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Religious cliché and stigma

A Response to “Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés”

by Christopher F. Silver

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Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-Member Narratives

Ex-member testimony can be a difficult to deal with. Such testimony tends to receive privileged treatment in anti-cult literature, while some academics are prone to be sceptical, even suggesting ex-member testimony is worthless due to the danger of adaption and fiction. So a question remains, how should religious studies scholars deal with such testimony. Do we treat it as fact, fiction, faction, or something else altogether? In this interview at the 2017 British Association for the Study of Religion (BASR) Conference, Breann Fallon chats to Dr George Chryssides about ex-member narratives and the use of such primary sources in the work of religious studies scholars. Issues of identity creation, the alteration of narratives, the use of “faction” as evidence, and case studies from ex-member Jehovah’s Witnesses come together in this interview to create a compelling case for a renewed focus on ex-member testimony.

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

Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member narratives

Podcast with George Chryssides (20 November 2017).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Chryssides- Changing Your Story 1.1

Breann Fallon (BF): Ex-member testimony can be difficult to deal with. Such testimony tends to receive privileged treatment in anti-cult literature, while some academics are prone to be sceptical – even suggesting ex-member testimony is worthless. So how do we deal with such testimonies, especially considering the increasing forms of such testimony that now comes with social media? What role do such accounts play in the creation of identity for ex-members? To discuss this topic today, I have with me Dr George Chryssides. George is a long-term friend of the Religious Studies Project and is Honorary Research Fellow at York St John University and the University of Birmingham, having been head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton from 2001- 2008. He has written extensively on New Religious Movements, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses. Recent publications include the Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements, co-edited with Benjamin E. Zeller; and Jehovah’s Witnesses: Continuity and Change. George is Co-Vice Chair of INFORM, the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, based at the LSE and was founded by Eileen Barker in 1988. George is also on various Editorial boards and panels and is currently co-editing an anthology entitled The Insider-Outsider Debate together with Stephen Gregg. He’s also editing an anthology for the Routledge Inform Series entitled Minority Religions in Europe and the Middle East. So thank you very much for joining us today, George.

George Chryssides (GC): My pleasure, thanks for inviting me.

BF: So I was wondering if we could just start with a discussion of how different scholars deal with ex-member testimonies, and what your opinion is of different ways of dealing with such testimony.

GC: Well, there are inevitably a handful of scholars who support the anti-cult movement – although they don’t like it being called the anti-cult movement – but there is a body that is somewhat hostile and they tend to privilege the ex-member. They will say that the ex-member has been inside, now he or she is outside. So they’ve seen it from both points of view and are in a better position than someone like myself that has never joined a new religious movement. So that’s one point of view. There are others like James Beckford, who say: well, if you’ve come out of a new religious movement, like the Jehovah’s witnesses, then your testimony is going to be biased. Maybe you’re going to be a bit embarrassed at having been involved in a group that’s not very popular and has an unusual worldview. So, you’d devise some kind of explanation about how and why you joined, and how you got disillusioned, and how you were conned into joining, maybe, and how you were deceived and so on. James Beckford thinks that the ex-member “devises a scenario”, as he puts it, to account for entry and exit. There are other scholars like Lonnie Cliver and Brian Wilson who have said their testimony is totally invalid, we should disregard it totally. It’s worthless. Now I don’t go along with that, either. Because, I think, particularly when you read written ex-members accounts, ok they’re biased, but we’re always taught to evaluate our sources so it’s important to see why they’re saying what they do; what it is that might be true; what sounds plausible. You triangulate your information, what other people have said. Very often, you can get unwitting testimony about conditions within an organisation. There’s a lot of good material you get, particularly from high-ranking ex-members: people that have for example, in one case, been on the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now they don’t publish their minutes or anything like that, so until Raymond Franz’ book came out I don’t think any of us had much of a clue what actually went on, on the governing body: how they voted on things, what sort of topics they discussed. And that’s really interesting. We shouldn’t just say “Well, that’s an ex-member: he got cheesed-off with the movement. We’re not going to listen to it.” Because that way you would lose a lot of very good information.

BF: So there’s sort-of this element of “the fact that’s behind the supposed fiction”, that we can kind-of draw out from testimonies, I guess?

GC: Yes, well, fact and fiction tend to kind-of blend into each other (5:00). Actually, that’s some work I would like to do as a piece of follow up research on JW’s. Because there are a lot of narratives. And it’s a pity I didn’t get my act together on this before this particular conference, which is on narratives. Because you get some narratives that claim to be absolutely factual. You get others that are, on their own account, works of fiction. There are stories invented about Jehovah’s Witnesses. And then, in between, you get pieces of . . . some people call them “faction”: a cross between fact and fiction. They’ll say: well this is based on such and such a congregation, but we’re not telling the reader who it is because of confidentiality. And actually there is a wealth of literature out there about what it means for a Jehovah’s Witness to be out doing house-to-house work, staffing a literature cart and things like that. And, in some cases, how they fudge the statistics that they report back to their elders. I think things like that are really fascinating, because you can’t get that in copies of the Watchtower, for example. So that’s a future project, reading up on the fiction/faction narrative and seeing what one can get out of it.

BF: So how do you think that we should be dealing with ex-member testimonies in your opinion?

GC: Well, what I’m presenting at this conference is the view that ex-member testimony is about one’s identity. Because you can have different identities depending on what your interests are. Ok, so maybe you kind-of dabbled in a hobby for a couple of weeks and got fed up with it? That’s not part of your identity. And there are some people that actually go along to a new religious movement in that kind of role. They’ll maybe go along for a couple of weeks, or maybe just the once, then decide it’s not for them. Or decide they don’t like being out at night, or something like that. And we don’t hear so much of these testimonies, because they’re not very interesting. So, when a religion is not part of one’s identity you don’t need to invent a story about why you came out. I mean, I don’t need to invent a story about why I gave up stamp collecting or something like that.

BF: (laughs)

GC: So, on the other hand, if the religion has been a big part of your identity – maybe it’s been your paid employment even – then you’re going to have problems coming out. You’re going to have to think: how do I shape a new identity? And it can be even practical things that are involved, like: how do I get a job? Where will live? Who are my friends going to be? Because maybe some of them will keep up with you, but probably most of them won’t. So it’s a whole new life that you’re inventing, in that sort of case. So people have to find ways of doing that. In some extreme cases the ex-member has made ex-membership part of his or her own identity, perhaps being a so-called cult counsellor. There are people that have made their professions out of that – not all that many, but you tend to hear about them more than the others, because they’re prominent. They’ve got a lot to say about the movement. And there is a saying: “You can get the member out of the cult, but you can’t get the cult out of the member.”

BF: That’s very interesting.

GC: So that’s true about these people. Actually, they’re very good informants, some of them, if you can get them tamed and talking to you. There are a couple that will send me lots of extremely good information about the Unification Church. So usually, if I want to know something, I will write to them to say, “I’ve heard about so-and-so, what do you know about it?” And then I’ll get back a lot of good information. Kind-of mentally they’re still in the movement, even though – in terms of what they believe and what they practise – they’re out of it.

BF: So, in that sort of way, you’re finding these testimonies really useful. Do you think there’s a difference between different types of testimony? We’ve already talked about fact and fiction, but you know: a biography as opposed to writing to your ex-members that you are familiar with, as opposed to perhaps something on social media (10:00)? Is there a difference between using those different types, do you think? Is there one you prefer?

GC: Absolutely. I think a lot of stuff that’s not terribly worthwhile is the stuff you get on bulletin boards from ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. A lot of it is misinformation. A lot of it is actually very hostile. And even the treatment that they’re getting in Russia, which is quite appalling. I don’t know if you’ve been following that at all? The authorities have closed them down and confiscated all their properties. And on some of these anti-JW sites you’re getting people saying “I wish they had done it sooner.”

BF: Oh, wow!

GC: Yes, there’s no kind-of sympathy for these people, whatever their beliefs might be. So there’s not a lot of point in reading much of that kind of stuff. Except that it tells you more about the person that’s writing than it does about the movement itself. But, on the other hand, there are some very good ex-members that can give you some good information.

BF: Definitely. I think we should delve more into this idea of identity and creating that- I don’t know what you would call it. Do you think they would create an “ex-member persona”?

GC: Some of them do. I can decide, if I’m an ex-member, whether I want to make a feature out of that: whether I want to tell people, “Yes I was a Jehovah’s Witness and this is very much a part of my life having been one.” Now, actually, I do know of one former JW elder who has actually become a Church of Scotland minister. Now, I don’t know much about him, but I can see that somebody could make a feature out of that and say, “ Well, that’s been my past life and now I’ve kind-of seen the light”, or however he wants to put it. I have heard of one other Church of Scotland minister who served a long prison sentence as a murderer and then he repented and made good, and evidently he makes a feature out of that. Because it’s got a good Biblical message about conversion – you know, Paul writing to the Romans: he lists a whole lot of misdeeds that people committed and then he says “and some of such were you”. So it’s all very Biblical, if you want to do it that way and say, “Well, that’s my past life but now it’s all changed thanks to Jesus Christ”, or whatever. That’s one way of creating your new identity. Another way of changing your identity is simply to conceal it and say, “Well I’m not going to talk about this. I’m just going to get on with my new life.” So there are different ways of creating this new identity, but one way or another, if religion has been a major part of your life and you’re coming out, then there is an identity problem and you do need to think, well: Who am I? What do I want to be? And how do I want to shape up his new life that’s lying ahead?

BF: Do you think that as scholars we need to be aware of this identity change when we’re looking at ex-member testimonies: how they’ve come out of whatever movement they were a part of; and how they’ve transitioned into (a new life); whether they’ve been really open about it; whether they’ve concealed it and then been open about it. Is that something we need to take into consideration when looking at these testimonies, which ones we really should be looking at for evidence?

GC: Well absolutely, because evaluating your sources means asking questions like: who is telling me this? What is their motivation? How much knowledge do they have? Sometimes people can pretend to have more knowledge than they really do about the movement that they’re in. A lot of ex-JWs will say “Well, the society has got a history of field prophecy.” Now I don’t think that’s true; that’s a popular myth that is propagated by ex-members. I’m not saying they’ve never ever revised a date or given it a new meaning. But there’s one website that goes through every year from 1877, when I think the society was first getting going, and then giving some kind of prophetic statement they’ve made and how it failed. And that’s not really correct exposition of what they’re saying (15:00). So I think we really do need to ask, what is the degree of knowledge that this person has? Because there can be a view that if you’ve been inside you know all about it. And I think anyone that follows a religion doesn’t know all about it. You can’t know all about your religion, it’s just too big a subject.

BF: Yes. I’m going to throw a bit of a left-field question at you that I didn’t tell you I was going to ask.

GC: Oh dear!

BF: We always get this sort-of image of ex-members coming together, and then forming an ex-member group. Has that come across in your work?

GC: Oh yes, absolutely. There’s a lot of that. And I think that’s part of forming a new identity because you need to have friends. Friends need to have things in common. And the obvious thing in common that you’ve got if you’re an ex-member is being an ex-member. So yes, there are JW groups. I’ve been invited to go to one or two different events, but I feel I’d be gate-crashing!

BF: Yes!

GC: But they get together from time to time. And I’d be interested to know what they talk about, because they often say, “You don’t have to talk about Jehovah’s Witnesses if you come to our meet.” Now, whether they actually talk about JWs or whether they talk about some other interests that they’ve got, I don’t know. But that would be interesting. But yes that’s part of shaping your identity, to get an ex-member group going. Of course I think the ex-member group is more a kind of phenomenon in itself that’s worth noting if you’re a scholar. I suspect that in the ex-member group you get a kind of snowball effect of all the kind of moans that they’ve got about the Watchtower Society. I see some of their stuff on Facebook and that seems to be how it works. Somebody will put something on, maybe about Russia, and then somebody will add a rude comment about it. And it tends to kind-of further a lack of sympathy.

BF: It would be interesting to look at how social media have played a role in creating those new ex-member groups. Because of course, with social media, people from all over the globe can come together and sort of share their stories. Do you think social media has had a big part in ex-member testimony and getting that out there?

GC: Absolutely, yes. There are one or two well-known websites, or are they websites or . . . I never know what the right terminology is about cyber space . . . but I think it’s a Facebook Group about How Well Do You Know Your Moon? And that’s about the Unification Church. That’s actually got a lot of good information there. It’s not just people slagging them off. But, yes, the obvious thing about social media is that we don’t need to have our friends sitting opposite each other the way we’re sitting opposite. You can get them from any part of the globe and you don’t have to meet up with them, physically. But then again, the fact that you’ve got this group enables you to organise these physical meetings, which they do.

BF: It would be interesting to know, with the advent of social media, if that is encouraging more people to go to groups – people who may have, without social media, sort-of concealed it on their own. But that idea that social media can bring so many people together. It would be interesting to know whether there had been more people willing to join an ex-member group because of social media. Because you can kind-of dip your toe in with Facebook, before you go to a meeting. It’s almost the complete reverse of joining the movement in the first place.

GC: Yes, I think that’s probably right. The other question is whether it might actually encourage people to join a group by giving publicity. I remember when I was researching the Unification Church in the early days, there were two kind-of improbable people who had come along to this seminar. In fact, the Unification Church didn’t seem to want these people to join. Because they weren’t very bright, I think they were unemployed, looking for somewhere to live and that’s not what they were after. And I think they may even have been psychologically disturbed. So, a new religion won’t want to get a reputation for attracting the wrong people. But they had come along and I asked them, “What brought you here? (20:00) Weren’t you put off by the bad publicity the Unification Church was getting?” And they said, “Oh no. What we had heard actually made us interested and want to come.” So there can be this kind-of reverse effect. You might think, “Well, I wonder what this is about?”

BF: Yes. I just think social media has taken a completely different road for so much of our study, particularly with testimony and people being able to share their voice and share their opinion. Before we finish up – you’re presenting today at BASR – is there anything from your paper that you’d like to add to the talk, that we haven’t discussed so far?

GC; Well I think we’ve been, how long have we been talking now? It’s been a lot more than 20 minutes and my talk is only 20 minutes, so I think I’ve probably added quite a bit. It’s actually going to be part of a chapter in the Anthology on the Insider and Outsider debate that Stephen Gregg and I are getting together. So there will be a kind-of longer discussion. What I will be saying in the paper also –which we didn’t cover, but it’s a bit more technical – is about the kind of typologies of ex-members. People like David Bromley and Massimo Introvigne distinguish between different types. And they distinguish on the basis of how the person came out of the movement and what sort of conditions made them come out. What I’m suggesting is that these typologies have got their limitations. Sociologists talk about “ideal types” and I think that’s one of the problems about sociology: when have you got an ideal type and when have you just got a model that’s too crude for the purposes that you’re using it? So I think an account of ex-members has got to go beyond distinctions like “the defector”, “the ordinary leave-taker”, “the apostate”. There are all sorts of types of leaver, depending on the identity that they’ve created for themselves within the movement. So whether they’re just an unbaptised publisher as the rank is called in the Jehovah’s witnesses, or whether you’re one of the 144,000 in the governing body, right at the top, these kinds of the distinctions of the type of member you are will affect the way you leave. It will also affect the story you give about leaving and about life in the organisation.

BF: It’s almost sort-of an identity wave. You know: I was this, and then that’s affected how my identity has come out of the movement. I think your talk is going to be so interesting, I’m very excited.

GC: I hope so.

BF: Thank you so much for joining us today. And I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference.

GC: Well, thanks very much. And thanks again for the invitation.

BF: It’s our pleasure.

Citation Info: Chryssides, George and Breann Fallon. 2017. “Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member Narratives”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 20 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 17 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/changing-your-story-assessing-ex-member-narratives/

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Report: 2015 Joint Conferences of the New Zealand and Australian Associations for the Study of Religion

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Bruno Marshall Shirley and John H. Shaver

The biennial conference of the New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions (NZASR) and the annual conference of the Australian Association for the Study of Religions (AASR) were held together in Queenstown, New Zealand from December 8-10 2015. Interdisciplinary perspectives and theoretical approaches across the humanities and social sciences were evident in the wide-range of papers presented. Islam, and Asian religions more generally, were the most consistent objects of focus, perhaps unsurprising given Australasia’s proximity to Asia and recent increased media attention to the Islamic State.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The conference’s emphasis on Asia and Islam were evident in the keynote lectures. In a talk entitled “Creativity and Ethical Life in India,” Tulasi Srinivas (Emerson College) described religious innovations in Bangalore and the sense of “wonder” that they often inspire. She argued that scholars ought to take emerging religious practices seriously, rather than as anomalies or deviations from established, textually-based understandings of religion. Turning to Japan, Douglas Ezzy (University of Tasmania) argued that Shint­ō is best considered a “religion of practice” in contrast to those traditional conceptions of religion as belief-oriented. He suggested that while a non-Christian can attend mass at a Christian place of worship and not be “doing Christianity,” a tourist at a Shint­ō shrine participating in its various ritual practices might be said to be “doing Shint­ō.” For many Japanese Shint­ō is not associated with doctrinal belief (shūkyō), which allows people to engage with Shint­ō ritual practice while not accepting its cosmology. Some in the audience disagreed with Ezzy’s analysis of Shint­ō and its relationship to shūkyō, but his call for a renewed focus on religious practice was generally appreciated. Sally McAra (University of Auckland), looked at one traditionally Asian religion, Buddhism, in the Australasian context. She discussed the problems facing an anthropologist conducting ethnographic research among their own group, principally a difficulty in carrying out objective analyses, due to a positive bias towards group ideals.

The final keynote lecture, from Gary D. Bouma (Monash University), turned to Islam and to Western discourses about the “threat” that each other poses. Bouma argued that both anti-Western and anti-Muslim narratives shared several key features: both narratives assert that the “other” is incorrect in some way; each is reinforced due to media bias; and both narratives are responsible for the perpetuation of conflict. Bouma’s most significant point was that Religious Studies scholars have a responsibility to discredit these discourses – particularly anti-Muslim narratives in the West, such as those put forth by Trump or Abbot. These narratives, Bouma argued, serve to legitimise attempts to gain power at the expense of civil liberties, and/or to divert attention from their own violence (including structural violence, domestic violence, or even climate change).

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper "Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult," in the panel "Religion in/and Politics."

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper “Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult,” in the panel “Religion in/and Politics.”

The panel “Contemporary Religions” continued the central foci on Asian religions and Islam. A paper by Douglas Osto (Massey) (based on his forthcoming book, Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America, Columbia UP, 2016) outlined the history of “Psychedelic Buddhism” from the 1950s into the present, and the changing attitudes of American Buddhist practitioners towards mind-altering drugs. Osto described how some practitioners used psychedelic drugs as a “door” to advanced states of mind, before graduating to “pure” meditation practices, while others (notably Joan Halifax) continued to use drugs to supplement their meditative practices. Although psychedelia has been investigated before, Osto’s study represents the first serious examination of psychedelic Buddhism as a non-systemic religious movement, and is sure to lead to further studies of other hybrid Buddhist practices in the West. Buddhism was also the focus of a panel on “Buddhist Tales and Territories,” which featured a paper by Chaisit Suwanvarangkul (University of Otago) on the relevance of dharmakāya and the tathāgatagarbha doctrine to Therāvada Buddhism, as well as to the Mahāyāna. Suwanvarangkul’s paper was partially in response to an earlier paper by Michael Radich (Victoria University of Wellington), presented at the 2007 Australian Association of Buddhist Studies conference, entitled “There is no Dhammakāya in the Pāli Canon.” Suwanvarangkul’s inclusion of the Chinese Āgama as Theravāda was the subject of some controversy, as Osto pointed out that, despite parallels to the Theravāda nikāya, the Chinese āgama contain several key differences from the Theravāda texts. The panel also included papers by Anna Halafoff and Matthew Clarke (both of Deakin University) on the role of Songdhammakalyani monastery (Thailand) in promoting gender equality; Chiew Hui Ho (University of Sydney) on Chinese tales about the Diamond Sutra and their role in encouraging faith; and Phra Akbordin Rattana (University of Otago) on the model of Buddha devotion expressed in the Mārabandha chapter of the Paṭhamasambodhi-kathā.

Papers in the panel “Religion and the State” shared a common theme of distinctions between “religious practice” and “political actions” breaking down, in cases drawn from China, Japan, and Sri Lanka. Melissa Inoue (University of Auckland) discussed China’s True Jesus Church and its “miraculous” discourse. She argued that by directing attention to this-worldly affairs, the discourse indirectly both critiques and affirms contemporary Chinese society and the stewardship of the party-state. Ben Schonthal (University of Otago) turned to Sri Lanka and the (legal) case of a Buddhist monk who was denied an application for a driver’s license on the grounds that it was not appropriate for monks to drive. He argued that this was fundamentally a problem of contested authority over religious practice in Sri Lanka, arising from an ambiguous constitutionalising of religion. Bruno M. Shirley (Victoria University of Wellington) called for a post-secular rethinking of “religious violence” using the case study of Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Senā. Shirley suggested that explanations for religious violence, generally and in Sri Lanka specifically, have tended to assume a secularist dichotomy of “religion” and “politics” that is inadequate for dealing with the relationship between Buddhism, politics, and violence in Sri Lanka. Shirley suggested instead that we might reconsider this relationship within a framework of identity politics.

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper "Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion," in the panel "Naming Islamism."

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper “Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion,” in the panel “Naming Islamism.”

The panel “Naming Islamism,” was by far the most controversial of the conference. Will Sweetman (University of Otago), Christopher van der Krogt (Massey University), Douglas Pratt (University of Waikato), William E. Shepard (University of Canterbury), and audience members debated whether or not the Islamic State could be considered an authentic iteration of “Islam.” Van der Krogt argued that such a debate represents a misunderstanding of religion, and Islam in particular, while Sweetman argued that there is no basis for denying the Islamic State’s self-identification as Muslim. Several audience members disagreed with this assertion, instead arguing that Islam did indeed have some core norms and values with which the Islamic State does not conform. This panel also included less controversial papers by Shepard (University of Canterbury), on the development of Sayyid Qutb’s views on gender relations, and Pratt, on the Islamic State’s “theological ideology.”

Not all of the panels at the conference focussed on Asia or on Islam, and of these the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) panel is particularly notable for being the most empirically-oriented of the conference. The first NZAVS talk was delivered by the director of the study, Chris Sibley, a psychologist from the University of Auckland. Sibley described the breadth of the study and some of the many challenges inherent to large-scale longitudinal data collection. Joseph Bulbulia (Victoria University of Wellington) then detailed a few of the more significant findings pertaining to religion that have emerged from the NZAVS, including his work on the distinct “faith signatures” that span and defy traditional denominational categorization. Following these talks, Geoffrey Troughton (Victoria University of Wellington) described the history of the “Christian Not Further Declared (NFD)” designation in the New Zealand census, and then used NZAVS data to describe the demographic characteristics of those individuals that have recently come to identify with this tremendously growing group. The panel concluded with John Shaver (Victoria University of Wellington) describing the complex, but unique, picture of religion and prejudice/ tolerance in New Zealand. Although highly religious New Zealanders are more tolerant of many social groups (including ethnic and religious out-groups) than their secular counterparts, they are also less tolerant of some other groups (e.g., homosexuals). Shaver interpreted this pattern as a result of the differential flexibility of human values. He argued that those values associated with conservatism are necessary for the cultural transmission of religion and are therefore less free to vary across cultures, while those that are less relevant to transmission are subject to greater environmental influence.

Perhaps due to the University of Otago’s excellent choice to host the conference in scenic Queenstown, the conference was relatively well-attended by NZASR standards, and a strong Australian presence was a welcome addition to the conference’s academic and social events. While Asia and Islam were focal, the range of perspectives and disciplinary approaches made for interesting discussions, both in panels and informally. The conference demonstrated that the study of religions in New Zealand and Australia continues to broaden its interdisciplinary focus.

Gender, queer theory and religion

When we think about gender, we often understand it as something that is utlimately socially constructed. As for sex, it is mostly understood as something biological, set by a binary opposition between men and women. But how does this intersect with the study of religion? How do these categories influence the ways in which we look at religion? What is the role of religious institutions in this promotion of the gender binary? What about sexual orientation? What connections can we make between identities, the body and emotions in religious contexts?

In this interview, Dr. Mary Jo Neitz continues the conversation about religion and gender by focusing on theories from LGBT studies and queer studies. Using her work as an ethnographer, as well as the work of American philosopher Judith Butler, Neitz distinguishes the categories of gender and sex by showing how performance and experiences are at the heart of the social construction of gender and sexual identities. Neitz also discusses the role of religious institutions and practices in the agency experienced by some of her informants, as well as the place of the body and essentialist politics in the study of religion.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, Anna Fedele, and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon, Claire Miller Skriletz, and George Ioannides. 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, glasses cases, sonic screwdrivers and more!

Religious Demography in the US

In this week’s podcast we focus on religious demography and identification, survey tools used for religious demography in America, differences between religious identities and identifications, Americans’ shifting religious identifications, correlations between religion and social positions such as ethnicity or generational cohort, and correlations with various social and political issues.

Expanding beyond the introduction to quantitative sociology of religion the RSP conducted earlier with David Voas, this conversation with Darren Sherkat covers religious demography in the American context. Unlike in the UK, or elsewhere, the U.S. census does not include questions about religion. U.S. religious demographers rely on privately-funded surveys, such as the General Social Survey (GSS), the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey, Baylor Religion Survey, and Gallup polls, among others, for large-scale nationally representative data on religion. Sherkat evaluates the reliability of various surveys as well as the quality of the data on non-Christian populations in the U.S., given that the vast majority of respondents self-identify as Christians or as “nones.” demography (Ariela Keysar), belief and belonging (Abby Day), and identity and identification (with the Culture on the Edge group). Based on findings explored further in his book, Changing Faith (2014), Sherkat explains how generational cohort, lifecourse position, immigration, ethnicity, and religious switching affect religious identifications in America, as well as correlations between religious identifications and sexuality, among other topics.

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, model airplanes, snow globes and more!

Religion and Planetary Ethics

Whitney Bauman discusses with George Ioannides some of the potential and difficult answers to these questions and more, revealing how the field of religion and ecology can go some way in helping to visualise and constitute a planetary, hybrid, ethical community of ecospiritual, biohistorical, and multispecies subjects.

Speaking of religions as “eco-social constructions across multiple species, over multiple generations, and over multiple histories,” Bauman puts forward an ethics of understanding ourselves and others as planetary creatures, and understanding religion, science, and nature as non-foundational, non-substantive categories.

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, biodegradable refuse sacks, poppy seeds and more!

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Bron Taylor on Religion after Darwin, and Bruno Latour, Gaian Animisms, and the Question of the Anthropocene.

21st Century Irish Paganism

World Religions Paradigm, and if you’re lucky you might just come across a passing reference to ‘Paganism’ buried amongst extensive references to ‘Christianity’, ‘Islam’. ‘Buddhism’ and other ‘World Religions.’ This absence contrasts markedly with the fascination many students show towards ‘Paganism’, and with the prevalence of motifs which might be labelled ‘Pagan’ in (Western) popular culture. Arguably, both the seeming academic disregard and popular fascination with this topic are indicative of a superficial understanding of the broad range of phenomena to which the designation ‘Pagan’ can refer. In this podcast, Chris speaks to Jenny Butler – a scholar whose work has made a significant contribution to fleshing out the category.

in this interview, we discuss Jenny’s work on Paganism in Ireland, the impact of that particular context upon the Paganism/s she has researched – particularly in terms of language, mythology, and the natural landscape – and also some of the issues associated with the academic study of Paganism in general.

links in Jenny’s bio and also our previous interviews with Ronald Hutton, Suzanne Owen, Graham Harvey and Wouter Hanegraaf. 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.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, moisturiser, fruit bowls, and more!

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 September 2015

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest!

We would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has forwarded notifications. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution. And now for this week’s digest:

Calls for papers

Conference: Yoga darśana, yoga sādhana: traditions, transmissions, transformations

May 19–21, 2016

Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie, Poland

Deadline: December 21, 2015

More information

Conference: Visual Narratives of Faith: Religion, Ritual and Identity

July 10–14, 2016

Vienna, Austria

Deadline: September 30, 2015

More information

Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

More information

Conference: Symposium Peregrinum

June 16–19, 2016

Tarquinio, Italy

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Journal: Women: A Cultural Review

Special issue: Religion and Gender

Deadline: October 31, 2015

More information

Events

Annual meeting: American Academy of Religion

November 21–24, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Annual meeting: American Anthropological Association

November 18–22, 2015

Denver, CO, USA

More information

Annual meeting: North American Association for the Study of Religion

November 20–22, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Research report launch: What should young people leave school knowing about religion and belief?

November 26, 2015, 5–6:30 p.m.

London, UK

More information

Conference: Radicalization & Islamophobia: Roots, Relationships and Implications in Religiously Diverse Societies

November 30–December 1, 2015

Sydney, Australia

More information

Conference: Pluralism and Community: Social Science History Perspectives

November 12–15, 2015

Baltimore, MD, USA

More information

Grants and awards

Miklós Tomka Award

Deadline: January 10, 2016

More information

Jobs

Postdoctoral Fellowship: History of Religion and Religiosity

German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.

Deadline: December 1, 2015

More information

Two PhD scholarships in Buddhist Studies

LMU München, Germany

Deadline: October 18, 2015

More information

Fully funded PhD studentship

Newman University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

More information

What is ‘Buddhism in the West’?

There appears to be much debate regarding what defines Buddhism in the West. Particularly, when I attend Social Science of Religion conferences, Buddhism is presented as a new or exotic social cultural influential phenomenon. I often see “Buddhism in the West” lumped in with new religious movements (NRMs) or more interestingly as sources of therapeutic influence for new styles of mental health treatment such as those seen in the field of Psychology. The compulsion to lump Buddhism with new religious movements may derive from a variety of influences. For example, the mass exodus of Tibetan Buddhists following the Chinese occupation of 1949 may give scholars the impression of newness due to the large migratory movement of Tibetans to the west. This coupled with the popularity of the Dalai Lama and religious converts such as Richard Gere give credence to Buddhism as a “Western” new religious movement (Cantwell & Kawanami, 2002). Another theory could be the fascination of Buddhism for the late 19th century Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists saw value in Buddhist philosophy for understanding a suffering western society (McMahan, 2008). Such thinkers and their use of Buddhist philosophy could have led to more individual forms of belief such as “spirituality” and “universalism.” To be considered new, some scholars may see the past 100 years as “recent” where the turn of the century serves as a new chapter in religious pluralism in the West. Better still could be the free love movement of the 1960s or the fascination with alternative states of consciousness. Many people were seeking something beyond the old interpretations of transcendence (Kent, 2001). All of these are examples of competing paradigms in terms of juxtaposing a belief system called “Buddhism” within the geographic and cultural center of the “West”.

The boundaries of what defines the West are also circumspect. Some perceive the West to be North America while other scholars speak to first world cultures (including North America but also Western Europe, and Australia). Such boundaries of what defines the West are unclear but there is proximate agreement related to the cultural center of what we term the “West” (McMahan, 2008). Here, there is proximate agreement as a Euro-American center of learning. In other words, we are speaking of centers of academic discourse and authority known as the university system. One could argue that such exchanges are colonial in nature (indicating a British or American dominance of cultural norms and language) and yet these implicit assumptions reinforce the very system, which assert categorical authority. Further, using terms such as “the West” and its interaction with other traditions are synonymous with speaking from an in-group perspective of privilege.

Given these challenges related to defining Buddhism in the West, Dr. Cox’s approach is refreshing. Rather than attempting to describe Buddhism’s introduction into the West as a socio-historical event, he approaches the exchange of culture from the perspective of a historically reconstructed narrative through the story of Laurence Carroll, an Irish immigrant to Burma by way of the United States. Laurence Carroll led an adventurous life from an immigrant, to a homeless person in the US, to a seaman, and eventually taking vows as a Buddhist monk. Mr. Carroll’s experience resulted in his ordination by becoming Bhikkhu U Dhammaloka. Dr. Cox provides an interesting look by way of Dhammaloka’s narrative, at the layers of national, social, ethnic, and religious identity. For Cox, identities are tied together as one but also relational in terms of the concept of the “other.” Dr. Cox shows that Carroll’s transitions between geographies were continually met with adversity in terms of his identity. For example, the conflict of his Irish identity in Ireland in relation to British colonial influence, then his Irish identity in relation to blacks/African Americans in New York, and eventually his Irish identity in relation to the dominant Asian culture of Burma. His concept of self becomes even more complex when he converts to Buddhism, as he is no longer centered within his Irish or Caucasian identity. Such boundaries of self were not only confusing but also empowering as Dhammaloka could challenge others who attempted to proselytize the local populations in Burma.

According to Cox, Dhammaloka had social influence on the local population to defend Buddhism from what he may have seen as colonial missionary dominance reminiscent his own experience with the British in Ireland. Dr Cox’s podcast leaves me with additional derivative themes of interest. To speak in terms of cultural or social influence is to implicitly infer a social shift in the individual definition of self. As noted by Cox, deconversion was no small transition in self-identification. With one’s exit from their own enculturated tradition to an exotic, lesser-known faith came perceptions of racial as well as moral defection. Scholarly inquiry into Buddhism for the time was surely appropriate but only in as much as these faith traditions were contrasted with Christianity. The Dhammaloka case study serves as an excellent example of where the religious and cultural landscape is moderated within the domain of academic discourse. Only at this time were such intellectual pursuits blatantly colonial in agenda. Furthermore, such lively exchanges with missionaries highlight the overt assumptions of intellectual and cultural dominance but also the subversive influence on Buddhism to compete in a soon to be global spiritual marketplace. I would challenge Dr. Cox to think of Dhammaloka not in terms of his authenticity of being one of the earliest converts to Buddhism, but rather to see him as a mediating influence in what Buddhism would come to be for the West. Dare I say that Dhammaloka’s own cultural baggage and his Western approach to Buddhism might well have helped repackage Buddhist philosophy, making such transitions more salient.

In conclusion, I would like to challenge the overall paradigm of “Buddhism in the West.” The lack of synergy among scholarly inquiry coupled with the assumption of the specialness of Buddhism within the cultural or geographic context of the West lends further need for the application of critical theory. Such theory should be able to describe the specialness of the former and latter without relying on the old colonial tools of academia. While there is value in theories of sociology and religious studies, my concern is that such assumptions assume Buddhism is/was something different or special, dare I say sui generis (McCutcheon, 1997). The West’s fascination with the East goes well beyond a simple proselytizing motive or – it could be argued – colonial influence. Buddhism’s symbols, rituals, and practices seem mystical almost otherworldly from the flowing robes of monks, to the symbolism of the simplistic humble request of a monk with a begging bowl, to the teachings of the dasa pāramiyo or the ten perfections in defining one’s potential for Buddha nature. Yet given the plethora of possibilities in exploring the grand narrative of Western (European and American) Buddhism, such inquiries make some false assumptions about how Buddhism in the West is defined.

References

Cantwell, C. & Kawanami, H. (2002) Buddhism in Elisabeth Arweck’s New religious movements. Religions in the modern world: traditions and transformations, pp. 47-82.

Goldberg, E. (2006). Buddhism in the west In S. C. Berkwitz Berkwitz, S. C. (Ed.). Buddhism in world cultures: comparative perspectives. Abc-clio.

Kent, S. A. (2001). From slogans to mantras: Social protest and religious conversion in the late Vietnam war era. Syracuse University Press.

McCutcheon, R. T. (1997). Manufacturing religion: The discourse on sui generis religion and the politics of nostalgia. Oxford University Press.

McMahan, D. L. (2008). The making of Buddhist modernism. Oxford University Press.

Hyphenating Identities

In yet another excellent Religious Studies Project interview, we hear from University of California Santa Barbara Associate Professor Rudy Busto talking about race and religion in the United States. The objectives of this conversation focus predominantly upon topics like race and religion in America, the conflation of race as ethnicity and vice versa, and the use of race as an identity marker within the study of religion.

Throughout this delightful and meandering dialogue the listener is invited, indeed encouraged, to consider the systemic and institutionalized location of race alongside religion in the contemporary, modern socio-cultural milieu and scholastic Academy. With a particularly American slant (which is to say, a reliance on double-barrelled ethno-religious identifiers like Asian-American, or Japanese-American Buddhist), much of the discussion in this interview centers around the now almost implicitly assumed observation that the ways in which humans create and express their identities is a socially constructed phenomenon, one that lacks ontological existence and agency, and how race can be a prominent component of this construction. By further deconstructing and problematizing the use of constructed, blanketing concepts like race or culture, Busto shows how delicate the process of understanding the formation of an individual’s subjective understanding of themselves and the group to which they identify actually can be.

What is regrettably missing from this conversation is a deeper discussion that might provide us with an understanding of how, precisely, the constructed-ness of human identities as a theoretical model advances the field of RS. Building upon the excellent foundation laid by Busto in this interview, I would submit two pieces of scholarship as supplements, each delving into how the contemporary scholar of religion might deploy this constructed-ness of identity.

Skipping over the obvious progenitors of the ‘constructed human groups’ discussion (Hobsbawm, Ranger, Anderson, etc.), I often heavily rely upon two middle to late 20th century academics to focus the lens of constructed identity. The first is Steven Vertovec and his use of what he calls ‘vis-à-vis dynamics’ (2000:106). In this particular instance Vertovec is observing Hindus in ‘diasporic’ situations within the UK. That is to say, he records observations of individuals who identify as belonging to the group calling itself ‘Hindu’, though they are citizens of the United Kingdom. Regardless of whether the individual is a first, second, or third generation immigrant, Vertovec observes that their self-identity requires what RS scholars might call an ‘Other’. That is, an individual, object, or even an ethno-religious collective, such as Hindus and non-Hindus, in relation to which one forms at least one layer of their self-identity.

Therefore, a researcher might record a conversation with someone who, for example, identifies as Hindu because they perform arati on Sundays instead of attending synagogue or, of course, doing nothing at all. Conversely, perhaps a younger, third-generation student might identify as Scottish or English rather than Indian like their first-generation grandparents. These markers or borders that define to which group one belongs, Vertovec might argue, cannot be created in a vacuum and necessarily require a concept RS scholars call an Other. In our work then, we can subsequently examine questions such as how generational differences manifest in various groups, what impact public education has on how immigrants choose to identify, or indeed how we can more clearly define the very concept of ‘religion’ through an examination of the subjective identification of the individual to a particular religious tradition within a particular context.

The second scholar who I would submit as a supplement to this identity question is Clifford Geertz. Geertz was a specialist in Mediterranean groups and specifically, for the present case, of Muslim Moroccans. Geertz’s suggested deployment of what he thinks of as ‘mosaic identities’ illustrates a similar me/you dynamic as does Vertovec, yet in a slightly more colourful way. Geertz provides a handful of specific stories during which he observes that the individual has multiple, ‘nested’ identities that are centered on one’s location in social-political/religious spacetime (1974:26-45). He provides the narration of a particular male informant, whose identity as belonging to a particular group, ranging from his specific tribe, village, region, etc. are deployed in relation to the dominant group with whom he comes into contact. This is done within what I like to think of as a Russian-doll, or concentric field of layered concepts of belonging and identity. So, what we find in Geertz is that rather than a linear and subject-centric illustration of identity formation, he sees what might be a more fluid, group-oriented process of formation and understanding of self-identity.

Many of these same formations and scenarios can be noticed when one looks upon other constructed forms of human collective (and individual) identity, like race or ethnicity. We can use ideas like those of Busto, Vertovec, and Geertz–among myriad others of course–to consider questions about how we as scholars of religion might better define and deploy concepts such as race and religion. Indeed, as touched upon in this interview, we find ourselves in a time when countries like the UK and the US are, even now, officially providing their citizens the option of identifying via the use of hyphenated ethnicities.

So, in the interest of brevity, I would be quick to again praise any discussion that aims to shed further light on the process by which humans form and manifest their identity as an individual in isolation, as well as when done as a member of a group, as such discussions can only aid in progressing the field of Religious Studies.

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1974. “From the Native’s Point of View”. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 28.1: 26-45.

Nye, Malory. 1995. A Place for Our Gods: The Construction of an Edinburgh Hindu Temple Community. Surrey: Curzon Press

Vertovec, Steven. 2000. The Hindu Diaspora. London and New York: Routledge.

Sri Lankan Buddhism and Colonialism

Stephen Berkwitz doesn’t really speak of either. Instead, the interview focuses on Sri Lankan colonial past and how the presence of European rulers and Christian missionaries affected local Buddhism.

Pogacnik and Berkwitz discuss the effects of colonial missionaries on the solidification of a Buddhist religious identity in Sri Lanka and the far-reaching consequences of this turn on some contemporary Buddhist monks, who are turning to the Pali canon in search of ‘authentic Buddhism’. Berkwitz explores the connection of this turn to scripture with the presence of Protestant missionaries and the idea of ‘Protestant Buddhism’ in Sri Lanka, presenting some challenges to seeing the missionary influence as a straight-forward one. Exploring examples of the counter influences Buddhism had on Christian missionaries that came to Sri Lanka, Berkwitz concludes the interview by talking about the complex relationship and interplay of religion and power in the Sri Lankan context.

Listeners interested further in the authors Berkwitz mentioned in the interview can look into the works of Gananath Obeyesekere and Anne Blackburn. 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, choral scores, lunchboxes and more.

Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining (Video)

In the academic study of ‘religion’, an organization that is at the forefront of encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue is the Grace Davie and Jay Demerath – were recorded at the SSSR Annual Meeting back in 2011. While SSSR was originally dominated by the field of sociology, there has been a recent shift in attendees toward other disciplines such as psychology, education, religious studies, nursing and others that share an interest in understanding ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ from their respective perspectives. The diversity of presenters is only matched by the diversity of paper topics presented. While SSSR is typically hosted in an US city, SSSR has gained popularity as an international conference as well with the 2014 Annual Meeting hosting the largest number of international scholars to date.

Considering these observations, the RSP collaborated with SSSR at the 2014 Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana to offer an interdisciplinary panel on the study of religion. Each of the papers presented are not only from different fields in the study of religion but also methodologically or theoretically apply an interdisciplinary approach. The authors represent the best in their fields. Some are established scholars with a body of work while others are up-and-coming talent. We hope you enjoy the RSP sponsored panel on an interdisciplinary approach to the study of religion. See below for the abstracts of the papers presented.

Many thanks to Chris SIlver, Tommy Coleman, and all at the SSSR for making this recording possible. This panel recording is somewhat different from our usual weekly podcast – if you enjoyed this, why not check out the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes? And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, knitting needles, Alien Ant Farms, and more.

The Religious Studies Project Panel on Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJp5DiV3WKc&feature=youtu.be]

Convener: Christopher Silver

W. Paul Williamson,  Poison-Drinking in Obedience to the Faith: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience

Christian serpent handlers of American Appalachia are most noted for handling venomous snakes in obedience to one of five perceived mandates of Christ in Mark 16:17-18: Casting out devils, speaking new tongues, taking up serpents, drinking poison, and laying on hands for healing. Over the past two decades, I have studied several phenomena among this compelling group including their sermons, their music, the anointing, near-death serpent bites, community support (Williamson & Hood, in press), and of course serpent handling (see Hood & Williamson, 2008, for summaries of the above uncited studies). The sign of drinking poison, however, has been largely ignored. To address this neglect, I conducted phenomenological interviews with nine serpent handlers who have practiced poison-drinking. Based on a hermeneutic analysis of these interviews, this paper presents a pattern of themes that describe the structure of meaning in the experience of drinking poison in obedience to the faith.

April Stace Vega, “That’s a Really Real Feeling”: Popular Music and the Sacralization of the Self in Evangelical Worship

“Should Churches Play ‘Highway to Hell’ in order to Reach Unbelievers?” This question is posed on a website catering to evangelical pastors with a link to a video. In the video, several prominent pastors discuss the use of the song (by rock band AC/DC) at a recent Easter morning service. It considered a controversial music choice due to the lyrics of the song and the persona that the band projects, but is also considered a useful tool for evangelism. This project is an ethnographic study on the use of music with no overtly religious lyrics in what sociologist Donald Miller terms “new paradigm” churches in the Washington, D.C. area. I view the use of popular-secular music through the lens of the subjectivization thesis of Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. In this paper, I focus on one particular meaning ascribed to popular-secular music in these churches: the ability of the music to express “real feeling” in a way traditional sacred music does not.

Tatsushi Hirono, Corroborative Efforts between Social Workers and Religious Leaders in Natural Disaster Relief: A Comparative Analysis among the USA, Philippines and Japan

The United States of America, the Philippines, and Japan, have suffered multiple natural disasters: Typhoon in Philippines (2013), Hurricanes Sandy (2012) and Katrina (2005) in the USA, and the 8.9 Magnitude earthquake (2011) in Japan. Immediately after these natural disasters, victims needed shelter, water, food, and blankets. However, a few weeks after, they needed mental health support. The investigator hypothesizes that religion would reduce the natural disaster victims’ PTSD symptoms and increase their “hope.” He sent 1,500 mailing surveys to Christian and Buddhist clergy in the New Orleans, New York, Manila, Tacloban, Tokyo, and Fukushima areas. He found that cultural differences between Christian and Buddhist religious communities: (a) More Christian clergy thought natural disaster relief efforts are their obligation. (b) Christian clergy focus more on “comfort”, “reducing pain,” and “hope,” while Buddhist clergy focus more on “listening” and “praying” when they talk with family members who lost their loved ones.

Benjamin Bennett-Carpenter, Against Silver Bullet Explanations for Religion: Toward Interdisciplinary Conversations that Allow for Both Consilience and Divergence

Single explanations of religion from within one particular discipline are partial explanations and do not suffice by themselves. As an enterprise, the scientific study of religion will do well to continue to foster conversations across disciplinary boundaries in an overall team effort, moving, on the one hand, toward increased consilience, or a ‘unity of knowledge’ (E.O. Wilson 1998), while also allowing, on the other hand, plenty of freedom for divergence. This presentation briefly highlights key contributions from disciplines such as biology (e.g., Ridley 2004; Feierman 2009), evolutionary anthropology and cognitive psychology (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides, Tooby 1992; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2004), evolutionary-oriented sociology (e.g., D.S. Wilson 2002; Diamond 2012), and semiotic-oriented communication studies (e.g., Baudrillard 1988; Raschke 2012; Bennett-Carpenter 2014) as touch-points for conversation that move toward consilience, while at the same time remaining open to divergence.

Is Britain still a Christian country?

When scholars involved in the social scientific study of ‘religion’ encounter claims concerning ‘religious identity’ – of states, groups or individuals – a number of questions immediately spring to mind. UK Prime Minster David Cameron’s controversy-inducing statement around Easter 2014 that Britain is ‘a Christian country’ is a perfect example of how an apparently simple statement is actually highly ambiguous and can potentially mask a host of powerful ideological concerns.

What does Cameron’s statement actually mean? In what sense can a country be “Christian”? Today on the Religious Studies Project, we welcome back Professor Linda Woodhead to discuss and interrogate the question “Is Britain Still a Christian Country?”, the topic of her recent Croall Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

The Secularization Thesis. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, British cookbooks, cakes, model railways and more.

Comics and the Superhero Afterlife

Comic books are reliable. Every month readers can expect another installment of their favorite comic on the shelves. Characters facing insurmountable odds will find a way to victory. Nemeses will be defeated. And should a hero die, they are likely to be re-born. In some sense, to be a hero is to be immortal. Even extraordinary humans such as Bruce Wayne (Batman), find their identities preserved for all time by turning the secret hero’s mask into a mantle to be bequeathed on worthy successors. One widespread trope has been much ignored by comic fans and scholars–the journey to the afterlife. Like the katabasis or descent into the Underworld of Orpheus, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Theseus, and dozens of other mythical figures, modern comic book superheroes routinely journey to heaven, hell, and other landscapes of the afterlife.

A. David Lewis, comic books are presented as an irreplaceable cultural medium for engaging with issues of mortality, identity, subjectivity, and cosmology. In the pages of comic books, Lewis explains, the popular elements of the journey to the afterlife become surfaces upon which can be written a kind of “special reality” whose artificiality makes it possible for readers (and writers) to have discussions about serious issues but never fully commit to the vision of the comic books. For Lewis, that so many different versions of this journey exist but have yet to be readily acknowledged speaks to the major tensions in western culture. One central concern, he maintains, is the unspoken effort to preserve models of self that are unified. “We don’t want see our selves as multiples,” says Lewis. We want to be unified, “whole individuals.” And yet recent work on healthy multiplicity by Helene T. Russell and J. Hills Miller suggests that by accepting “people [as] constructed by many selves” we can further the work of religious pluralism and enhance inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue.

comicFor those who may still see comic books as unworthy material for serious scholarship, A. David Lewis’ recent work (2014’s American Comics, Literary Theory and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife or his 2010 co-edited collection Graven Images) should be a warning to re-think your position. With an overwhelming slate of comic book driven television series (Walking Dead, Gotham, Flash, Green Arrow) and a rising tide of superhero films and franchises (X-Men, Fantastic Four, and the Avengers), there has never been a more essential time to recognize the cultural merits of comic books and seek out their academic rewards.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with A. David Lewis on “Religion and Comic Books“, and also recent interviews with Carole Cusack on “Religion and Cultural Production” and Alana Vincent on “Religion and Literature“. 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.com, orAmazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying comic books, pizza cutters, incense sticks and other cultural products.

Podcasts

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Religious cliché and stigma

A Response to “Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés”

by Christopher F. Silver

Read more

Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-Member Narratives

Ex-member testimony can be a difficult to deal with. Such testimony tends to receive privileged treatment in anti-cult literature, while some academics are prone to be sceptical, even suggesting ex-member testimony is worthless due to the danger of adaption and fiction. So a question remains, how should religious studies scholars deal with such testimony. Do we treat it as fact, fiction, faction, or something else altogether? In this interview at the 2017 British Association for the Study of Religion (BASR) Conference, Breann Fallon chats to Dr George Chryssides about ex-member narratives and the use of such primary sources in the work of religious studies scholars. Issues of identity creation, the alteration of narratives, the use of “faction” as evidence, and case studies from ex-member Jehovah’s Witnesses come together in this interview to create a compelling case for a renewed focus on ex-member testimony.

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, Skyrim for Nintendo Switch, egg nog, and more.

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

Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member narratives

Podcast with George Chryssides (20 November 2017).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Chryssides- Changing Your Story 1.1

Breann Fallon (BF): Ex-member testimony can be difficult to deal with. Such testimony tends to receive privileged treatment in anti-cult literature, while some academics are prone to be sceptical – even suggesting ex-member testimony is worthless. So how do we deal with such testimonies, especially considering the increasing forms of such testimony that now comes with social media? What role do such accounts play in the creation of identity for ex-members? To discuss this topic today, I have with me Dr George Chryssides. George is a long-term friend of the Religious Studies Project and is Honorary Research Fellow at York St John University and the University of Birmingham, having been head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton from 2001- 2008. He has written extensively on New Religious Movements, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses. Recent publications include the Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements, co-edited with Benjamin E. Zeller; and Jehovah’s Witnesses: Continuity and Change. George is Co-Vice Chair of INFORM, the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, based at the LSE and was founded by Eileen Barker in 1988. George is also on various Editorial boards and panels and is currently co-editing an anthology entitled The Insider-Outsider Debate together with Stephen Gregg. He’s also editing an anthology for the Routledge Inform Series entitled Minority Religions in Europe and the Middle East. So thank you very much for joining us today, George.

George Chryssides (GC): My pleasure, thanks for inviting me.

BF: So I was wondering if we could just start with a discussion of how different scholars deal with ex-member testimonies, and what your opinion is of different ways of dealing with such testimony.

GC: Well, there are inevitably a handful of scholars who support the anti-cult movement – although they don’t like it being called the anti-cult movement – but there is a body that is somewhat hostile and they tend to privilege the ex-member. They will say that the ex-member has been inside, now he or she is outside. So they’ve seen it from both points of view and are in a better position than someone like myself that has never joined a new religious movement. So that’s one point of view. There are others like James Beckford, who say: well, if you’ve come out of a new religious movement, like the Jehovah’s witnesses, then your testimony is going to be biased. Maybe you’re going to be a bit embarrassed at having been involved in a group that’s not very popular and has an unusual worldview. So, you’d devise some kind of explanation about how and why you joined, and how you got disillusioned, and how you were conned into joining, maybe, and how you were deceived and so on. James Beckford thinks that the ex-member “devises a scenario”, as he puts it, to account for entry and exit. There are other scholars like Lonnie Cliver and Brian Wilson who have said their testimony is totally invalid, we should disregard it totally. It’s worthless. Now I don’t go along with that, either. Because, I think, particularly when you read written ex-members accounts, ok they’re biased, but we’re always taught to evaluate our sources so it’s important to see why they’re saying what they do; what it is that might be true; what sounds plausible. You triangulate your information, what other people have said. Very often, you can get unwitting testimony about conditions within an organisation. There’s a lot of good material you get, particularly from high-ranking ex-members: people that have for example, in one case, been on the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now they don’t publish their minutes or anything like that, so until Raymond Franz’ book came out I don’t think any of us had much of a clue what actually went on, on the governing body: how they voted on things, what sort of topics they discussed. And that’s really interesting. We shouldn’t just say “Well, that’s an ex-member: he got cheesed-off with the movement. We’re not going to listen to it.” Because that way you would lose a lot of very good information.

BF: So there’s sort-of this element of “the fact that’s behind the supposed fiction”, that we can kind-of draw out from testimonies, I guess?

GC: Yes, well, fact and fiction tend to kind-of blend into each other (5:00). Actually, that’s some work I would like to do as a piece of follow up research on JW’s. Because there are a lot of narratives. And it’s a pity I didn’t get my act together on this before this particular conference, which is on narratives. Because you get some narratives that claim to be absolutely factual. You get others that are, on their own account, works of fiction. There are stories invented about Jehovah’s Witnesses. And then, in between, you get pieces of . . . some people call them “faction”: a cross between fact and fiction. They’ll say: well this is based on such and such a congregation, but we’re not telling the reader who it is because of confidentiality. And actually there is a wealth of literature out there about what it means for a Jehovah’s Witness to be out doing house-to-house work, staffing a literature cart and things like that. And, in some cases, how they fudge the statistics that they report back to their elders. I think things like that are really fascinating, because you can’t get that in copies of the Watchtower, for example. So that’s a future project, reading up on the fiction/faction narrative and seeing what one can get out of it.

BF: So how do you think that we should be dealing with ex-member testimonies in your opinion?

GC: Well, what I’m presenting at this conference is the view that ex-member testimony is about one’s identity. Because you can have different identities depending on what your interests are. Ok, so maybe you kind-of dabbled in a hobby for a couple of weeks and got fed up with it? That’s not part of your identity. And there are some people that actually go along to a new religious movement in that kind of role. They’ll maybe go along for a couple of weeks, or maybe just the once, then decide it’s not for them. Or decide they don’t like being out at night, or something like that. And we don’t hear so much of these testimonies, because they’re not very interesting. So, when a religion is not part of one’s identity you don’t need to invent a story about why you came out. I mean, I don’t need to invent a story about why I gave up stamp collecting or something like that.

BF: (laughs)

GC: So, on the other hand, if the religion has been a big part of your identity – maybe it’s been your paid employment even – then you’re going to have problems coming out. You’re going to have to think: how do I shape a new identity? And it can be even practical things that are involved, like: how do I get a job? Where will live? Who are my friends going to be? Because maybe some of them will keep up with you, but probably most of them won’t. So it’s a whole new life that you’re inventing, in that sort of case. So people have to find ways of doing that. In some extreme cases the ex-member has made ex-membership part of his or her own identity, perhaps being a so-called cult counsellor. There are people that have made their professions out of that – not all that many, but you tend to hear about them more than the others, because they’re prominent. They’ve got a lot to say about the movement. And there is a saying: “You can get the member out of the cult, but you can’t get the cult out of the member.”

BF: That’s very interesting.

GC: So that’s true about these people. Actually, they’re very good informants, some of them, if you can get them tamed and talking to you. There are a couple that will send me lots of extremely good information about the Unification Church. So usually, if I want to know something, I will write to them to say, “I’ve heard about so-and-so, what do you know about it?” And then I’ll get back a lot of good information. Kind-of mentally they’re still in the movement, even though – in terms of what they believe and what they practise – they’re out of it.

BF: So, in that sort of way, you’re finding these testimonies really useful. Do you think there’s a difference between different types of testimony? We’ve already talked about fact and fiction, but you know: a biography as opposed to writing to your ex-members that you are familiar with, as opposed to perhaps something on social media (10:00)? Is there a difference between using those different types, do you think? Is there one you prefer?

GC: Absolutely. I think a lot of stuff that’s not terribly worthwhile is the stuff you get on bulletin boards from ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. A lot of it is misinformation. A lot of it is actually very hostile. And even the treatment that they’re getting in Russia, which is quite appalling. I don’t know if you’ve been following that at all? The authorities have closed them down and confiscated all their properties. And on some of these anti-JW sites you’re getting people saying “I wish they had done it sooner.”

BF: Oh, wow!

GC: Yes, there’s no kind-of sympathy for these people, whatever their beliefs might be. So there’s not a lot of point in reading much of that kind of stuff. Except that it tells you more about the person that’s writing than it does about the movement itself. But, on the other hand, there are some very good ex-members that can give you some good information.

BF: Definitely. I think we should delve more into this idea of identity and creating that- I don’t know what you would call it. Do you think they would create an “ex-member persona”?

GC: Some of them do. I can decide, if I’m an ex-member, whether I want to make a feature out of that: whether I want to tell people, “Yes I was a Jehovah’s Witness and this is very much a part of my life having been one.” Now, actually, I do know of one former JW elder who has actually become a Church of Scotland minister. Now, I don’t know much about him, but I can see that somebody could make a feature out of that and say, “ Well, that’s been my past life and now I’ve kind-of seen the light”, or however he wants to put it. I have heard of one other Church of Scotland minister who served a long prison sentence as a murderer and then he repented and made good, and evidently he makes a feature out of that. Because it’s got a good Biblical message about conversion – you know, Paul writing to the Romans: he lists a whole lot of misdeeds that people committed and then he says “and some of such were you”. So it’s all very Biblical, if you want to do it that way and say, “Well, that’s my past life but now it’s all changed thanks to Jesus Christ”, or whatever. That’s one way of creating your new identity. Another way of changing your identity is simply to conceal it and say, “Well I’m not going to talk about this. I’m just going to get on with my new life.” So there are different ways of creating this new identity, but one way or another, if religion has been a major part of your life and you’re coming out, then there is an identity problem and you do need to think, well: Who am I? What do I want to be? And how do I want to shape up his new life that’s lying ahead?

BF: Do you think that as scholars we need to be aware of this identity change when we’re looking at ex-member testimonies: how they’ve come out of whatever movement they were a part of; and how they’ve transitioned into (a new life); whether they’ve been really open about it; whether they’ve concealed it and then been open about it. Is that something we need to take into consideration when looking at these testimonies, which ones we really should be looking at for evidence?

GC: Well absolutely, because evaluating your sources means asking questions like: who is telling me this? What is their motivation? How much knowledge do they have? Sometimes people can pretend to have more knowledge than they really do about the movement that they’re in. A lot of ex-JWs will say “Well, the society has got a history of field prophecy.” Now I don’t think that’s true; that’s a popular myth that is propagated by ex-members. I’m not saying they’ve never ever revised a date or given it a new meaning. But there’s one website that goes through every year from 1877, when I think the society was first getting going, and then giving some kind of prophetic statement they’ve made and how it failed. And that’s not really correct exposition of what they’re saying (15:00). So I think we really do need to ask, what is the degree of knowledge that this person has? Because there can be a view that if you’ve been inside you know all about it. And I think anyone that follows a religion doesn’t know all about it. You can’t know all about your religion, it’s just too big a subject.

BF: Yes. I’m going to throw a bit of a left-field question at you that I didn’t tell you I was going to ask.

GC: Oh dear!

BF: We always get this sort-of image of ex-members coming together, and then forming an ex-member group. Has that come across in your work?

GC: Oh yes, absolutely. There’s a lot of that. And I think that’s part of forming a new identity because you need to have friends. Friends need to have things in common. And the obvious thing in common that you’ve got if you’re an ex-member is being an ex-member. So yes, there are JW groups. I’ve been invited to go to one or two different events, but I feel I’d be gate-crashing!

BF: Yes!

GC: But they get together from time to time. And I’d be interested to know what they talk about, because they often say, “You don’t have to talk about Jehovah’s Witnesses if you come to our meet.” Now, whether they actually talk about JWs or whether they talk about some other interests that they’ve got, I don’t know. But that would be interesting. But yes that’s part of shaping your identity, to get an ex-member group going. Of course I think the ex-member group is more a kind of phenomenon in itself that’s worth noting if you’re a scholar. I suspect that in the ex-member group you get a kind of snowball effect of all the kind of moans that they’ve got about the Watchtower Society. I see some of their stuff on Facebook and that seems to be how it works. Somebody will put something on, maybe about Russia, and then somebody will add a rude comment about it. And it tends to kind-of further a lack of sympathy.

BF: It would be interesting to look at how social media have played a role in creating those new ex-member groups. Because of course, with social media, people from all over the globe can come together and sort of share their stories. Do you think social media has had a big part in ex-member testimony and getting that out there?

GC: Absolutely, yes. There are one or two well-known websites, or are they websites or . . . I never know what the right terminology is about cyber space . . . but I think it’s a Facebook Group about How Well Do You Know Your Moon? And that’s about the Unification Church. That’s actually got a lot of good information there. It’s not just people slagging them off. But, yes, the obvious thing about social media is that we don’t need to have our friends sitting opposite each other the way we’re sitting opposite. You can get them from any part of the globe and you don’t have to meet up with them, physically. But then again, the fact that you’ve got this group enables you to organise these physical meetings, which they do.

BF: It would be interesting to know, with the advent of social media, if that is encouraging more people to go to groups – people who may have, without social media, sort-of concealed it on their own. But that idea that social media can bring so many people together. It would be interesting to know whether there had been more people willing to join an ex-member group because of social media. Because you can kind-of dip your toe in with Facebook, before you go to a meeting. It’s almost the complete reverse of joining the movement in the first place.

GC: Yes, I think that’s probably right. The other question is whether it might actually encourage people to join a group by giving publicity. I remember when I was researching the Unification Church in the early days, there were two kind-of improbable people who had come along to this seminar. In fact, the Unification Church didn’t seem to want these people to join. Because they weren’t very bright, I think they were unemployed, looking for somewhere to live and that’s not what they were after. And I think they may even have been psychologically disturbed. So, a new religion won’t want to get a reputation for attracting the wrong people. But they had come along and I asked them, “What brought you here? (20:00) Weren’t you put off by the bad publicity the Unification Church was getting?” And they said, “Oh no. What we had heard actually made us interested and want to come.” So there can be this kind-of reverse effect. You might think, “Well, I wonder what this is about?”

BF: Yes. I just think social media has taken a completely different road for so much of our study, particularly with testimony and people being able to share their voice and share their opinion. Before we finish up – you’re presenting today at BASR – is there anything from your paper that you’d like to add to the talk, that we haven’t discussed so far?

GC; Well I think we’ve been, how long have we been talking now? It’s been a lot more than 20 minutes and my talk is only 20 minutes, so I think I’ve probably added quite a bit. It’s actually going to be part of a chapter in the Anthology on the Insider and Outsider debate that Stephen Gregg and I are getting together. So there will be a kind-of longer discussion. What I will be saying in the paper also –which we didn’t cover, but it’s a bit more technical – is about the kind of typologies of ex-members. People like David Bromley and Massimo Introvigne distinguish between different types. And they distinguish on the basis of how the person came out of the movement and what sort of conditions made them come out. What I’m suggesting is that these typologies have got their limitations. Sociologists talk about “ideal types” and I think that’s one of the problems about sociology: when have you got an ideal type and when have you just got a model that’s too crude for the purposes that you’re using it? So I think an account of ex-members has got to go beyond distinctions like “the defector”, “the ordinary leave-taker”, “the apostate”. There are all sorts of types of leaver, depending on the identity that they’ve created for themselves within the movement. So whether they’re just an unbaptised publisher as the rank is called in the Jehovah’s witnesses, or whether you’re one of the 144,000 in the governing body, right at the top, these kinds of the distinctions of the type of member you are will affect the way you leave. It will also affect the story you give about leaving and about life in the organisation.

BF: It’s almost sort-of an identity wave. You know: I was this, and then that’s affected how my identity has come out of the movement. I think your talk is going to be so interesting, I’m very excited.

GC: I hope so.

BF: Thank you so much for joining us today. And I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference.

GC: Well, thanks very much. And thanks again for the invitation.

BF: It’s our pleasure.

Citation Info: Chryssides, George and Breann Fallon. 2017. “Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member Narratives”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 20 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 17 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/changing-your-story-assessing-ex-member-narratives/

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Report: 2015 Joint Conferences of the New Zealand and Australian Associations for the Study of Religion

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Bruno Marshall Shirley and John H. Shaver

The biennial conference of the New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions (NZASR) and the annual conference of the Australian Association for the Study of Religions (AASR) were held together in Queenstown, New Zealand from December 8-10 2015. Interdisciplinary perspectives and theoretical approaches across the humanities and social sciences were evident in the wide-range of papers presented. Islam, and Asian religions more generally, were the most consistent objects of focus, perhaps unsurprising given Australasia’s proximity to Asia and recent increased media attention to the Islamic State.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The conference’s emphasis on Asia and Islam were evident in the keynote lectures. In a talk entitled “Creativity and Ethical Life in India,” Tulasi Srinivas (Emerson College) described religious innovations in Bangalore and the sense of “wonder” that they often inspire. She argued that scholars ought to take emerging religious practices seriously, rather than as anomalies or deviations from established, textually-based understandings of religion. Turning to Japan, Douglas Ezzy (University of Tasmania) argued that Shint­ō is best considered a “religion of practice” in contrast to those traditional conceptions of religion as belief-oriented. He suggested that while a non-Christian can attend mass at a Christian place of worship and not be “doing Christianity,” a tourist at a Shint­ō shrine participating in its various ritual practices might be said to be “doing Shint­ō.” For many Japanese Shint­ō is not associated with doctrinal belief (shūkyō), which allows people to engage with Shint­ō ritual practice while not accepting its cosmology. Some in the audience disagreed with Ezzy’s analysis of Shint­ō and its relationship to shūkyō, but his call for a renewed focus on religious practice was generally appreciated. Sally McAra (University of Auckland), looked at one traditionally Asian religion, Buddhism, in the Australasian context. She discussed the problems facing an anthropologist conducting ethnographic research among their own group, principally a difficulty in carrying out objective analyses, due to a positive bias towards group ideals.

The final keynote lecture, from Gary D. Bouma (Monash University), turned to Islam and to Western discourses about the “threat” that each other poses. Bouma argued that both anti-Western and anti-Muslim narratives shared several key features: both narratives assert that the “other” is incorrect in some way; each is reinforced due to media bias; and both narratives are responsible for the perpetuation of conflict. Bouma’s most significant point was that Religious Studies scholars have a responsibility to discredit these discourses – particularly anti-Muslim narratives in the West, such as those put forth by Trump or Abbot. These narratives, Bouma argued, serve to legitimise attempts to gain power at the expense of civil liberties, and/or to divert attention from their own violence (including structural violence, domestic violence, or even climate change).

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper "Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult," in the panel "Religion in/and Politics."

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper “Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult,” in the panel “Religion in/and Politics.”

The panel “Contemporary Religions” continued the central foci on Asian religions and Islam. A paper by Douglas Osto (Massey) (based on his forthcoming book, Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America, Columbia UP, 2016) outlined the history of “Psychedelic Buddhism” from the 1950s into the present, and the changing attitudes of American Buddhist practitioners towards mind-altering drugs. Osto described how some practitioners used psychedelic drugs as a “door” to advanced states of mind, before graduating to “pure” meditation practices, while others (notably Joan Halifax) continued to use drugs to supplement their meditative practices. Although psychedelia has been investigated before, Osto’s study represents the first serious examination of psychedelic Buddhism as a non-systemic religious movement, and is sure to lead to further studies of other hybrid Buddhist practices in the West. Buddhism was also the focus of a panel on “Buddhist Tales and Territories,” which featured a paper by Chaisit Suwanvarangkul (University of Otago) on the relevance of dharmakāya and the tathāgatagarbha doctrine to Therāvada Buddhism, as well as to the Mahāyāna. Suwanvarangkul’s paper was partially in response to an earlier paper by Michael Radich (Victoria University of Wellington), presented at the 2007 Australian Association of Buddhist Studies conference, entitled “There is no Dhammakāya in the Pāli Canon.” Suwanvarangkul’s inclusion of the Chinese Āgama as Theravāda was the subject of some controversy, as Osto pointed out that, despite parallels to the Theravāda nikāya, the Chinese āgama contain several key differences from the Theravāda texts. The panel also included papers by Anna Halafoff and Matthew Clarke (both of Deakin University) on the role of Songdhammakalyani monastery (Thailand) in promoting gender equality; Chiew Hui Ho (University of Sydney) on Chinese tales about the Diamond Sutra and their role in encouraging faith; and Phra Akbordin Rattana (University of Otago) on the model of Buddha devotion expressed in the Mārabandha chapter of the Paṭhamasambodhi-kathā.

Papers in the panel “Religion and the State” shared a common theme of distinctions between “religious practice” and “political actions” breaking down, in cases drawn from China, Japan, and Sri Lanka. Melissa Inoue (University of Auckland) discussed China’s True Jesus Church and its “miraculous” discourse. She argued that by directing attention to this-worldly affairs, the discourse indirectly both critiques and affirms contemporary Chinese society and the stewardship of the party-state. Ben Schonthal (University of Otago) turned to Sri Lanka and the (legal) case of a Buddhist monk who was denied an application for a driver’s license on the grounds that it was not appropriate for monks to drive. He argued that this was fundamentally a problem of contested authority over religious practice in Sri Lanka, arising from an ambiguous constitutionalising of religion. Bruno M. Shirley (Victoria University of Wellington) called for a post-secular rethinking of “religious violence” using the case study of Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Senā. Shirley suggested that explanations for religious violence, generally and in Sri Lanka specifically, have tended to assume a secularist dichotomy of “religion” and “politics” that is inadequate for dealing with the relationship between Buddhism, politics, and violence in Sri Lanka. Shirley suggested instead that we might reconsider this relationship within a framework of identity politics.

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper "Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion," in the panel "Naming Islamism."

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper “Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion,” in the panel “Naming Islamism.”

The panel “Naming Islamism,” was by far the most controversial of the conference. Will Sweetman (University of Otago), Christopher van der Krogt (Massey University), Douglas Pratt (University of Waikato), William E. Shepard (University of Canterbury), and audience members debated whether or not the Islamic State could be considered an authentic iteration of “Islam.” Van der Krogt argued that such a debate represents a misunderstanding of religion, and Islam in particular, while Sweetman argued that there is no basis for denying the Islamic State’s self-identification as Muslim. Several audience members disagreed with this assertion, instead arguing that Islam did indeed have some core norms and values with which the Islamic State does not conform. This panel also included less controversial papers by Shepard (University of Canterbury), on the development of Sayyid Qutb’s views on gender relations, and Pratt, on the Islamic State’s “theological ideology.”

Not all of the panels at the conference focussed on Asia or on Islam, and of these the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) panel is particularly notable for being the most empirically-oriented of the conference. The first NZAVS talk was delivered by the director of the study, Chris Sibley, a psychologist from the University of Auckland. Sibley described the breadth of the study and some of the many challenges inherent to large-scale longitudinal data collection. Joseph Bulbulia (Victoria University of Wellington) then detailed a few of the more significant findings pertaining to religion that have emerged from the NZAVS, including his work on the distinct “faith signatures” that span and defy traditional denominational categorization. Following these talks, Geoffrey Troughton (Victoria University of Wellington) described the history of the “Christian Not Further Declared (NFD)” designation in the New Zealand census, and then used NZAVS data to describe the demographic characteristics of those individuals that have recently come to identify with this tremendously growing group. The panel concluded with John Shaver (Victoria University of Wellington) describing the complex, but unique, picture of religion and prejudice/ tolerance in New Zealand. Although highly religious New Zealanders are more tolerant of many social groups (including ethnic and religious out-groups) than their secular counterparts, they are also less tolerant of some other groups (e.g., homosexuals). Shaver interpreted this pattern as a result of the differential flexibility of human values. He argued that those values associated with conservatism are necessary for the cultural transmission of religion and are therefore less free to vary across cultures, while those that are less relevant to transmission are subject to greater environmental influence.

Perhaps due to the University of Otago’s excellent choice to host the conference in scenic Queenstown, the conference was relatively well-attended by NZASR standards, and a strong Australian presence was a welcome addition to the conference’s academic and social events. While Asia and Islam were focal, the range of perspectives and disciplinary approaches made for interesting discussions, both in panels and informally. The conference demonstrated that the study of religions in New Zealand and Australia continues to broaden its interdisciplinary focus.

Gender, queer theory and religion

When we think about gender, we often understand it as something that is utlimately socially constructed. As for sex, it is mostly understood as something biological, set by a binary opposition between men and women. But how does this intersect with the study of religion? How do these categories influence the ways in which we look at religion? What is the role of religious institutions in this promotion of the gender binary? What about sexual orientation? What connections can we make between identities, the body and emotions in religious contexts?

In this interview, Dr. Mary Jo Neitz continues the conversation about religion and gender by focusing on theories from LGBT studies and queer studies. Using her work as an ethnographer, as well as the work of American philosopher Judith Butler, Neitz distinguishes the categories of gender and sex by showing how performance and experiences are at the heart of the social construction of gender and sexual identities. Neitz also discusses the role of religious institutions and practices in the agency experienced by some of her informants, as well as the place of the body and essentialist politics in the study of religion.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, Anna Fedele, and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon, Claire Miller Skriletz, and George Ioannides. 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, glasses cases, sonic screwdrivers and more!

Religious Demography in the US

In this week’s podcast we focus on religious demography and identification, survey tools used for religious demography in America, differences between religious identities and identifications, Americans’ shifting religious identifications, correlations between religion and social positions such as ethnicity or generational cohort, and correlations with various social and political issues.

Expanding beyond the introduction to quantitative sociology of religion the RSP conducted earlier with David Voas, this conversation with Darren Sherkat covers religious demography in the American context. Unlike in the UK, or elsewhere, the U.S. census does not include questions about religion. U.S. religious demographers rely on privately-funded surveys, such as the General Social Survey (GSS), the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey, Baylor Religion Survey, and Gallup polls, among others, for large-scale nationally representative data on religion. Sherkat evaluates the reliability of various surveys as well as the quality of the data on non-Christian populations in the U.S., given that the vast majority of respondents self-identify as Christians or as “nones.” demography (Ariela Keysar), belief and belonging (Abby Day), and identity and identification (with the Culture on the Edge group). Based on findings explored further in his book, Changing Faith (2014), Sherkat explains how generational cohort, lifecourse position, immigration, ethnicity, and religious switching affect religious identifications in America, as well as correlations between religious identifications and sexuality, among other topics.

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, model airplanes, snow globes and more!

Religion and Planetary Ethics

Whitney Bauman discusses with George Ioannides some of the potential and difficult answers to these questions and more, revealing how the field of religion and ecology can go some way in helping to visualise and constitute a planetary, hybrid, ethical community of ecospiritual, biohistorical, and multispecies subjects.

Speaking of religions as “eco-social constructions across multiple species, over multiple generations, and over multiple histories,” Bauman puts forward an ethics of understanding ourselves and others as planetary creatures, and understanding religion, science, and nature as non-foundational, non-substantive categories.

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, biodegradable refuse sacks, poppy seeds and more!

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Bron Taylor on Religion after Darwin, and Bruno Latour, Gaian Animisms, and the Question of the Anthropocene.

21st Century Irish Paganism

World Religions Paradigm, and if you’re lucky you might just come across a passing reference to ‘Paganism’ buried amongst extensive references to ‘Christianity’, ‘Islam’. ‘Buddhism’ and other ‘World Religions.’ This absence contrasts markedly with the fascination many students show towards ‘Paganism’, and with the prevalence of motifs which might be labelled ‘Pagan’ in (Western) popular culture. Arguably, both the seeming academic disregard and popular fascination with this topic are indicative of a superficial understanding of the broad range of phenomena to which the designation ‘Pagan’ can refer. In this podcast, Chris speaks to Jenny Butler – a scholar whose work has made a significant contribution to fleshing out the category.

in this interview, we discuss Jenny’s work on Paganism in Ireland, the impact of that particular context upon the Paganism/s she has researched – particularly in terms of language, mythology, and the natural landscape – and also some of the issues associated with the academic study of Paganism in general.

links in Jenny’s bio and also our previous interviews with Ronald Hutton, Suzanne Owen, Graham Harvey and Wouter Hanegraaf. 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.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, moisturiser, fruit bowls, and more!

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 September 2015

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest!

We would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has forwarded notifications. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution. And now for this week’s digest:

Calls for papers

Conference: Yoga darśana, yoga sādhana: traditions, transmissions, transformations

May 19–21, 2016

Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie, Poland

Deadline: December 21, 2015

More information

Conference: Visual Narratives of Faith: Religion, Ritual and Identity

July 10–14, 2016

Vienna, Austria

Deadline: September 30, 2015

More information

Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

More information

Conference: Symposium Peregrinum

June 16–19, 2016

Tarquinio, Italy

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Journal: Women: A Cultural Review

Special issue: Religion and Gender

Deadline: October 31, 2015

More information

Events

Annual meeting: American Academy of Religion

November 21–24, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Annual meeting: American Anthropological Association

November 18–22, 2015

Denver, CO, USA

More information

Annual meeting: North American Association for the Study of Religion

November 20–22, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Research report launch: What should young people leave school knowing about religion and belief?

November 26, 2015, 5–6:30 p.m.

London, UK

More information

Conference: Radicalization & Islamophobia: Roots, Relationships and Implications in Religiously Diverse Societies

November 30–December 1, 2015

Sydney, Australia

More information

Conference: Pluralism and Community: Social Science History Perspectives

November 12–15, 2015

Baltimore, MD, USA

More information

Grants and awards

Miklós Tomka Award

Deadline: January 10, 2016

More information

Jobs

Postdoctoral Fellowship: History of Religion and Religiosity

German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.

Deadline: December 1, 2015

More information

Two PhD scholarships in Buddhist Studies

LMU München, Germany

Deadline: October 18, 2015

More information

Fully funded PhD studentship

Newman University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

More information

What is ‘Buddhism in the West’?

There appears to be much debate regarding what defines Buddhism in the West. Particularly, when I attend Social Science of Religion conferences, Buddhism is presented as a new or exotic social cultural influential phenomenon. I often see “Buddhism in the West” lumped in with new religious movements (NRMs) or more interestingly as sources of therapeutic influence for new styles of mental health treatment such as those seen in the field of Psychology. The compulsion to lump Buddhism with new religious movements may derive from a variety of influences. For example, the mass exodus of Tibetan Buddhists following the Chinese occupation of 1949 may give scholars the impression of newness due to the large migratory movement of Tibetans to the west. This coupled with the popularity of the Dalai Lama and religious converts such as Richard Gere give credence to Buddhism as a “Western” new religious movement (Cantwell & Kawanami, 2002). Another theory could be the fascination of Buddhism for the late 19th century Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists saw value in Buddhist philosophy for understanding a suffering western society (McMahan, 2008). Such thinkers and their use of Buddhist philosophy could have led to more individual forms of belief such as “spirituality” and “universalism.” To be considered new, some scholars may see the past 100 years as “recent” where the turn of the century serves as a new chapter in religious pluralism in the West. Better still could be the free love movement of the 1960s or the fascination with alternative states of consciousness. Many people were seeking something beyond the old interpretations of transcendence (Kent, 2001). All of these are examples of competing paradigms in terms of juxtaposing a belief system called “Buddhism” within the geographic and cultural center of the “West”.

The boundaries of what defines the West are also circumspect. Some perceive the West to be North America while other scholars speak to first world cultures (including North America but also Western Europe, and Australia). Such boundaries of what defines the West are unclear but there is proximate agreement related to the cultural center of what we term the “West” (McMahan, 2008). Here, there is proximate agreement as a Euro-American center of learning. In other words, we are speaking of centers of academic discourse and authority known as the university system. One could argue that such exchanges are colonial in nature (indicating a British or American dominance of cultural norms and language) and yet these implicit assumptions reinforce the very system, which assert categorical authority. Further, using terms such as “the West” and its interaction with other traditions are synonymous with speaking from an in-group perspective of privilege.

Given these challenges related to defining Buddhism in the West, Dr. Cox’s approach is refreshing. Rather than attempting to describe Buddhism’s introduction into the West as a socio-historical event, he approaches the exchange of culture from the perspective of a historically reconstructed narrative through the story of Laurence Carroll, an Irish immigrant to Burma by way of the United States. Laurence Carroll led an adventurous life from an immigrant, to a homeless person in the US, to a seaman, and eventually taking vows as a Buddhist monk. Mr. Carroll’s experience resulted in his ordination by becoming Bhikkhu U Dhammaloka. Dr. Cox provides an interesting look by way of Dhammaloka’s narrative, at the layers of national, social, ethnic, and religious identity. For Cox, identities are tied together as one but also relational in terms of the concept of the “other.” Dr. Cox shows that Carroll’s transitions between geographies were continually met with adversity in terms of his identity. For example, the conflict of his Irish identity in Ireland in relation to British colonial influence, then his Irish identity in relation to blacks/African Americans in New York, and eventually his Irish identity in relation to the dominant Asian culture of Burma. His concept of self becomes even more complex when he converts to Buddhism, as he is no longer centered within his Irish or Caucasian identity. Such boundaries of self were not only confusing but also empowering as Dhammaloka could challenge others who attempted to proselytize the local populations in Burma.

According to Cox, Dhammaloka had social influence on the local population to defend Buddhism from what he may have seen as colonial missionary dominance reminiscent his own experience with the British in Ireland. Dr Cox’s podcast leaves me with additional derivative themes of interest. To speak in terms of cultural or social influence is to implicitly infer a social shift in the individual definition of self. As noted by Cox, deconversion was no small transition in self-identification. With one’s exit from their own enculturated tradition to an exotic, lesser-known faith came perceptions of racial as well as moral defection. Scholarly inquiry into Buddhism for the time was surely appropriate but only in as much as these faith traditions were contrasted with Christianity. The Dhammaloka case study serves as an excellent example of where the religious and cultural landscape is moderated within the domain of academic discourse. Only at this time were such intellectual pursuits blatantly colonial in agenda. Furthermore, such lively exchanges with missionaries highlight the overt assumptions of intellectual and cultural dominance but also the subversive influence on Buddhism to compete in a soon to be global spiritual marketplace. I would challenge Dr. Cox to think of Dhammaloka not in terms of his authenticity of being one of the earliest converts to Buddhism, but rather to see him as a mediating influence in what Buddhism would come to be for the West. Dare I say that Dhammaloka’s own cultural baggage and his Western approach to Buddhism might well have helped repackage Buddhist philosophy, making such transitions more salient.

In conclusion, I would like to challenge the overall paradigm of “Buddhism in the West.” The lack of synergy among scholarly inquiry coupled with the assumption of the specialness of Buddhism within the cultural or geographic context of the West lends further need for the application of critical theory. Such theory should be able to describe the specialness of the former and latter without relying on the old colonial tools of academia. While there is value in theories of sociology and religious studies, my concern is that such assumptions assume Buddhism is/was something different or special, dare I say sui generis (McCutcheon, 1997). The West’s fascination with the East goes well beyond a simple proselytizing motive or – it could be argued – colonial influence. Buddhism’s symbols, rituals, and practices seem mystical almost otherworldly from the flowing robes of monks, to the symbolism of the simplistic humble request of a monk with a begging bowl, to the teachings of the dasa pāramiyo or the ten perfections in defining one’s potential for Buddha nature. Yet given the plethora of possibilities in exploring the grand narrative of Western (European and American) Buddhism, such inquiries make some false assumptions about how Buddhism in the West is defined.

References

Cantwell, C. & Kawanami, H. (2002) Buddhism in Elisabeth Arweck’s New religious movements. Religions in the modern world: traditions and transformations, pp. 47-82.

Goldberg, E. (2006). Buddhism in the west In S. C. Berkwitz Berkwitz, S. C. (Ed.). Buddhism in world cultures: comparative perspectives. Abc-clio.

Kent, S. A. (2001). From slogans to mantras: Social protest and religious conversion in the late Vietnam war era. Syracuse University Press.

McCutcheon, R. T. (1997). Manufacturing religion: The discourse on sui generis religion and the politics of nostalgia. Oxford University Press.

McMahan, D. L. (2008). The making of Buddhist modernism. Oxford University Press.

Hyphenating Identities

In yet another excellent Religious Studies Project interview, we hear from University of California Santa Barbara Associate Professor Rudy Busto talking about race and religion in the United States. The objectives of this conversation focus predominantly upon topics like race and religion in America, the conflation of race as ethnicity and vice versa, and the use of race as an identity marker within the study of religion.

Throughout this delightful and meandering dialogue the listener is invited, indeed encouraged, to consider the systemic and institutionalized location of race alongside religion in the contemporary, modern socio-cultural milieu and scholastic Academy. With a particularly American slant (which is to say, a reliance on double-barrelled ethno-religious identifiers like Asian-American, or Japanese-American Buddhist), much of the discussion in this interview centers around the now almost implicitly assumed observation that the ways in which humans create and express their identities is a socially constructed phenomenon, one that lacks ontological existence and agency, and how race can be a prominent component of this construction. By further deconstructing and problematizing the use of constructed, blanketing concepts like race or culture, Busto shows how delicate the process of understanding the formation of an individual’s subjective understanding of themselves and the group to which they identify actually can be.

What is regrettably missing from this conversation is a deeper discussion that might provide us with an understanding of how, precisely, the constructed-ness of human identities as a theoretical model advances the field of RS. Building upon the excellent foundation laid by Busto in this interview, I would submit two pieces of scholarship as supplements, each delving into how the contemporary scholar of religion might deploy this constructed-ness of identity.

Skipping over the obvious progenitors of the ‘constructed human groups’ discussion (Hobsbawm, Ranger, Anderson, etc.), I often heavily rely upon two middle to late 20th century academics to focus the lens of constructed identity. The first is Steven Vertovec and his use of what he calls ‘vis-à-vis dynamics’ (2000:106). In this particular instance Vertovec is observing Hindus in ‘diasporic’ situations within the UK. That is to say, he records observations of individuals who identify as belonging to the group calling itself ‘Hindu’, though they are citizens of the United Kingdom. Regardless of whether the individual is a first, second, or third generation immigrant, Vertovec observes that their self-identity requires what RS scholars might call an ‘Other’. That is, an individual, object, or even an ethno-religious collective, such as Hindus and non-Hindus, in relation to which one forms at least one layer of their self-identity.

Therefore, a researcher might record a conversation with someone who, for example, identifies as Hindu because they perform arati on Sundays instead of attending synagogue or, of course, doing nothing at all. Conversely, perhaps a younger, third-generation student might identify as Scottish or English rather than Indian like their first-generation grandparents. These markers or borders that define to which group one belongs, Vertovec might argue, cannot be created in a vacuum and necessarily require a concept RS scholars call an Other. In our work then, we can subsequently examine questions such as how generational differences manifest in various groups, what impact public education has on how immigrants choose to identify, or indeed how we can more clearly define the very concept of ‘religion’ through an examination of the subjective identification of the individual to a particular religious tradition within a particular context.

The second scholar who I would submit as a supplement to this identity question is Clifford Geertz. Geertz was a specialist in Mediterranean groups and specifically, for the present case, of Muslim Moroccans. Geertz’s suggested deployment of what he thinks of as ‘mosaic identities’ illustrates a similar me/you dynamic as does Vertovec, yet in a slightly more colourful way. Geertz provides a handful of specific stories during which he observes that the individual has multiple, ‘nested’ identities that are centered on one’s location in social-political/religious spacetime (1974:26-45). He provides the narration of a particular male informant, whose identity as belonging to a particular group, ranging from his specific tribe, village, region, etc. are deployed in relation to the dominant group with whom he comes into contact. This is done within what I like to think of as a Russian-doll, or concentric field of layered concepts of belonging and identity. So, what we find in Geertz is that rather than a linear and subject-centric illustration of identity formation, he sees what might be a more fluid, group-oriented process of formation and understanding of self-identity.

Many of these same formations and scenarios can be noticed when one looks upon other constructed forms of human collective (and individual) identity, like race or ethnicity. We can use ideas like those of Busto, Vertovec, and Geertz–among myriad others of course–to consider questions about how we as scholars of religion might better define and deploy concepts such as race and religion. Indeed, as touched upon in this interview, we find ourselves in a time when countries like the UK and the US are, even now, officially providing their citizens the option of identifying via the use of hyphenated ethnicities.

So, in the interest of brevity, I would be quick to again praise any discussion that aims to shed further light on the process by which humans form and manifest their identity as an individual in isolation, as well as when done as a member of a group, as such discussions can only aid in progressing the field of Religious Studies.

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1974. “From the Native’s Point of View”. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 28.1: 26-45.

Nye, Malory. 1995. A Place for Our Gods: The Construction of an Edinburgh Hindu Temple Community. Surrey: Curzon Press

Vertovec, Steven. 2000. The Hindu Diaspora. London and New York: Routledge.

Sri Lankan Buddhism and Colonialism

Stephen Berkwitz doesn’t really speak of either. Instead, the interview focuses on Sri Lankan colonial past and how the presence of European rulers and Christian missionaries affected local Buddhism.

Pogacnik and Berkwitz discuss the effects of colonial missionaries on the solidification of a Buddhist religious identity in Sri Lanka and the far-reaching consequences of this turn on some contemporary Buddhist monks, who are turning to the Pali canon in search of ‘authentic Buddhism’. Berkwitz explores the connection of this turn to scripture with the presence of Protestant missionaries and the idea of ‘Protestant Buddhism’ in Sri Lanka, presenting some challenges to seeing the missionary influence as a straight-forward one. Exploring examples of the counter influences Buddhism had on Christian missionaries that came to Sri Lanka, Berkwitz concludes the interview by talking about the complex relationship and interplay of religion and power in the Sri Lankan context.

Listeners interested further in the authors Berkwitz mentioned in the interview can look into the works of Gananath Obeyesekere and Anne Blackburn. 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, choral scores, lunchboxes and more.

Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining (Video)

In the academic study of ‘religion’, an organization that is at the forefront of encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue is the Grace Davie and Jay Demerath – were recorded at the SSSR Annual Meeting back in 2011. While SSSR was originally dominated by the field of sociology, there has been a recent shift in attendees toward other disciplines such as psychology, education, religious studies, nursing and others that share an interest in understanding ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ from their respective perspectives. The diversity of presenters is only matched by the diversity of paper topics presented. While SSSR is typically hosted in an US city, SSSR has gained popularity as an international conference as well with the 2014 Annual Meeting hosting the largest number of international scholars to date.

Considering these observations, the RSP collaborated with SSSR at the 2014 Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana to offer an interdisciplinary panel on the study of religion. Each of the papers presented are not only from different fields in the study of religion but also methodologically or theoretically apply an interdisciplinary approach. The authors represent the best in their fields. Some are established scholars with a body of work while others are up-and-coming talent. We hope you enjoy the RSP sponsored panel on an interdisciplinary approach to the study of religion. See below for the abstracts of the papers presented.

Many thanks to Chris SIlver, Tommy Coleman, and all at the SSSR for making this recording possible. This panel recording is somewhat different from our usual weekly podcast – if you enjoyed this, why not check out the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes? And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, knitting needles, Alien Ant Farms, and more.

The Religious Studies Project Panel on Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJp5DiV3WKc&feature=youtu.be]

Convener: Christopher Silver

W. Paul Williamson,  Poison-Drinking in Obedience to the Faith: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience

Christian serpent handlers of American Appalachia are most noted for handling venomous snakes in obedience to one of five perceived mandates of Christ in Mark 16:17-18: Casting out devils, speaking new tongues, taking up serpents, drinking poison, and laying on hands for healing. Over the past two decades, I have studied several phenomena among this compelling group including their sermons, their music, the anointing, near-death serpent bites, community support (Williamson & Hood, in press), and of course serpent handling (see Hood & Williamson, 2008, for summaries of the above uncited studies). The sign of drinking poison, however, has been largely ignored. To address this neglect, I conducted phenomenological interviews with nine serpent handlers who have practiced poison-drinking. Based on a hermeneutic analysis of these interviews, this paper presents a pattern of themes that describe the structure of meaning in the experience of drinking poison in obedience to the faith.

April Stace Vega, “That’s a Really Real Feeling”: Popular Music and the Sacralization of the Self in Evangelical Worship

“Should Churches Play ‘Highway to Hell’ in order to Reach Unbelievers?” This question is posed on a website catering to evangelical pastors with a link to a video. In the video, several prominent pastors discuss the use of the song (by rock band AC/DC) at a recent Easter morning service. It considered a controversial music choice due to the lyrics of the song and the persona that the band projects, but is also considered a useful tool for evangelism. This project is an ethnographic study on the use of music with no overtly religious lyrics in what sociologist Donald Miller terms “new paradigm” churches in the Washington, D.C. area. I view the use of popular-secular music through the lens of the subjectivization thesis of Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. In this paper, I focus on one particular meaning ascribed to popular-secular music in these churches: the ability of the music to express “real feeling” in a way traditional sacred music does not.

Tatsushi Hirono, Corroborative Efforts between Social Workers and Religious Leaders in Natural Disaster Relief: A Comparative Analysis among the USA, Philippines and Japan

The United States of America, the Philippines, and Japan, have suffered multiple natural disasters: Typhoon in Philippines (2013), Hurricanes Sandy (2012) and Katrina (2005) in the USA, and the 8.9 Magnitude earthquake (2011) in Japan. Immediately after these natural disasters, victims needed shelter, water, food, and blankets. However, a few weeks after, they needed mental health support. The investigator hypothesizes that religion would reduce the natural disaster victims’ PTSD symptoms and increase their “hope.” He sent 1,500 mailing surveys to Christian and Buddhist clergy in the New Orleans, New York, Manila, Tacloban, Tokyo, and Fukushima areas. He found that cultural differences between Christian and Buddhist religious communities: (a) More Christian clergy thought natural disaster relief efforts are their obligation. (b) Christian clergy focus more on “comfort”, “reducing pain,” and “hope,” while Buddhist clergy focus more on “listening” and “praying” when they talk with family members who lost their loved ones.

Benjamin Bennett-Carpenter, Against Silver Bullet Explanations for Religion: Toward Interdisciplinary Conversations that Allow for Both Consilience and Divergence

Single explanations of religion from within one particular discipline are partial explanations and do not suffice by themselves. As an enterprise, the scientific study of religion will do well to continue to foster conversations across disciplinary boundaries in an overall team effort, moving, on the one hand, toward increased consilience, or a ‘unity of knowledge’ (E.O. Wilson 1998), while also allowing, on the other hand, plenty of freedom for divergence. This presentation briefly highlights key contributions from disciplines such as biology (e.g., Ridley 2004; Feierman 2009), evolutionary anthropology and cognitive psychology (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides, Tooby 1992; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2004), evolutionary-oriented sociology (e.g., D.S. Wilson 2002; Diamond 2012), and semiotic-oriented communication studies (e.g., Baudrillard 1988; Raschke 2012; Bennett-Carpenter 2014) as touch-points for conversation that move toward consilience, while at the same time remaining open to divergence.

Is Britain still a Christian country?

When scholars involved in the social scientific study of ‘religion’ encounter claims concerning ‘religious identity’ – of states, groups or individuals – a number of questions immediately spring to mind. UK Prime Minster David Cameron’s controversy-inducing statement around Easter 2014 that Britain is ‘a Christian country’ is a perfect example of how an apparently simple statement is actually highly ambiguous and can potentially mask a host of powerful ideological concerns.

What does Cameron’s statement actually mean? In what sense can a country be “Christian”? Today on the Religious Studies Project, we welcome back Professor Linda Woodhead to discuss and interrogate the question “Is Britain Still a Christian Country?”, the topic of her recent Croall Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

The Secularization Thesis. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, British cookbooks, cakes, model railways and more.

Comics and the Superhero Afterlife

Comic books are reliable. Every month readers can expect another installment of their favorite comic on the shelves. Characters facing insurmountable odds will find a way to victory. Nemeses will be defeated. And should a hero die, they are likely to be re-born. In some sense, to be a hero is to be immortal. Even extraordinary humans such as Bruce Wayne (Batman), find their identities preserved for all time by turning the secret hero’s mask into a mantle to be bequeathed on worthy successors. One widespread trope has been much ignored by comic fans and scholars–the journey to the afterlife. Like the katabasis or descent into the Underworld of Orpheus, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Theseus, and dozens of other mythical figures, modern comic book superheroes routinely journey to heaven, hell, and other landscapes of the afterlife.

A. David Lewis, comic books are presented as an irreplaceable cultural medium for engaging with issues of mortality, identity, subjectivity, and cosmology. In the pages of comic books, Lewis explains, the popular elements of the journey to the afterlife become surfaces upon which can be written a kind of “special reality” whose artificiality makes it possible for readers (and writers) to have discussions about serious issues but never fully commit to the vision of the comic books. For Lewis, that so many different versions of this journey exist but have yet to be readily acknowledged speaks to the major tensions in western culture. One central concern, he maintains, is the unspoken effort to preserve models of self that are unified. “We don’t want see our selves as multiples,” says Lewis. We want to be unified, “whole individuals.” And yet recent work on healthy multiplicity by Helene T. Russell and J. Hills Miller suggests that by accepting “people [as] constructed by many selves” we can further the work of religious pluralism and enhance inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue.

comicFor those who may still see comic books as unworthy material for serious scholarship, A. David Lewis’ recent work (2014’s American Comics, Literary Theory and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife or his 2010 co-edited collection Graven Images) should be a warning to re-think your position. With an overwhelming slate of comic book driven television series (Walking Dead, Gotham, Flash, Green Arrow) and a rising tide of superhero films and franchises (X-Men, Fantastic Four, and the Avengers), there has never been a more essential time to recognize the cultural merits of comic books and seek out their academic rewards.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with A. David Lewis on “Religion and Comic Books“, and also recent interviews with Carole Cusack on “Religion and Cultural Production” and Alana Vincent on “Religion and Literature“. 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.com, orAmazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying comic books, pizza cutters, incense sticks and other cultural products.