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New Directions in the Study of Scientology – A View from the Academy

Each of the scholars involved on this panel has raised some of the historical and contemporary challenges associated with studying Scientology (or, as they suggest, “Scientologies”) and their thoughts about potential directions forward in circumstances which can sometimes feel like a frustrating research impasse. To my mind, what has stood out most clearly across the entire discussion is just how politicised and contested the study of Scientology has become – or, I would suggest, has always been – and the myriad of challenges scholars face in positioning themselves to pursue their research in light of this polarized scholarly context. While advances have been made in some areas of the wider study of New Religions toward less polarization, the topic of Scientology in many ways continues to appear intractable and resistant to scholarly analysis, though things appear to be slowly changing.

The panelists have surveyed extremely well some of the outside conditions which need to be in place for scholarship on Scientology, in its various garbs, to move forward and I concur with many of their observations here, particularly regarding their desire for the leadership institutional Church of Scientology to become more open to research and the need for greater emphasis on the lived/vernacular religion of everyday Scientologists. I’m also pleased to be able to write that since this panel was recorded Donald Westbrook’s Among the Scientologists has become available in e-Book form, a publication which I hope will start some new conversations about ways forward in this field of research. However, for this to happen, scholars of religion need to first think seriously about whether how can realistically respond to these external factors and to acknowledge what factors fall well outside of our capacity to change.

Without belabouring the point in this informal response I think we need to recognise and reflect at much greater length on the fact that the peculiarly historically-conditioned nature of this contested topic which we might, somewhat grandiosely, call “Scientology studies” places quite severe limits on scholars in what they can do to move discussions forward in terms of media depictions; the approach of the institutional Church of Scientology to research and dialogue; and the attitudes former members. All our panelists have recognised and given voice to some of the reasons for this and listeners should be attentive to their collective wisdom here. I have much more to say about these three aspects, but suffice to say here that I am less than sanguine about the prospects for change in these areas, though not entirely unhopeful. Within academia, however, I’m slightly more hopeful and in this response I turn my attention to this question: What might those in the academy change in how we approach researching Scientology and how might we move toward a depolarization in terms of scholarly paradigms?

For scholarly research on Scientology to move forward I humbly suggest that at least four interrelated proposals should be considered here; none of which is original or unknown in the wider study of New Religions. Firstly, scholarly discussion must take place without fear or favour between scholars according to scholarly conventions and unimpeded, so far is realistically possible, by unreasonable attempts at moral suasion regarding publication and research by outside stakeholders from the Church or from ex-members and critics. Second, a generational transition and willingness to work to put to rest past conflicts between scholars and scholarly paradigms in a spirit of mutual academic endeavour. Third, a more coherent and organised research program which draws on multiple fields of expertise and recognises the contribution of all serious and rigorous research. Fourth, increased reflexivity and moral accountability amongst scholars whereby we acknowledge our individual blind-spots and embrace some kind of scholarly common good model. To be emphatic, none of these are novel proposals, but I believe they bear repeating.  

I am under no illusions that what I envision below is a very likely outcome, but idealism and aspiration are not in themselves necessarily bad things and if we can name some of the problems and start a conversation in a respectful tone here that is a first step.

 

 

  • Scholarly Dialogue

Hitherto, as our panelists have each noted, public discussion of Scientology, arguably more than any other New Religious Movement (NRM), has lent itself to an immense degree of rancour and acrimony and too often scholarship is used or abused here to support or attack various positions – often quite apart from scholars’ intentions and sometimes with collateral damage to academics and their personal and professional reputations.

For scholarship on Scientology to move forward scholars need to be confident when writing and publishing that their work will be judged on its academic merit alone and not on whether or not their conclusions are of utility in the mobilization and counter-mobilization between various parties involved in the “cult scene.” Scholarly contributions of the discussion of Scientology need to be scholarly and stand up to rigorous peer-review which stands as far as possible above overt partisanship or virtue signalling. Scholarship, however, also needs to be made a safe-space for genuine and probing inquiry, ideally not a site of fear, self-censorship, or activism (which it has sadly often become).

For this to happen both the Church of Scientology and its critics, as well as scholars with differing opinions on Scientology, need to respect a rigorously neutral scholarly sphere where the kinds of moral suasion often applied to scholars at present are minimised and the position of the scholar qua scholar is respected. In such a situation we need to maintain a space for conversation which recognises differences of perspective, but holds each contributor whether they be serious insider; an academically serious critic; or any other scholar to the same rigours of peer-review and scholarly role neutrality.

The contested nature of Scientology will continued to mean that the politicisation of scholarship here is inevitable, but petty point-scoring exercises and untamed abuse are not, and we need to be able to recognise good scholarship and research for what it is, regardless of who has done it, their past publications or affiliations, or indeed whether or not we agree with them. We need to be willing to give “voice” to different perspectives and not to allow academic processes to be subtly hijacked to silence “dissent.” This might seem like the current status quo, but sadly it often isn’t, and we need to work to de-politicise as far as possible and realistic the academy and work toward an ideal of role neutrality as a scholarly norm.  

Current often heavy-handed attempts at moral suasion by various parties against those they alternatively label “cult critics,” “apostates,” or “cult apologists,” serves little scholarly end other than to entrench an “epistemological Manicheanism” (to borrow a phrase from the late Thomas Robbins); to silo scholars into sometimes monologic paradigms; and ultimately to impede research moving forward in different and fruitful directions. As Eileen Barker, a scholar who has worked exceedingly hard toward dialogue and methodological rigour and paid the price by being the frequent target of unfair abuse, has reminded us for decades now, different social constructions of reality are operating between (sometimes) mutually exclusive parties, scholarship will only move forward if we can recognise this and acknowledge its operation in our own work (a point taken up further below). Scholars can only work toward overcoming this impediment by open and respectful dialogue across what have become somewhat “party lines,” but for it to proceed further, more good will is needed. This brings me to my next suggestion.

 

  • Generational Change

I am hesitant to raise this, but I feel it must be articulated, even at the risk of dredging up ancient history. As our panelists clearly allude to, a clear deficit of trust and good will exists between some scholars who have written on Scientology. The often-combative nature of discussion between the “New Religions Studies” and “Cultic Studies” paradigms, as outlined by W. Michael Ashcraft in A Historical Introduction to the Study of New Religious Movements (2018), has meant that old grudges have died hard. Anyone doubting this should spend the time reading the thoughtful debates in Sociological Analysis (1983) on “sponsorship”; the Nova Religio (1998) debate on “academic integrity”; and the edited volume of Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins Misunderstanding Cults (2001) and various reviews. The reasons for these disputes are well known (and often justifiable) to the parties involved and without apportioning blame or pointing fingers it must be said that mistakes have been made on both sides of the scholarly fence. Rather than extending such conflicts into the future, however, I believe a younger generation of scholars who have not been directly party to these controversies need to open doors for dialogue here and take up the baton of scholarship rather than crying foul over perceived past injustices or perpetuating mistrust.   

This will be a significant challenge for many of us, from both paradigms, but I suggest probably less for scholarly than personal reasons. Most of us studying NRMs, whether we follow a “New Religions Studies” paradigm or a “Cultic Studies” paradigm (and I do not believe the two are necessarily mutually exclusive and that no middle ground exists), have in one way or other been supervised or mentored by an older generation of scholars and feel obliged to defend their legacy. However, the last few years have witnessed a series of important volumes on Scientology featuring a multi-generational cast of contributors, bringing a combination of new and entrenched perspectives on the issues at hand. There is much to learn from these works, but for us to do so we have to actually read one-another’s contributions seriously, and I suggest with a hermeneutic of charity.  

War-weary veterans of the “cult wars” might be hesitant to do this for many the wounds received are still raw but younger scholars should consider this. The up-and-coming generation of scholars here need to have the courage to cite and quote work from different perspectives, and more importantly, to engage in respectful scholarly discussion and rigorous debate with different perspectives without resorting to ad hominem attacks or a self-righteous party spirit. If the serious study of NRMs is to continue as a subfield in religious studies, and not fade away into a rancorous oblivion of competing but not conversing paradigms, younger scholars need to work harder to publish together in the same journals, collaborate where necessary, and divide labour where appropriate. We do not need to carry on personal disputes between our forebears into the next generation.  

As a starting point, we might consider, as far as possible, refraining from acrimonious reviews of work from another paradigm which fail to appreciate good scholarship for what it is, but instead focus on critical points of pedantry which fail to see the forest for the trees. This brings me to my third point.

 

  • A Realistic and Collaborative Research Program

If a serious and academically enriching dialogue can be seriously broached we will also have to recognise that by virtue of the highly politicised and polarised nature of the study of Scientology, divisions of labour in the kinds of research we do exist and are often necessary. However, by speaking openly about the challenges of our different kinds of research, rather than operating in isolation, we can enrich rather than denude or undermine each other’s work.

Scholars in the “New Religions Studies” paradigm have often established relationships with various kinds of Scientologists and are often privy to information which may not be accessible by those studying other stakeholders. Similarly, scholars in a “Cultic Studies” paradigm often have greater cache with former members than is often the case for those who are in conversation with the institutional Church or, as our panelists remind us, have been labelled as “cult apologists.” Both groups of scholars have built relationships with informants which operate on mutual trust and respect and bring with them both written and unwritten obligations. Both groups of scholars also risk, however, the “contagion of stigma” which can easily operate to discredit them with other stakeholders by virtue of their positionality and lead to concerns being raised by stakeholders about real or perceived duplicity (what we might call – mimicking pagan studies – the “Wallis Effect”).

While I don’t prima facie disagree with the idea that a scholar can both specialise in research on current and former members of the Church of Scientology, the opportunities for moral suasion multiply in situations of conflict and a more collaborative and cooperative division of labour across paradigmatic lines might provide a pragmatic rather than an ideal way forward which recognises the highly charged field in which “Scientology studies” operates. Some pressure to “take sides” will be applied no matter what we do, all we can do as scholars, however, is work to be role neutral and peer-review and respect each other’s work in scholarly spirit rather than operate with a bunker mentality.  

A present we lack a truly synoptic account of Scientology and in the contemporary academy such an account is unnecessary and arguably undesirable. What we have instead is a growing number of single-subject studies which cumulatively add to our understanding of Scientology in a more holistic sense, as a religion functioning within a wider social sphere and in interaction with mutual conversation partners. A piecemeal and respectful development of such studies is a goal we should pursue in unison, but as scholars, not as partisans.

 

  • Increased Reflexivity and Moral Accountability

Part of any dialogue is a recognition of past faults and a willingness by scholars to own our mistakes. Reflexivity in scholarship is important, but difficult, and publicly owning up to our shortcomings is often unbefitting with the tone of our times, which I suggest favours a dangerous trend toward “epistemological Manicheanism” and feigned moral righteousness. Nowadays it is often more convenient to retreat into a sense of righteousness and close our ears to uncomfortable truths; especially when we may have felt compromised, co-opted, or deceived by our informants or misunderstood by our critics and colleagues. Some will always resort to self-justification here and that is unavoidable. Scholars, from both camps, however, need to be more discerning before following this path.

While none of us can easily overcome various personal biases or lenses which impact on our work, we can acknowledge them and I suggest we need to do this far more readily. Instead of assuming a panoptic scholarly lens we must acknowledge the limitations of our viewpoint at the outset and make our own positionality more explicit. Are we focusing on written documents, ex-member informants, current member informants, or both? What is our analytic lens and our methodology? While these seem very standard questions for any good research, they are often missing in popular, but sadly also “scholarly,” discussions of Scientology. But as scholars when our knowledge is piecemeal we are obliged to acknowledge it.

The politicised nature of Scientology research has meant that when scholars are asked about Scientology by various parties (usually by the media or other outside stakeholders) they often default to a position of “expert knowledge,” similarly when former members are asked they default to a position of “privileged knowledge,” rarely do either resort to careful qualification and epistemological humility. There is no shame to not knowing everything and we must be more ready to admit this – and to point to it in others in a spirit of inquiry. Piecemeal knowledge is worthwhile because it highlights certain gaps which require further analysis, assuming that our piecemeal knowledge is all encompassing just opens us to methodological critique. Each serious scholar brings pieces to the jigsaw puzzle, but our individual pieces cannot make a complete picture (though some might be more revealing than others).

Those of us studying Scientology need to continually take stock about the impact of our scholarship beyond the yellowing-pages (or broken URLs) where our research appears. What we publish will influence how different parties relate to us and we need to be aware of this. However, our first, though not only, obligation needs to be to the academy and while we might have strong feelings about matters like religious freedom and social justice, we can only go so far as our research permits and acknowledge more readily when we simply don’t know!

 

Is this possible?

What I suggest above probably will likely seem radical to many, methodologically naïve, and perhaps even utopian or foolhardy to others. As a historian, however, I suggest that to dismiss the potential for a shift in how we approach “Scientology studies” is short-sighted. Not so long ago the “World Religions” were only studied internally by practitioners or by hostile outsiders and missionaries. Today we have experts in various religious traditions who have no personal affiliation to these groups, but by virtue of scholarly inquiry have attained a vast knowledge of these traditions, sometimes superior in certain senses to lived practitioners. Similarly we have experts who belong to these traditions, who can speak accurately and illuminatingly, if not always authoritatively, on their own beliefs. There is no unamendable reason why this can’t be the same for Scientology. As J. Gordon Melton has been reminding us for decades, it is possible to study Scientology!

On this note, I, for one, would welcome Scientologists and former members seriously contributing to academia, but like our panelists I believe such prospective contributors must realise that academic knowledge and apologetic intent are usually mutually exclusive. However, I would welcome the emergence of serious Scientology theologians, who can critically reflect upon the Tech and dialogue constructively on its application in scholarly fora.

For non-Scientologists studying the group, I suggest, that we have a choice: we can either learn to live and speak with and about Scientology in an academically constructive and productive way, in a spirit of dialogue, or we can decry it and seek to marginalise it. There will always be those who will favour denunciation over dialogue and who will remain unwilling or unable to listen to the other side. The weight of history suggests, however, that at the end of the day decrying Scientology will make little difference to all but a few, and dialogue will probably make small, incremental, and perhaps for a time imperceptible shifts. Eureka moments in understanding and knowledge are few and far between, but building a piecemeal understanding through mutual labour and cooperation seems a better way to me than a studied and intransigent resistance which seeks to maintain a polarized status quo situation.

Scientology is a reality in the contemporary religious landscape and, historically naïve predictions of its demise notwithstanding, it seems certain it will survive long after many of its critics. From a historical perspective the Church is far healthier demographically, institutionally and financially than it has probably ever been and while I respectfully doubt its own numeric claims to growth or optimistic predictions of future expansion, I am equally sceptical of claims about its impending collapse. Moreover, Scientology is a fascinating religious movement, and whether one approves of it or not – or, indeed, whether one is undecided or merely ambivalent – it is worthy of the effort of further serious scholarship. I see numerous avenues of inquiry which I believe different scholars publishing today, both in the “New Religions Studies” and “Cultic Studies” paradigms, could pursue fruitfully and to the wider benefit of academic knowledge. The panellists here have highlighted some of the external challenges far better than I could hope to do, but I hope that what I have written offers some humble suggestions for how scholars can overcome some of our internal challenges.

Making Space for the Better Book

A number of years ago I attended a keynote lecture during a national religious studies conference at which an esteemed professor declared in exasperated tones; “What Have They Done To My Buddhism?!” The tension in the room, rising during his overtly confessional presentation, reached a silent crescendo at this exclamation. Even I, as a (very) junior scholar of religion, could tell that this respected elder of the establishment had touched something of a nerve with many in attendance. This was an avowedly Academic Study of Religions conference, being put on by the relatively newly formed Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion, which proclaims its non-confessional credentials proudly and upfront.

It was in this environment, studying for both my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and History, and later a Masters in Politics, which I was introduced to Islamic Studies, within the Study of Religions department at University College Cork. I am glad to say that Aaron Hughes’ assessment of the current state of the discipline in the North American context was not my experience in Ireland. To a fairly large extent, it has not been my experience since moving across the small sea to pursue a PhD at the Chester Centre for Islamic Studies (CCIS), within a Theology and Religious Studies department, in the University of Chester.

I have sympathy with some of what Hughes has to say, both in this interview and in his most recently published book Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception. Despite this instinctive sympathy, I feel a level of discomfort with his argumentation. I’m left feeling much the same way I felt in that conference centre during the professor’s claim of offense at what was being done to ‘his Buddhism’. In both cases, an acknowledgement of limitations inherent in our singular perspectives is somewhat lacking. Thomas Tweed draws on Donna Haraway to argue that “self-conscious positioning, not pretenses to universality or detachment, is the condition for making knowledge claims” (Tweed, 2002, 257). While Hughes does go to lengths to explain the position from which he embarks on his academic career in the introduction to Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this self-reflection on the complexity of identity is not really carried through the work, nor is it evident in the interview under discussion. In both the interview, and in the most recent book, Hughes points to an issue of names which struck me as odd. In the interview, Hughes alludes to undergraduate students who contact him to thank him for ‘showing another way’ to approach the study of Islam. He assumes a Muslim identity for these students on account of their Muslim or Arabic sounding names. Again, in the book, names are mentioned when Hughes argues that we can assume Talal Asad has a “personal narrative grounded in postcolonial dislocation” (Hughes, 2015, 53), while theorists with names like Lincoln, Smith, McCutcheon, and we might infer Hughes, may be ‘safely ignored’ due to their names “and not for the force of their criticism” (Hughes, 2015, 53). I found myself thinking, are people surprised when I speak and they hear an Irish rather than German accent (my grandfather originated from Leipzig, bringing his German name with him)? Will my German surname impact on my academic career in anyway which I have not yet envisioned? Should I be focusing on more philosophical avenues to make better use of this name?

As a non-Muslim scholar, working on Islam within the discipline of Religious Studies, actively doing what I would consider (or strive to be) critical scholarship, I can also understand where Hughes is coming from in his concern for the privileging of certain ‘insider’ voices over others. I would have more sympathy if this view was expressed as discomfort with the elevation of specific insiders over others; both insiders who do not conform to a specific type, and outsiders with a more critical approach. It weighs on my mind, particularly when attending conferences with a more direct Islamic Studies slant and a high level of practitioner participation. Will my voice be heard in such a setting? If I raise a more critical point, will my position as a white male result in people in the room, either consciously or sub-consciously, downgrading the importance or value of what it is I have to say? I honestly do not think that this is the case. Attending events hosted by the Muslims in Britain Research Network – a group which actively encourages practitioner involvement in academic study – in recent years, I have never felt that my contribution has been devalued by my positionality. If it was the case that my contribution to any academic discussion was not as appreciated as I may like it to be, I could think of many more reasons for this being the case than my obvious affliction of being a white male, an argument Hughes appears happy to make (Hughes, 2015, 19). We must keep in mind that this discussion is not taking place in a vacuum. As Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj so eloquently argued in a recent piece for the online magazine Media Diversified, being a Muslim in 2016 is to be under constant media bombardment and societal suspicion. It is only right that we ‘white males’ should take time to question our assumptions and identities when engaging in a critical study of Islam(s) and/or Muslim peoples and societal structures.

Again, I can recognise, and sympathise, with some of Hughes arguments regarding the danger of confessional, non-critical scholarship pushing out critical scholars from the academy. If this danger truly does exist, I do not see it being lessened by recourse to an oppositional push back against, and attempting to exclude confessional voices from scholarship. When Hughes argues in the interview that taking a critical approach to our area of study may impact on the possibility of gaining tenured positions or opportunities for career advancement for young scholars, I cannot help but wonder if this also works in the opposite direction. By taking an individual’s theology seriously, does a scholar attempting to do critical work in some way jeopardise their own future career prospects? Will this short blog piece jeopardise my future chances in some American institutions? A real issue alluded to by a friend and colleague with whom I discussed the piece.

It is evident that Hughes is in agreement Russell McCutcheon’s argument that there is a problem of “theology being seen as an academically legitimate pursuit within the study of religion”. In Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this argument comes across in Hughes incredulity that a university press would publish what he considers to be “theology masquerading as scholarship” (Hughes, 2015, 66). But despite my own background in the non-confessional discipline of Religious Studies, I see much value in engaging seriously with scholars of Theology in academic discourse. If we wish to study Islam(s) seriously, be that through a study of early Islamic communities in Europe, converts to Islam in North America, or generational dynamics within transnational Shia networks, we must take seriously the religious understandings of the people who constitute those areas of life.

Much of the interview was taken up with a discussion of the recent controversy around the election of Vice President of the American Academy of Religion[1], and the publication by that same body of a bullet point code of ‘responsible research practices’. Hughes repeatedly remarks that this code is made up of little more than a collection of 25 cent words, with little to offer by way of substance and no real critical reflection. Reading through the document, one can perhaps see his point. It is a call to ‘do no harm’, essentially, an urging to be respectful of fellow academics and recognition that scholarship may be conducted “both from within and outside communities of belief and practice”[2]

A recent debate in print, between the renowned scholar of Islamic Studies Bruce Lawrence, and two academics who were in receipt of a highly critical review from him, provides an example of the danger which Hughes is speaking about as regards a single position dominating the academic space, through a monopolisation of review panels and interview boards. It also, I think provides an example of what the AAR may be referring to when urging scholars to “engage in critical and constructive debate”. In their response to Lawrence’s critique of their work, the academics explicitly call out the “’new orthodoxy’ in Islamic studies” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107), which they argue is particularly prevalent in “fashionable US academic circles” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107). I have not read the book concerned, so cannot comment on the validity of their claim, or the relative fairness of the offending review, but what is clear is that there exists in the United States at the very least a problem of perception; there is the perception that critical scholarship will not get a fair hearing, and there is a perception that theological or confessional scholarship is incapable of being fair. This is disastrous for academic work.

The big tent, which Hughes argues is unsustainable, should be made to hold. We are the ones who can hold it together. Like any large community, we will not always agree with one another, we may often actively and vehemently disagree, and this is healthy. In order to keep the conversation going, and perhaps more importantly, to keep things interesting and keep pushing our own thoughts to new places, we must be willing to engage with those we do not naturally agree with. While the AAR guidelines may be problematic in their broad brush approach, and they certainly lack the nuance we might expect from academic discussion, the intention of fostering civility should be appreciated. Without this holding together of the big tent, if we continue to faction and engage in increasingly partisan conversations, where will the ‘better book’ Hughes is calling for come from?

References

  • Hughes, Aaron (2015), Islamic Identities and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception, Equinox, Sheffield
  • Lawrence, Bruce B. (April, 2015), Tracking Iranian Cosmopolitan Options – At Home and Abroad: A Review Essay of Iranian Identity and Cosmopolitanism: Spheres of Belonging and Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism: At Home and in the World, SCTIW Review
  • Mirsepassi, Ali,&Fernee, Tadd (2015), ‘Defending the Current Academic Orthodoxy in Islamic Studies: A Response to Bruce Lawrence’, Sociology of Islam3 Issue 3-4, pp.107-124
  • Tweed, Thomas A. (2002), ‘On Moving Across: Translocative Religion and the Interpreter’s Position’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol.70 No.2, pp.253-277

[1] essentially President elect due to the way that system works

[2] http://rsn.aarweb.org/responsible-research-practices-statement-standards-professional-conduct-aar-members

How Meanings are Made and Taken Apart: Reflections on Discursive Analysis

In an interview with the Religious Studies Project, professor Kocku von Stuckrad outlines interesting possibilities for discursive analysis. He describes an approach that “goes beyond terms” and also beyond examining political power structures. The interview brought up many important, broad themes that are discussed in the study of religion. This essay is an examination of some thoughts the interview brought up and provoked, also in relation to some practical realities of the academic world.

Discursive analysis has become an important theoretical approach in the study of religion. Seen through the discursive lens, religion is a concept that is being used by different people in different settings in a number of ways. The content of any concept is always changing, always negotiated and contested. Still, there is some room for confusion. This is, in part, because discursive analysis is not exactly a unified approach but rather a collection of approaches.

The type of discursive analysis von Stuckrad speaks of does not only include texts and usage of certain terms, (i.e. how different terms and themes are linked to one another so as to produce knowledge), but also includes institutionalised and materialised products of this knowledge. Von Stuckrad refers to “discourse of practices”, which definitely is a welcome link between language and the material reality, acted and experienced.

This approach goes beyond certain styles of critical discursive analysis, but power relations are not forgotten. As one becomes more aware of how academic knowledge, for example, inevitably shapes the discourses on almost any given theme, and these discourses in turn may shape or create actual practices and institutions, it becomes evident that scholars may actually hold a tremendous power. The next responsible thing to do is to turn a critical gaze to our own institutional links and what kinds of “knowledge agreements,” discursive compounds, we, together with our research, are standing on. As scholars of religion, or of any other subject for that matter, we should pay critical attention to our own position. When we as researchers pick up a concept and use it, we must be aware just how far from sterile, self-evident and unpolitical they are. They come with underlying assumptions, a whole history of negotiations and selection processes.

We must also be aware of how our participation in certain discussions may shape the world around us. In our view, this does not mean that researchers should shy away from these discussions, but that they should enter them understanding the possible weight. Academic knowledge, or language at the very least, will leak into the surrounding society one way or another. Studying topics under some political crossfire can especially attract expectations. For example, studying the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has gained attention from groups and individuals that promote the cause of this movement, and it is entirely possible that all the scholarly attention given to the movement will be pointed at as evidence that it is a movement to be taken seriously also in political debates – this has already been seen in the case of some neopagan groups.

A whole other problem is the fact that scholars from many fields, often cultural studies, have in recent years become quite aware of many possible audiences to their research, not all of which are of the good kind. We can only hope that hate mail and anonymous threats are not a growing phenomenon. And that this sort of publicity will not drive researchers away from the public sphere.

Examining these usages and often especially the power relations – who has the right to define the content of a concept – is at the heart of discursive analysis. And keeping an eye on power relations is more or less a necessity if one wants to dig into how concepts have evolved in time. The very concept of religion is a great example of the historical, setting-specific nature of language. All the more illuminating is to think about how the concept carried its Judaeo-Christian underpinnings into academic research and was used to conceptualize cultural systems that had no such concept in their own reference system.

When scholars start paying critical attention to their particular position and the load of their concepts and ideas, research becomes a consciously two-way process. In order to adequately examine the subject of our research, one must also take a good look at one’s own instruments. We must know them well in order to know what kind of information they can offer us about our subject. This sort of critical perspective should more or less go hand in hand with all research, not only studies that explore discourses.

As for practical applications, there are probably many different ways in which the genealogical point of view von Stuckrad suggests can be incorporated in actual individual research projects. As he points out in the interview, not all research projects need to be discursive analyses. Within a broader framework of discursive understanding, a wide range of methods can still be applied. Still, the discursive reflection should be described in the actual research. As researchers are always making decisions from a particular point of view, they should make an effort to make themselves more visible in the research. Apart from reflecting critically on one’s position and terminology, for example, it is important to report these processes. Only then can the reader examine the way the researcher has reached his or her conclusions.

But what exactly would be the most constructive way to incorporate this reflection in research papers and reports? We have heard warnings about using the chapter titled ‘reflection’ for pouring out all sorts of affiliations, engagements and other caveats, then going on with our research without giving these questions a further thought. This is hardly the kind of critical thinking we are looking for. Another question is, might there also be a risk that research papers become more massive and complex as more of the process is made visible in writing? Simultaneously, other kinds of demands are on the increase in the academia, such as writing as clear, succinct, and reader-friendly academic papers as possible. More transparency, fewer words. Luckily, we at least see developing academic writing further as a meaningful challenge.

In Praise of Polyvocality

A few weeks back, I found myself engaged in a one-sided debate with a colleague/friend over the use of the term ‘non-religion.’ As it was at the end of a two-day conference, it was one of those casual conversations wherein certain sophisticated aspects of the preceding academic discourse spill over into the informality of a chat over drinks.

In other words: like many a conversation amongst academically-minded friends, the casual simplicity of our conversation was periodically peppered with intellectual debate.

This is partly why I refer here to our argument as being rather one-sided, though of course it would be both unfair and erroneous of me to remove myself entirely of any responsibility. After all, I am something of an antagonist [editor’s note: …to say the least]. Then again, I’m also the one telling the story here, so I can shape it any way I wish. Something to consider the next time you read an ethnography.

Nevertheless, from my perspective, our discussion felt ‘one-sided’ because it consisted mostly of my friend emphatically and excitedly arguing (perhaps with himself?) against what he perceived was my own emphatic and excited argument that the term ‘non-religion’ has been reified by those who use it for their own cynical gains. While I would, of course, agree that it has definitely become reified (what term hasn’t?), I could not help but think the argument he was putting forth was veering into a discussion beyond simple term usage. Which, in the end, is partly why I requested to offer this response to Chris Cotter’s interview with Johannes Quack.

The other reason for my request is that while I have, for the last five years, been a rather vocal advocate against the term ‘non-religion’ (for a number of reasons that aren’t exactly pertinent to this particular story), I have also, as I assured my friend, come to believe that the term, and its many cognates, shouldn’t be wholly abandoned. That is, just because it doesn’t work for me, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for someone else.

Which, if we really think about it, is the essence of academic discourse.

This simple argument here will be the focus of this response, the thesis around which I will be using Quack’s approach to non-religion in an Indian context, to not only point out the benefits of differing theoretical and methodological views, but to also make the larger anthropological argument that this discourse about terminology provides a pragmatically curious solution.

I call this thesis: in praise of polyvocality.

At the recent XXIst Quinquennial Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions at the University of Erfurt, I had the esteemed pleasure of having Professor Johannes Quack moderate the panel on which I was presenting: “Current Perspectives on Atheism.” Beyond his intriguing, and rather groundbreaking, research on rationalism in India, Professor Quack is perhaps the ideal individual on which to support my thesis.

During the question-answer section of the panel, which also included a very interesting presentation by Ingela Visuri[1] on the correlation between autism and Atheism, there began an interesting diminutive debate between Johannes and I over our different term usages. Where this might have, as it has in the past, veered into a discussion between contesting advocates with no real solution provided in the end, it in fact proved extremely advantageous, and not just for the benefit of the audience. At one point, when asked if there was a strict difference between his use of non-religion and my use of the term Atheism, and in particular if the former was merely a more broad or essentialist version of the latter, Johannes kindly responded with a similar answer to the one he gives in his RSP interview about his use of the term rationalist: from a straightforward anthropological perspective, because the individuals being studied identify themselves using a particular term, it would be unfair to impose a different one on them other than the one they use. While this permission to allow one’s subjects to speak for themselves, of course, makes the discussion about term usage even more difficult (especially as subjects tend not to agree on terminology), it also offered a useful insight into the pragmatism of using such different terms, as well as an argument against assigning a general one under which they might be categorized.

This also returns my discussion to the issue of reification. Perhaps my greatest argument against ‘non-religion’ has been based on the notion that it stands as a relational umbrella: in the discourse on the academic study of religion, the study of the non-religious represents research being done not so much on the ‘opposite,’ but on the relational periphery. This is something that Chris and Johannes discuss toward the end of their interview. While this might prove useful in the sense that it places the discourse of the study of the non-religious within the larger context of the study of religion, I would argue it also, perhaps by accident, reifies the term in the same way that ‘religion’ has become an umbrella over which we categorize all aspects of being or acting religious. In the end, then, it adopts, from its relationship to ‘religion’, all the issues and ambiguous difficulties we’ve had with that term over the last century or so. This, to me, is less a solution to the problem, than a contribution to it. When we add this to the adolescent growing pains of the study of Atheism, ir-religion, un-belief, non-religion, etc., the result is a rather stunted upbringing. Though I digress.

So, then, to move, here, from the critical to the promotional, in Johannes’ answer, as well as via his discussion with Chris about the differences between group and individual identities at the end of their interview, I believe there is a solution to be found: I would argue that a remedy for term reification, be it Atheism, non-religion, religion, or anything relationally similar, and thus a remedy for the terminological issues we may face as researchers, is found within the straightforward anthropological approach which he advocated for in our panel, only turned around in a reflective manner. That is, where we seek out and promote the pragmatic objectivity in permitting each of our subjects to define themselves in their own terms, there is an equal pragmatism in introspectively allowing ourselves to do the same with our own language. While this approach might develop a rather vast terminological discourse, it also breeds a sense of diversity, which, through an anthropological lens, is more beneficial than it is detrimental to our conclusions.

In fact, when we take a further step back, and view the academic discourse itself as an anthropological subject, these terminological differences become their own types of individual identities. In this way, our debates over terminology become differing voices all contributing to a discourse that together comes to represent a cultural whole. Thus, our differences of opinion become less problematic, and more representative, a polyvocality that together create a group identity filled with different individual ones. Then, and just like we would with our subjects, viewing this discourse objectively fosters a much more nuanced insight into this culture than, say, an argument that one subject embodies his or her culture more than another.

In the end, then, I believe the polyvocality of our discourse is indeed a benefit, particularly because we aren’t all talking about the same thing. Our disagreements and debating and arguing over the proper term usage contributes more and more to the discourse upon which our identity, as an academic endeavor, is formed. Thus, while we might quarrel amongst each other over whether or not our terminology is correct, or whether it better represents our subjects, as subjects ourselves, these discussions are in their own way leading toward a process of identification, and thus a sense of academic congruity. From this third level, then, looking down at ourselves as we look down on our subjects, each layer embodying a unique cultural character, we can better make sense of what it is that we’re studying, as we study it. To do otherwise, to me, seems a bit too much like a one-sided debate.

Suggested Reading

Johannes Quack, Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Johannes Quack and Jacob Copeman, “’Godless People’ and Dead Bodies: Materiality and the Morality of Atheist Materialism,“ Social Analysis, Vol. 59, Iss. 2, 2015.

http://www.nonreligion.net/?page_id=35

http://nsrn.net

http://www.everythingisfiction.org/

Lois Lee, Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Ethan G. Quillen, “Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism,” Science, Religion, and Culture, Vol. 2, Iss. 3, 2015.

[1] https://hig-se.academia.edu/IngelaVisuri

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

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

Chester

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

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

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

Discussion addressed the following questions, and a lot more…

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

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

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

Religion and Literature

How can studying literature help us to study religion? And what the question even mean? In this interview, Alana Vincent, Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Chester, sets out some of the interesting intersections of these two fields. We can glean ethnographic or historical detail from literary works, and sometimes read particular insider discourses in their pages. We can read literature as a “sacred text” – or indeed, “sacred text” as literature”. Does literature, as a form where imagination is allowed free reign, provide a space for authors and readers to explore ‘matters of ultimate concern’, within or without religious institutions?

DSCF0481This interview was recorded LIVE! at the University of Chester on the 15th of October, 2014. Thanks to Chester and to Dawn Llewellyn for making the event possible. The interview leads directly onto the roundtable “Narrative, Ethnography and Reflexivity” which will be broadcast this Wednesday.

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.

What is the Study of Religion/s? Self-Presentations of the Discipline on University Web Pages

Foreword

Here is the first research article on the religious studies project website. In fact, the article also deals with websites: it analyzes the ways in which religious studies (the study of religion\s) is presented on an international sample of university-websites. The authors think this is an important issue for the discipline since these websites are much used nodes of interface between the discipline and its audiences within or beyond the walls of the university. There was no Religious Studies Project website when the authors began working on this article (back in 2010), but coincidentally this seems like the perfect place to publish such a study. Since the text is quite long, Knut Melvær has developed the typographic features on the site, including pop-up footnotes (try mouseover the footnote numbers) and the “sticky” table of contents. Publishing this article online also allows us to make our data-set (“codebook”) available.

We are looking forward to your thoughts and reactions in the comment section below.

The authors wish to thank Reier M. Schoder for helping us with the data collection. Our thanks also go to Steven Engler, Alexander Alberts, Håkon Tandberg, Knut Aukland, and Helge Årsheim for reading and commenting on earlier drafts.

Download the article as a .pdf (But please refer to the online article).

Introduction

Even if the ‘public intellectual’ may not be the preferred job description and role model of all scholars of religion\s (McCutcheon 2001), there is no way of getting around the fact that the study of religion\s, as a discipline practiced at universities around the world, engages in public communication outside the institutional ivory towers.1 In different capacities and to varied degrees scholars of religion\s are involved in public communication and the study of religion\s is itself also an object of public communication. Which roles is it expected to play, and which tasks is it expected to perform? How is the discipline perceived and understood in public discourse? Does it get its messages across? Has it contributed to literacy in religious matters? How is its knowledge distinguished from common-sense assumptions?2

Conversely, in the present article we investigate how the discipline presents itself to the public. What is the study of religion\s, how does it want to be understood by the public, in communication with its audiences and stakeholders? By far the main communicative interface between the discipline and the general public is the internet. People may just make a Google search for ‘religious studies’, ‘study of religion’, ‘history of religions’ or terms like these if they want to know something about this academic and intellectual enterprise. Given the way that Google’s search algorithm is currently set up, one of the top hits would likely be the relevant entry in Wikipedia, i.e. “Religious Studies”. For the critical positioning of the discipline it would be interesting, and maybe even necessary, to analyze the presentation and perception of the study of religion\s as an academic discipline in relevant segments of the internet, including various encyclopaedias or other important sources of information. The present article looks at another interface between the discipline and the public sphere: the self-presentation of the discipline, or the subject, on the websites of universities where it is currently taught.

Most universities with departments of the study of religion\s (under its various names) and offering relevant programs provide some kind of information about the discipline, its practitioners, its educational dimension and ongoing research. While the information given on these web pages is accessible to everybody and where pages may be visited for unpredictable reasons, we assume that most web pages probably have prospective and current students as their main target audience. One also expects these pages to present the relevance and profile of the discipline for a more non-specific audience, in addition to colleagues searching for research-related information and the media looking for experts and sources of information.

Such web pages may well be the most important medium for the discipline to present itself to the public and to its present and future or prospective practitioners. Based on a content analysis of a multinational sample of web pages as per the period October – December 2010 (when we retrieved the relevant data), the present article analyzes patterns of self-presentation of the study of religion\s.

Note that not all these web pages are necessarily written by practitioners of the discipline. We know of some universities where the content of the web pages is effectively beyond control of the faculty, and in many other cases the university imposes restrictions on possible content (in terms of length or kinds of content to be covered, often in the form of templates). In this article, however, we are less concerned with the perspective of the authors, but with the content found on the sites, given that the university web pages convey the impression of describing the discipline and/or the program as understood at the respective institution.

The Sample

While there appears to be no international standard on how university websites are organized, information about educational programs, information about research, and information about faculty (typically listed under departments or schools) feature separately on most websites. The present analysis focuses on two kinds of web pages: those of departments and those of programs in the study of religion\s. It includes only web pages that make some sort of general statements on the study of religion\s by addressing the nature and the working of the discipline.3

In our sampling we started with the website of our own department and those of other Norwegian universities and then cast our net wider. Our final sample comprises 101 texts gathered from websites of 70 universities located in Northern Europe/Scandinavia (Denmark [3], Finland [4], Norway [5], Sweden [7]), Western/South Western Europe (Germany [11], the Netherlands [5], Spain [2], Switzerland [6], UK ([England: 8; Scotland: 6]), North America (Canada [9], USA [22]), the Pacific (Australia [5], New Zealand [6]), and South Africa (2). (See the appendix for the full list of universities and a key to the text IDs used for references in the following.)

Our sample can seem somewhat biased towards some countries or cultural areas.4 Some readers might for example object that the four Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden) are represented by almost as many cases (19 in total) as the United States (22), even though the total number of departments and programs is many times higher in that country. As our sampling strategy aimed at covering national diversity (which we experience as very real distinctions in academic cultures not the least in terms of languages) this strategy clearly privileges Europe with a total of 57 cases, amounting to 56 per cent of our total text sample and 66 per cent of our university sample. Even the European sample, however, does not include all potentially relevant countries. In particular, the European sample excludes Eastern and Central Eastern Europe (mainly for reasons of limited linguistic competence).

Our sampling strategy could not attempt to achieve statistical representativeness for the simple reason that, as far as we can see, there is no reliable data available on the population or the universe (i.e. the totality of all departments and programs in the study of religion\s), and hence there is no means of knowing to what extent this population could be represented accurately by our sample. However, in sampling we sought to cover internationally recognized (by scholarly standards) departments, so that our sample can hopefully claim some degree of ecological validity. For the United States, for example, we tried to include some of the biggest graduate programs.

Even for our selection of countries, given the variety of educational landscapes, media cultures, national contexts of the discipline and the different sizes of the countries, our sample is not, and cannot be, representative in strictly statistical terms. Yet, we hope that our analysis provides some significant findings with relevance for the ongoing critical self-reflection of the discipline. Obviously, statistical data analysis can be used (and is commonly used) even if a sample is not representative and if a study does not aim at arriving at statistically representative findings. Such methods allow us to explore general patterns (and non-patterns) and recurrent themes (or idiosyncratic features) in the material.

The longest text in our sample contains 941 words (University of Alabama #27), while the shortest text has only 34 words (University of Bremen #49). There are a total of eight cases with texts numbering more than 600 words, and there are nine cases using less than 100 words. The arithmetic mean for the sample is 302 words, while the median is 217 words. Given that some texts are longer, it is also likely that they are overrepresented in the following discussion.5

While the study of religion\s is a global enterprise (Alles 2008), our sample was intended to reflect the traditionally predominant ‘Western’ topography of international discourse as it is manifested in international core publications of the field (like the major international journals and works of reference). A minor selection of texts from some further countries published in languages accessible to us would have confounded our sample more than it would have added in clarity. However, we invite scholars from other regions, or with expertise on such regions, to replicate our study and test our findings, if deemed interesting, with a different sample.

Having decided on the sample, we downloaded the texts from the various web pages. We then analyzed the texts for recurrent information and motives. As a result of several rounds of discussion, based on the textual corpus initially generated, we inductively created several categories, which we used to code the downloaded texts. These categories encompass different aspects of the meaning and identity of a scholarly discipline as transmitted at universities. Starting from its name or designation to the definition of its nature and subject matter, we look at statements about its aims, goals and purposes, its methods and main approaches, its relevance, its main thematic issues and areas of specialization, its relationships to other disciplines and field (the disciplinary matrix) and its demarcation from other discourses about its subject matter.6 Given that educational transmission is part of what makes scholarly enterprises into disciplines, we also coded the websites for statements about skills, attitudes and competence ideally transmitted to incoming practitioners of the discipline and employment prospects and career options of graduates, as these aspects are increasingly perceived to be part of education and disciplinary training. Finally, while all these statements are of a verbal nature, we were also interested in the visual aspect of the presentation of the texts.

Designations

Contrary to disciplines such as history, psychology, or sociology, the study of religion\s does not sail under the flag of one common name. Partly, this is the result of the specific genealogy of the discipline, partly of competing self-understandings, partly of different discursive and national contexts. Which designations are used in our sample? Given that we are dealing with texts in different languages, we had to collate semantically synonymous expressions into single categories. Moreover, we found that the names of departments and programs and the names used for the discipline used in the texts can at times diverge. Some cases use different designations.7

Two designations by far dominate our sample:

  • Religionswissenschaft (including religionsvitenskap, religionsvetenskap, Ciencias de las Religiones, and sciences des religions): 22 universities, amounting to slightly more than a third of all 70 universities in our sample. With one exception (Université Laval #71) all cases are from Europe (Denmark [2], Germany [5], Norway [3], Spain [1], Sweden [5], Switzerland [5]).
  • Religious Studies (including Religionsstudier): 21 universities, amounting to 30 per cent of all cases. This name is used by universities in Canada (3), Denmark (1), England (1), the Netherlands (2), New Zealand (4) Scotland (1), South Africa (1), and the USA (8).

In addition to these two predominant designations, which account for 61 per cent (43/70), i.e. almost two thirds, of all cases in our sample, there are six others that occur in between two to five instances each:

  • Comparative religion: four universities, including two in Finland, one in the Netherlands, and one in the USA (The University of Washington #30).
  • Religion: four universities, including one in Scotland, one in Canada, one in New Zealand, and two in the USA. Typically, “religion” features as a department name.
  • The study of religion: four universities, two in Canada, one in England and one in the United States (Duke University (#97/98), where one finds “the study of religion” or “the academic study of religion”).
  • Studies in Religion: three universities, all in Australia.
  • Theology and Religious Studies: two universities, both in the UK (England, Scotland).
  • History of Religions (religionshistorie and religionshistoria): two universities, one in Norway and one in Sweden.

If one were to code ‘Studies in Religion’ and ‘Theology and Religious Studies’ together with ‘Religious Studies’, that category would comprise 27 cases, which would make it the largest category. In addition, there are two unique cases that also combine Religious Studies with another designation. While Divinity clearly refers to theology, it seems that Religious Studies in the latter case also means theology:

  • Divinity and Religious Studies (University of Aberdeen #33)
  • Religious Studies and Comparative Religion (Manchester University #60)

In sum, designations such as Comparative Religion and History of Religions, which were important in former times, are now used by very few universities (less than ten per cent). While Religionswissenschaft and its cognate denominations prevail in continental Europe (with the exception of the Netherlands), Religious Studies predominates in the Anglo-sphere, with the Australian Studies in Religion as one national variety. In the UK, however, one finds several denominations, sometimes in combination with divinity/theology (which does not imply that there are no theologians or theological elements in departments and programs carrying other names). The Study of Religions is not (yet) established as a current term, even though several national and international associations carry this designation in their names8.

‘Religion’

Webpages from 29 universities, corresponding to some 41 per cent of our sample of universities, provide some kind of definitions of the nature of the study of religion\s. In one way or the other, almost all of these statements make the point that the study of religion\s studies ‘religion’, religious traditions or religious phenomena as its subject matter.9 Given this explicit delimitation and the extensive discussions about the concept and definition of ‘religion’ during the past decades, one would not have been surprised to find adumbrations of these discussions, if not explicit reflections on these issues, on the webpages. Yet, it turns out that this is not the case; one wonders whether the webpages seek to avoid being dragged into these abysmal problems.

The most prominent feature of religion evoked by the definitional statements in our sample, in eleven cases, is an appeal to the variety or diversity of religion, religious expressions or phenomena, in time and space. In two cases this corresponds to highlighting the complexity and in one case each the universality of religion or the comparative outlook of the study of religion\s.10

Only six out of 101 texts contain what we would categorize as explicit definitions of religion, i.e. statements that specify what religion is or religions are (about). We are here not thinking of general statements such as “Religion is a major force in human experience” (Indiana University #101), that religions are “historical and cultural phenomena” (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill #32), or that religion is “an essential aspect of the cultures of the world and the interactions among them” (University of Toronto #74).11 Instead, we have in mind more comprehensive and precise determinations that aim at determining the nature of religion\s. Note that four out of these six definitional statements are found on continental European websites (plus one from New Zealand and one from Canada). Only one of these definitions recalls recent debates about the notion of religion:

Religion as such does not exist. It is a concept developed in the West as a label for a wide variety of human ideas and behaviour, which are centered around human interaction with postulated (non- or meta-empirical) realities.

Leiden University #68

While the different definitions play on different theoretical registers, they all emphasize the agency of religion; religion mainly occurs in the active mode. This active voice also resonates in various ‘religion is’ and ‘religion has’ statements or other verbal qualifiers (like ‘to affect’, ‘to shape’, to function’, ‘to set forward’, ‘to underpin’, ‘to matter’, etc.) which occur throughout the corpus of texts.

The texts refer to vast areas of impact of religion, mainly on politics and conflicts, but also generally pertaining to behavior and “human culture and experience” (University of Cape Town #75). Only a minority of texts point to ambivalent or contradictory effects of religion12 and/or they express the statements as a possibility (‘can’; University of Groningen #52; Södertörn University #16; University of Zurich #90). One text makes the point that religion can be a host of different things (Södertörn University #16, which then lists a series of examples). In one case, the possible impact of religion is linked to the motivational force of religious beliefs; this source also refers to conflicting claims by stating that religions “are sometimes accused of limiting or repressing people, yet also offer resources which sustain people through times of suffering and oppression” (University of Glasgow #34), which could be read as a defence of religion against its denouncers. The interdependence of religion with examples of other human constructs is repeatedly mentioned in the texts, especially with culture (yet the agency in these relations is typically assigned to religion).

The emphasis of the impact of religion and its active agency constitute a ‘claim of relevance’. It is unclear to what extent this claim results from empirical research. One way of explaining the persistent presence of this claim of relevance is the rhetorical and communicative setting of the texts, which frames them not primarily as information tools but as advertisement and marketing devices.13 Given that producers of the websites may expect their users to be primarily non-scholars, in particular potential students (and the number of students-intake is often decisive for the future viability of the departments or programs), and given that they may expect that only ‘relevant’ matters attract attention and students, this may result in a relatively uncritical overemphasis on the general importance and agency of religion. We have no means of knowing how effective this marketing strategy is. Yet, if our reading of the ‘claim of relevance’ as a sales strategy to highlight the relevance and necessity for the ‘product’ of our scholarly activities, the study of religion\s, is justified, then it raises the ethical question how far is it legitimate to proclaim things as facts that many would admit in other contexts to be mere assumptions.

Religions

As indicated above, several websites state that the study of religion\s deals with all religions or with a wide cross-cultural range of religions/religious phenomena. These general claims are illustrated on a number of websites with examples. Some 32 web pages provide names of religions (e.g. Islam), of cultural/historical religious traditions (e.g. Egyptian religion), of types of religions (e.g. world religions), of types of religious traditions (e.g. religions without writing), of historical phenomena (e.g. New Religious Movements), of larger geographical units (e.g. the Mediterranean), of macro-geographic units such as continents (e.g. African religions), of modern nations (e.g. religions in Canada) or of cities (religion in Leeds, which is the only case of that type), or related concepts (e.g. spirituality).

Numerically, one group of religions is mentioned far more often than the rest. This groups comprises Islam and Hinduism (18 cases each), Buddhism (17), Christianity (16), and Judaism (14). In our sample, these clearly are the salient examples, or prototypical religions. In practice, then, it seems that the traditional world-religion model is still the dominant one.

There is a second group of religions mentioned by far fewer, i.e. two to five, cases: Confucianism (5), Taoism (4), Sikhism (3), Jainism (2), and New Age (2). This category also comprises some collective terms such as East and South Asia (4), African religion (3), ancient Mediterranean religions (3), religions of China (2), religions in Japan (2), Asian religions (2), religions in America (2), Amerindian religions (2). All other cases are single (‘idiosyncratic’) examples.

Disciplinary Matrix

The debates about the alleged sui generis character of religion and, accordingly, the study of it, have raised the issue of its disciplinary belonging. In our sample, something less than a quarter (24/101) of the texts address the disciplinary setting of the study of religion\s. This happens on several levels. To begin with, there is the context of the university, with faculty having duties in “other university departments and academic programs” (University of Waterloo #63) or by closely cooperating “with other departments in the college and professional schools which have interests in the study of religion” (Emory University #99).

On a meta-level, the study of religion\s is sometimes classified as being part of a branch, class, division or family of academic labor. The University of Vermont regards the study of religion\s as “a crucial part of the wider study of human cultures, global affairs, and personal identities” (#28). More established terms such as the humanities or the social sciences are invoked by relatively few cases.14 From the fact that the “academic study of religion draws directly on all of the humanities and social sciences” the University of Miami concludes that “it invites us to think in a fuller, more integral way about human life” (#26).15 Three cases refer the study of religion\s as a field of study (University of Turku #9; UC Santa Barbara #22; University of Groningen #53). Only two cases identify the study of religion\s as a ‘discipline’—and even this not in the full sense of an academic discipline. While the University of Waikato speaks of a “university discipline” (#84), Duke University opts for the somewhat paradoxical term “interdisciplinary discipline” (#97), emphasizing that it “employs a wide variety of approaches and methods in order to understand the role of religion in both human experience and thought” (#97). In addition, three definitions point to its multi-, trans-, or interdisciplinary nature.16 The web pages clearly show a hesitation to affirm the disciplinary status of the study of religion\s. It is also commonly recognized that the study of religion\s has several branches or sub-disciplines. Anthropology, psychology, or sociology of religion are typical sub-disciplines, even though most active scholars in these fields may well be employed at departments in these disciplines rather than in departments of the study of religion\s.

A greater desire to spell out the disciplinary context of the study of religion\s can be found in Germany and Switzerland, where several texts (University of Bremen #49; LMU Munich #51; University of Zurich #90; University of Berne #92; University of Lucerne #93) firmly identify the study of religion\s as being a Kulturwissenschaft.17 In one case (Bremen) this label is combined with that of Geisteswissenschaft and in another case (Lucerne) with that of the social sciences. As the only non-German speaking example of this contextualisation, the University of Turku refers to a “close relation to different aspects of Cultural Sciences” (#10). Other cases classify the study of religion\s as a humanistic education (Aarhus University #8) or as an education in cultural history (University of Copenhagen #6).

In our sample, four cases explicitly insist on a distinction from theology. One main criterion of distinction put forward by the web pages is the insider/outsider separation: “What the programs offer are not theological studies from within any given religious tradition” (University of Ottawa #73); the study of religion\s “is not grounded in any particular religious tradition but deals even-handedly with religions found throughout the world” (Massey University #80). This issue is related to that of normativity: as the University of Ottawa web page makes clear, the “programs do not consider any religious tradition to be normative” (#73). The University of Alabama identifies the distinction in the different kinds of “data” used by these two “enterprises”: “the academic study of religion studies people, their beliefs, and their social systems; the theological study of religion studies God/the gods and their impact on people” (#27).18 The University of Copenhagen takes a more pragmatic perspective: contrary to theology, the study of religion\s does not educate future priests, and even where it studies Christianity it regards this as a religion in a given cultural and societal context (#6).

The demarcation of boundaries from its confessional or theological other and religious discourses is also made explicit in a few definitional statements from Europe, South Africa, and the United States. The University of Washington briefly remarks that the Comparative Religion Program from the start “intended not to teach religion, but to teach about it” (#30). The University of Lausanne proposes that religions are studied in a non-confessional and ‘exterior’ manner, which is here linked to an implicit definition or theory of religion that regards religions as products of human cultural activity (#95).19 The University of Zurich explicitly holds that it is not part of the business of the study of religion\s to fathom religious truth or to decide which religions are better than other. Moreover, scholars of religion do not need to be religious themselves (University of Zurich #91).

Topics

Besides studying a series of religions and religious phenomena in given geographical contexts, the study of religion\s is also concerned with aspects of religion (such as myth or ritual) or topics relating to religion (such as gender or power). What kind of topics (aspects of religion and issues related to religion) is the study of religion\s concerned with according to our sample of websites?20 While some websites mention such topics in a general manner, other cases refer to research topics of faculty or to potential areas of specialization for undergraduate and graduate students (or topics of past student papers); others, last but not least, list topics of courses that are offered by the respective department or as part of the respective program.

Using these criteria, from our sample of 101 texts, 39 contain relevant information. In total (in our coding) 75 keywords (identified by separate codes) emerged. The majority of these (44) are ‘idiosyncratic’ items, i.e., they are mentioned by only one text. Several of these keywords, however, have been central stage in recent research in the discipline/field. Consider topics such as (in alphabetic order) cognition, ecology (and, in addition, climate change), emotion, ethnicity, gods, health, human rights, identity, immigration, law, media, pluralism, popular religion, post-colonialism, power, race, state, and terrorism. The history of the study of religion\s is likewise mentioned by one text only (The University of Ottawa #72).21  Not represented at all are issues such as evolution or evolutionary theory and material culture (but built environments, i.e. architecture, is mentioned once).

Figure 1: Word cloud of topics mentioned on two or more web pages

Figure 1: Word cloud of topics mentioned on two or more web pages

Keywords with two or more occurrences are here presented visually in a word cloud22, where terms with the lowest frequency (2) are smallest going up in size to those with the highest frequency (11). The ‘interaction of religion’ variable functions as an umbrella code that also encompasses a variety of other keywords; note that we only coded cases using terms like ‘connections’, ‘interaction’, ‘interplay’, ‘interrelationship’, ‘intersection’, and ‘relation’, but we did not include cases that speak of the ‘effect’ of given issues on religion such as the effects of globally connected structures of communication on the emergence of religious ideas and practices mentioned by the University of Zurich (#90) or how such issues affect religion.

At the top of the list, one finds the following four broad categories: politics (10 cases from nine universities), culture (11), ethics (11 from ten universities), and history (11 from ten universities). Each of these represents over a quarter of all texts relevant for this section, and around 10 per cent of the entire sample. Numerically, they appear as the most typical and salient topics in the study of religion\s according to our sample of websites. Apparently, the web pages are primarily concerned with appealing to common ground with other disciplines.

Given that ethics is rarely discussed in major companions and handbooks, its prominence in our sample is somewhat surprising. What does that topic cover? To begin with, as in the case of politics and culture, there are the religion-ethics connections (University of Stirling #38; University of Toronto #74). Duke University addresses ethics as a specific feature of religions just like gender, visual modes, and mysticism (#98), while the University of Southern Denmark (#7) is concerned with the distinctions between religious and non-religious ethics. The department text at Emory University refers to a course on ethics (#99), but when speaking of ethics it is unclear whether that deals with ethics in relation to historical religions or with ethics from a religious background. At Indiana University, it is clearly stated that some faculty members are “primarily ethicists” (#102), and one of the five course areas at the University of Waterloo is called “theology, philosophy, and ethics” (#63). At Uppsala University students analyze difficult ethical problems (#15), while McGill has BA and MA specializations in bioethics (#66), the University of Queensland pays attention to stem-cell research (#85) and Emory University (#100) is concerned with “long-standing debates” over medical ethics (among other issues). From our perspective, all this squarely fits the business of theology and philosophy but is situated outside the realm of a discipline/field seeking to account for religion as historical phenomena (which is where the present writers situate themselves).

Aims, Skills, Competence

The identity of an academic discipline, particularly in the shape of programs of study, is also determined by the aims and goals it sets itself. In total, we coded 29 cases as containing explicit or implicit statements about the purpose of the study of religion\s and/or the aims of the programs. The two most-used key-words are knowledge (11 cases) and understanding (10 occurrences).23  Only very few cases specify the desired kind of knowledge in any way. The Complutense University of Madrid, for example, speaks of providing ‘rational and critical knowledge’ of ‘the religious fact and the evolution of the different religious traditions’ (#77).24 ‘Critical’ or ‘critique’ are recurrent keywords in seven cases, but these terms have a wide range of meanings covering, for example, source criticism and critical theory. The Université Laval proposes the development of a ‘general religious culture’, but adds to this the unfolding of a critical sense both towards one’s own experiences and towards religious and spiritual phenomena (#71).25

The University of Canterbury launches ‘cultural literacy’ as an ultimate aim and holds that one cannot achieve this if one fails to understands the role played by religion and ‘critically’ engages with them (#79). The University of Zurich seeks to provide knowledge and (inter- or trans-) ‘cultural competence’ and thereby hopes to contribute to tolerance and communication or understanding (#90). While this aim refers to a potential societal contribution by the study of religion\s, some other texts, from England and the United States, focus on the desired moral qualities of their alumni. The program at Leeds University wishes to “equip students for understanding, living and working reflectively and responsibly within a plural society” (#58). At Arizona State University, “the faculty of Religious Studies seek to foster civic responsibility and global awareness” (#96). Emory University’s Department of Religion “engages students to understand themselves better as moral agents in the world, and to help them appreciate the moral and spiritual dimensions of the interpretive activity they pursue in the study of religion” (#99). The study of religion\s is here not only conceived as having a moral dimension (in terms of research ethics), but also as having a spiritual one.

In the educational process, the aims, goals, intent and purpose of the study of religion\s are ideally converted into skills and qualifications to be acquired by students and graduates. If properly transmitted and internalized, the theoretical dimension of the academic practice translates into practical knowledge; the students will acquire a specific competence if the discipline performs well. In total, we identified 24 texts (from 21 universities) as containing statements on skills and competences. In several respects, there is an overlap with the aims and goals of the programs.26 Here is a text from the University of Queensland (#85):

Studying Religion can:

  • Develop your understanding and knowledge of the cultural foundations and current trends in many religious and spiritual movements
  • Provide insight into the cultural settings in which various religions are practised, showing ways that societies and individuals construct their own ideas of the spiritual and therefore their own sense of identity
  • Offer you the chance to learn Arabic, Greek, Pali and Sankrit [sic!] to gain insight into other cultures
  • Promote respect, appreciation and understanding of religious and cultural diversity
  • Encourage reflection on your own world view

The reader will immediately recall some keywords and leitmotivs from the aims and scope section (above). Yet, the text is apparently addressed to potential students and its intention is not to make a pronouncement on the aims and scope of the discipline but to list the benefit or pay-off that prospective students can expect to derive from studying religion. The text addresses intellectual, ethical and personal traits. It seems to suggest that the study of religion\s makes students more respectful, appreciative, and understanding with regard to cultural diversity, which is an attitude, but not a skill. Encouraging reflection on one’s world-view (note that the text here avoids speaking of religion) is neither an aim of the discipline nor is it a skill of the student, but a process leading to developing a more reflected and often mature attitude. Another text from the Pacific area, Massey University, similarly announces that students will have the opportunity for personal reflection without being directly exposed to a specific religious message: “Religious Studies will not give you the answers to life’s mysteries, but it will stimulate and inform your own reflection” (#80).

In almost identical wording (which might raise the issue of plagiarism, which unlike scholarly production seems to be tolerated in this kind of texts), two Norwegian texts assert that students will receive knowledge about the relationship between religion and society and a unique cross-cultural competence.27 Several cases appeal to skills of relevance for plural societies. This includes talk of (unspecified) “practical skills needed for understanding and operating in situations where cultures interact” (University of Helsinki #12), “skills in analysis and human interaction” (Lancaster University #55), “a multidisciplinary critical skills base in the area of religion for those in training for, or active within, professions that engage with the religious aspect of multicultural societies” (University of New England #89), “qualifications and skills appropriate for personal development, professional employment and further study in a secular society where religious issues remain influential, though are often unrecognised” and “interpersonal and intellectual skills of empathy with critical distance” (University of Waikato #58).

Some web pages speak of communicative skills in a more technical sense, that of so-called soft or transferable skills. None of these are specific to the study of religion\s. Communication and writing are connected to skills of effectively disseminating academic knowledge to other audiences. Yet, in our sample, it is only the University of Southern Denmark (#7) that emphasizes this skill. In the text, it figures next to adopting an ‘analytical-critical’ attitude towards public debates.

Career Prospects and Employment Perspectives

Some texts create a link between talking about the skills and competences students have acquired by taking a program and potential employment perspectives (#24, #38, #39, #89).28 The career options mentioned here tend to be somewhat vague; the most extreme case, which actually ends up by tracking no path of employment in particular, comes from the University of Cape Town: “Such study provides not only valuable insights into the world in which we live, but also the skills of critical analysis, conceptual thought and imaginative empathy that will allow you to pursue a rewarding career after university” (#76).

26 texts from 23 universities in our sample have something to say about career and employment prospects of their candidates. Three web pages–from Canada, New Zealand, and the USA–address the professional achievements of their alumni. Since they point to a vast array of career options they may be worth quoting in full; by providing some geographical details the Canadian case gives a more authentic and reliable feel:

Some of our Religious Studies majors have found the following jobs: Physician in Sioux Lookout, Ontario; Director of Development Agency in Uganda; Chaplain at Correctional Services Canada; Program Assistant at The Institute for the Prevention of Child Abuse; Teacher of Religion in the RCSS Board; Program Co-ordinator at Catholic Family Services; Youth Pastor in a United Mennonite Church.”

University of Waterloo #64

Former graduates of our programme have gone on to become journalists, artists, musicians, film directors, teachers, gallery directors, librarians and academics.

University of New Zealand #79

Since the inception of the Religious Studies major at the University in the fall of 2000, students have explored careers in public health, medicine, law, ministry, finance, the Peace Corps, and Teach for America.

The University of Texas at Austin #25

Some statements are of a very general nature. Several texts point to the various career opportunities opened up by their respective programs, but they usually list some very broad sectors (University of Southern Denmark #8; University of New England #89; University of Lucerne #93; Arizona State University #96; Duke University #97). Emory University makes it implicitly clear that concrete career opportunities can emerge as a result of an educational intersection of a degree in the study of religion\s with other forms of education: “The broad and deep preparation that Religion Majors develop intersects effectively with preparation in such vocations as medicine, law, business, and public affairs” (#100). Similarly, VU Amsterdam states: “The path you take with your degree in Religious Studies mainly depends on the specialization you opt for in the Master’s phase” (#70).

Given its privileged outsider perspective and intent to distinguish itself from religious discourses, does the study of religion\s qualify for careers directly pertaining to religion? This case is indeed made by several texts from countries in different continents. One text claims that the program prepares candidates for occupations requiring solid knowledge about religions, the relations between religion, culture and society, and a sensitivity for inter-religious relations (University of Bayreuth #39), but the text does not provide names of applicable occupations. The University of Texas at Austin refers to fields that value “the ability to operate in a complex religious setting” (#24), but does not mention which vocations these fields may comprise in particular. The University of New England refers to “professions that engage with the religious aspect of multicultural societies” and it goes on by enumerating a series of such professions: “law, teaching, social work, counselling, journalism, public service, business, marketing, defence, and foreign service, to name but a few” (#89). While it here is the multi-religious aspect of many contemporary societies that potentially qualifies candidates, the University of Canterbury refers to religious institutions as potential employers: “Those interested in careers within religious institutions will find that it affords them a valuable perspective, complementing their faith-based education” (#79). This program seems to offer an additional qualification to that provided by religious institutions, but the work is not directly qualified as comprising religious activities. The VU Amsterdam goes one step further by letting its degree holders adopt a more direct religious role, albeit for non-religious employers: “Or you could go into education or take up a position as a spiritual advisor in a large commercial or non-profit organization” (#70).

The text from the University of Waterloo website quoted above refers to religious professions (chaplain, pastor) and in addition to the jobs held by alumni the text directly refers to such professions: the study of religion\s “Leads to careers such as teaching, chaplaincy, pastoral ministry, and counselling” (#64). The ministry is also given by five other universities as a career option for their graduates. While three cases are from the United States (University of Texas at Austin ##24/25; University of Miami #26; Duke University #97), the remaining ones, in addition to Canada (Waterloo), are from Sweden (Uppsala University #15) and Scotland (University of Glasgow #34); in the latter case, a specialist program is offered for those opting for that vocation.

Turning to specific careers besides those related to knowledge directly related to religion, becoming a school or high-school teacher is the option mentioned by most texts in the category–in total 13 cases, among these seven from Scandinavia and the remaining cases spread across the Europe, North America and the Pacific (University of Amsterdam, Glasgow, Waterloo, Miami, New England, Canterbury). Four cases, among them three from Europe, speak of education in general, without specifically mentioning work as a teacher (VU Amsterdam, Complutense University of Madrid, University of Lucerne, Duke University).

After teaching, academic work, i.e. doing research or working at a University, is listed most often (10 cases from eight universities across the world). This is followed by journalism (nine cases). Teacher, research/academics, and journalism are the three career options mentioned by far most often in our sample.

This top three-group is followed in frequency (four to six cases each) by a series of four occupations, where we can find some regional variation. In addition to the ministry (see above), five cases refer to the media (which, of course, covers a wide range of jobs). With one exception (The University of Canterbury #79), all these cases are from Europe. Culture, including work in a cultural section, a council of cultural affairs, and as cultural advisor, totals four cases, which again are all from Europe. Work in a museum is also listed by four European texts. Law and medicine, on the other hand, are listed only by universities from the United States (with one exception, The University of New England #89, which also lists law).

Four cases, but from three universities (two from the USA, one from New Zealand), refer to social services; to this category one might possibly include the work in the social field mentioned by University Complutense of Madrid (#77). Also four cases (from three universities) refer to work with the government (two cases from the USA, one from the Netherlands). Related career options include the diplomatic/foreign service (three cases: one from the USA, one from Australia, one from Switzerland), public service (three cases with the same distribution by countries). Three European cases (University of Turku #9; University of Gothenburg #13; VU Amsterdam #70) regard the issue of societal integration (presumably of minority groups) as potentially offering career options to their graduates.

Counselling is listed by the University of Waterloo (#64), the University of New England (#89), and the University of Amsterdam (#69). The University of Amsterdam (#69), the University of Canterbury (#79), and the University of Berne (#92) present travel and tourism as offering career options to their graduates. The latter university also mentions work in libraries (three cases in total) and publishing (two cases).

Some additional 25 career options are given by two or one cases only (in addition to the spiritual advisor and some others mentioned above). Some of them are obviously more vague than others and some terms may have different shadings of meaning in different national context. They are here collated to form seven thematic clusters:

  • defence, politics, public administration, public affairs, state
  • development work, humanitarian organization, international organization, NGO’s, peace corps
  • discrimination, migration, minorities
  • physician, public health
  • artist, gallery director
  • business, finance, human resources welfare, marketing, staff management
  • communication, dissemination, information

Visual Representations of the Study of Religion\s

Most university websites have photos and pictures in addition to the textual material. Images tend to liven up text-heavy web pages and complement the themes communicated in the texts. Arguably, such images and photographs tell their own story of what the study of religion\s is. They are also crucial in ensuring the multi-medial experience that now seems to be expected on the web. Our sample for this discussion comprises 151 individual images downloaded from the web pages and 10729 screenshots.30 17 of these do not have any images on them. 54, i.e. more than half, have one image (this also includes some visual collages, i.e. i.e. a combination of several images and graphic elements). 31 of the pages have between two and four images. The remaining five show between five and seven images.

From the 151 images two main categories can easily be identified: images related to (1) the subject ‘religion’ (86) and (2) to the educational context (41).

Images from the ‘educational context’31 category depict situations where students and scholars are engaged in a lecture, seminars or reading in libraries. Most of these images do not include any signifier for religion. Arguably, for prospective students these images portray what the study of religion\s practically appears like at the universities. In a sense they are objective representations of the study of religion\s as a social practice: people who discuss, read, and write. Even if some of the images may originate from fieldwork, we see no scholars of religion in the field (engaged in participant observation), studying manuscripts or the like. This resonates with the absence of reflexive elements in the texts (as analyzed above).

There are 17 images of the various department and university buildings where the study of religion\s is located. Most (12) of these images are of a building in classical architectural style. In addition, there are eight pictures of staff-members, either as portraits or as group-photos.

How is religion presented in these images? Our analysis of the textual materials has brought to light that there is a strong tendency to represent religion as a force, having an impact on a range of other spheres. In addition to this ‘claim of relevance’, religion is conceptually related to psychology, identity, politics, ethics and existentialism. Moreover, the texts tend to present religion as a historical universal. Do the images reflect the same emphasis on relevance and universality?

34 of the total sample of 86 images related to religion depict material structures, mainly statues (25) and buildings (churches, mosques, stupas) (21). There are 26 occurrences of actual people in this category, 17 of these engaged in what seems to be a ritual context, evenly distributed between scenes from Christian and Hindu contexts, in addition to some few portraying Buddhists, Jews and Sikhs. (This selection seems to be rather evenly distributed across countries.) The overlap between material structures and people is surprisingly small; there are only eight occurrences where the two codes overlap, and since two of these occur in collages (#52–3; #101–2), only five pictures remain that depict people are set in either interaction or proximity with a religious structure (#16 [two pictures]; #46; #63; #97). It is obvious that the anthropological emphasis communicated by the texts is not supported by the images. Even if somebody must have built these material structures at some time, the images portray religion as historical monuments, things of the past, something static and fixed.

When taking a closer look at the images that portray people (26) we find that more than half (17) show people in a ritual context.32 We see Hindus and Buddhists performing puja (#63), Christians of both priesthood and laity praying (#16), Jews praying in front of the Western Wall (#97), and a Japanese crowd engaged in a Shinto festival (#16). The other half comprises without exception portraits and full-figure photos of people in some form of religious attire (#9; #52–3; #82). Despite the tendencies in the textual material to represent religion as a force in human lives, and as something with relevance to life’s many aspects, this message is not transmitted by the selection of images.

Recall the main topics listed on the web pages. From the top of the list (politics, culture, ethics, history), only two can said to be a recurring theme in the image material. We get a sense of history from the old buildings, statues and religious sites. If ethics is a regulation of behaviour, one could argue that it is implicitly visualized in images of rituals, but it does not occur in any more direct manner. In a broad sense, ‘culture’ is present in any photography. In the texts, religion is related to culture more in the sense of being present in ‘other areas’ of (a) culture. Surprisingly, none of the images place religion or religious actors in such a setting, nor, for that matter, in contexts related to politics33 or ethics. Even if these topics may be abstract constructions, it is not difficult to imagine how they could be visualised. As a matter of fact, the relationship between religion and politics appears visually in newspapers and news broadcasts on a daily basis. Religion is often embedded in public institutions and the places of everyday life be it images of Catholic saints on hospital walls, images of Mecca in kebab shops, pupils wearing religious symbols or the presence of Mormon pioneers in a busy city street. The examples are plenty and could be used to support the kind of claims made in texts.

There are no images that identifiably relate to the remaining terms in the topics section such as cognition, ecology, climate change, health, human rights, identity, immigration, law, media, post-colonialism, power, race, state, and terrorism, cinema and film, the economy, public life, word-views, death/dying, mysticism, shamanism, violence, the interaction or interface of religion with other ‘systems’, globalization and gender.

Above (section RELIGIONS) we saw that there is especially one group of religions that are mentioned more than others. The same goes for the sample of pictures, but with a slightly different ranking: Christianity (26), Hinduism (16), Buddhism (11), Islam (9), Judaism (7).34 These are clearly a representation of the commonly recognized ‘world religions’. The rest of the pictures (16) comprise images relating to Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, New Age, Paganism, Shintoism and Confucianism, which may give the impression of some variety of religious traditions. Other prominent religions such as Mormonism, the Baha’i Faith, Jainism, Scientology, or the internal diversity within the ‘world religions’ are not represented.

There are several cases (11) where the images are presented in a collage. In some few cases (2) collages are used as part of the header on the page with the department logo. What all these have in common, is that they compile images from different religious traditions, from East and West. In a sense, this visualizes the plurality of religion\s and the global perspectives often claimed in the texts. Let us take a look at one example. On the website for Victoria University of Wellington we found the portraits of Virgin Mary, Krishna, John Lennon and former US president George W. Bush (retrieved 2011-23-03).

Figure 2, Collage on Victoria University of Wellington web page (March 23, 2011)

Figure 2, Collage on Victoria University of Wellington web page (March 23, 2011)

These portraits are arranged around the message “Never in the history of the world has the study of religion mattered more”. Where Virgin Mary and Krishna are figureheads for Christianity (Catholicism) and Hinduism (Krishnaism) respectively, Lennon and Bush appear as important persons in contemporary religious scenarios. Arguably, Bush and Lennon juxtapose American mainstream Protestantism, power and politics (Bush) and alternative spirituality (Lennon); note that Lennon is much more centrally situated in the composition (even though somewhat to the left), while Bush appears as right wing marginal figure. This is one of the very few visual representations found on a study of religion\s web page that suggests that the discipline does not only deal with the prototypical religious histories, but also with modern politics and popular culture. Interestingly, as if to confirm our diagnosis this collage was subsequently replaced by a row of five pictures, out of which four are views from outside of religious buildings without the presence of any human beings (and correspondingly the textual message, which reflected the ‘claim of relevance’, has been taken out).35

Figure 3, Collage on Victoria University of Wellington web page (May 29, 2011)

Figure 3, Collage on Victoria University of Wellington web page (May 29, 2011)

Conclusion

For religion, most texts seeking to represent the study of religion\s in our international sample of web pages flag its diversity, agency or impact; they mainly communicate a ‘claim of relevance’, probably serving as a kind of selling point. Key topics in the study of religion\s highlighted by the texts are mainly politics, culture, ethics, and history. Methods are rarely mentioned on the web pages. Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism are the religions mentioned most often by far; implicitly, the discipline seems still dominated by a ‘world religions’ approach. In general, however, the meta-analysis of the state of the discipline according to its public self-presentation on the university web pages point to a rather limited degree of intellectual coherence both with regard to selection of information and its content. Reflexive statements, i.e. statements that self-critically address the parameters of the study of religion\s on a meta-level, are almost absent in our sample; the web pages show an alarmingly low degree of reflexivity. This is in striking contrast to vigorous debates that have characterized the field during recent decades. As we see it, this should be reflected more prominently on future web pages. This leads us to some observations and recommendations concerning best practice.

Recommendations

In light of what we have learned from this analysis, with all due caveat we want to end on a constructive note: How should the study of religion\s be represented on university websites: what are the best practices? There are many ways to address this question. For example, plenty of good advice can be found in foras36 about web content management, but that is beyond our scope in this article. Instead, we will restrict our observation to the main categories of our analysis. We do not claim to sit on the definitive solution to this challenge, but we hope to stimulate to greater attention being paid to how the study of religion\s is represented on the web:

  • Designations. While acknowledging the need for departmental identity and institutional history, it may be useful to flag a reference to a disciplinary umbrella, i.e. the study of religion\s. It is also important to highlight association membership and point to other institutions where there is a close relationship. E.g. The Department of Religious Studies belongs to the discipline of the study of religion\s and is a member of the IAHR. We have an exchange arrangement with the School of Divinity in Edinburgh.
  • Religion. Presentations should include a reflection on the issue of defining the subject matter and the inherent problems of the concept. If there is a need for “claiming relevance”, efforts should be made to provide concrete (rather than general) examples where such relevance is achieved or to present this as a guiding hypothesis rather than as an ontological or historical truism. E.g. As scholars of religion we feel obligated to always reflect on the question “What is religion?”. ‘Religion’ can be defined differently depending on whom you ask and where the question is posed. At our department we tend to teach and research religion as a global phenomenon that can be found in all societies with varying impact on culture and society: from the apocryphal Gospels’ influence on modern popular culture to the Goddess devotion in India.
  • Religions. Webpages should not uncritically reproduce and privilege the notion of “world-religions” and be aware of different taxonomical approaches. E.g. We offer courses in Buddhism, New Religious Movements and Islam. In each different tradition, different periods and geographies are surveyed: from modern Zen Buddhism, Wicca, to East-European Sufi-practices.
  • Disciplinary Matrix. Presentations should more accurately portray how they deploy sub-disciplines and achieve inter-disciplinarity, or multi-methodology (if desired). To us, in some educational contexts it seems important to explicitly make the distinction from theology since the two are often confused in public. That being said, maybe it is time to turn the coin and emphasize what we may perceive as our strengths, rather than just stating that the study of religion\s is not theology. E.g. Several scholars at our department work with scholars from other disciplines, such as the Department of Sociology. In our program you are given the opportunity to learn how methods such as philology and statistics are used to research religion. The study of religion\s is often confused with theology; while both disciplines share an interest in “religion”, our program provides a comparative and agnostic approach, and does not privilege any specific religious traditions.
  • Topics. While it is tempting to make lists and general remarks of the topics one might deal with in the study of religion\s, try to restrict such list to those which actually are prominent within the research and study programs at the department. This creates proper expectations and gives relevant information for both potential collaborators and prospective students. E.g. At our department we are interested in how religion intercepts with politics. We do also offer courses where you can study the relationship between gender discourses and Muslim ideologies.
  • Aims, Skills, Competence. It is common for disciplines within the humanities to struggle with certain (utilitarian?) expectations related to employment prospects and public benefit. While such expectations invites us to form ideas of what skills and abilities we want in a study of religion\s graduate, we should not undermine the value of knowledge for its own sake. E.g. We challenge our students to develop a better understanding of religion\s and have the ability to approach religious with a comparative and critical mindset. Our students should also be able to relate what they know about religion\s to other fields in culture and society.
  • Career Prospects and employment perspectives. Hopefully, most of those with a background in the study of religion\s are in some form of career or employment. We should make an effort to find out what their education is actually used for, and portray this on the websites through for example testimonials. This also invites departments to think about certain occupational areas they want to focus on. E.g. If you are interested in international relations and diplomacy, our Department offers courses in Religion and Politics that have been reported to be useful for our students in such professions.
  • Visual Representations. This is one of the aspects where websites (per 2011) have the greatest need to improve. It should not be hard to come up with original and relevant images, photographs and even videos to present and visualise both religion as it is studied (rather than as it is visualized in tourist guidebooks), but also the study of religion\s as something consisting of scholars and students at work.

Knut at work

Knut at work

  • Reflexivity. The underlying leitmotiv of several of these recommendations is to stimulate to greater reflexivity. We should no longer hesitate to acknowledge our own positionalities and perspectives, including their limitations; to our eyes, rather than limiting the appeal of the texts this will improve their credibility.

Bibliography

Alles, Gregory D. (ed.) 2008, Religious Studies: a global view, Routledge, London.

Alles, Gregory D. 2011. “What (kind of) good is Religious Studies.” Religion 41: 217-223

Antes, Peter 2002. “Why should people study History of Religions?” In Giulia Sfameni Gasparro (ed.), Themes and Problems of the History of Religions in Contemporary Europe. Proceedings of the International Seminar Messina, March 30-31 2001 / Temi e problemi della Storia delle Religioni nell’Europa contemporanea. Atti del seminario Internazionale Messina, 30-31 Marzo 2001, Edizioni Lionello Giordano: Cosenza, 41-52.

Engler, Steven and  Michael Stausberg 2011. “Introductory essay. Crisis and creativity: opportunities and threats in the global study of religion\s.” Religion 41: 127-143.

McCutcheon, Russell T. 2001. Critics not Caretakers: redescribing the public study of religion. State University of New York Press: Albany.

Stausberg, Michael 2011. “The Bologna process and the study of religion\s in (Western) Europe.” Religion 41: 187-207.

Appendix

Errata

  • “African religion” → “African religions”

Notes

1 See Engler / Stausberg 2011 for the disciplinary status of the study of religion\s. As noted there, the idiosyncratic use of the backslash, which is followed here, is meant to index a series of theoretical and meta-theoretical questions regarding the referents and framing of ‘religion’ and ‘religions’.

2 While the public understanding of science and technology has become a field of study in its own right (witness publications such as the journal Public Understanding of Science, published by SAGE since 1992), the public understanding of humanities and social sciences seems comparatively underdeveloped.

3 Information provided on faculty is not included because such pages typically do not make statements about their respective understandings of the discipline (and even if they do, this information is that of individuals and not of institutions) but mainly provide information on career, publications, fields of research and courses taught by the individual faculty member. Nor do we include information on single courses, partly because such courses can be offered even where there is no department or specialized staff available, partly because the boundaries are unclear (a course on Buddhism, for example, can be offered by study of religion\s departments, by South Asian area studies programs or by Indian languages departments), and partly in order not to inflate our sample.

4 See the appendix for a full index of the cases.

5 Our study combines strategies often referred to as ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ forms of analysis. In order to reflect the quantitative distribution of cases, in writing we tried, as much as possible, to stick to the following stylistic rule: when speaking of “few” cases we are referring to between two and five cases; when speaking of “some” cases, we are referring to between six and ten; “several” refers to between 11 and 20; “many” to between 21 and 60; “most” refers to 61 and more.

6 For reasons of space and relevance the following discussion does not include results of all coding exercices.

7 Consider the example of Leiden University (#68). The University has the Leiden Institute for Religious Studies (LIRS), which offers different master’s programs, including a Master in Religious Studies. This program has seven tracks, including once called Comparative Religion. This program has several courses, including Comparative Religion: Themes and Topics in the Study of Religion, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, and a Required General Course Religious Studies. On different levels, Leiden University thereby uses no less that three designations (Religious Studies, Comparative Religion, Study of Religion).

8 E.g. the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR), the Canadian Society for the Study of Religion/La Société Canadienne pour l’Étude de la Religion, the Finnish Society for the Study of Religion, the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), and the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR).

9 In addition, a very small group of webpages extends the scope of the discipline to cover, e.g., “folk beliefs, worldviews, and ideologies” (University of Helsinki #12) or “the faiths, world views, practices, and ways of life that have, both historically and in the contemporary world, shaped the actions and allegiances of human beings” (Emory University #100).

10 Diversity: Aarhus University (#8); Philipps-Universität Marburg (#47); LMU Munic (#51); Université Laval (#71); University of Zurich (#90). Diversity and complexity: University of Otago (81#); Victoria University of Wellington (#83); University of Zurich (#91).  Diversity and universality: The University of New England (#88-89). Diversity and comparison: University of Washington (#30).

11 There are eight cases for universality or omnipresence of religion in our sample.

12 Religions “bring people together, but they also play a role in conflicts, and time after time they lead to public debate.” (University of Groningen #52); “In der spätmodernen Migrationsgesellschaft können Religionen das friedliche Zusammenleben ebenso erleichtern wie erschweren.” (University of Zurich #90).

13 See Antes (2002) for an attempt to identify “profit making strategies” (41) to promote the discipline. According to Antes the genuine contribution of the discipline is to “go on and concentrate on religion as a shaping force of culture and society, as an introduction to human variety in worldviews and as models for concord and discord among people.” This resonates with texts published on several homepages.

14 Examples for the classification as “humanities” come from New Zealand (Massey University # 80; Victoria University of Wellington #83) and Australia (University of New England #89). The University of Alabama speaks of “the anthropological approach to the study of religion as practiced in the public university” as being “a member of the human sciences (#27).

15 One wonders if that recalls the language of an integral humanism as proposed by Eliade.

16 Interdisciplinary: LMU Munich (#51); multidiscplinary: University of Ottawa (#72); transciplinary: University of Lausanne (#95: “L’histoire et les sciences des religions regroupent différentes disciplines qui se spécialisent dans l’étude scientifique des religions”).

17 Kulturwissenschaft is an umbrella term for which there is no real equivalent in any other language. In the German context, this term, which has replaced Geisteswissenschaften as a guiding notion, typically includes a range of disciplines or fields such as anthropology, ethnology, history, literary and media studies and sometimes also the social sciences. In the German speaking countries, claiming legitimate membership in this family of disciplines has been crucial for the study of religion\s as a platform of affirming its non-theological and post-phenomenological identity.

18 One can imagine that many theologians would regard this as a caricature of their business.

19 “Ces disciplines étudient les religions d’un point de vue non confessionnel, ‘extérieur’, et les envisagent comme un produit de l’activité culturelle humaine” (University of Lausanne #95).

20 When coding our sample for issues (aspects/topics) we ignored cases discussed in relation to definitional matters as well as the selection of religions/regions and methods discussed in other parts of this essay. Some themes are borderline cases. Consider Bible, philosophy, and theology. Since the Bible is an aspect of some religions rather than of religion\s in general, we ignored this here. Philosophy and theology can be aspects of religion\s insofar as many religions can be said to have their own philosophies or theologies (in which case they would be relevant for this section), but philosophy and theology can also refer to academic disciplines–and since the cases mentioning these words seem to refer to the latter meaning of these terms we ignored them here.

21 Even the much debated issue of fundamentalism is mentioned only once.  Here are some other topics we found noteworthy: amulets, capitalism, clothing,  holocaust, justice, museum, war.

22 The word cloud is created with Wordle (http://wordle.net, retrieved 2012–11–30)

23 The third term in terms of frequency is ‘to analyze’ or ‘analysis’ (six cases). Somewhat less frequently used is the verb ‘to interpret’ or the adjective ‘interpretive’ (two cases each). Three texts speak of insight (twice as noun, once as verb). The verb ‘to learn’ occurs twice and so does the noun ‘empathy’. Two texts speak of ‘examining’, whereas ‘inquiry’ and ‘to comprehend’ only occur once each. Also words referring to explanation and theory are mentioned only once each (in both cases in the verbal form).

24 “Proporcionar un conocimiento racional y crítico del hecho religioso y de la evolución de las diferentes religiones” (Complutense University of Madrid #77). The text continues by referring to instruments of analysis and critique.

25 “En plus de permettre le développement d’une culture religieuse générale (les approches générales du fait religieux ou les grandes traditions religieuses à travers le monde), les cours favorisent l’évolution d’un sens critique, tant à l’égard de sa propre expérience qu’à celui des phénomènes religieux et spirituels” (Université Laval #71).

26 The capability of analysis or to analyze is the skill mentioned by most cases (9), followed by understanding/to understand (5) and the ability to interpret (4). Insight is mentioned as a skill in three cases. Three cases engage speak of ‘reflection’. Among the cognitive skills mentioned by one or two cases we find ‘to compare’, ‘to describe’, ‘to examine’, ‘to explain’ and ‘to explore’.

27 “I kombinasjon med støttefaget får du kunnskap om forholdet mellom religion og samfunn og en unik tverrkulturell kompetanse” (University of Bergen #1). “Du får kunnskap om forholdet mellom religion og samfunn og en unik tverrkulturell kompetanse” (University of Oslo #3).

28 The notion of ‘employability’ has achieved worldwide resonance in higher education; for its implications, limitations, relevance, and career in Western Europe with regard to the study of religion\s see Alles 2011; Engler/Stausberg 2001; Stausberg 2011.

29 Observant readers may noe that this sample is slightly larger than the sample of texts (consisting of 101 web pages). The reason for this is that some websites randomize between a set of images on their site everytime you access the page in a web browser.

30 Unfortunately, we failed to take screenshots in the first phase of data collection, but did so only some months later (on May 29, 2011). In the meanwhile, of course, some web pages had changed their appearance, not the least their visual content. We still think that our findings are relevant and valid.

31 Images of cheerful students enjoying lively discussions are probably merely ‘stock photos’ indiscriminately used for whichever department sites. One exception is the University of Bayreuth where actual photos from the department’s students are used.

32 Note that the images appear to keep on changing rather quickly. Several of the images mentioned in the following can in the meanwhile no longer be seen on the web pages.

33 There is one notable exception, where the profile of president George W. Bush is used in a collage (see below).

34 In the texts Islam and Hinduism are mentioned more often.

35 http://www.victoria.ac.nz/sacr/about/overview-intros/religious-studies.aspx (retrieved 2011-06-27)

36 The online magazine A List Apart is a good place to start learning more on writing for the web (http://www.alistapart.com/topics/content/writing/ [Retrieved: 03.01.13]).

It’s the Fruits, not the Roots: A Response to Ralph Hood

IMG_1422-1Hood’s approach has no flaws from the standpoint of an observing scientist; but, on the personal level, one may have trouble distinguishing between the cause and the consequence.

It’s the Fruits, not the Roots: A Response to Ralph Hood

By Joshua James, Henderson State University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 22 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ralph Hood on Mysticism (20 May 2013)

When I began outlining my response to this interview—which is an intriguing psychological look at mystical experience through the filter of one of the most insightful minds dealing with the subject today—I wanted to remain as objective as possible and remove the influence of my personal experience. I found it nearly impossible. One method for addressing the intersection between lived experience and academia is through reflexivity.  In the article, “On Becoming a Qualitative Researcher: the Value of Reflexivity,” by Diane Watt, the author notes the importance of juxtaposing one’s self in relation to their research interest. By the researcher or author stating their worldview (or in some cases bias) the reader has a better understanding of not only the structure of inquiry but also the interpretive frame of the author’s position. In the case of Watt (2007), her experience as a school teacher informed her paradigm of inquiry.

Watt’s argument for reflexivity relaxed my reluctance. Watt kept a journal of her experience and combined her reflexive exploration with quantitative research to construct an academic product with multiple layers of depth in inquiry both in terms her research interests and in self-reflection of perceptions in analysis. Watt found her journal quite helpful: “Through the writing process, I was able to excavate memories of my own classroom practice.” I realized that when I listened to the interview with Ralph Hood, that I had “excavated” memories of my own. Thus I decided that not only would including my first-hand experience be helpful to my argument, it would be ill-advised not to include it, possibly even irresponsible.  This paper is written in relation to my own reflexive experience of understanding mysticism and the profound themes posed by Dr. Ralph Hood’s podcast.

When I first read William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, a text to which Dr. Ralph Hood refers liberally, I strongly connected with an account given by an agnostic man during a lecture entitled “The Reality of the Unseen.” James identifies him only as “a scientific man of my acquaintance.” A portion of the account follows:

Between twenty and thirty I gradually became more agnostic and irreligious, yet I cannot say that I ever lost that ‘indefinite consciousness’ which Herbert Spencer describes so well, of an Absolute Reality behind phenomena…I had ceased my childish prayers to God, and never prayed to It in a formal manner, yet my more recent experience show me to have been in a relation to It which practically was the same thing as prayer…I know now that it was a personal relation I was in to it, because of late years the power of communicating with it has left me, and I am conscious of a perfectly definite loss.[1]

While at the time of the writing, James’ acquaintance was over twenty years older than the age I am now, his early experience virtually mirrors my own.

I’m a skeptic. However, like the man to whom I refer above, I have, rarely, turned to prayer in times of desperation, and I have always had a sense that there was someone else involved with the world; someone to whom I owed thanks for undeserved good fortune, someone who heard my thoughts, someone who compelled me to feel guilty or embarrassed even when no human could possibly have known the mistake I made. I have had, in spite of my agnosticism, an experience that could be classified as a “mystical experience,” the details of which I shall not go into, but I did experience a degree of transcendence in the sense that I lost emotional control and it seemed as if someone else had this control. It occurred during a period of temporary desperation which prompted me to pray to whom I do not know for the first time since my childhood (which was spent in a Pentecostal church).

Hood makes clear in this interview that what he is interested in, with regard to spiritual experience, is the interpretation of an experience rather than the cause of an experience. That is to say that regardless if one’s spiritual experience occurs during prayer, deep self-reflection, or after swallowing a couple hits of blotter acid, the consequences and interpretation of the experience, usually involving a transcendence or “loss of self,” validates the experience. Hood’s approach has no flaws from the standpoint of an observing scientist; but, on the personal level, one may have trouble distinguishing between the cause and the consequence.

I will refer to my own experience to demonstrate my point. I could interpret my experience as evidence, or even proof, for the more fundamentally-minded reader, of the existence of God, and as confirmation of the validity of the scripture. It could have been the reassurance I had been looking for to readopt my faith.

But because I understand, or more appropriately, believe I understand the cause, my interpretation is different. I neither pretend to be an expert in the field of psychology nor do I deny that the human brain is still a mystery to those who are, but I know enough to know that the brain is powerful. And to know that suggestion is powerful. Therefore, given that I was in a state of desperation and asking an invisible, unknowable presence for a mercy of which I felt unworthy, my brain created the experience. My complexly constructed brain used overtly simple logic to rationalize a scenario where something special had happened to me: I asked someone—and I deeply hoped this someone existed—for something and I had received it, therefore that someone must have given it to me. Furthermore, as I previously stated, I felt undeserving of the mercy I received. Because I felt undeserving, it was natural to feel gratitude, and I don’t think I’m being too presumptuous when I suggest that it is the nature of human mentality to focus our gratitude or blame, anger or affection onto a person, or Supreme Being in this instance.

Make no mistake, Hood’s argument is not lost on me, neither do I disagree with it. Hood would likely argue that whether I had chosen to view the experience as faith-affirming or to view it in terms of Freudian reductionism, the experience occurred and I had interpreted it, therefore the experience is validated. The very fact that it happened makes it real, regardless of its roots. I am simply arguing that the roots are sometimes related to the “fruits,” as William James calls them.

Hood’s approach holds so long as we reject the possibility of objective truth. Take, for instance, the example given in the interview regarding psychedelic drugs. Hood argues that the experience should not be dismissed simply because it was caused by synthetic means, that is to say, only the cause is synthetic, the consequence is very much natural and real. On the one hand, if, while on an acid trip, one realizes through a transcendent experience that he or she has become angry and short-tempered recently, and as a result modifies his or her behavior, then the roots of the experience should not nullify the lesson learned. On the other hand, if, while on an acid trip one has, through a transcendent experience, become convinced whole-heartedly of the existence of God, then the validity could be called into question. Hood would argue that if one arrives at this conclusion through mystical experience, it should not be dismissed simply because the cause was hallucinogenic drugs rather than prayer. To his point, if one gained this same certainty through experience caused by other means, I would lend it no more validity; but, it becomes more difficult to distinguish the cause from the consequence.

Despite the rejection of my childhood religion, I have always wanted for the supernatural world of heaven and spirits to exist. The fact I want to believe only adds to my skepticism; I wish there was a heaven, therefore it becomes easier to convince me it is so, and thus I remain wary. If you have ever watched an episode of Ghost Hunters on the Syfy network and seen how disappointed people appear when they discover that their house is not haunted, then you understand what I mean. People would rather be in danger than be wrong, and we would choose almost anything over being alone and insignificant. If we have a heaven, or even a suggestion that there is something after death, say a spiritual experience, then we do not have to fear the loneliness of death. For centuries, the West believed unquestioningly that God created the Earth and all the plants and creatures specifically for us and that it was the center of the entire universe. This arrogant insistence upon being special has been deeply embedded in our collective unconscious for some time. The discoveries made along the road to the present were increasingly more difficult to deal with until we finally became the most dominant animal on one of many billions of rocks in a universe too big for us to even begin to measure. It is no surprise we want to believe. Thus even today any experience of some transcendence must be interpreted as special conversation between the individual and God himself, or whatever entity or realm in which one believes.

For Hood, my cynical interpretation only proves his point: the consequence of the experience is all that matters; the religious among us will interpret it religiously, and the non-religious among us will interpret it non-religiously. A spiritual world exists because people continue to experience it. It is a post-modern and pragmatic philosophy, and it serves him well. Take Hood’s and Paul Williamson’s work with the Lazarus Project for example. The addicts replace the drug experience with a spiritual experience, and if it benefits them, who could question its validity. And of course, if someone manages to reveal the spiritual world to be an objective part of the natural world, it will undoubtedly be discovered through the mythological agnostic approach used by scientists like Ralph Hood who refused to be limited by presumptions.

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

IMG_1422-1Joshua James is in graduate school at Henderson State, Master of Liberal Arts with an emphasis in social science in progress. He received his B.A., major in History from Henderson also, and has worked in the restaurant business for years. Recently he has become passionate about writing and just this semester has taken an interest in journalism, something I never attempted as an undergrad.

References

  • James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penquin, 1982.
  • Watt, Diane. “On Becoming a Qualitative Researcher: The Value of Reflexivity.” The Qualitative Report. 12 (2007): 82-101.

[1] William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience. (New York: Penguin, 1982), 64-5.

Podcasts

New Directions in the Study of Scientology – A View from the Academy

Each of the scholars involved on this panel has raised some of the historical and contemporary challenges associated with studying Scientology (or, as they suggest, “Scientologies”) and their thoughts about potential directions forward in circumstances which can sometimes feel like a frustrating research impasse. To my mind, what has stood out most clearly across the entire discussion is just how politicised and contested the study of Scientology has become – or, I would suggest, has always been – and the myriad of challenges scholars face in positioning themselves to pursue their research in light of this polarized scholarly context. While advances have been made in some areas of the wider study of New Religions toward less polarization, the topic of Scientology in many ways continues to appear intractable and resistant to scholarly analysis, though things appear to be slowly changing.

The panelists have surveyed extremely well some of the outside conditions which need to be in place for scholarship on Scientology, in its various garbs, to move forward and I concur with many of their observations here, particularly regarding their desire for the leadership institutional Church of Scientology to become more open to research and the need for greater emphasis on the lived/vernacular religion of everyday Scientologists. I’m also pleased to be able to write that since this panel was recorded Donald Westbrook’s Among the Scientologists has become available in e-Book form, a publication which I hope will start some new conversations about ways forward in this field of research. However, for this to happen, scholars of religion need to first think seriously about whether how can realistically respond to these external factors and to acknowledge what factors fall well outside of our capacity to change.

Without belabouring the point in this informal response I think we need to recognise and reflect at much greater length on the fact that the peculiarly historically-conditioned nature of this contested topic which we might, somewhat grandiosely, call “Scientology studies” places quite severe limits on scholars in what they can do to move discussions forward in terms of media depictions; the approach of the institutional Church of Scientology to research and dialogue; and the attitudes former members. All our panelists have recognised and given voice to some of the reasons for this and listeners should be attentive to their collective wisdom here. I have much more to say about these three aspects, but suffice to say here that I am less than sanguine about the prospects for change in these areas, though not entirely unhopeful. Within academia, however, I’m slightly more hopeful and in this response I turn my attention to this question: What might those in the academy change in how we approach researching Scientology and how might we move toward a depolarization in terms of scholarly paradigms?

For scholarly research on Scientology to move forward I humbly suggest that at least four interrelated proposals should be considered here; none of which is original or unknown in the wider study of New Religions. Firstly, scholarly discussion must take place without fear or favour between scholars according to scholarly conventions and unimpeded, so far is realistically possible, by unreasonable attempts at moral suasion regarding publication and research by outside stakeholders from the Church or from ex-members and critics. Second, a generational transition and willingness to work to put to rest past conflicts between scholars and scholarly paradigms in a spirit of mutual academic endeavour. Third, a more coherent and organised research program which draws on multiple fields of expertise and recognises the contribution of all serious and rigorous research. Fourth, increased reflexivity and moral accountability amongst scholars whereby we acknowledge our individual blind-spots and embrace some kind of scholarly common good model. To be emphatic, none of these are novel proposals, but I believe they bear repeating.  

I am under no illusions that what I envision below is a very likely outcome, but idealism and aspiration are not in themselves necessarily bad things and if we can name some of the problems and start a conversation in a respectful tone here that is a first step.

 

 

  • Scholarly Dialogue

Hitherto, as our panelists have each noted, public discussion of Scientology, arguably more than any other New Religious Movement (NRM), has lent itself to an immense degree of rancour and acrimony and too often scholarship is used or abused here to support or attack various positions – often quite apart from scholars’ intentions and sometimes with collateral damage to academics and their personal and professional reputations.

For scholarship on Scientology to move forward scholars need to be confident when writing and publishing that their work will be judged on its academic merit alone and not on whether or not their conclusions are of utility in the mobilization and counter-mobilization between various parties involved in the “cult scene.” Scholarly contributions of the discussion of Scientology need to be scholarly and stand up to rigorous peer-review which stands as far as possible above overt partisanship or virtue signalling. Scholarship, however, also needs to be made a safe-space for genuine and probing inquiry, ideally not a site of fear, self-censorship, or activism (which it has sadly often become).

For this to happen both the Church of Scientology and its critics, as well as scholars with differing opinions on Scientology, need to respect a rigorously neutral scholarly sphere where the kinds of moral suasion often applied to scholars at present are minimised and the position of the scholar qua scholar is respected. In such a situation we need to maintain a space for conversation which recognises differences of perspective, but holds each contributor whether they be serious insider; an academically serious critic; or any other scholar to the same rigours of peer-review and scholarly role neutrality.

The contested nature of Scientology will continued to mean that the politicisation of scholarship here is inevitable, but petty point-scoring exercises and untamed abuse are not, and we need to be able to recognise good scholarship and research for what it is, regardless of who has done it, their past publications or affiliations, or indeed whether or not we agree with them. We need to be willing to give “voice” to different perspectives and not to allow academic processes to be subtly hijacked to silence “dissent.” This might seem like the current status quo, but sadly it often isn’t, and we need to work to de-politicise as far as possible and realistic the academy and work toward an ideal of role neutrality as a scholarly norm.  

Current often heavy-handed attempts at moral suasion by various parties against those they alternatively label “cult critics,” “apostates,” or “cult apologists,” serves little scholarly end other than to entrench an “epistemological Manicheanism” (to borrow a phrase from the late Thomas Robbins); to silo scholars into sometimes monologic paradigms; and ultimately to impede research moving forward in different and fruitful directions. As Eileen Barker, a scholar who has worked exceedingly hard toward dialogue and methodological rigour and paid the price by being the frequent target of unfair abuse, has reminded us for decades now, different social constructions of reality are operating between (sometimes) mutually exclusive parties, scholarship will only move forward if we can recognise this and acknowledge its operation in our own work (a point taken up further below). Scholars can only work toward overcoming this impediment by open and respectful dialogue across what have become somewhat “party lines,” but for it to proceed further, more good will is needed. This brings me to my next suggestion.

 

  • Generational Change

I am hesitant to raise this, but I feel it must be articulated, even at the risk of dredging up ancient history. As our panelists clearly allude to, a clear deficit of trust and good will exists between some scholars who have written on Scientology. The often-combative nature of discussion between the “New Religions Studies” and “Cultic Studies” paradigms, as outlined by W. Michael Ashcraft in A Historical Introduction to the Study of New Religious Movements (2018), has meant that old grudges have died hard. Anyone doubting this should spend the time reading the thoughtful debates in Sociological Analysis (1983) on “sponsorship”; the Nova Religio (1998) debate on “academic integrity”; and the edited volume of Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins Misunderstanding Cults (2001) and various reviews. The reasons for these disputes are well known (and often justifiable) to the parties involved and without apportioning blame or pointing fingers it must be said that mistakes have been made on both sides of the scholarly fence. Rather than extending such conflicts into the future, however, I believe a younger generation of scholars who have not been directly party to these controversies need to open doors for dialogue here and take up the baton of scholarship rather than crying foul over perceived past injustices or perpetuating mistrust.   

This will be a significant challenge for many of us, from both paradigms, but I suggest probably less for scholarly than personal reasons. Most of us studying NRMs, whether we follow a “New Religions Studies” paradigm or a “Cultic Studies” paradigm (and I do not believe the two are necessarily mutually exclusive and that no middle ground exists), have in one way or other been supervised or mentored by an older generation of scholars and feel obliged to defend their legacy. However, the last few years have witnessed a series of important volumes on Scientology featuring a multi-generational cast of contributors, bringing a combination of new and entrenched perspectives on the issues at hand. There is much to learn from these works, but for us to do so we have to actually read one-another’s contributions seriously, and I suggest with a hermeneutic of charity.  

War-weary veterans of the “cult wars” might be hesitant to do this for many the wounds received are still raw but younger scholars should consider this. The up-and-coming generation of scholars here need to have the courage to cite and quote work from different perspectives, and more importantly, to engage in respectful scholarly discussion and rigorous debate with different perspectives without resorting to ad hominem attacks or a self-righteous party spirit. If the serious study of NRMs is to continue as a subfield in religious studies, and not fade away into a rancorous oblivion of competing but not conversing paradigms, younger scholars need to work harder to publish together in the same journals, collaborate where necessary, and divide labour where appropriate. We do not need to carry on personal disputes between our forebears into the next generation.  

As a starting point, we might consider, as far as possible, refraining from acrimonious reviews of work from another paradigm which fail to appreciate good scholarship for what it is, but instead focus on critical points of pedantry which fail to see the forest for the trees. This brings me to my third point.

 

  • A Realistic and Collaborative Research Program

If a serious and academically enriching dialogue can be seriously broached we will also have to recognise that by virtue of the highly politicised and polarised nature of the study of Scientology, divisions of labour in the kinds of research we do exist and are often necessary. However, by speaking openly about the challenges of our different kinds of research, rather than operating in isolation, we can enrich rather than denude or undermine each other’s work.

Scholars in the “New Religions Studies” paradigm have often established relationships with various kinds of Scientologists and are often privy to information which may not be accessible by those studying other stakeholders. Similarly, scholars in a “Cultic Studies” paradigm often have greater cache with former members than is often the case for those who are in conversation with the institutional Church or, as our panelists remind us, have been labelled as “cult apologists.” Both groups of scholars have built relationships with informants which operate on mutual trust and respect and bring with them both written and unwritten obligations. Both groups of scholars also risk, however, the “contagion of stigma” which can easily operate to discredit them with other stakeholders by virtue of their positionality and lead to concerns being raised by stakeholders about real or perceived duplicity (what we might call – mimicking pagan studies – the “Wallis Effect”).

While I don’t prima facie disagree with the idea that a scholar can both specialise in research on current and former members of the Church of Scientology, the opportunities for moral suasion multiply in situations of conflict and a more collaborative and cooperative division of labour across paradigmatic lines might provide a pragmatic rather than an ideal way forward which recognises the highly charged field in which “Scientology studies” operates. Some pressure to “take sides” will be applied no matter what we do, all we can do as scholars, however, is work to be role neutral and peer-review and respect each other’s work in scholarly spirit rather than operate with a bunker mentality.  

A present we lack a truly synoptic account of Scientology and in the contemporary academy such an account is unnecessary and arguably undesirable. What we have instead is a growing number of single-subject studies which cumulatively add to our understanding of Scientology in a more holistic sense, as a religion functioning within a wider social sphere and in interaction with mutual conversation partners. A piecemeal and respectful development of such studies is a goal we should pursue in unison, but as scholars, not as partisans.

 

  • Increased Reflexivity and Moral Accountability

Part of any dialogue is a recognition of past faults and a willingness by scholars to own our mistakes. Reflexivity in scholarship is important, but difficult, and publicly owning up to our shortcomings is often unbefitting with the tone of our times, which I suggest favours a dangerous trend toward “epistemological Manicheanism” and feigned moral righteousness. Nowadays it is often more convenient to retreat into a sense of righteousness and close our ears to uncomfortable truths; especially when we may have felt compromised, co-opted, or deceived by our informants or misunderstood by our critics and colleagues. Some will always resort to self-justification here and that is unavoidable. Scholars, from both camps, however, need to be more discerning before following this path.

While none of us can easily overcome various personal biases or lenses which impact on our work, we can acknowledge them and I suggest we need to do this far more readily. Instead of assuming a panoptic scholarly lens we must acknowledge the limitations of our viewpoint at the outset and make our own positionality more explicit. Are we focusing on written documents, ex-member informants, current member informants, or both? What is our analytic lens and our methodology? While these seem very standard questions for any good research, they are often missing in popular, but sadly also “scholarly,” discussions of Scientology. But as scholars when our knowledge is piecemeal we are obliged to acknowledge it.

The politicised nature of Scientology research has meant that when scholars are asked about Scientology by various parties (usually by the media or other outside stakeholders) they often default to a position of “expert knowledge,” similarly when former members are asked they default to a position of “privileged knowledge,” rarely do either resort to careful qualification and epistemological humility. There is no shame to not knowing everything and we must be more ready to admit this – and to point to it in others in a spirit of inquiry. Piecemeal knowledge is worthwhile because it highlights certain gaps which require further analysis, assuming that our piecemeal knowledge is all encompassing just opens us to methodological critique. Each serious scholar brings pieces to the jigsaw puzzle, but our individual pieces cannot make a complete picture (though some might be more revealing than others).

Those of us studying Scientology need to continually take stock about the impact of our scholarship beyond the yellowing-pages (or broken URLs) where our research appears. What we publish will influence how different parties relate to us and we need to be aware of this. However, our first, though not only, obligation needs to be to the academy and while we might have strong feelings about matters like religious freedom and social justice, we can only go so far as our research permits and acknowledge more readily when we simply don’t know!

 

Is this possible?

What I suggest above probably will likely seem radical to many, methodologically naïve, and perhaps even utopian or foolhardy to others. As a historian, however, I suggest that to dismiss the potential for a shift in how we approach “Scientology studies” is short-sighted. Not so long ago the “World Religions” were only studied internally by practitioners or by hostile outsiders and missionaries. Today we have experts in various religious traditions who have no personal affiliation to these groups, but by virtue of scholarly inquiry have attained a vast knowledge of these traditions, sometimes superior in certain senses to lived practitioners. Similarly we have experts who belong to these traditions, who can speak accurately and illuminatingly, if not always authoritatively, on their own beliefs. There is no unamendable reason why this can’t be the same for Scientology. As J. Gordon Melton has been reminding us for decades, it is possible to study Scientology!

On this note, I, for one, would welcome Scientologists and former members seriously contributing to academia, but like our panelists I believe such prospective contributors must realise that academic knowledge and apologetic intent are usually mutually exclusive. However, I would welcome the emergence of serious Scientology theologians, who can critically reflect upon the Tech and dialogue constructively on its application in scholarly fora.

For non-Scientologists studying the group, I suggest, that we have a choice: we can either learn to live and speak with and about Scientology in an academically constructive and productive way, in a spirit of dialogue, or we can decry it and seek to marginalise it. There will always be those who will favour denunciation over dialogue and who will remain unwilling or unable to listen to the other side. The weight of history suggests, however, that at the end of the day decrying Scientology will make little difference to all but a few, and dialogue will probably make small, incremental, and perhaps for a time imperceptible shifts. Eureka moments in understanding and knowledge are few and far between, but building a piecemeal understanding through mutual labour and cooperation seems a better way to me than a studied and intransigent resistance which seeks to maintain a polarized status quo situation.

Scientology is a reality in the contemporary religious landscape and, historically naïve predictions of its demise notwithstanding, it seems certain it will survive long after many of its critics. From a historical perspective the Church is far healthier demographically, institutionally and financially than it has probably ever been and while I respectfully doubt its own numeric claims to growth or optimistic predictions of future expansion, I am equally sceptical of claims about its impending collapse. Moreover, Scientology is a fascinating religious movement, and whether one approves of it or not – or, indeed, whether one is undecided or merely ambivalent – it is worthy of the effort of further serious scholarship. I see numerous avenues of inquiry which I believe different scholars publishing today, both in the “New Religions Studies” and “Cultic Studies” paradigms, could pursue fruitfully and to the wider benefit of academic knowledge. The panellists here have highlighted some of the external challenges far better than I could hope to do, but I hope that what I have written offers some humble suggestions for how scholars can overcome some of our internal challenges.

Making Space for the Better Book

A number of years ago I attended a keynote lecture during a national religious studies conference at which an esteemed professor declared in exasperated tones; “What Have They Done To My Buddhism?!” The tension in the room, rising during his overtly confessional presentation, reached a silent crescendo at this exclamation. Even I, as a (very) junior scholar of religion, could tell that this respected elder of the establishment had touched something of a nerve with many in attendance. This was an avowedly Academic Study of Religions conference, being put on by the relatively newly formed Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion, which proclaims its non-confessional credentials proudly and upfront.

It was in this environment, studying for both my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and History, and later a Masters in Politics, which I was introduced to Islamic Studies, within the Study of Religions department at University College Cork. I am glad to say that Aaron Hughes’ assessment of the current state of the discipline in the North American context was not my experience in Ireland. To a fairly large extent, it has not been my experience since moving across the small sea to pursue a PhD at the Chester Centre for Islamic Studies (CCIS), within a Theology and Religious Studies department, in the University of Chester.

I have sympathy with some of what Hughes has to say, both in this interview and in his most recently published book Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception. Despite this instinctive sympathy, I feel a level of discomfort with his argumentation. I’m left feeling much the same way I felt in that conference centre during the professor’s claim of offense at what was being done to ‘his Buddhism’. In both cases, an acknowledgement of limitations inherent in our singular perspectives is somewhat lacking. Thomas Tweed draws on Donna Haraway to argue that “self-conscious positioning, not pretenses to universality or detachment, is the condition for making knowledge claims” (Tweed, 2002, 257). While Hughes does go to lengths to explain the position from which he embarks on his academic career in the introduction to Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this self-reflection on the complexity of identity is not really carried through the work, nor is it evident in the interview under discussion. In both the interview, and in the most recent book, Hughes points to an issue of names which struck me as odd. In the interview, Hughes alludes to undergraduate students who contact him to thank him for ‘showing another way’ to approach the study of Islam. He assumes a Muslim identity for these students on account of their Muslim or Arabic sounding names. Again, in the book, names are mentioned when Hughes argues that we can assume Talal Asad has a “personal narrative grounded in postcolonial dislocation” (Hughes, 2015, 53), while theorists with names like Lincoln, Smith, McCutcheon, and we might infer Hughes, may be ‘safely ignored’ due to their names “and not for the force of their criticism” (Hughes, 2015, 53). I found myself thinking, are people surprised when I speak and they hear an Irish rather than German accent (my grandfather originated from Leipzig, bringing his German name with him)? Will my German surname impact on my academic career in anyway which I have not yet envisioned? Should I be focusing on more philosophical avenues to make better use of this name?

As a non-Muslim scholar, working on Islam within the discipline of Religious Studies, actively doing what I would consider (or strive to be) critical scholarship, I can also understand where Hughes is coming from in his concern for the privileging of certain ‘insider’ voices over others. I would have more sympathy if this view was expressed as discomfort with the elevation of specific insiders over others; both insiders who do not conform to a specific type, and outsiders with a more critical approach. It weighs on my mind, particularly when attending conferences with a more direct Islamic Studies slant and a high level of practitioner participation. Will my voice be heard in such a setting? If I raise a more critical point, will my position as a white male result in people in the room, either consciously or sub-consciously, downgrading the importance or value of what it is I have to say? I honestly do not think that this is the case. Attending events hosted by the Muslims in Britain Research Network – a group which actively encourages practitioner involvement in academic study – in recent years, I have never felt that my contribution has been devalued by my positionality. If it was the case that my contribution to any academic discussion was not as appreciated as I may like it to be, I could think of many more reasons for this being the case than my obvious affliction of being a white male, an argument Hughes appears happy to make (Hughes, 2015, 19). We must keep in mind that this discussion is not taking place in a vacuum. As Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj so eloquently argued in a recent piece for the online magazine Media Diversified, being a Muslim in 2016 is to be under constant media bombardment and societal suspicion. It is only right that we ‘white males’ should take time to question our assumptions and identities when engaging in a critical study of Islam(s) and/or Muslim peoples and societal structures.

Again, I can recognise, and sympathise, with some of Hughes arguments regarding the danger of confessional, non-critical scholarship pushing out critical scholars from the academy. If this danger truly does exist, I do not see it being lessened by recourse to an oppositional push back against, and attempting to exclude confessional voices from scholarship. When Hughes argues in the interview that taking a critical approach to our area of study may impact on the possibility of gaining tenured positions or opportunities for career advancement for young scholars, I cannot help but wonder if this also works in the opposite direction. By taking an individual’s theology seriously, does a scholar attempting to do critical work in some way jeopardise their own future career prospects? Will this short blog piece jeopardise my future chances in some American institutions? A real issue alluded to by a friend and colleague with whom I discussed the piece.

It is evident that Hughes is in agreement Russell McCutcheon’s argument that there is a problem of “theology being seen as an academically legitimate pursuit within the study of religion”. In Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this argument comes across in Hughes incredulity that a university press would publish what he considers to be “theology masquerading as scholarship” (Hughes, 2015, 66). But despite my own background in the non-confessional discipline of Religious Studies, I see much value in engaging seriously with scholars of Theology in academic discourse. If we wish to study Islam(s) seriously, be that through a study of early Islamic communities in Europe, converts to Islam in North America, or generational dynamics within transnational Shia networks, we must take seriously the religious understandings of the people who constitute those areas of life.

Much of the interview was taken up with a discussion of the recent controversy around the election of Vice President of the American Academy of Religion[1], and the publication by that same body of a bullet point code of ‘responsible research practices’. Hughes repeatedly remarks that this code is made up of little more than a collection of 25 cent words, with little to offer by way of substance and no real critical reflection. Reading through the document, one can perhaps see his point. It is a call to ‘do no harm’, essentially, an urging to be respectful of fellow academics and recognition that scholarship may be conducted “both from within and outside communities of belief and practice”[2]

A recent debate in print, between the renowned scholar of Islamic Studies Bruce Lawrence, and two academics who were in receipt of a highly critical review from him, provides an example of the danger which Hughes is speaking about as regards a single position dominating the academic space, through a monopolisation of review panels and interview boards. It also, I think provides an example of what the AAR may be referring to when urging scholars to “engage in critical and constructive debate”. In their response to Lawrence’s critique of their work, the academics explicitly call out the “’new orthodoxy’ in Islamic studies” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107), which they argue is particularly prevalent in “fashionable US academic circles” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107). I have not read the book concerned, so cannot comment on the validity of their claim, or the relative fairness of the offending review, but what is clear is that there exists in the United States at the very least a problem of perception; there is the perception that critical scholarship will not get a fair hearing, and there is a perception that theological or confessional scholarship is incapable of being fair. This is disastrous for academic work.

The big tent, which Hughes argues is unsustainable, should be made to hold. We are the ones who can hold it together. Like any large community, we will not always agree with one another, we may often actively and vehemently disagree, and this is healthy. In order to keep the conversation going, and perhaps more importantly, to keep things interesting and keep pushing our own thoughts to new places, we must be willing to engage with those we do not naturally agree with. While the AAR guidelines may be problematic in their broad brush approach, and they certainly lack the nuance we might expect from academic discussion, the intention of fostering civility should be appreciated. Without this holding together of the big tent, if we continue to faction and engage in increasingly partisan conversations, where will the ‘better book’ Hughes is calling for come from?

References

  • Hughes, Aaron (2015), Islamic Identities and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception, Equinox, Sheffield
  • Lawrence, Bruce B. (April, 2015), Tracking Iranian Cosmopolitan Options – At Home and Abroad: A Review Essay of Iranian Identity and Cosmopolitanism: Spheres of Belonging and Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism: At Home and in the World, SCTIW Review
  • Mirsepassi, Ali,&Fernee, Tadd (2015), ‘Defending the Current Academic Orthodoxy in Islamic Studies: A Response to Bruce Lawrence’, Sociology of Islam3 Issue 3-4, pp.107-124
  • Tweed, Thomas A. (2002), ‘On Moving Across: Translocative Religion and the Interpreter’s Position’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol.70 No.2, pp.253-277

[1] essentially President elect due to the way that system works

[2] http://rsn.aarweb.org/responsible-research-practices-statement-standards-professional-conduct-aar-members

How Meanings are Made and Taken Apart: Reflections on Discursive Analysis

In an interview with the Religious Studies Project, professor Kocku von Stuckrad outlines interesting possibilities for discursive analysis. He describes an approach that “goes beyond terms” and also beyond examining political power structures. The interview brought up many important, broad themes that are discussed in the study of religion. This essay is an examination of some thoughts the interview brought up and provoked, also in relation to some practical realities of the academic world.

Discursive analysis has become an important theoretical approach in the study of religion. Seen through the discursive lens, religion is a concept that is being used by different people in different settings in a number of ways. The content of any concept is always changing, always negotiated and contested. Still, there is some room for confusion. This is, in part, because discursive analysis is not exactly a unified approach but rather a collection of approaches.

The type of discursive analysis von Stuckrad speaks of does not only include texts and usage of certain terms, (i.e. how different terms and themes are linked to one another so as to produce knowledge), but also includes institutionalised and materialised products of this knowledge. Von Stuckrad refers to “discourse of practices”, which definitely is a welcome link between language and the material reality, acted and experienced.

This approach goes beyond certain styles of critical discursive analysis, but power relations are not forgotten. As one becomes more aware of how academic knowledge, for example, inevitably shapes the discourses on almost any given theme, and these discourses in turn may shape or create actual practices and institutions, it becomes evident that scholars may actually hold a tremendous power. The next responsible thing to do is to turn a critical gaze to our own institutional links and what kinds of “knowledge agreements,” discursive compounds, we, together with our research, are standing on. As scholars of religion, or of any other subject for that matter, we should pay critical attention to our own position. When we as researchers pick up a concept and use it, we must be aware just how far from sterile, self-evident and unpolitical they are. They come with underlying assumptions, a whole history of negotiations and selection processes.

We must also be aware of how our participation in certain discussions may shape the world around us. In our view, this does not mean that researchers should shy away from these discussions, but that they should enter them understanding the possible weight. Academic knowledge, or language at the very least, will leak into the surrounding society one way or another. Studying topics under some political crossfire can especially attract expectations. For example, studying the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has gained attention from groups and individuals that promote the cause of this movement, and it is entirely possible that all the scholarly attention given to the movement will be pointed at as evidence that it is a movement to be taken seriously also in political debates – this has already been seen in the case of some neopagan groups.

A whole other problem is the fact that scholars from many fields, often cultural studies, have in recent years become quite aware of many possible audiences to their research, not all of which are of the good kind. We can only hope that hate mail and anonymous threats are not a growing phenomenon. And that this sort of publicity will not drive researchers away from the public sphere.

Examining these usages and often especially the power relations – who has the right to define the content of a concept – is at the heart of discursive analysis. And keeping an eye on power relations is more or less a necessity if one wants to dig into how concepts have evolved in time. The very concept of religion is a great example of the historical, setting-specific nature of language. All the more illuminating is to think about how the concept carried its Judaeo-Christian underpinnings into academic research and was used to conceptualize cultural systems that had no such concept in their own reference system.

When scholars start paying critical attention to their particular position and the load of their concepts and ideas, research becomes a consciously two-way process. In order to adequately examine the subject of our research, one must also take a good look at one’s own instruments. We must know them well in order to know what kind of information they can offer us about our subject. This sort of critical perspective should more or less go hand in hand with all research, not only studies that explore discourses.

As for practical applications, there are probably many different ways in which the genealogical point of view von Stuckrad suggests can be incorporated in actual individual research projects. As he points out in the interview, not all research projects need to be discursive analyses. Within a broader framework of discursive understanding, a wide range of methods can still be applied. Still, the discursive reflection should be described in the actual research. As researchers are always making decisions from a particular point of view, they should make an effort to make themselves more visible in the research. Apart from reflecting critically on one’s position and terminology, for example, it is important to report these processes. Only then can the reader examine the way the researcher has reached his or her conclusions.

But what exactly would be the most constructive way to incorporate this reflection in research papers and reports? We have heard warnings about using the chapter titled ‘reflection’ for pouring out all sorts of affiliations, engagements and other caveats, then going on with our research without giving these questions a further thought. This is hardly the kind of critical thinking we are looking for. Another question is, might there also be a risk that research papers become more massive and complex as more of the process is made visible in writing? Simultaneously, other kinds of demands are on the increase in the academia, such as writing as clear, succinct, and reader-friendly academic papers as possible. More transparency, fewer words. Luckily, we at least see developing academic writing further as a meaningful challenge.

In Praise of Polyvocality

A few weeks back, I found myself engaged in a one-sided debate with a colleague/friend over the use of the term ‘non-religion.’ As it was at the end of a two-day conference, it was one of those casual conversations wherein certain sophisticated aspects of the preceding academic discourse spill over into the informality of a chat over drinks.

In other words: like many a conversation amongst academically-minded friends, the casual simplicity of our conversation was periodically peppered with intellectual debate.

This is partly why I refer here to our argument as being rather one-sided, though of course it would be both unfair and erroneous of me to remove myself entirely of any responsibility. After all, I am something of an antagonist [editor’s note: …to say the least]. Then again, I’m also the one telling the story here, so I can shape it any way I wish. Something to consider the next time you read an ethnography.

Nevertheless, from my perspective, our discussion felt ‘one-sided’ because it consisted mostly of my friend emphatically and excitedly arguing (perhaps with himself?) against what he perceived was my own emphatic and excited argument that the term ‘non-religion’ has been reified by those who use it for their own cynical gains. While I would, of course, agree that it has definitely become reified (what term hasn’t?), I could not help but think the argument he was putting forth was veering into a discussion beyond simple term usage. Which, in the end, is partly why I requested to offer this response to Chris Cotter’s interview with Johannes Quack.

The other reason for my request is that while I have, for the last five years, been a rather vocal advocate against the term ‘non-religion’ (for a number of reasons that aren’t exactly pertinent to this particular story), I have also, as I assured my friend, come to believe that the term, and its many cognates, shouldn’t be wholly abandoned. That is, just because it doesn’t work for me, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for someone else.

Which, if we really think about it, is the essence of academic discourse.

This simple argument here will be the focus of this response, the thesis around which I will be using Quack’s approach to non-religion in an Indian context, to not only point out the benefits of differing theoretical and methodological views, but to also make the larger anthropological argument that this discourse about terminology provides a pragmatically curious solution.

I call this thesis: in praise of polyvocality.

At the recent XXIst Quinquennial Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions at the University of Erfurt, I had the esteemed pleasure of having Professor Johannes Quack moderate the panel on which I was presenting: “Current Perspectives on Atheism.” Beyond his intriguing, and rather groundbreaking, research on rationalism in India, Professor Quack is perhaps the ideal individual on which to support my thesis.

During the question-answer section of the panel, which also included a very interesting presentation by Ingela Visuri[1] on the correlation between autism and Atheism, there began an interesting diminutive debate between Johannes and I over our different term usages. Where this might have, as it has in the past, veered into a discussion between contesting advocates with no real solution provided in the end, it in fact proved extremely advantageous, and not just for the benefit of the audience. At one point, when asked if there was a strict difference between his use of non-religion and my use of the term Atheism, and in particular if the former was merely a more broad or essentialist version of the latter, Johannes kindly responded with a similar answer to the one he gives in his RSP interview about his use of the term rationalist: from a straightforward anthropological perspective, because the individuals being studied identify themselves using a particular term, it would be unfair to impose a different one on them other than the one they use. While this permission to allow one’s subjects to speak for themselves, of course, makes the discussion about term usage even more difficult (especially as subjects tend not to agree on terminology), it also offered a useful insight into the pragmatism of using such different terms, as well as an argument against assigning a general one under which they might be categorized.

This also returns my discussion to the issue of reification. Perhaps my greatest argument against ‘non-religion’ has been based on the notion that it stands as a relational umbrella: in the discourse on the academic study of religion, the study of the non-religious represents research being done not so much on the ‘opposite,’ but on the relational periphery. This is something that Chris and Johannes discuss toward the end of their interview. While this might prove useful in the sense that it places the discourse of the study of the non-religious within the larger context of the study of religion, I would argue it also, perhaps by accident, reifies the term in the same way that ‘religion’ has become an umbrella over which we categorize all aspects of being or acting religious. In the end, then, it adopts, from its relationship to ‘religion’, all the issues and ambiguous difficulties we’ve had with that term over the last century or so. This, to me, is less a solution to the problem, than a contribution to it. When we add this to the adolescent growing pains of the study of Atheism, ir-religion, un-belief, non-religion, etc., the result is a rather stunted upbringing. Though I digress.

So, then, to move, here, from the critical to the promotional, in Johannes’ answer, as well as via his discussion with Chris about the differences between group and individual identities at the end of their interview, I believe there is a solution to be found: I would argue that a remedy for term reification, be it Atheism, non-religion, religion, or anything relationally similar, and thus a remedy for the terminological issues we may face as researchers, is found within the straightforward anthropological approach which he advocated for in our panel, only turned around in a reflective manner. That is, where we seek out and promote the pragmatic objectivity in permitting each of our subjects to define themselves in their own terms, there is an equal pragmatism in introspectively allowing ourselves to do the same with our own language. While this approach might develop a rather vast terminological discourse, it also breeds a sense of diversity, which, through an anthropological lens, is more beneficial than it is detrimental to our conclusions.

In fact, when we take a further step back, and view the academic discourse itself as an anthropological subject, these terminological differences become their own types of individual identities. In this way, our debates over terminology become differing voices all contributing to a discourse that together comes to represent a cultural whole. Thus, our differences of opinion become less problematic, and more representative, a polyvocality that together create a group identity filled with different individual ones. Then, and just like we would with our subjects, viewing this discourse objectively fosters a much more nuanced insight into this culture than, say, an argument that one subject embodies his or her culture more than another.

In the end, then, I believe the polyvocality of our discourse is indeed a benefit, particularly because we aren’t all talking about the same thing. Our disagreements and debating and arguing over the proper term usage contributes more and more to the discourse upon which our identity, as an academic endeavor, is formed. Thus, while we might quarrel amongst each other over whether or not our terminology is correct, or whether it better represents our subjects, as subjects ourselves, these discussions are in their own way leading toward a process of identification, and thus a sense of academic congruity. From this third level, then, looking down at ourselves as we look down on our subjects, each layer embodying a unique cultural character, we can better make sense of what it is that we’re studying, as we study it. To do otherwise, to me, seems a bit too much like a one-sided debate.

Suggested Reading

Johannes Quack, Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Johannes Quack and Jacob Copeman, “’Godless People’ and Dead Bodies: Materiality and the Morality of Atheist Materialism,“ Social Analysis, Vol. 59, Iss. 2, 2015.

http://www.nonreligion.net/?page_id=35

http://nsrn.net

http://www.everythingisfiction.org/

Lois Lee, Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Ethan G. Quillen, “Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism,” Science, Religion, and Culture, Vol. 2, Iss. 3, 2015.

[1] https://hig-se.academia.edu/IngelaVisuri

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

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

Chester

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

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

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

Discussion addressed the following questions, and a lot more…

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

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

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

Religion and Literature

How can studying literature help us to study religion? And what the question even mean? In this interview, Alana Vincent, Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Chester, sets out some of the interesting intersections of these two fields. We can glean ethnographic or historical detail from literary works, and sometimes read particular insider discourses in their pages. We can read literature as a “sacred text” – or indeed, “sacred text” as literature”. Does literature, as a form where imagination is allowed free reign, provide a space for authors and readers to explore ‘matters of ultimate concern’, within or without religious institutions?

DSCF0481This interview was recorded LIVE! at the University of Chester on the 15th of October, 2014. Thanks to Chester and to Dawn Llewellyn for making the event possible. The interview leads directly onto the roundtable “Narrative, Ethnography and Reflexivity” which will be broadcast this Wednesday.

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.

What is the Study of Religion/s? Self-Presentations of the Discipline on University Web Pages

Foreword

Here is the first research article on the religious studies project website. In fact, the article also deals with websites: it analyzes the ways in which religious studies (the study of religion\s) is presented on an international sample of university-websites. The authors think this is an important issue for the discipline since these websites are much used nodes of interface between the discipline and its audiences within or beyond the walls of the university. There was no Religious Studies Project website when the authors began working on this article (back in 2010), but coincidentally this seems like the perfect place to publish such a study. Since the text is quite long, Knut Melvær has developed the typographic features on the site, including pop-up footnotes (try mouseover the footnote numbers) and the “sticky” table of contents. Publishing this article online also allows us to make our data-set (“codebook”) available.

We are looking forward to your thoughts and reactions in the comment section below.

The authors wish to thank Reier M. Schoder for helping us with the data collection. Our thanks also go to Steven Engler, Alexander Alberts, Håkon Tandberg, Knut Aukland, and Helge Årsheim for reading and commenting on earlier drafts.

Download the article as a .pdf (But please refer to the online article).

Introduction

Even if the ‘public intellectual’ may not be the preferred job description and role model of all scholars of religion\s (McCutcheon 2001), there is no way of getting around the fact that the study of religion\s, as a discipline practiced at universities around the world, engages in public communication outside the institutional ivory towers.1 In different capacities and to varied degrees scholars of religion\s are involved in public communication and the study of religion\s is itself also an object of public communication. Which roles is it expected to play, and which tasks is it expected to perform? How is the discipline perceived and understood in public discourse? Does it get its messages across? Has it contributed to literacy in religious matters? How is its knowledge distinguished from common-sense assumptions?2

Conversely, in the present article we investigate how the discipline presents itself to the public. What is the study of religion\s, how does it want to be understood by the public, in communication with its audiences and stakeholders? By far the main communicative interface between the discipline and the general public is the internet. People may just make a Google search for ‘religious studies’, ‘study of religion’, ‘history of religions’ or terms like these if they want to know something about this academic and intellectual enterprise. Given the way that Google’s search algorithm is currently set up, one of the top hits would likely be the relevant entry in Wikipedia, i.e. “Religious Studies”. For the critical positioning of the discipline it would be interesting, and maybe even necessary, to analyze the presentation and perception of the study of religion\s as an academic discipline in relevant segments of the internet, including various encyclopaedias or other important sources of information. The present article looks at another interface between the discipline and the public sphere: the self-presentation of the discipline, or the subject, on the websites of universities where it is currently taught.

Most universities with departments of the study of religion\s (under its various names) and offering relevant programs provide some kind of information about the discipline, its practitioners, its educational dimension and ongoing research. While the information given on these web pages is accessible to everybody and where pages may be visited for unpredictable reasons, we assume that most web pages probably have prospective and current students as their main target audience. One also expects these pages to present the relevance and profile of the discipline for a more non-specific audience, in addition to colleagues searching for research-related information and the media looking for experts and sources of information.

Such web pages may well be the most important medium for the discipline to present itself to the public and to its present and future or prospective practitioners. Based on a content analysis of a multinational sample of web pages as per the period October – December 2010 (when we retrieved the relevant data), the present article analyzes patterns of self-presentation of the study of religion\s.

Note that not all these web pages are necessarily written by practitioners of the discipline. We know of some universities where the content of the web pages is effectively beyond control of the faculty, and in many other cases the university imposes restrictions on possible content (in terms of length or kinds of content to be covered, often in the form of templates). In this article, however, we are less concerned with the perspective of the authors, but with the content found on the sites, given that the university web pages convey the impression of describing the discipline and/or the program as understood at the respective institution.

The Sample

While there appears to be no international standard on how university websites are organized, information about educational programs, information about research, and information about faculty (typically listed under departments or schools) feature separately on most websites. The present analysis focuses on two kinds of web pages: those of departments and those of programs in the study of religion\s. It includes only web pages that make some sort of general statements on the study of religion\s by addressing the nature and the working of the discipline.3

In our sampling we started with the website of our own department and those of other Norwegian universities and then cast our net wider. Our final sample comprises 101 texts gathered from websites of 70 universities located in Northern Europe/Scandinavia (Denmark [3], Finland [4], Norway [5], Sweden [7]), Western/South Western Europe (Germany [11], the Netherlands [5], Spain [2], Switzerland [6], UK ([England: 8; Scotland: 6]), North America (Canada [9], USA [22]), the Pacific (Australia [5], New Zealand [6]), and South Africa (2). (See the appendix for the full list of universities and a key to the text IDs used for references in the following.)

Our sample can seem somewhat biased towards some countries or cultural areas.4 Some readers might for example object that the four Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden) are represented by almost as many cases (19 in total) as the United States (22), even though the total number of departments and programs is many times higher in that country. As our sampling strategy aimed at covering national diversity (which we experience as very real distinctions in academic cultures not the least in terms of languages) this strategy clearly privileges Europe with a total of 57 cases, amounting to 56 per cent of our total text sample and 66 per cent of our university sample. Even the European sample, however, does not include all potentially relevant countries. In particular, the European sample excludes Eastern and Central Eastern Europe (mainly for reasons of limited linguistic competence).

Our sampling strategy could not attempt to achieve statistical representativeness for the simple reason that, as far as we can see, there is no reliable data available on the population or the universe (i.e. the totality of all departments and programs in the study of religion\s), and hence there is no means of knowing to what extent this population could be represented accurately by our sample. However, in sampling we sought to cover internationally recognized (by scholarly standards) departments, so that our sample can hopefully claim some degree of ecological validity. For the United States, for example, we tried to include some of the biggest graduate programs.

Even for our selection of countries, given the variety of educational landscapes, media cultures, national contexts of the discipline and the different sizes of the countries, our sample is not, and cannot be, representative in strictly statistical terms. Yet, we hope that our analysis provides some significant findings with relevance for the ongoing critical self-reflection of the discipline. Obviously, statistical data analysis can be used (and is commonly used) even if a sample is not representative and if a study does not aim at arriving at statistically representative findings. Such methods allow us to explore general patterns (and non-patterns) and recurrent themes (or idiosyncratic features) in the material.

The longest text in our sample contains 941 words (University of Alabama #27), while the shortest text has only 34 words (University of Bremen #49). There are a total of eight cases with texts numbering more than 600 words, and there are nine cases using less than 100 words. The arithmetic mean for the sample is 302 words, while the median is 217 words. Given that some texts are longer, it is also likely that they are overrepresented in the following discussion.5

While the study of religion\s is a global enterprise (Alles 2008), our sample was intended to reflect the traditionally predominant ‘Western’ topography of international discourse as it is manifested in international core publications of the field (like the major international journals and works of reference). A minor selection of texts from some further countries published in languages accessible to us would have confounded our sample more than it would have added in clarity. However, we invite scholars from other regions, or with expertise on such regions, to replicate our study and test our findings, if deemed interesting, with a different sample.

Having decided on the sample, we downloaded the texts from the various web pages. We then analyzed the texts for recurrent information and motives. As a result of several rounds of discussion, based on the textual corpus initially generated, we inductively created several categories, which we used to code the downloaded texts. These categories encompass different aspects of the meaning and identity of a scholarly discipline as transmitted at universities. Starting from its name or designation to the definition of its nature and subject matter, we look at statements about its aims, goals and purposes, its methods and main approaches, its relevance, its main thematic issues and areas of specialization, its relationships to other disciplines and field (the disciplinary matrix) and its demarcation from other discourses about its subject matter.6 Given that educational transmission is part of what makes scholarly enterprises into disciplines, we also coded the websites for statements about skills, attitudes and competence ideally transmitted to incoming practitioners of the discipline and employment prospects and career options of graduates, as these aspects are increasingly perceived to be part of education and disciplinary training. Finally, while all these statements are of a verbal nature, we were also interested in the visual aspect of the presentation of the texts.

Designations

Contrary to disciplines such as history, psychology, or sociology, the study of religion\s does not sail under the flag of one common name. Partly, this is the result of the specific genealogy of the discipline, partly of competing self-understandings, partly of different discursive and national contexts. Which designations are used in our sample? Given that we are dealing with texts in different languages, we had to collate semantically synonymous expressions into single categories. Moreover, we found that the names of departments and programs and the names used for the discipline used in the texts can at times diverge. Some cases use different designations.7

Two designations by far dominate our sample:

  • Religionswissenschaft (including religionsvitenskap, religionsvetenskap, Ciencias de las Religiones, and sciences des religions): 22 universities, amounting to slightly more than a third of all 70 universities in our sample. With one exception (Université Laval #71) all cases are from Europe (Denmark [2], Germany [5], Norway [3], Spain [1], Sweden [5], Switzerland [5]).
  • Religious Studies (including Religionsstudier): 21 universities, amounting to 30 per cent of all cases. This name is used by universities in Canada (3), Denmark (1), England (1), the Netherlands (2), New Zealand (4) Scotland (1), South Africa (1), and the USA (8).

In addition to these two predominant designations, which account for 61 per cent (43/70), i.e. almost two thirds, of all cases in our sample, there are six others that occur in between two to five instances each:

  • Comparative religion: four universities, including two in Finland, one in the Netherlands, and one in the USA (The University of Washington #30).
  • Religion: four universities, including one in Scotland, one in Canada, one in New Zealand, and two in the USA. Typically, “religion” features as a department name.
  • The study of religion: four universities, two in Canada, one in England and one in the United States (Duke University (#97/98), where one finds “the study of religion” or “the academic study of religion”).
  • Studies in Religion: three universities, all in Australia.
  • Theology and Religious Studies: two universities, both in the UK (England, Scotland).
  • History of Religions (religionshistorie and religionshistoria): two universities, one in Norway and one in Sweden.

If one were to code ‘Studies in Religion’ and ‘Theology and Religious Studies’ together with ‘Religious Studies’, that category would comprise 27 cases, which would make it the largest category. In addition, there are two unique cases that also combine Religious Studies with another designation. While Divinity clearly refers to theology, it seems that Religious Studies in the latter case also means theology:

  • Divinity and Religious Studies (University of Aberdeen #33)
  • Religious Studies and Comparative Religion (Manchester University #60)

In sum, designations such as Comparative Religion and History of Religions, which were important in former times, are now used by very few universities (less than ten per cent). While Religionswissenschaft and its cognate denominations prevail in continental Europe (with the exception of the Netherlands), Religious Studies predominates in the Anglo-sphere, with the Australian Studies in Religion as one national variety. In the UK, however, one finds several denominations, sometimes in combination with divinity/theology (which does not imply that there are no theologians or theological elements in departments and programs carrying other names). The Study of Religions is not (yet) established as a current term, even though several national and international associations carry this designation in their names8.

‘Religion’

Webpages from 29 universities, corresponding to some 41 per cent of our sample of universities, provide some kind of definitions of the nature of the study of religion\s. In one way or the other, almost all of these statements make the point that the study of religion\s studies ‘religion’, religious traditions or religious phenomena as its subject matter.9 Given this explicit delimitation and the extensive discussions about the concept and definition of ‘religion’ during the past decades, one would not have been surprised to find adumbrations of these discussions, if not explicit reflections on these issues, on the webpages. Yet, it turns out that this is not the case; one wonders whether the webpages seek to avoid being dragged into these abysmal problems.

The most prominent feature of religion evoked by the definitional statements in our sample, in eleven cases, is an appeal to the variety or diversity of religion, religious expressions or phenomena, in time and space. In two cases this corresponds to highlighting the complexity and in one case each the universality of religion or the comparative outlook of the study of religion\s.10

Only six out of 101 texts contain what we would categorize as explicit definitions of religion, i.e. statements that specify what religion is or religions are (about). We are here not thinking of general statements such as “Religion is a major force in human experience” (Indiana University #101), that religions are “historical and cultural phenomena” (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill #32), or that religion is “an essential aspect of the cultures of the world and the interactions among them” (University of Toronto #74).11 Instead, we have in mind more comprehensive and precise determinations that aim at determining the nature of religion\s. Note that four out of these six definitional statements are found on continental European websites (plus one from New Zealand and one from Canada). Only one of these definitions recalls recent debates about the notion of religion:

Religion as such does not exist. It is a concept developed in the West as a label for a wide variety of human ideas and behaviour, which are centered around human interaction with postulated (non- or meta-empirical) realities.

Leiden University #68

While the different definitions play on different theoretical registers, they all emphasize the agency of religion; religion mainly occurs in the active mode. This active voice also resonates in various ‘religion is’ and ‘religion has’ statements or other verbal qualifiers (like ‘to affect’, ‘to shape’, to function’, ‘to set forward’, ‘to underpin’, ‘to matter’, etc.) which occur throughout the corpus of texts.

The texts refer to vast areas of impact of religion, mainly on politics and conflicts, but also generally pertaining to behavior and “human culture and experience” (University of Cape Town #75). Only a minority of texts point to ambivalent or contradictory effects of religion12 and/or they express the statements as a possibility (‘can’; University of Groningen #52; Södertörn University #16; University of Zurich #90). One text makes the point that religion can be a host of different things (Södertörn University #16, which then lists a series of examples). In one case, the possible impact of religion is linked to the motivational force of religious beliefs; this source also refers to conflicting claims by stating that religions “are sometimes accused of limiting or repressing people, yet also offer resources which sustain people through times of suffering and oppression” (University of Glasgow #34), which could be read as a defence of religion against its denouncers. The interdependence of religion with examples of other human constructs is repeatedly mentioned in the texts, especially with culture (yet the agency in these relations is typically assigned to religion).

The emphasis of the impact of religion and its active agency constitute a ‘claim of relevance’. It is unclear to what extent this claim results from empirical research. One way of explaining the persistent presence of this claim of relevance is the rhetorical and communicative setting of the texts, which frames them not primarily as information tools but as advertisement and marketing devices.13 Given that producers of the websites may expect their users to be primarily non-scholars, in particular potential students (and the number of students-intake is often decisive for the future viability of the departments or programs), and given that they may expect that only ‘relevant’ matters attract attention and students, this may result in a relatively uncritical overemphasis on the general importance and agency of religion. We have no means of knowing how effective this marketing strategy is. Yet, if our reading of the ‘claim of relevance’ as a sales strategy to highlight the relevance and necessity for the ‘product’ of our scholarly activities, the study of religion\s, is justified, then it raises the ethical question how far is it legitimate to proclaim things as facts that many would admit in other contexts to be mere assumptions.

Religions

As indicated above, several websites state that the study of religion\s deals with all religions or with a wide cross-cultural range of religions/religious phenomena. These general claims are illustrated on a number of websites with examples. Some 32 web pages provide names of religions (e.g. Islam), of cultural/historical religious traditions (e.g. Egyptian religion), of types of religions (e.g. world religions), of types of religious traditions (e.g. religions without writing), of historical phenomena (e.g. New Religious Movements), of larger geographical units (e.g. the Mediterranean), of macro-geographic units such as continents (e.g. African religions), of modern nations (e.g. religions in Canada) or of cities (religion in Leeds, which is the only case of that type), or related concepts (e.g. spirituality).

Numerically, one group of religions is mentioned far more often than the rest. This groups comprises Islam and Hinduism (18 cases each), Buddhism (17), Christianity (16), and Judaism (14). In our sample, these clearly are the salient examples, or prototypical religions. In practice, then, it seems that the traditional world-religion model is still the dominant one.

There is a second group of religions mentioned by far fewer, i.e. two to five, cases: Confucianism (5), Taoism (4), Sikhism (3), Jainism (2), and New Age (2). This category also comprises some collective terms such as East and South Asia (4), African religion (3), ancient Mediterranean religions (3), religions of China (2), religions in Japan (2), Asian religions (2), religions in America (2), Amerindian religions (2). All other cases are single (‘idiosyncratic’) examples.

Disciplinary Matrix

The debates about the alleged sui generis character of religion and, accordingly, the study of it, have raised the issue of its disciplinary belonging. In our sample, something less than a quarter (24/101) of the texts address the disciplinary setting of the study of religion\s. This happens on several levels. To begin with, there is the context of the university, with faculty having duties in “other university departments and academic programs” (University of Waterloo #63) or by closely cooperating “with other departments in the college and professional schools which have interests in the study of religion” (Emory University #99).

On a meta-level, the study of religion\s is sometimes classified as being part of a branch, class, division or family of academic labor. The University of Vermont regards the study of religion\s as “a crucial part of the wider study of human cultures, global affairs, and personal identities” (#28). More established terms such as the humanities or the social sciences are invoked by relatively few cases.14 From the fact that the “academic study of religion draws directly on all of the humanities and social sciences” the University of Miami concludes that “it invites us to think in a fuller, more integral way about human life” (#26).15 Three cases refer the study of religion\s as a field of study (University of Turku #9; UC Santa Barbara #22; University of Groningen #53). Only two cases identify the study of religion\s as a ‘discipline’—and even this not in the full sense of an academic discipline. While the University of Waikato speaks of a “university discipline” (#84), Duke University opts for the somewhat paradoxical term “interdisciplinary discipline” (#97), emphasizing that it “employs a wide variety of approaches and methods in order to understand the role of religion in both human experience and thought” (#97). In addition, three definitions point to its multi-, trans-, or interdisciplinary nature.16 The web pages clearly show a hesitation to affirm the disciplinary status of the study of religion\s. It is also commonly recognized that the study of religion\s has several branches or sub-disciplines. Anthropology, psychology, or sociology of religion are typical sub-disciplines, even though most active scholars in these fields may well be employed at departments in these disciplines rather than in departments of the study of religion\s.

A greater desire to spell out the disciplinary context of the study of religion\s can be found in Germany and Switzerland, where several texts (University of Bremen #49; LMU Munich #51; University of Zurich #90; University of Berne #92; University of Lucerne #93) firmly identify the study of religion\s as being a Kulturwissenschaft.17 In one case (Bremen) this label is combined with that of Geisteswissenschaft and in another case (Lucerne) with that of the social sciences. As the only non-German speaking example of this contextualisation, the University of Turku refers to a “close relation to different aspects of Cultural Sciences” (#10). Other cases classify the study of religion\s as a humanistic education (Aarhus University #8) or as an education in cultural history (University of Copenhagen #6).

In our sample, four cases explicitly insist on a distinction from theology. One main criterion of distinction put forward by the web pages is the insider/outsider separation: “What the programs offer are not theological studies from within any given religious tradition” (University of Ottawa #73); the study of religion\s “is not grounded in any particular religious tradition but deals even-handedly with religions found throughout the world” (Massey University #80). This issue is related to that of normativity: as the University of Ottawa web page makes clear, the “programs do not consider any religious tradition to be normative” (#73). The University of Alabama identifies the distinction in the different kinds of “data” used by these two “enterprises”: “the academic study of religion studies people, their beliefs, and their social systems; the theological study of religion studies God/the gods and their impact on people” (#27).18 The University of Copenhagen takes a more pragmatic perspective: contrary to theology, the study of religion\s does not educate future priests, and even where it studies Christianity it regards this as a religion in a given cultural and societal context (#6).

The demarcation of boundaries from its confessional or theological other and religious discourses is also made explicit in a few definitional statements from Europe, South Africa, and the United States. The University of Washington briefly remarks that the Comparative Religion Program from the start “intended not to teach religion, but to teach about it” (#30). The University of Lausanne proposes that religions are studied in a non-confessional and ‘exterior’ manner, which is here linked to an implicit definition or theory of religion that regards religions as products of human cultural activity (#95).19 The University of Zurich explicitly holds that it is not part of the business of the study of religion\s to fathom religious truth or to decide which religions are better than other. Moreover, scholars of religion do not need to be religious themselves (University of Zurich #91).

Topics

Besides studying a series of religions and religious phenomena in given geographical contexts, the study of religion\s is also concerned with aspects of religion (such as myth or ritual) or topics relating to religion (such as gender or power). What kind of topics (aspects of religion and issues related to religion) is the study of religion\s concerned with according to our sample of websites?20 While some websites mention such topics in a general manner, other cases refer to research topics of faculty or to potential areas of specialization for undergraduate and graduate students (or topics of past student papers); others, last but not least, list topics of courses that are offered by the respective department or as part of the respective program.

Using these criteria, from our sample of 101 texts, 39 contain relevant information. In total (in our coding) 75 keywords (identified by separate codes) emerged. The majority of these (44) are ‘idiosyncratic’ items, i.e., they are mentioned by only one text. Several of these keywords, however, have been central stage in recent research in the discipline/field. Consider topics such as (in alphabetic order) cognition, ecology (and, in addition, climate change), emotion, ethnicity, gods, health, human rights, identity, immigration, law, media, pluralism, popular religion, post-colonialism, power, race, state, and terrorism. The history of the study of religion\s is likewise mentioned by one text only (The University of Ottawa #72).21  Not represented at all are issues such as evolution or evolutionary theory and material culture (but built environments, i.e. architecture, is mentioned once).

Figure 1: Word cloud of topics mentioned on two or more web pages

Figure 1: Word cloud of topics mentioned on two or more web pages

Keywords with two or more occurrences are here presented visually in a word cloud22, where terms with the lowest frequency (2) are smallest going up in size to those with the highest frequency (11). The ‘interaction of religion’ variable functions as an umbrella code that also encompasses a variety of other keywords; note that we only coded cases using terms like ‘connections’, ‘interaction’, ‘interplay’, ‘interrelationship’, ‘intersection’, and ‘relation’, but we did not include cases that speak of the ‘effect’ of given issues on religion such as the effects of globally connected structures of communication on the emergence of religious ideas and practices mentioned by the University of Zurich (#90) or how such issues affect religion.

At the top of the list, one finds the following four broad categories: politics (10 cases from nine universities), culture (11), ethics (11 from ten universities), and history (11 from ten universities). Each of these represents over a quarter of all texts relevant for this section, and around 10 per cent of the entire sample. Numerically, they appear as the most typical and salient topics in the study of religion\s according to our sample of websites. Apparently, the web pages are primarily concerned with appealing to common ground with other disciplines.

Given that ethics is rarely discussed in major companions and handbooks, its prominence in our sample is somewhat surprising. What does that topic cover? To begin with, as in the case of politics and culture, there are the religion-ethics connections (University of Stirling #38; University of Toronto #74). Duke University addresses ethics as a specific feature of religions just like gender, visual modes, and mysticism (#98), while the University of Southern Denmark (#7) is concerned with the distinctions between religious and non-religious ethics. The department text at Emory University refers to a course on ethics (#99), but when speaking of ethics it is unclear whether that deals with ethics in relation to historical religions or with ethics from a religious background. At Indiana University, it is clearly stated that some faculty members are “primarily ethicists” (#102), and one of the five course areas at the University of Waterloo is called “theology, philosophy, and ethics” (#63). At Uppsala University students analyze difficult ethical problems (#15), while McGill has BA and MA specializations in bioethics (#66), the University of Queensland pays attention to stem-cell research (#85) and Emory University (#100) is concerned with “long-standing debates” over medical ethics (among other issues). From our perspective, all this squarely fits the business of theology and philosophy but is situated outside the realm of a discipline/field seeking to account for religion as historical phenomena (which is where the present writers situate themselves).

Aims, Skills, Competence

The identity of an academic discipline, particularly in the shape of programs of study, is also determined by the aims and goals it sets itself. In total, we coded 29 cases as containing explicit or implicit statements about the purpose of the study of religion\s and/or the aims of the programs. The two most-used key-words are knowledge (11 cases) and understanding (10 occurrences).23  Only very few cases specify the desired kind of knowledge in any way. The Complutense University of Madrid, for example, speaks of providing ‘rational and critical knowledge’ of ‘the religious fact and the evolution of the different religious traditions’ (#77).24 ‘Critical’ or ‘critique’ are recurrent keywords in seven cases, but these terms have a wide range of meanings covering, for example, source criticism and critical theory. The Université Laval proposes the development of a ‘general religious culture’, but adds to this the unfolding of a critical sense both towards one’s own experiences and towards religious and spiritual phenomena (#71).25

The University of Canterbury launches ‘cultural literacy’ as an ultimate aim and holds that one cannot achieve this if one fails to understands the role played by religion and ‘critically’ engages with them (#79). The University of Zurich seeks to provide knowledge and (inter- or trans-) ‘cultural competence’ and thereby hopes to contribute to tolerance and communication or understanding (#90). While this aim refers to a potential societal contribution by the study of religion\s, some other texts, from England and the United States, focus on the desired moral qualities of their alumni. The program at Leeds University wishes to “equip students for understanding, living and working reflectively and responsibly within a plural society” (#58). At Arizona State University, “the faculty of Religious Studies seek to foster civic responsibility and global awareness” (#96). Emory University’s Department of Religion “engages students to understand themselves better as moral agents in the world, and to help them appreciate the moral and spiritual dimensions of the interpretive activity they pursue in the study of religion” (#99). The study of religion\s is here not only conceived as having a moral dimension (in terms of research ethics), but also as having a spiritual one.

In the educational process, the aims, goals, intent and purpose of the study of religion\s are ideally converted into skills and qualifications to be acquired by students and graduates. If properly transmitted and internalized, the theoretical dimension of the academic practice translates into practical knowledge; the students will acquire a specific competence if the discipline performs well. In total, we identified 24 texts (from 21 universities) as containing statements on skills and competences. In several respects, there is an overlap with the aims and goals of the programs.26 Here is a text from the University of Queensland (#85):

Studying Religion can:

  • Develop your understanding and knowledge of the cultural foundations and current trends in many religious and spiritual movements
  • Provide insight into the cultural settings in which various religions are practised, showing ways that societies and individuals construct their own ideas of the spiritual and therefore their own sense of identity
  • Offer you the chance to learn Arabic, Greek, Pali and Sankrit [sic!] to gain insight into other cultures
  • Promote respect, appreciation and understanding of religious and cultural diversity
  • Encourage reflection on your own world view

The reader will immediately recall some keywords and leitmotivs from the aims and scope section (above). Yet, the text is apparently addressed to potential students and its intention is not to make a pronouncement on the aims and scope of the discipline but to list the benefit or pay-off that prospective students can expect to derive from studying religion. The text addresses intellectual, ethical and personal traits. It seems to suggest that the study of religion\s makes students more respectful, appreciative, and understanding with regard to cultural diversity, which is an attitude, but not a skill. Encouraging reflection on one’s world-view (note that the text here avoids speaking of religion) is neither an aim of the discipline nor is it a skill of the student, but a process leading to developing a more reflected and often mature attitude. Another text from the Pacific area, Massey University, similarly announces that students will have the opportunity for personal reflection without being directly exposed to a specific religious message: “Religious Studies will not give you the answers to life’s mysteries, but it will stimulate and inform your own reflection” (#80).

In almost identical wording (which might raise the issue of plagiarism, which unlike scholarly production seems to be tolerated in this kind of texts), two Norwegian texts assert that students will receive knowledge about the relationship between religion and society and a unique cross-cultural competence.27 Several cases appeal to skills of relevance for plural societies. This includes talk of (unspecified) “practical skills needed for understanding and operating in situations where cultures interact” (University of Helsinki #12), “skills in analysis and human interaction” (Lancaster University #55), “a multidisciplinary critical skills base in the area of religion for those in training for, or active within, professions that engage with the religious aspect of multicultural societies” (University of New England #89), “qualifications and skills appropriate for personal development, professional employment and further study in a secular society where religious issues remain influential, though are often unrecognised” and “interpersonal and intellectual skills of empathy with critical distance” (University of Waikato #58).

Some web pages speak of communicative skills in a more technical sense, that of so-called soft or transferable skills. None of these are specific to the study of religion\s. Communication and writing are connected to skills of effectively disseminating academic knowledge to other audiences. Yet, in our sample, it is only the University of Southern Denmark (#7) that emphasizes this skill. In the text, it figures next to adopting an ‘analytical-critical’ attitude towards public debates.

Career Prospects and Employment Perspectives

Some texts create a link between talking about the skills and competences students have acquired by taking a program and potential employment perspectives (#24, #38, #39, #89).28 The career options mentioned here tend to be somewhat vague; the most extreme case, which actually ends up by tracking no path of employment in particular, comes from the University of Cape Town: “Such study provides not only valuable insights into the world in which we live, but also the skills of critical analysis, conceptual thought and imaginative empathy that will allow you to pursue a rewarding career after university” (#76).

26 texts from 23 universities in our sample have something to say about career and employment prospects of their candidates. Three web pages–from Canada, New Zealand, and the USA–address the professional achievements of their alumni. Since they point to a vast array of career options they may be worth quoting in full; by providing some geographical details the Canadian case gives a more authentic and reliable feel:

Some of our Religious Studies majors have found the following jobs: Physician in Sioux Lookout, Ontario; Director of Development Agency in Uganda; Chaplain at Correctional Services Canada; Program Assistant at The Institute for the Prevention of Child Abuse; Teacher of Religion in the RCSS Board; Program Co-ordinator at Catholic Family Services; Youth Pastor in a United Mennonite Church.”

University of Waterloo #64

Former graduates of our programme have gone on to become journalists, artists, musicians, film directors, teachers, gallery directors, librarians and academics.

University of New Zealand #79

Since the inception of the Religious Studies major at the University in the fall of 2000, students have explored careers in public health, medicine, law, ministry, finance, the Peace Corps, and Teach for America.

The University of Texas at Austin #25

Some statements are of a very general nature. Several texts point to the various career opportunities opened up by their respective programs, but they usually list some very broad sectors (University of Southern Denmark #8; University of New England #89; University of Lucerne #93; Arizona State University #96; Duke University #97). Emory University makes it implicitly clear that concrete career opportunities can emerge as a result of an educational intersection of a degree in the study of religion\s with other forms of education: “The broad and deep preparation that Religion Majors develop intersects effectively with preparation in such vocations as medicine, law, business, and public affairs” (#100). Similarly, VU Amsterdam states: “The path you take with your degree in Religious Studies mainly depends on the specialization you opt for in the Master’s phase” (#70).

Given its privileged outsider perspective and intent to distinguish itself from religious discourses, does the study of religion\s qualify for careers directly pertaining to religion? This case is indeed made by several texts from countries in different continents. One text claims that the program prepares candidates for occupations requiring solid knowledge about religions, the relations between religion, culture and society, and a sensitivity for inter-religious relations (University of Bayreuth #39), but the text does not provide names of applicable occupations. The University of Texas at Austin refers to fields that value “the ability to operate in a complex religious setting” (#24), but does not mention which vocations these fields may comprise in particular. The University of New England refers to “professions that engage with the religious aspect of multicultural societies” and it goes on by enumerating a series of such professions: “law, teaching, social work, counselling, journalism, public service, business, marketing, defence, and foreign service, to name but a few” (#89). While it here is the multi-religious aspect of many contemporary societies that potentially qualifies candidates, the University of Canterbury refers to religious institutions as potential employers: “Those interested in careers within religious institutions will find that it affords them a valuable perspective, complementing their faith-based education” (#79). This program seems to offer an additional qualification to that provided by religious institutions, but the work is not directly qualified as comprising religious activities. The VU Amsterdam goes one step further by letting its degree holders adopt a more direct religious role, albeit for non-religious employers: “Or you could go into education or take up a position as a spiritual advisor in a large commercial or non-profit organization” (#70).

The text from the University of Waterloo website quoted above refers to religious professions (chaplain, pastor) and in addition to the jobs held by alumni the text directly refers to such professions: the study of religion\s “Leads to careers such as teaching, chaplaincy, pastoral ministry, and counselling” (#64). The ministry is also given by five other universities as a career option for their graduates. While three cases are from the United States (University of Texas at Austin ##24/25; University of Miami #26; Duke University #97), the remaining ones, in addition to Canada (Waterloo), are from Sweden (Uppsala University #15) and Scotland (University of Glasgow #34); in the latter case, a specialist program is offered for those opting for that vocation.

Turning to specific careers besides those related to knowledge directly related to religion, becoming a school or high-school teacher is the option mentioned by most texts in the category–in total 13 cases, among these seven from Scandinavia and the remaining cases spread across the Europe, North America and the Pacific (University of Amsterdam, Glasgow, Waterloo, Miami, New England, Canterbury). Four cases, among them three from Europe, speak of education in general, without specifically mentioning work as a teacher (VU Amsterdam, Complutense University of Madrid, University of Lucerne, Duke University).

After teaching, academic work, i.e. doing research or working at a University, is listed most often (10 cases from eight universities across the world). This is followed by journalism (nine cases). Teacher, research/academics, and journalism are the three career options mentioned by far most often in our sample.

This top three-group is followed in frequency (four to six cases each) by a series of four occupations, where we can find some regional variation. In addition to the ministry (see above), five cases refer to the media (which, of course, covers a wide range of jobs). With one exception (The University of Canterbury #79), all these cases are from Europe. Culture, including work in a cultural section, a council of cultural affairs, and as cultural advisor, totals four cases, which again are all from Europe. Work in a museum is also listed by four European texts. Law and medicine, on the other hand, are listed only by universities from the United States (with one exception, The University of New England #89, which also lists law).

Four cases, but from three universities (two from the USA, one from New Zealand), refer to social services; to this category one might possibly include the work in the social field mentioned by University Complutense of Madrid (#77). Also four cases (from three universities) refer to work with the government (two cases from the USA, one from the Netherlands). Related career options include the diplomatic/foreign service (three cases: one from the USA, one from Australia, one from Switzerland), public service (three cases with the same distribution by countries). Three European cases (University of Turku #9; University of Gothenburg #13; VU Amsterdam #70) regard the issue of societal integration (presumably of minority groups) as potentially offering career options to their graduates.

Counselling is listed by the University of Waterloo (#64), the University of New England (#89), and the University of Amsterdam (#69). The University of Amsterdam (#69), the University of Canterbury (#79), and the University of Berne (#92) present travel and tourism as offering career options to their graduates. The latter university also mentions work in libraries (three cases in total) and publishing (two cases).

Some additional 25 career options are given by two or one cases only (in addition to the spiritual advisor and some others mentioned above). Some of them are obviously more vague than others and some terms may have different shadings of meaning in different national context. They are here collated to form seven thematic clusters:

  • defence, politics, public administration, public affairs, state
  • development work, humanitarian organization, international organization, NGO’s, peace corps
  • discrimination, migration, minorities
  • physician, public health
  • artist, gallery director
  • business, finance, human resources welfare, marketing, staff management
  • communication, dissemination, information

Visual Representations of the Study of Religion\s

Most university websites have photos and pictures in addition to the textual material. Images tend to liven up text-heavy web pages and complement the themes communicated in the texts. Arguably, such images and photographs tell their own story of what the study of religion\s is. They are also crucial in ensuring the multi-medial experience that now seems to be expected on the web. Our sample for this discussion comprises 151 individual images downloaded from the web pages and 10729 screenshots.30 17 of these do not have any images on them. 54, i.e. more than half, have one image (this also includes some visual collages, i.e. i.e. a combination of several images and graphic elements). 31 of the pages have between two and four images. The remaining five show between five and seven images.

From the 151 images two main categories can easily be identified: images related to (1) the subject ‘religion’ (86) and (2) to the educational context (41).

Images from the ‘educational context’31 category depict situations where students and scholars are engaged in a lecture, seminars or reading in libraries. Most of these images do not include any signifier for religion. Arguably, for prospective students these images portray what the study of religion\s practically appears like at the universities. In a sense they are objective representations of the study of religion\s as a social practice: people who discuss, read, and write. Even if some of the images may originate from fieldwork, we see no scholars of religion in the field (engaged in participant observation), studying manuscripts or the like. This resonates with the absence of reflexive elements in the texts (as analyzed above).

There are 17 images of the various department and university buildings where the study of religion\s is located. Most (12) of these images are of a building in classical architectural style. In addition, there are eight pictures of staff-members, either as portraits or as group-photos.

How is religion presented in these images? Our analysis of the textual materials has brought to light that there is a strong tendency to represent religion as a force, having an impact on a range of other spheres. In addition to this ‘claim of relevance’, religion is conceptually related to psychology, identity, politics, ethics and existentialism. Moreover, the texts tend to present religion as a historical universal. Do the images reflect the same emphasis on relevance and universality?

34 of the total sample of 86 images related to religion depict material structures, mainly statues (25) and buildings (churches, mosques, stupas) (21). There are 26 occurrences of actual people in this category, 17 of these engaged in what seems to be a ritual context, evenly distributed between scenes from Christian and Hindu contexts, in addition to some few portraying Buddhists, Jews and Sikhs. (This selection seems to be rather evenly distributed across countries.) The overlap between material structures and people is surprisingly small; there are only eight occurrences where the two codes overlap, and since two of these occur in collages (#52–3; #101–2), only five pictures remain that depict people are set in either interaction or proximity with a religious structure (#16 [two pictures]; #46; #63; #97). It is obvious that the anthropological emphasis communicated by the texts is not supported by the images. Even if somebody must have built these material structures at some time, the images portray religion as historical monuments, things of the past, something static and fixed.

When taking a closer look at the images that portray people (26) we find that more than half (17) show people in a ritual context.32 We see Hindus and Buddhists performing puja (#63), Christians of both priesthood and laity praying (#16), Jews praying in front of the Western Wall (#97), and a Japanese crowd engaged in a Shinto festival (#16). The other half comprises without exception portraits and full-figure photos of people in some form of religious attire (#9; #52–3; #82). Despite the tendencies in the textual material to represent religion as a force in human lives, and as something with relevance to life’s many aspects, this message is not transmitted by the selection of images.

Recall the main topics listed on the web pages. From the top of the list (politics, culture, ethics, history), only two can said to be a recurring theme in the image material. We get a sense of history from the old buildings, statues and religious sites. If ethics is a regulation of behaviour, one could argue that it is implicitly visualized in images of rituals, but it does not occur in any more direct manner. In a broad sense, ‘culture’ is present in any photography. In the texts, religion is related to culture more in the sense of being present in ‘other areas’ of (a) culture. Surprisingly, none of the images place religion or religious actors in such a setting, nor, for that matter, in contexts related to politics33 or ethics. Even if these topics may be abstract constructions, it is not difficult to imagine how they could be visualised. As a matter of fact, the relationship between religion and politics appears visually in newspapers and news broadcasts on a daily basis. Religion is often embedded in public institutions and the places of everyday life be it images of Catholic saints on hospital walls, images of Mecca in kebab shops, pupils wearing religious symbols or the presence of Mormon pioneers in a busy city street. The examples are plenty and could be used to support the kind of claims made in texts.

There are no images that identifiably relate to the remaining terms in the topics section such as cognition, ecology, climate change, health, human rights, identity, immigration, law, media, post-colonialism, power, race, state, and terrorism, cinema and film, the economy, public life, word-views, death/dying, mysticism, shamanism, violence, the interaction or interface of religion with other ‘systems’, globalization and gender.

Above (section RELIGIONS) we saw that there is especially one group of religions that are mentioned more than others. The same goes for the sample of pictures, but with a slightly different ranking: Christianity (26), Hinduism (16), Buddhism (11), Islam (9), Judaism (7).34 These are clearly a representation of the commonly recognized ‘world religions’. The rest of the pictures (16) comprise images relating to Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, New Age, Paganism, Shintoism and Confucianism, which may give the impression of some variety of religious traditions. Other prominent religions such as Mormonism, the Baha’i Faith, Jainism, Scientology, or the internal diversity within the ‘world religions’ are not represented.

There are several cases (11) where the images are presented in a collage. In some few cases (2) collages are used as part of the header on the page with the department logo. What all these have in common, is that they compile images from different religious traditions, from East and West. In a sense, this visualizes the plurality of religion\s and the global perspectives often claimed in the texts. Let us take a look at one example. On the website for Victoria University of Wellington we found the portraits of Virgin Mary, Krishna, John Lennon and former US president George W. Bush (retrieved 2011-23-03).

Figure 2, Collage on Victoria University of Wellington web page (March 23, 2011)

Figure 2, Collage on Victoria University of Wellington web page (March 23, 2011)

These portraits are arranged around the message “Never in the history of the world has the study of religion mattered more”. Where Virgin Mary and Krishna are figureheads for Christianity (Catholicism) and Hinduism (Krishnaism) respectively, Lennon and Bush appear as important persons in contemporary religious scenarios. Arguably, Bush and Lennon juxtapose American mainstream Protestantism, power and politics (Bush) and alternative spirituality (Lennon); note that Lennon is much more centrally situated in the composition (even though somewhat to the left), while Bush appears as right wing marginal figure. This is one of the very few visual representations found on a study of religion\s web page that suggests that the discipline does not only deal with the prototypical religious histories, but also with modern politics and popular culture. Interestingly, as if to confirm our diagnosis this collage was subsequently replaced by a row of five pictures, out of which four are views from outside of religious buildings without the presence of any human beings (and correspondingly the textual message, which reflected the ‘claim of relevance’, has been taken out).35

Figure 3, Collage on Victoria University of Wellington web page (May 29, 2011)

Figure 3, Collage on Victoria University of Wellington web page (May 29, 2011)

Conclusion

For religion, most texts seeking to represent the study of religion\s in our international sample of web pages flag its diversity, agency or impact; they mainly communicate a ‘claim of relevance’, probably serving as a kind of selling point. Key topics in the study of religion\s highlighted by the texts are mainly politics, culture, ethics, and history. Methods are rarely mentioned on the web pages. Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism are the religions mentioned most often by far; implicitly, the discipline seems still dominated by a ‘world religions’ approach. In general, however, the meta-analysis of the state of the discipline according to its public self-presentation on the university web pages point to a rather limited degree of intellectual coherence both with regard to selection of information and its content. Reflexive statements, i.e. statements that self-critically address the parameters of the study of religion\s on a meta-level, are almost absent in our sample; the web pages show an alarmingly low degree of reflexivity. This is in striking contrast to vigorous debates that have characterized the field during recent decades. As we see it, this should be reflected more prominently on future web pages. This leads us to some observations and recommendations concerning best practice.

Recommendations

In light of what we have learned from this analysis, with all due caveat we want to end on a constructive note: How should the study of religion\s be represented on university websites: what are the best practices? There are many ways to address this question. For example, plenty of good advice can be found in foras36 about web content management, but that is beyond our scope in this article. Instead, we will restrict our observation to the main categories of our analysis. We do not claim to sit on the definitive solution to this challenge, but we hope to stimulate to greater attention being paid to how the study of religion\s is represented on the web:

  • Designations. While acknowledging the need for departmental identity and institutional history, it may be useful to flag a reference to a disciplinary umbrella, i.e. the study of religion\s. It is also important to highlight association membership and point to other institutions where there is a close relationship. E.g. The Department of Religious Studies belongs to the discipline of the study of religion\s and is a member of the IAHR. We have an exchange arrangement with the School of Divinity in Edinburgh.
  • Religion. Presentations should include a reflection on the issue of defining the subject matter and the inherent problems of the concept. If there is a need for “claiming relevance”, efforts should be made to provide concrete (rather than general) examples where such relevance is achieved or to present this as a guiding hypothesis rather than as an ontological or historical truism. E.g. As scholars of religion we feel obligated to always reflect on the question “What is religion?”. ‘Religion’ can be defined differently depending on whom you ask and where the question is posed. At our department we tend to teach and research religion as a global phenomenon that can be found in all societies with varying impact on culture and society: from the apocryphal Gospels’ influence on modern popular culture to the Goddess devotion in India.
  • Religions. Webpages should not uncritically reproduce and privilege the notion of “world-religions” and be aware of different taxonomical approaches. E.g. We offer courses in Buddhism, New Religious Movements and Islam. In each different tradition, different periods and geographies are surveyed: from modern Zen Buddhism, Wicca, to East-European Sufi-practices.
  • Disciplinary Matrix. Presentations should more accurately portray how they deploy sub-disciplines and achieve inter-disciplinarity, or multi-methodology (if desired). To us, in some educational contexts it seems important to explicitly make the distinction from theology since the two are often confused in public. That being said, maybe it is time to turn the coin and emphasize what we may perceive as our strengths, rather than just stating that the study of religion\s is not theology. E.g. Several scholars at our department work with scholars from other disciplines, such as the Department of Sociology. In our program you are given the opportunity to learn how methods such as philology and statistics are used to research religion. The study of religion\s is often confused with theology; while both disciplines share an interest in “religion”, our program provides a comparative and agnostic approach, and does not privilege any specific religious traditions.
  • Topics. While it is tempting to make lists and general remarks of the topics one might deal with in the study of religion\s, try to restrict such list to those which actually are prominent within the research and study programs at the department. This creates proper expectations and gives relevant information for both potential collaborators and prospective students. E.g. At our department we are interested in how religion intercepts with politics. We do also offer courses where you can study the relationship between gender discourses and Muslim ideologies.
  • Aims, Skills, Competence. It is common for disciplines within the humanities to struggle with certain (utilitarian?) expectations related to employment prospects and public benefit. While such expectations invites us to form ideas of what skills and abilities we want in a study of religion\s graduate, we should not undermine the value of knowledge for its own sake. E.g. We challenge our students to develop a better understanding of religion\s and have the ability to approach religious with a comparative and critical mindset. Our students should also be able to relate what they know about religion\s to other fields in culture and society.
  • Career Prospects and employment perspectives. Hopefully, most of those with a background in the study of religion\s are in some form of career or employment. We should make an effort to find out what their education is actually used for, and portray this on the websites through for example testimonials. This also invites departments to think about certain occupational areas they want to focus on. E.g. If you are interested in international relations and diplomacy, our Department offers courses in Religion and Politics that have been reported to be useful for our students in such professions.
  • Visual Representations. This is one of the aspects where websites (per 2011) have the greatest need to improve. It should not be hard to come up with original and relevant images, photographs and even videos to present and visualise both religion as it is studied (rather than as it is visualized in tourist guidebooks), but also the study of religion\s as something consisting of scholars and students at work.

Knut at work

Knut at work

  • Reflexivity. The underlying leitmotiv of several of these recommendations is to stimulate to greater reflexivity. We should no longer hesitate to acknowledge our own positionalities and perspectives, including their limitations; to our eyes, rather than limiting the appeal of the texts this will improve their credibility.

Bibliography

Alles, Gregory D. (ed.) 2008, Religious Studies: a global view, Routledge, London.

Alles, Gregory D. 2011. “What (kind of) good is Religious Studies.” Religion 41: 217-223

Antes, Peter 2002. “Why should people study History of Religions?” In Giulia Sfameni Gasparro (ed.), Themes and Problems of the History of Religions in Contemporary Europe. Proceedings of the International Seminar Messina, March 30-31 2001 / Temi e problemi della Storia delle Religioni nell’Europa contemporanea. Atti del seminario Internazionale Messina, 30-31 Marzo 2001, Edizioni Lionello Giordano: Cosenza, 41-52.

Engler, Steven and  Michael Stausberg 2011. “Introductory essay. Crisis and creativity: opportunities and threats in the global study of religion\s.” Religion 41: 127-143.

McCutcheon, Russell T. 2001. Critics not Caretakers: redescribing the public study of religion. State University of New York Press: Albany.

Stausberg, Michael 2011. “The Bologna process and the study of religion\s in (Western) Europe.” Religion 41: 187-207.

Appendix

Errata

  • “African religion” → “African religions”

Notes

1 See Engler / Stausberg 2011 for the disciplinary status of the study of religion\s. As noted there, the idiosyncratic use of the backslash, which is followed here, is meant to index a series of theoretical and meta-theoretical questions regarding the referents and framing of ‘religion’ and ‘religions’.

2 While the public understanding of science and technology has become a field of study in its own right (witness publications such as the journal Public Understanding of Science, published by SAGE since 1992), the public understanding of humanities and social sciences seems comparatively underdeveloped.

3 Information provided on faculty is not included because such pages typically do not make statements about their respective understandings of the discipline (and even if they do, this information is that of individuals and not of institutions) but mainly provide information on career, publications, fields of research and courses taught by the individual faculty member. Nor do we include information on single courses, partly because such courses can be offered even where there is no department or specialized staff available, partly because the boundaries are unclear (a course on Buddhism, for example, can be offered by study of religion\s departments, by South Asian area studies programs or by Indian languages departments), and partly in order not to inflate our sample.

4 See the appendix for a full index of the cases.

5 Our study combines strategies often referred to as ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ forms of analysis. In order to reflect the quantitative distribution of cases, in writing we tried, as much as possible, to stick to the following stylistic rule: when speaking of “few” cases we are referring to between two and five cases; when speaking of “some” cases, we are referring to between six and ten; “several” refers to between 11 and 20; “many” to between 21 and 60; “most” refers to 61 and more.

6 For reasons of space and relevance the following discussion does not include results of all coding exercices.

7 Consider the example of Leiden University (#68). The University has the Leiden Institute for Religious Studies (LIRS), which offers different master’s programs, including a Master in Religious Studies. This program has seven tracks, including once called Comparative Religion. This program has several courses, including Comparative Religion: Themes and Topics in the Study of Religion, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, and a Required General Course Religious Studies. On different levels, Leiden University thereby uses no less that three designations (Religious Studies, Comparative Religion, Study of Religion).

8 E.g. the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR), the Canadian Society for the Study of Religion/La Société Canadienne pour l’Étude de la Religion, the Finnish Society for the Study of Religion, the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), and the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR).

9 In addition, a very small group of webpages extends the scope of the discipline to cover, e.g., “folk beliefs, worldviews, and ideologies” (University of Helsinki #12) or “the faiths, world views, practices, and ways of life that have, both historically and in the contemporary world, shaped the actions and allegiances of human beings” (Emory University #100).

10 Diversity: Aarhus University (#8); Philipps-Universität Marburg (#47); LMU Munic (#51); Université Laval (#71); University of Zurich (#90). Diversity and complexity: University of Otago (81#); Victoria University of Wellington (#83); University of Zurich (#91).  Diversity and universality: The University of New England (#88-89). Diversity and comparison: University of Washington (#30).

11 There are eight cases for universality or omnipresence of religion in our sample.

12 Religions “bring people together, but they also play a role in conflicts, and time after time they lead to public debate.” (University of Groningen #52); “In der spätmodernen Migrationsgesellschaft können Religionen das friedliche Zusammenleben ebenso erleichtern wie erschweren.” (University of Zurich #90).

13 See Antes (2002) for an attempt to identify “profit making strategies” (41) to promote the discipline. According to Antes the genuine contribution of the discipline is to “go on and concentrate on religion as a shaping force of culture and society, as an introduction to human variety in worldviews and as models for concord and discord among people.” This resonates with texts published on several homepages.

14 Examples for the classification as “humanities” come from New Zealand (Massey University # 80; Victoria University of Wellington #83) and Australia (University of New England #89). The University of Alabama speaks of “the anthropological approach to the study of religion as practiced in the public university” as being “a member of the human sciences (#27).

15 One wonders if that recalls the language of an integral humanism as proposed by Eliade.

16 Interdisciplinary: LMU Munich (#51); multidiscplinary: University of Ottawa (#72); transciplinary: University of Lausanne (#95: “L’histoire et les sciences des religions regroupent différentes disciplines qui se spécialisent dans l’étude scientifique des religions”).

17 Kulturwissenschaft is an umbrella term for which there is no real equivalent in any other language. In the German context, this term, which has replaced Geisteswissenschaften as a guiding notion, typically includes a range of disciplines or fields such as anthropology, ethnology, history, literary and media studies and sometimes also the social sciences. In the German speaking countries, claiming legitimate membership in this family of disciplines has been crucial for the study of religion\s as a platform of affirming its non-theological and post-phenomenological identity.

18 One can imagine that many theologians would regard this as a caricature of their business.

19 “Ces disciplines étudient les religions d’un point de vue non confessionnel, ‘extérieur’, et les envisagent comme un produit de l’activité culturelle humaine” (University of Lausanne #95).

20 When coding our sample for issues (aspects/topics) we ignored cases discussed in relation to definitional matters as well as the selection of religions/regions and methods discussed in other parts of this essay. Some themes are borderline cases. Consider Bible, philosophy, and theology. Since the Bible is an aspect of some religions rather than of religion\s in general, we ignored this here. Philosophy and theology can be aspects of religion\s insofar as many religions can be said to have their own philosophies or theologies (in which case they would be relevant for this section), but philosophy and theology can also refer to academic disciplines–and since the cases mentioning these words seem to refer to the latter meaning of these terms we ignored them here.

21 Even the much debated issue of fundamentalism is mentioned only once.  Here are some other topics we found noteworthy: amulets, capitalism, clothing,  holocaust, justice, museum, war.

22 The word cloud is created with Wordle (http://wordle.net, retrieved 2012–11–30)

23 The third term in terms of frequency is ‘to analyze’ or ‘analysis’ (six cases). Somewhat less frequently used is the verb ‘to interpret’ or the adjective ‘interpretive’ (two cases each). Three texts speak of insight (twice as noun, once as verb). The verb ‘to learn’ occurs twice and so does the noun ‘empathy’. Two texts speak of ‘examining’, whereas ‘inquiry’ and ‘to comprehend’ only occur once each. Also words referring to explanation and theory are mentioned only once each (in both cases in the verbal form).

24 “Proporcionar un conocimiento racional y crítico del hecho religioso y de la evolución de las diferentes religiones” (Complutense University of Madrid #77). The text continues by referring to instruments of analysis and critique.

25 “En plus de permettre le développement d’une culture religieuse générale (les approches générales du fait religieux ou les grandes traditions religieuses à travers le monde), les cours favorisent l’évolution d’un sens critique, tant à l’égard de sa propre expérience qu’à celui des phénomènes religieux et spirituels” (Université Laval #71).

26 The capability of analysis or to analyze is the skill mentioned by most cases (9), followed by understanding/to understand (5) and the ability to interpret (4). Insight is mentioned as a skill in three cases. Three cases engage speak of ‘reflection’. Among the cognitive skills mentioned by one or two cases we find ‘to compare’, ‘to describe’, ‘to examine’, ‘to explain’ and ‘to explore’.

27 “I kombinasjon med støttefaget får du kunnskap om forholdet mellom religion og samfunn og en unik tverrkulturell kompetanse” (University of Bergen #1). “Du får kunnskap om forholdet mellom religion og samfunn og en unik tverrkulturell kompetanse” (University of Oslo #3).

28 The notion of ‘employability’ has achieved worldwide resonance in higher education; for its implications, limitations, relevance, and career in Western Europe with regard to the study of religion\s see Alles 2011; Engler/Stausberg 2001; Stausberg 2011.

29 Observant readers may noe that this sample is slightly larger than the sample of texts (consisting of 101 web pages). The reason for this is that some websites randomize between a set of images on their site everytime you access the page in a web browser.

30 Unfortunately, we failed to take screenshots in the first phase of data collection, but did so only some months later (on May 29, 2011). In the meanwhile, of course, some web pages had changed their appearance, not the least their visual content. We still think that our findings are relevant and valid.

31 Images of cheerful students enjoying lively discussions are probably merely ‘stock photos’ indiscriminately used for whichever department sites. One exception is the University of Bayreuth where actual photos from the department’s students are used.

32 Note that the images appear to keep on changing rather quickly. Several of the images mentioned in the following can in the meanwhile no longer be seen on the web pages.

33 There is one notable exception, where the profile of president George W. Bush is used in a collage (see below).

34 In the texts Islam and Hinduism are mentioned more often.

35 http://www.victoria.ac.nz/sacr/about/overview-intros/religious-studies.aspx (retrieved 2011-06-27)

36 The online magazine A List Apart is a good place to start learning more on writing for the web (http://www.alistapart.com/topics/content/writing/ [Retrieved: 03.01.13]).

It’s the Fruits, not the Roots: A Response to Ralph Hood

IMG_1422-1Hood’s approach has no flaws from the standpoint of an observing scientist; but, on the personal level, one may have trouble distinguishing between the cause and the consequence.

It’s the Fruits, not the Roots: A Response to Ralph Hood

By Joshua James, Henderson State University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 22 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ralph Hood on Mysticism (20 May 2013)

When I began outlining my response to this interview—which is an intriguing psychological look at mystical experience through the filter of one of the most insightful minds dealing with the subject today—I wanted to remain as objective as possible and remove the influence of my personal experience. I found it nearly impossible. One method for addressing the intersection between lived experience and academia is through reflexivity.  In the article, “On Becoming a Qualitative Researcher: the Value of Reflexivity,” by Diane Watt, the author notes the importance of juxtaposing one’s self in relation to their research interest. By the researcher or author stating their worldview (or in some cases bias) the reader has a better understanding of not only the structure of inquiry but also the interpretive frame of the author’s position. In the case of Watt (2007), her experience as a school teacher informed her paradigm of inquiry.

Watt’s argument for reflexivity relaxed my reluctance. Watt kept a journal of her experience and combined her reflexive exploration with quantitative research to construct an academic product with multiple layers of depth in inquiry both in terms her research interests and in self-reflection of perceptions in analysis. Watt found her journal quite helpful: “Through the writing process, I was able to excavate memories of my own classroom practice.” I realized that when I listened to the interview with Ralph Hood, that I had “excavated” memories of my own. Thus I decided that not only would including my first-hand experience be helpful to my argument, it would be ill-advised not to include it, possibly even irresponsible.  This paper is written in relation to my own reflexive experience of understanding mysticism and the profound themes posed by Dr. Ralph Hood’s podcast.

When I first read William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, a text to which Dr. Ralph Hood refers liberally, I strongly connected with an account given by an agnostic man during a lecture entitled “The Reality of the Unseen.” James identifies him only as “a scientific man of my acquaintance.” A portion of the account follows:

Between twenty and thirty I gradually became more agnostic and irreligious, yet I cannot say that I ever lost that ‘indefinite consciousness’ which Herbert Spencer describes so well, of an Absolute Reality behind phenomena…I had ceased my childish prayers to God, and never prayed to It in a formal manner, yet my more recent experience show me to have been in a relation to It which practically was the same thing as prayer…I know now that it was a personal relation I was in to it, because of late years the power of communicating with it has left me, and I am conscious of a perfectly definite loss.[1]

While at the time of the writing, James’ acquaintance was over twenty years older than the age I am now, his early experience virtually mirrors my own.

I’m a skeptic. However, like the man to whom I refer above, I have, rarely, turned to prayer in times of desperation, and I have always had a sense that there was someone else involved with the world; someone to whom I owed thanks for undeserved good fortune, someone who heard my thoughts, someone who compelled me to feel guilty or embarrassed even when no human could possibly have known the mistake I made. I have had, in spite of my agnosticism, an experience that could be classified as a “mystical experience,” the details of which I shall not go into, but I did experience a degree of transcendence in the sense that I lost emotional control and it seemed as if someone else had this control. It occurred during a period of temporary desperation which prompted me to pray to whom I do not know for the first time since my childhood (which was spent in a Pentecostal church).

Hood makes clear in this interview that what he is interested in, with regard to spiritual experience, is the interpretation of an experience rather than the cause of an experience. That is to say that regardless if one’s spiritual experience occurs during prayer, deep self-reflection, or after swallowing a couple hits of blotter acid, the consequences and interpretation of the experience, usually involving a transcendence or “loss of self,” validates the experience. Hood’s approach has no flaws from the standpoint of an observing scientist; but, on the personal level, one may have trouble distinguishing between the cause and the consequence.

I will refer to my own experience to demonstrate my point. I could interpret my experience as evidence, or even proof, for the more fundamentally-minded reader, of the existence of God, and as confirmation of the validity of the scripture. It could have been the reassurance I had been looking for to readopt my faith.

But because I understand, or more appropriately, believe I understand the cause, my interpretation is different. I neither pretend to be an expert in the field of psychology nor do I deny that the human brain is still a mystery to those who are, but I know enough to know that the brain is powerful. And to know that suggestion is powerful. Therefore, given that I was in a state of desperation and asking an invisible, unknowable presence for a mercy of which I felt unworthy, my brain created the experience. My complexly constructed brain used overtly simple logic to rationalize a scenario where something special had happened to me: I asked someone—and I deeply hoped this someone existed—for something and I had received it, therefore that someone must have given it to me. Furthermore, as I previously stated, I felt undeserving of the mercy I received. Because I felt undeserving, it was natural to feel gratitude, and I don’t think I’m being too presumptuous when I suggest that it is the nature of human mentality to focus our gratitude or blame, anger or affection onto a person, or Supreme Being in this instance.

Make no mistake, Hood’s argument is not lost on me, neither do I disagree with it. Hood would likely argue that whether I had chosen to view the experience as faith-affirming or to view it in terms of Freudian reductionism, the experience occurred and I had interpreted it, therefore the experience is validated. The very fact that it happened makes it real, regardless of its roots. I am simply arguing that the roots are sometimes related to the “fruits,” as William James calls them.

Hood’s approach holds so long as we reject the possibility of objective truth. Take, for instance, the example given in the interview regarding psychedelic drugs. Hood argues that the experience should not be dismissed simply because it was caused by synthetic means, that is to say, only the cause is synthetic, the consequence is very much natural and real. On the one hand, if, while on an acid trip, one realizes through a transcendent experience that he or she has become angry and short-tempered recently, and as a result modifies his or her behavior, then the roots of the experience should not nullify the lesson learned. On the other hand, if, while on an acid trip one has, through a transcendent experience, become convinced whole-heartedly of the existence of God, then the validity could be called into question. Hood would argue that if one arrives at this conclusion through mystical experience, it should not be dismissed simply because the cause was hallucinogenic drugs rather than prayer. To his point, if one gained this same certainty through experience caused by other means, I would lend it no more validity; but, it becomes more difficult to distinguish the cause from the consequence.

Despite the rejection of my childhood religion, I have always wanted for the supernatural world of heaven and spirits to exist. The fact I want to believe only adds to my skepticism; I wish there was a heaven, therefore it becomes easier to convince me it is so, and thus I remain wary. If you have ever watched an episode of Ghost Hunters on the Syfy network and seen how disappointed people appear when they discover that their house is not haunted, then you understand what I mean. People would rather be in danger than be wrong, and we would choose almost anything over being alone and insignificant. If we have a heaven, or even a suggestion that there is something after death, say a spiritual experience, then we do not have to fear the loneliness of death. For centuries, the West believed unquestioningly that God created the Earth and all the plants and creatures specifically for us and that it was the center of the entire universe. This arrogant insistence upon being special has been deeply embedded in our collective unconscious for some time. The discoveries made along the road to the present were increasingly more difficult to deal with until we finally became the most dominant animal on one of many billions of rocks in a universe too big for us to even begin to measure. It is no surprise we want to believe. Thus even today any experience of some transcendence must be interpreted as special conversation between the individual and God himself, or whatever entity or realm in which one believes.

For Hood, my cynical interpretation only proves his point: the consequence of the experience is all that matters; the religious among us will interpret it religiously, and the non-religious among us will interpret it non-religiously. A spiritual world exists because people continue to experience it. It is a post-modern and pragmatic philosophy, and it serves him well. Take Hood’s and Paul Williamson’s work with the Lazarus Project for example. The addicts replace the drug experience with a spiritual experience, and if it benefits them, who could question its validity. And of course, if someone manages to reveal the spiritual world to be an objective part of the natural world, it will undoubtedly be discovered through the mythological agnostic approach used by scientists like Ralph Hood who refused to be limited by presumptions.

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

IMG_1422-1Joshua James is in graduate school at Henderson State, Master of Liberal Arts with an emphasis in social science in progress. He received his B.A., major in History from Henderson also, and has worked in the restaurant business for years. Recently he has become passionate about writing and just this semester has taken an interest in journalism, something I never attempted as an undergrad.

References

  • James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penquin, 1982.
  • Watt, Diane. “On Becoming a Qualitative Researcher: The Value of Reflexivity.” The Qualitative Report. 12 (2007): 82-101.

[1] William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience. (New York: Penguin, 1982), 64-5.