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Nonreligion, Religion, and Public Health

The link between religion/spirituality (RS) and health is a recurring theme in the empirical literature within the psychology and sociology of religion, medical studies, and other disciplines. Although this research is usually limited to correlational studies, RS is often interpreted to be an important causal factor in positive health outcomes. This has led some academics, NGO’s, and governments to argue that the putative health benefits of RS might be harnessed for public health and public policy more broadly. For example, the United States Army has recently launched a “spiritual health” program, and in the United Kingdom there is an ongoing debate about whether mindfulness meditation should be taught in schools. Government initiatives aside, what if the nonreligious are equally as healthy? In this podcast, Thomas J. Coleman III interviews Dr. David Speed on how research using nonreligious and nonbelieving samples problematizes some of the underlying assumptions of the relationship between RS and public health.

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


Nonreligion, Religion and Public Health

Podcast with David Speed (22 April 2019).

Interviewed by Thomas J. Coleman III.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Speed_-_Nonreligion,_Religion_and_Public_Health_1.1

Thomas Coleman (TC): Thank you for joining us today on the Religious Studies Project. I’m Thomas Coleman. And I have an interesting topic that I don’t believe we’ve broached before, on nonreligion and public health. And I have a special guest with us today to talk about this. But I kind-of wanted to provide the Listeners with a little bit of background first, before we introduce him. So the link between religion and public health is really a recurring theme in the empirical literature within the psychology of religion, public health, medical studies and other disciplines. This research is often limited to correlational studies because the procedures required to test these things experimentally are either unfeasible or raise serious ethical considerations. For example, as psychologists it’s really hard for us to figure out how we could validly manipulate someone’s nonreligious or religious identification, their beliefs or their behaviour, in a laboratory setting. And university ethics committees have a problem with us kind-of assigning people to the cancer condition for an experiment. So we can’t do that! But when many of these aforementioned correlational studies – some of which we’ll talk about in a second – identify a relationship between religion and improved health, religion is often interpreted to be an important causal factor. And in today’s podcast I’m pleased to have with us Dr David Speed who is an Assistant Professor at the University of New Brunswick. And his own research has applied a critical perspective to the religion and health literature, specifically focusing on how the nonreligious have comparable health to the religious. David, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

David Speed (DS): Hi Tommy. Thanks for having me.

TC: Excellent, excellent. So I was hoping we could have a little discussion along the lines of religion, nonreligion – kind-of the intersection on public health more generally – but also from the perspective of just psychological and individual’s health.

DS: Sure.

TC: And I know – just pointing out some further relevance for the Listeners here – in the US I think the Department of Defence has a multimillion dollar initiative looking at “spiritual fitness training“ and in screening of troops. And I can see David grimacing right now! But you know, this underscores an important fact that many governments and public health researchers are not simply interested in understanding or studying the relationships between religion and health, but actually using the purported benefits of religion and spirituality to shape public policy. And then, a last example here, I’m reminded, because I’ve been living in the UK off and on for the past two years, of how the United Kingdom has recently funded mindfulness meditation interventions I think in over two hundred county wide schools. So I’m excited to get down to a critical discussion about the nature of religion and health with you David and see where it goes.

DS: That sounds wonderful.

TC: So where does some of your own research fit in at the nexus between religion and nonreligion, and personal health and health in general?

DS: So I guess I can start with my dissertation. I started my PhD in 2011 and I graduated in 2015. And when I got accepted into my PhD programme I was told by my adviser I had to pick a health-related topic. And like many grad students I didn’t really know initially what to study. I knew I wanted a PhD but wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. And essentially, I got to the point where I was considering, well, if I could study anything, what would I want to study? And I had a pre-existing interest in atheism and in religion and so I was like, “I wonder how those things relate to health?” And so you go to the literature, as one does. And I immediately found literally hundreds of thousands of citations or references to various religions. So I thought “Well, ok. Obviously someone’s been very busy!” Because this was my first real exposure to it. And then I was like, “OK, well I’m curious how atheism fits into this.” And I found, I think, fewer than maybe a dozen papers, two dozen papers addressing atheism and health. So right away I knew that there, obviously, just on the numbers scale, atheism and health was under-studied (5:00). So I was curious about how atheism fits within the religion and health paradigm. And I started going through the literature. And over and over again you see this recurring set of findings that you’ve alluded to in your intro, that “Religion equals better health; religion equals better health.” So, going to church is good, being religious is good, prayer is good, meditation is good, spirituality is good, religious affiliation is good, belief in God is good, yadayadayada!

TC: So, could you give us a few examples there, though? Because I was very general about that – where these relationships appear.

DS: Sure, so if you’re looking at, say, church-based studies, you’ll find that religious congregants who attend church more frequently are more likely to report, say, lower levels of depression. They might report better perceived well-being. If you’re looking at national studies you might find that people with higher levels of church attendance report better happiness. It varies from country to country. There’s a cultural effect that happens. But a lot of the positive literature really centres around the US where religion tends to be more dominant. There’s a smaller proportion for Canada, and the UK, and other areas. But generally, a lot of these studies just kind-of recurrently suggest that if you go to church, or if you’re religious, you might be more likely to go for screening behaviours for cancers; if you’re religious you might be more likely to feel empowered; if you are religious, or if you believe in God, you are more likely to be comfortable in a situation where you have to face your own mortality. Something like that.

TC: And so you’re kind-of reviewing the literature, here, as you’re doing your doctoral studies. And you uncover this stuff, and what happens? What has happened since then? What did that prompt you to test, do, or dig in deeper?

DS: So as I’m going through the literature, there’s a few things that I start noticing kind-of simultaneously. And what it was is, you know, you read a few papers and you say, “Ok. People are saying that going to church is good. Ok that’s fine. Whatever. They’re generalising by accident.” But whatever. So you go through a few more and then you’re like “Wait a minute. Wait a minute.” So a lot of the studies – not all the studies, but a good chunk of the studies – they recruit from exclusively religious samples. So they’ll go to different church locations, they’ll ask congregants who are there, “How often do you go to church?”, “How happy are you?” and they’ll form a correlational relationship between these two ideas. And correlational research is not that. It’s difficult to make a causal argument with correlational data, but you can point to associations that are recurring. But if you are using an exclusively religious population in order to test something, you can’t generalise the benefits of whatever they’re doing to everyone, because not everyone’s part of that exclusive religious population. So if you sample like five Methodist churches in the Midwest, you can’t then say, “Well, everyone should go to church because of this sample.” You have to say, “Well, people who go to Methodist churches more frequently, congregants have better wellbeing.” That’s a fair conclusion. Now often the literature would say this in kind-of a round-about way. But they would often talk more broadly about the benefits of going to church, or the benefits of being religious, or prayer, or whatever. The other issue too is a lot of the research that is like large-scale is looking at outcomes that are intrinsically related to going to church frequently. So the classic one on this is slighting on the dependent variable. And self-rated health is one of the big benefits of being religious, or of scoring higher on measures of religion and spirituality or RS. So what researchers will do is go into say a religious organisation and they’ll say, “How often do you go to church?”, “How healthy do you think you are?” Or “Do you have any health issues?” They find that people who go to church more frequently report better perceived health and fewer health issues. Well, yes! Obviously! Because people who are really ill or people who have recurring health issues can’t get out and go to church frequently. That’s not shocking. It’s kind-of pointing out that, I don’t know, people who are going through some sort of medical treatment are somehow less healthy than people who don’t have to do that. Obviously they’re going through medical treatment because of the way they are, not because of some factor that’s driving the magic of that medical treatment! So this is a separate issue altogether is that if you’re slighting on the dependent variable, what essentially you’re going to do is that you’re limiting people who maybe on the lower end of that health, who would love to go to church more frequently but can’t (10:00). And the other issue with it – sorry I’m just rattling off a list of issues because this is my life!

TC: No. Perfect.

DS: Another one of the issues is that there was often a conflation of low religiosity with secularism. So it’s the idea that if you get really low levels of religiosity, so like: “I’m not religious, I don’t go to church, I don’t really pray”, the implicit conclusion or sometimes explicit conclusion of the researchers who do that kind of research would say, “Oh. These people embody secularism.” That is not an equivalent statement. The issue with that is, secularism is adhering to or taking specific positions on other topics, right? It’s not merely being apathetic towards religion, it’s endorsing other specific values that are more secular in nature. So there’s this conflation of low religiosity with secularism. So researchers will report, “You know religion’s healthier than secularism.” But they’re not assessing secularism the vast majority of the time. They’re just equating high secularism with low religiosity.

TC: And then we might say, more specifically, just secular nonreligious people per se. Because we’re used to, on the Religious Studies Project of course, taking a very critical approach to these terms. That’s something we don’t usually do in Psych of Religion although we should more. So just kind-of giving that to our Listeners as a blanket term here, you know, confusing people who probably self-identify as secular nonreligious with actually people who would identify as religious.

DS: Yes, absolutely. The biggest issue, though, for the research is that the mechanism driving the relationship between religion and health isn’t always clear. The big one that has the most support, I would argue is social support.

TC: Yes, I was going to say, what do mean by mechanism, here, in terms of driving? How does that work?

DS: Sure. So if you say that Advil is related to pain reduction, right? Advil is doing something – or Ibuprofen if we want to be non-brand specific – Ibuprofen is acting on your body in some biological way in order to produce the desired outcome. If the argument is that religion is connected with health, well, how is it connected with health? We can point at an association of high religion, high health, but why is that? What is the driving mechanism under-pinning that relationship? And arguably the strongest contender for that, from what I can see, is social support. And social support is associated with health. Social support is the perceived availability of resources around you from people. So I’m crying and I call my friend, will he or she console me? If I need money for rent until next week, will my friend have my back? If I really want to share about my day, will my wife humour me and listen to me talk about research for the 35th time that week? So that’s social support. So the more available social support a person has, and the higher degree of availability, the healthier they are. And this isn’t shocking. Like, having friends around you and having family and peers who you can rely on, that’s associated with good health. Religion’s associated with good health, this is true. But social support is also associated with religion. So people who are religious tend to report higher levels of social support. And to me this makes a lot of sense. Like, it would be astounding if you went to church on a weekly basis, or mosque on a weekly basis, or synagogue on a weekly basis and there was no social benefit to you. It would be astounding if that were the case. So the problem is . . . because the three of these things are inter-related, when you’re talking about social support. When we talk about religion benefitting health, a question that’s really important for researchers is “Why?” And if it’s social support, it gets more dicey about how we’re interpreting this then. Social support is a general benefit of social activities. It’s not a specific benefit of religion and spirituality.

TC: I was just going to get to asking that. Aren’t there some arguments that, maybe, religion is not the only source but, people might argue, a very good source of creating these social connections? How does that kind-of bode here? No – it’s not religion per se, but it is a really being driver of social connectedness?

DS: Sure. And I think that’s a very reasonable position to take. About half of my family I would describe as quite religious. They tend to go to church frequently. They tend to really enjoy church. But often they’re talking about. “So this happened in church . . .” or “So and so said this . . .” “I really like engaging with this person.” And it would be. . . . I think it’s a fantastic way of socialising with like-minded people. I think that’s wonderful (15:00). The problem is, is that the way this is presented within findings, and the way you often see justification for religious-oriented policy, say, like from government or from specific initiatives looking at improving spirituality in the fine young men and women of the United States is that you might see this as saying, “Oh well, religion is doing this.” It’s not social support via religion. It’s just religion. So last year I wrote a paper about this where I was discussing that it’s very frustrating talking about the benefits of religion when social support seems to be playing a major role in this. So, if you don’t mind I was going take an excerpt from that paper to help illustrate.

TC: Absolutely.

DS: I said, for example, “It is not difficult to imagine that persons who are active in chess clubs will have access to social support from their fellow members. Furthermore it is not unreasonable to imagine that more active members of chess clubs report better access to social support than less active members. However, if it were found that attendance at chess clubs was positively related to mammography it would be unusual for a researcher to frame these findings as ‘Chess enthusiasm promotes breast X-rays’. Instead, it would be likely argued that social support, which is accessible from any number of institutions including chess clubs, was responsible for increased screening behaviour. However in much of the existing religion and health literature a general benefit of social support, better screening in this case, appears to be presented as a specific benefit of religious activities.” And this is what I find very frustrating as a researcher: it would be shocking if going to church every week didn’t do something. But the important thing there is the social activity for it and not necessarily the religious angle for it. In fact there’s several studies where, when they’re controlling for social support – bringing in the relationship between religion and health, that relationship – the religion and health relationship goes to nothing. Because they’re controlling for social support. This doesn’t happen all the time. But it happens in several studies. And this is an important thing to consider. And finally I have one more point on this. I have one more quote on things that I find frustrating about the literature. It’s that even when researchers, when they work with looking at exclusively religious samples, they were . . . these are general samples, right? What they would do is they would describe everybody’s relationship between religion and health with a single type of consideration. So everyone got the same description of that relationship. So there was no real strong interest in looking at whether or not the relationship between religion and health was affected by other factors. Now researchers have tested moderation before. They find that, say, less-educated people tend to find a stronger benefit from religion and health.

TC: So we’re talking here about moderating factors being like level of education; maybe it only holds for lower or higher; or income, for example; or men versus women? Those kind of things. So I guess adding nuance to this “Religion is good for you!”

DS: The core thing, the frustrating thing is that when you’re looking at general samples you’re sampling people who are not religious, you’re sampling people who are not spiritual, you’re sampling people who are atheist, right? And there’s no reason to suspect that these people would value religion and spirituality to the same extent as someone who believes in God or is religious or spiritual. There should be no default assumption that these groups are equivalent to begin with. If you’re looking at say, sex-based differences like men versus women or males versus females you could say, “Well there’s no reason to suspect that one of these people would have a radically different relationship with religion.” They do not . . . their identity, or their moderating factor there, isn’t a religiously-slighted variable. If you’re looking at people who are atheist, though, that is something related to the very idea of religion and spirituality. If you’re looking at nonreligion that’s something that’s very much related to the idea, intrinsically, to religion and spirituality. But what had happened is that these previous studies they all treated everyone in the entire sample as having more or less the same expressed relationship between religion and health so they looked at sex as a moderating factor, age as a moderating factor, or education. But there was generally never any interest in looking at people who are not religious, whether or not they reported an equivalent relationship. So what the focus of my doctorate was on was looking at the idea of health outcomes and religious and spiritual beliefs and behaviours, but looking at whether or not people who were atheists, or nonreligious or not spiritual, whether or not they recorded a different linear relationship between those activities or beliefs and outcomes. And it turns out quite often they did. And quite often they reported a lower health score when they reported higher levels of religion and spirituality. So if you go to church, that’s fine (20:00). But you would, in this case, you would have to be religious really to see that same relationship. If you’re not religious and you’re attending church all the time, this has different health implications. So, problematically, if you’re saying that there is a monolithic relationship between religion and health you’re losing a lot of nuance there. Because religion and spirituality have benefits, but you have to have a religious and spiritual identity, which is conducive to you benefitting from those activities. So I jokingly say, “Well, my doctoral work, I got a PhD for saying ‘religion is healthy, but you’ve got to be religious to get that benefit.’” So it’s a kind of simplification, but no one had looked at that previously.

TC: And to add to this, I think that these are really important nuances particularly, again, in the domain of public policy and public health. For example, I’m thankful to have been a part of . . . they have different workshops put on by different places that have like week-long courses for private health care providers, government officials and so on, specifically informing them about the research on the relationship between religion, spirituality and health. And the takeaway from these . . . . They’re conducted very well, but there’s also, at the same time, a certain level of nuance that is just missing. And the takeaway message I hear when I’m in some of these presentations or venues or even reading books and chapters on religion and public health, is this kind-of assumption that since we now know . . . we’ve identified the . . . circumscribed the positive effects of religion here, well then: “Now that we’ve found the fountain of youth, let’s drink from it!”

DS: (Laughs)

TC: There’s almost this. . . . It’s not direct, and I’ve been very impressed in some of the more recent literature that has been taking into to consideration nonreligious concerns or saying, “We don’t know here . . .” but typically, it seems like there’s a blanket message that religion is good for a host of things, and we should use this; the government can grab a hold of this. And you’re saying that: “Kind-of . . . possibly . . . but . . !”

DS: Yes. Shockingly, there’s more nuance to this than “religion equals good health”. Because one of the things that really sticks out from the religion and health literature is when you look at people who are atheists, right? Atheists generally – we were discussing this prior to the show beginning. Atheists generally aren’t religious. They generally don’t go to church. They generally don’t score highly on religiosity measures. Atheists have really comparable health to believers. So if you . . . just logically, if you expect that high religiosity equals better health, then low religiosity should equal worse health. Atheists should be fairly unhealthy on average, just on that sort-of simplistic, somewhat reductionist perspective. But it’s not. It’s somewhat paradoxical. My colleague and I, Karen Hwang, we published paper called “The Healthy Heretic Paradox“, in which we looked at atheists who on the measures of health, using nationally representative data from America, we find that on average they tended to report comparable health to theists who were strong believers, despite the fact that they didn’t believe in God at all. So this showed there’s something of a fly in the ointment. Because if religion just uniformly benefits health, well people who are really not religious, like atheists, or they’re not – we’ll say atheists as the more extreme example – you wouldn’t really expect them to be healthy. But they are. Meaning that the description . . . it looks, at the very face value of it, that there’s something very wrong with how that relationship is being summarised.

TC: And I think there’s something fishy with the way that the relationship is interpreted both at the academic level and certainly bubbles up to policy and other things. What other studies have you conducted that speak to this, say, lack of nuance that was previously in the literature for this. And also I guess it would be strange to see . . . I can only think what the President of the US or different administrations what kind of flack they would take if they decided to prescribe kind-of atheism! Because it seems that people who did not believe in God more strongly had comparable health to the religious (25:00). So I was just kind-of interested in what other research and work you’ve conducted that can speak to this interesting . . . I don’t know if you want to call it a hydraulic relationship, maybe?

DS: Yes. Geez! I don’t know about the political thing, I’m not sure I feel comfortable answering whether or not the government should prescribe religious or atheistic beliefs. I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable with the government doing that. Regardless of whether or not they prescribed atheism or theism. As to the research, so what I generally do . . . my research uses pre-existing datasets from Statistics Canada, from the General Social Survey out of the University of Chicago. I think it’s the National Opinion and Research Council. I think they do those studies. Anyway, so it’s data that’s publicly available to any researcher who is interested in doing it and has the competence and statistics to do assessment. But I published a little more than half a dozen studies on the topic between religion and health. In each case I’m looking at: OK, well let’s look at how this actually relates, and let’s try and distinguish between people who believe versus not believe, in terms of these outcomes. In virtually all cases I found, it’s that often when there’s a really strong positive relationship between religion and health say for believers, you would find a moderating effect for whether or not someone was an atheist. I published a study with the Journal of Religion and Health in 2016 or 17, I can’t remember now. But it was looking at data from Ontario which is the largest province, population-wise, in Canada. And I found that people who go to church they tend to report better health but . . I think it was satisfaction in life, maybe. But if you’re looking at the nonreligious people recording the same level of attendance then what you see is a very different relationship. It actually reports a negative relationship. Now this isn’t to mean that going to church is bad. It’s just you need more nuance when you’re discussing these things, especially at a public policy level. Because it’s not this panacea that fixes everything.

TC: So it seems like there’s a heavy interpretation factor here, where on one end, you know, the general trend might be to say, “Oh, look at the positive effects of – to use the recurring example – church attendance, here.” But then we would not want to conclude for example that less-religious or nonreligious people should avoid church like the plagues, because it apparently, you know has a harmful impact on their health. What we’re talking about here is not necessarily I guess a causal relationship.

DS: No, no. I think if you made like a group of nonbelievers go to church … Besides the ethical issues with that, I don’t think . . . I wouldn’t immediately suspect that all of them would be miserable and report increases in depression, or whatever. But the problem is that when you’re looking at how the academic findings are used and discussed in the broader social lens, how they’re used to inform public policy, or the potential they have to influence policy, there’s discussion about including… you know, default assuming that you should discuss religion and spirituality in clinical therapy. So there’s a real-world consequence to this type of finding. And the problem is that if you’re looking at these relationships and you’re potentially treating it as “more religion better health”, you’re losing a lot of the nuance; you’re losing sight of the personal idea that perhaps some people aren’t religious because they really are opposed to religion. And forcing them to address those topics or discuss those topics may not be a super-positive thing for those groups of people.

TC: I was going to say, I also think it points, to some degree, to our problems with interpreting the positive findings on religion and health then. Because we don’t . . . I guess that was the comparison I was trying to get at then. We wouldn’t kind-of say that church attendance hurts less-religious people in the same way we say, “Look, people . . “ we’re willing to make that inference that people who attend more do better. We wouldn’t make it one case, but we do in the other. But they’re kind-of conceptually similar . . . is what I hear you saying?

DS: Yes. Yes. So like so if you’re looking at . . . this hearkens back to some of what I do with my doctoral work (30:00). But what happens when you look at say irreligious groups, when they report really low levels of attendance or religiosity – really, really low levels of that – if you compared their average health levels to religious groups who report very high levels of religiosity or attendance, those two relationships, they’re about at the same place. And in cases where they are, say, statistically different, so at p value less than .05, the associated effect size of that – so the actual magnitude of difference between the groups – is really, really small. And often it’s trivially small. So the convention for Cohen’s d , which is a measure of effect size (not to get too far into those academic things at this point!) But anything less than a Cohen’s d of 0.2 is usually seen as trivial. It’s not really something to talk about. And if you’re talking about a social activity or the sociocultural perspectives influencing some sort of health outcome and you’re saying it’s happening at a level of a Cohen’s d of less than 0.2, you’re talking about something that you probably can’t really observe in everyday life. And the underlying mechanism isn’t clear because we’re not sure if it’s social support driving the majority of this relationship or not or if it’s another factor. It’s really hard to talk about that and convey a strong sense of meaning to those findings. I mean it’s statistically significant but that doesn’t mean of clinical relevance or of clinical importance.

TC: I think though, one of the examples I usually use when I’m teaching students or talking about significance in general is, you know, the difference between let’s say a football player who weighs 200 pounds versus one who weighs 200.1lbs. One is significantly heavier than the other, but it would be very odd to kind-of say, “Well the other guy weighs . . . he weighs significantly more than I do. I’m going to have to rethink the game here.” You know. No!

DS: Especially with large population samples. Any difference will become statistically significant with enough people sampled. And the reason is because error term gets progressively smaller with the more people you talk to. So if you have, say, one group has an IQ of 100, another one has an IQ of 110.1. If you sample millions of people and you’re able to find that one mean is 100, the other mean is 100.1, because you’ve sampled so many people, what’s going to end up happening is that it will come out as statistically significant but the associated effect is so tiny, like, why even bother talking about it? And religion health research isn’t quite there – there are cases where it’s really beneficial if you’re talking about optimism and outlook after, say, surgery or something. You’ll see higher levels of optimism or you’re feeling cared for because you’re protected by God. You might see some specific benefits in very specific cases, but in terms of, like, at public policy level, or on a national health level, the differences are often quite small. Not always, but often.

TC: Kind-of wrapping this up, and bringing this towards the end, here . . . I’m interested in talking a little bit about how religion and spirituality are conceptualised here. Now I know, and I don’t want to beat a dead horse, per se . . . because one of the things I think the RSP prides itself on doing is deconstructing and exposing underlying structure and assumptions of precisely these kind of terms. But it’s something I think . . . well, public health professionals do not have extensive discussions about discursive practices, or what we would really mean when we use this word, or all the different things we’re lumping together! It’s the same with psychologists as well. It’s generally left to Religious Studies scholars and Humanities. So if you could, in closing here, kind-of bring us into perspective and how some of these studies conceptualise religion and spirituality and particularly from the vantage point of the nonreligious, right? Is it one of those things where everyone’s religious, you just have to find the right . . .?

DS: Personally, I’m not sure if there’s an academic consensus on this specifically. I’ve usually . . . concepts regarding religion tend to be better defined (35:00). So if you’re looking at say church attendance.

TC: Better defined than . . . ?

DS: Better than spirituality. So if you’re looking at assessments of attendance: “How often do you go to church?” – you can get a fairly objective assessment of that; “How often do you pray?” – you can get a fairly objective assessment of that. It’s self-reporting. You’re relying on people to provide you with data but that’s ok. But you can get a fairly objective standpoint. When you talk about religiosity you get into, what exactly does religiosity mean? There’s different conceptualisations of religiosity. One that people might be familiar with is intrinsic versus extrinsic. Intrinsic is, in a nutshell, religiosity because you see intrinsic values: with this religiosity you get something out of it, you see it’s rewarding or fulfilling in itself. Whereas extrinsic religiosity is kind-of treating religion as a means to an end. So it’s a tool in order to achieve a greater . . . So there’s kind-of some fuzziness around religiosity. But if you ask people how important they find religion is to them, or how religious do they see themselves you can tend to get a more or less consistent set of ways of assessing those specific behaviours or beliefs.

TC: I often also think that this gets us into kind-of “good religion” and “bad religion”. Particularly from a health perspective: there are consistently some negative social effects kind-of associated with varieties of fundamentalism. And it seems here that the same health professionals and researchers are keen to say, “Well, when we talk about religion we’re not meaning that kind – not the stuff that we think is bad for public health, or social cohesion.” Well, it depends on what we man by social cohesion, here. But I often notice that this gets into a good religion, versus bad. And so then that makes me think, “Well, aren’t you really just interested in things that are improving health or psychological wellbeing in general, instead of something religious per se?”

DS: Yes, and you can kind-of see this. This is more apparent within the spirituality literature, in my opinion. So if you’re looking at, say, just like pure religion it’s like, what do you believe? How often do you go to church? Are you religiously affiliated? You get fairly straightforward measures. People know what you’re talking about. People may disagree about whether or not this person’s a true member of this religious organisation, or whether or not they’re a member of that religious organisation. But there tends to be at least consensus on the idea of how you get to those questions. The spirituality literature, I find, is really vague about what that term means. And the way spirituality is assessed, it may not necessarily be intuitive for the laity. It’s just . . . it’s very, very broad in how it’s defined. So I wrote a paper for Skeptic a couple of years ago, where I point out some of the different definitions of spirituality. And one of them defines spirituality as “an inherent component of being human and is subjective, intangible and multi-dimensional”. That literally means anything you want it to mean! So, it doesn’t really matter if you and I are talking about spirituality. If you say “My aunt’s not religious but she’s spiritual,” I’m not sure exactly what you mean, but I understand what you’re trying to convey to me. But if researchers are talking about assessing spirituality they can’t just . . . “Oh yes, I totally know what you mean.” They actually have to quantify and describe and validate measures of spirituality. So when you see these validated measures or these assessments, you see a lot of questions in there that you may not – or at least I wouldn’t, and the people I’m talking to wouldn’t – see these as intrinsically spiritual. So there are questions like: “I accept others even when they do things that I think are wrong”, “I have a general sense of belonging”, “When I wrong someone I make an effort to apologise”. Those things are included as indicators of spirituality. And to me this is problematic on two different levels. One: this is, in a sense, gaming the system. You’ve chosen . . . or items are being chosen not because I see an obvious connection with spirituality. They might go together, there might be a reason for including these, that’s fine. These have been validated, I have no issue with that. I’m positive these researchers have done their due diligence and this is what has come out. But if you’re talking about spirituality with someone, you wouldn’t say like “Oh yes. When I wrong someone I apologise. That’s a spiritual thing.” Like, that’s a really select definition of spirituality (40:00). So if you’re finding that how well people are engaging socially is an intrinsic component of spirituality and you find that spirituality is related to health – well, yes. Social support and being able to interact, socially, well with other people is related to support. So it just is like a parallel . . . if you said that “I don’t smoke because it’s bad for me” and that’s a spiritual assessment and you find that people who score more highly on spirituality get less cancer, well, yeah! You’ve adjusted the framework of spirituality such that it includes not smoking. Well, of course that’s related to cancer rates, because that’s how that works! So the thing I find frustrating about the spirituality literature – and it’s a really interesting literature, people do genuinely good work in it – but it’s just the variability in what spirituality can mean. And the idea that you feel empowered, or you feel like you have purpose in life – that’s spirituality. I’ve never thought of those things as being spiritual before, like, prior to reading this literature. I’ve always just described that as, “Oh yes, I feel as if . . .I feel autonomy. I feel a sense of mastery.” So, when you’re connecting those measures of spirituality, or that definition of spirituality with health, I’m not shocked that that’s related to better health. But we already knew that from other fields. So my question is kind-of: if spirituality is doing something, what is the unique thing that spirituality is doing? How are you defining that? Is that a good . . . is that a reasonable definition that people would say, “Oh yeah, that’s definitely spirituality”? Or is this a hodge-podge of different areas that we’re just kind-of lumping together and saying it’s spirituality and saying, “Oh look, it’s ‘Spirituality – better health!’”

TC: Excellent. I was wondering if you had any kind-of summing up or parting phrase, or words, or thoughts for us on the relationship between religion, nonreligion and health?

DS: (Laughs).

TC: Something to send our Listeners away with? Something even more profound than what you’ve already said?

DS: I don’t know if I can go more profound! But religion is related to health. Like, correlationally we can establish that religion is related to health. If you’re religious and if you go to church, chances are you’re probably getting a benefit from it. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what the underlying mechanism is. If it’s the social support angle, if it’s because you have a better sense of coherency, is it because this really makes you feel like spiritually charged as a person? If you’re getting a benefit out of it, continue. Please continue doing it. Don’t be discouraged from not doing it. If you’re not religious and you are hearing all these things about, “Oh. Going to church is associated with better health,” the more elemental question you have to consider is, will this be good for you specifically? If most people are religious and most people benefit from going to church, fine! But that doesn’t incorporate everyone. So there has to be more nuance in the field. Religion is a wonderfully diverse, very complex socio-cultural construct. And chances are that its relationship with health is more complicated than a single edict of “Do more, be healthy!”

TC: Excellent. Dr David Speed, thank you for joining us on the Religious Studies Project.

DS: Thanks a lot for having me.


Citation Info: Speed, David and Thomas Coleman. 2019. “Nonreligion, Religion and Public Health”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/nonreligion-religion-and-public-health/

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

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

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Studying the “off-the-beaten-track”

In the fourth of our editors’ picks, Ray Radford takes “the soppy route on this choice, as David Robertson’s interview with David Wilson on ‘Spiritualism and Shamanism’ was the very first interview/podcast I heard from the RSP way back in my days as an undergrad. This podcast (along with some amazing lecturers and tutors) helped cement that religious studies was the right choice. This podcast helped me realise that my burgeoning interest was in religions that were off the beaten track (so to speak) and that there was so much out there that I can (and will and indeed at the moment, do) study.”

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our social media manager, Ray Radford.

I’m taking the soppy route on this choice, as David Robertson‘s interview with David Wilson on ‘Spiritualism and Shamanism‘ was the very first interview/podcast I heard from the RSP way back in my days as an undergrad. This podcast (along with some amazing lecturers and tutors) helped cement that religious studies was the right choice. This podcast helped me realise that my burgeoning interest was in religions that were off the beaten track (so to speak) and that there was so much out there that I can (and will and indeed at the moment, do) study.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. 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, such as David’s Redefining Shamanisms.

Angel Spirituality

1a7fd1627b3543072b5c994419e40076In Northern Europe today, many people are engaging with angels, and Tehri Utriainen has been researching them. What is angel spirituality, and who does it appeal to (hint: women)? As with many vernacular systems, it is both ad hoc and highly practical, with a strong focus on healing. She tells us how these practices challenge preconceptions about the relationship between new spiritualities and Christianity, and raise interesting questions about gender, and vernacular religion in supposedly post-Christian Europe.

For more of Tehri’s work on angels, see:

Healing Enchantment: How Does Angel Healing Work?
Utriainen, T. 2017 Spirit and Mind – Mental Health at the Intersection of Religion & Psychiatry. Basu, H., Littlewood, R. & Steinforth, A. (eds.). Berlin: Lit Verlag, p. 253-273 19 p.

Desire for Enchanted Bodies: The Case of Women Engaging in Angel Spirituality
Utriainen, T. 2016 Contemporary Encounters in Gender and Religion: European Perspectives. Gemzöe, L., Keinänen, M-L. & A. M. (eds.). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 175-193 19 p.

Listeners might also be interested in David’s interview with Ingvild Gilhus from three years ago, on the topic “Unruly Angels”.

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, Ko-Lee hot & Spicy Go Noodles, and more.

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

Angel Spirituality

Podcast with Tehri Utriainen (5 June 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Utriainen_-_Angel_Spirituality_1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh today. I’m joined by Tehri Utriainen, from the University of Helsinki, where she is Professor in the Study of Religions. And today, we’re going to be talking about angels in kind-of popular spirituality, particularly in Finland, but hopefully also in a slightly larger context as well. So, first of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Tehri Utriainen (TU): Thank you so much David.

DR: Let’s start just with . . . .Tell us a little about these angel practices, angel spirituality. You know – who are we talking about, what are the practices? Just set it up for us.

TU: Ok. Well my context, of course, is Finland but, as you said, it is more wide – you can find it elsewhere. You can find it in the UK. There’s been studies done in the UK, the US, in Norway and in Estonia, for instance, recently. Whom are we talking about? We’re talking about women. This is really the most extremely women-dominated religiosity that you can imagine. Usually people say that: in grassroots religion the practitioners are 60% female; in holistic spiritualities (if you want to use that term ) it’s like around 80% – this was the Kendal Project numbers, for instance; and with angels the figures go much higher. They are over 90%, as far as my research is concerned. So we’re talking about women interested in angels.

DR: What kind of women? Are we talking about the same sort of women that we would expect to find in holistic spiritualities, for instance? You know, generally, from the Kendal Project, for instance, mostly . . . kind-of middle class, fairly well-educated, fairly well-off – these kinds of things?

TU: “Fairly well” women! Yes. Yes, more-or-less, we are. Well, when we go to Finland it’s perhaps a little bit different society from the UK. We like to think that we are more equal in the social way. We don’t have these social strata as much as you have here. But it’s a kind-of, you know . . . . We fool ourselves, of course, with these things, always. But it is middle class . . . I would say that it’s mostly lower to mid-middle class, but all middle classes. But very varied educational backgrounds. A lot of women who work in caring and education professions, for instance. These women are also interested in other practices, not only angels, and all sorts of holistic practices. Something that all my interviewees mentioned, really, was like Reiki. Reiki healing is one form of energy healing which is now so popular in all of the Western world, I guess. It comes from Japan, and through Hawaii, but it’s become popular all over. But these women with angels tend to be, I would say, a little bit more towards Christianity, because there is the central figure. But I see quite a variation with the people that I have interviewed. And I have made, also, a smallish survey and some of them consider themselves Lutheran – Lutheranity is our like home religion in Finland. But then, there is the other end who are kind-of completely disconnected from the church and have their background, for instance, in esotericism, theosophy, spiritualism, anthroposophy. But then, there is a third group of women who come from secular families and, at least, tell me that they don’t really have very much religious background at all. And they got into religion through this.

DR: What sort of religious make-up are we talking about in Finland, just for the benefit of our listeners? I mean here, obviously, we’re somewhere between 70-55%, depending on what part of the country you’re in.

TU: Like, Church of England or those big churches, or altogether?

DR: Yes, well, the sort-of state churches, yes. I mean, England’s sitting at about 65% and Scotland’s a little bit lower about 58%.

TU: Yes. So the numbers go down regularly all the time in Finland, at the moment. And last year’s survey gives us something like 72%, and the women a bit more than men. And then the next biggest church in Finland would be the Orthodox church, but that is a very low number of participants or members. (5:00) So we are a very Lutheran country, still, but the figures are going down.

DR: Part of the reason I asked that is that I have a kind of personal interest in this subject. Some people in my family are involved in this kind of stuff. My grandmother and my aunty – her youngest daughter – both do these  kind-of angel cards. Now my family is not a strongly religious family, but have become so over time. My granny is now in her early eighties and she converted to Anglicanism when my grandad died, a couple of decades ago . . .

TU: Yes

DR: . . . whereas my aunty converted to Catholicism because she married an Irishman. So they’re the two . . . they’re really the only two properly Christian members of the family. They’re different – you know, one’s Protestant, one’s Catholic – but they have these angel practices in common. Now, they’re a little bit secretive about actually what it is. The few things I’ve been picking up is that there are some cards . . . . But as much as I got was that they sort-of identified with particular figures, and these figures were associated with various qualities, and colours, and things like that. Could you fill us in, a little bit, about that kind of aspect of the practical side of it – what it involves?

TU: Sure. First of all I want to say that I’m pleased that now, through my research, you get the possibility that you can learn something about your family members!

DR: Yes.

TU: I’ve had several men tell me, “Now I understand my mother better!” “Now I understand my sister better!” Or something like this, you know? Because they kind-of get a little glimpse of it. And then the women tell something about it, but don’t open up the whole stuff, immediately. Yes, there are these practices and, the angel is a Christian figure, and we have all this Christian sort of mythology, and narrative, and image traditions on angels, the idea in Christianity is that angels are like Godly power and God gives us angels and angelic power when he wants to do [something]. [Whereas], this contemporary practice is much more practical for the women. It is practical religion: an everyday practical religion that uses several kinds of techniques and means. You mentioned cards – angel card reading is quite popular, and the first angel cards I met in Finland were cards coming from your country, in fact, or the US. Now there are also some indigenous Finnish angel card traditions, too. That goes a bit like Tarot card reading. You can either make a table of them, or you can just take one card for the day, or one card for a puzzling question that you have in your mind. And so, you read an enigmatic answer, just a word: the word might be like, “happiness”; the word might be, like, “balance”; or, you know, these kinds of things that you also might find in horoscopes. So that is one thing, but they also have their imagery. And, like you said, certain angels might be linked to certain colours, for instance, which might give this woman a kind of glance into her life. In the sense that when she learns – either though cards or through somebody – that her colour is linked to the colour green [for example], which would then, perhaps, be the colour of the Archangel Raphael, then, every time she’s drawn to green she gets a message. So, it could go like this. But then there are meditations, several kinds of angel meditations, often like a visual journey: you are led to a sacred garden where you meet your angel; you talk to your angel; you ask something; your angel gives you a symbol or a word, or something; you are led back from the meditation; and then you are there, either with yourself or a group of friends – angel minded friends. And you integrate this thing that you got, and you relate it to your life’s bigger or smaller things. And then, of course, this more-or-less . . . the thing that connects with this holistic milieu even more is the angel healing aspect. (10:00) There are angel healing courses, and you can learn to become a healer – a bit like a Reiki healer – who heals others or who heals yourself. The angel healing, as far as I know , is mostly used for what we might call emotional issues and emotional problems. And I think that this highlights the topic of emotions, and how important emotions are – perhaps particularly to women in the contemporary world – is extremely interesting because, then, it’s related to the high numbers of depression and emotion work in very many ways.

DR: Yes. Which also might . . . . I think there’s quite high rates of depression and suicide and stuff in some of the Northern European countries. But that trajectory of women and the  kind-of therapeutic culture is very, very common. You see that a lot in . . . . Well, you see it a lot in the holistic, mind-body-spirit  kind-of world, here. Particularly female, but you also see the same trajectory with men and also in the conspiracy theory world. I looked at this in my work, for instance, David Icke: his passage into conspiracy theory world was looking for alternative therapies to treat his arthritis. He ended up going to a medium who channelled messages to him.

TU: Yes. Mediumship is present here.

DR: But those discourses on healing, and on holistic healing as well – the idea that your emotions and your body are linked – are found right across that  kind-of cultic milieu, not only in the more overtly spiritual aspects of . . .

TU: Definitely. I think of one other notion that is very, very closely connected to emotions- another “e” word is energy: emotions and energy. And the way that you can sort-of manage them, or you can make use of them, but you can also sort-of control them – like you said, channelling or something. Emotions, in my materials, are often considered as one sort of type of energy, one type of energy that works a lot in the human world. And as energy it’s power and it can be used into good. But it can also be, sort of, if it’s like all loose, it can do bad things.

DR: Yes. And, when we were talking about the colours earlier on, that’s immediately what I thought of was the rays of the theosophical tradition – where the colours represent different frequencies of energy or different energies, you know. And that, by selecting a particular colour, you can encourage that particular emotion or energy. Which leads to my next question, which is: all of this stuff that you’ve been describing so far, from using cards for readings, healings, visualisation, the idea of correspondences of colours attracting particular energies, you know – even the use of cards themselves, and the association with therapeutic culture – this all seems taken exactly from 19th century esotericism, what we would call Western esotericism nowadays. Yet [it] has this Christian kind-of – I don’t want to say veneer – but it’s a Christian framing of those practices.

TU: Yes, well, there always was a kind of Christian esotericism as well. They have never been completely apart – even though, probably, some ruling churches and ruling theologies would like them apart – but there have been much more linkages. But I might also say that – particularly in the context of Finland perhaps, but maybe this applies even larger settings – esotericism earlier on used to be a bit elitist. It was not for everybody, for all the people in Finland, anyway, and openly, anyway. But now, what we see is something like the democratisation and popularisation of this esotericism, and bringing it openly in connection with Christianity.

DR: Yes.

TU: And this, of course, has to do with many things – like things that are marketed to us and how popular culture circulates. (15:00) But it also has to do with the grip of the church loosening: the church doesn’t have the normative power any more in people’s everyday lives. In Finland, for instance – perhaps here too, but in Finland – where the ruling church was the Lutheran Church, Lutheranity meant . . . . For those people who were not very religious or very pious, Lutheranity was mostly a normative system, saying what you do in public life, what you don’t do, but this is less so now.

DR: I wonder if it’s not only its normativity in the society, it’s also the normativity of the scholars in the categories that we’re looking at. I wonder if this stuff was always going on, but it was kind-of hidden from our view, because it wasn’t considered suitable for us to look at, and so on.

TU: For the scholars of religion?

DR: Yes.

TU: Yes: because it was not funded, and it was not taken seriously; because it was not the serious religion, it was the fringe stuff. And I have seen a lot, and I suppose a lot of people have seen it, that bigger money always goes to religion which is considered as cultural heritage stuff,  kind-of elevated, sublime thing, more-or-less. Whereas these hobby-level religions with their crazy knowledge systems . . .

DR: Yes. Well, there is a sense in which you get the impression that people think: “Well, we don’t really want to encourage this . . . “

TU: Yes

DR: “If we pay this too much attention it might be seen that we’re taking it seriously.”

TU: Yes. Exactly!

DR: So tell us, then, how did you get to looking at this stuff? What was your passage into this?

TU: My complete passage into this was that I was involved in a larger project, that was led by Professor Peter Nynäs in Abo Akademi university, which is a Swedish speaking university in Finland, in Turku. And I was lucky enough to jump on that project when it started. And the project was called Post-Secular Culture and the Changing Religious Landscape in Finland. And we wanted to look into the margins and outside fields from Lutheranism, and what was happening there. And we were several people and we had several case studies. We started to pick something that we were interested in, or something that somebody was already engaged with, or something, anyway, that could sort-of give us a good palette, a sort of mosaic-view to things that were happening. And since I was more-or-less kind-of a specialist, if you like, in women’s popular religion . . . . It was not my own idea at all, but we started to think about: what is it that happens in this type of religiosity today? One possible thing would have been, like, healing and Reiki and stuff. But then we decided that angels were, just at that time, becoming so popular in Finland that we thought, “that opens up a window, through which we can see some interesting things”. And so it happened. And some books came out and people got really interested in the angel stuff. And I had a lot of fun doing this for a couple of years. And still have, writing on it, fun in many ways. Not only in the hilarious way, but also that I had very nice fieldwork experiences and I learned very much about both the serious sides of religion and life, but also about the less serious sides of it.

DR: Tell us about how you went about the study, then. Was it predominantly kind-of ethnographic work?

TU: It was ethnographically oriented, multi-method stuff. I love working ethnographically, well. I went to . . . I collected . . . sort-of . . . just went to see what happened. And I took myself into those happenings and situations. Like, for instance, there was a yoga school, when I started my ethnography. In one yoga school they have their yearly “angel week”. So I went through that week and saw how the angels popped into the yoga classes! Which was a good start, in the sense that it brought me into meeting young people – mostly young people – who were interested in this. So I couldn’t work only with the idea that this is only middle-aged women, or women in their late-middle age and stuff. So I started with that and started to contact people. I used the snowball method to get interviews. I went for courses, I contacted people and said, “Can I come?” (20:00) And then there was this very popular Irish – I don’t know how popular she is here, but – woman who writes autobiographies and the books where she recounts her life with angels, Lorna Byrne, whose books, just then, became translated in Finnish and who paid visits to Finland. And all the visits were sold out, there were 1000 women with a handful of men who came there (hand-in-hand with their female friends ) to listen to how this Irish . . . contemporary Irish mystic tells how she sees the place full of angels and describes people’s angels. Well, I made a survey in one of her visits, wanting to know about the backgrounds of these women who came to listen to her, etc, etc. Then I sort-of followed the media reactions, I followed the church reactions. I did sort-of a multi-angle thing.

DR: So it was very much ethnography, then, in all of the senses it can be, so: sort-of qualitative interviewing, but participant observation and media discourse analysis as well.

TU: Yes and also the smallish survey – I had 263 answers, so that I could see the demographic things and stuff.

DR: And how did they take to you? I mean, how open about your research were you? And how interested . . . ?

TU: I was very open about my research. I was open even in the bigger settings. Particularly when I was distributing the questionnaire, of course, I told them what it was about. And I was open when I went to study an angel healer – that was the most participant part of it.

DR: Right.

TU: And well, they were . . . everybody was, at that time, so happy about this thing happening. And they probably considered me as a possible advocate for them, and taking the whole thing to the academy. I remember . . . may I tell you one nice interview situation where there was this woman who channelled angels?

DR: Yes.

TU: I knew that she channelled angels, and that was one of my reasons for contacting her. And she also wanted her husband to be in the interview, so I interviewed the two of them. Before we started the interview she said to me – we had a cup of coffee, we were at their home – she said to me: “What if my angel also wants to become interviewed?” – the angel that she channelled.

DR: Oh, so the angel was present, then?

TU: She said, “What if she comes?”

DR: Oh, what if? Yes.

TU: I said, “Well, I’m very happy of course . . . ” and I tried to make a joke. I said, “I probably don’t have the informed consent for the angel!” (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs)

TU: Because I wasn’t prepared. I had two copies, you know. I had one for the husband and one for her.

DR: It would be an interesting subject to come up at the ethics commission . . .

TU: Well what happened after some time of interview, maybe one hour – it was one of the longest interviews that I made – she says, “Now, I think she wants to come, my angel wants to come.” And I said, “OK.” It was  kind-of exciting, I have to admit.

DR: And did the angel contribute to the conversation?

TU: Yes! Then I have 40 minutes of interview with the angel in my tape.

DR: Oh fantastic!

TU: And after that the angel goes away, and the woman comes back, and we continue. And while the woman has a bit of difficulty – as her husband tells me – in coming back, resuming her own like mortal role, the husband gives me the explanation that, “Well it often is a bit difficult for her to come back after the angel has gone,” because there is this liminal period. Well, what I have there is a sub-chapter in a book that I’m going to publish – in Finnish, unfortunately. But I have one sub-chapter interview with an angel!

DR: Fantastic.

TU: But that is  kind-of a . . . that is interesting also, in the sense of: “What did the angel say, in the interview?” Well several things, but one important thing was that I had my small recorder on the table and the angel goes very close to the recorder and says, “And I want to say this to science, and please go and tell this to Abo Akademi of science!”

DR: (Laughs)

TU: So, it was a very intricate dynamics that was going on there. (25:00) Because was she making fun of me? Or was she really, like, making the angel meet science, not through just meeting the people, but mediating it. It was interesting. I haven’t really found a way to talk about this so far.

DR: What that suggests to me is that, you know . . . . The spirit guide is often . . . there’s a kind of yin/yang relationship, so they’re like the animus and the anima in Jungian psychology or, you know, the various sort of spirit animals are often the opposite gender. So, if she is existing in the modern, rational, secular – well, supposedly so – world, then her spirit companion is the opposite.

TU: Yes

DR: So, represents to her the spiritual world and that is one which is often set up against science: science as the disenchanted . . . you know, the “black iron prison”.

TU: Yes, that’s true.

DR: Whereas the spiritual world is the enchanted one and so, naturally, would be pitted against the rationalism represented by science.

TU: But there I had the two coming together, and the enchanted world coming directly to shout at the disenchanted world represented by the recorder.

DR: Yes. So the recorder is actually representing that as well, yes.

TU: The recorder is there as a hard fact there, and the angel goes into that hard machine.

DR: But happy to use science to make a point . . .

TU: Yes, but also . . .

DR: And capable of doing so . . .

TU: And very capable of doing so. Even considered that it was a small girl angel!

DR: Oh, ok!

TU: Six years old, or something like this. But, nevertheless, very skilful in that.

DR: So, for this woman, the angel was a child? That’s interesting.

TU: Yes, this was a woman in her 50s and the angel was a female child.

DR: That’s interesting. Because that’s not usually the case, is it?

TU: Ah, the angel asked me that!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: “Do you know . . . Can you guess why I appear as a small girl?” And the answer was . . . .Well, I was a bit silly – I offered the answer. I offered my guess and she took it. I don’t know, maybe I should have done something else, but I said, “Maybe it is because we are not afraid of children or small girls?” And she said, “Yes. The enormous power that I bring is kind-of less feared when . . . ”

DR: She was in her 50s , you said? Had they had children?

TU: They had a child together: a boy – early teens. And one of them – I don’t remember which one of them – had bigger children, too.

DR: Ah right, ok. But, generally speaking, the angel is a male figure.

TU: Often, in my material.

DR: And in my experience, as well. What is the appeal, then? Why is it the angel that’s at the centre of this, not fairies, or dragons, or Thor, or Spiderman?

TU: It is . . . . Well, some of these women have a lot of things going on with a lot of other spirits, as well. But some – I might say that those who consider themselves mostly as Lutheran – they don’t take other spirits as easily, but an angel is something that they allow in their lives. Well angels . . . I wouldn’t mind having a male angel in my life, considering how beautiful they are, how wonderful they are depicted!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: They come with their baby faces, but they have strong, wonderful wings and things. And I sometimes play with this idea. Because, you know, in Finland we have . . . like, we think about the mortal men, like the normal, ordinary men. We have a big number of engineers. Engineers are considered, in Finland – this is a bit jokingly said – but men [who are], like, reliable and practical, but not so good always in talking about emotions, with the women.

DR: (Laughs) Yes. I don’t think that’s unique to Finland, to be honest.

TU: Maybe. So these women sometimes even talked about their men who sometimes really were engineers. And they were, sort-of, not replacing these husbands with these male angels, but complementing the scene with this figure which had something male, something masculine in it – a protective sense, for instance, but which was also the perfect male, in the sense that he understood their emotions. Isn’t that good?

DR: Yes. It does make sense, absolutely.

TU: It does make sense. And yes, not all of them were male, but a lot of them were and it appeared that the Archangel Michael, who is the protector of soldiers, was pretty much popular.

DR: (30:00) Yes. There’s going to be a class in here shortly, so we should wrap up. There are so many other questions I could’ve asked. I literally have a page of them written down in front of me, but I’m afraid we’re out of time. Thanks so much for taking part in the Religious Studies Project. If you’re interested in Tehri’s work, do seek out her publications. And best of luck when the book comes out. I hope it comes out in English as well, later on.

TU: If you translate it!

DR: I’d have to learn Finnish first. We’ll see . . .

TU: There are articles in English. Plenty of them came out recently: some related to ritual studies; some related to ritual and healing; and some related to more to general aspects, various theoretical angles.

DR: Fantastic. And if you’re on the website, then the links below will guide you to them. But in the meantime, thanks for taking part.

TU: And thank you.

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Utriainen, Tehri 2017. “Angel Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/angel-spirituality/

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

Is Religion Special? A Critical Look at Religion, Wellbeing and Prosociality

Is religion good for your health and wellbeing? Does religion promote prosociality? While positive stereotypes prevail in these domains, studies also typically answer these questions in the affirmative[1] and as such, it is easy to think that there must be something special, sui generis, or even perhaps supernatural at work, which increases psychological health and drives charitable behavior. However, regardless of whether or not a deity may be at work, the Devil is certainly in the details. Recently, methodological critiques have been proposed (Galen, 2012, in press) and empirical studies are accruing (Galen & Kloet 2011; Moore & Leach, 2015) that cast doubt on whether there is anything “special” about the possible effects of religiosity on wellbeing and prosociality.

In this podcast, psychologist Dr. Luke Galen provides a critical assessment of the literature linking religiosity to wellbeing and prosocial behavior. The interview begins with a short review of Galen’s past research and current projects. Next, he presents an overview of how researchers currently conceptualize the wellbeing and prosociality link before discussing some of the measurement limitations present in these studies. Further, Dr. Galen covers recent priming studies that suggest both religious and secular primes achieve equal ends in terms of behavioral monitoring. In closing, he discusses whether or not there is anything unique to the religion, wellbeing, and prosociality link that couldn’t be accounted for through general naturalistic mechanisms.

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, wine racks, astronaut ice cream and more.

References

  • Galen, L. (in press) Atheism, Wellbeing, and the Wager: Why Not Believing in God (With Others) is Good for You. [Special issue] Shook, J. R., Hood, R. W. Jr., & Coleman, T. J. III, (Eds.) Science, Religion & Culture.
  • Galen, L. (2012). Does religious belief promote prosociality? A critical examination. Psychological Bulletin, 138(5), 876-906. doi:10.1037/a0028251
  • Galen, L., & Kloet, J. (2010). Mental well-being in the religious and the non-religious: evidence for a curvilinear relationship. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14(7), 673-689.      doi:10.1080/13674676.2010.510829
  • Koenig, H. (2011). Spirituality & health research. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.
  • Moore, J., & Leach, M. (2015). Dogmatism and Mental Health: A Comparison of the Religious and Secular. Psychology Of Religion And Spirituality. doi:10.1037/rel0000027
  • Norenzayan, A., Shariff, A., Gervais, W., Willard, A., McNamara, R., Slingerland, E., & Henrich, J. (2014). The Cultural evolution of Prosocial Religions. Behavioral And Brain Sciences, 1-86. doi:10.1017/s0140525x14001356

[1] (for a review of religion and health see, Koenig, 2011; for a review of religious prosociality see, Norenzayan, Shariff, Willard, Slingerland, Gervais, McNamara & Henrich, 2014)

Spiritualism and Shamanism

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

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

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

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

The Collaborative Experience of Religion and Health Research

A Jew, Muslim, Christian, and non-believer were all in the same room for the same reason: Where were they? They were at Duke University attending Dr. Harold Koenig’s summer workshop on conducting research in religion and health this past summer. My response to Thomas Coleman’s interview with Dr. Harold Koenig will draw on my personal experience attending Dr. Koenig’s research course. I would like to relate just a couple thoughts of my own that hopefully will encourage more scholars, scientists, and professionals from a variety of disciplines to engage in the collaborative endeavor of religion, spirituality, and health.

At the workshop there were a variety of disciplines, professions, and faiths represented. These attendees were all similarly interested in religion and health research and came from various parts of the contiguous United States, Alaska, Canada, Turkey, and Israel. They were made up of students, professors, directors, and professionals. They represented oncology, psychology, nursing, public health, social work, geriatrics, palliative care services, religious studies, sociology, psychiatry, pharmacotherapy, communication and interactive technology, and clergy. There were hospital and Veterans Affairs chaplains, senior pastors, a family physician, organizational consultant, occupational therapist, molecular biologist, and a variety of education and training supervisors.

I attended the workshop as a Ph.D. student from the University of Alaska’s Clinical-Community Psychology Program with a Rural, Indigenous Emphasis. Entering the world of clinical psychology is fraught with many– if not limitless– opportunities and challenges. In a doctoral program such as my own, we train under a model that prepares us to become competent in conducting scientific research and also competent practicing clinicians. When “rural” and “indigenous” emphases are added to the already existing challenges of clinical psychology, one is quickly confronted with further philosophical, historical, and theoretical considerations.   “Scholar” ends up being added to the requisites of “scientist” and “practitioner.” One area of interest of mine is contact between indigenous spirituality and Western religions. I have become increasingly interested in conceptions of conversion and contemporary syncretistic religious practices in indigenous communities. Theoretical research interests are, for me, very much tied to culturally sensitive service delivery. Thankfully, I have benefited from several helpful and accessible handbook resources pertaining to work done in the broad field of the psychology of religion and spirituality (Hood, Hill, & Spilka, 2009; Miller, 2012; Paloutzian & Park, 2013; Pargament, Exline, & Jones, 2013; Pargament, Mahoney, & Shafranske, 2013). Dr. Koenig’s week-long intensive workshop was for me a perfect introduction to conducting research a bit more broadly in religion and health. Aside from all I learned, I have come away from the workshop reflecting on two general topics.

Researching While Preserving Religion For Its Own Sake

At the workshop I found it interesting to observe how many attendees were members of, or affiliated with, clergy services. A recurrent concern brought up during the week was the lack of appreciation for clergy’s role in patient care and within the healthcare system. Accordingly there was a recurrent interest to find ways to prove– through various types of research– the utility (or worthiness if you will) of clergy and faith being addressed in health care. Shuman and Meador (2003) have warned of what I might describe as the colonization of religious devotion and practices by Western medicine. It carries with it cultural forces such as individualism, consumerism, and a utilitarian ethic. They caution that a type of faith-for-health exchange will likely–and in the case of Christianity has already– distort particular faith traditions. By practicing particular, and research-approved, religious practices, patients can expect increased health. The additional caution is a resulting distortion of religious conceptions of health and the value of life in the face of modern medical technology and industry. Though Shuman and Meador write from a Christian perspective, I believe their caution is worthy of reflection by a broader audience.

Recently my wife returned home from taking our son to the playground. She was distraught by an observation she had made. She described witnessing another woman accompanying her daughter at the playground. The daughter was whining that she wanted to go home, to which the presumably concerned and well-intentioned mother replied, “the whole point of being here is to get exercise.” She seemed to be sending the message that the playground was a tool for exercise rather than fun or play. Two weeks ago I was looking at a description of a toy my wife and I had purchased for our son as a Christmas gift. I started noticing curious descriptive trends among the other toys in the catalog. One stated, “Keep baby endlessly fascinated and visually stimulated. Encourages fine motor skills and teaches cause and effect.” “For ages 10-24 mos.” I remember exclaiming out loud, “That’s it! Our society is officially killing play!” Sure, research has discovered many good and healthy things that play helps develop in children, but it works that way because it is play! Not work! What once was enjoyed as ‘fun’ and ‘play’ are now explicitly being justified and used instrumentally rather than simply enjoyed. I think these observations may be an anecdotal parallel to the concern of preserving the set-aside or sacred elements of religion for their own sake. To what end might we allow religious health interventions to mimic this trend?  As I have had more time to think about this observation at the workshop, I am beginning to worry that clergy feeling the need to conduct their own research to prove their value in healthcare settings may be a sign that the faithful are starting to identify with (or at least play by the rules of) their scientific captors.

Importance of Interdisciplinary Collaboration

As I flew all the way back home from the workshop I felt charged and encouraged by the atmosphere of Duke and the company I had been in. However, I confess that, more often than not, I view the field of religion & health as utterly overwhelming and often unreasonably complex. Challenges and opportunities sometimes seem more like problems and insurmountable barriers. This is compounded by the often general sense of awkwardness and even mistrust between the humanities, the social, and the natural sciences.

But treating the human being is complex. Philosopher Hubert Dreyfus (2011) described medicine as necessarily combining both the natural sciences and the human sciences. Humans are both natural-biological beings and embodied agents that also require interpretive understanding. As such, medical practice (and the like) span various levels of analysis and explanation. These levels include the biological and the hermeneutical. By studying religion’s relationship with health, the research will even more broadly span what Ann Taves (2011) summarized as subject-oriented disciplines (e.g. biology & psychology) and disciplines defined by their object of study (e.g. religion, music). Because of this breadth and complexity there is no doubt in my mind of the need for further interdisciplinary collaboration when studying religion and health. I like the phrase used by Emmons and Paloutzian (2003) more than ten years ago calling for a “multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm” approach. We will surely reap further rewards when scholars, scientists, and professionals approach religion and health from a variety of fields and a variety of faith and nonreligious traditions. Because religion and health research investigates both ‘objects’ and ‘subjects’ of study we will surely need a variety of levels of explanation and must continue to enhance collaboration. Interdisciplinary collaboration may also want to keep in mind the position that “causality does not exhaust meaning” (Teske, 2007 p. 94). I am hopeful that, collectively, we can prevent the hijacking of religious devotion from becoming colonized by other value systems. I hope interdisciplinary collaboration will prove to be more of an opportunity than a barrier and can honor and preserve the things we set aside even as we study them.

I sensed that this collective and interdisciplinary spirit was present at the heart of Dr. Koenig’s workshop as was evidenced by the diversity represented by the attendees. The variety of us together in the same room interested in the same general topic of religion and health research was what I enjoyed most during my week at Duke. Dr. Koenig is not only highly practical and productive, but also appeared warm and friendly. He seems to be one of those people that has the incredible ability to review and summarize massive amounts of information and research (e.g. Koenig, King, & Carson, 2012), but also maintains the demeanor of a gracious and attentive mentor– a welcome relief in the rigors of academia. The workshop balanced class didactics with interpersonal exchange of learning and friendship. We sat together in class and also shared meals while discussing everything from theory and method to pop-culture trivia over chicken and waffles. If you are interested in religion and health research and are from any discipline– or no discipline at all– I would gladly recommend attending the summer workshop with Dr. Koenig.

 References

Dreyfus, H. L. (2011). Medicine as combining natural and human science. Journal Of Medicine & Philosophy36(4), 335-341.

Emmons, R. A., & Paloutzian, R. F. (2003). The Psychology of religion. Annual Review Of Psychology, 54(1), 377.

Hood, R. W., Jr., Hill, P. C., & Spilka, B. (2009). The Psychology of religion: An Empirical approach (4th ed.). New York, NY: Gilford.

Koenig, H., King, D., & Carson, V. (2012). Handbook of religion and health (2nd ed). New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller, L. (2012). Oxford handbook of psychology and spirituality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pargament, K. I., Exline, J. J., & Jones, J. W. (Eds.). (2013). APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Vol 1): Context, theory, and research. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

Pargament, K. I., Mahoney, A., & Shafranske, E. P. (Eds.). (2013). APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Vol 2): An applied psychology of religion and spirituality. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

Paloutzian, R. F., & Park, C. L. (Eds.). (2013). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Shuman, J. J., & Meador, K. M. (2003). Heal thyself: Spirituality, medicine, and the distortion of Christianity. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Taves, A. (2011). 2010 Presidential address: “Religion” in the humanities and the humanities in the university. Journal Of The American Academy Of Religion, 79(2), 287-314.

Teske, J. (2010). Narrative and meaning in science and religion. Zygon: Journal Of Religion And Science45(1), 91-104.

Religion, Spirituality and Health

Religion, spirituality and health – oh my! In this day and age, one might be inclined to ask if these three words, when combined, can contribute anything resembling a ‘positive health outcome’. However, Much of the current literature on psychology of religion and its relationship to coping may indicate that belief can contribute positively in the process of coping and meaning making for religious individuals (Park, 2013).

In The Future of an Illusion (1927/1961), Freud viewed religion as “comparable to a childhood neurosis” (p. 53). However, he also noted it as “the most precious possession of civilization” and “the most precious thing it has to offer its participants” (p. 20). While Freud was certainly critical of ‘religion’, he nevertheless understood what Williams James (1975) called its “cash value”. That is, regardless of the truthiness or falsity of religion as an ontological fact, religion can have value for those who practice and believe. According to Dr. Harold Koenig, a leading psychiatrist in the field of religion, spirituality and health, and the Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, one way that religion and spirituality may explicate its cash value is in the realm of physical and mental health.

In his interview with Thomas Coleman conducted at the 2013 Duke University Summer Research Course on Religion, Spirituality and Health, Dr. Koenig broadly discusses the field of religion, spirituality (R/S) and health. He notes that all things being equal people who measure higher on R/S variables typically have improved mental and physical health – carefully relaying that all things being equal is a key component to the relationship. Koenig states that it is not mere identification as R/S that influences health, but sincerity and commitment of belief and action that matters.  He mentions the need for ‘secular sources’ in the R/S and health field in order to draw comparisons between the relationship of R/S variables with other variables that may function in a similar manner. In discussing how he operationalizes the variables of ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ for research purposes, Koenig emphasizes that importance of definitions of R/S are always in reference to the Transcendent (i.e. defined substantively). In closing,  it is clear that the relationship between religion, spirituality and health is complex and multifaceted. If you are interested in learning more about R/S and health research Dr. Koenig invites you check out the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health website at: http://www.spiritualityandhealth.duke.edu/. Religion may not be a cure for the common cold, but it seemingly can provide one possible source of wellbeing for its adherents in the world today.

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 you have a purchase to make.

References

  • Freud, S., Strachey, J., Freud, A., Strachey, A. & Tyson, A. (1961). The Standard edition      of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Press.
  • James, W. (1975). Pragmatism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Park, C. (2013). Religion and Meaning. In: Paloutzian, R. & Park, C. eds. (2014).    Handbook of The Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. 2nd ed. New York:   The Guilford Press, pp. 357-379.

 

 

Religion and Food

Religion and Food are two elements which one rarely sees receiving extended and combined scholarly attention. However, even the briefest of brainstorms yields a wide variety of examples which could be “brought to the table” (to use a pun from today’s interview).

Some interactions involve the consumption of food – think of the traditional image of the Jewish Shabbat or Hindu Diwali celebrations; others involve restrictions – be that in terms of diet (such as Jain vegetarianism) or food intake (such as the Muslim month of Ramadan). The Roman Catholic celebration of the Eucharist might be conceptualized as the intake of food and drink by some, whilst others may find this whole notion deeply offensive, preferring to understand these elements as the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And this discourse can be perpetuated in ostensibly ‘secular’ contexts, such as the recently reported release of the new “Ghost Burger” at Chicago’s Kuma’s Corner restaurant, made with a red wine reduction and topped with an unconsecrated Communion wafer (thanks to Sarah Veale of Mysteria Misc. Maxima for the heads up).

This week, Chris and David kick back in Edinburgh’s Doctor’s Bar and bring you an interview with Chris Silver speaking to Professor Michel Desjardins of Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, on this fascinating topic. Connections are made with recent turns in the academic study of religion (gender, materiality etc.), and other areas of study such as religion and nutrition/health. This wide ranging interview builds a strong case for greater scholarly attention to be focused upon this more quotidian aspect of human life, with some stimulating anecdotes and methodological considerations along the way, We are not responsible for any over-eating which may occur as a result of listening to this tantalizing interview…

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 or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when participating in consumer culture in your own way.

This podcast is the penultimate in our series on religion and cultural production, featuring interviews with François Gauthier on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture, Pauline Hope Cheong on Religious Authority and Social Media, and Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production.

Podcasts

Nonreligion, Religion, and Public Health

The link between religion/spirituality (RS) and health is a recurring theme in the empirical literature within the psychology and sociology of religion, medical studies, and other disciplines. Although this research is usually limited to correlational studies, RS is often interpreted to be an important causal factor in positive health outcomes. This has led some academics, NGO’s, and governments to argue that the putative health benefits of RS might be harnessed for public health and public policy more broadly. For example, the United States Army has recently launched a “spiritual health” program, and in the United Kingdom there is an ongoing debate about whether mindfulness meditation should be taught in schools. Government initiatives aside, what if the nonreligious are equally as healthy? In this podcast, Thomas J. Coleman III interviews Dr. David Speed on how research using nonreligious and nonbelieving samples problematizes some of the underlying assumptions of the relationship between RS and public health.

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, the original Buns of Steel VHS tape, G.I. Joes, and more.


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


Nonreligion, Religion and Public Health

Podcast with David Speed (22 April 2019).

Interviewed by Thomas J. Coleman III.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Speed_-_Nonreligion,_Religion_and_Public_Health_1.1

Thomas Coleman (TC): Thank you for joining us today on the Religious Studies Project. I’m Thomas Coleman. And I have an interesting topic that I don’t believe we’ve broached before, on nonreligion and public health. And I have a special guest with us today to talk about this. But I kind-of wanted to provide the Listeners with a little bit of background first, before we introduce him. So the link between religion and public health is really a recurring theme in the empirical literature within the psychology of religion, public health, medical studies and other disciplines. This research is often limited to correlational studies because the procedures required to test these things experimentally are either unfeasible or raise serious ethical considerations. For example, as psychologists it’s really hard for us to figure out how we could validly manipulate someone’s nonreligious or religious identification, their beliefs or their behaviour, in a laboratory setting. And university ethics committees have a problem with us kind-of assigning people to the cancer condition for an experiment. So we can’t do that! But when many of these aforementioned correlational studies – some of which we’ll talk about in a second – identify a relationship between religion and improved health, religion is often interpreted to be an important causal factor. And in today’s podcast I’m pleased to have with us Dr David Speed who is an Assistant Professor at the University of New Brunswick. And his own research has applied a critical perspective to the religion and health literature, specifically focusing on how the nonreligious have comparable health to the religious. David, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

David Speed (DS): Hi Tommy. Thanks for having me.

TC: Excellent, excellent. So I was hoping we could have a little discussion along the lines of religion, nonreligion – kind-of the intersection on public health more generally – but also from the perspective of just psychological and individual’s health.

DS: Sure.

TC: And I know – just pointing out some further relevance for the Listeners here – in the US I think the Department of Defence has a multimillion dollar initiative looking at “spiritual fitness training“ and in screening of troops. And I can see David grimacing right now! But you know, this underscores an important fact that many governments and public health researchers are not simply interested in understanding or studying the relationships between religion and health, but actually using the purported benefits of religion and spirituality to shape public policy. And then, a last example here, I’m reminded, because I’ve been living in the UK off and on for the past two years, of how the United Kingdom has recently funded mindfulness meditation interventions I think in over two hundred county wide schools. So I’m excited to get down to a critical discussion about the nature of religion and health with you David and see where it goes.

DS: That sounds wonderful.

TC: So where does some of your own research fit in at the nexus between religion and nonreligion, and personal health and health in general?

DS: So I guess I can start with my dissertation. I started my PhD in 2011 and I graduated in 2015. And when I got accepted into my PhD programme I was told by my adviser I had to pick a health-related topic. And like many grad students I didn’t really know initially what to study. I knew I wanted a PhD but wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. And essentially, I got to the point where I was considering, well, if I could study anything, what would I want to study? And I had a pre-existing interest in atheism and in religion and so I was like, “I wonder how those things relate to health?” And so you go to the literature, as one does. And I immediately found literally hundreds of thousands of citations or references to various religions. So I thought “Well, ok. Obviously someone’s been very busy!” Because this was my first real exposure to it. And then I was like, “OK, well I’m curious how atheism fits into this.” And I found, I think, fewer than maybe a dozen papers, two dozen papers addressing atheism and health. So right away I knew that there, obviously, just on the numbers scale, atheism and health was under-studied (5:00). So I was curious about how atheism fits within the religion and health paradigm. And I started going through the literature. And over and over again you see this recurring set of findings that you’ve alluded to in your intro, that “Religion equals better health; religion equals better health.” So, going to church is good, being religious is good, prayer is good, meditation is good, spirituality is good, religious affiliation is good, belief in God is good, yadayadayada!

TC: So, could you give us a few examples there, though? Because I was very general about that – where these relationships appear.

DS: Sure, so if you’re looking at, say, church-based studies, you’ll find that religious congregants who attend church more frequently are more likely to report, say, lower levels of depression. They might report better perceived well-being. If you’re looking at national studies you might find that people with higher levels of church attendance report better happiness. It varies from country to country. There’s a cultural effect that happens. But a lot of the positive literature really centres around the US where religion tends to be more dominant. There’s a smaller proportion for Canada, and the UK, and other areas. But generally, a lot of these studies just kind-of recurrently suggest that if you go to church, or if you’re religious, you might be more likely to go for screening behaviours for cancers; if you’re religious you might be more likely to feel empowered; if you are religious, or if you believe in God, you are more likely to be comfortable in a situation where you have to face your own mortality. Something like that.

TC: And so you’re kind-of reviewing the literature, here, as you’re doing your doctoral studies. And you uncover this stuff, and what happens? What has happened since then? What did that prompt you to test, do, or dig in deeper?

DS: So as I’m going through the literature, there’s a few things that I start noticing kind-of simultaneously. And what it was is, you know, you read a few papers and you say, “Ok. People are saying that going to church is good. Ok that’s fine. Whatever. They’re generalising by accident.” But whatever. So you go through a few more and then you’re like “Wait a minute. Wait a minute.” So a lot of the studies – not all the studies, but a good chunk of the studies – they recruit from exclusively religious samples. So they’ll go to different church locations, they’ll ask congregants who are there, “How often do you go to church?”, “How happy are you?” and they’ll form a correlational relationship between these two ideas. And correlational research is not that. It’s difficult to make a causal argument with correlational data, but you can point to associations that are recurring. But if you are using an exclusively religious population in order to test something, you can’t generalise the benefits of whatever they’re doing to everyone, because not everyone’s part of that exclusive religious population. So if you sample like five Methodist churches in the Midwest, you can’t then say, “Well, everyone should go to church because of this sample.” You have to say, “Well, people who go to Methodist churches more frequently, congregants have better wellbeing.” That’s a fair conclusion. Now often the literature would say this in kind-of a round-about way. But they would often talk more broadly about the benefits of going to church, or the benefits of being religious, or prayer, or whatever. The other issue too is a lot of the research that is like large-scale is looking at outcomes that are intrinsically related to going to church frequently. So the classic one on this is slighting on the dependent variable. And self-rated health is one of the big benefits of being religious, or of scoring higher on measures of religion and spirituality or RS. So what researchers will do is go into say a religious organisation and they’ll say, “How often do you go to church?”, “How healthy do you think you are?” Or “Do you have any health issues?” They find that people who go to church more frequently report better perceived health and fewer health issues. Well, yes! Obviously! Because people who are really ill or people who have recurring health issues can’t get out and go to church frequently. That’s not shocking. It’s kind-of pointing out that, I don’t know, people who are going through some sort of medical treatment are somehow less healthy than people who don’t have to do that. Obviously they’re going through medical treatment because of the way they are, not because of some factor that’s driving the magic of that medical treatment! So this is a separate issue altogether is that if you’re slighting on the dependent variable, what essentially you’re going to do is that you’re limiting people who maybe on the lower end of that health, who would love to go to church more frequently but can’t (10:00). And the other issue with it – sorry I’m just rattling off a list of issues because this is my life!

TC: No. Perfect.

DS: Another one of the issues is that there was often a conflation of low religiosity with secularism. So it’s the idea that if you get really low levels of religiosity, so like: “I’m not religious, I don’t go to church, I don’t really pray”, the implicit conclusion or sometimes explicit conclusion of the researchers who do that kind of research would say, “Oh. These people embody secularism.” That is not an equivalent statement. The issue with that is, secularism is adhering to or taking specific positions on other topics, right? It’s not merely being apathetic towards religion, it’s endorsing other specific values that are more secular in nature. So there’s this conflation of low religiosity with secularism. So researchers will report, “You know religion’s healthier than secularism.” But they’re not assessing secularism the vast majority of the time. They’re just equating high secularism with low religiosity.

TC: And then we might say, more specifically, just secular nonreligious people per se. Because we’re used to, on the Religious Studies Project of course, taking a very critical approach to these terms. That’s something we don’t usually do in Psych of Religion although we should more. So just kind-of giving that to our Listeners as a blanket term here, you know, confusing people who probably self-identify as secular nonreligious with actually people who would identify as religious.

DS: Yes, absolutely. The biggest issue, though, for the research is that the mechanism driving the relationship between religion and health isn’t always clear. The big one that has the most support, I would argue is social support.

TC: Yes, I was going to say, what do mean by mechanism, here, in terms of driving? How does that work?

DS: Sure. So if you say that Advil is related to pain reduction, right? Advil is doing something – or Ibuprofen if we want to be non-brand specific – Ibuprofen is acting on your body in some biological way in order to produce the desired outcome. If the argument is that religion is connected with health, well, how is it connected with health? We can point at an association of high religion, high health, but why is that? What is the driving mechanism under-pinning that relationship? And arguably the strongest contender for that, from what I can see, is social support. And social support is associated with health. Social support is the perceived availability of resources around you from people. So I’m crying and I call my friend, will he or she console me? If I need money for rent until next week, will my friend have my back? If I really want to share about my day, will my wife humour me and listen to me talk about research for the 35th time that week? So that’s social support. So the more available social support a person has, and the higher degree of availability, the healthier they are. And this isn’t shocking. Like, having friends around you and having family and peers who you can rely on, that’s associated with good health. Religion’s associated with good health, this is true. But social support is also associated with religion. So people who are religious tend to report higher levels of social support. And to me this makes a lot of sense. Like, it would be astounding if you went to church on a weekly basis, or mosque on a weekly basis, or synagogue on a weekly basis and there was no social benefit to you. It would be astounding if that were the case. So the problem is . . . because the three of these things are inter-related, when you’re talking about social support. When we talk about religion benefitting health, a question that’s really important for researchers is “Why?” And if it’s social support, it gets more dicey about how we’re interpreting this then. Social support is a general benefit of social activities. It’s not a specific benefit of religion and spirituality.

TC: I was just going to get to asking that. Aren’t there some arguments that, maybe, religion is not the only source but, people might argue, a very good source of creating these social connections? How does that kind-of bode here? No – it’s not religion per se, but it is a really being driver of social connectedness?

DS: Sure. And I think that’s a very reasonable position to take. About half of my family I would describe as quite religious. They tend to go to church frequently. They tend to really enjoy church. But often they’re talking about. “So this happened in church . . .” or “So and so said this . . .” “I really like engaging with this person.” And it would be. . . . I think it’s a fantastic way of socialising with like-minded people. I think that’s wonderful (15:00). The problem is, is that the way this is presented within findings, and the way you often see justification for religious-oriented policy, say, like from government or from specific initiatives looking at improving spirituality in the fine young men and women of the United States is that you might see this as saying, “Oh well, religion is doing this.” It’s not social support via religion. It’s just religion. So last year I wrote a paper about this where I was discussing that it’s very frustrating talking about the benefits of religion when social support seems to be playing a major role in this. So, if you don’t mind I was going take an excerpt from that paper to help illustrate.

TC: Absolutely.

DS: I said, for example, “It is not difficult to imagine that persons who are active in chess clubs will have access to social support from their fellow members. Furthermore it is not unreasonable to imagine that more active members of chess clubs report better access to social support than less active members. However, if it were found that attendance at chess clubs was positively related to mammography it would be unusual for a researcher to frame these findings as ‘Chess enthusiasm promotes breast X-rays’. Instead, it would be likely argued that social support, which is accessible from any number of institutions including chess clubs, was responsible for increased screening behaviour. However in much of the existing religion and health literature a general benefit of social support, better screening in this case, appears to be presented as a specific benefit of religious activities.” And this is what I find very frustrating as a researcher: it would be shocking if going to church every week didn’t do something. But the important thing there is the social activity for it and not necessarily the religious angle for it. In fact there’s several studies where, when they’re controlling for social support – bringing in the relationship between religion and health, that relationship – the religion and health relationship goes to nothing. Because they’re controlling for social support. This doesn’t happen all the time. But it happens in several studies. And this is an important thing to consider. And finally I have one more point on this. I have one more quote on things that I find frustrating about the literature. It’s that even when researchers, when they work with looking at exclusively religious samples, they were . . . these are general samples, right? What they would do is they would describe everybody’s relationship between religion and health with a single type of consideration. So everyone got the same description of that relationship. So there was no real strong interest in looking at whether or not the relationship between religion and health was affected by other factors. Now researchers have tested moderation before. They find that, say, less-educated people tend to find a stronger benefit from religion and health.

TC: So we’re talking here about moderating factors being like level of education; maybe it only holds for lower or higher; or income, for example; or men versus women? Those kind of things. So I guess adding nuance to this “Religion is good for you!”

DS: The core thing, the frustrating thing is that when you’re looking at general samples you’re sampling people who are not religious, you’re sampling people who are not spiritual, you’re sampling people who are atheist, right? And there’s no reason to suspect that these people would value religion and spirituality to the same extent as someone who believes in God or is religious or spiritual. There should be no default assumption that these groups are equivalent to begin with. If you’re looking at say, sex-based differences like men versus women or males versus females you could say, “Well there’s no reason to suspect that one of these people would have a radically different relationship with religion.” They do not . . . their identity, or their moderating factor there, isn’t a religiously-slighted variable. If you’re looking at people who are atheist, though, that is something related to the very idea of religion and spirituality. If you’re looking at nonreligion that’s something that’s very much related to the idea, intrinsically, to religion and spirituality. But what had happened is that these previous studies they all treated everyone in the entire sample as having more or less the same expressed relationship between religion and health so they looked at sex as a moderating factor, age as a moderating factor, or education. But there was generally never any interest in looking at people who are not religious, whether or not they reported an equivalent relationship. So what the focus of my doctorate was on was looking at the idea of health outcomes and religious and spiritual beliefs and behaviours, but looking at whether or not people who were atheists, or nonreligious or not spiritual, whether or not they recorded a different linear relationship between those activities or beliefs and outcomes. And it turns out quite often they did. And quite often they reported a lower health score when they reported higher levels of religion and spirituality. So if you go to church, that’s fine (20:00). But you would, in this case, you would have to be religious really to see that same relationship. If you’re not religious and you’re attending church all the time, this has different health implications. So, problematically, if you’re saying that there is a monolithic relationship between religion and health you’re losing a lot of nuance there. Because religion and spirituality have benefits, but you have to have a religious and spiritual identity, which is conducive to you benefitting from those activities. So I jokingly say, “Well, my doctoral work, I got a PhD for saying ‘religion is healthy, but you’ve got to be religious to get that benefit.’” So it’s a kind of simplification, but no one had looked at that previously.

TC: And to add to this, I think that these are really important nuances particularly, again, in the domain of public policy and public health. For example, I’m thankful to have been a part of . . . they have different workshops put on by different places that have like week-long courses for private health care providers, government officials and so on, specifically informing them about the research on the relationship between religion, spirituality and health. And the takeaway from these . . . . They’re conducted very well, but there’s also, at the same time, a certain level of nuance that is just missing. And the takeaway message I hear when I’m in some of these presentations or venues or even reading books and chapters on religion and public health, is this kind-of assumption that since we now know . . . we’ve identified the . . . circumscribed the positive effects of religion here, well then: “Now that we’ve found the fountain of youth, let’s drink from it!”

DS: (Laughs)

TC: There’s almost this. . . . It’s not direct, and I’ve been very impressed in some of the more recent literature that has been taking into to consideration nonreligious concerns or saying, “We don’t know here . . .” but typically, it seems like there’s a blanket message that religion is good for a host of things, and we should use this; the government can grab a hold of this. And you’re saying that: “Kind-of . . . possibly . . . but . . !”

DS: Yes. Shockingly, there’s more nuance to this than “religion equals good health”. Because one of the things that really sticks out from the religion and health literature is when you look at people who are atheists, right? Atheists generally – we were discussing this prior to the show beginning. Atheists generally aren’t religious. They generally don’t go to church. They generally don’t score highly on religiosity measures. Atheists have really comparable health to believers. So if you . . . just logically, if you expect that high religiosity equals better health, then low religiosity should equal worse health. Atheists should be fairly unhealthy on average, just on that sort-of simplistic, somewhat reductionist perspective. But it’s not. It’s somewhat paradoxical. My colleague and I, Karen Hwang, we published paper called “The Healthy Heretic Paradox“, in which we looked at atheists who on the measures of health, using nationally representative data from America, we find that on average they tended to report comparable health to theists who were strong believers, despite the fact that they didn’t believe in God at all. So this showed there’s something of a fly in the ointment. Because if religion just uniformly benefits health, well people who are really not religious, like atheists, or they’re not – we’ll say atheists as the more extreme example – you wouldn’t really expect them to be healthy. But they are. Meaning that the description . . . it looks, at the very face value of it, that there’s something very wrong with how that relationship is being summarised.

TC: And I think there’s something fishy with the way that the relationship is interpreted both at the academic level and certainly bubbles up to policy and other things. What other studies have you conducted that speak to this, say, lack of nuance that was previously in the literature for this. And also I guess it would be strange to see . . . I can only think what the President of the US or different administrations what kind of flack they would take if they decided to prescribe kind-of atheism! Because it seems that people who did not believe in God more strongly had comparable health to the religious (25:00). So I was just kind-of interested in what other research and work you’ve conducted that can speak to this interesting . . . I don’t know if you want to call it a hydraulic relationship, maybe?

DS: Yes. Geez! I don’t know about the political thing, I’m not sure I feel comfortable answering whether or not the government should prescribe religious or atheistic beliefs. I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable with the government doing that. Regardless of whether or not they prescribed atheism or theism. As to the research, so what I generally do . . . my research uses pre-existing datasets from Statistics Canada, from the General Social Survey out of the University of Chicago. I think it’s the National Opinion and Research Council. I think they do those studies. Anyway, so it’s data that’s publicly available to any researcher who is interested in doing it and has the competence and statistics to do assessment. But I published a little more than half a dozen studies on the topic between religion and health. In each case I’m looking at: OK, well let’s look at how this actually relates, and let’s try and distinguish between people who believe versus not believe, in terms of these outcomes. In virtually all cases I found, it’s that often when there’s a really strong positive relationship between religion and health say for believers, you would find a moderating effect for whether or not someone was an atheist. I published a study with the Journal of Religion and Health in 2016 or 17, I can’t remember now. But it was looking at data from Ontario which is the largest province, population-wise, in Canada. And I found that people who go to church they tend to report better health but . . I think it was satisfaction in life, maybe. But if you’re looking at the nonreligious people recording the same level of attendance then what you see is a very different relationship. It actually reports a negative relationship. Now this isn’t to mean that going to church is bad. It’s just you need more nuance when you’re discussing these things, especially at a public policy level. Because it’s not this panacea that fixes everything.

TC: So it seems like there’s a heavy interpretation factor here, where on one end, you know, the general trend might be to say, “Oh, look at the positive effects of – to use the recurring example – church attendance, here.” But then we would not want to conclude for example that less-religious or nonreligious people should avoid church like the plagues, because it apparently, you know has a harmful impact on their health. What we’re talking about here is not necessarily I guess a causal relationship.

DS: No, no. I think if you made like a group of nonbelievers go to church … Besides the ethical issues with that, I don’t think . . . I wouldn’t immediately suspect that all of them would be miserable and report increases in depression, or whatever. But the problem is that when you’re looking at how the academic findings are used and discussed in the broader social lens, how they’re used to inform public policy, or the potential they have to influence policy, there’s discussion about including… you know, default assuming that you should discuss religion and spirituality in clinical therapy. So there’s a real-world consequence to this type of finding. And the problem is that if you’re looking at these relationships and you’re potentially treating it as “more religion better health”, you’re losing a lot of the nuance; you’re losing sight of the personal idea that perhaps some people aren’t religious because they really are opposed to religion. And forcing them to address those topics or discuss those topics may not be a super-positive thing for those groups of people.

TC: I was going to say, I also think it points, to some degree, to our problems with interpreting the positive findings on religion and health then. Because we don’t . . . I guess that was the comparison I was trying to get at then. We wouldn’t kind-of say that church attendance hurts less-religious people in the same way we say, “Look, people . . “ we’re willing to make that inference that people who attend more do better. We wouldn’t make it one case, but we do in the other. But they’re kind-of conceptually similar . . . is what I hear you saying?

DS: Yes. Yes. So like so if you’re looking at . . . this hearkens back to some of what I do with my doctoral work (30:00). But what happens when you look at say irreligious groups, when they report really low levels of attendance or religiosity – really, really low levels of that – if you compared their average health levels to religious groups who report very high levels of religiosity or attendance, those two relationships, they’re about at the same place. And in cases where they are, say, statistically different, so at p value less than .05, the associated effect size of that – so the actual magnitude of difference between the groups – is really, really small. And often it’s trivially small. So the convention for Cohen’s d , which is a measure of effect size (not to get too far into those academic things at this point!) But anything less than a Cohen’s d of 0.2 is usually seen as trivial. It’s not really something to talk about. And if you’re talking about a social activity or the sociocultural perspectives influencing some sort of health outcome and you’re saying it’s happening at a level of a Cohen’s d of less than 0.2, you’re talking about something that you probably can’t really observe in everyday life. And the underlying mechanism isn’t clear because we’re not sure if it’s social support driving the majority of this relationship or not or if it’s another factor. It’s really hard to talk about that and convey a strong sense of meaning to those findings. I mean it’s statistically significant but that doesn’t mean of clinical relevance or of clinical importance.

TC: I think though, one of the examples I usually use when I’m teaching students or talking about significance in general is, you know, the difference between let’s say a football player who weighs 200 pounds versus one who weighs 200.1lbs. One is significantly heavier than the other, but it would be very odd to kind-of say, “Well the other guy weighs . . . he weighs significantly more than I do. I’m going to have to rethink the game here.” You know. No!

DS: Especially with large population samples. Any difference will become statistically significant with enough people sampled. And the reason is because error term gets progressively smaller with the more people you talk to. So if you have, say, one group has an IQ of 100, another one has an IQ of 110.1. If you sample millions of people and you’re able to find that one mean is 100, the other mean is 100.1, because you’ve sampled so many people, what’s going to end up happening is that it will come out as statistically significant but the associated effect is so tiny, like, why even bother talking about it? And religion health research isn’t quite there – there are cases where it’s really beneficial if you’re talking about optimism and outlook after, say, surgery or something. You’ll see higher levels of optimism or you’re feeling cared for because you’re protected by God. You might see some specific benefits in very specific cases, but in terms of, like, at public policy level, or on a national health level, the differences are often quite small. Not always, but often.

TC: Kind-of wrapping this up, and bringing this towards the end, here . . . I’m interested in talking a little bit about how religion and spirituality are conceptualised here. Now I know, and I don’t want to beat a dead horse, per se . . . because one of the things I think the RSP prides itself on doing is deconstructing and exposing underlying structure and assumptions of precisely these kind of terms. But it’s something I think . . . well, public health professionals do not have extensive discussions about discursive practices, or what we would really mean when we use this word, or all the different things we’re lumping together! It’s the same with psychologists as well. It’s generally left to Religious Studies scholars and Humanities. So if you could, in closing here, kind-of bring us into perspective and how some of these studies conceptualise religion and spirituality and particularly from the vantage point of the nonreligious, right? Is it one of those things where everyone’s religious, you just have to find the right . . .?

DS: Personally, I’m not sure if there’s an academic consensus on this specifically. I’ve usually . . . concepts regarding religion tend to be better defined (35:00). So if you’re looking at say church attendance.

TC: Better defined than . . . ?

DS: Better than spirituality. So if you’re looking at assessments of attendance: “How often do you go to church?” – you can get a fairly objective assessment of that; “How often do you pray?” – you can get a fairly objective assessment of that. It’s self-reporting. You’re relying on people to provide you with data but that’s ok. But you can get a fairly objective standpoint. When you talk about religiosity you get into, what exactly does religiosity mean? There’s different conceptualisations of religiosity. One that people might be familiar with is intrinsic versus extrinsic. Intrinsic is, in a nutshell, religiosity because you see intrinsic values: with this religiosity you get something out of it, you see it’s rewarding or fulfilling in itself. Whereas extrinsic religiosity is kind-of treating religion as a means to an end. So it’s a tool in order to achieve a greater . . . So there’s kind-of some fuzziness around religiosity. But if you ask people how important they find religion is to them, or how religious do they see themselves you can tend to get a more or less consistent set of ways of assessing those specific behaviours or beliefs.

TC: I often also think that this gets us into kind-of “good religion” and “bad religion”. Particularly from a health perspective: there are consistently some negative social effects kind-of associated with varieties of fundamentalism. And it seems here that the same health professionals and researchers are keen to say, “Well, when we talk about religion we’re not meaning that kind – not the stuff that we think is bad for public health, or social cohesion.” Well, it depends on what we man by social cohesion, here. But I often notice that this gets into a good religion, versus bad. And so then that makes me think, “Well, aren’t you really just interested in things that are improving health or psychological wellbeing in general, instead of something religious per se?”

DS: Yes, and you can kind-of see this. This is more apparent within the spirituality literature, in my opinion. So if you’re looking at, say, just like pure religion it’s like, what do you believe? How often do you go to church? Are you religiously affiliated? You get fairly straightforward measures. People know what you’re talking about. People may disagree about whether or not this person’s a true member of this religious organisation, or whether or not they’re a member of that religious organisation. But there tends to be at least consensus on the idea of how you get to those questions. The spirituality literature, I find, is really vague about what that term means. And the way spirituality is assessed, it may not necessarily be intuitive for the laity. It’s just . . . it’s very, very broad in how it’s defined. So I wrote a paper for Skeptic a couple of years ago, where I point out some of the different definitions of spirituality. And one of them defines spirituality as “an inherent component of being human and is subjective, intangible and multi-dimensional”. That literally means anything you want it to mean! So, it doesn’t really matter if you and I are talking about spirituality. If you say “My aunt’s not religious but she’s spiritual,” I’m not sure exactly what you mean, but I understand what you’re trying to convey to me. But if researchers are talking about assessing spirituality they can’t just . . . “Oh yes, I totally know what you mean.” They actually have to quantify and describe and validate measures of spirituality. So when you see these validated measures or these assessments, you see a lot of questions in there that you may not – or at least I wouldn’t, and the people I’m talking to wouldn’t – see these as intrinsically spiritual. So there are questions like: “I accept others even when they do things that I think are wrong”, “I have a general sense of belonging”, “When I wrong someone I make an effort to apologise”. Those things are included as indicators of spirituality. And to me this is problematic on two different levels. One: this is, in a sense, gaming the system. You’ve chosen . . . or items are being chosen not because I see an obvious connection with spirituality. They might go together, there might be a reason for including these, that’s fine. These have been validated, I have no issue with that. I’m positive these researchers have done their due diligence and this is what has come out. But if you’re talking about spirituality with someone, you wouldn’t say like “Oh yes. When I wrong someone I apologise. That’s a spiritual thing.” Like, that’s a really select definition of spirituality (40:00). So if you’re finding that how well people are engaging socially is an intrinsic component of spirituality and you find that spirituality is related to health – well, yes. Social support and being able to interact, socially, well with other people is related to support. So it just is like a parallel . . . if you said that “I don’t smoke because it’s bad for me” and that’s a spiritual assessment and you find that people who score more highly on spirituality get less cancer, well, yeah! You’ve adjusted the framework of spirituality such that it includes not smoking. Well, of course that’s related to cancer rates, because that’s how that works! So the thing I find frustrating about the spirituality literature – and it’s a really interesting literature, people do genuinely good work in it – but it’s just the variability in what spirituality can mean. And the idea that you feel empowered, or you feel like you have purpose in life – that’s spirituality. I’ve never thought of those things as being spiritual before, like, prior to reading this literature. I’ve always just described that as, “Oh yes, I feel as if . . .I feel autonomy. I feel a sense of mastery.” So, when you’re connecting those measures of spirituality, or that definition of spirituality with health, I’m not shocked that that’s related to better health. But we already knew that from other fields. So my question is kind-of: if spirituality is doing something, what is the unique thing that spirituality is doing? How are you defining that? Is that a good . . . is that a reasonable definition that people would say, “Oh yeah, that’s definitely spirituality”? Or is this a hodge-podge of different areas that we’re just kind-of lumping together and saying it’s spirituality and saying, “Oh look, it’s ‘Spirituality – better health!’”

TC: Excellent. I was wondering if you had any kind-of summing up or parting phrase, or words, or thoughts for us on the relationship between religion, nonreligion and health?

DS: (Laughs).

TC: Something to send our Listeners away with? Something even more profound than what you’ve already said?

DS: I don’t know if I can go more profound! But religion is related to health. Like, correlationally we can establish that religion is related to health. If you’re religious and if you go to church, chances are you’re probably getting a benefit from it. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what the underlying mechanism is. If it’s the social support angle, if it’s because you have a better sense of coherency, is it because this really makes you feel like spiritually charged as a person? If you’re getting a benefit out of it, continue. Please continue doing it. Don’t be discouraged from not doing it. If you’re not religious and you are hearing all these things about, “Oh. Going to church is associated with better health,” the more elemental question you have to consider is, will this be good for you specifically? If most people are religious and most people benefit from going to church, fine! But that doesn’t incorporate everyone. So there has to be more nuance in the field. Religion is a wonderfully diverse, very complex socio-cultural construct. And chances are that its relationship with health is more complicated than a single edict of “Do more, be healthy!”

TC: Excellent. Dr David Speed, thank you for joining us on the Religious Studies Project.

DS: Thanks a lot for having me.


Citation Info: Speed, David and Thomas Coleman. 2019. “Nonreligion, Religion and Public Health”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/nonreligion-religion-and-public-health/

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

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Studying the “off-the-beaten-track”

In the fourth of our editors’ picks, Ray Radford takes “the soppy route on this choice, as David Robertson’s interview with David Wilson on ‘Spiritualism and Shamanism’ was the very first interview/podcast I heard from the RSP way back in my days as an undergrad. This podcast (along with some amazing lecturers and tutors) helped cement that religious studies was the right choice. This podcast helped me realise that my burgeoning interest was in religions that were off the beaten track (so to speak) and that there was so much out there that I can (and will and indeed at the moment, do) study.”

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our social media manager, Ray Radford.

I’m taking the soppy route on this choice, as David Robertson‘s interview with David Wilson on ‘Spiritualism and Shamanism‘ was the very first interview/podcast I heard from the RSP way back in my days as an undergrad. This podcast (along with some amazing lecturers and tutors) helped cement that religious studies was the right choice. This podcast helped me realise that my burgeoning interest was in religions that were off the beaten track (so to speak) and that there was so much out there that I can (and will and indeed at the moment, do) study.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. 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, such as David’s Redefining Shamanisms.

Angel Spirituality

1a7fd1627b3543072b5c994419e40076In Northern Europe today, many people are engaging with angels, and Tehri Utriainen has been researching them. What is angel spirituality, and who does it appeal to (hint: women)? As with many vernacular systems, it is both ad hoc and highly practical, with a strong focus on healing. She tells us how these practices challenge preconceptions about the relationship between new spiritualities and Christianity, and raise interesting questions about gender, and vernacular religion in supposedly post-Christian Europe.

For more of Tehri’s work on angels, see:

Healing Enchantment: How Does Angel Healing Work?
Utriainen, T. 2017 Spirit and Mind – Mental Health at the Intersection of Religion & Psychiatry. Basu, H., Littlewood, R. & Steinforth, A. (eds.). Berlin: Lit Verlag, p. 253-273 19 p.

Desire for Enchanted Bodies: The Case of Women Engaging in Angel Spirituality
Utriainen, T. 2016 Contemporary Encounters in Gender and Religion: European Perspectives. Gemzöe, L., Keinänen, M-L. & A. M. (eds.). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 175-193 19 p.

Listeners might also be interested in David’s interview with Ingvild Gilhus from three years ago, on the topic “Unruly Angels”.

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, Ko-Lee hot & Spicy Go Noodles, and more.

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

Angel Spirituality

Podcast with Tehri Utriainen (5 June 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Utriainen_-_Angel_Spirituality_1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh today. I’m joined by Tehri Utriainen, from the University of Helsinki, where she is Professor in the Study of Religions. And today, we’re going to be talking about angels in kind-of popular spirituality, particularly in Finland, but hopefully also in a slightly larger context as well. So, first of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Tehri Utriainen (TU): Thank you so much David.

DR: Let’s start just with . . . .Tell us a little about these angel practices, angel spirituality. You know – who are we talking about, what are the practices? Just set it up for us.

TU: Ok. Well my context, of course, is Finland but, as you said, it is more wide – you can find it elsewhere. You can find it in the UK. There’s been studies done in the UK, the US, in Norway and in Estonia, for instance, recently. Whom are we talking about? We’re talking about women. This is really the most extremely women-dominated religiosity that you can imagine. Usually people say that: in grassroots religion the practitioners are 60% female; in holistic spiritualities (if you want to use that term ) it’s like around 80% – this was the Kendal Project numbers, for instance; and with angels the figures go much higher. They are over 90%, as far as my research is concerned. So we’re talking about women interested in angels.

DR: What kind of women? Are we talking about the same sort of women that we would expect to find in holistic spiritualities, for instance? You know, generally, from the Kendal Project, for instance, mostly . . . kind-of middle class, fairly well-educated, fairly well-off – these kinds of things?

TU: “Fairly well” women! Yes. Yes, more-or-less, we are. Well, when we go to Finland it’s perhaps a little bit different society from the UK. We like to think that we are more equal in the social way. We don’t have these social strata as much as you have here. But it’s a kind-of, you know . . . . We fool ourselves, of course, with these things, always. But it is middle class . . . I would say that it’s mostly lower to mid-middle class, but all middle classes. But very varied educational backgrounds. A lot of women who work in caring and education professions, for instance. These women are also interested in other practices, not only angels, and all sorts of holistic practices. Something that all my interviewees mentioned, really, was like Reiki. Reiki healing is one form of energy healing which is now so popular in all of the Western world, I guess. It comes from Japan, and through Hawaii, but it’s become popular all over. But these women with angels tend to be, I would say, a little bit more towards Christianity, because there is the central figure. But I see quite a variation with the people that I have interviewed. And I have made, also, a smallish survey and some of them consider themselves Lutheran – Lutheranity is our like home religion in Finland. But then, there is the other end who are kind-of completely disconnected from the church and have their background, for instance, in esotericism, theosophy, spiritualism, anthroposophy. But then, there is a third group of women who come from secular families and, at least, tell me that they don’t really have very much religious background at all. And they got into religion through this.

DR: What sort of religious make-up are we talking about in Finland, just for the benefit of our listeners? I mean here, obviously, we’re somewhere between 70-55%, depending on what part of the country you’re in.

TU: Like, Church of England or those big churches, or altogether?

DR: Yes, well, the sort-of state churches, yes. I mean, England’s sitting at about 65% and Scotland’s a little bit lower about 58%.

TU: Yes. So the numbers go down regularly all the time in Finland, at the moment. And last year’s survey gives us something like 72%, and the women a bit more than men. And then the next biggest church in Finland would be the Orthodox church, but that is a very low number of participants or members. (5:00) So we are a very Lutheran country, still, but the figures are going down.

DR: Part of the reason I asked that is that I have a kind of personal interest in this subject. Some people in my family are involved in this kind of stuff. My grandmother and my aunty – her youngest daughter – both do these  kind-of angel cards. Now my family is not a strongly religious family, but have become so over time. My granny is now in her early eighties and she converted to Anglicanism when my grandad died, a couple of decades ago . . .

TU: Yes

DR: . . . whereas my aunty converted to Catholicism because she married an Irishman. So they’re the two . . . they’re really the only two properly Christian members of the family. They’re different – you know, one’s Protestant, one’s Catholic – but they have these angel practices in common. Now, they’re a little bit secretive about actually what it is. The few things I’ve been picking up is that there are some cards . . . . But as much as I got was that they sort-of identified with particular figures, and these figures were associated with various qualities, and colours, and things like that. Could you fill us in, a little bit, about that kind of aspect of the practical side of it – what it involves?

TU: Sure. First of all I want to say that I’m pleased that now, through my research, you get the possibility that you can learn something about your family members!

DR: Yes.

TU: I’ve had several men tell me, “Now I understand my mother better!” “Now I understand my sister better!” Or something like this, you know? Because they kind-of get a little glimpse of it. And then the women tell something about it, but don’t open up the whole stuff, immediately. Yes, there are these practices and, the angel is a Christian figure, and we have all this Christian sort of mythology, and narrative, and image traditions on angels, the idea in Christianity is that angels are like Godly power and God gives us angels and angelic power when he wants to do [something]. [Whereas], this contemporary practice is much more practical for the women. It is practical religion: an everyday practical religion that uses several kinds of techniques and means. You mentioned cards – angel card reading is quite popular, and the first angel cards I met in Finland were cards coming from your country, in fact, or the US. Now there are also some indigenous Finnish angel card traditions, too. That goes a bit like Tarot card reading. You can either make a table of them, or you can just take one card for the day, or one card for a puzzling question that you have in your mind. And so, you read an enigmatic answer, just a word: the word might be like, “happiness”; the word might be, like, “balance”; or, you know, these kinds of things that you also might find in horoscopes. So that is one thing, but they also have their imagery. And, like you said, certain angels might be linked to certain colours, for instance, which might give this woman a kind of glance into her life. In the sense that when she learns – either though cards or through somebody – that her colour is linked to the colour green [for example], which would then, perhaps, be the colour of the Archangel Raphael, then, every time she’s drawn to green she gets a message. So, it could go like this. But then there are meditations, several kinds of angel meditations, often like a visual journey: you are led to a sacred garden where you meet your angel; you talk to your angel; you ask something; your angel gives you a symbol or a word, or something; you are led back from the meditation; and then you are there, either with yourself or a group of friends – angel minded friends. And you integrate this thing that you got, and you relate it to your life’s bigger or smaller things. And then, of course, this more-or-less . . . the thing that connects with this holistic milieu even more is the angel healing aspect. (10:00) There are angel healing courses, and you can learn to become a healer – a bit like a Reiki healer – who heals others or who heals yourself. The angel healing, as far as I know , is mostly used for what we might call emotional issues and emotional problems. And I think that this highlights the topic of emotions, and how important emotions are – perhaps particularly to women in the contemporary world – is extremely interesting because, then, it’s related to the high numbers of depression and emotion work in very many ways.

DR: Yes. Which also might . . . . I think there’s quite high rates of depression and suicide and stuff in some of the Northern European countries. But that trajectory of women and the  kind-of therapeutic culture is very, very common. You see that a lot in . . . . Well, you see it a lot in the holistic, mind-body-spirit  kind-of world, here. Particularly female, but you also see the same trajectory with men and also in the conspiracy theory world. I looked at this in my work, for instance, David Icke: his passage into conspiracy theory world was looking for alternative therapies to treat his arthritis. He ended up going to a medium who channelled messages to him.

TU: Yes. Mediumship is present here.

DR: But those discourses on healing, and on holistic healing as well – the idea that your emotions and your body are linked – are found right across that  kind-of cultic milieu, not only in the more overtly spiritual aspects of . . .

TU: Definitely. I think of one other notion that is very, very closely connected to emotions- another “e” word is energy: emotions and energy. And the way that you can sort-of manage them, or you can make use of them, but you can also sort-of control them – like you said, channelling or something. Emotions, in my materials, are often considered as one sort of type of energy, one type of energy that works a lot in the human world. And as energy it’s power and it can be used into good. But it can also be, sort of, if it’s like all loose, it can do bad things.

DR: Yes. And, when we were talking about the colours earlier on, that’s immediately what I thought of was the rays of the theosophical tradition – where the colours represent different frequencies of energy or different energies, you know. And that, by selecting a particular colour, you can encourage that particular emotion or energy. Which leads to my next question, which is: all of this stuff that you’ve been describing so far, from using cards for readings, healings, visualisation, the idea of correspondences of colours attracting particular energies, you know – even the use of cards themselves, and the association with therapeutic culture – this all seems taken exactly from 19th century esotericism, what we would call Western esotericism nowadays. Yet [it] has this Christian kind-of – I don’t want to say veneer – but it’s a Christian framing of those practices.

TU: Yes, well, there always was a kind of Christian esotericism as well. They have never been completely apart – even though, probably, some ruling churches and ruling theologies would like them apart – but there have been much more linkages. But I might also say that – particularly in the context of Finland perhaps, but maybe this applies even larger settings – esotericism earlier on used to be a bit elitist. It was not for everybody, for all the people in Finland, anyway, and openly, anyway. But now, what we see is something like the democratisation and popularisation of this esotericism, and bringing it openly in connection with Christianity.

DR: Yes.

TU: And this, of course, has to do with many things – like things that are marketed to us and how popular culture circulates. (15:00) But it also has to do with the grip of the church loosening: the church doesn’t have the normative power any more in people’s everyday lives. In Finland, for instance – perhaps here too, but in Finland – where the ruling church was the Lutheran Church, Lutheranity meant . . . . For those people who were not very religious or very pious, Lutheranity was mostly a normative system, saying what you do in public life, what you don’t do, but this is less so now.

DR: I wonder if it’s not only its normativity in the society, it’s also the normativity of the scholars in the categories that we’re looking at. I wonder if this stuff was always going on, but it was kind-of hidden from our view, because it wasn’t considered suitable for us to look at, and so on.

TU: For the scholars of religion?

DR: Yes.

TU: Yes: because it was not funded, and it was not taken seriously; because it was not the serious religion, it was the fringe stuff. And I have seen a lot, and I suppose a lot of people have seen it, that bigger money always goes to religion which is considered as cultural heritage stuff,  kind-of elevated, sublime thing, more-or-less. Whereas these hobby-level religions with their crazy knowledge systems . . .

DR: Yes. Well, there is a sense in which you get the impression that people think: “Well, we don’t really want to encourage this . . . “

TU: Yes

DR: “If we pay this too much attention it might be seen that we’re taking it seriously.”

TU: Yes. Exactly!

DR: So tell us, then, how did you get to looking at this stuff? What was your passage into this?

TU: My complete passage into this was that I was involved in a larger project, that was led by Professor Peter Nynäs in Abo Akademi university, which is a Swedish speaking university in Finland, in Turku. And I was lucky enough to jump on that project when it started. And the project was called Post-Secular Culture and the Changing Religious Landscape in Finland. And we wanted to look into the margins and outside fields from Lutheranism, and what was happening there. And we were several people and we had several case studies. We started to pick something that we were interested in, or something that somebody was already engaged with, or something, anyway, that could sort-of give us a good palette, a sort of mosaic-view to things that were happening. And since I was more-or-less kind-of a specialist, if you like, in women’s popular religion . . . . It was not my own idea at all, but we started to think about: what is it that happens in this type of religiosity today? One possible thing would have been, like, healing and Reiki and stuff. But then we decided that angels were, just at that time, becoming so popular in Finland that we thought, “that opens up a window, through which we can see some interesting things”. And so it happened. And some books came out and people got really interested in the angel stuff. And I had a lot of fun doing this for a couple of years. And still have, writing on it, fun in many ways. Not only in the hilarious way, but also that I had very nice fieldwork experiences and I learned very much about both the serious sides of religion and life, but also about the less serious sides of it.

DR: Tell us about how you went about the study, then. Was it predominantly kind-of ethnographic work?

TU: It was ethnographically oriented, multi-method stuff. I love working ethnographically, well. I went to . . . I collected . . . sort-of . . . just went to see what happened. And I took myself into those happenings and situations. Like, for instance, there was a yoga school, when I started my ethnography. In one yoga school they have their yearly “angel week”. So I went through that week and saw how the angels popped into the yoga classes! Which was a good start, in the sense that it brought me into meeting young people – mostly young people – who were interested in this. So I couldn’t work only with the idea that this is only middle-aged women, or women in their late-middle age and stuff. So I started with that and started to contact people. I used the snowball method to get interviews. I went for courses, I contacted people and said, “Can I come?” (20:00) And then there was this very popular Irish – I don’t know how popular she is here, but – woman who writes autobiographies and the books where she recounts her life with angels, Lorna Byrne, whose books, just then, became translated in Finnish and who paid visits to Finland. And all the visits were sold out, there were 1000 women with a handful of men who came there (hand-in-hand with their female friends ) to listen to how this Irish . . . contemporary Irish mystic tells how she sees the place full of angels and describes people’s angels. Well, I made a survey in one of her visits, wanting to know about the backgrounds of these women who came to listen to her, etc, etc. Then I sort-of followed the media reactions, I followed the church reactions. I did sort-of a multi-angle thing.

DR: So it was very much ethnography, then, in all of the senses it can be, so: sort-of qualitative interviewing, but participant observation and media discourse analysis as well.

TU: Yes and also the smallish survey – I had 263 answers, so that I could see the demographic things and stuff.

DR: And how did they take to you? I mean, how open about your research were you? And how interested . . . ?

TU: I was very open about my research. I was open even in the bigger settings. Particularly when I was distributing the questionnaire, of course, I told them what it was about. And I was open when I went to study an angel healer – that was the most participant part of it.

DR: Right.

TU: And well, they were . . . everybody was, at that time, so happy about this thing happening. And they probably considered me as a possible advocate for them, and taking the whole thing to the academy. I remember . . . may I tell you one nice interview situation where there was this woman who channelled angels?

DR: Yes.

TU: I knew that she channelled angels, and that was one of my reasons for contacting her. And she also wanted her husband to be in the interview, so I interviewed the two of them. Before we started the interview she said to me – we had a cup of coffee, we were at their home – she said to me: “What if my angel also wants to become interviewed?” – the angel that she channelled.

DR: Oh, so the angel was present, then?

TU: She said, “What if she comes?”

DR: Oh, what if? Yes.

TU: I said, “Well, I’m very happy of course . . . ” and I tried to make a joke. I said, “I probably don’t have the informed consent for the angel!” (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs)

TU: Because I wasn’t prepared. I had two copies, you know. I had one for the husband and one for her.

DR: It would be an interesting subject to come up at the ethics commission . . .

TU: Well what happened after some time of interview, maybe one hour – it was one of the longest interviews that I made – she says, “Now, I think she wants to come, my angel wants to come.” And I said, “OK.” It was  kind-of exciting, I have to admit.

DR: And did the angel contribute to the conversation?

TU: Yes! Then I have 40 minutes of interview with the angel in my tape.

DR: Oh fantastic!

TU: And after that the angel goes away, and the woman comes back, and we continue. And while the woman has a bit of difficulty – as her husband tells me – in coming back, resuming her own like mortal role, the husband gives me the explanation that, “Well it often is a bit difficult for her to come back after the angel has gone,” because there is this liminal period. Well, what I have there is a sub-chapter in a book that I’m going to publish – in Finnish, unfortunately. But I have one sub-chapter interview with an angel!

DR: Fantastic.

TU: But that is  kind-of a . . . that is interesting also, in the sense of: “What did the angel say, in the interview?” Well several things, but one important thing was that I had my small recorder on the table and the angel goes very close to the recorder and says, “And I want to say this to science, and please go and tell this to Abo Akademi of science!”

DR: (Laughs)

TU: So, it was a very intricate dynamics that was going on there. (25:00) Because was she making fun of me? Or was she really, like, making the angel meet science, not through just meeting the people, but mediating it. It was interesting. I haven’t really found a way to talk about this so far.

DR: What that suggests to me is that, you know . . . . The spirit guide is often . . . there’s a kind of yin/yang relationship, so they’re like the animus and the anima in Jungian psychology or, you know, the various sort of spirit animals are often the opposite gender. So, if she is existing in the modern, rational, secular – well, supposedly so – world, then her spirit companion is the opposite.

TU: Yes

DR: So, represents to her the spiritual world and that is one which is often set up against science: science as the disenchanted . . . you know, the “black iron prison”.

TU: Yes, that’s true.

DR: Whereas the spiritual world is the enchanted one and so, naturally, would be pitted against the rationalism represented by science.

TU: But there I had the two coming together, and the enchanted world coming directly to shout at the disenchanted world represented by the recorder.

DR: Yes. So the recorder is actually representing that as well, yes.

TU: The recorder is there as a hard fact there, and the angel goes into that hard machine.

DR: But happy to use science to make a point . . .

TU: Yes, but also . . .

DR: And capable of doing so . . .

TU: And very capable of doing so. Even considered that it was a small girl angel!

DR: Oh, ok!

TU: Six years old, or something like this. But, nevertheless, very skilful in that.

DR: So, for this woman, the angel was a child? That’s interesting.

TU: Yes, this was a woman in her 50s and the angel was a female child.

DR: That’s interesting. Because that’s not usually the case, is it?

TU: Ah, the angel asked me that!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: “Do you know . . . Can you guess why I appear as a small girl?” And the answer was . . . .Well, I was a bit silly – I offered the answer. I offered my guess and she took it. I don’t know, maybe I should have done something else, but I said, “Maybe it is because we are not afraid of children or small girls?” And she said, “Yes. The enormous power that I bring is kind-of less feared when . . . ”

DR: She was in her 50s , you said? Had they had children?

TU: They had a child together: a boy – early teens. And one of them – I don’t remember which one of them – had bigger children, too.

DR: Ah right, ok. But, generally speaking, the angel is a male figure.

TU: Often, in my material.

DR: And in my experience, as well. What is the appeal, then? Why is it the angel that’s at the centre of this, not fairies, or dragons, or Thor, or Spiderman?

TU: It is . . . . Well, some of these women have a lot of things going on with a lot of other spirits, as well. But some – I might say that those who consider themselves mostly as Lutheran – they don’t take other spirits as easily, but an angel is something that they allow in their lives. Well angels . . . I wouldn’t mind having a male angel in my life, considering how beautiful they are, how wonderful they are depicted!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: They come with their baby faces, but they have strong, wonderful wings and things. And I sometimes play with this idea. Because, you know, in Finland we have . . . like, we think about the mortal men, like the normal, ordinary men. We have a big number of engineers. Engineers are considered, in Finland – this is a bit jokingly said – but men [who are], like, reliable and practical, but not so good always in talking about emotions, with the women.

DR: (Laughs) Yes. I don’t think that’s unique to Finland, to be honest.

TU: Maybe. So these women sometimes even talked about their men who sometimes really were engineers. And they were, sort-of, not replacing these husbands with these male angels, but complementing the scene with this figure which had something male, something masculine in it – a protective sense, for instance, but which was also the perfect male, in the sense that he understood their emotions. Isn’t that good?

DR: Yes. It does make sense, absolutely.

TU: It does make sense. And yes, not all of them were male, but a lot of them were and it appeared that the Archangel Michael, who is the protector of soldiers, was pretty much popular.

DR: (30:00) Yes. There’s going to be a class in here shortly, so we should wrap up. There are so many other questions I could’ve asked. I literally have a page of them written down in front of me, but I’m afraid we’re out of time. Thanks so much for taking part in the Religious Studies Project. If you’re interested in Tehri’s work, do seek out her publications. And best of luck when the book comes out. I hope it comes out in English as well, later on.

TU: If you translate it!

DR: I’d have to learn Finnish first. We’ll see . . .

TU: There are articles in English. Plenty of them came out recently: some related to ritual studies; some related to ritual and healing; and some related to more to general aspects, various theoretical angles.

DR: Fantastic. And if you’re on the website, then the links below will guide you to them. But in the meantime, thanks for taking part.

TU: And thank you.

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Utriainen, Tehri 2017. “Angel Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/angel-spirituality/

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

Is Religion Special? A Critical Look at Religion, Wellbeing and Prosociality

Is religion good for your health and wellbeing? Does religion promote prosociality? While positive stereotypes prevail in these domains, studies also typically answer these questions in the affirmative[1] and as such, it is easy to think that there must be something special, sui generis, or even perhaps supernatural at work, which increases psychological health and drives charitable behavior. However, regardless of whether or not a deity may be at work, the Devil is certainly in the details. Recently, methodological critiques have been proposed (Galen, 2012, in press) and empirical studies are accruing (Galen & Kloet 2011; Moore & Leach, 2015) that cast doubt on whether there is anything “special” about the possible effects of religiosity on wellbeing and prosociality.

In this podcast, psychologist Dr. Luke Galen provides a critical assessment of the literature linking religiosity to wellbeing and prosocial behavior. The interview begins with a short review of Galen’s past research and current projects. Next, he presents an overview of how researchers currently conceptualize the wellbeing and prosociality link before discussing some of the measurement limitations present in these studies. Further, Dr. Galen covers recent priming studies that suggest both religious and secular primes achieve equal ends in terms of behavioral monitoring. In closing, he discusses whether or not there is anything unique to the religion, wellbeing, and prosociality link that couldn’t be accounted for through general naturalistic mechanisms.

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, wine racks, astronaut ice cream and more.

References

  • Galen, L. (in press) Atheism, Wellbeing, and the Wager: Why Not Believing in God (With Others) is Good for You. [Special issue] Shook, J. R., Hood, R. W. Jr., & Coleman, T. J. III, (Eds.) Science, Religion & Culture.
  • Galen, L. (2012). Does religious belief promote prosociality? A critical examination. Psychological Bulletin, 138(5), 876-906. doi:10.1037/a0028251
  • Galen, L., & Kloet, J. (2010). Mental well-being in the religious and the non-religious: evidence for a curvilinear relationship. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14(7), 673-689.      doi:10.1080/13674676.2010.510829
  • Koenig, H. (2011). Spirituality & health research. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.
  • Moore, J., & Leach, M. (2015). Dogmatism and Mental Health: A Comparison of the Religious and Secular. Psychology Of Religion And Spirituality. doi:10.1037/rel0000027
  • Norenzayan, A., Shariff, A., Gervais, W., Willard, A., McNamara, R., Slingerland, E., & Henrich, J. (2014). The Cultural evolution of Prosocial Religions. Behavioral And Brain Sciences, 1-86. doi:10.1017/s0140525x14001356

[1] (for a review of religion and health see, Koenig, 2011; for a review of religious prosociality see, Norenzayan, Shariff, Willard, Slingerland, Gervais, McNamara & Henrich, 2014)

Spiritualism and Shamanism

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

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

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

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

The Collaborative Experience of Religion and Health Research

A Jew, Muslim, Christian, and non-believer were all in the same room for the same reason: Where were they? They were at Duke University attending Dr. Harold Koenig’s summer workshop on conducting research in religion and health this past summer. My response to Thomas Coleman’s interview with Dr. Harold Koenig will draw on my personal experience attending Dr. Koenig’s research course. I would like to relate just a couple thoughts of my own that hopefully will encourage more scholars, scientists, and professionals from a variety of disciplines to engage in the collaborative endeavor of religion, spirituality, and health.

At the workshop there were a variety of disciplines, professions, and faiths represented. These attendees were all similarly interested in religion and health research and came from various parts of the contiguous United States, Alaska, Canada, Turkey, and Israel. They were made up of students, professors, directors, and professionals. They represented oncology, psychology, nursing, public health, social work, geriatrics, palliative care services, religious studies, sociology, psychiatry, pharmacotherapy, communication and interactive technology, and clergy. There were hospital and Veterans Affairs chaplains, senior pastors, a family physician, organizational consultant, occupational therapist, molecular biologist, and a variety of education and training supervisors.

I attended the workshop as a Ph.D. student from the University of Alaska’s Clinical-Community Psychology Program with a Rural, Indigenous Emphasis. Entering the world of clinical psychology is fraught with many– if not limitless– opportunities and challenges. In a doctoral program such as my own, we train under a model that prepares us to become competent in conducting scientific research and also competent practicing clinicians. When “rural” and “indigenous” emphases are added to the already existing challenges of clinical psychology, one is quickly confronted with further philosophical, historical, and theoretical considerations.   “Scholar” ends up being added to the requisites of “scientist” and “practitioner.” One area of interest of mine is contact between indigenous spirituality and Western religions. I have become increasingly interested in conceptions of conversion and contemporary syncretistic religious practices in indigenous communities. Theoretical research interests are, for me, very much tied to culturally sensitive service delivery. Thankfully, I have benefited from several helpful and accessible handbook resources pertaining to work done in the broad field of the psychology of religion and spirituality (Hood, Hill, & Spilka, 2009; Miller, 2012; Paloutzian & Park, 2013; Pargament, Exline, & Jones, 2013; Pargament, Mahoney, & Shafranske, 2013). Dr. Koenig’s week-long intensive workshop was for me a perfect introduction to conducting research a bit more broadly in religion and health. Aside from all I learned, I have come away from the workshop reflecting on two general topics.

Researching While Preserving Religion For Its Own Sake

At the workshop I found it interesting to observe how many attendees were members of, or affiliated with, clergy services. A recurrent concern brought up during the week was the lack of appreciation for clergy’s role in patient care and within the healthcare system. Accordingly there was a recurrent interest to find ways to prove– through various types of research– the utility (or worthiness if you will) of clergy and faith being addressed in health care. Shuman and Meador (2003) have warned of what I might describe as the colonization of religious devotion and practices by Western medicine. It carries with it cultural forces such as individualism, consumerism, and a utilitarian ethic. They caution that a type of faith-for-health exchange will likely–and in the case of Christianity has already– distort particular faith traditions. By practicing particular, and research-approved, religious practices, patients can expect increased health. The additional caution is a resulting distortion of religious conceptions of health and the value of life in the face of modern medical technology and industry. Though Shuman and Meador write from a Christian perspective, I believe their caution is worthy of reflection by a broader audience.

Recently my wife returned home from taking our son to the playground. She was distraught by an observation she had made. She described witnessing another woman accompanying her daughter at the playground. The daughter was whining that she wanted to go home, to which the presumably concerned and well-intentioned mother replied, “the whole point of being here is to get exercise.” She seemed to be sending the message that the playground was a tool for exercise rather than fun or play. Two weeks ago I was looking at a description of a toy my wife and I had purchased for our son as a Christmas gift. I started noticing curious descriptive trends among the other toys in the catalog. One stated, “Keep baby endlessly fascinated and visually stimulated. Encourages fine motor skills and teaches cause and effect.” “For ages 10-24 mos.” I remember exclaiming out loud, “That’s it! Our society is officially killing play!” Sure, research has discovered many good and healthy things that play helps develop in children, but it works that way because it is play! Not work! What once was enjoyed as ‘fun’ and ‘play’ are now explicitly being justified and used instrumentally rather than simply enjoyed. I think these observations may be an anecdotal parallel to the concern of preserving the set-aside or sacred elements of religion for their own sake. To what end might we allow religious health interventions to mimic this trend?  As I have had more time to think about this observation at the workshop, I am beginning to worry that clergy feeling the need to conduct their own research to prove their value in healthcare settings may be a sign that the faithful are starting to identify with (or at least play by the rules of) their scientific captors.

Importance of Interdisciplinary Collaboration

As I flew all the way back home from the workshop I felt charged and encouraged by the atmosphere of Duke and the company I had been in. However, I confess that, more often than not, I view the field of religion & health as utterly overwhelming and often unreasonably complex. Challenges and opportunities sometimes seem more like problems and insurmountable barriers. This is compounded by the often general sense of awkwardness and even mistrust between the humanities, the social, and the natural sciences.

But treating the human being is complex. Philosopher Hubert Dreyfus (2011) described medicine as necessarily combining both the natural sciences and the human sciences. Humans are both natural-biological beings and embodied agents that also require interpretive understanding. As such, medical practice (and the like) span various levels of analysis and explanation. These levels include the biological and the hermeneutical. By studying religion’s relationship with health, the research will even more broadly span what Ann Taves (2011) summarized as subject-oriented disciplines (e.g. biology & psychology) and disciplines defined by their object of study (e.g. religion, music). Because of this breadth and complexity there is no doubt in my mind of the need for further interdisciplinary collaboration when studying religion and health. I like the phrase used by Emmons and Paloutzian (2003) more than ten years ago calling for a “multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm” approach. We will surely reap further rewards when scholars, scientists, and professionals approach religion and health from a variety of fields and a variety of faith and nonreligious traditions. Because religion and health research investigates both ‘objects’ and ‘subjects’ of study we will surely need a variety of levels of explanation and must continue to enhance collaboration. Interdisciplinary collaboration may also want to keep in mind the position that “causality does not exhaust meaning” (Teske, 2007 p. 94). I am hopeful that, collectively, we can prevent the hijacking of religious devotion from becoming colonized by other value systems. I hope interdisciplinary collaboration will prove to be more of an opportunity than a barrier and can honor and preserve the things we set aside even as we study them.

I sensed that this collective and interdisciplinary spirit was present at the heart of Dr. Koenig’s workshop as was evidenced by the diversity represented by the attendees. The variety of us together in the same room interested in the same general topic of religion and health research was what I enjoyed most during my week at Duke. Dr. Koenig is not only highly practical and productive, but also appeared warm and friendly. He seems to be one of those people that has the incredible ability to review and summarize massive amounts of information and research (e.g. Koenig, King, & Carson, 2012), but also maintains the demeanor of a gracious and attentive mentor– a welcome relief in the rigors of academia. The workshop balanced class didactics with interpersonal exchange of learning and friendship. We sat together in class and also shared meals while discussing everything from theory and method to pop-culture trivia over chicken and waffles. If you are interested in religion and health research and are from any discipline– or no discipline at all– I would gladly recommend attending the summer workshop with Dr. Koenig.

 References

Dreyfus, H. L. (2011). Medicine as combining natural and human science. Journal Of Medicine & Philosophy36(4), 335-341.

Emmons, R. A., & Paloutzian, R. F. (2003). The Psychology of religion. Annual Review Of Psychology, 54(1), 377.

Hood, R. W., Jr., Hill, P. C., & Spilka, B. (2009). The Psychology of religion: An Empirical approach (4th ed.). New York, NY: Gilford.

Koenig, H., King, D., & Carson, V. (2012). Handbook of religion and health (2nd ed). New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller, L. (2012). Oxford handbook of psychology and spirituality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pargament, K. I., Exline, J. J., & Jones, J. W. (Eds.). (2013). APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Vol 1): Context, theory, and research. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

Pargament, K. I., Mahoney, A., & Shafranske, E. P. (Eds.). (2013). APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Vol 2): An applied psychology of religion and spirituality. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

Paloutzian, R. F., & Park, C. L. (Eds.). (2013). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Shuman, J. J., & Meador, K. M. (2003). Heal thyself: Spirituality, medicine, and the distortion of Christianity. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Taves, A. (2011). 2010 Presidential address: “Religion” in the humanities and the humanities in the university. Journal Of The American Academy Of Religion, 79(2), 287-314.

Teske, J. (2010). Narrative and meaning in science and religion. Zygon: Journal Of Religion And Science45(1), 91-104.

Religion, Spirituality and Health

Religion, spirituality and health – oh my! In this day and age, one might be inclined to ask if these three words, when combined, can contribute anything resembling a ‘positive health outcome’. However, Much of the current literature on psychology of religion and its relationship to coping may indicate that belief can contribute positively in the process of coping and meaning making for religious individuals (Park, 2013).

In The Future of an Illusion (1927/1961), Freud viewed religion as “comparable to a childhood neurosis” (p. 53). However, he also noted it as “the most precious possession of civilization” and “the most precious thing it has to offer its participants” (p. 20). While Freud was certainly critical of ‘religion’, he nevertheless understood what Williams James (1975) called its “cash value”. That is, regardless of the truthiness or falsity of religion as an ontological fact, religion can have value for those who practice and believe. According to Dr. Harold Koenig, a leading psychiatrist in the field of religion, spirituality and health, and the Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, one way that religion and spirituality may explicate its cash value is in the realm of physical and mental health.

In his interview with Thomas Coleman conducted at the 2013 Duke University Summer Research Course on Religion, Spirituality and Health, Dr. Koenig broadly discusses the field of religion, spirituality (R/S) and health. He notes that all things being equal people who measure higher on R/S variables typically have improved mental and physical health – carefully relaying that all things being equal is a key component to the relationship. Koenig states that it is not mere identification as R/S that influences health, but sincerity and commitment of belief and action that matters.  He mentions the need for ‘secular sources’ in the R/S and health field in order to draw comparisons between the relationship of R/S variables with other variables that may function in a similar manner. In discussing how he operationalizes the variables of ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ for research purposes, Koenig emphasizes that importance of definitions of R/S are always in reference to the Transcendent (i.e. defined substantively). In closing,  it is clear that the relationship between religion, spirituality and health is complex and multifaceted. If you are interested in learning more about R/S and health research Dr. Koenig invites you check out the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health website at: http://www.spiritualityandhealth.duke.edu/. Religion may not be a cure for the common cold, but it seemingly can provide one possible source of wellbeing for its adherents in the world today.

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 you have a purchase to make.

References

  • Freud, S., Strachey, J., Freud, A., Strachey, A. & Tyson, A. (1961). The Standard edition      of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Press.
  • James, W. (1975). Pragmatism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Park, C. (2013). Religion and Meaning. In: Paloutzian, R. & Park, C. eds. (2014).    Handbook of The Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. 2nd ed. New York:   The Guilford Press, pp. 357-379.

 

 

Religion and Food

Religion and Food are two elements which one rarely sees receiving extended and combined scholarly attention. However, even the briefest of brainstorms yields a wide variety of examples which could be “brought to the table” (to use a pun from today’s interview).

Some interactions involve the consumption of food – think of the traditional image of the Jewish Shabbat or Hindu Diwali celebrations; others involve restrictions – be that in terms of diet (such as Jain vegetarianism) or food intake (such as the Muslim month of Ramadan). The Roman Catholic celebration of the Eucharist might be conceptualized as the intake of food and drink by some, whilst others may find this whole notion deeply offensive, preferring to understand these elements as the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And this discourse can be perpetuated in ostensibly ‘secular’ contexts, such as the recently reported release of the new “Ghost Burger” at Chicago’s Kuma’s Corner restaurant, made with a red wine reduction and topped with an unconsecrated Communion wafer (thanks to Sarah Veale of Mysteria Misc. Maxima for the heads up).

This week, Chris and David kick back in Edinburgh’s Doctor’s Bar and bring you an interview with Chris Silver speaking to Professor Michel Desjardins of Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, on this fascinating topic. Connections are made with recent turns in the academic study of religion (gender, materiality etc.), and other areas of study such as religion and nutrition/health. This wide ranging interview builds a strong case for greater scholarly attention to be focused upon this more quotidian aspect of human life, with some stimulating anecdotes and methodological considerations along the way, We are not responsible for any over-eating which may occur as a result of listening to this tantalizing interview…

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 or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when participating in consumer culture in your own way.

This podcast is the penultimate in our series on religion and cultural production, featuring interviews with François Gauthier on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture, Pauline Hope Cheong on Religious Authority and Social Media, and Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production.