the modern,” with one example being the distinction between the religious and the nonreligious secular, and explained how these myths are perpetuated by a range of agencies, including the media, politicians, and academics, but also including constitutions and the courts.  According to Fitzgerald, the problem with these “us and them” narratives is that “nations”, “geopolitics”, and “faith” are used in academic discourse and public rhetoric as if their meanings are self-evident and universal in their application, whereas Fitzgerald feels any claim to universal truth is problematic (for example, Fitzgerald holds that there is no true meaning of the term “God” outside someone’s or some community’s assertion that there is). Fitzgerald argued that the secular/religious binary also needs to be seen as an ideological position (rather than a self-evident truth), as the secular/religious binary is usually argued from a secular perspective (here he critiqued Edward Said, author of the famous Orientalism, on the basis that Said does not deconstruct secular reason and its dichotomous relation to religion and fails to see his secular/religious binary as an ideological position).

Timothy Fitzgerald

Timothy Fitzgerald

The postgraduate presentations were diverse. My presentation on “Intra-Evangelical Conflict on the Topic of Islam” fell within the session entitled “Conceptions of Islam” which also included a thoughtful presentation from the conference organizer Sarah Hynek on “Approaching the Categories of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.” But the conference was certainly not entirely focused on Islam, and it also included sessions on a variety of topics such as “Approaching Atheism and New Atheism” and “Shaping Congregations.”

One of the most controversial postgraduate papers presented at the conference came from Armen Oganessian, who is pursuing a PhD in Divinity at Aberdeen. Oganessian proposed that if we were to view politics, or the public sphere, as a “marketplace of ideas,” that would allow us to move beyond the religious/secular binary that dominates western thought. In this “marketplace of ideas” framework, we should view all ideologies, concepts, or moralities as having a societal value, and politics as a kind of flea market for any given worldview to sell their perspective on how to govern the society. This framework frees religious thought of its unfair stereotype of only being suited for one’s private life, putting it on an even footing with all other worldviews.  This would mean, for example, that the Buddhist would have the right, just like the socialist, to construct a foreign policy based on the beliefs and morals of his worldview and then have that policy be evaluated solely on its potential effects on the society (societal value) rather than on its religious underpinnings. Then any given individual, any given member of the said society, would be able to “purchase” either the Buddhist’s or the socialist’s–or parts of either’s—foreign policy. Then that foreign policy, or the parts of a foreign policy, most frequently purchased would be the ones adopted by the society, whether it be religious or not. Oganessian’s marketplace of ideas was highly criticized during the question and comment period. One critic argued that the “marketplace of ideas” would inherently favor capitalism. Some questioned the individual’s intellectual purchasing capabilities (e.g. people are too stupid to decide for themselves where to shop). Another critic argued that had Europe gone with the popular ideals of the Catholic Church, Europe would still be in the Dark Ages—a point with which Oganessian disagreed, noting that we cannot predict what would have happened with certainty and mentioning the possibility that perhaps we would be more advanced now.

Johan Rasanayagam hosted a workshop on “Approaching the Category of Islam.” Johan undergirded the workshop with readings from Talal Asad on The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam and Samuli Schielke on Second Thoughts About the Anthropology of Islam, or How to Makes Sense of Grand Schemes in Everyday Life. The workshop explored the issue of how to study Islamic communities without making Islam the object. Rasanayagam described his own personal research, which focuses on Muslims in Uzbekistan and what their moral understanding is of what it means to be a Muslim. He found that for some Uzbekistani Muslims, “being Muslim” might involve activities that one would typically think of as religious or Islamic –like going to the mosque, fasting, etc.  But for many it also involves being a good neighbor, marrying their kids off properly, contributing to the community—basically, according to Rasanayagam, just being a good person. So the conclusion Rasanayagam came to at the end was that Islam, if it ever becomes an object at all, only becomes so within the moral self of one particular Muslim and that one Muslim’s “Islam” is different from every other Muslim’s “Islam.” According to Rasanayagam, when one tries to make Islam an object it automatically loses value and distorts reality. Thus, Rasanayagam ended up moving away from “Islam” and looking at the formation of moral selves, who just happen to be Muslim. Rasanayagam argued that rather than looking at the Muslim community or Islam, one should focus on the process by which something comes into being and continues.

Two other workshops were included: ‘Identity and Belief/Non-Belief” led by Marta Trzebiatowska and “Religion and Politics as Categories of the Modern State” led by Trevor Stack.

Abby Day

Abby Day

The conferences ended with a keynote address from Abby Day, Reader in Race, Faith and Culture, Goldsmiths University of London, on “Believing in the Future: The Religious and Non-religious Stories Young Adults Tell.” Day shared her findings from researching “Generation A” (grandmothers of Generation X) and the story of decline of mainstream Protestant Christianity mainly in the UK. Day contrasted these older women and the younger generation that they raised and how Generation A vs. Generation X differ on what they want from religion and what can be learned about religious change. Much of the conference content sympathized with the postmodern distrust of language and sought to deconstruct words/phrases such as “belong to a faith community,” “God,” and “Islam.” The conference left me with questions about how constructive deconstructing is and how far it may distance our research from the everyday reality of those we are researching. Can a distrust of language be solved with more language?

As with all multidisciplinary exchanges, it was refreshing and challenging for scholars to learn from the research of others in different fields.

 

“The Study of Religions in Ireland: People, Places, Projects” – 2015 ISASR Conference Report

“The Study of Religions in Ireland: People, Places, Projects” Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions (ISASR), Trinity College Dublin, May 11th 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Dr. Eoin O’Mahony, Department of Geography, St Patrick’s College DCU

The fourth annual conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions took place at Trinity College Dublin on May 11th. It was organised in association with the Trinity Long Room Hub Art & Humanities Institute and sponsored by the Department of Religions & Theology, TCD. This year, it took a novel turn. In place of an event over two or three days, it was in the form of a research slam, a format set to test the garrulous nature of the academic. This was to take account of the IAHR Congress in Erfurt later this summer. Following an opening address from the outgoing president of the Association, Dr. Patrick Claffey, the slam began in earnest. The Society has a relatively small number of members but we had twelve presentations, seven minutes and one carefully monitored countdown clock.

Chris Heinhold (University of Chester) told us about his theory-building approach to investigating modern British Shia identity. Chris is about to embark on intensive fieldwork but has already noted how being part of a diaspora is performative. As a researcher and migrant himself, he has made attempts to build a flexible theory based on data collection. How culture is remembered and mythologised formed the centre of the contribution by Deirdre Nuttall (independent researcher). The stories we tell ourselves influence the way we act and the story of Ireland has been told largely through Roman Catholic action. She has found that the lives of a working class Protestant minority are largely absent from the folklore archives. Early attempts at nation building in Ireland reinforced a Catholic retelling of the myths at the expense of a shrinking Protestant minority.

Dr. Jenny Butler presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

Dr. Jenny Butler presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

In further tales of cultural erasure, Jenny Butler (University College Cork) told us about Irish fairy beliefs. She is trying to address the academic deficit in this subject. In most academic studies of Irish culture, the focus is on fairy beliefs as “explaining away” rather than as an animistic worldview; for example, there is a focus on folk stories in which fairies are blamed mostly for the ill-effects of human interaction with nature and fairies were often said to be the cause of infant loss or disability and even bad harvests. Her dialogical and anthropological approach is making an attempt to plait strands of research that currently run in parallel.

Lawrence Cox (Maynooth University) brought us on a lyrical journey of the lives of Buddhist monks from Ireland to Asia. He narrated these accounts through the letters sent by these monks in a poetic stroll through space and time. Tadhg Foley (NUI Galway) told us about the wanderings of Max Arthur McAuliffe. McAuliffe’s efforts to avoid responsibility for his progeny was bested only by his commitment to translating Sikh holy texts. Christopher Cotter (Lancaster University) brought us on a technical journey across continents. Christopher walked us through the process by which the Religious Studies Project manages content and podcasts across time zones and continents using online collaborative software.

RSP Editor Christopher Cotter presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

RSP Editor Christopher Cotter presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

Ireland’s missionary past was recalled in a presentation by (UCC’s) Yuwu Shan. His new research on the Columban missions to China over the course of 150 years shows us that globalisation is not necessarily a recent phenomenon. Through the archive available to him in Dalgan Park, the Columban order’s world headquarters based in Kildare, Ireland, Shan brought their long history in China to life. He is working with photographs and other material to reconstruct the efforts of the holy order navigating turbulent political revolution. Colette Colfer (WIT) and I outlined our initial data from a new project mapping the warehouse worship spaces of Dublin and Waterford, two very different cities. Our work is focused on the ways that warehouses form community around Pentecostal churches and mosques, often defying a visible centrality usually reserved for religious space in Ireland, a majority Catholic country. We are planning a lot more fieldwork. Alexandra Greiser (Trinity College Dublin) told us about transhumanism and how it may be developing into a new universalism through a scientific discourse. This forms part of a larger project she is working on that will take a comparative perspective and a possible account of multiple modernities. Bringing the universal to the local, Vlad Kmec (UCD) told us about his research on the formation of religious identity among migrants to Ireland. He is conducting focus groups with young people and adults among the Czech and Polish communities to examine the functional and substantive roles of religion in migrant lives.

Eoin O'Mahony and Colette Colfer. Photo by James Kapalo.

Dr. Eoin O’Mahony and Colette Colfer. Photo by James Kapalo.

Olivia Wilkinson (TCD) is interested in the role of faith based organisations in disaster relief efforts. She has conducted extensive participatory methods in her fieldwork in the Philippines as a way to examine what is counted as faith based in the post-Haiyan aid process. What gets prioritised and, perhaps more importantly, what does not is of central concern to her research. James Kapaló (UCC) told us about a relatively new network called the Marginalised and Endangered Worldviews Study Centre. Its main work is to build comparative perspectives on these endangered of marginalised worldviews and their cultural expressions. The projects here are engaged forms of research and encouraging of a counter-hegemonical perspective for these forms of knowledge. Some were running to the seven minute bell, others seemed to have timed it perfectly to 6 minutes and 57 seconds.

Our slamming over, Brian Bocking (outgoing secretary) recalled for us how far the academic study of religions in Ireland had come in a few short years. Brian has been instrumental in founding and developing the ISASR, as well as the Department of Study of Religions at UCC (the only department of its kind in Ireland) and in his short lecture, summarised for us why the academic study of religions remains vital. He drew a crucial distinction using an analogy between astrology and astronomy. For astrologers, a cosmological system of belief in the power of star alignment forms the basis for earthly action. Among astronomers, the gathering of evidence about the composition of star systems helps us to understand our place in the universe. Both are concerned with the stars but equally both observe from a position of relative powerlessness over their object of study. The academic study of religions, in this way, is just as bound by tradition and human agency as their confessional co-researchers in Theology.

The day’s proceedings were rounded off with a book launch. The book, Muslims in Ireland: Past and Present (Edinburgh UP), is the first complete study of a little known Muslim presence in Europe. Two of its five editors, Oliver Scharbrodt (Univ. of Chester, formerly UCC) and Tuula Sakaranaho (Univ. of Helsinki) spoke about the purpose of the book, its meaning to the academic study of religions in Ireland. Its remaining editors, Adil Hussain Khan (Loyola University, New Orleans), Vivian Ibrahim (Univ. of Mississippi) and Yafa Shanneik (Univ. of Chester, formerly UCC) were acknowledged. Edinburgh University Press sponsored the reception that followed and the Silk Road Café provided wonderful food. The conference as a whole points to a secure future for the small and yet vital academic study of religions in a country with a long tradition of theological investigation. It is not that one pushes the other out of the light of investigation. Rather, it is the academy investing itself with a way to specify the meaning, location and features of religious culture.

“Societies in Transition: Progression or Regression?” – BSA Conference Report

“Societies in Transition: Progression or Regression?” British Sociological Association (BSA), University of Glasgow, 15-17 April 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Rachel Hanemann.

The British Sociological Association’s conference was held this year at the University of Glasgow.  The conference theme was “Societies in Transition: Progression and Regression, although many of the papers I saw raised questions about transition, but showed a sociologist’s reticence to comment on the positivity or negativity of one’s observations.

Amanda Duymaer van Twist and Titus Hjelm at Glasgow City Chambers. Photo courtesy of Titus Hjelm.

Amanda Duymaer van Twist and Titus Hjelm at Glasgow City Chambers. Photo courtesy of Titus Hjelm.

The three keynote lectures centred on underprivileged or oppressed groups in transition.  Alice Goffman (University of Wisconsin-Madison) spoke about her book On the Run, exploring the criminalization of young black men in the United States.  Colin Samson (University of Essex) spoke on “The Idea of Progress and Indigenous Peoples: contemporary legacies of an enduring Eurocentric prophecy”, examining the historical treatment of non-European indigenous peoples at the hands of European ideas of progress.  Samson then used this historical lens to discuss the contemporary situation of the Innu peoples of the Labrador-Quebec Peninsula in Canada. Guy Standing (SOAS, University of London) spoke on “The Precariat’s Magna Carta: from denizens to citizens”, outlining a “Precariat Charter” for today’s precariat, a class of millions of people experiencing a diversity of insecurities and being denied identity.

As always, the streams and papers featured at the BSA were varied and numerous.  Although it was impossible to see them all, one highlight for me was the Sociology of Religion stream, particularly those papers that proposed new methods or areas of research.  Titus Hjelm’s (University College London) talk, “Towards a Discursive Sociology of Religion and the State”, proposed a “discursive sociology” approach to religion-state relations, broadening the focus from legislative outcomes to the act of legislation, the discussions, processes and negotiations that produce policy outcomes.  Peter Hemming (Cardiff University) spoke on “Faith-Based Schooling in Rural Communities”, pointing out that larger discussions about urban, multi-faith school communities exclude the small, rural Anglican primary schools that make up the majority of faith-based schooling in the UK.  Tim Hutchings (Durham University) spoke on “The Bible in (Virtual) Community: Accountability in Digital Religion”.  Hutchings first summarised the findings from his research on the Youversion Bible App, before asking questions about religious authority online.  The Scoiology of Religion stream plenary featured Steve Bruce (University of Aberdeen) speaking about the decline of religion in Britain.

The Race, Ethnicity, and Migration stream on Islamophobia also bears mention.  Shamim Miah (University of Huddersfield) discussed “Trojan Horse and the Racial State: Race, Religion and Securitisation”, arguing that the Trojan Horse controversy led to the embedding of a particular secularization agenda in Britain’s schools.  Aurélien Mondon’s (University of Bath) and Aaron Winter’s (University of East London) talk, “Breaking Taboos or Strengthening the Status Quo: Islamophobia in the Name of Liberalism in France and America” presented a fascinating account of the role of liberal Islamophobia, which couches attacks on Islam in a pseudo-progressive position of protecting liberal freedoms, in political and cultural discourse in France and America, as well as in the UK.  Finally, Tania Saeed (University of Oxford), spoke on “Islamophobia: Experiential Accounts of Pakistani and British Pakistani Muslim Women in England.”  Her talk focused on the individual lived experience of a number of women, highlighting the intersection between race, ethnicity, and religion in public perception.  The three papers worked well together as commentaries on Islamophobia at the levels of legislation, media and public discourse, and individual experience.

Pierre Bourdieu’s work was heavily present at this year’s BSA conference, as numerous Twitter discussions of “theorist BINGO” pointed out.  The Sociology of Education stream featured a panel on the application of Bourdieu’s habitus to the social sciences, in which Cristina Costa (University of Strathclyde), Cirian Burke (Ulster University), Alan France (University of Auckland), and Mark Murphy (University of Glasgow) offered methodological examples of the application of a Bourdieusian framework from their own research on education.  In the Sociology of Religion stream, M. Angelica Thumala Olave (University of Edinburgh) presented her work with Susie Donnelly (University of Edinburgh), asking “With or without Bourdieu?  The Uses of His Approach for the Study of Religious and Cultural Change”.

The Presidential event, held at the end of the final day, asked the question, “Is there a British society?”  President Lynn Jamieson (University of Edinburgh) chaired a panel of Michael Rosie (University of Edinburgh), Nasar Meer (University of Strathclyde), Ann Pheonix (IOE, University of London), and Aaron Winter (University of East London), who gave brief responses before opening the discussion to the floor.  Ann Phoenix effectively summed up the discussion with her response, “Is there a British society?  Yes…there are many!”

Sufism

Like any religious tradition, the Islamic tradition is made up of countless groups and subgroups that interpret, enact, and commit to the materials of their tradition differently. Although focus is often placed on divisions between Sunni and Shi’a communities, one of the most fascinating modalities of belonging within Islam is that of Sufism, all the more interesting because Sufi sensibilities can extend across the full spectrum of Muslim identities. Sufism is often defined as a “mystical” tradition that shares similarities with forms of mysticism from other traditions in the way that in conceptualizes the nature of divinity and the nature of human understanding.

In this interview, Milad Milani discusses the basic orientation and history of Sufi thought. He also speaks about the diverse national variations of Sufism, particularly with respect to Iranian (or “Persianate”) Sufism. The interview concludes with a few critical remarks on the questionable appropriation of Sufism in contemporary Western discourses on 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, rubber ducks, vacuum cleaner bags, and more.

The Critical Study of Religion

In this interview, Professor Bruce Lincoln from the University of Chicago Divinity School discusses a variety of topics including werewolves, critical theory, pedagogy, and his self-imposed estrangement from the academic study of religion. Dr. Lincoln is a well-known and influential scholar of religion who completed his doctorate from the University of Chicago where he studied with Mircea Eliade. He then taught for many years at the University of Minnesota before he returned to the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, where he is the Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions. According to his biography on the University of Chicago’s website, “His research tends to focus on the religions of pre-Christian Europe and pre-Islamic Iran, but he has a notoriously short attention span and has also written on a bewildering variety of topics, including Guatemalan curanderismo, Lakota sun dances, Melanesian funerary rituals, Swazi kingship, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Marco Polo, professional wrestling, Persian imperialism, the theology of George W. Bush, and comparative demonology.” What underlying theme or methodology holds together this diverse body of work?

As Dr. Lincoln discusses in this interview, he is interested in the constructed nature of society. “I think society is a project,” he said, “rather than an entity that exists by nature.” From this foundation, Lincoln isolates a variety of specific instances in multiple places and times where people appeal to religious discourse to legitimate their local interests. Religion, for Lincoln, is a thoroughly human phenomenon. To demonstrate this, it requires the type of critically-informed analysis that Lincoln seldom finds in 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, professional wrestling DVDs, werewolves, and more.

But Mountains, Dammit!

Titus Hjelm’s book Social Constructionisms: Approaches to the Study of the Human World is a fantastic introduction to the topic of “social constructionism.” Titus successfully demonstrates that this term brings together a plurality of approaches that, although they share a great deal in common, have crucial differences. Perhaps the most admirable feature of Titus’ book is it’s clarity—Titus writes about complicated issues with clear and concise prose, making it perhaps a perfect fit for undergraduate “theory and method” courses in which students must be exposed to these critical approaches.

Since commenting on where we agree is unlikely to be productive or advance the conversation, here in my response I’ll focus on Titus’ criticisms of what he considers more “radical” forms of social constructionism, which he associates with the “excesses” of postmodernism or post-structuralism. Hinting in both the RSP interview and the book that he identifies as a type of critical realist, Titus calls into question those forms of social constructionism that are unabashedly anti-realist. Consider the following statements:

According to some social constructionist views, “we can only reach the world through discourse.” (from the interview)

“If everything is discourse and nothing is real, where is the position we can take to critique those constructions?” (from the interview)

“In their most radical form, these [constructionists] claim that we can know about the human world—and the natural world, for that matter—only through discourse. Any ‘reality’ outside of discourse is either bracketed or denied.” (from the book; 88)

For relativist constructionists, “there is nothing [to the world] beyond our description of it.” (from the book; 92)

For relativists, “there is no ‘reality’ to fall back on.” (from the book; 92)

From the relativist perspective, “the ‘world out there’ and perceptions of the world are radically separated, with no access to the former, except through discourse. It is one thing to say that the meaning of, say, gravity is dependent on our ways of talking about it—a position that constructionists would happily embrace. It is another thing for me to jump out of a sixth story window and assume a safe landing because I’m shouting ‘I’m not falling!’” (from the book; 93)

I find such claims frustrating for two reasons. First, I think that Titus is criticizing the forms of constructionism with which I identify—i.e. he’s targeting me—but I think he unfairly represents my view. Second, I’m also frustrated because some of the constructionists I identify with say exactly the sorts of claims Titus is criticizing. All of that is to say: I think that Titus is aiming at a straw man (are there straw women, I wonder?), but unfortunately a straw man that some of my peers stand behind and prop up. Thus, rather than tear down Titus’s excellent work, let me clarify the difference between my view and the view Titus criticizes.

The main problem, for me, is that although I might be a radical constructionist, I absolutely reject the dualist view of the world Titus is partly working with and partly criticizing. This dualism assumes an opposition between the world-as-it-is-in-and-of-itself and the world within discourse. Discourse apparently is “in here” (but where is “here,” one wonders?), and reality is “out there.” (We’re not far here from the contradictions inherent in Kant’s distinction between phenomena and noumena.) Of course, there is some ambiguity for the social constructionists, insofar as they vacillate between the view that there is a world out there—but we have access to it only through discourse—and the view that there isn’t a world out there—that is, everything, even reality, is discourse. This latter view drops the ontological dualism and turns into a type of discursive monism.

Titus’ view seems to be closer to the dualist view, except without the caveat about being locked within discourse: there is a mind-independent or discourse-independent world “out there,” and we can make objective or authoritative rather than merely subjective or relativist claims about it. Despite the insistence of the radical constructionists, there is a real world out there—we can thump the table or point to the mountains on the horizon dammit! Are we to believe those mountains weren’t here before humans came to name them?! Mountains, dammit! They’re real and they’re mind-independent! (It’s at this point that the radical constructionists ask, “can you say that without discourse?” and then the realists really go apoplectic.)

By the time we get here, we’re far afield from where I’d like the conversation to have headed. What’s crucially been lost at this point—from my perspective at least—is the role of discourse in individuation or definition—i.e., the extension of a concept—and the pragmatic ends of the latter.

The best example I can point to for how discourse has a constitutive role in the individuation of something we tend to take for granted as “natural” in the so-called “real world” is in Edward Schiappa’s discussion of the politics of “wetlands” (see Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning; 2003). In the early 1990s, wetlands were a hot topic. Environmentalists wanted to protect wetlands from developers who wanted to clear the land and build on it, while developers wanted the opposite. President George H. W. Bush signed into legislation a bill protecting wetlands from development, but the legislation redefined wetlands in ways that suited the interests of the developers rather than the environmentalists. Wetlands were protected, but there was a bait-and-switch of sorts: the land to which the concept “wetland” extended shrunk dramatically with the novel definition in the new legislation. Both parties used the concept “wetland,” but they individuated something rather different, and—in addition—that to which their concept extended was directly tied to their social or political interests. Schiappa concludes, “definitions are interest-driven and saturated with questions of power and persuasion.”

I think that Titus’ framing of “radical constructionism” fails in helping us to understand Schiappa’s view. First, by no means is Schiappa saying that there’s a world within discourse and then a world out there. For Schiappa, the existence of wetlands is contingent upon the definition we give to the term; if we change the definition of wetland we have a different reality out there to deal with—just as gerrymandered districts are quite literally different districts than before they were gerrymandered. There’s no “reality” of wetlands without first having individuated some types of land as wetland and other types of land as not-wetland. Second, neither is Schiappa saying that all we have access to is the world of discourse. “Wetlands” are constituted by discourse, but that’s not the same thing as saying that wetlands are discourse. Third, it wouldn’t make sense to say that “wetlands” exist independent of discourse; it is we, as humans, who separate this from that, wetlands from not-wetlands, and so on, depending on our interests.

But what about mountains, dammit? Weren’t they there before humans evolved to identify them as mountains? To press the realist position, let me ask: did the state of New York exist before humans came along to identify it as such? Even the realist would have to admit: New York is a human invention—the distinctions between “New York” and “Massachusetts” and “Pennsylvania” aren’t natural, but are lines we as humans draw in the sand. That is, even the realist has to admit that the individuation or extension of “New York” is discursive. But then to press the realist further: what about the Adirondack Mountains? Do the mountains individuate themselves from the land we consider not-mountainous? Or do we, as humans, individuate them for our purposes?

We could of course individuate the stuff of the world in ways that intersect with but don’t exactly match the extension of the term “Adirondack Mountains.” No doubt there are “streams” in the mountains, “hiking paths” over them, “bear hunting grounds” across them, “good fishing areas” in them, and so forth. In addition, whichever discursive concepts we use to slice up the stuff of the Adirondacks will depend on our particular pragmatic interests—do we want fish for dinner? to avoid running across bears? a challenging hike?

In addition, were our interests different—or were we different kinds of animals—no doubt we would individuate our world differently. Does an ant in the Adirondacks see a “mountain”? Is a “mountain” a useful concept for something as small as an insect? If there were alien creatures whose walking stride was the same as the distance from our sun to Pluto, would they have a use for individuating the “Adirondack Mountains”? On the contrary, what we might individuate as the Adirondacks would likely be nothing other than dust on the shoes of their feet, not worth individuation or attention. As some cognitive linguists have noted–for instance, in Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987) or Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh (1999)–what is useful for us to individuate is relative to the type of bodies we are in: “How animals categorize depends on their sensing apparatus and their ability to move themselves and manipulate objects. Categorization is therefore a consequence of how we are embodied” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 17-18).

All of this is to say: crucial for understanding so-called radical social constructionism is the pragmatic function of concepts in individuating the stuff of the world. At bottom, drawing lines between mountains and streams is little different than drawing lines between New York and Massachusetts. And, on this view, the practice of discursive or conceptual individuation neither gets between us and the real world, nor do the things of the world exist as “things” independently of our individuation of them as particular things.

Outside the Panels: Comics and Context

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

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

Structural connections

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from Grant Morrison’s ‘The Invisibles’

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

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

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

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

comics

Cultic milieu

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

 

Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion: A Roundtable Discussion (Video and Audio!)

This week we are bringing you the fruits of a recent RSP venture to the University of Chester, UK. In the early afternoon, Chris and David ran a workshop on “Digital Humanities” for the postgraduate community in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Later on, David interviewed Dr Alana Vincent in from of a ‘live studio audience’ on the topic of ‘Religion and Literature‘. Following directly on from this, Chris chaired a roundtable discussion on ‘Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion’ featuring Dr Wendy Dossett, Prof. Elaine Graham, Dr Dawn Llewellyn and Dr Alana Vincent – all staff in TRS at Chester – and the RSP’s own Ethan Quillen, of the University of Edinburgh.

Chester

The idea for this roundtable was that it would follow on directly from the interview on religion and literature, but expand the discussion to cover a variety of points relating to narrative, autobiography and (auto)ethnography in the study of religion. This was also recorded in front of a live audience, and towards the end of the recording we take questions from the floor.

Thanks to the resources available at the University of Chester – specifically, a wonderful chap named Lee – we are able to bring you this roundtable discussion in video form – something a lot of our listeners have been keen on for quite some time. Let us know what you think! We can’t promise to do this very regularly, but if it is useful we will definitely investigate our options for the future.

Of course, for those who prefer to have the podcast in its usual form, it can be listened to and downloaded as usual.

Discussion addressed the following questions, and a lot more…

  • What do we mean when we speak of incorporating narratives into Religious Studies? Why would we want to?
  • What makes a narrative different from a discourse? Is there any difference?
  • Does studying narrative minimize other aspects of ‘religion’ such as ritual, embodiment, symbols etc? Is there anything particularly Western or gendered about privileging narratives?
  • Given that we focused upon ‘religion and literature’, what is the place of fictional narratives? What can they tell us? Are all narratives fictions? Can one infer anything external to a narrative?
  • What is the place of the scholar in all of this? Are we interpreters? Are we co-creators of narratives? Do we remain outside the data we study or must we write ourselves in? What would this do to ‘objectivity’? Is the whole academic enterprise an exercise in creating narratives? Can academic reflexivity go to too far?

This podcast is presented to you as a co-production with the University of Chester, and we are very grateful for their help in making this happen – particularly to Dawn Llewellyn for organizing, and to Lee Bennett for the technical wizardry.

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!

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.

Before “Religion”: a History of a Modern Concept

For much of the past two centuries, “religion” has been understood as a universal phenomenon, a part of the “natural” human experience that is essentially the same across cultures and throughout history. Individual religions may vary through time and geographically, but there is an element, religion, that is to be found in all cultures during all time periods. Taking apart this assumption, Brent Nongbri has built upon a generation of critical scholarship to provide the first comprehensive history of “religion” as a category in western discourse.

In his recently published work, Before Religion: a History of a Modern Concept (Yale University Press, 2013), Nongbri shows that the idea of “religion” as a sphere of life distinct from politics, economics, or science is a recent development in European history—a development that has been projected outward in space and backward in time with the result that religion now appears to be a natural and necessary part of our world.

Discussing this book with Jack Tsonis, Nongbri begins by explaining various uses of the term “religio” in Roman and Christian antiquity, which were somewhat different from the modern term “religion”. The conversation then moves into the early modern period and the changes wrought by the Reformation, the rise of the political state, and the subsequent period of religious conflict.   At this point we begin to see something that looks like the modern English category “religion”, although that shift was not fully consolidated until the formalization of philology and ancient world studies in the nineteenth century.

This podcast will interest all students of religion, regardless of their area of speciality. At the core of Nongbri’s project is a call for constant vigilance with the categories we use to describe  human behaviour.  While he does not advocate abandoning “religion”, understanding the history of the term does encourage us to use it with greater methodological reflexivity.

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’ as ‘sui generis’

Is ‘religion’ sui generis? In other words, do scholars of religion study something that forms a unique and special domain of things in the world unlike any other? Wittgenstein thought religion constituted a distinct “form of life”. Eliade spoke of the ‘Sacred’ as existing in a separate reality above the mundaneness of the everyday (i.e. the profane).  Historically and in more modern times, other scholars have held similar views that paint the category of religion as naming a specific and stable set of things in the world set apart from all other. However, it is a view that has fallen out of favour as noted by Dr. Russell McCutcheon.

In this interview with Thomas Coleman, McCutcheon discusses what he terms as the “socio-political strategy” behind the label of “sui generis” as it is applied to religion. The interview begins by exploring some of the terms used to support sui generis claims to religion (e.g. un-mediated, irreducible etc.) followed by a brief overview on the rise of religious studies departments mid-20th century using such claims to obtain funding and autonomy from other disciplines. In closing, Dr. McCutcheon explains one example of how the ideological foundations of belief are ontology centered, examines how the term religion is “traded” and departs leaving us to consider the role of social agreement in defining what religion is or is not.

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

Dr. Russell McCutcheon is a full professor of religion and the department chair for the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His main interests lie in the academic study of ‘the academic study of religion’, focusing on how the category and term ‘religion’ has been employed throughout time. He has published several books such as Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia and more recently The Sacred Is the Profane: The Political Nature of “Religion”  (co-authored with William Arnal). Dr. McCutcheon is a member of Culture on the Edge, an international scholarly collaborative looking at how “identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced” in society and in academia. Be sure to check out his latest book titled Entanglements: Marking Place in the Field of Religion coming out this March!

Emile Durkheim

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Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)  is widely regarded as the founder of sociology, and has been enormously influential on the entirety of the modern social sciences. The author of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, and The Division of Labor in Society among others, he is perhaps most well-known in Religious Studies for his definition of religion as

“a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, called a church, all those who adhere to them” (1965 [1912]: 62).

Within this well-worn definition we can glimpse the basic foundations of an entire approach to the study of religion, which places emphasis upon the role of social interaction and discourse in ‘setting things apart’ – in constructing the ‘sacred’ and the ‘religious’- rather than assuming or advocating for an inherent, sui generis, religion.

In this wide ranging and in-depth interview with Chris, Ivan Strenski discusses Durkheim’s life and work in a broader context, tracing his impact through the ‘Durkheimian school’ – which includes Claude Levi-Strauss – and presenting an understanding of the academic study of religion as a Durkheimian project.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when participating in the ‘sacralizing’ of the social and buying your Christmas presents etc.

This is the final episode in a series on early 20th century theorists of religion. The first featured Robert Segal on C. G. Jung and the second featured Paul-François Tremlett on Claude Levi-Strauss.

Podcasts

UFOs, Conspiracy Theories… and Religion?

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

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

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

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 1 March 2016

Calls for papers

Freedom of/for/from/within Religion: Differing DImensions of a Common Right?

September 8–11, 2016

Oxford, UK

Deadline: March 31, 2016

More information

Public Religions and Their Secrets, Secret Religions and Their Publics

October 27–28, 2016

University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 1, 2016

More information: Conference, Master Class

CHAOS-symposium: Religion og materialitet

April 29–30, 2016

University of Bergen, Norway

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information (Norwegian)

AAR panel: Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

AAR panel: Religion, Media, and Culture Group

Deadline: March 1, 2016

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

More information

Events

Religious Diversity and Cultural Change in Scotland: Modern Perspectives

April 19, 2016

University of Edinburgh, UK

More information

Les Politiques du Blasphème: Perspectives Comparées

March 7, 2016

Paris, France

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Postgraduate Workshop on the Materiality of Divine Agency in the Graeco-Roman World

August 29–September 2, 2016

University of Erfurt, Germany

Deadline: May 31, 2016

More information

Open Access

Open Theology: Cognitive Science of Religion

Available here

Jobs and funding

Postdoctoral teaching fellowship

Kenyon College, OH, USA

Deadline: March 25, 2016

More information

Lecturer in Hebrew

University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

Deadline: April 30, 2016

More information

University Lectureship in Anthropology and Islamic Studies

Leiden University, The Netherlands

Deadline: May 18, 2016

More information

Editor: Shambhala and Snow Lion Publications

Boulder, CO, USA

Deadline: May 17, 2016

More information

Assistant professor of Religious Studies

Utrecht University, the Netherlands

Deadline: March 11, 2016

More information

Instructor in Religion and Culture

Virginia Tech, VA, USA

Deadline: March 14, 2016

More information

AAR-Luce Fellowships in Religion and International Affairs

Deadline: March 31, 2016

DC, USA

More information

Dean of Graduate Jewish Studies

Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership

Deadline: May 22, 2016

More information

Postdoctoral Fellow in Judaic Studies

Virginia Tech, VA, USA

March 14, 2016

More information

Funding

CSA Research Fellowship

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Two fully funded PhD positions, one Postdoctoral position in the Study of Religions

Creative Agency and Religious Minorities: “Hidden galleries” in the secret police archives in 20th Century Central and Eastern Europe

University College Cork, Ireland

Deadline: April 22, 2016

More information: PhDs, Postdoc

 

Discursive Approaches and the Crises of Religious Studies

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

Bruce Lincoln and Titus Hjelm, and feature essays by Ethan Quillen, David Gordon White, Martin Lepage, Emily Stratton, and Craig Martin. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, wooden chess sets, monkey nuts, and more!

Conference report: Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics

The postgraduate “Conference on Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics” was held 11-12 of September 2015 at the University of Aberdeen, in Aberdeen, Scotland. The conference was sponsored by the College of Arts and Social Sciences and Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law, University of Aberdeen. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

"Rethinking Boundaries" 2015 conference

“Rethinking Boundaries” 2015 conference

The conference included keynote talks from both Timothy Fitzgerald and Abby Day; it also included over 30 postgraduate presentations, workshop sessions offered by Aberdeen staff, and lots of tea breaks that allowed for participants to get to know each other, all within the walls of the historic King’s College. The conference was multidisciplinary and provided a place for participants to engage in dialogue on how to think about boundaries in the study of religion and politics (e.g. religious/secular, private/public, belief/practice and theism/atheism).

The conference began with a keynote address from Timothy Fitzgerald, Reader in Religion, University of Stirling, entitled “Religion and Politics as Modern Fictions.” Fitzgerald argued that liberal journalists and academics, while attempting to provide factual reportage, tend unconsciously to reproduce ancient “us and them” narratives. Fitzgerald described a basic discourse among journalists that legitimates rational liberal modernity against all perceived forms of backwardness and irrational barbarity (e.g. Fitzgerald offered the example of western views of Islamic countries). In western discourse, he said, the assumption is that faith, unlike nonreligious secularity, has a propensity to irrational violence. Thus western discourse pits rational western civility against the other’s medieval barbarity and western secular logical reasonableness against the other’s inability to settle their differences through negotiation, free market relations, and respect for private property. He drew attention to what he called “myths of the modern,” with one example being the distinction between the religious and the nonreligious secular, and explained how these myths are perpetuated by a range of agencies, including the media, politicians, and academics, but also including constitutions and the courts.  According to Fitzgerald, the problem with these “us and them” narratives is that “nations”, “geopolitics”, and “faith” are used in academic discourse and public rhetoric as if their meanings are self-evident and universal in their application, whereas Fitzgerald feels any claim to universal truth is problematic (for example, Fitzgerald holds that there is no true meaning of the term “God” outside someone’s or some community’s assertion that there is). Fitzgerald argued that the secular/religious binary also needs to be seen as an ideological position (rather than a self-evident truth), as the secular/religious binary is usually argued from a secular perspective (here he critiqued Edward Said, author of the famous Orientalism, on the basis that Said does not deconstruct secular reason and its dichotomous relation to religion and fails to see his secular/religious binary as an ideological position).

Timothy Fitzgerald

Timothy Fitzgerald

The postgraduate presentations were diverse. My presentation on “Intra-Evangelical Conflict on the Topic of Islam” fell within the session entitled “Conceptions of Islam” which also included a thoughtful presentation from the conference organizer Sarah Hynek on “Approaching the Categories of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.” But the conference was certainly not entirely focused on Islam, and it also included sessions on a variety of topics such as “Approaching Atheism and New Atheism” and “Shaping Congregations.”

One of the most controversial postgraduate papers presented at the conference came from Armen Oganessian, who is pursuing a PhD in Divinity at Aberdeen. Oganessian proposed that if we were to view politics, or the public sphere, as a “marketplace of ideas,” that would allow us to move beyond the religious/secular binary that dominates western thought. In this “marketplace of ideas” framework, we should view all ideologies, concepts, or moralities as having a societal value, and politics as a kind of flea market for any given worldview to sell their perspective on how to govern the society. This framework frees religious thought of its unfair stereotype of only being suited for one’s private life, putting it on an even footing with all other worldviews.  This would mean, for example, that the Buddhist would have the right, just like the socialist, to construct a foreign policy based on the beliefs and morals of his worldview and then have that policy be evaluated solely on its potential effects on the society (societal value) rather than on its religious underpinnings. Then any given individual, any given member of the said society, would be able to “purchase” either the Buddhist’s or the socialist’s–or parts of either’s—foreign policy. Then that foreign policy, or the parts of a foreign policy, most frequently purchased would be the ones adopted by the society, whether it be religious or not. Oganessian’s marketplace of ideas was highly criticized during the question and comment period. One critic argued that the “marketplace of ideas” would inherently favor capitalism. Some questioned the individual’s intellectual purchasing capabilities (e.g. people are too stupid to decide for themselves where to shop). Another critic argued that had Europe gone with the popular ideals of the Catholic Church, Europe would still be in the Dark Ages—a point with which Oganessian disagreed, noting that we cannot predict what would have happened with certainty and mentioning the possibility that perhaps we would be more advanced now.

Johan Rasanayagam hosted a workshop on “Approaching the Category of Islam.” Johan undergirded the workshop with readings from Talal Asad on The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam and Samuli Schielke on Second Thoughts About the Anthropology of Islam, or How to Makes Sense of Grand Schemes in Everyday Life. The workshop explored the issue of how to study Islamic communities without making Islam the object. Rasanayagam described his own personal research, which focuses on Muslims in Uzbekistan and what their moral understanding is of what it means to be a Muslim. He found that for some Uzbekistani Muslims, “being Muslim” might involve activities that one would typically think of as religious or Islamic –like going to the mosque, fasting, etc.  But for many it also involves being a good neighbor, marrying their kids off properly, contributing to the community—basically, according to Rasanayagam, just being a good person. So the conclusion Rasanayagam came to at the end was that Islam, if it ever becomes an object at all, only becomes so within the moral self of one particular Muslim and that one Muslim’s “Islam” is different from every other Muslim’s “Islam.” According to Rasanayagam, when one tries to make Islam an object it automatically loses value and distorts reality. Thus, Rasanayagam ended up moving away from “Islam” and looking at the formation of moral selves, who just happen to be Muslim. Rasanayagam argued that rather than looking at the Muslim community or Islam, one should focus on the process by which something comes into being and continues.

Two other workshops were included: ‘Identity and Belief/Non-Belief” led by Marta Trzebiatowska and “Religion and Politics as Categories of the Modern State” led by Trevor Stack.

Abby Day

Abby Day

The conferences ended with a keynote address from Abby Day, Reader in Race, Faith and Culture, Goldsmiths University of London, on “Believing in the Future: The Religious and Non-religious Stories Young Adults Tell.” Day shared her findings from researching “Generation A” (grandmothers of Generation X) and the story of decline of mainstream Protestant Christianity mainly in the UK. Day contrasted these older women and the younger generation that they raised and how Generation A vs. Generation X differ on what they want from religion and what can be learned about religious change. Much of the conference content sympathized with the postmodern distrust of language and sought to deconstruct words/phrases such as “belong to a faith community,” “God,” and “Islam.” The conference left me with questions about how constructive deconstructing is and how far it may distance our research from the everyday reality of those we are researching. Can a distrust of language be solved with more language?

As with all multidisciplinary exchanges, it was refreshing and challenging for scholars to learn from the research of others in different fields.

 

“The Study of Religions in Ireland: People, Places, Projects” – 2015 ISASR Conference Report

“The Study of Religions in Ireland: People, Places, Projects” Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions (ISASR), Trinity College Dublin, May 11th 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Dr. Eoin O’Mahony, Department of Geography, St Patrick’s College DCU

The fourth annual conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions took place at Trinity College Dublin on May 11th. It was organised in association with the Trinity Long Room Hub Art & Humanities Institute and sponsored by the Department of Religions & Theology, TCD. This year, it took a novel turn. In place of an event over two or three days, it was in the form of a research slam, a format set to test the garrulous nature of the academic. This was to take account of the IAHR Congress in Erfurt later this summer. Following an opening address from the outgoing president of the Association, Dr. Patrick Claffey, the slam began in earnest. The Society has a relatively small number of members but we had twelve presentations, seven minutes and one carefully monitored countdown clock.

Chris Heinhold (University of Chester) told us about his theory-building approach to investigating modern British Shia identity. Chris is about to embark on intensive fieldwork but has already noted how being part of a diaspora is performative. As a researcher and migrant himself, he has made attempts to build a flexible theory based on data collection. How culture is remembered and mythologised formed the centre of the contribution by Deirdre Nuttall (independent researcher). The stories we tell ourselves influence the way we act and the story of Ireland has been told largely through Roman Catholic action. She has found that the lives of a working class Protestant minority are largely absent from the folklore archives. Early attempts at nation building in Ireland reinforced a Catholic retelling of the myths at the expense of a shrinking Protestant minority.

Dr. Jenny Butler presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

Dr. Jenny Butler presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

In further tales of cultural erasure, Jenny Butler (University College Cork) told us about Irish fairy beliefs. She is trying to address the academic deficit in this subject. In most academic studies of Irish culture, the focus is on fairy beliefs as “explaining away” rather than as an animistic worldview; for example, there is a focus on folk stories in which fairies are blamed mostly for the ill-effects of human interaction with nature and fairies were often said to be the cause of infant loss or disability and even bad harvests. Her dialogical and anthropological approach is making an attempt to plait strands of research that currently run in parallel.

Lawrence Cox (Maynooth University) brought us on a lyrical journey of the lives of Buddhist monks from Ireland to Asia. He narrated these accounts through the letters sent by these monks in a poetic stroll through space and time. Tadhg Foley (NUI Galway) told us about the wanderings of Max Arthur McAuliffe. McAuliffe’s efforts to avoid responsibility for his progeny was bested only by his commitment to translating Sikh holy texts. Christopher Cotter (Lancaster University) brought us on a technical journey across continents. Christopher walked us through the process by which the Religious Studies Project manages content and podcasts across time zones and continents using online collaborative software.

RSP Editor Christopher Cotter presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

RSP Editor Christopher Cotter presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

Ireland’s missionary past was recalled in a presentation by (UCC’s) Yuwu Shan. His new research on the Columban missions to China over the course of 150 years shows us that globalisation is not necessarily a recent phenomenon. Through the archive available to him in Dalgan Park, the Columban order’s world headquarters based in Kildare, Ireland, Shan brought their long history in China to life. He is working with photographs and other material to reconstruct the efforts of the holy order navigating turbulent political revolution. Colette Colfer (WIT) and I outlined our initial data from a new project mapping the warehouse worship spaces of Dublin and Waterford, two very different cities. Our work is focused on the ways that warehouses form community around Pentecostal churches and mosques, often defying a visible centrality usually reserved for religious space in Ireland, a majority Catholic country. We are planning a lot more fieldwork. Alexandra Greiser (Trinity College Dublin) told us about transhumanism and how it may be developing into a new universalism through a scientific discourse. This forms part of a larger project she is working on that will take a comparative perspective and a possible account of multiple modernities. Bringing the universal to the local, Vlad Kmec (UCD) told us about his research on the formation of religious identity among migrants to Ireland. He is conducting focus groups with young people and adults among the Czech and Polish communities to examine the functional and substantive roles of religion in migrant lives.

Eoin O'Mahony and Colette Colfer. Photo by James Kapalo.

Dr. Eoin O’Mahony and Colette Colfer. Photo by James Kapalo.

Olivia Wilkinson (TCD) is interested in the role of faith based organisations in disaster relief efforts. She has conducted extensive participatory methods in her fieldwork in the Philippines as a way to examine what is counted as faith based in the post-Haiyan aid process. What gets prioritised and, perhaps more importantly, what does not is of central concern to her research. James Kapaló (UCC) told us about a relatively new network called the Marginalised and Endangered Worldviews Study Centre. Its main work is to build comparative perspectives on these endangered of marginalised worldviews and their cultural expressions. The projects here are engaged forms of research and encouraging of a counter-hegemonical perspective for these forms of knowledge. Some were running to the seven minute bell, others seemed to have timed it perfectly to 6 minutes and 57 seconds.

Our slamming over, Brian Bocking (outgoing secretary) recalled for us how far the academic study of religions in Ireland had come in a few short years. Brian has been instrumental in founding and developing the ISASR, as well as the Department of Study of Religions at UCC (the only department of its kind in Ireland) and in his short lecture, summarised for us why the academic study of religions remains vital. He drew a crucial distinction using an analogy between astrology and astronomy. For astrologers, a cosmological system of belief in the power of star alignment forms the basis for earthly action. Among astronomers, the gathering of evidence about the composition of star systems helps us to understand our place in the universe. Both are concerned with the stars but equally both observe from a position of relative powerlessness over their object of study. The academic study of religions, in this way, is just as bound by tradition and human agency as their confessional co-researchers in Theology.

The day’s proceedings were rounded off with a book launch. The book, Muslims in Ireland: Past and Present (Edinburgh UP), is the first complete study of a little known Muslim presence in Europe. Two of its five editors, Oliver Scharbrodt (Univ. of Chester, formerly UCC) and Tuula Sakaranaho (Univ. of Helsinki) spoke about the purpose of the book, its meaning to the academic study of religions in Ireland. Its remaining editors, Adil Hussain Khan (Loyola University, New Orleans), Vivian Ibrahim (Univ. of Mississippi) and Yafa Shanneik (Univ. of Chester, formerly UCC) were acknowledged. Edinburgh University Press sponsored the reception that followed and the Silk Road Café provided wonderful food. The conference as a whole points to a secure future for the small and yet vital academic study of religions in a country with a long tradition of theological investigation. It is not that one pushes the other out of the light of investigation. Rather, it is the academy investing itself with a way to specify the meaning, location and features of religious culture.

“Societies in Transition: Progression or Regression?” – BSA Conference Report

“Societies in Transition: Progression or Regression?” British Sociological Association (BSA), University of Glasgow, 15-17 April 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Rachel Hanemann.

The British Sociological Association’s conference was held this year at the University of Glasgow.  The conference theme was “Societies in Transition: Progression and Regression, although many of the papers I saw raised questions about transition, but showed a sociologist’s reticence to comment on the positivity or negativity of one’s observations.

Amanda Duymaer van Twist and Titus Hjelm at Glasgow City Chambers. Photo courtesy of Titus Hjelm.

Amanda Duymaer van Twist and Titus Hjelm at Glasgow City Chambers. Photo courtesy of Titus Hjelm.

The three keynote lectures centred on underprivileged or oppressed groups in transition.  Alice Goffman (University of Wisconsin-Madison) spoke about her book On the Run, exploring the criminalization of young black men in the United States.  Colin Samson (University of Essex) spoke on “The Idea of Progress and Indigenous Peoples: contemporary legacies of an enduring Eurocentric prophecy”, examining the historical treatment of non-European indigenous peoples at the hands of European ideas of progress.  Samson then used this historical lens to discuss the contemporary situation of the Innu peoples of the Labrador-Quebec Peninsula in Canada. Guy Standing (SOAS, University of London) spoke on “The Precariat’s Magna Carta: from denizens to citizens”, outlining a “Precariat Charter” for today’s precariat, a class of millions of people experiencing a diversity of insecurities and being denied identity.

As always, the streams and papers featured at the BSA were varied and numerous.  Although it was impossible to see them all, one highlight for me was the Sociology of Religion stream, particularly those papers that proposed new methods or areas of research.  Titus Hjelm’s (University College London) talk, “Towards a Discursive Sociology of Religion and the State”, proposed a “discursive sociology” approach to religion-state relations, broadening the focus from legislative outcomes to the act of legislation, the discussions, processes and negotiations that produce policy outcomes.  Peter Hemming (Cardiff University) spoke on “Faith-Based Schooling in Rural Communities”, pointing out that larger discussions about urban, multi-faith school communities exclude the small, rural Anglican primary schools that make up the majority of faith-based schooling in the UK.  Tim Hutchings (Durham University) spoke on “The Bible in (Virtual) Community: Accountability in Digital Religion”.  Hutchings first summarised the findings from his research on the Youversion Bible App, before asking questions about religious authority online.  The Scoiology of Religion stream plenary featured Steve Bruce (University of Aberdeen) speaking about the decline of religion in Britain.

The Race, Ethnicity, and Migration stream on Islamophobia also bears mention.  Shamim Miah (University of Huddersfield) discussed “Trojan Horse and the Racial State: Race, Religion and Securitisation”, arguing that the Trojan Horse controversy led to the embedding of a particular secularization agenda in Britain’s schools.  Aurélien Mondon’s (University of Bath) and Aaron Winter’s (University of East London) talk, “Breaking Taboos or Strengthening the Status Quo: Islamophobia in the Name of Liberalism in France and America” presented a fascinating account of the role of liberal Islamophobia, which couches attacks on Islam in a pseudo-progressive position of protecting liberal freedoms, in political and cultural discourse in France and America, as well as in the UK.  Finally, Tania Saeed (University of Oxford), spoke on “Islamophobia: Experiential Accounts of Pakistani and British Pakistani Muslim Women in England.”  Her talk focused on the individual lived experience of a number of women, highlighting the intersection between race, ethnicity, and religion in public perception.  The three papers worked well together as commentaries on Islamophobia at the levels of legislation, media and public discourse, and individual experience.

Pierre Bourdieu’s work was heavily present at this year’s BSA conference, as numerous Twitter discussions of “theorist BINGO” pointed out.  The Sociology of Education stream featured a panel on the application of Bourdieu’s habitus to the social sciences, in which Cristina Costa (University of Strathclyde), Cirian Burke (Ulster University), Alan France (University of Auckland), and Mark Murphy (University of Glasgow) offered methodological examples of the application of a Bourdieusian framework from their own research on education.  In the Sociology of Religion stream, M. Angelica Thumala Olave (University of Edinburgh) presented her work with Susie Donnelly (University of Edinburgh), asking “With or without Bourdieu?  The Uses of His Approach for the Study of Religious and Cultural Change”.

The Presidential event, held at the end of the final day, asked the question, “Is there a British society?”  President Lynn Jamieson (University of Edinburgh) chaired a panel of Michael Rosie (University of Edinburgh), Nasar Meer (University of Strathclyde), Ann Pheonix (IOE, University of London), and Aaron Winter (University of East London), who gave brief responses before opening the discussion to the floor.  Ann Phoenix effectively summed up the discussion with her response, “Is there a British society?  Yes…there are many!”

Sufism

Like any religious tradition, the Islamic tradition is made up of countless groups and subgroups that interpret, enact, and commit to the materials of their tradition differently. Although focus is often placed on divisions between Sunni and Shi’a communities, one of the most fascinating modalities of belonging within Islam is that of Sufism, all the more interesting because Sufi sensibilities can extend across the full spectrum of Muslim identities. Sufism is often defined as a “mystical” tradition that shares similarities with forms of mysticism from other traditions in the way that in conceptualizes the nature of divinity and the nature of human understanding.

In this interview, Milad Milani discusses the basic orientation and history of Sufi thought. He also speaks about the diverse national variations of Sufism, particularly with respect to Iranian (or “Persianate”) Sufism. The interview concludes with a few critical remarks on the questionable appropriation of Sufism in contemporary Western discourses on 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, rubber ducks, vacuum cleaner bags, and more.

The Critical Study of Religion

In this interview, Professor Bruce Lincoln from the University of Chicago Divinity School discusses a variety of topics including werewolves, critical theory, pedagogy, and his self-imposed estrangement from the academic study of religion. Dr. Lincoln is a well-known and influential scholar of religion who completed his doctorate from the University of Chicago where he studied with Mircea Eliade. He then taught for many years at the University of Minnesota before he returned to the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, where he is the Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions. According to his biography on the University of Chicago’s website, “His research tends to focus on the religions of pre-Christian Europe and pre-Islamic Iran, but he has a notoriously short attention span and has also written on a bewildering variety of topics, including Guatemalan curanderismo, Lakota sun dances, Melanesian funerary rituals, Swazi kingship, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Marco Polo, professional wrestling, Persian imperialism, the theology of George W. Bush, and comparative demonology.” What underlying theme or methodology holds together this diverse body of work?

As Dr. Lincoln discusses in this interview, he is interested in the constructed nature of society. “I think society is a project,” he said, “rather than an entity that exists by nature.” From this foundation, Lincoln isolates a variety of specific instances in multiple places and times where people appeal to religious discourse to legitimate their local interests. Religion, for Lincoln, is a thoroughly human phenomenon. To demonstrate this, it requires the type of critically-informed analysis that Lincoln seldom finds in 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, professional wrestling DVDs, werewolves, and more.

But Mountains, Dammit!

Titus Hjelm’s book Social Constructionisms: Approaches to the Study of the Human World is a fantastic introduction to the topic of “social constructionism.” Titus successfully demonstrates that this term brings together a plurality of approaches that, although they share a great deal in common, have crucial differences. Perhaps the most admirable feature of Titus’ book is it’s clarity—Titus writes about complicated issues with clear and concise prose, making it perhaps a perfect fit for undergraduate “theory and method” courses in which students must be exposed to these critical approaches.

Since commenting on where we agree is unlikely to be productive or advance the conversation, here in my response I’ll focus on Titus’ criticisms of what he considers more “radical” forms of social constructionism, which he associates with the “excesses” of postmodernism or post-structuralism. Hinting in both the RSP interview and the book that he identifies as a type of critical realist, Titus calls into question those forms of social constructionism that are unabashedly anti-realist. Consider the following statements:

According to some social constructionist views, “we can only reach the world through discourse.” (from the interview)

“If everything is discourse and nothing is real, where is the position we can take to critique those constructions?” (from the interview)

“In their most radical form, these [constructionists] claim that we can know about the human world—and the natural world, for that matter—only through discourse. Any ‘reality’ outside of discourse is either bracketed or denied.” (from the book; 88)

For relativist constructionists, “there is nothing [to the world] beyond our description of it.” (from the book; 92)

For relativists, “there is no ‘reality’ to fall back on.” (from the book; 92)

From the relativist perspective, “the ‘world out there’ and perceptions of the world are radically separated, with no access to the former, except through discourse. It is one thing to say that the meaning of, say, gravity is dependent on our ways of talking about it—a position that constructionists would happily embrace. It is another thing for me to jump out of a sixth story window and assume a safe landing because I’m shouting ‘I’m not falling!’” (from the book; 93)

I find such claims frustrating for two reasons. First, I think that Titus is criticizing the forms of constructionism with which I identify—i.e. he’s targeting me—but I think he unfairly represents my view. Second, I’m also frustrated because some of the constructionists I identify with say exactly the sorts of claims Titus is criticizing. All of that is to say: I think that Titus is aiming at a straw man (are there straw women, I wonder?), but unfortunately a straw man that some of my peers stand behind and prop up. Thus, rather than tear down Titus’s excellent work, let me clarify the difference between my view and the view Titus criticizes.

The main problem, for me, is that although I might be a radical constructionist, I absolutely reject the dualist view of the world Titus is partly working with and partly criticizing. This dualism assumes an opposition between the world-as-it-is-in-and-of-itself and the world within discourse. Discourse apparently is “in here” (but where is “here,” one wonders?), and reality is “out there.” (We’re not far here from the contradictions inherent in Kant’s distinction between phenomena and noumena.) Of course, there is some ambiguity for the social constructionists, insofar as they vacillate between the view that there is a world out there—but we have access to it only through discourse—and the view that there isn’t a world out there—that is, everything, even reality, is discourse. This latter view drops the ontological dualism and turns into a type of discursive monism.

Titus’ view seems to be closer to the dualist view, except without the caveat about being locked within discourse: there is a mind-independent or discourse-independent world “out there,” and we can make objective or authoritative rather than merely subjective or relativist claims about it. Despite the insistence of the radical constructionists, there is a real world out there—we can thump the table or point to the mountains on the horizon dammit! Are we to believe those mountains weren’t here before humans came to name them?! Mountains, dammit! They’re real and they’re mind-independent! (It’s at this point that the radical constructionists ask, “can you say that without discourse?” and then the realists really go apoplectic.)

By the time we get here, we’re far afield from where I’d like the conversation to have headed. What’s crucially been lost at this point—from my perspective at least—is the role of discourse in individuation or definition—i.e., the extension of a concept—and the pragmatic ends of the latter.

The best example I can point to for how discourse has a constitutive role in the individuation of something we tend to take for granted as “natural” in the so-called “real world” is in Edward Schiappa’s discussion of the politics of “wetlands” (see Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning; 2003). In the early 1990s, wetlands were a hot topic. Environmentalists wanted to protect wetlands from developers who wanted to clear the land and build on it, while developers wanted the opposite. President George H. W. Bush signed into legislation a bill protecting wetlands from development, but the legislation redefined wetlands in ways that suited the interests of the developers rather than the environmentalists. Wetlands were protected, but there was a bait-and-switch of sorts: the land to which the concept “wetland” extended shrunk dramatically with the novel definition in the new legislation. Both parties used the concept “wetland,” but they individuated something rather different, and—in addition—that to which their concept extended was directly tied to their social or political interests. Schiappa concludes, “definitions are interest-driven and saturated with questions of power and persuasion.”

I think that Titus’ framing of “radical constructionism” fails in helping us to understand Schiappa’s view. First, by no means is Schiappa saying that there’s a world within discourse and then a world out there. For Schiappa, the existence of wetlands is contingent upon the definition we give to the term; if we change the definition of wetland we have a different reality out there to deal with—just as gerrymandered districts are quite literally different districts than before they were gerrymandered. There’s no “reality” of wetlands without first having individuated some types of land as wetland and other types of land as not-wetland. Second, neither is Schiappa saying that all we have access to is the world of discourse. “Wetlands” are constituted by discourse, but that’s not the same thing as saying that wetlands are discourse. Third, it wouldn’t make sense to say that “wetlands” exist independent of discourse; it is we, as humans, who separate this from that, wetlands from not-wetlands, and so on, depending on our interests.

But what about mountains, dammit? Weren’t they there before humans evolved to identify them as mountains? To press the realist position, let me ask: did the state of New York exist before humans came along to identify it as such? Even the realist would have to admit: New York is a human invention—the distinctions between “New York” and “Massachusetts” and “Pennsylvania” aren’t natural, but are lines we as humans draw in the sand. That is, even the realist has to admit that the individuation or extension of “New York” is discursive. But then to press the realist further: what about the Adirondack Mountains? Do the mountains individuate themselves from the land we consider not-mountainous? Or do we, as humans, individuate them for our purposes?

We could of course individuate the stuff of the world in ways that intersect with but don’t exactly match the extension of the term “Adirondack Mountains.” No doubt there are “streams” in the mountains, “hiking paths” over them, “bear hunting grounds” across them, “good fishing areas” in them, and so forth. In addition, whichever discursive concepts we use to slice up the stuff of the Adirondacks will depend on our particular pragmatic interests—do we want fish for dinner? to avoid running across bears? a challenging hike?

In addition, were our interests different—or were we different kinds of animals—no doubt we would individuate our world differently. Does an ant in the Adirondacks see a “mountain”? Is a “mountain” a useful concept for something as small as an insect? If there were alien creatures whose walking stride was the same as the distance from our sun to Pluto, would they have a use for individuating the “Adirondack Mountains”? On the contrary, what we might individuate as the Adirondacks would likely be nothing other than dust on the shoes of their feet, not worth individuation or attention. As some cognitive linguists have noted–for instance, in Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987) or Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh (1999)–what is useful for us to individuate is relative to the type of bodies we are in: “How animals categorize depends on their sensing apparatus and their ability to move themselves and manipulate objects. Categorization is therefore a consequence of how we are embodied” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 17-18).

All of this is to say: crucial for understanding so-called radical social constructionism is the pragmatic function of concepts in individuating the stuff of the world. At bottom, drawing lines between mountains and streams is little different than drawing lines between New York and Massachusetts. And, on this view, the practice of discursive or conceptual individuation neither gets between us and the real world, nor do the things of the world exist as “things” independently of our individuation of them as particular things.

Outside the Panels: Comics and Context

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

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

Structural connections

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from Grant Morrison’s ‘The Invisibles’

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

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

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

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

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Cultic milieu

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

 

Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion: A Roundtable Discussion (Video and Audio!)

This week we are bringing you the fruits of a recent RSP venture to the University of Chester, UK. In the early afternoon, Chris and David ran a workshop on “Digital Humanities” for the postgraduate community in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Later on, David interviewed Dr Alana Vincent in from of a ‘live studio audience’ on the topic of ‘Religion and Literature‘. Following directly on from this, Chris chaired a roundtable discussion on ‘Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion’ featuring Dr Wendy Dossett, Prof. Elaine Graham, Dr Dawn Llewellyn and Dr Alana Vincent – all staff in TRS at Chester – and the RSP’s own Ethan Quillen, of the University of Edinburgh.

Chester

The idea for this roundtable was that it would follow on directly from the interview on religion and literature, but expand the discussion to cover a variety of points relating to narrative, autobiography and (auto)ethnography in the study of religion. This was also recorded in front of a live audience, and towards the end of the recording we take questions from the floor.

Thanks to the resources available at the University of Chester – specifically, a wonderful chap named Lee – we are able to bring you this roundtable discussion in video form – something a lot of our listeners have been keen on for quite some time. Let us know what you think! We can’t promise to do this very regularly, but if it is useful we will definitely investigate our options for the future.

Of course, for those who prefer to have the podcast in its usual form, it can be listened to and downloaded as usual.

Discussion addressed the following questions, and a lot more…

  • What do we mean when we speak of incorporating narratives into Religious Studies? Why would we want to?
  • What makes a narrative different from a discourse? Is there any difference?
  • Does studying narrative minimize other aspects of ‘religion’ such as ritual, embodiment, symbols etc? Is there anything particularly Western or gendered about privileging narratives?
  • Given that we focused upon ‘religion and literature’, what is the place of fictional narratives? What can they tell us? Are all narratives fictions? Can one infer anything external to a narrative?
  • What is the place of the scholar in all of this? Are we interpreters? Are we co-creators of narratives? Do we remain outside the data we study or must we write ourselves in? What would this do to ‘objectivity’? Is the whole academic enterprise an exercise in creating narratives? Can academic reflexivity go to too far?

This podcast is presented to you as a co-production with the University of Chester, and we are very grateful for their help in making this happen – particularly to Dawn Llewellyn for organizing, and to Lee Bennett for the technical wizardry.

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!

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.

Before “Religion”: a History of a Modern Concept

For much of the past two centuries, “religion” has been understood as a universal phenomenon, a part of the “natural” human experience that is essentially the same across cultures and throughout history. Individual religions may vary through time and geographically, but there is an element, religion, that is to be found in all cultures during all time periods. Taking apart this assumption, Brent Nongbri has built upon a generation of critical scholarship to provide the first comprehensive history of “religion” as a category in western discourse.

In his recently published work, Before Religion: a History of a Modern Concept (Yale University Press, 2013), Nongbri shows that the idea of “religion” as a sphere of life distinct from politics, economics, or science is a recent development in European history—a development that has been projected outward in space and backward in time with the result that religion now appears to be a natural and necessary part of our world.

Discussing this book with Jack Tsonis, Nongbri begins by explaining various uses of the term “religio” in Roman and Christian antiquity, which were somewhat different from the modern term “religion”. The conversation then moves into the early modern period and the changes wrought by the Reformation, the rise of the political state, and the subsequent period of religious conflict.   At this point we begin to see something that looks like the modern English category “religion”, although that shift was not fully consolidated until the formalization of philology and ancient world studies in the nineteenth century.

This podcast will interest all students of religion, regardless of their area of speciality. At the core of Nongbri’s project is a call for constant vigilance with the categories we use to describe  human behaviour.  While he does not advocate abandoning “religion”, understanding the history of the term does encourage us to use it with greater methodological reflexivity.

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’ as ‘sui generis’

Is ‘religion’ sui generis? In other words, do scholars of religion study something that forms a unique and special domain of things in the world unlike any other? Wittgenstein thought religion constituted a distinct “form of life”. Eliade spoke of the ‘Sacred’ as existing in a separate reality above the mundaneness of the everyday (i.e. the profane).  Historically and in more modern times, other scholars have held similar views that paint the category of religion as naming a specific and stable set of things in the world set apart from all other. However, it is a view that has fallen out of favour as noted by Dr. Russell McCutcheon.

In this interview with Thomas Coleman, McCutcheon discusses what he terms as the “socio-political strategy” behind the label of “sui generis” as it is applied to religion. The interview begins by exploring some of the terms used to support sui generis claims to religion (e.g. un-mediated, irreducible etc.) followed by a brief overview on the rise of religious studies departments mid-20th century using such claims to obtain funding and autonomy from other disciplines. In closing, Dr. McCutcheon explains one example of how the ideological foundations of belief are ontology centered, examines how the term religion is “traded” and departs leaving us to consider the role of social agreement in defining what religion is or is not.

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

Dr. Russell McCutcheon is a full professor of religion and the department chair for the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His main interests lie in the academic study of ‘the academic study of religion’, focusing on how the category and term ‘religion’ has been employed throughout time. He has published several books such as Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia and more recently The Sacred Is the Profane: The Political Nature of “Religion”  (co-authored with William Arnal). Dr. McCutcheon is a member of Culture on the Edge, an international scholarly collaborative looking at how “identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced” in society and in academia. Be sure to check out his latest book titled Entanglements: Marking Place in the Field of Religion coming out this March!

Emile Durkheim

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Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)  is widely regarded as the founder of sociology, and has been enormously influential on the entirety of the modern social sciences. The author of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, and The Division of Labor in Society among others, he is perhaps most well-known in Religious Studies for his definition of religion as

“a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, called a church, all those who adhere to them” (1965 [1912]: 62).

Within this well-worn definition we can glimpse the basic foundations of an entire approach to the study of religion, which places emphasis upon the role of social interaction and discourse in ‘setting things apart’ – in constructing the ‘sacred’ and the ‘religious’- rather than assuming or advocating for an inherent, sui generis, religion.

In this wide ranging and in-depth interview with Chris, Ivan Strenski discusses Durkheim’s life and work in a broader context, tracing his impact through the ‘Durkheimian school’ – which includes Claude Levi-Strauss – and presenting an understanding of the academic study of religion as a Durkheimian project.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when participating in the ‘sacralizing’ of the social and buying your Christmas presents etc.

This is the final episode in a series on early 20th century theorists of religion. The first featured Robert Segal on C. G. Jung and the second featured Paul-François Tremlett on Claude Levi-Strauss.