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Prayer, Pretense, and Personification: How God becomes real

Over one hundred years ago, William James dedicated an entire chapter in The Varieties of Religious Experience to “The Reality of the Unseen”. When we typically imagine religion, we imagine that religion has to do with something perceivable, yet paradoxically something that we cannot see, taste, smell, or touch. James characterized the relationship of the individual psyche and belief in the supernatural realm as “…if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call ‘something there’…” (1985, p. 55 [emphasis in original]).

While the impulse to believe may be there, one’s relationship to this unseen realm is not easy to cultivate and maintain. Our evolved psychology was not ‘built’ with the intuition that, even though we have minds, there is an unseen – ultimate mind – that has access to our own and shares thoughts with us (Boyer, 2013). Such ideas require cultural scaffolding, and are not easily sustained in the absence of social systems. Although often ignored, “all our ethnography and history suggests that there is learning involved in the practice of religion…” (Luhrmann, 2013, p. 147). How does one learn to experience God as really real?

In her interview with Thomas Coleman, psychological-anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann discusses her multiyear ethnography of American evangelicals where she sought to understand how some of these individuals come to have close, personal, intimate relationships with God (Luhrmann, 2012). She begins by providing the background into her extensive research on the Vineyard Church movement, where she attended sermons, house groups, prayer groups, and many other opportunities to understand evangelicals, specifically, how God becomes real for them. Luhrmann details the rise of evangelicals in the 60’s and 70’s, and how anthropological work can be informed by evolutionary psychology. This serves as a framework to understand the unique training processes that teach an individual that their mind is not only open to their own thoughts, but God’s as well. Luhrmann goes beyond a purely explanatory endeavor and is interested in understanding the processes that lead some to see God as “a person among people”. One aspect of this learning process, she found, involves pretense and instructs the individual to treat God as an imaginary friend, but with one caveat – God (to them) is real and imaginary friends are not.

group_prayer

Furthermore, while imagining God, Luhrmann uncovered that the individual is often instructed to treat God as they would another person, like a close friend you tell your secrets to. This helps to cultivate an understanding and experience of God that is highly anthropomorphic and cognitively pleasing, rather than thinking of God as Aristotle’s “unmoved mover”, who would hardly be interested in your innermost thoughts. In closing, she details some of the prayer exercises that further help individuals to develop this personal sense of divine presence and answers an RSP listener’s question about the possibility of gender differences in experiencing the divine.

You can visit Dr. Luhrmann’s website to find out more about her work and research at: http://luhrmann.net/

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

Citations

Now We Know Religion is Not Disappearing

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

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

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

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Spageti

 

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

Guthrie’s Anthropomorphism Helped Bring Religious Studies into the Modern Academic Age

Without theories such as that presented by Prof. Guthrie, particularly in his book Faces in the Clouds (1993), the current move towards an empirical study of religious beliefs and behaviors would likely have never taken root in anthropology and religious studies. (Strong claim warning!) Without moving these disciplines into an arena where their claims are subject to falsification, they would not be able to participate in modern scholarship and would have made little progress since their founding in the 19th century.[1]

It was during my time as an undergraduate student at the picture Admittedly, my first reaction to the theory was something along the lines of “so what, that’s fairly obvious”. That is until I started to supplement Guthrie’s ideas with those of Pascal Boyer (2001), in particular, his findings that “minimally counterintuitive” concepts (i.e. those concepts that violate our expectations of what should be) are more likely to be remembered. These two points combined go a long way toward explaining why religious concepts such as gods, spirits, ancestors, etc. are created and persist throughout human populations. It was at this point that I started to understand the elegance and true theoretical power of what Guthrie was moving towards: that due to the similarities of the human brain, which is an organ that functions similarly in humans cross-culturally, the mind is likely to produce patterns of belief and behavior in accordance with that functioning. Furthermore, this can be used as a foundation for creating an empirically viable cross-cultural study of contemporary and historical religious movements.

Shortly after that, I became very interested in a phenomena common to new religious movements: the deification of their leader as a god or sole proprietor of the divine. This phenomena (also known as apotheosis) can be observed in the leaders of many NRMs from Jim Jones of the People’s Temple/Jonestown (see Layton, 1999; Nelson, 2006; Reiterman, 1982), to Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate (see DiAngelo, 2007), to David Koresh of the Branch Davidians (see Newport, 2006; Tabor & Gallagher, 1997), to the Rev. Moon of the Unification Church (see Barker, 1984). This odd pattern held to many other religious groups in other cultures and historical periods (Lane, 2012); e.g. Early Christianity, Greco-Roman religion, many African initiated churches, and also NRMs in Asia such as Aum Shinrikyo. These patterns may be contextually unique, but similarities emerge when they are viewed at the level of human cognition, and Guthrie’s work largely set the framework for such an approach. After all, how can one have a scientific understanding of New Age religions (Lane, 2013a) or UFO cults (Lane, 2013b) without understanding the spirits, ‘energies’, UFOs, and extraterrestrials that inhabit those religious worlds? Guthrie provided, for the first time, a theoretical basis for such a research project.

Guthrie’s work is—in the religious studies world—standing on the shoulders of giants as he himself notes that the patterns that he describes are similar to those noticed by Spinoza, Hume, Tylor, and others from the fields of anthropology, philosophy, and religious studies. Guthrie’s ultimate contribution is situating this already-observed pattern within an empirically viable theoretical paradigm: that of evolutionary psychology. His work—as he mentions—was even the theoretical motivation for the Hyperactive (or ‘Hypersensitive’) Agency Detection Device (HADD); a cognitive mechanism now well known to the cognitive science of religion (see Barrett, 2004).

Guthrie’s work opens a “Pandora’s Box” to the scholar and student of religion. Not only does it act as a “gateway drug” for the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), it calls those interested in religion to begin to look at their subject through a different lens, one that is constrained by the empirical findings of psychology. Although “cognitive science” is more of an umbrella term that encompasses a dedication to understanding “information processing” generally and involves the fields of neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, computer science, and even history, CSR has mostly focused its efforts on empirical findings in psychology or utilizing the cognitive findings as an interpretive framework oftentimes focusing ultimately on semiotics or phenomenology. Ultimately, this rests shamelessly on theoretical commitments of epistemological positivism and scientific reduction, that is to say, the idea that we can actually know something and that observable phenomena can largely be reduced to their constituent parts (and that these parts can in turn act as objects of study). This is where you realize that inside of “Pandora’s Box” is Alice’s “rabbit hole”: if you reduce “religion”—as an evolutionary “spandrel” (a by-product that exists due to human evolution, but is not itself an adaptation)—can you reduce the cognitive mechanisms of your “spandrel” to the neuronal firings and neuro-transmitters of the brain? Can those interactions be reduced to the chemical reactions that govern the laws of biology? In one sense, these questions are easily answered with a practical statement: “no, we have neither the knowledge nor power (nor funding) to answer these questions in the foreseeable future”.

But, is there another answer to the overly-reductionist[2] tendencies of the empirical study of religion? I argue that there is. Guthrie places his theory solidly in the realm of evolutionary psychology. In the field of evolutionary studies, there are very strange things happening. For instance, the acceptance of complex and dynamic systems as commonplace often destroys the preconceived supremacy of linear thinking that is so ubiquitous in psychology. The idea that epigenetics is a very real force and that our experiences within our lifetime might affect the lives of our offspring, even to the genetic level, complicates the reductionist approach to anything operating within evolutionary studies.

Guthrie’s work, within an evolutionary approach, shows this point quite elegantly. The idea that we “anthropomorphize” signals in our environment involves three things: the raw input signal from the environment; the mental mechanisms that change the input signal (i.e. our “thinking” about the stimulus); and an output signal (such as the anthropomorphized representation in the mind). With this sort of system (operating in every human brain in a social group), even if the mechanism of perception were the same in each and every human brain (i.e. perfectly symmetrical), the fact that we experience different perceptions would allow for nearly infinite complexity by the time the cognitive system produces some output. This could be demonstrated by simply viewing something at a different angle, one which creates a face and one which doesn’t, as the “Martian face” on the cover of Guthrie’s book so brilliantly demonstrates (when light hits the mountain at a certain angle it looks like a face, but from other angles it does not).

This near-chaotic complexity may seem daunting, and rightly so, but scholars have already proposed theories of religious ritual systems that are compatible with both the broad theoretical claims of Guthrie (and directly utilize his work) but are also flexible enough to make predictions about the contextualized cultural forms that are observed in the historical, ethnographic, and now empirical records. While they have been viewed as competing but largely compatible theories, the work of Whitehouse on the theory of Divergent Modes of Religiosity (2000, 2002, 2004) and that of E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley on ritual competence theory (Lawson & McCauley, 1990; McCauley & Lawson, 2002) both present structured arguments for the description and analysis of religious ritual systems that are amenable to the complexities of evolutionary perspectives (Atkinson & Whitehouse, 2011; Lane, 2011; McCauley & Lawson, 2002; Turchin, Whitehouse, Francois, Slingerland, & Collard, 2012).

In conclusion, Guthrie’s work was critical to ushering in a new period of study for scholars of religion; one which embraces both the abstract similarities and patterns noticed by early scholars such as Eliade (1959) and Durkhiem (1912) as well as the contextualized complexity so staunchly defended by cultural anthropologists. Guthrie’s work is situated between the two, in a tradition joined by scholars looking to test predictions with data first popularized by Stark & Bainbridge’s A Theory of Religion (1996) and being moved forward by research institutes such as the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology and LEVYNA at Masaryk University, which push us into a brave new scientific world of supercomputers, big data, and a real understanding of the mind and what makes us human. It is this middle ground that also seems to be exciting droves of students to again take up the social sciences but in a way that is just as social as ever, but more scientific than its founders could have imagined.

References

Atkinson, Q. D., & Whitehouse, H. (2011). The cultural morphospace of ritual form. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(1), 50–62. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.09.002

Barker, E. (1984). The Making of a “Moonie”: Choice or Brainwashing. Oxford & New York: Blackwell Publishers.

Barrett, J. L. (2004). Why would anyone believe in God? Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

DiAngelo, R. (2007). Beyond Human Mind: The Soul Evolution of Heaven’s Gate. Beverly Hills, CA: Rio DiAngelo.

Durkheim, E. (1912). The elementary forms of religious life. (C. Cosman & M. Cladis, Eds.) (2001 Oxfor.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eliade, M. (1959). The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion (1987 Editi.). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lane, J. E. (2011). Ordo ab Chao: Ritual Competence Theory as a Cognitive Model for the Simulation of Religious Sociality. In Society for Complex Systems in Cognitive Science. Boston, MA.

Lane, J. E. (2012). Ritual Schism, Instability, and Form: Agency and Its Effect on New and Schismatic Religious Movements. Saarbrücken: LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing.

Lane, J. E. (2013a). New Age Religions. In Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Springer. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4020-8265-8_1497

Lane, J. E. (2013b). UFO Cults. In Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Springer. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4020-8265-8_1498

Lawson, E. T., & McCauley, R. N. (1990). Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Layton, D. (1999). Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple. New York: Anchor Books.

McCauley, R. N., & Lawson, E. T. (2002). Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Nelson, S. (2006). Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People’s Temple. United States of America: Public Broadcasting Station.

Newport, K. G. C. (2006). The Branch Davidians of Waco: The History and Beliefs of an Apocalyptic Sect. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reiterman, T. (1982). Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: Dutton.

Stark, R., & Bainbridge, W. S. (1996). A Theory of Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Tabor, J. D., & Gallagher, E. (1997). Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. Berkeley: University of Calafornia Press.

Turchin, P., Whitehouse, H., Francois, P., Slingerland, E., & Collard, M. (2012). A Historical Database of Sociocultural Evolution. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, 3(2), 271–293. Retrieved from http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/2v8119hf

Whitehouse, H. (2000). Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whitehouse, H. (2002). Modes of Religiosity: Towards a Cognitive Explanation of the Socioloplitical Dynamics of Religion. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 14, 293–315.

Whitehouse, H. (2004). Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

 

 


[1] Now that you’ve read the strong claim, a point of clarification: this is not to say that religious studies without any empirical focus is not useful. To the contrary, many of the theories produced by the history and philosophy of religions are very useful and have informed the empirical approach. I would suggest that the empirical and traditional forms of religious studies work together and that each is weaker without the other.

[2] I say “overly” because researchers who do brilliant scientific work might overlook how their findings contribute to an understanding of “religion” or reduce so far down that it doesn’t address anything about “religion” any more than it addresses any other human social phenomena.

Christmas Special 2013 – Nul Point

Over the past few weeks, many of you will have been under the impression that an important event is just around the corner. Greeting cards have been sent. Food has been stockpiled. Music rehearsed… It’s clearly that time of year again. Which can mean only one thing: the RSP has been on to go for two years – can you believe this?

Nul Point Contestants

Nul Point Contestants George Chryssides, Jim Cox, Stephen Gregg, Suzanne Owen, Hanna Lehtinen, Teemu Taira, Jonathan Tuckett and David Wilson.

To celebrate, we couldn’t resist bringing you another Christmas special [other (non-)religious festivals are available]. Following on from last year’s hilarious Only Sixty Seconds, we brought together last year’s winner (Dr David Wilson), and last year’s ‘most entertaining loser’ (Jonathan Tuckett), with six other contestants, to fight for the coveted RSP Christmas trophy.

The game?

Nul Point! (any resemblance to a popular BBC television programme hosted by Alexander Armstrong is entirely coincidental). Before the show, we gave 64 of the RSP listeners 100 seconds to answer a variety of questions. The aim of the game for contestants is to correctly find the answer which the least percentage of these people answered correctly. Simples.

The contestants?

Professor George Chryssides, Professor James Cox, Dr Stephen Gregg, Hanna Lehtinen, Dr Suzanne Owen, Dr Teemu Taira, Jonathan Tuckett, and Dr David Wilson

The venue?

Liverpool Hope University, at the BASR/EASR/IAHR Conference in September 2013, with a special live studio audience.

What is the least well known book of the Bible? How many people in the UK listed their ‘religion’ as ‘Jedi Knight’ on the UK 2011 Census? What is Professor Jim Cox’s drink of choice? To find out, you need do nothing more than hit ‘Play’ and enjoy this forty minutes of pure, unadulterated, top quality Religious Studies entertainment. Remember to listen to the end for some amusing outtakes.

You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive it weekly, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost as you start to enact your New Year’s resolutions – whatever they may be.

There was a picture round as part of the game show – you can view these pictures here. Interested in seeing a picture of the winner being presented with their trophy? Click here.

Non-denominational seasonal greetings to all our listeners, and best wishes for 2014. We’ll be back in January – bigger and better than ever. Many thanks to everyone who took part in this recording – the contestants, the hosts, and the studio audience. Thanks to the BASR/EASR/IAHR for facilitating this recording and adding it to the official conference schedule. Thanks to the technical team at Liverpool Hope University for the audio recording, and to the inestimable David Robertson for technical wizardry on the night, and in pulling the episode together. Thanks to those listeners and fans who helped out by providing the much-needed material for the game show. And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, thanks for listening.

Santo Daime

My first experience of Santo Daime occurred in 2005 during research for a book on the non-mainstream religious scene in Brazil (A. Dawson, 2007). Pretty much unprepared for the sensory feast of a Santo Daime ritual, I was visually struck by the colourful ‘uniforms’ and brightly decorated ceremonial space. The strongly rhythmical and fervently sung ‘hymns’ also made an impact, as did the powerful smell and bitter taste of the religious sacrament which practitioners call ‘Daime’. A psychoactive beverage more commonly known as ‘ayahuasca’, the sacrament of Daime and its psychotropic effects further added to the intense sensory stimulation which abides as an enduring memory of my earliest encounter with Santo Daime. Staged within the mountainous terrain of a national park hundreds of miles north of São Paulo, the ritual contents and format originally forged in the Amazon region of north-west Brazil did not seem particularly out of place. However, unlike the poor, mixed-race community which first elaborated Santo Daime as part of its semi-rural subsistence lifestyle, the ritual participants with whom I was celebrating were overwhelmingly drawn from Brazil’s predominantly white urban middle class. Whereas the uniforms, songs and sacrament were very much of the Amazon region, those wearing, singing and consuming the ceremonial accoutrements of Santo Daime certainly were not. By no means discordant, the juxtaposition of Amazonian origins and urban-professional appropriation nevertheless piqued my academic interest. (Dawson 2013, 1)

Upon receiving an email notification through the BASR mailing list about Andrew Dawson’s recently published monograph, Santo Daime: A New World Religion, the RSP’s academic interest was certainly piqued. Thus, towards the end of May 2013, Chris made the arduous journey from his office at one end of B Floor, County South, Lancaster University, to Dr Dawson’s at the other, to discuss this fascinating and engaging book, Santo Daime in general, the various ethical problems associated with conducting this kind of field research, the intentionally multifaceted subtitle ‘New World Religion’, and much more.

This interview marks the beginning of a short series of podcasts from the RSP on Religion, Migration and Diaspora, continuing next week with Mitra Barua speaking to Chris Silver about immigrant Buddhism in the West, and ending in two weeks time with Monika Salzbrunn speaking to Hanna Lehtinen about Religion, Migration and Diaspora.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc. Remember… Christmas is on the way!

Religion and Cultural Production

Cusack In the second of our podcasts since our summer ‘break’ we are delighted to welcome back Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney, who has previously appeared on the RSP speaking on Invented Religions, and offering advice in our roundtable discussions on building an academic career, and academic publishing. In this interview with Chris, recorded in July in Edinburgh, Carole provides a broad introduction and overview of the study of religion and cultural production, making particular reference to her recent publication, Alex Norman, and featuring chapters from many of our contributors, including our own David Robertson.

In the introduction to their volume, Cusack and Norman write:

It is a truth generally acknowledged that religions have been the earliest and perhaps the chief progenitors of cultural products in human societies. Mesopotamian urban centres developed from large temple complexes, Greek drama emerged from religious festivals dedicated to deities including Dionysos and Athena, and in more recent times Christianity has inspired musical masterpieces including the ‘St Matthew Passion’ by the Lutheran Johann Sebastian Bach (1686-1750), the motets of the Catholic William Byrd (1540-1023), and the striking paintings of the Counter-Reformation Spaniards Ribera, Zurbaran, and Murillo in the seventeenth century (Stoichita 1995). Nor can we forget the cinematic renderings of biblical story in such works as William Wyler’s epic Ben Hur (1959) starring Charlton Heston, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s (1922-1975) Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (1964), or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). The Indian religious tradition contributes the magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples of Angkor (Cambodia), and the exquisite Chola bronze statues, and the many extraordinary renditions of the India epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata onto the small and large screens. Likewise, Islam too has generated the sophisticated Timurid illustrated manuscripts of Firdausi’s Shahnama, the paintings of the various Rajput kingdoms, and from Sufi traditions the devotional qawwali music. Architecturally, perhaps the most obvious cultural products of Islam for those in the West has been the Islamic architecture of Spain such as the Alhambra and the Great Mosque or Cordoba, both now sitting as beautiful cultural legacies (Lapunzina 2005). Many more examples could be adduced, including forms of dance, systems of education, theories of government, special diets, and modes of costume and fashion.

Clearly there is no shortage of data for scholars wishing to delve into this broad topic. But what do we actually mean by ‘cultural product’? How can we claim that ‘religion’ is producing these things in any meaningful way? What can we ascertain about a ‘religion’ from its cultural products? And what makes this approach different from that of Material Religion? This broad-ranging interview tackles such questions, and more, via examples as diverse as religious celebrity, Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum, and Sacred Trees and finishes by addressing whether or not the ‘secular’ university – and, in turn, Religious Studies – can be seen as a cultural product of a particular form of Christianity.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc.

James R. Lewis

Who joins New Religious Movements?

James R. Lewis was kind enough to have a chat with us at the 2012 EASR conference in Stockholm despite having a sore throat due to a cold. Lewis has been involved in research on new religious movements (NRMs) since the early late 1980s and has both written and edited extensively on the subject. In this episode of the Religious Studies Project, Lewis shares some of his views on the study of NRMs. It seems, claims Lewis, that our current generalizations about who joins such movements is based on outdated statistics. It seems no longer to be the case that it is primarily young people who join NMRs, rather joiners’ age has increased during recent decades. This demonstrates why we need more and better quantitative data. James and Knut also talk a bit about the situation in Norway when it comes to research on NRMs.

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

James R. Lewis

James R. Lewis is a associate professor of religious studies at the University of Tromsø. Among Lewis’ latest titles are the monographs Children of Jesus and Mary: The Order of Christ Sophia (2009) and the forthcoming Embracing the Darkness: Modern Satanism (with Asbjørn Dyrendal & Jesper A. Petersen) and Routledge Introduction to New Religious Movements. Among his edited collections are Violence and New Religious Movements (2011) and Handbook of Religious and the Authority of Science (2010, with Olav Hammer). Lewis is also editor of Brill’s Handbooks on Contemporary Religion series. He co-founded the International Society for the Study of New Religions. The full publication list can be found here.

Names, books and other things mentioned in the podcast:

Prophecy and American Millennialism

RastafarI is itself a millennial movement with the belief that Haile Selassie I is the God Liberator, an avatar returned to restore True Salvation for the subaltern people of African lineage. It is also a revolutionary movement which wants to change the lot of Africans…

J. Gordon Melton: Prophecy and American Millennialism

By Marzia A. Coltri, University of Birmingham, UK

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with J. Gordon Melton on American Millennialism (15 October 2012).

J. Gorton Melton is a leading academic specialist on new religious movements, a scholar of occultists, Scientologists, Rosicrucianists, Neopagans, Branch Davidians, Theosophists, Reiki groups, UFO, Hare Krishnas, New Age  and vampires, who has spent his academic career investigating and classifying new religious groups throughout the world. He is founder of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, and in an interview at the 2012 annual meeting of INFORM in London he discussed Millennial movements in America, with particular stress on three typologies of movements that await the divine intervention of the Son of God on Earth. This eschatological conjecture in Christianity teaches and disseminates the ‘double resurrection’ of Jesus Christ (“the Messiah is coming again’) and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth as the supreme signs of salvation and liberation from oppression and tribulation. As Melton observes, many new religious groups in the second half of the 20th century were small in size and had a lack of organizational structure. These movements are, he says, increasing rapidly, changing denominations and metaphysical features, and are waiting a New Era.

The impact of the prophet, with her/his charisma, which is for Weber ‘a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which she/he is set apart from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities’[1], is felt when s/he founds her/his own ‘new religious movement’, and her/his ideas and programme lead the members of the group. In the case of the RastafarI movement, for example, Marcus Garvey is one proponent of Pan-African nationalism and a particularly charismatic voice in the development of the movement.  Through the prophetic teachings of Garvey concerning the coronation of the God-King from Ethiopia (Haile Selassie I), RastafarI develops its belief in the Coming of the Second Messiah to the Earth to save the subaltern people of the African Diaspora and create a new kingdom (the Promised Land, Ethiopia). RastafarI is itself a millennial movement with the belief that Haile Selassie I is the God Liberator, an avatar returned to restore True Salvation for the subaltern people of African lineage. It is also a revolutionary movement which wants to change the lot of Africans and liberate them from the chains of corrupt, evil and sinful Babylon in order to create a new golden age in ‘the millennium kingdom’ of Ethiopia.

Millenarian thought is the belief that after the end of this world a new, fertile and harmonious world will appear. Such a conviction is referred to the term Millennium which is taken from the Apocalypse of John and the Book of Revelation. Millennialisms are expecting either a collective earthly salvation by supernatural agencies or a heavenly salvation. However, as we know, millenarian movements often appear in periods of crisis and act as expressions of frustration, vulnerability and the desire to escape. With their charismatic personalities, millenarianists believe in an earthly Golden Age but have a pessimistic view of the future.  They can be classified as catastrophic (the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) and progressive millennial movements (the New Agers and the Theosophical movement). The progressive millennial thought has a positive view of the collective growth of society in harmony with the divine (Gods or Angels). Both the progressive and catastrophic millennial movements reflect dramatic episodes of failure and violence, awaiting a radical transit to salvation. They may be violent revolutionaries whose aim is to eradicate the ‘old’ to create the ‘new’. What is common in Millenarian movements is that they are exultant about the predictions of a New Era.

By way of conclusion, what happens in various millenarian movements is directly connected to the economic, religious, sexual and racial power which puts their adherents in a marginal position in relation to the dominant society. Therefore it is not clear how these forces operate within society due to extreme variations in the movements themselves, especially when the prophets die, which  may cause trauma (see the recent death of the Korean Revd. Sun Myung Moon, founder and charismatic leader of the Unification Church). Many of them are expecting that world will be transformed by divine interventions through prophecies in order to eliminate suffering and to offer collective salvation.

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

About the Author:

Marzia Coltri was born in Verona, Italy and completed a BA in Philosophy with a thesis on the liberal and scientific thought of Karl Popper. After finishing her MA in Philosophical Counselling, she came to England in 2007 to embark on research on minority ethnic religious groups. She recently received her PhD in African and Caribbean religions (the RastafarI movement and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church) in the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham (UK). She is currently part-time visiting lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. Her research focuses on gender studies, post-colonialism and NRMs. She has presented several papers in the UK and abroad, three of which are published in the proceedings of the CESNUR conference. One of her recent articles ‘The Challenge of the Queen of Sheba: The Hidden Matriarchy in the Ancient East’ has also been published in the History of the Ancient World website.

Bibliography:

Melton, J. Gordon. ‘The counter-cult monitoring movement in historical perspective’ in Challenging Religion: Essays in Honour of Eileen Barker, James A. Beckford and James T. Richardson, eds. (London: Routledge, 2003)

Bromley, David and Melton, J. Gordon, eds., Cults, Religion and Violence, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge: 2003)

Melton, J. Gordon. Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, ABC-Clio (2002)

Melton, J. Gordon. Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions, Thomson Gale; 8th edition (2009),

Miller, Timothy. When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements. ed., Intr. by J. Gordon Melton.  State University of New York Press (Albany, USA: 1991)

Useful links:

http://www.cesnur.org/testi/melton_speak.htmp

http://www.cesnur.org/2010/to-coltri.htm

 


[1] Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, tr. by Ephraim Fischoff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953), 52.

Ends and Beginnings: A Reflection on the 2012 EASR Conference

Ends and Beginnings: A Reflection on the 2012 EASR Conference

By Venetia Robertson, University of Sydney

A Religious Studies Project Conference Report, published on 27 September 2012. European Association for the Study of Religions – 23-26 August 2012 – Stockholm, Sweden

Some months ago, I was encouraged by my supervisor, Jay Johnston, to submit abstracts to the 2012 EASR and the 1st International Conference on Contemporary Esotericism. Much to my delight, I ended up attending and presenting at both of these amazing events in August. I would like to share with you some of my experiences from this intense, week-long symposium.

EASR 2012 – Ends and Beginnings

Venetia was really proud of that name-tag

To open the 2012 conference for the European Association for the Study of Religions (in conjunction with the International Association for the History of Religion) at Södetörn University, Stockholm, Ingvild Sælid Gilhus tackled the theme of ‘Ends and Beginnings’ by talking about the ‘founding fathers’ of our discipline. As we mulled over Müller and theorised Freud (what were their motivations? Where did they locate the origins of religion?) the inevitable question that kept repeating in my mind was, ‘where are the founding mothers?’ Mary Douglas, Gilhus added, could be considered a founding mother for sure, but this concession does little to address the white male dominance of the humanities in general. But as I looked around the packed auditorium at the sea of heads belonging to people of all genders, all ages, all stages of their careers, I felt some comfort. In my (albeit limited) experience of international conferences, I have been frequently mislabeled as someone’s wife or daughter, rather than a scholar in my own right, or, for that matter, a presenter intending to deliver a paper. In Stockholm for a solid week of conferencing, I made it my aim never to be mislabeled, and in this atmosphere of diversity coupled with solidarity, I don’t think at any point I was.

If I had to choose I would say my favourite thing about these conferences was seeing young and vibrant postgraduate students presenting their craft. I was continuously impressed and excited by the high quality scholarship, ideas, and conversations presented and stimulated by my peers. This year’s EASR delivered an incredibly extensive program. Four days with as many as twelve parallel sessions per session, this conference featured hundreds of speakers. Topics ranged from the Arab Spring to apocalypticism, ecology to esotericism, Pureland to popular culture, and almost everything in between. Of course this leads to the problems that plague all good conferences – one cannot get to see everything they would like to, if speakers drop out and the order is changed scheduling can be even more complicated, etc. Some rooms saw overwhelming popularity – not an inch of space could be spared for latecomers hoping to see Jörg Rüpke talk about death in lived religion! Luckily for me, my session saw no lack of seats. I was speaking in the aula, the massive main hall set aside for keynotes and network sessions.

Venetia delivering her presentation

I spoke, alongside Manon Hedenborg White (Stockholm University) and Sara Duppils (Åbo Akademi) as part of the Graham Harvey and Donald Wiebe), but I was pleased to see about thirty attendees making that vast space seem a little less empty. Actually, the session was very enjoyable as we three (all still students) presented on vastly different topics – Manon on gender in Wicca, Sara on ‘neo-spiritism’ and paranormal beliefs online, and I on Therianthropy and animal-human identity. The response from the audience was brilliant, with intelligent and genuinely engaged questions, suggestions, and comments. This level of interest was followed up with the exchanging of emails, soliciting of articles, and promises to publish forthwith! Nothing is so inspiring as getting the opportunity to pull your head of the proverbial arse of thesis-land to experience an international community of your colleagues understanding and encouraging your seemingly obscure area of interest.

It was disappointing to miss hearing from speakers who pulled out (Henrik Bogdan, Oliver Krüger) and even more frustrating to fail to catch the brief window given to others. Nonetheless, I saw some provocative and valuable papers. For the sake of convenience, I restricted myself to sessions that directly related to my research interests. This is always a gamble, and can be a little monotonous, but there were certainly some highlights. It was really enjoyable to see Doug Ezzy of the University of Tasmania present on a katabatic ritual performed by Australian neo-Pagans. His personable yet informative delivery, supported by his own photographs of the event, made this talk particularly appealing. Jonas Otterbeck of Lund University gave a very interesting paper on masculinity in the genre of ‘Halal pop.’ Franz Höllinger of the University of Graz presented some intriguing statistics on the political and social attitudes of New Agers in Austria, and Peter Åkerbäck of Stockholm University provided insights into the changing reactions toward ‘cults’ in Sweden by government bodies and ‘cult awareness’ groups. On the second day, the impeccably dressed Kocku von Stuckrad of the University of Gronigen delivered an astute key note that highlighted the imbrication of science and religion, and specifically, the ‘scientification’ of religion, and the ‘religionism’ of science. The overlapping of these two magisteria (to misquote Steven Jay Gould) is a topic eye-opening in its relevance and insidiousness in our field of work.

The impeccably dressed Kocku von Stuckrad

Student speakers also proffered papers that spoke to their burgeoning expertise and laudable research efforts. Sara Duppils and Minja Blom (University of Helsinki) both presented findings from their online research of discussion forums (a still woefully under utilized source pool), Manon Hedenborg White discussed information gathered from her own fieldwork and interviews with British Wiccans, Christian Greer (University of Amsterdam) exhibited his collection of rare and arcane Discordian primary materials, and Kristian Pettersson (Uppsala University) in his talk on entheogens and the spiritual experience, submitted his theory of ‘altered states of perception’ to challenge the more commonly and perhaps mistakenly used phrase ‘altered states of consciousness.’ On the New Religious Movements front, Rasa Pranskeviciute (Vytautas Magnus University) introduced me to two environmentally-minded NRMs that have emerged in the post-Soviet world, the Anastasians and the Vissarionites, while the Raëlians got a reappraisal from Erik Östling (Stockholm University) as a group that relies not only on the Bible, but several works of science fiction in constructing their UFOlogical theology. Many of the papers I saw dealt with the meeting of spirituality and popular culture, and one theme that I felt was overlooked was the paradigm shift involved in making fictional texts sacred texts – a more nuanced understanding of changing attitudes towards the boundaries of fantasy and reality was needed.

Round table on Wouter Hanegraaff’s new “Esotericism in the Academy” with O. Hammer, M. Pasi, M. Stausberg

While some student papers were less polished or analytically sophisticated than those of more established scholars, I think it is commendable that conferences like the EASR extend the opportunity for such a number of postgrads (and even the occasional undergrad) to contribute their scholarship to the broader academic community. The fact that so many of the sessions I chose to attend consisted, unbeknownst to me initially, of mostly student presenters strongly suggests that it is a younger generation of scholars that are investigating the ‘alternative’ and ‘fringe’ currents of spirituality which are, ironically, becoming more and more visible, mainstreamed, and imperative to the study of modern religion. In short, these students have their finger on the pulse, and it is events like international conferences that allow the rest of the academic world to learn from these fresh and innovative perspectives.

Of course conferences offer the opportunity for social as well as professional networking (facilitated somewhat by free, room-temperature glasses of box wine). Personal highlights here include discovering that Wouter Hanegraaff’s spirit animal is the Owl, being asked to contribute a paper to Pomegranate, and being invited to speak at the 2013 ISSR Conference in Turku. Ending up at Medusa Bar for a pint and a bit of a headbang with some of the pretty young things wasn’t a bad end to an evening either. But, after four intense days of stimulating conversation, there was little time to rest before it all had to pick up again at the Contemporary Esotericism conference at Stockholm University!

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

About the Author:

Venetia Robertson is a PhD candidate, tutor, and research assistant at the University of Sydney in the department of Studies in Religion. Her thesis explores themes of animal-human identity, shape-shifting, popular oc/culture, and myth-making. Forthcoming publications include an article that delves into her thesis topic by discussing the online Therianthropy community and non-human ontology, and an article that offers an explication of masculinity, fandom, and the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic cartoon series. She is currently co-editing an issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion, and will be contributing a paper that looks at the intersections of posthumanism, animality, and eschatology.

 

What should we do with the study of new religions?

 

In the interview with Professor Eileen Barker, three broad themes are brought up. First, the definitions of ’new religious movement’ and ’cult’ are given a brief consideration. After this, Barker introduces the Inform network and its activities in distributing information and making the results of scientific research concerning new religious movements available to society at large. Finally, the future of the study of new religious movements as well as its contribution to the wider field of the study of religion is considered. In this text, I will focus mainly on the second theme: how the results of scientific research are put in practical use by Inform, and what kind of questions this brings up. Along with the interview, I make use of an article Barker has written on the same subject, What should we do about the cults?

The Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, or Inform for short, was founded by Eileen Barker herself in 1988. Behind the founding of the organization lies her observation that there was (and there still is) quite a lot of misinformation, rumours and hearsay about the new religious movements, or ‘cults’, as they often are labelled, and that this confusion created a lot of misunderstanding and ”unnecessary suffering”, as Barker herself puts it. This suspicion is present in the way the term ‘cult’ in itself carries connotations of something deviant, evil and criminal. Neutral information was not easy to find, since the movements themselves tended to offer a very bright picture, whereas the information produced by opposing parties, such as anti-cult movements, emphasized the negative sides. In addition, media contributed to the discussion by picking up only the extreme examples.

In a situation like this, providing scientific, as-neutral-and-objective-knowledge-as-possible about new religious movements is a reasonable thing to do. And this is what Inform is all about. The network collects, assesses and distributes balanced, objective-as-possible information about new religious and spiritual movements. This is done through consultation and publications as well as connecting people with relevant experts, arranging seminars, workshops and conferences. Their services are being used by very different parties, from government officials to convert´s conserned relatives.

Aside from just distributing information about new religious movements, Inform also provides venues for different interested parties to meet and exchange views. Involving the religious movements themselves, as well as their former members and cult-watch movements in seminars, for example, may help the parties to overcome some suspicions and misunderstandings.

Inform is definitely an inspiring example of how the work of scholars of religion can be put into practical use. Academics are often accused of living in their own little worlds, their heads full of fuzzy terminology and grand theories, and forgetting all about the real, messy world around them. And there just might be a grain of truth in that accusation. Not long ago, I read an article written by Tiina Raevaara, currently an independent Author and a blogger on Suomen Kuvalehti website. She brings up the fact that even though the ‘third task’ of universities (next to research and teaching) is to serve and benefit the society, the academics are often not willing to come out in the public to talk about their research, let alone voice their opinions. And while so few academics wish to do this, the ones who do are often frowned upon by the academic community. Raevaara claims in her blog entry, that researchers should get more guidance in how to interact with larger public, and encouraged to do so.

I do agree that universities and scientific community in general are an important part of the society, and should interact with it in a constructive way. This is not unproblematic, of course. Fear of losing one’s perspective lingers; fear of getting too involved. Who of us has not been warned about going native? Even though the very possibility of strict objectivity has been disputed long time ago, distance is still seen as vital for maintaining a proper scientific attitude and conducting valid research – as objective as possible. And even though an individual scholar might not lose her or his perspective, so to say, this might still happen in the eyes of the public. Especially in debates of great political weight, (social) scientists´ commitments and ideological backgrounds are called into question– even if these would not have anything to do with the results of a scientific research itself. As Barker mentions in the interview, she has received her share of such suspicion and accusations.

Inform is a good example of a contact spot between academia and the society at large. While holding up the ideals and methods of social sciences, the network benefits the public: government officials, media, religious groups, individual members of civil society, and more. They do this by offering what the scholarly community can offer: information and opportunities for open discussion. Both are equally important. People with different worldviews, religious and otherwise, must be able to deal with each other, so that society holds together. For this kind of interaction and negotiation to take place, it is important to have arenas where people can learn from one another and at least avoid conflicts rooted in simple misunderstandings.

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

 

References:

Barker, Eileen 2006: What should we do about the cults?  Policies, perspective and the perspective of Inform. Published in Pauline Côté and Jeremy Grunn (eds) 2006: The New Religious Question. State Regulation or State Interference? Frankfurt, Peter Lang, ss. 371-394 (article can also be downloaded from the Inform website: http://www.inform.ac/node/1547)

Habermas, Jürgen 2008: Notes on a post-secular society. Published at the website signandsight.com http://www.signandsight.com/features/1714.html accessed May 14th

Raevaara, Tiina 2012: Tutkijat ja traumaattinen julkisuus. Blog entry on the website of Suomen Kuvalehti. (eng. ”Researchers and the traumatic publicity”.) http://suomenkuvalehti.fi/blogit/tarinoita-tieteesta/tutkijat-ja-traumaattinen-julkisuus accessed May 15th­

Podcasts

Prayer, Pretense, and Personification: How God becomes real

Over one hundred years ago, William James dedicated an entire chapter in The Varieties of Religious Experience to “The Reality of the Unseen”. When we typically imagine religion, we imagine that religion has to do with something perceivable, yet paradoxically something that we cannot see, taste, smell, or touch. James characterized the relationship of the individual psyche and belief in the supernatural realm as “…if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call ‘something there’…” (1985, p. 55 [emphasis in original]).

While the impulse to believe may be there, one’s relationship to this unseen realm is not easy to cultivate and maintain. Our evolved psychology was not ‘built’ with the intuition that, even though we have minds, there is an unseen – ultimate mind – that has access to our own and shares thoughts with us (Boyer, 2013). Such ideas require cultural scaffolding, and are not easily sustained in the absence of social systems. Although often ignored, “all our ethnography and history suggests that there is learning involved in the practice of religion…” (Luhrmann, 2013, p. 147). How does one learn to experience God as really real?

In her interview with Thomas Coleman, psychological-anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann discusses her multiyear ethnography of American evangelicals where she sought to understand how some of these individuals come to have close, personal, intimate relationships with God (Luhrmann, 2012). She begins by providing the background into her extensive research on the Vineyard Church movement, where she attended sermons, house groups, prayer groups, and many other opportunities to understand evangelicals, specifically, how God becomes real for them. Luhrmann details the rise of evangelicals in the 60’s and 70’s, and how anthropological work can be informed by evolutionary psychology. This serves as a framework to understand the unique training processes that teach an individual that their mind is not only open to their own thoughts, but God’s as well. Luhrmann goes beyond a purely explanatory endeavor and is interested in understanding the processes that lead some to see God as “a person among people”. One aspect of this learning process, she found, involves pretense and instructs the individual to treat God as an imaginary friend, but with one caveat – God (to them) is real and imaginary friends are not.

group_prayer

Furthermore, while imagining God, Luhrmann uncovered that the individual is often instructed to treat God as they would another person, like a close friend you tell your secrets to. This helps to cultivate an understanding and experience of God that is highly anthropomorphic and cognitively pleasing, rather than thinking of God as Aristotle’s “unmoved mover”, who would hardly be interested in your innermost thoughts. In closing, she details some of the prayer exercises that further help individuals to develop this personal sense of divine presence and answers an RSP listener’s question about the possibility of gender differences in experiencing the divine.

You can visit Dr. Luhrmann’s website to find out more about her work and research at: http://luhrmann.net/

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

Citations

Now We Know Religion is Not Disappearing

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

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

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

BessieExt     220px-Kopimizm.svg

Spageti

 

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

Guthrie’s Anthropomorphism Helped Bring Religious Studies into the Modern Academic Age

Without theories such as that presented by Prof. Guthrie, particularly in his book Faces in the Clouds (1993), the current move towards an empirical study of religious beliefs and behaviors would likely have never taken root in anthropology and religious studies. (Strong claim warning!) Without moving these disciplines into an arena where their claims are subject to falsification, they would not be able to participate in modern scholarship and would have made little progress since their founding in the 19th century.[1]

It was during my time as an undergraduate student at the picture Admittedly, my first reaction to the theory was something along the lines of “so what, that’s fairly obvious”. That is until I started to supplement Guthrie’s ideas with those of Pascal Boyer (2001), in particular, his findings that “minimally counterintuitive” concepts (i.e. those concepts that violate our expectations of what should be) are more likely to be remembered. These two points combined go a long way toward explaining why religious concepts such as gods, spirits, ancestors, etc. are created and persist throughout human populations. It was at this point that I started to understand the elegance and true theoretical power of what Guthrie was moving towards: that due to the similarities of the human brain, which is an organ that functions similarly in humans cross-culturally, the mind is likely to produce patterns of belief and behavior in accordance with that functioning. Furthermore, this can be used as a foundation for creating an empirically viable cross-cultural study of contemporary and historical religious movements.

Shortly after that, I became very interested in a phenomena common to new religious movements: the deification of their leader as a god or sole proprietor of the divine. This phenomena (also known as apotheosis) can be observed in the leaders of many NRMs from Jim Jones of the People’s Temple/Jonestown (see Layton, 1999; Nelson, 2006; Reiterman, 1982), to Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate (see DiAngelo, 2007), to David Koresh of the Branch Davidians (see Newport, 2006; Tabor & Gallagher, 1997), to the Rev. Moon of the Unification Church (see Barker, 1984). This odd pattern held to many other religious groups in other cultures and historical periods (Lane, 2012); e.g. Early Christianity, Greco-Roman religion, many African initiated churches, and also NRMs in Asia such as Aum Shinrikyo. These patterns may be contextually unique, but similarities emerge when they are viewed at the level of human cognition, and Guthrie’s work largely set the framework for such an approach. After all, how can one have a scientific understanding of New Age religions (Lane, 2013a) or UFO cults (Lane, 2013b) without understanding the spirits, ‘energies’, UFOs, and extraterrestrials that inhabit those religious worlds? Guthrie provided, for the first time, a theoretical basis for such a research project.

Guthrie’s work is—in the religious studies world—standing on the shoulders of giants as he himself notes that the patterns that he describes are similar to those noticed by Spinoza, Hume, Tylor, and others from the fields of anthropology, philosophy, and religious studies. Guthrie’s ultimate contribution is situating this already-observed pattern within an empirically viable theoretical paradigm: that of evolutionary psychology. His work—as he mentions—was even the theoretical motivation for the Hyperactive (or ‘Hypersensitive’) Agency Detection Device (HADD); a cognitive mechanism now well known to the cognitive science of religion (see Barrett, 2004).

Guthrie’s work opens a “Pandora’s Box” to the scholar and student of religion. Not only does it act as a “gateway drug” for the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), it calls those interested in religion to begin to look at their subject through a different lens, one that is constrained by the empirical findings of psychology. Although “cognitive science” is more of an umbrella term that encompasses a dedication to understanding “information processing” generally and involves the fields of neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, computer science, and even history, CSR has mostly focused its efforts on empirical findings in psychology or utilizing the cognitive findings as an interpretive framework oftentimes focusing ultimately on semiotics or phenomenology. Ultimately, this rests shamelessly on theoretical commitments of epistemological positivism and scientific reduction, that is to say, the idea that we can actually know something and that observable phenomena can largely be reduced to their constituent parts (and that these parts can in turn act as objects of study). This is where you realize that inside of “Pandora’s Box” is Alice’s “rabbit hole”: if you reduce “religion”—as an evolutionary “spandrel” (a by-product that exists due to human evolution, but is not itself an adaptation)—can you reduce the cognitive mechanisms of your “spandrel” to the neuronal firings and neuro-transmitters of the brain? Can those interactions be reduced to the chemical reactions that govern the laws of biology? In one sense, these questions are easily answered with a practical statement: “no, we have neither the knowledge nor power (nor funding) to answer these questions in the foreseeable future”.

But, is there another answer to the overly-reductionist[2] tendencies of the empirical study of religion? I argue that there is. Guthrie places his theory solidly in the realm of evolutionary psychology. In the field of evolutionary studies, there are very strange things happening. For instance, the acceptance of complex and dynamic systems as commonplace often destroys the preconceived supremacy of linear thinking that is so ubiquitous in psychology. The idea that epigenetics is a very real force and that our experiences within our lifetime might affect the lives of our offspring, even to the genetic level, complicates the reductionist approach to anything operating within evolutionary studies.

Guthrie’s work, within an evolutionary approach, shows this point quite elegantly. The idea that we “anthropomorphize” signals in our environment involves three things: the raw input signal from the environment; the mental mechanisms that change the input signal (i.e. our “thinking” about the stimulus); and an output signal (such as the anthropomorphized representation in the mind). With this sort of system (operating in every human brain in a social group), even if the mechanism of perception were the same in each and every human brain (i.e. perfectly symmetrical), the fact that we experience different perceptions would allow for nearly infinite complexity by the time the cognitive system produces some output. This could be demonstrated by simply viewing something at a different angle, one which creates a face and one which doesn’t, as the “Martian face” on the cover of Guthrie’s book so brilliantly demonstrates (when light hits the mountain at a certain angle it looks like a face, but from other angles it does not).

This near-chaotic complexity may seem daunting, and rightly so, but scholars have already proposed theories of religious ritual systems that are compatible with both the broad theoretical claims of Guthrie (and directly utilize his work) but are also flexible enough to make predictions about the contextualized cultural forms that are observed in the historical, ethnographic, and now empirical records. While they have been viewed as competing but largely compatible theories, the work of Whitehouse on the theory of Divergent Modes of Religiosity (2000, 2002, 2004) and that of E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley on ritual competence theory (Lawson & McCauley, 1990; McCauley & Lawson, 2002) both present structured arguments for the description and analysis of religious ritual systems that are amenable to the complexities of evolutionary perspectives (Atkinson & Whitehouse, 2011; Lane, 2011; McCauley & Lawson, 2002; Turchin, Whitehouse, Francois, Slingerland, & Collard, 2012).

In conclusion, Guthrie’s work was critical to ushering in a new period of study for scholars of religion; one which embraces both the abstract similarities and patterns noticed by early scholars such as Eliade (1959) and Durkhiem (1912) as well as the contextualized complexity so staunchly defended by cultural anthropologists. Guthrie’s work is situated between the two, in a tradition joined by scholars looking to test predictions with data first popularized by Stark & Bainbridge’s A Theory of Religion (1996) and being moved forward by research institutes such as the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology and LEVYNA at Masaryk University, which push us into a brave new scientific world of supercomputers, big data, and a real understanding of the mind and what makes us human. It is this middle ground that also seems to be exciting droves of students to again take up the social sciences but in a way that is just as social as ever, but more scientific than its founders could have imagined.

References

Atkinson, Q. D., & Whitehouse, H. (2011). The cultural morphospace of ritual form. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(1), 50–62. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.09.002

Barker, E. (1984). The Making of a “Moonie”: Choice or Brainwashing. Oxford & New York: Blackwell Publishers.

Barrett, J. L. (2004). Why would anyone believe in God? Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

DiAngelo, R. (2007). Beyond Human Mind: The Soul Evolution of Heaven’s Gate. Beverly Hills, CA: Rio DiAngelo.

Durkheim, E. (1912). The elementary forms of religious life. (C. Cosman & M. Cladis, Eds.) (2001 Oxfor.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eliade, M. (1959). The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion (1987 Editi.). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lane, J. E. (2011). Ordo ab Chao: Ritual Competence Theory as a Cognitive Model for the Simulation of Religious Sociality. In Society for Complex Systems in Cognitive Science. Boston, MA.

Lane, J. E. (2012). Ritual Schism, Instability, and Form: Agency and Its Effect on New and Schismatic Religious Movements. Saarbrücken: LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing.

Lane, J. E. (2013a). New Age Religions. In Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Springer. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4020-8265-8_1497

Lane, J. E. (2013b). UFO Cults. In Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Springer. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4020-8265-8_1498

Lawson, E. T., & McCauley, R. N. (1990). Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Layton, D. (1999). Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple. New York: Anchor Books.

McCauley, R. N., & Lawson, E. T. (2002). Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Nelson, S. (2006). Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People’s Temple. United States of America: Public Broadcasting Station.

Newport, K. G. C. (2006). The Branch Davidians of Waco: The History and Beliefs of an Apocalyptic Sect. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reiterman, T. (1982). Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: Dutton.

Stark, R., & Bainbridge, W. S. (1996). A Theory of Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Tabor, J. D., & Gallagher, E. (1997). Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. Berkeley: University of Calafornia Press.

Turchin, P., Whitehouse, H., Francois, P., Slingerland, E., & Collard, M. (2012). A Historical Database of Sociocultural Evolution. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, 3(2), 271–293. Retrieved from http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/2v8119hf

Whitehouse, H. (2000). Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whitehouse, H. (2002). Modes of Religiosity: Towards a Cognitive Explanation of the Socioloplitical Dynamics of Religion. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 14, 293–315.

Whitehouse, H. (2004). Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

 

 


[1] Now that you’ve read the strong claim, a point of clarification: this is not to say that religious studies without any empirical focus is not useful. To the contrary, many of the theories produced by the history and philosophy of religions are very useful and have informed the empirical approach. I would suggest that the empirical and traditional forms of religious studies work together and that each is weaker without the other.

[2] I say “overly” because researchers who do brilliant scientific work might overlook how their findings contribute to an understanding of “religion” or reduce so far down that it doesn’t address anything about “religion” any more than it addresses any other human social phenomena.

Christmas Special 2013 – Nul Point

Over the past few weeks, many of you will have been under the impression that an important event is just around the corner. Greeting cards have been sent. Food has been stockpiled. Music rehearsed… It’s clearly that time of year again. Which can mean only one thing: the RSP has been on to go for two years – can you believe this?

Nul Point Contestants

Nul Point Contestants George Chryssides, Jim Cox, Stephen Gregg, Suzanne Owen, Hanna Lehtinen, Teemu Taira, Jonathan Tuckett and David Wilson.

To celebrate, we couldn’t resist bringing you another Christmas special [other (non-)religious festivals are available]. Following on from last year’s hilarious Only Sixty Seconds, we brought together last year’s winner (Dr David Wilson), and last year’s ‘most entertaining loser’ (Jonathan Tuckett), with six other contestants, to fight for the coveted RSP Christmas trophy.

The game?

Nul Point! (any resemblance to a popular BBC television programme hosted by Alexander Armstrong is entirely coincidental). Before the show, we gave 64 of the RSP listeners 100 seconds to answer a variety of questions. The aim of the game for contestants is to correctly find the answer which the least percentage of these people answered correctly. Simples.

The contestants?

Professor George Chryssides, Professor James Cox, Dr Stephen Gregg, Hanna Lehtinen, Dr Suzanne Owen, Dr Teemu Taira, Jonathan Tuckett, and Dr David Wilson

The venue?

Liverpool Hope University, at the BASR/EASR/IAHR Conference in September 2013, with a special live studio audience.

What is the least well known book of the Bible? How many people in the UK listed their ‘religion’ as ‘Jedi Knight’ on the UK 2011 Census? What is Professor Jim Cox’s drink of choice? To find out, you need do nothing more than hit ‘Play’ and enjoy this forty minutes of pure, unadulterated, top quality Religious Studies entertainment. Remember to listen to the end for some amusing outtakes.

You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive it weekly, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost as you start to enact your New Year’s resolutions – whatever they may be.

There was a picture round as part of the game show – you can view these pictures here. Interested in seeing a picture of the winner being presented with their trophy? Click here.

Non-denominational seasonal greetings to all our listeners, and best wishes for 2014. We’ll be back in January – bigger and better than ever. Many thanks to everyone who took part in this recording – the contestants, the hosts, and the studio audience. Thanks to the BASR/EASR/IAHR for facilitating this recording and adding it to the official conference schedule. Thanks to the technical team at Liverpool Hope University for the audio recording, and to the inestimable David Robertson for technical wizardry on the night, and in pulling the episode together. Thanks to those listeners and fans who helped out by providing the much-needed material for the game show. And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, thanks for listening.

Santo Daime

My first experience of Santo Daime occurred in 2005 during research for a book on the non-mainstream religious scene in Brazil (A. Dawson, 2007). Pretty much unprepared for the sensory feast of a Santo Daime ritual, I was visually struck by the colourful ‘uniforms’ and brightly decorated ceremonial space. The strongly rhythmical and fervently sung ‘hymns’ also made an impact, as did the powerful smell and bitter taste of the religious sacrament which practitioners call ‘Daime’. A psychoactive beverage more commonly known as ‘ayahuasca’, the sacrament of Daime and its psychotropic effects further added to the intense sensory stimulation which abides as an enduring memory of my earliest encounter with Santo Daime. Staged within the mountainous terrain of a national park hundreds of miles north of São Paulo, the ritual contents and format originally forged in the Amazon region of north-west Brazil did not seem particularly out of place. However, unlike the poor, mixed-race community which first elaborated Santo Daime as part of its semi-rural subsistence lifestyle, the ritual participants with whom I was celebrating were overwhelmingly drawn from Brazil’s predominantly white urban middle class. Whereas the uniforms, songs and sacrament were very much of the Amazon region, those wearing, singing and consuming the ceremonial accoutrements of Santo Daime certainly were not. By no means discordant, the juxtaposition of Amazonian origins and urban-professional appropriation nevertheless piqued my academic interest. (Dawson 2013, 1)

Upon receiving an email notification through the BASR mailing list about Andrew Dawson’s recently published monograph, Santo Daime: A New World Religion, the RSP’s academic interest was certainly piqued. Thus, towards the end of May 2013, Chris made the arduous journey from his office at one end of B Floor, County South, Lancaster University, to Dr Dawson’s at the other, to discuss this fascinating and engaging book, Santo Daime in general, the various ethical problems associated with conducting this kind of field research, the intentionally multifaceted subtitle ‘New World Religion’, and much more.

This interview marks the beginning of a short series of podcasts from the RSP on Religion, Migration and Diaspora, continuing next week with Mitra Barua speaking to Chris Silver about immigrant Buddhism in the West, and ending in two weeks time with Monika Salzbrunn speaking to Hanna Lehtinen about Religion, Migration and Diaspora.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc. Remember… Christmas is on the way!

Religion and Cultural Production

Cusack In the second of our podcasts since our summer ‘break’ we are delighted to welcome back Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney, who has previously appeared on the RSP speaking on Invented Religions, and offering advice in our roundtable discussions on building an academic career, and academic publishing. In this interview with Chris, recorded in July in Edinburgh, Carole provides a broad introduction and overview of the study of religion and cultural production, making particular reference to her recent publication, Alex Norman, and featuring chapters from many of our contributors, including our own David Robertson.

In the introduction to their volume, Cusack and Norman write:

It is a truth generally acknowledged that religions have been the earliest and perhaps the chief progenitors of cultural products in human societies. Mesopotamian urban centres developed from large temple complexes, Greek drama emerged from religious festivals dedicated to deities including Dionysos and Athena, and in more recent times Christianity has inspired musical masterpieces including the ‘St Matthew Passion’ by the Lutheran Johann Sebastian Bach (1686-1750), the motets of the Catholic William Byrd (1540-1023), and the striking paintings of the Counter-Reformation Spaniards Ribera, Zurbaran, and Murillo in the seventeenth century (Stoichita 1995). Nor can we forget the cinematic renderings of biblical story in such works as William Wyler’s epic Ben Hur (1959) starring Charlton Heston, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s (1922-1975) Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (1964), or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). The Indian religious tradition contributes the magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples of Angkor (Cambodia), and the exquisite Chola bronze statues, and the many extraordinary renditions of the India epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata onto the small and large screens. Likewise, Islam too has generated the sophisticated Timurid illustrated manuscripts of Firdausi’s Shahnama, the paintings of the various Rajput kingdoms, and from Sufi traditions the devotional qawwali music. Architecturally, perhaps the most obvious cultural products of Islam for those in the West has been the Islamic architecture of Spain such as the Alhambra and the Great Mosque or Cordoba, both now sitting as beautiful cultural legacies (Lapunzina 2005). Many more examples could be adduced, including forms of dance, systems of education, theories of government, special diets, and modes of costume and fashion.

Clearly there is no shortage of data for scholars wishing to delve into this broad topic. But what do we actually mean by ‘cultural product’? How can we claim that ‘religion’ is producing these things in any meaningful way? What can we ascertain about a ‘religion’ from its cultural products? And what makes this approach different from that of Material Religion? This broad-ranging interview tackles such questions, and more, via examples as diverse as religious celebrity, Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum, and Sacred Trees and finishes by addressing whether or not the ‘secular’ university – and, in turn, Religious Studies – can be seen as a cultural product of a particular form of Christianity.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc.

James R. Lewis

Who joins New Religious Movements?

James R. Lewis was kind enough to have a chat with us at the 2012 EASR conference in Stockholm despite having a sore throat due to a cold. Lewis has been involved in research on new religious movements (NRMs) since the early late 1980s and has both written and edited extensively on the subject. In this episode of the Religious Studies Project, Lewis shares some of his views on the study of NRMs. It seems, claims Lewis, that our current generalizations about who joins such movements is based on outdated statistics. It seems no longer to be the case that it is primarily young people who join NMRs, rather joiners’ age has increased during recent decades. This demonstrates why we need more and better quantitative data. James and Knut also talk a bit about the situation in Norway when it comes to research on NRMs.

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

James R. Lewis

James R. Lewis is a associate professor of religious studies at the University of Tromsø. Among Lewis’ latest titles are the monographs Children of Jesus and Mary: The Order of Christ Sophia (2009) and the forthcoming Embracing the Darkness: Modern Satanism (with Asbjørn Dyrendal & Jesper A. Petersen) and Routledge Introduction to New Religious Movements. Among his edited collections are Violence and New Religious Movements (2011) and Handbook of Religious and the Authority of Science (2010, with Olav Hammer). Lewis is also editor of Brill’s Handbooks on Contemporary Religion series. He co-founded the International Society for the Study of New Religions. The full publication list can be found here.

Names, books and other things mentioned in the podcast:

Prophecy and American Millennialism

RastafarI is itself a millennial movement with the belief that Haile Selassie I is the God Liberator, an avatar returned to restore True Salvation for the subaltern people of African lineage. It is also a revolutionary movement which wants to change the lot of Africans…

J. Gordon Melton: Prophecy and American Millennialism

By Marzia A. Coltri, University of Birmingham, UK

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with J. Gordon Melton on American Millennialism (15 October 2012).

J. Gorton Melton is a leading academic specialist on new religious movements, a scholar of occultists, Scientologists, Rosicrucianists, Neopagans, Branch Davidians, Theosophists, Reiki groups, UFO, Hare Krishnas, New Age  and vampires, who has spent his academic career investigating and classifying new religious groups throughout the world. He is founder of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, and in an interview at the 2012 annual meeting of INFORM in London he discussed Millennial movements in America, with particular stress on three typologies of movements that await the divine intervention of the Son of God on Earth. This eschatological conjecture in Christianity teaches and disseminates the ‘double resurrection’ of Jesus Christ (“the Messiah is coming again’) and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth as the supreme signs of salvation and liberation from oppression and tribulation. As Melton observes, many new religious groups in the second half of the 20th century were small in size and had a lack of organizational structure. These movements are, he says, increasing rapidly, changing denominations and metaphysical features, and are waiting a New Era.

The impact of the prophet, with her/his charisma, which is for Weber ‘a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which she/he is set apart from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities’[1], is felt when s/he founds her/his own ‘new religious movement’, and her/his ideas and programme lead the members of the group. In the case of the RastafarI movement, for example, Marcus Garvey is one proponent of Pan-African nationalism and a particularly charismatic voice in the development of the movement.  Through the prophetic teachings of Garvey concerning the coronation of the God-King from Ethiopia (Haile Selassie I), RastafarI develops its belief in the Coming of the Second Messiah to the Earth to save the subaltern people of the African Diaspora and create a new kingdom (the Promised Land, Ethiopia). RastafarI is itself a millennial movement with the belief that Haile Selassie I is the God Liberator, an avatar returned to restore True Salvation for the subaltern people of African lineage. It is also a revolutionary movement which wants to change the lot of Africans and liberate them from the chains of corrupt, evil and sinful Babylon in order to create a new golden age in ‘the millennium kingdom’ of Ethiopia.

Millenarian thought is the belief that after the end of this world a new, fertile and harmonious world will appear. Such a conviction is referred to the term Millennium which is taken from the Apocalypse of John and the Book of Revelation. Millennialisms are expecting either a collective earthly salvation by supernatural agencies or a heavenly salvation. However, as we know, millenarian movements often appear in periods of crisis and act as expressions of frustration, vulnerability and the desire to escape. With their charismatic personalities, millenarianists believe in an earthly Golden Age but have a pessimistic view of the future.  They can be classified as catastrophic (the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) and progressive millennial movements (the New Agers and the Theosophical movement). The progressive millennial thought has a positive view of the collective growth of society in harmony with the divine (Gods or Angels). Both the progressive and catastrophic millennial movements reflect dramatic episodes of failure and violence, awaiting a radical transit to salvation. They may be violent revolutionaries whose aim is to eradicate the ‘old’ to create the ‘new’. What is common in Millenarian movements is that they are exultant about the predictions of a New Era.

By way of conclusion, what happens in various millenarian movements is directly connected to the economic, religious, sexual and racial power which puts their adherents in a marginal position in relation to the dominant society. Therefore it is not clear how these forces operate within society due to extreme variations in the movements themselves, especially when the prophets die, which  may cause trauma (see the recent death of the Korean Revd. Sun Myung Moon, founder and charismatic leader of the Unification Church). Many of them are expecting that world will be transformed by divine interventions through prophecies in order to eliminate suffering and to offer collective salvation.

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

About the Author:

Marzia Coltri was born in Verona, Italy and completed a BA in Philosophy with a thesis on the liberal and scientific thought of Karl Popper. After finishing her MA in Philosophical Counselling, she came to England in 2007 to embark on research on minority ethnic religious groups. She recently received her PhD in African and Caribbean religions (the RastafarI movement and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church) in the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham (UK). She is currently part-time visiting lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. Her research focuses on gender studies, post-colonialism and NRMs. She has presented several papers in the UK and abroad, three of which are published in the proceedings of the CESNUR conference. One of her recent articles ‘The Challenge of the Queen of Sheba: The Hidden Matriarchy in the Ancient East’ has also been published in the History of the Ancient World website.

Bibliography:

Melton, J. Gordon. ‘The counter-cult monitoring movement in historical perspective’ in Challenging Religion: Essays in Honour of Eileen Barker, James A. Beckford and James T. Richardson, eds. (London: Routledge, 2003)

Bromley, David and Melton, J. Gordon, eds., Cults, Religion and Violence, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge: 2003)

Melton, J. Gordon. Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, ABC-Clio (2002)

Melton, J. Gordon. Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions, Thomson Gale; 8th edition (2009),

Miller, Timothy. When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements. ed., Intr. by J. Gordon Melton.  State University of New York Press (Albany, USA: 1991)

Useful links:

http://www.cesnur.org/testi/melton_speak.htmp

http://www.cesnur.org/2010/to-coltri.htm

 


[1] Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, tr. by Ephraim Fischoff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953), 52.

Ends and Beginnings: A Reflection on the 2012 EASR Conference

Ends and Beginnings: A Reflection on the 2012 EASR Conference

By Venetia Robertson, University of Sydney

A Religious Studies Project Conference Report, published on 27 September 2012. European Association for the Study of Religions – 23-26 August 2012 – Stockholm, Sweden

Some months ago, I was encouraged by my supervisor, Jay Johnston, to submit abstracts to the 2012 EASR and the 1st International Conference on Contemporary Esotericism. Much to my delight, I ended up attending and presenting at both of these amazing events in August. I would like to share with you some of my experiences from this intense, week-long symposium.

EASR 2012 – Ends and Beginnings

Venetia was really proud of that name-tag

To open the 2012 conference for the European Association for the Study of Religions (in conjunction with the International Association for the History of Religion) at Södetörn University, Stockholm, Ingvild Sælid Gilhus tackled the theme of ‘Ends and Beginnings’ by talking about the ‘founding fathers’ of our discipline. As we mulled over Müller and theorised Freud (what were their motivations? Where did they locate the origins of religion?) the inevitable question that kept repeating in my mind was, ‘where are the founding mothers?’ Mary Douglas, Gilhus added, could be considered a founding mother for sure, but this concession does little to address the white male dominance of the humanities in general. But as I looked around the packed auditorium at the sea of heads belonging to people of all genders, all ages, all stages of their careers, I felt some comfort. In my (albeit limited) experience of international conferences, I have been frequently mislabeled as someone’s wife or daughter, rather than a scholar in my own right, or, for that matter, a presenter intending to deliver a paper. In Stockholm for a solid week of conferencing, I made it my aim never to be mislabeled, and in this atmosphere of diversity coupled with solidarity, I don’t think at any point I was.

If I had to choose I would say my favourite thing about these conferences was seeing young and vibrant postgraduate students presenting their craft. I was continuously impressed and excited by the high quality scholarship, ideas, and conversations presented and stimulated by my peers. This year’s EASR delivered an incredibly extensive program. Four days with as many as twelve parallel sessions per session, this conference featured hundreds of speakers. Topics ranged from the Arab Spring to apocalypticism, ecology to esotericism, Pureland to popular culture, and almost everything in between. Of course this leads to the problems that plague all good conferences – one cannot get to see everything they would like to, if speakers drop out and the order is changed scheduling can be even more complicated, etc. Some rooms saw overwhelming popularity – not an inch of space could be spared for latecomers hoping to see Jörg Rüpke talk about death in lived religion! Luckily for me, my session saw no lack of seats. I was speaking in the aula, the massive main hall set aside for keynotes and network sessions.

Venetia delivering her presentation

I spoke, alongside Manon Hedenborg White (Stockholm University) and Sara Duppils (Åbo Akademi) as part of the Graham Harvey and Donald Wiebe), but I was pleased to see about thirty attendees making that vast space seem a little less empty. Actually, the session was very enjoyable as we three (all still students) presented on vastly different topics – Manon on gender in Wicca, Sara on ‘neo-spiritism’ and paranormal beliefs online, and I on Therianthropy and animal-human identity. The response from the audience was brilliant, with intelligent and genuinely engaged questions, suggestions, and comments. This level of interest was followed up with the exchanging of emails, soliciting of articles, and promises to publish forthwith! Nothing is so inspiring as getting the opportunity to pull your head of the proverbial arse of thesis-land to experience an international community of your colleagues understanding and encouraging your seemingly obscure area of interest.

It was disappointing to miss hearing from speakers who pulled out (Henrik Bogdan, Oliver Krüger) and even more frustrating to fail to catch the brief window given to others. Nonetheless, I saw some provocative and valuable papers. For the sake of convenience, I restricted myself to sessions that directly related to my research interests. This is always a gamble, and can be a little monotonous, but there were certainly some highlights. It was really enjoyable to see Doug Ezzy of the University of Tasmania present on a katabatic ritual performed by Australian neo-Pagans. His personable yet informative delivery, supported by his own photographs of the event, made this talk particularly appealing. Jonas Otterbeck of Lund University gave a very interesting paper on masculinity in the genre of ‘Halal pop.’ Franz Höllinger of the University of Graz presented some intriguing statistics on the political and social attitudes of New Agers in Austria, and Peter Åkerbäck of Stockholm University provided insights into the changing reactions toward ‘cults’ in Sweden by government bodies and ‘cult awareness’ groups. On the second day, the impeccably dressed Kocku von Stuckrad of the University of Gronigen delivered an astute key note that highlighted the imbrication of science and religion, and specifically, the ‘scientification’ of religion, and the ‘religionism’ of science. The overlapping of these two magisteria (to misquote Steven Jay Gould) is a topic eye-opening in its relevance and insidiousness in our field of work.

The impeccably dressed Kocku von Stuckrad

Student speakers also proffered papers that spoke to their burgeoning expertise and laudable research efforts. Sara Duppils and Minja Blom (University of Helsinki) both presented findings from their online research of discussion forums (a still woefully under utilized source pool), Manon Hedenborg White discussed information gathered from her own fieldwork and interviews with British Wiccans, Christian Greer (University of Amsterdam) exhibited his collection of rare and arcane Discordian primary materials, and Kristian Pettersson (Uppsala University) in his talk on entheogens and the spiritual experience, submitted his theory of ‘altered states of perception’ to challenge the more commonly and perhaps mistakenly used phrase ‘altered states of consciousness.’ On the New Religious Movements front, Rasa Pranskeviciute (Vytautas Magnus University) introduced me to two environmentally-minded NRMs that have emerged in the post-Soviet world, the Anastasians and the Vissarionites, while the Raëlians got a reappraisal from Erik Östling (Stockholm University) as a group that relies not only on the Bible, but several works of science fiction in constructing their UFOlogical theology. Many of the papers I saw dealt with the meeting of spirituality and popular culture, and one theme that I felt was overlooked was the paradigm shift involved in making fictional texts sacred texts – a more nuanced understanding of changing attitudes towards the boundaries of fantasy and reality was needed.

Round table on Wouter Hanegraaff’s new “Esotericism in the Academy” with O. Hammer, M. Pasi, M. Stausberg

While some student papers were less polished or analytically sophisticated than those of more established scholars, I think it is commendable that conferences like the EASR extend the opportunity for such a number of postgrads (and even the occasional undergrad) to contribute their scholarship to the broader academic community. The fact that so many of the sessions I chose to attend consisted, unbeknownst to me initially, of mostly student presenters strongly suggests that it is a younger generation of scholars that are investigating the ‘alternative’ and ‘fringe’ currents of spirituality which are, ironically, becoming more and more visible, mainstreamed, and imperative to the study of modern religion. In short, these students have their finger on the pulse, and it is events like international conferences that allow the rest of the academic world to learn from these fresh and innovative perspectives.

Of course conferences offer the opportunity for social as well as professional networking (facilitated somewhat by free, room-temperature glasses of box wine). Personal highlights here include discovering that Wouter Hanegraaff’s spirit animal is the Owl, being asked to contribute a paper to Pomegranate, and being invited to speak at the 2013 ISSR Conference in Turku. Ending up at Medusa Bar for a pint and a bit of a headbang with some of the pretty young things wasn’t a bad end to an evening either. But, after four intense days of stimulating conversation, there was little time to rest before it all had to pick up again at the Contemporary Esotericism conference at Stockholm University!

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

About the Author:

Venetia Robertson is a PhD candidate, tutor, and research assistant at the University of Sydney in the department of Studies in Religion. Her thesis explores themes of animal-human identity, shape-shifting, popular oc/culture, and myth-making. Forthcoming publications include an article that delves into her thesis topic by discussing the online Therianthropy community and non-human ontology, and an article that offers an explication of masculinity, fandom, and the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic cartoon series. She is currently co-editing an issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion, and will be contributing a paper that looks at the intersections of posthumanism, animality, and eschatology.

 

What should we do with the study of new religions?

 

In the interview with Professor Eileen Barker, three broad themes are brought up. First, the definitions of ’new religious movement’ and ’cult’ are given a brief consideration. After this, Barker introduces the Inform network and its activities in distributing information and making the results of scientific research concerning new religious movements available to society at large. Finally, the future of the study of new religious movements as well as its contribution to the wider field of the study of religion is considered. In this text, I will focus mainly on the second theme: how the results of scientific research are put in practical use by Inform, and what kind of questions this brings up. Along with the interview, I make use of an article Barker has written on the same subject, What should we do about the cults?

The Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, or Inform for short, was founded by Eileen Barker herself in 1988. Behind the founding of the organization lies her observation that there was (and there still is) quite a lot of misinformation, rumours and hearsay about the new religious movements, or ‘cults’, as they often are labelled, and that this confusion created a lot of misunderstanding and ”unnecessary suffering”, as Barker herself puts it. This suspicion is present in the way the term ‘cult’ in itself carries connotations of something deviant, evil and criminal. Neutral information was not easy to find, since the movements themselves tended to offer a very bright picture, whereas the information produced by opposing parties, such as anti-cult movements, emphasized the negative sides. In addition, media contributed to the discussion by picking up only the extreme examples.

In a situation like this, providing scientific, as-neutral-and-objective-knowledge-as-possible about new religious movements is a reasonable thing to do. And this is what Inform is all about. The network collects, assesses and distributes balanced, objective-as-possible information about new religious and spiritual movements. This is done through consultation and publications as well as connecting people with relevant experts, arranging seminars, workshops and conferences. Their services are being used by very different parties, from government officials to convert´s conserned relatives.

Aside from just distributing information about new religious movements, Inform also provides venues for different interested parties to meet and exchange views. Involving the religious movements themselves, as well as their former members and cult-watch movements in seminars, for example, may help the parties to overcome some suspicions and misunderstandings.

Inform is definitely an inspiring example of how the work of scholars of religion can be put into practical use. Academics are often accused of living in their own little worlds, their heads full of fuzzy terminology and grand theories, and forgetting all about the real, messy world around them. And there just might be a grain of truth in that accusation. Not long ago, I read an article written by Tiina Raevaara, currently an independent Author and a blogger on Suomen Kuvalehti website. She brings up the fact that even though the ‘third task’ of universities (next to research and teaching) is to serve and benefit the society, the academics are often not willing to come out in the public to talk about their research, let alone voice their opinions. And while so few academics wish to do this, the ones who do are often frowned upon by the academic community. Raevaara claims in her blog entry, that researchers should get more guidance in how to interact with larger public, and encouraged to do so.

I do agree that universities and scientific community in general are an important part of the society, and should interact with it in a constructive way. This is not unproblematic, of course. Fear of losing one’s perspective lingers; fear of getting too involved. Who of us has not been warned about going native? Even though the very possibility of strict objectivity has been disputed long time ago, distance is still seen as vital for maintaining a proper scientific attitude and conducting valid research – as objective as possible. And even though an individual scholar might not lose her or his perspective, so to say, this might still happen in the eyes of the public. Especially in debates of great political weight, (social) scientists´ commitments and ideological backgrounds are called into question– even if these would not have anything to do with the results of a scientific research itself. As Barker mentions in the interview, she has received her share of such suspicion and accusations.

Inform is a good example of a contact spot between academia and the society at large. While holding up the ideals and methods of social sciences, the network benefits the public: government officials, media, religious groups, individual members of civil society, and more. They do this by offering what the scholarly community can offer: information and opportunities for open discussion. Both are equally important. People with different worldviews, religious and otherwise, must be able to deal with each other, so that society holds together. For this kind of interaction and negotiation to take place, it is important to have arenas where people can learn from one another and at least avoid conflicts rooted in simple misunderstandings.

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

 

References:

Barker, Eileen 2006: What should we do about the cults?  Policies, perspective and the perspective of Inform. Published in Pauline Côté and Jeremy Grunn (eds) 2006: The New Religious Question. State Regulation or State Interference? Frankfurt, Peter Lang, ss. 371-394 (article can also be downloaded from the Inform website: http://www.inform.ac/node/1547)

Habermas, Jürgen 2008: Notes on a post-secular society. Published at the website signandsight.com http://www.signandsight.com/features/1714.html accessed May 14th

Raevaara, Tiina 2012: Tutkijat ja traumaattinen julkisuus. Blog entry on the website of Suomen Kuvalehti. (eng. ”Researchers and the traumatic publicity”.) http://suomenkuvalehti.fi/blogit/tarinoita-tieteesta/tutkijat-ja-traumaattinen-julkisuus accessed May 15th­