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Race, Religious Freedom & Empire in Post-War Japan

At the 2019 American Academy of Religion conference in San Diego, California, Brett Esaki sat down with Jolyon Thomas to discuss Thomas’ new book Faking Liberties and the complex intersection of religious freedom, empire, and racialization in the post-war relationship between Japan and the United States. The processes or projects of secularization, says Thomas, were instrument of American empire. By looking at the ways discourses about religious freedom regulated race, gender, and ritual practices in occupation-era Japan, we can see the double-standard of what America has advocated for abroad versus practiced at home. Thomas calls for deeper scholarly engagement with the category of “freedom” and how freedom of religious expression has been racially coded as white in the United States. It is a cautionary tale with important pedagogical and institutional lessons. If we find that discussing “diversity looks like activism,” he suggests, then “we have a huge problem” that reveals why diversity in the academy is essential for discussing secularism, religious freedom, and religion today.

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Race, Religious Freedom and Empire in Post- War Japan

Podcast with Jolyon Thomas (11 May 2020).

Interviewed by Brett Esaki.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/race-religious-freedom-and-empire-in-post-war-japan/

Brett Esaki (BE): Welcome to sunny San Diego. I’m Brett Esaki, and I’m really excited to talk about your book today. So the book, Faking Liberties, Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. It’s about a lot of things, but primarily in the area . . . about Japan before, during and after the American Occupation. But it’s also, interestingly, a reflection upon the United States and its projects abroad. So, can you briefly introduce the book’s thesis, and list a few of the items of comparison across the countries?

Jolyon Thomas (JT): Well, thank you for taking the time to do the interview. I’m Jolyon Thomas and I’m really pleased to be here. So the book’s main thesis is that there’s a story that’s been told that the United States brought religious freedom to Japan at the end of the Second World War. And, as I was looking at this history, I was really struck by the fact that it just seemed to not be true. Now it turns out that the United States did bring religious freedom to Japan, only it had brought religious freedom to Japan much earlier, in the 1850s, as part of a sort-of diplomatic package. And indeed, the concept of religion comes to Japan in that time. But the sort-of triumphalist Occupation era narrative about the United States bringing religious freedom to Japan is a really problematic story, because it sets up the Americans as being sort-of the holders of freedom and the Japanese as being these benighted people that need to be saved, or rescued, by the Americans. So I was really inspired by literature on secularism, and secularity studies, in thinking through the ways that religious freedom is a really good topic for thinking about what secularism is. But I was also trying to make an intervention in the history of Japan and the United States, thinking perhaps a little more critically about American empire. And then thinking perhaps a little bit more – what’s the way to put this? – in a sort-of radical credulity about one of these claims that Japanese people in the Pre-War and War-time period made, that Shinto was not a religion. And so one of the things I wanted to do was take that claim at face value and think, “Well, what would the history look like if that turned out to be true?”

BE: Right. And that kind-of explains one of the shifts you make from going from essentialist and functionalist definitions of freedom of religion to more of a project or claims-making. Can you walk us through that transition?

JT: Yes. So one of the things that really struck me in thinking about the Occupation era narrative about “Japanese people don’t have religious freedom”, is that it basically makes an essentialist claim, saying “Japanese people, as such, in their being, don’t get it.” And, you know, I think that many of us in the academy, in 2019, we’re well aware that we should avoid essentialising claims. But there are still a lot of them that sort-of lurk out there. They’re sort-of shambling around in our midst, right? So the first sort-of correction for that is the suspicious move to do the functionalist claim, like: “What’s really happening behind the scenes?” And I think that, for most of time that I’ve been professionally studying religions in Japan, I’ve seen more of the functionalist move where it’s like: “Well, Shinto is essentially a religion of Japanese people. And State Shinto is functionally the political co-option this benign ancient religion”, or whatever. It turns out that the scholarship has shown that both of those claims are just not accurate. And that one of things that I really push, in a more constructivist bent, is to look at who speaks about Shinto and about religious freedom, and how do they engage in projects of religion making? And so, you know, in this critical secularisms and secularities literature there’s a sort-of focus on the constructed nature of both . . . the co-constructed nature, I should say, of both religion and secularism. And so, as I was thinking through those issues, it was very obvious that religious freedom is a place where you see religion-making happening in real time. Because to free religion, people have to designate one thing as “religion” and something else as “not religion”. And so I find that to be endlessly fascinating, and fun to think through and with.

BE: So, to try and summarise that, there are these two projects of secularisation, or kind-of defining what religion and what non-religion is, both within pre-War Japan and also in the United States in its later Occupation. So it’s a nice line of comparison, having those two (5:00). So, one thing I’d like to turn to, is one of these provocative claims that you’ve made – and I think it’s actually – as the argument goes in your book – a quite tempered claim, for my view, that religious freedom and human rights have been used functionally as tools of empire – and that’s the term you use. Can you explain what you mean by that term, tool of empire? And maybe provide an example?

JT: Sure. So I think I’m not alone in making this sort of claim. And just to give a shout out to other scholars working in the field of Critical Religious Freedom Studies: Tisa Wenger‘s book Religious Freedom – I forget the subtitle . . . something about an American ideal – is . . . . She uses this idea about religious freedom. As white settlers move west then they take religious freedom with them, and it helps them occupy territory, and so forth. Writing in a more contemporary period, Elizabeth Shackman Hurd has talked about the global promotion of religious freedom, or what she calls international religious freedom. And, you know, this is something that the Trump administration takes very seriously. So did the Obama administration before it, and so forth. And the reason that this is a sort-of tool of empire is that it’s a way for Americans to do assert a certain type of moral superiority, and to . . . . Even if not dominating politically another territory and population, the language of religious freedom allows Americans to sort-of assert a certain degree of political hegemony. So in the book there are two main examples of this, I would say. Chapter Three looks at territorial Hawai’i, which is, at the time, you know, an American territory, not a state. I’m looking at Hawai’i in the 1910s and twenties, mostly. And there, under the plantation economy, religious freedom and the notion of white Christian supremacy work hand in hand. So, to make a long story very short, Japanese American Buddhists make an attempt to use the language of religious freedom, and they fail utterly. And this is partly . . . and the reason they fail is that there’s a very carefully constructed political economy of the Islands. And if Japanese people are allowed to use religious freedom, then that really calls into question the white supremacy that dominates that. And the other place is, of course, the Occupation itself. Japan is an autonomous state. It has its own sovereignty at this stage. I would say that it’s fair to describe Japan as a client state. It’s utterly dependent on the US military presence in a very conflicted way. And Japan is America’s . . . the forward base for the United States in East Asia that reflects the geopolitics of the Cold War. There’s a lot of emphasis on using Japan as a sort-of place to maintain freedom of navigation in the Pacific and so forth. All of that is to say, religious freedom was central to the Occupation project. It was one of the main rationales for why the United States needed to be in Japan in the first place. These people, we fought a war with them, they fought the war because of their religion: “Their religion was bad, we’re going to fix it. And, having fixed it, then we’re going to incorporate them under the sort-of military umbrella of the United States.” So, you know, we could parse the term empire all day. But I’m totally comfortable with thinking of America as an empire and that’s quite accurate in many respects.

BE: And we could also use the adjective empirical, like . . . things related to those goals. Can we also categorise other similar freedoms, spread abroad, with the same kind of analysis of projects?

JT: Yes, I think so. You know, other people have talked about this sort of thing. One of the things that immediately comes to mind when you ask this question is, sort-of gender and women’s rights. I think we see a lot of Americans really worked up about genital cutting and in a very complicated way. And there are a number of scholars who have worked on sort-of calling that into question. But sort-of saying like “Women need to be protected either from themselves or from the terrible men who are doing stuff”. And, of course, Saba Mahmood has talked about this sort of thing with veiling, and there are others like Rick Shweder at the University of Chicago, who have written articles on genital cutting and so forth, where there are double standards that are applied (10:00). So one of the things that I think is really interesting thinking about the US project of spreading freedoms abroad, is that we often operate under double standards, where what we do at home is a little bit different from what we project overseas. And I think that we really need to sort-of slow down, and pay attention to that dynamic. It’s insidious in its worst instantiations.

BE: From maybe my interests, and my lines of questioning, maybe you have like a presumption, maybe, of a kind-of underlying interest that I have. And that’s really your experiences of racialisation and how that informs your scholarly perspective. Now, I’m not imposing this on your book. But, in fact, it’s explicitly stated in the epilogue, you’re a multi-racial African American, if that’s the right term you’d like to use to identify yourself. And without giving away the book’s awesome finale – stated in musical form – really cool! – can you just touch upon, maybe, how your study of Asian religions, in particular, has been affected by your own experiences of racialisation.

JT: Yes. Thank you so much for asking that question. So one of the things that struck me as I was getting into the archival materials for this book, was how frequently the occupiers described themselves as white. And how they also positioned themselves as . . . they thought of America as white. And the American armed forces were still segregated at this time. America’s self-understanding was figured around whiteness. And as a non-white person, that really was jarring. But it also was one of the things that I . . . . You know, it’s part of this longer autobiography, I guess, that I share in a brief form in the epilogue, which is that if you’re a non-white person in the United States then it’s very obvious – I shouldn’t speak for all of us, but I’ll just speak for myself. It was really obvious to me growing up that when American’s talk about freedom that freedom is not extended to all of us equally. And so I saw a lot of work in the critical religious freedom literature, tearing apart the word religion. And very important to do. I saw less on freedom. And I thought that freedom was something that really needed to be addressed more directly. And to think about how there are both emancipatory and coercive qualities to freedom. And that different people, and different groups, get freedom in different ways. One of the things that . . . . So the Epilogue, as you’ve seen, is written in a very personal tone. I had a lot of trepidations putting it out there in the world. So far, when I’ve heard from people, they’ve generally . . . the response has been positive from people who have already read the book. But one thing that I notice is that a number of people said that it was . . . that my project was an activist project. And so, in the Introduction, I say very explicitly it’s not an activist project for all of these reasons. But one of the things that people are taking away, having read the Epilogue, was that this made the book an activist project. And I’ve been thinking about that recently. And this goes to your question about racialisation. Because I think that that reading is actually a racialised reading of the book. So, in other words, if I were like a white American and I close the book by being like, “Oh I went on the JET programme and I had this lovely experience in this small town in rural Japan.” Nobody would read that as activist. They would be like “Oh, that’s just a book.” Right? But because I’m talking about my experience as a racialised minority in the United States, and because it’s built into the apparatus of the book, suddenly the book becomes activist. And I think we really have to think about, you know, what sort of burden that places on racialised scholars of religion, and what we can do about that. Because – sorry, this is turning into a long rant! But one of the things that I think is that . . . . The Epilogue was designed to show, rather than tell. But it was showing the value of diversity in the academy. And if diversity looks like activism then we have a huge problem. So I think that one of the things that I really . . . like, my hope for people reading the Epilogue is that “Oh, this represents why diverse voices are valuable in the academy; this represents why we need to foster diversity in the lower ranks of the academy”, and so forth.

BE: Right. So there’s so much in there to unpack. I would like to actually walk back to more of your archival discussion.

JT: Sure.

BE: So let’s take us back into that time (15:00). You look at his archive, and then, over and over, you’re reading, with the name America, some reference – either explicitly or implicitly – to concepts of whiteness. What goes through your mind as you’re going through this archive? And again, I’m trying to help you out here, with the . . . and I do that myself, your experiences shape your lens. They don’t make your project activism. So I trying to help you articulate that process.

JT: Yes great, OK. So let me just talk about the archive in general. It’s actually multiple archives in the United States in Japan. So I’m looking at American military government records at the National Archives and Records Administration. That’s in College Park, Maryland. And also there is this fabulous collection at the University of Maryland called the Prange Collection. During the years of the Occupation, every document that was published in Japanese was censored. So, you know, there’s this irony in the Occupation to promote freedom of expression, that the occupiers censor everything! (Laughter). To promote religious freedom, they quash some religious groups, and so forth. I talk about this in great detail in the book. So the Prange Collection has all these censored documents. And then I was looking at archives in Southern California, in Oregon, for people who had been influential in Occupation policy, or active in the Occupation, as well as archives in Japan. So Government records, a lot of magazines and so forth. One of the things that I noticed, as I was going through the American military government records, was that they told a very sort-of hasty story of the Japanese past, the recent Japanese past. And their story was designed to make Japan look like it was an inferior, sort-of uncivilised place. So with the concept . . . . I want to stress the concept of civilisation here, for a second, like really spell that out. Because civilisation was the dominant frame for understanding the world in the first half of the twentieth century and the late nineteenth century. And so civilisation was basically equated with whiteness. And so any time the Americans are talking about civilisation, they’re often – if not explicitly, at least implicitly – sort-of tying this to “these people who are insufficiently white”. And, of course, those people who know the history will know that Japan has had this ambiguous status geopolitically, because Japan was an empire in its own right. Japan staved off being colonised by colonising the other countries of Asia. And that’s a very complicated history that I won’t go into in too much detail. But where does that leave the scholar? Well I felt like I had a responsibility, then, to unpack the stories the Japanese people were telling about themselves. How did they think of themselves? How did they mobilise the language of civilisation in a different way? And so, you know, at first I thought I was just writing a book about the years of the Occupation. But it turned out that I needed to write a whole half of the book that was about whatever was happening before the Occupation, to really let Japanese people speak in their own voices. And, strikingly, one of the things that happened was that a lot of them were saying a lot of things about religious freedom. And they’re laughing at the United States through a lot of it. A lot of them were just like, “Look at those crazy Americans! They are way too lapse with their laws about religious freedom! We’re going to use religious freedom, but we’re going do it our own way.” And I think that that’s a very important kind of story. And, of course, just amplifying the Japanese voices, and all of their complicated conflicted ways, is part of the project of the book.

BE: So, one thing you’re pointing to is that quick summarisation of what Japan used to be. So what are we doing now, as an American project? What was Japan before this? And one of the interesting things you point to is how they drew upon Religious Studies scholars to make this claim about what Japan used to be like. And so this actually discusses it . . . . It’s a major discussion you have about the politics of Religious Studies scholarship. And so here we have an example where . . . I don’t know if those scholars really thought of themselves as world-influencing in terms of their work. However, they ended up being it. And so one major portion of the book is called “The Occupation of Religious Studies” And obviously you have a double entendre there with the job, as well as the American Occupation. And there are some really interesting points made through this probably secondarily archival work, right? But there’s these terms of a spiritual vacuum, and also what happens after the American Occupation, the flourishing of new religions (20:00). And so this new term, “new religions and new religious movements”, and other terms that come out of there, actually come out of this definition of what Japan was like before and then what it was like after. So reflecting on these discussions and maybe – well, you can maybe parse out some of that for the Listeners. But also, maybe, words of advice about us as scholars of religion and what our potential political impact could be, based on our ways of framing religions.

JT: Great. Thanks so much for that question. OK. So I’m going to answer it by looping back to an earlier part of our conversation with the activism stuff. So the reason I said that it was deliberately not an activist project was precisely because so much stuff that I was seeing in the archive was scholars of religion adopting a prescriptive tone, saying “This is good religion, and that’s bad religion.”

BE: Right.

JT: “This is superstition. That’s real religion.” And that sort of thing. I think the category of State Shinto, which I alluded to before, it had that whole story built into it. Two-words, whole story, right? And so I wanted to be very deliberate. Of course, there’s always going to be some sort of prescription that we’re doing. But I think in general, for me, I think the first order level of prescription is about scholarly method. And if there’s an intervention I’m making in the book, it’s: how do we periodise, how do we tell our stories? Whose voices are we paying attention to? And that sort of thing. Those are the kinds of things that I think I’m very explicit about in the book. On reflection, I think I could have been even more deliberate, or taken a little bit more time to – in this case – rather than show, actually tell people what I was doing, in terms of playing with chronological presentation. The book is organised chronologically, but it’s also not organised chronologically. And that was my way of sort-of doing the historical method, but also kind-of screwing with it at the same time! But in terms of the sort-of nitty-gritty of what was happening in the Occupation – before, during and immediately after the Occupation – we have scholars of religion who are really minor until they become major, because of a sudden policy need. So the person I have in mind is Daniel Clarence Holtom, who’s a Baptist Missionary, who’s a scholar of Shinto and nobody was reading his stuff really, right? He’s completely under-appreciated. I think a small number of people are looking at him. But after Pearl Harbour the sort-of dominant narrative at the time was that Japanese people were ultra-nationalist because of Buddhism, not Shinto. And then somebody in the state department or in the Office of Strategic Services finds Holtom’s work and they’re like: “Oh my God! This guy is this expert who’s been telling us all of this stuff about why Japanese people are the way they are!” And so, suddenly, Holtom’s work has this whole new life, where it’s explaining Japanese ultra-nationalism. So this guy comes to . . . and then he ends up having like an outsize role after being on the margins of the scholarly community. So his ideas about Shinto as the national faith of Japan, and so forth, come to inform a lot of policy. This is particularly the case in the fall of 1945, when the occupiers have a sudden policy change that’s dictated by Washington. And the people in Washington suddenly announce on American public radio that Shinto, as a state religion, is going to be abolished. For the occupiers, stationed in Japan, this was the first they were hearing of it, and then they suddenly had to come up with a policy to support this objective. They had to come up with a reason to support this objective, while also protecting and promoting religious freedom. Which is an impossible task! So the only way to make that work is to designate Japan’s – quote-unquote – “national religion” as not being religion. Or as being sort-of insufficiently distinguishing between the religious and the political. How do you do that? You go to scholarly experts. So they relied on Holtom’s work, and they also relied on local Japanese scholars of religion, particularly this guy Kishimoto Hideo, and were asking them to basically support this for ordained objective and sure enough by 15 December of that year, of 1945, you get this document called the Shinto Directive, which formally abolishes this thing that they have now come to call State Shinto. And one thing I just want to put here – a sort-of asterisk to all of this – is that the language of – quote-unquote – “State Shinto” doesn’t solidify until December 1945. It is not something that is widely used, in Japanese or in English, up until that point. And that’s really crucial (25:00).

BE: And, in the book, you do a really good job of pointing out the kind-of lineage of the debates within Japan about the relationship of religion to the state. And so, it’s very clear from that there is no solidification of the State Shinto idea. So I think what this is actually . . . it’s bringing it back to, maybe, one of the earlier points about racialisation. So instead of it being an activist work, it’s really –and you can rephrase this how you want – your experiences shape your lens. That lens would be obvious . . . that lens is obvious to anyone who’s had similar experience of racialisation. On the other hand, maybe another scholar would take some of these assumptions about State Shinto for granted. Can you maybe loop those together? Like, how your own experience of racialisation allows you to break free of that presumption that the previous Religious Studies scholarship was fully accurate.

JT: Yes. Thank you so much for that question. OK, so I’m going to sort-of build on what we were just talking about with State Shinto, and tie it to this other concept that may be lurking in some Listeners’ minds, which is civil religion. OK, so Robert Bellah starts off, as I understand it, Talcott Parsons tells Robert Bellah, “You’re going do Japan” And he writes this book, Tokugawa Religion. And then he ends up shifting focus, and he ends up the being one of the major sociologists of American religion and so forth, and we’re all very indebted to him. One of the things that . . . one of his most influential essays is about Americas’ civil religion. And I think one of the things that a lot of people forget – maybe a lot of our Americanist colleagues forget – is that Bellah’s experience studying Japan directly affects his civil religion essay. And there’s even a footnote in that essay where he’s like: “I’m not talking about an American Shinto” – which I think says exactly what he’s doing. Right? There’s a sort-of proleptic quality to that that I think is really, really telling. So there are maybe one or two pages in Chapter One, where I’m talking about how Bellah, writing in his time – 1967, I think it is – he’s capable of telling a story about America’s civil religion that picks a set number of saints and heroes and monuments and so forth, and he’s talking about things like national sacrifice. But look at who he’s including and not including. There is no mention of blackness. There is no . . . like, black people are not present in this stories.

BE: Let’s repeat the date.

JT: 1967. Yes! Exactly! And so it’s just utterly striking. And so I’ve had a number of colleagues say, “Well, actually, shouldn’t civil religion be helpful in talking through your critique of State Shinto?” and I want to say, “No!” I want to flip the table over and say. “No. This is not helpful. Because Bellah was both using a racialised notion of Japan to tacitly to build his argument about American civil religion. He was rejecting what was going on in Japan to say, “Well, what we do is actually really good. And it’s the healthy stuff that bonds us all together.” That’s exactly what Japanese people were saying about . . . what they did not call State Shinto, but they called like the Imperial Way or shrine rites, or whatever. They had lots of different names for this stuff. And, you know, one of the things that Bellah’s . . . I mention this explicitly in my discussion of Bellah’s piece. But there’s no reference to Martin Luther King. There’s certainly no reference to Malcolm X, I mean can you imagine?! Right? But these are people who were speaking in prophetic voices. They were talking about the problems of the American project. There’s . . . and so, I think, to answer your question directly, I see that because of the way that I am, and because of the circumstances of my embodiment. I’m sure that . . . and I would not say that a white person would not see that. I want to be very clear here. But I think that because of growing up with this sort of ambiguous racial identity, as a multi-racial person, it’s always been sort-of in my face. I’ve never been able to not think about race. And so it took me a long time to figure out why I was so dissatisfied with the civil religion explanation. And it actually wasn’t until very late in the book that I finally came up with an answer for it. But it has to do with this issue: the circumstances of who I am, the nature of where I was born, how I grew up and all that stuff affects how I approach the archive, and so forth (30:00).

BE: Thank you so much. One more thing. And this is just like a nuts-and-bolts thing. So, we’ve discussed all the origins of the creation of the term State Shinto. Yet still . . . and I have to admit it, for myself, when I ‘m doing an Introduction to World Religions, there it is: the term State Shinto’s there. And you discuss it. Is there a nuts-and-bolts better way to describe what was happening in pre-Occupation Japan?

JT: Yes. I think we just need to talk about Japanese secularism. I describe it as a secularism. I describe what I call the Meiji constitutional regime as a secularist system. It’s premised on the distinction between “religion” and “not religion”. And I mean that in two ways. There’s like the forbidden not religion, which is things that end up being called superstitions, and so forth. And then there are the permitted or even encouraged not religion, which is the compulsory shrine rites, where you’d get a bunch of school kids to go to the shrine and pay their respects, or, like, bow to a picture of the Emperor. That’s secularism. That’s what’s happening in America too, at exactly the same time. There’s a sort-of a sense. . . . This is what Bellah would call America’s civil religion. But I think it’s actually much more complicated than that. I don’t want to reduce things to religion. I want to maintain the complexity of the language games that people play, in terms of parsing things as being religion or not religion, right? And I think that collapsing everything into the category of religion actually misses part of the point. So it is not my job to police what other people say. I know that I will be shouting into the wind, and there are going to be people who insist on using the term State Shinto. But I really think that, historically, it’s just inaccurate. And so if you’re in the classroom, you’re teaching your world religions class or whatever, what do you do? Well, use Japan as an opportunity to talk through the issues of secularism more broadly. Say, “We used to tell the story this way. Our text books or readings use this term. But you know, this is actually reflective of a different sort of politics of good and bad religion. Let’s talk about that. Let’s tie it to contemporary things. Like, when people are saying ‘Islamism’, what are they doing?” I argue in the book that Islamism is basically like the State Shinto of our day. It’s taking something and describing it as being illegitimate, just by adding that “ism” to the end. And I think there are a lot of other example that we could use. That’s the one that immediately comes to mind. So, you know, in one of your earlier questions you asked about the sort-of impact of scholars of religion. And one of the things that I do in the last chapter of the book is to show how these things – categories like State Shinto, for example – they have echoes. And they continue to influence the academy, our classrooms, policy-making and so forth. And so, if we can attend to the moments when those categories are developed historically, if we can pay attention to the politics of that moment, then we can also pay attention to how those echoes are working in our contemporary moment. It’s not to be presentist. It’s just to say that there are problems in the State Shinto concept, so let’s deal with those.

BE: Well, thank you so much. You’ve given us a lot to think about: religious freedom, secularism, secularisation, the concepts we use, the politics that we – either implicitly or explicitly – work through as Religious Studies scholars. So, thank you so much for your time today, and your excellent work: Taking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American Occupied Japan.

JT: Thanks so much. I really enjoyed your questions and the conversation. I really appreciate it.

 

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Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System

This second interview with Timothy Fitzgerald covers his later work, from Discourse on Civility and Barbarity (2007) and Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (2011). In these works, thinking about the historical development of the category “religion” leads to consideration of other ‘modern’ categories which make up the colonial epistemé. If religion is deconstructed, where does that leave the other categories that use or rely on it? What happens to its common opposites like “the secular”, “science”, “liberalism” or even “politics”?

Fitzgerald argues that this mutually-dependent signalling system largely emerged in the late 17th century.  As rhetorical terms expressing specific class interests and aspirations in concrete situations of power, this system of signals originated in the context of the ancient regimes and sacred Monarchies of Christian Europe. Since then, each category has been continually contested, with shifting and unstable meanings. Now they have become so capacious and universalised that they have no clear boundaries, and we cannot properly distinguish between them. Yet these ideas have, over time and through repetition, become normalised and neutralised such that they appear as common sense. Today they form the basic categories for the organisation of our institutions, including academia and universities.

Listen to the first part of David G. Robertson’s interview with Timothy Fitzgerald on The Ideology of Religious Studies here: Episode 322 “The Problem with ‘Religion’ and Related Categories”

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Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System

Podcast with Timothy Fitzgerald (16 March 2020).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/empty-signs-in-an-automatic-signalling-systerm/

David Robertson (DR): I’m here with Tim Fitzgerald of the University of Queensland, where he’s a visiting research professor. This interview follows on from his recent interview, entitled “The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)“. And at the end of that interview we had talked about his fieldwork in India, and his time living in Japan, and how this had led to him writing The Ideology of Religious Studies. And central to that was an attempt to kind-of pin down and locate this category religion. Maybe you could pick the story up for us there, Tim?

Timothy Fitzgerald (TF): Yes. Sure. I mean one of my targets, when I was in Japan, was the religion industry – which was applied to Japan itself in the form of the study of Japanese religions – and the difficulty in actually identifying what constitutes a religion in Japan – which was also the problem about what constitutes the non-religious secular. And a lot of my work was aimed at trying to show there is this basic contradiction between the study of religion – whether that’s by Japanese or non-Japanese scholars – and, you know, the actual problem of locating it. And the problem of religion is therefore the problem of the non-secular, and how we ended up with this idea that there is a religious world of the Japanese which is somehow distinguishable from the non-religious world of the Japanese. So this led me to look, historically, for the source of this binary that we have in this religion-secular construction. And that led me back, actually, to the seventeenth century in England. And I started doing a lot of reading on . . . well, not only the seventeenth century, but going back to the sixteenth century. The post-Reformation discourse on religion was really what I was looking for. And what I found was that right the way through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – and I think that this is true going right the way through into the 18th and 19th and possibly up to the present in certain respects – is that the dominant meaning of religion was our Protestant faith. And it was a male literate construct of our Protestant faith, in a world where faith does not mean a weak form of belief. Faith is Truth, fundamentally. Christian Truth. It was a claim about Christian Truth. And the opposite of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and coming on much more recently, was not the non-religious secular. It was pagan irrationality, superstition and barbarism. And so what you have is not some dichotomy between the religious and the non-religious, but between True religion and a whole number of practices which are being discovered around the globe which look like a kind of mistaken attempt at finding God, from the point of view of the Christians. So these are superstitious practices. And what interested me, at what point did that discourse on religion as Christian Truth, or Protestant Christian Truth, become re-defined as religion as a private inner personal practice which is completely distinct from government? You see, the thing is that when you go back into reading these texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there’s no such distinction between religion and non-religion. And this is actually the research that led up to a book I published – two books that I published – in 2007, one was Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories (5:00). And the other was an edited volume which came out of a conference I organised at Sterling, which was called, Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations. And in that collection of essays I published a chapter called “Encompassing Religion, Privatised Religion and the Invention of Modern Politics”. And that theme, privatised religion, encompassing religion and the invention of modern politics, is central to Discourse on Civility and Barbarity. And it represents in some ways a move forward from The Ideology of Religious Studies. Because it’s actually looking at the historical documents that can guide us, or suggest to us, what are the circumstances in which somebody – i.e. someone like John Locke who was probably the most powerful inventor of the modern religion/non-religion dichotomy in my view – John Locke, but not only John Locke – there were plenty of others who were doing it – who were rhetorically redefining what the term religion means, in order to formulate a theory of government in which government is free from the domination of religion. And that introduces many, many interesting problems. Because what you have is, from the time of John Locke going into if you like the Enlightenment . . . . I’m not going to leave the Enlightenment untouched by critique as a term but, for the moment, let’s think of the Enlightenment in the general sense that we do typically think about it, which is a lot of men (mostly men – I didn’t come across any female texts at this period but no doubt there may have been some, but it’s mostly men) who wanted to have the right to accumulate private property, and for that private property to be clearly their property, and not to be invaded and tampered with by the sacred monarch. We have to remember that when John Locke was writing in the 1680s and 1690s this was a time of enormous turmoil in England. We’d had the execution of the previous king, King Charles 1 in 1649. We’d had the Putney Debates in the 1640s, which were very radical and which were questioning a great deal of the status quo. After the execution of Charles 1, in about 1652 I think it was, Hobbes published Leviathan. And in Leviathan you find several references to politics, the noun-word politics. And in John Locke’s essays on government and his other writings, his essays on toleration, for example, you get references to politics, by which he means government which is not dominated by religion and which represents the interests of male private property accumulators. And this was formulated in terms of natural rights. And there are a whole string of natural rights which were argued for. But these were really rights formulated by men, many of them Non-Conformists who were chafing against the restrictions of the sacred monarch and his court, and the Established Church that legitimated the sacred monarch, performed the coronation ceremonies, gave him the legitimation to do what he liked, basically. He was an arbitrary monarch. He was portrayed as a tyrant by the people who wanted to free up government from the control of this particular ideological complex of the sacred monarch. We can call it the Ancien Régime, to generalise it. Because France was in a very similar situation where you have a closed hierarchy of classes, which is born into land ownership and born into status, and it’s basically a fixed order of divine conception (10:00). And the sacred monarch is the heart of the nation. The sacred monarch is God’s appointed and anointed representative on earth. So the sacred monarch had enormous powers. And there were a lot of people at this time who were Non-Conformist, who didn’t believe in the Established Church and who didn’t believe in the sacred monarch. It was very dangerous to say so. Now John Locke was one of the most powerful and influential writers to question the status quo of the time, and to try and redefine what a number of terms really mean. And religion is obviously is one of the most important. But you see, I can’t find a consistent discourse on the noun-word politics in English before around the middle of the seventeenth century. The most consistent, in developed discourse on politics, that I can find is in John Locke where he defines politics as a government not representing the arbitrary power of a sacred monarch, but governments protecting the natural rights of Englishmen. And this is gendered. I’m using the expression Englishmen because women were not really much in the picture.

DR: And it’s not all men either, is it? It’s the wealthy, landowning classes. So it’s not only gendered, but there’s class in there as well.

TF: Oh yes, definitely. Because, of course, one of the great sources . . . the new sources of private property at this time was from the enclosures. And the enclosures were where legislation, bills, were passed in the House of Parliament – which is the legislature – in order to transform a piece of common land into private property. Now common land was land which for centuries had been conventionally shared in ways which were determined by local customs, you know. But there were very definite ways in which people subsisted on common land. Often a lot of the most poor people in feudal society, they were working part of the time for the local master, the local lord, but they were also working for their own subsistence. And they had common land to do this on. Now when that common land started disappearing through the Enclosure Acts, land that had been shared by different classes of people according to different conventions and customs was now being enclosed and declared to be private property of an individual. And I think this is very significant, because these enclosures were continuing right the way through the seventeenth, the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century. And more and more people were being deprived of their traditional subsistence, and were being forced out into homelessness, and poverty, and starvation. And you get, during that period, you get a growing problem of vagabondage – huge numbers of poor people who were being turned into vagabonds. And these vagabonds were despised by the owners of land, because they were a living source of disharmony, and conflict, and discord. And they were treated really badly. And there was a parish system of which was called the Poor Laws, where people without any kind of subsistence had the right to seek help from various parishes. And the parishes were supposed to give them help, and food, and various other necessities. The Poor Law system was becoming very overburdened because there were more and more poor people who were calling on it. And this created resentments from other people. So you get a very messy situation. Now what’s happening to all these vagabonds, all these poor families that are being turned off the common land and no longer have anywhere to subsist, any land to subsist on? Well gradually – especially during the eighteenth century, they’re going into the new industrial centres and becoming wage labour (15:00). Before that, a lot of them were becoming wage labour, agricultural labour. There was a huge growing agricultural wage labour. So the people who lost subsistence land were losing their conventional ties to the old estate system, the old feudal system, and were becoming like loose cannons. They didn’t have any place in any kind of system or structure. So they were becoming, as it were, peas out of a pod. They were rolling around the place, and looking for work, and often going into the growing craft centres. But they were also working as agricultural wage labour. So that was one of the complex processes, but a very definite process that was occurring as part of what I would describe as the emergence of Modernity. And it’s important to realise that the natural rights that these men were proclaiming – from John Locke and many others going right the way up to the natural rights of the declaration of independence, and the US constitution, and beyond – these natural rights were habeas corpus: you can’t be arrested without being charged with some crime, you have to have access to a lawyer. Another right would be to express one’s views in public, the right to publishing, and so on. But I think that the key right was the right to accumulate private property. And to have that private property represented in parliament. So if you traced the way that parliament and government changed during the second half of the seventeenth century, going on into the eighteenth, you get, increasingly, the idea that the real function of parliament is to represent the natural, inalienable rights of individual private property holders against the predations of the sacred monarch, against the invasions of the tyrant prince, against arbitrary taxation, and these kinds of things.

DR: It’s not a liberty in some abstract, metaphysical sense. It’s the liberal order: the freedom to own property without interference from, as you say, from the divinely appointed monarch.

TF: Yes, I think that’s true. I think that that was . . . . Because, after all, not only through the Enclosure Acts but also in this colonial situation which was burgeoning, more and more money could be made out of colonial production – including the slave trade. I mean, the men that we’re talking about who were demanding representation in parliament on the basis of property qualification, these were often the same men who were not only benefiting from the enclosures but they were benefitting from the plantations and colonies that were being established. For example, in North America, John Locke had very specific interests in the Carolinas. William Penn, who was another rather like-minded Non-Conformist – he was a Quaker – was the founder of Pennsylvania. Both of them were people who loved to write bills of rights. They were the inventors of bills of rights and constitutions. And their bills of rights and constitutions were actually adopted in the Americas. And what they were demanding was, again, they wanted government that represented natural rights – but particularly the natural rights of white, male, private property accumulators – including, of course, the salve trade. I don’t think William Penn was involved in the slave trade.

DR: No. But George Washington certainly was!

TF: Yes, absolutely. And so was John Locke. I mean, John Locke had investments in the Africa Corporation or whatever it was called. You had the East India Company (20:00). But there were also other companies dealing with specialised areas of trade. They were royal charters, but they had private investors. And I think it was the Africa Company that was very much involved in the slave trade. So I mean these men, people like John Locke, they were ambitious. They wanted private property, they wanted to accumulate and they wanted representation in Parliament. I think an awful lot of the 1688 Bill of Rights and the invitation for the Protestants from Holland, William and Mary. . . this was all involved in consolidating this new view of Parliament. Now, you mention the word “liberty” and that’s a very important one. Because liberty was a term that comes up in the Magna Carta in the 1215. And I think there was a second Magna Carta in 1225, or something. Liberty is central to the Magna Carta. But that was in a very, very different situation. The liberty that was being demanded then was the liberty of powerful nobles, with their own private armies, demanding liberties from the king. Well in the beginning of the seventeenth century, Sir Edward Coke, who was a very effective jurist, he began to really do a lot of work on this term liberty, and to extend its meaning in a way which became much more useful for the situation in the seventeenth century. And the meaning of liberty became very much to do with the liberty of being represented in Parliament – your own natural inalienable rights being represented in Parliament. Particularly, it was about property. I mean, you could call it the democratisation of property, but I think it was a new system of private property whereby land became commodified in such a way that it could be bought and sold for cash. And we’re talking about the land which was derived from the enclosures. We’re talking about the theft of Irish Catholic lands by Cromwell, who took over . . . . He took over with him a man called Sir William Petty who was a polymath, a brilliant guy. He was good at just about everything. And he was taken over by Cromwell as the Land Surveyor General of Ireland. And he measured out a great deal of land in measured plots. He devised a method to measure plots of land, so that it could easily be quantified, valued, bought and sold. And the methods that he used were actually used on a much larger scale by Thomas Jefferson in the 1780s, when they started surveying the land systematically from the East Coast, going right up to the Appellations. And later it would go much further. But these are vast tracts of what they thought were empty land. Actually they were Native American lands. But the Native Americans didn’t think that any individual could own land. It was completely inconceivable to them. So these empty lands were being measured out in saleable plots by Thomas Jefferson and a whole team of land surveyors. So what you have is not only the emergence, the birth, of a global private property market in land, but private property in capital. I mean, private property can take a lot of different forms. And going back again to John Locke, John Locke was involved in the founding of the Bank of England in 1694. This seems to me to be . . . . The founding of the Bank of England seems to me to be as important to the invention of religion in its modern dominant sense as a private, personal, communication with God which has nothing to do with government.

DR: Well I think this is what’s so fascinating about Discourse on Civility and Barbarity, particularly, is this analysis of the historic development of the category of religion and its others. In fact it leads to a clearer idea of the function of this category which is to normalise and mystify the processes of colonial power and the power of land owners (25:00). But what’s interesting is that that mystification has been so successful that despite these being historically contingent, and shifting, and unstable, and sometimes empty categories, nonetheless it makes up this contemporary episteme in which we live and in which these ideas have become so normalised. And not only normalised and neutralised, but the actual basic organisation of so many of our institutions – you know, aspects of law and of parliament and academia and just everyday speech.

TF: Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. I think that there is a process where a number of narratives or stories are being told. For example, “man in the state of nature“ – which was a story told slightly differently by Hobbes, by Locke and later by Rousseau. But man in the state of nature, it seems to me to be a complete fiction but which nevertheless had great rhetorical power, because it invented a kind-of an original human nature which is of the lone, individual survivor – kind-of savage survivor – using his native intelligence to accumulate everything that he needs for himself and his family. And, again, I’m using gendered terminology because, after all, it wasn’t woman and the state of nature, it was man and the state of nature. And women don’t . . . they usually get included in family. You can imagine this noble savage, or just let’s say this savage, surviving through the wit of his own native intelligence. And providing for his family against the competition of other individual savages who are also trying to grab what they can for their own ends. And this is a completely unrealistic picture. We know from anthropology . . . . Anthropologists who have studied say hunter-gatherers know that this is completely not as humans groups survived or prospered. They didn’t survive as competing individuals. But this idea of man and the state of nature puts that on the table in a powerful way. And it’s aimed against other alternative versions. For example, John Locke. The first of his treatises on government is an extended critique of a man called Sir Robert Filmer who wrote a book called Patriarcha. And Patriarcha is . . . it’s actually a very powerful representation of what was considered to be an orthodox Christian Protestant, post-Reformation – but pre-Modern, I would say – view of the world. And basically it’s this enclosed, hierarchical, fixed system in which everybody knows their place. And the whole is harmonious as long as everybody does what they’re supposed to do, at whatever level of the organisation they operate, whatever their status is. And man in the state of nature was a deliberate attempt to subvert this idea of the harmonious hierarchical, patriarchal society, and to introduce the idea that we’re all in our real, natural souls individuals who are struggling to survive, and we do it through our own native intelligence. And those of us who have the higher intelligence will be able to accumulate more. However, the people who were in this situation at some point came to realise that this is all so fictitious that they needed a system of rules that protected each other’s property, so that if there was any contestations over property rights then the rules could be used to sort them out (30:00). And, of course, the rules were the laws which we needed a government to represent and to enforce. So government or politics ought to be about the representation of laws that defend the various natural rights that such as private property. So this is the fiction of the contract theory of government. You start with man and the state of nature. How do human beings get out of the state of nature? Why they make a contract with a particular form of government which will look after the laws that ensure that their property is kept safe and that whoever owns what gets their just rewards. That’s a completely new . . . this idea of government completely dislocates the old one. I mean, it was both heretical and treasonous. And that’s why John Locke, and other people who argued like him, had to keep escaping from England and going to Amsterdam to get free of these charges of heresy or treason. So this is what these narratives do, it’s that they explain what the real meaning of other ideas are. Liberty – the real meaning of liberty comes through these narratives. And the term “liberal” is another one that begins to crop up, which I’ve done quite a lot of work on. So I think that . . . does that . . . ? Sorry, I’ve rather lost myself! Does that answer what you were mentioning?

DR: Yes. Well, what I want to do now is kind-of step up a level, and sort-of think a little more broadly about this . . .we can call it like cognitive colonialism, or this modern episteme, where terms like religion, the secular, liberal, liberalism, politics, where these kind-of make sense. And you’ve described these as being “empty signs in an automatic signalling system”. And I wondered if you would tell us a little about what you mean by this?

TF: OK. Well, I mentioned to you that in the last session that I found that there were so many references for religion, so many things are religious that the term seemed to lose any specific meaning.

DR: Right, yes. There’s a religion of everything!

TF: There’s a religion of everything. So it’s become the generic abstraction with very problematic boundaries. It’s very difficult to know what cannot be included in this term. But on the other hand, you’re getting the development at first of a very minority Non-Conformist idea that religion has a very specific meaning, which is that it to do with your own inner devotion and worship and your own morality and your own concerns with life after death and it has to be clearly distinguished from another domain which is about the government of this world, according to laws. And particularly the defence of the private rights of individuals. So but then, at the same time, you find that all of these terms, as they get used in more and more rhetorical situations throughout the eighteenth century, they all develop the sense of losing their original fairly concrete meaning and becoming inter-generic categories. So that today, not only do we have a religion of everything but there’s a politics of everything. So politics, it seems to me, is a noun-word which is actually invented in the second half of the seventeenth century, to talk about a particular form of government which was both treasonous and heretical at the time, but which has become so generic, so abstract, there is now a politics of everything. There are political systems everywhere, and at all times in history. And this also leads onto the question of political economy. Because you know the term political economy is also around from an early time in the seventeenth century (35:00). And by the time of Adam Smith, say, in his Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776, political economy is itself a discourse: there is a subject called political economy which is emerging in the eighteenth century. So the question of where does politics end and political economy begin becomes important. And I couldn’t find . . . I’ve done a lot of research on the history of the term political economy, and I can’t find. . . . There doesn’t seem to be a solution to this. And then in the late eighteenth century, early nineteenth century, you get the term economics breaking off from political economy, and becoming a subject of study in itself: a science of economics, classical economics, liberal classical economics. So economics becomes defined as its own area of expertise. But what is, actually, the area itself? How do we define economics, and distinguish it from political economy, or simply politics? You know, what part of economics can be distinguished from politics, and what part of politics can be distinguished from economics in modern discourse? So that was another problem. There was also. . . I came to realise that what was happening from the late seventeenth century is that a number of terms which have a kind-of typical deployment, were becoming abstracted, and reified, and turned into generic abstractions. And one of them was history, which I’ve more recently been doing a lot of work on. You know, you get an older term, history, which had, if you like, local meanings referring to the genealogies of kings and great events, heroes, local memory, all sorts of things in history. But by the end of the eighteenth century you’ve got History with a capital H emerging as a scientific study, and it’s become Universal History. You know, it’s the History of the World: Turgot in 1751. He was a very influential French philosophe. He developed some really interesting writing on the idea of the progress of the human mind through universal history. I mean, look how far we’ve come – the progress of the human mind through universal history. Progress – you can’t think of history without progress. The modern dominant idea of history as a professionalised academic discipline was born in conjunction with the idea of progress. Not only does history seek to find how we progress – the route by which humans progressed from the past into the present state of European Enlightenment – but also history comes to be a sign of progress. In other words, only Euro-Americans are advanced enough to come to realise that there is a history of the world, a universal history, which is the history of the progress of the human race up until that point in history – i.e., the leaders of this progress, the European philosophes, whether they’re in France, or Germany, or Scotland, or England or North America, or wherever. So you get all of these terms which are increasingly problematic. You’ve got religion, politics, political economy, economics, progress, history. You’ve also got the term “modern”. Well what does modern mean? Where it did come from? You’ve also got the term “the Enlightenment”. Again, I’ve done quite a lot of research into the concept of the Enlightenment. And what I’ve found is that nobody can agree on when the Enlightenment began. Nobody can agree on when it ended, if it at all ended – some people think the Enlightenment is still going on. Nobody can agree on which the most important thinkers were – which is interesting because some come straight to mind, but there’s enormous disagreement among experts on that – nor on what the fundamental ideas of the Enlightenment are. In other words, all of these things are contested (40:00). But the term the Enlightenment, like the term modern, like the term progress, like the term history, like the term religion, or politics, or political economy, we use them as though it’s obvious what they mean. So it seems to me that what’s happened is that they’ve . . . that the rhetorical history, if you like, of these terms, has progressedly buried the history of conflict, contestation, the indefinability of all these terms, and they have become as it were just unitary signs which we can deploy automatically, without thinking about their history of conflictual contestation and so on, without thinking about what they mean. We can bury a whole number of very problematic aspects of these generic categories by simply deploying them as though they’re signs in an automatic signalling system. And in fact, I would go further, it seems to me that we are more operated on than operating. I mean these signs, these general categories, operate our texts. In fact they constitute our own subjectivity to a large extent. Our idea of ourselves as being autonomous agents – which actually feels like an inherently intuitive experience of myself as an autonomous agent, but is very much dependent on this whole ideology that has been constructed out of these empty categories . . . of which the individual may be one of the most empty. So this is how I move from talking in a kind-of Dumontian sense of the configuration of modern categories. I was influenced by Durkheim‘s attempt to describe collective symbolic representations in his work on totemism. I’ve been, to a certain extent, influenced by the idea of the expression meta-categories and meta-narratives of Lyotard. I have probably been influenced, largely unconsciously, by semiotics deriving from Saussure, possibly Derrida, but I’m not directly indebted to them at all, because I didn’t come by that route. I think, probably, I’ve absorbed through the skin a great deal of the influence of these writers and thinkers. But basically, I came to this idea of signs in a signalling system through just looking at these categories and trying to work out what they are, what they mean, what their range of applications is, what their origin was and how they were used in the origin, and how they’re now used. Does that make sense?

DR: Very much so. And I think it’s a perfect place to wrap up. I think you’ve summarised . . . . And it was nice that you brought it back to where we started, actually. That’s nice. But I just wanted to say thanks for speaking to us today, Tim, and sharing your ideas with the RSP.

TF: No, it’s a pleasure. Thank you very much for having me. And I hope we can continue this, because there’s a lot more to be said . . .

DR: Oh, absolutely! I’m stopping because we’ve run out of time. And that’s literally the only reason. But we’ll definitely organise another conversation soon.

TF: That’s brilliant.

DR: Thank you so much.

TF: OK. Thank you very much, David. Thank you. Nice to talk. Very good to hear from you.

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Narrating Secularism in the Continental Philosophy of Religion: Onishi and the Enduring Consequences of the Secularization Thesis

Building largely from the thesis he developed in his 2018 The Sacrality of the Secular: Postmodern Philosophy of Religion, Bradley Onishi in his interview with David McConeghy outlines the rejection of the secularization thesis in the philosophy of religion, as well as its implications for the study of religion more broadly. For those not familiar, the secularization thesis is the contention emerging from the work of Max Weber, which insists that modernism’s trajectory toward greater rationalism will invariably lead to greater secularization. Along with a chorus of scholars in fields ranging from the philosophy of religion to behavioral economics, Onishi makes a clear case for the heuristic futility of the secularization thesis, primarily because it overstates the modern subject as a rational maximizer.

In this conversation, Onishi’s original contribution emerges not from his critique of the secularization thesis, but rather in his ability to diagnose what the failure of the secularization thesis implies for the delineation of subdisciplines in the study of religion. Put simply, Onishi rightly notes that scholars of religion conceptualized the ideological distinctions between the fields of the continental philosophy of religion and philosophical theology prior to understanding the limitations of the secularization thesis. More than a trivial historical observation, Onishi’s insight cogently explains that several of the now-defunct core premises of the secularization thesis remain present in how scholars of religion justify why it is that philosophers of religion must not learn from the religious traditions they study—at least without falling prey to the common critique of becoming a crypto-theologian.

Though Onishi is himself not guilty of this, his analysis raises one of the most persistent concerns I have held for the narration of religious affiliation: namely, the insistence that many people who are not religious, upon closer examination, hold the same core attitudes that are the hallmark of religious experience. Framed otherwise, though I agree with Onishi’s critique of the secularization thesis, there remains the problem of the precedent that the secularization thesis poses for how the conversation regarding secularization functions in the first place. That is, if one identifies the secularization thesis as the status quo against which contemporary scholars of religion are to rebel, then even the most critical and generative analysis will leave secularism in a default position of hostility against religion. To be clear, this is not to suggest anything about compatibility models for science and religion, such as from Ian Barbour. Rather, what is consequential in this conversation is the how such a point of departure narrates the direction of the ideological hostility itself.

Above, the interior of the Nottingham, England Pitcher & Piano, which is housed in a building that was a Unitarian Church from 1876 to 1982. While Pitcher & Piano has 18 locations in the UK, this is the only one in a former house of worship. Image from the Pitcher & Piano website.

Put simply, Onishi’s analysis of post-secularity leaves me with the lingering suspicion that scholars of religion still retain the understanding of secularity as encroaching upon the territory of religion, and not the other way around. On this point, I must be careful not to overstate my concern. It is not so much that I view Onishi as arguing for a problematic understanding of the religious as prior to secularization; it is abundantly clear that his intention is more accurately to destabilize a facile binary between the sacred and the secular, which includes offering a more generous possibility for secular persons to participate in various forms of enchantment that were previously monopolized by faith traditions.

The problem as I see it is that this method of framing the evolving relation of secularity to religion presumes that enchantment is a primordially religious experience, which religious persons generously share with secularists who were just persecuting them. Allow me to explain.

Though I recognize that such a reference may risk placing me firmly back within a modernist framework where the secularization thesis reigns unchecked, on this matter I am continually haunted by one of the most compelling charges that Freud offers for conceptualizing the relation between religious and scientific Weltanschauungen—a bit of text that I foregrounded a recent volume with. In his New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Freud interrogates the relation between secular science and the religious worldview in the following way.

The struggle of the scientific spirit against the religious Weltanschauung is, as you know, not at an end: it is still going on to-day under our eyes. […] Religion may not be critically examined because it is the highest, most precious, and most sublime thing that the human spirit has produced, because it gives expression to the deepest feelings and alone makes the world tolerable and life worthy of men [sic]. We need not reply by disputing this estimate of religion but by drawing attention to another matter. What we do is to emphasize the fact that what is in question is not in the least an invasion of the field of religion by the scientific spirit, but on the contrary an invasion by religion of the sphere of scientific thought. Whatever may be the value and importance of religion, it has no right in any way to restrict thought—no right, therefore, to exclude itself from having thought applied to it.[1]

One does not have to accept Freud’s critical vision of religion qua wish fulfillment to be persuaded by his account of the relation between secular science—of which Freud believes psychoanalysis is a part—and religion. More modestly, the historical priority of religion’s dominance should not suggest that any conflict with secularism is always a form of secular aggression as understood by the secularization thesis. Rather, Freud suggests, it is completely possible that science and secular persons are merely asserting their right to have space to breathe and carry out their work without impedance from religion. Any claim that secularism is encroaching upon religion is nothing more than a deluded persecution complex.

I offer the Freudian critique not to concern troll Onishi and McConeghy’s genuinely riveting interview. I broadly agree with Onishi’s conviction that being a secular person does not make one a secularist, that it is possible to hold an enchanted secularity, and that the decolonization of the philosophy of religion will be vital for clarifying these possibilities. My question, more concretely, is how we as philosophers of religion can create space for secular persons to be secular, without the presumption that any claim to meaning and enchantment is somehow co-opting religion. Practically speaking, this has little to do with secular persons feeling they have permission to be enchanted; anecdotally speaking, no secular person in my world feels particularly compelled to get approval from religion before they engage in a ritual practice, for example. Rather, as a philosopher of religion who is also not afraid to learn from faith traditions—some of which I unapologetically participate in—I am more specifically irked by scholars of religion such as Paul Tillich who narrate secular persons as facing a pathetic ultimatum: acquiescence to the meaningful domain of religion, or resignation to nihilism.

This is, naturally, a deplorable framing—one which I know Onishi and McConeghy would also reject. My suspicion, simply, that there is likely a parallel problem between the task of rejecting the secularization thesis, and the tired problem of overcoming metaphysics in the continental philosophy of religion. In other words, once the conversation is framed in those terms, even the most creatively valiant efforts to subvert them will only ever reaffirming their flawed premises. If my suspicion is correct—it may not be—then this is in no way an indictment of Onishi’s project. Rather, it is a worthwhile struggle with which I sympathize. I am grateful for his labor here.

[1] Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1965), 209-10.

The Sacrality of the Secular and Philosophy of Religion

“It’s possible,” says Professor Bradley Onishi, “to hold an enchanted secularity” if we stop thinking of secularism as mere rationalism. In this week’s podcast, we hear about the ways in which philosophy of religion has thought “with” religion rather than for or against religion. Tracing alternative models of secularity through Martin Heidegger, Geoges Bataille, and others, Onishi calls on us to rethink how the philosophy of religion can help religious studies find different ways to frame the categories of secular and religious. As a resource in the academy, he says, religions themselves provide ways to question our basic assumptions about what religion does for us and look at our normative assumptions about anew.

 

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Atheism, New Religious Movements, and Cultural Tension

Extensive research has been conducted in exploration of the American religious landscape; however, only recently has social science research started to explore nonbelief in any detail. Research on nonbelief has been limited as most research focuses on the popularity of the religious “nones” or the complexities of alternative faith expressions such as spirituality. Through two studies, one qualitative and one quantitative, Dr. Christopher F. Silver’s research explored how nonbelievers’ self-identify. Study 1 (the qualitative study) discovered that individuals have shared definitional agreement but use different words to describe different types of nonbelief. Through thematic coding, a typology of six different types of nonbelief was observed. Those are Academic Atheists, Activist Atheist/Agnostics, Seeker Agnostics, Antitheists, Non-Theists, and the Ritual Atheists. Study 2 explored the empirical aspects of these types related to the Big Five Domain, Ryff Psychological Well-Being, Narcissistic Personality Inventory, Multidimensional Anger Inventory, Rokeach Dogmatism Scale, and intersections related to religious and spiritual ontology.

If you enjoyed this podcast, check out Chris Silver’s podcasts about grad school and academia with “The Unlikely Academics” here.

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


Atheism, New Religious Movements and Cultural Tension

Podcast with Chris Silver (8 April 2019).

Interviewed by Kris Black.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Silver_-_Atheism,_New_Religious_Movements_and_Cultural_Tension_1.1

 

Kris Black (KB): How many kinds of atheism are there? Are there different kinds of atheists, different kinds of atheism, and what’s the deal between new religious movements, non-religious belief and cultural tension? Dr Chris Silver joins me today – and welcome, Chris!

Chris Silver (CS): Thank you!

KB: We’re here to talk about your wonderful previous work and your current work in atheism and new religious movements. Why don’t we just start with visiting briefly your previous work on the six different type of atheism?

CS: Sure. Well, I should also mention I got my start as one of the assistant editors of the Religious Studies Project!

KB: That’s right!

CS: Back in 2011-2012. So it’s strange to be on the other side of the microphone.

KB: In the other chair! (Laughs).

CS: Yes. It’s really weird so hopefully I don’t embarrass Chris, David and Tommy. So here goes, guys, I’ll try. Yes. So a number of years ago Tommy Coleman and I . . . Tommy Coleman’s now at Coventry University in the UK, a former both under-grad and graduate student of mine. I was in the process of working on a doctoral degree in Learning and Leadership at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga and was really, really interested in a sort of fallacy – particularly in psychology but even wider in sociology – that some others had about atheism and agnosticism. So, for example, you’d see a lot of surveys and you’d have all, you know, where people would identify their beliefs or their religious and spiritual associations. And you’d always see “atheism” and “agnosticism”. Sometimes you’d see “none”: n-o-n-e-s, or “unaffiliated”. But, you know, with that community growing – we’ve seen this in Pew Forum and . . .

KB: Fastest growing demographic.

CS: Yes. So it just bothered me because, you know, I thought there was more complexity there, and I was afraid that by us collapsing all that variability into a nominal variable we’re missing some richness that could be captured. But through the inquiry I wasn’t exactly sure what was going to be the most efficient way to do that. So I’d both say that I was blessed to do this study, and I also apologise profusely! Because when you’re the first person to try to do something like this you don’t know what you’re doing! So I don’t ever claim that it has predictive power, although we have got a lot of anecdotal feedback from atheists and agnostics saying that it really resonates. So anyway, we set out originally, Tommy and I did, and we conducted a series of interviews with people from all around the US and we started discovering exactly what . . . . We started finding very common themes.

KB: Themes of non-belief?

CS: No. Of non-belief and how they identify to others, you know, other things like their opinions of religious believers and how they interact with them. And how they interact with families. And so what we did was we sort-of did a mix of both grounded theory and then sort-of social constructionism with a little sprinkle of phenomenology on top!

KB: (Laughs). That’s nice!

CS: And basically we’re trying to look at what is the shared reality. Initially we set out to try to find what terms of identity they used. But we failed miserably!

KB: (Laughs).

CS: I mean, because everyone had a different (understanding) depending on who they were reading. If somebody was reading Sam Harris or somebody was reading Dawkins . . . everybody had . . . . They used the (same) terms, but the definitions were radically different. But the sort-of diamond in the rough here was, when we said “Alright, well, if we don’t have agreement with the terms, we’ve got to do the definitions.” And all of a sudden, just cleanly, these themes started emerging of agreement. And so all of a sudden we started finding that there are attitudinal behavioural dimensions common among different kinds, including like how they saw the world and those kinds of things. So Tommy and I – who’s an editor of the RSP, I believe, still – he and I then started thematically pulling those together and sharpening them.(5:00) And so, for a second study, we then started using various psychometrics like the Big Five and the Ryff Psychological Wellbeing Scale. We used the Rokeach Dogmatism Scale.

KB: Oh, right.

CS: And yeah. So when we made all these measures we ended up finding some decent effects between the different groups, and significant differences and different aspects. And so it was cool. And so we actually promised our participants, you know . . . . We shared the results. We set up this webpage so that they could see what their efforts went towards. And all of a sudden one of the participants, it turned out, was actually a journalist.

KB: Oh?

CS: And he picked up our results. And the next thing you know we’re on the Christian Post, CNN and I mean . . . I didn’t know what to do! And we had some wild stuff happen! Like, first of all, some folks mispresented our work – but I still appreciated the shout out! Like the Christian Post, for example: their leading head was, “Atheist Might be Standing Next to You in Church”!

KB: Oh! (Laughs)

CS: Because one of our groups that we found was this, what we call “ritual atheist agnostics”, which are basically their atheists but they still . . .

KB: Right. Active non-believers.

CS: And since then, there’s been evidence in the Netherlands, and a few other places, that have found similar patterns.

KB: Yeah. So what was the name of that? If someone wanted to find out about that article . . .

CS: I think we, what did we call it? Atheists and non-belief . . . six types. . . (Correction: The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative)

KB: Six types of atheists and non-belief?

CS: Something like that. I’m a terrible scholar! I can’t even remember my own work!

KB: (Laughs).

CS: But yeah. It was in that. And so it’s been published. It’s in, most appropriately it’s actually in Psychology of Religion and Mental Health (Correction: Mental Health, Religion and Culture)

KB: There you go. In that journal.

CS: Yes. And so that’s a good international journal. So it’s not Tier One, but they do some really great interdisciplinary work. And that’s why we went for them versus some of the others, because we wanted to have a wider range . . .

KB: A wider audience . . .

CS: Even though they may not have as many readers, they have great interdisciplinary work. So, perfect.

KB: OK. So what was the feedback that you got from that?

CS: So, you know, we’ve had . . . interestingly, not one secular community ended up really . . . and I mean secular in a broader sense . . . . I mean, a lot of folks said that it resonated with them. I got invited to the Center for Inquiry at Buffalo, New York, to present. I’m very humbled by that. I’ve been invited to various universities around, to sort-of share some of the results.

KB: Oh, that’s great!

CS: And of course, I always lead with the disclaimer that this is just an attempt, it’s not going to be perfect. I’m sure that there are amazing statisticians out there who could do light years better cool stuff than I ever could. Originally, the goal that Tommy and I had was to start the conversation.

KB: And that’s what it’s done.

CS: And Tommy’s gone on to do some really, really cool stuff in atheism. He’s written some very powerful pieces in terms of theory which have been really good, so I’m incredibly proud of him for that. Also I’ve got my graduate student now, who just presented, actually, on concealment and disclosure. He just created a non-belief concealment scale and has had really robust results, regional differences that are really interesting. I’ll use the stats terms and then put it in English. It’s got a really interesting factor structure, which means that there’s very clean sub-scales that are there, that have been used.

KB: So you can project trends?

CS: It’s like an institutional kind of concealment, versus a personal kind of concealment.

KB: Right

CS: And so, warmly received by sociologists and psychologists. He’s got some really good feedback, but also, people went: “Yes! This needed to happen!” So, really proud of Cameron Mackey. I should mention his name! Because I’m very, very proud of him. This was his big day. He did a good job.

KB: Wonderful!

CS: And so, yeah. I’ve been very, very lucky.

KB: Yeah. Well, I’m sure that work will take on even more projects in future. So we’ll look forward to that.

CS: I hope so.

KB: That would be great. OK. So let’s just shift a little bit now to your current work on the new religious movements, and the cultural tension that’s happening between religious belief and non-belief.

CS: Yes. (10:00) So for a long time – and I need to give a shout out to some other colleagues who have been working on it – for about since 2000 I’ve been working with colleagues from Bielefeld, Germany, on . . . research originally started on faith development, but we’ve actually shifted to faith styles. We’ve got a number of books as well. There’s academic publications on the topic. So my shout out would be to Dr Heinz Streib who’s at Bielefeld University, Dr Barbara Keller who’s at Bielefeld University, Ramona Bullik who’s been a long time on the project manager and she’s been working on her doctorate at Bielefeld. And then, of course, I was academically born and raised by Dr Ralph Hood. And so I’ve been working with him since the early days. And so we’ve collaborated with Bielefeld now for eighteen years. That’s half my life! And so we’ve got to co-author a book. And you’ve got to realise in my mind I’m a nobody! So I mean, seriously, I really am. I’m not saying that like some kind of “humble start” or something. I really am nobody. So we did a book on spirituality. Multiple chapters of qualitative quantitative, mixed methods design. And we’re working on some other . . . . We’ve got two more books in the works that we’re working on right now, as well as a couple of manuscripts. But we’re actually going to do a longitudinal study of people’s changes in their belief and faith. And we’ve actually been able to find some of the original participants from eighteen years ago!

KB: Oh, wow!

CS: And then we’ve also got some, over the years, that we’re tracking now. So we’ve had generous funding from the John Templeton Foundation, we’re now actually going to some pretty heavy, longitudinal, mixed-methods work. And I’m sure you can appreciate how that’s a massive thing. . .

KB: Yes.

CS: So one of the things I’ve been looking at is, I’ve been interested in social cohesion and how ideology sort-of signals group membership. And so this is sort-of a spin-off of Streib, Keller and Hood’s work but it’s not to say that it is there work – and I want to make sure there’s some clarity on that – although I do have their support in terms of the data analysis and things I’ve done thus far. But the way that the theory goes – and there’s been some preliminary findings already – is that, if you think of . . . I assume the audience is probably mostly academics and theologians, social science researchers,

KB: Students.

CS: Students, yeah. If you think of a particular cultural context anywhere – it could be Utah, it could be Tennessee, it could be New Zealand or Africa – you’d sort-of accept the fact that there’s this cultural norm of a particular tradition which is, like, in the middle – they’re not really controversial, or anything like that – but everybody knows this is the norm, right? We’ve actually theorised that . . . we call that group in our book . . . . Well, we borrow from David Bromley’s work on apostasy and style of exit from back in the early 2000s. But we call that an “integrated” group, meaning like, they’re just culturally . . . there’s virtually no social tension. So that group could be Methodists in Eastern Tennessee, it could be Mormons in Utah. It’s whoever the norm is in that geographic context. Then, the more you’re sort-of moving away from the centre of the bell curve and you start moving out into the maybe say . . . The bottom line is, we’re starting to move away from the norm that you get in that middle area. We call those “accommodating”. It means they participate in society, but there may be certain behaviours, rituals, attitudes, beliefs; something that still makes them stand out just enough to create cultural tension. But they still tend to participate. So if you think of being, say, Mormon, you know, in Southern Georgia, right? So, yes, you go to church on Sunday like everybody else, but you have this additional theology which they would go . . . they’d look at you a little . . .

KB: Mmm. A little suspect.

CS: (15:00) Like in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is where I’m from, an example would actually be the Seventh Day Adventists. They’re actually pretty common, because they’ve got a university there, they’ve got Seventh Day Adventist churches but in their mind, they think that others, of course, are judging them for being a little different. Sometimes they aren’t and sometimes they are. But that would be like an accommodating group. But then – and this answers your question – there’s what we call “opposition” groups. Which are broadly called subversives. These are groups that have no real interests in participating in the larger culture. In some cases they make their own micro-culture, so that they sustain themselves and they try not to participate as much as possible. An example I would use is, in Chattanooga we have this group called the Twelve Tribes. They started there. And they’re a new religious movement. I don’t like the term cult because it now . . . while in the sixties it was used as a sociological term, it now carries this media stigma. Quite frankly, there are some incredibly wonderful people that I’ve gotten to know in that tradition. But yeah, their beliefs are very much different from others. And so oppositional doesn’t mean that there’s something bad about them. It just means that they plainly stand out from . . .

KB: From the norm.

CS: So the way . . . so my modification, where I’m going with this theory, is that I believe that much like a bell curve, the more you get out on the tails the more distance there is between the members, in position. I actually have a view that the more a group differs from the norm, the more social tension there is – and therefore, the more likely that there’s going to be inter-group prejudice.

KB: Interesting.

CS: This is my argument

KB: Within both groups?

CS: Yes. Because, if you think about it . . . . So, if you think of the bell curve and the mean’s right in the middle, one side would be like religious and spiritual groups, right, that are inter-normative – everyone accepts they’re part of the culture, I mean, yeah, you get a weirdo now and again, but most everybody’s, you know, pretty cool. But then you start moving out, and you start getting into not only more fundamentalism, and more sort-of . . . if you think about institutional and structural authoritarianism, rigidity . . . depending on which discipline of sociology or psychology you’re using, there’s different terms.

KB: (Laughs).

CS: But the more you’re moving out to the tails: a) the more protective you are of your group and you’re looking for any signal – be it verbal, behavioural – but you’re trying to look for authenticity of who’s in your group, versus those that are outside. Right? So the more you’re out this way, the more prejudiced you’re going to be of the norm. But here’s the other thing: from the norm’s perspective, the more prejudiced you’re going to be of the outside.

KB: Right.

CS: Now, that’s only one side of the bell curve. So, then, think about the other side of the bell curve. This is where we get into spiritual. So, folks who are spiritual, not religious. They’re not trying to half-identify with something. But it’s moving into a more individualised belief system as opposed to more structural. So, you know, as you’re moving out you start getting into non-affiliated, religious nones, agnosticism and then atheism. Here’s the beauty of it: it’s like the bell curve plots one side on the other. In theory the tension should be the same, the behaviours would be the same, the attitudinal dimensions of rigidity would be the same.

KB: Yeah. That’s fascinating!

CS: And from our six types data we already know that anti-theists are just as dogmatic as fundamentalists!

KB: Right.

CS: So the point is, we’ve already got some evidence of this. And when I say we, I mean . . . this is, of course, where I deviate from my colleagues although I hope it doesn’t create confusion that they’re doing this too. They’ve been very kind and given me some of their data. But what’s interesting is . . . I will give a shout out to Dr Streib that he has this measure called the “religious styles scale”. It predicts these categories really well. And what’s funny is, he didn’t make the scale with this intention.

KB: Oh really? But it fits perfectly?

CS: Yeah. So we did . . . . I’ll give the stats term and then I’ll translate in English. So what I did is, I did binomial regression which allows us to create group identity. So, essentially, you’re predicting nominal identity and you’re looking to see, what are the certain measures that contributed to variants of that prediction? So, “Does a measure predict the group?” in English. Sure enough, at least with the integrated and accommodating groups, it’s good and it’s strong. And so there is some interesting potential there. So one of the things I’m going to speak about tomorrow is that I actually think that the oppositional should be the same way. I mean, you’ve already got some clean evidence. (20:00) We’ve already got somewhat related evidence in some of these other studies that not just me, but some much more brilliant people like Cotter, Lois Lee, Ryan Cragun, definitely, on the atheism side. And even on the new religious movements’ side, you look at Gordon Melton, again Bromley, shout out to Lorne Dawson who was one of my professors when I was at Milford Laurier University, a long time ago. They’ve got some really interesting stuff that does seem to parallel what I’m suggesting.

KB: It sounds like you’ve got a really good theoretical lens, a good foundation there, a really good base that you can . . .

CS: We’ll see what happens! But, again the problem I have is there’s so many brilliant people out in the world, but I still feel compelled to study it. So what I’m trying to do . . . before . . . I was trying to do it as just me, but then I started to collaborate with other people, because that way they can help me. And I’m also completing a doctorate in social psychology at the University of Tennessee Knoxville and I’m working with a wonderful advisor by the name of Dr Michael Olson who does dual process theory research which is cognitive . . .

KB: Oh, right.

CS: And what I like about what I’m working on here is that it taps into some of that. So there’s this sort of . . . if you think about it in social terms, you know, when somebody’s so radically different than you could have these sort-of feelings of disgust for somebody that’s so radically different. Not to mention anxiety, prejudice, anger, sadness. And so, interestingly enough, my current dissertation – as soon as I get it proposed and can start pulling data (almost done – the proposal, anyway!) – is to actually study high status individuals like Christians, mainly integrated Christians, who believe they’re stigmatised.

KB: Ah. Yes.

CS: In the post-Trump era we’ve seen some . . . but it’s been around for a while, this theory. But I want to look and see, you know: do we see the same kinds of psychological patterns for someone who is high status, who has enjoyed “privilege” to use the sort-of liberal term . . .

KB: And by high status you mean like someone who’s been the norm, who’s already experiencing circumstantial privilege?

CS: That’s right. They’re in the norm. They’ve enjoyed privilege but then at the same time, for whatever reason, they feel like they’ve been discriminated against. But mainly, the big thing is that if they lose status will they self-report feeling stigmatised? And so we have an experiment where we actually tell them they’re losing status, versus a condition where we say they’re not.

KB: And kind-of see what the reaction is?

CS: Yes. So, we’ll see.

KB: I know there are some groups who use persecution and loss of status as a kind-of confirmation of themselves. Is that the kind of thing . . .?

CS: Yes. That’s kind-of it, it’s interesting. But we’re also going to look at white males, too. So that way we’re not just making it about religion. We’re going to see, what do white males believe? And again there’s some at least preliminary correlational data that seems to indicate that some people feel this way. It’s not to say everyone who’s Christian feels that way, or every male. But in (audio unclear), because I’m an Appalachian kid, so I’m from the country – I’m sure you can’t tell from my accent at all!

KB: (Laughs). No.

CS: But the other side of it is that you think about those who’ve grown up in Appalachia, in extreme poverty, and they’re being told they have privilege. And so that creates a certain interesting level of cognitive dissonance. So how would the person who’s grown up in that environment, how would they respond to sort-of diversity initiatives, and what is that there? It’s not a judgement that I’m making. I’m just saying that from a psychological perspective, what does that look like socially?

KB: Yes. And what does that mean out in society?

CS: Absolutely. And so when you have a West Virginia coal miner who’s supporting Trump, you know, who’s like “We’re going to bring coal back. And we’re going to . . .” you know. And because I think in some ways . . . I think I can say this with some certainty, from my own anecdotal experience, is that they feel like they’ve not been a part of the national narrative.

KB: Right. They haven’t been part of the network. They haven’t had that status.

CS: That’s right. And so, if you define privilege in terms of things like seeing themselves on TV – absolutely. The definition works. But if we talk about in terms of opportunity for employment, opportunities for resources (25:00) . . .

KB: Power to make change.

CS: Education access. In many respects I see very similar patterns with my students – my undergrads, at least – those who are first generation college students from Appalachia, and some urban folks. Now, the urban folks probably have more adverse kinds of challenges but the point is, I gave a diversity talk one day at our university, about dual process theory (Thankyou, Dr Olson!). And what was fascinating was, was I’d made this similar argument and would you believe after I gave the talk I had a number of folks who were sort-of the minority advocates, and – wait for it – conservative opinions and beliefs, all come up and say that they agreed with my view.

KB: Wow!

CS: Radical positions that were like, “Yeah. What you said makes complete sense.”

KB: It really resonated with them.

CS: And what was crazy was – remember this is post-Trump – they were talking amongst themselves about how they agree about their socioeconomic inequities, and that is what brought them together. And they actually had a constructive conversation. I almost cried!

KB: Yes.

CS: Because, when you think . . .

KB: Well and that’s what I was wondering about this polarisation, that there is such a big divide. Is there a place for that type of coming together?

CS: Yeah. And I think we’re . . . I’m totally pulling a Chris Silver and going down a rabbit hole, I’m sorry!

KB: (Laughs).

CS: But I think we’re in an interesting moment here in history. Because for the first time, not only do we have access to any information we ever wanted, we’re highly diverse, we interact with far more people than any of our ancestors ever did. So there’s interesting both social, cognitive, evolutionary . . .

KB: On every level.

CS: Yes. So we’re at a weird nexus in history and I think, for some of us, we’ve moved too fast. And I think some of the things we’re seeing is that they a feel that they don’t have a voice, but also I think they haven’t had time to adjust to all the change.

KB: Right.

CS: And in many respects some changes need to happen and they’ve got to make that change. But then at the same time . . . I think a lot of this uncertainty and fear that we have about change is also driving some of our closed-minded attitudes. And I’d say this from not just the right but also it’s now on the left.

KB: Awesome

CS: But it’s an interesting time. It’s a really interesting time. So cultural tension, for me – I ‘m going to circle back round – cultural tension, for me, is a really interesting aspect and that, to me, how we signal to others our group membership, it’s no longer about discourse, it’s about tribalism.

KB: Ah. Wow!

CS: Sorry I’ve just . . .

KB: Fascinating stuff here! Really look forward to reading more of your work. And best of luck with your dissertation and your continued success with Six Types of Atheism.

CS: Yes, I don’t know what we’re going to do next. I’d like at some point to talk to more intelligent people. Might buy Ryan Cragun a beer!

KB: There you go! (Laughs).

CS: Chris Cotter would be interesting.

KB: (Laughs). Alright. Well, thanks for joining us!

CS: No, thank you again. And shout out to all my old buddies at the Religious Studies Project! Thank you, guys.


Citation Info: Silver, Christopher and Kristeen Black. 2019. “Atheism, New Religious Movements and Cultural Tension”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 8 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/atheism-new-religious-movements-and-cultural-tension/

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

The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia

Estonia, the northernmost of the Baltic states, has a reputation of being one of the most secularized countries in Europe. Although the visibility of religion is rising, being ‘not religious’ is still considered normative. Estonia is a context in which notions and debates on religion, atheism, and indifference are interrelated in complex ways with the history of Estonian nationalism, and two foreign religious-secular regimes: German Lutheran and Soviet Atheism. In this interview, Chris and Atko Remmel discuss why the Estonian context is – or should be – interesting to scholars of ‘religion’. What happened during the Soviet era? What about the academic study of religion in Estonia? How did the strong connection between Estonian national identity and ‘atheism’ develop? How does this play out in the contemporary context?

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ 2018 conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, and concludes by looking ahead to the 2019 EASR conference in Tartu, Estonia.

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


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


The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia

Podcast with Atko Remmel (28 January 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Remmel_-_The_Study_of_Religion_and_National_Identity_in_Estonia_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): The Estonian case in the study of religion is something that we’ve not really talked about very much on the Religious Studies Project. But I am speaking to you right now from the EASR conference in Bern where I’ve been hearing quite a bit about it. I’ve heard some papers, and it was even mentioned quite a bit in one of the keynote lectures yesterday. And so I thought it would be fantastic to get Atko Remmel, who I’ve known for a number of years now, onto the RSP to talk about the Estonian context, the study of religion in Estonia and some of the complex intersections between religion, non-religion, nationalism in this context that’s sort of been dominated historically by two foreign religious secular regimes: the German Lutheran Church and Soviet atheism. So first of all, Atko Remmel, it’s my pleasure to welcome you to the Religious Studies Project.

Atko Remmel (AR): It’s nice to be here. Thank you for having me.

CC: It’s an absolute pleasure. Just to say, Atko is senior researcher in Religious Studies and also a researcher in Cultural Studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia. And his work discusses religion, religious indifference, national identity and more, in Estonia, which is set as I’ve indicated, to be one of the most secularised countries in Europe. He has a number of publications in this broad area, including one called “Religion Interrupted: Observations on Religious Indifference in Estonia“, which is in a book, in which I and a number of RSP friends have chapters, that’s called Religious Indifference: New Perspectives from Studies on Secularisation and Non-religion, edited by Johannes Quack and Kora Schuh. And Atko is also the PI on one of the Understanding Unbelief projects, looking at Estonia. But we’ll not be talking too much about that just today. So, many of our Listeners out there may never have really thought much about the Estonian context at all. So, perhaps the way to start would be a broad introduction to Estonia, I guess, in relation to religion. A potted history! Away you go!

AR: Well, Estonia is a small country, by the Baltic Sea – one of the northern-most Baltic countries. And yes, it’s known for its very far-reaching secularisation.

CC: Yes. So we’ll be talking a lot about that in a moment, but the study of religion in Estonia: is that something relatively new – like Religious Studies, at an academic institution?

AR: Well actually, no. But to answer this question we have to look back into history. So, during the Soviet Union the only possibility to study religion was within the framework of Scientific Atheism. And another possibility was Folkloristics, where folk beliefs were studied as a part of national heritage. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Scientific Atheism of course faded away. And the Study of Religion was newly established under the label of Theology which, in Estonia, is an umbrella term for both Theology and the Study of Religion. And this, I would say, in the early days was more influenced by theological thinking. But in the last decade it has moved towards the Study of Religion. And the focus is on religious change, new religious movements, but mostly it’s still about Christian churches and their relationship to the state. And apart from that, religion is still studied under the discipline of Folkloristics, which in the Estonian context is another umbrella term that covers anthropology, ethnology, ethnography, but also folkloristics in its traditional sense. Since Estonia is in a bit better position than other Finno-Ugric nations that were incorporated into the Soviet Union, my colleagues have a keen interest towards their religious situation, language and so on.

CC: And of course, we’ll be hearing at the end of the interview, I hope, about a certain conference that’s going to be happening in Estonia, hosted by the Estonia Association. So it’s clearly been something that’s developing there. You mentioned the Soviet times there, and I suppose anything that we’re going to talk about in the rest of this interview will probably require a bit of historical contextualisation. So the stereotype we have is obviously (5:00) Soviets were not a massive fan of religion – suppression – end of Soviet time – maybe some sort of resurgence. But let’s . . . . Give me an actual picture.

AR: Well, it’s correct that the usual understanding of Soviet anti-religious policy is understood as something monolithic that was uniform from the start to the end. But actually, there were quite big changes in religious policy. And in some periods it was harsher, and other times less harsh. And after the Second World War, during Stalin‘s reign, the question of religion was sort-of secondary. But it changed radically under Nikita Khrushchev, who initiated an anti-religious campaign that lasted from 1958 until 1964. And in Estonia this policy had three main directions: the first one was so-called administration of the churches, which meant that different kind of legislative restrictions and direct control over the inner life of Churches; the second one was ethics propaganda for newspapers and lectures; and the third one was the development of Soviet secular rituals, to substitute religious rituals. And I would say that this administration and secular rituals were most effective. And as a result they manged to create an interruption in religious tradition, and to get rid of religion from public space. This, of course, didn’t mean that they managed to turn people into atheists. And, apart from the years of the Khrushchev anti-religious drive, atheist propaganda was actually not very visible. And atheism was one of so-called “red” subjects closely associated with the hated Soviet ideology. And also the level of atheist propaganda was quite low. And therefore it didn’t appeal to people. And so the result was widespread indifference both towards religion and atheism – like a sort of ideological vacuum, which was filled with all kinds of things when the Soviet Union finally collapsed. And this actually explains why Estonians, while considering themselves not religious, have a plethora of different beliefs and practices and so on, which are usually – in student terms – alternative spiritualties.

CC: Excellent. Thanks for that. This might be putting you on the spot a little bit. But, just for those of our Listeners who aren’t familiar with the dates, could you maybe give us the key dates in the 20th century, in Estonian history?

AR: In Estonian history . . . . Well, Estonia was at first occupied by Soviet forces in 1940, then again in 1944, then Joseph Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev was pushed aside in 1964, and then finally the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

CC: Fantastic. I just wanted to make sure that we got that in there. I guess if our Listeners have seen “The Death of Stalin” they might be familiar with Khrushchev.

AR: Yes.

CC: Excellent. So you’ve already alluded, there, to the suppression of religion and how this, maybe, largely succeeded in the public space. But a lot of your work, then, has been focussing upon contemporary surveys, and how effective this might have been on individual lives. So, let’s get specifically into your own research. You might just want to tell us a little bit about your research journey – the kind of questions that you’ve been asking – and then, what it can tell us about religious indifference, non-religion. And then we’ll get onto this national identity element, as well.

AR: Well . . . long story short. I started out as a historian and my PhD thesis was on the institutions that were involved in Soviet anti-religious policy. It was mainly archival work. And by the time it was finished, in 2011, then the research on non-religion was already booming. (10:00) And then I got interested in how this Soviet background influences contemporary Estonian society. And by that time Estonians had already discovered this forgotten link between atheism and Estonian national identity. So for the last 4-5 years I have tried to keep a track on what’s happening in Estonian society, in connection with religion and non-religiosity. And I’m currently involved in several projects that touch these subjects. And one of them is on the Relocation of the Sacred around the Baltic Sea, which is led by my good colleague from Sweden, David Thurfjell. And it deals with the relationship between secularisation and nature spirituality. Another approach, which you already mentioned, was this Understanding Unbelief. And, in addition, we are – together with colleagues from the Czech Republic – we are compiling an edited volume with a preliminary title: Atheism and Freethinking in Central and Eastern Europe, which focusses on the twentieth and twenty-first century. And it’s a combination of historical and sociological approaches. And, hopefully, will be the first comprehensive overview of the development of current states of secular developments in that region.

CC: Fantastic. So how about we dive right into it, then? One of my favourite anecdotes from your presentation yesterday – and this might serve as a useful starter – was when the survey question, “Should the churches modernise?” was being asked. And people who were religious, people who were non-religious were maybe ticking agree, slightly agree, don’t have any opinion, vastly disagree. All over the place. And when you actually got to your qualitative work, the story was, “Should the churches modernise? Should they have electricity? Should they have Wi-Fi?” So, even the vocabulary of the questions were sort-of indicating what you might describe as secularisation of language.

AR: Yes.

CC: So, maybe that’s a way into the conversation?

AR: Yes, well. This religious gap, or this era of indifference, it’s really interesting how it has influenced society. And one of my research interests is the language my informants use, and I have identified some really interesting features. And one of them is that words or terms, religious terms, they have very negative connotations. One of the most loaded words is probably, “believer”. That has an association with mental abnormality or ignorance. And this is of course one of the successes of atheist propaganda. And I also have heard from my Russian colleagues, when they interview people and ask, “Are you a believer?” The response was “No, I’m normal.”

CC: (Laughs).

AR: And another thing – that you mentioned – is religious illiteracy. And also this secularisation of language. So this religious illiteracy: since religion in Estonian Society has had really low visibility, people sort-of don’t recognise the appearances of it. And they also are unable to express their thoughts about religion because of the lack of knowledge. And there is a really interesting story. In Turto there is a Marian Church that was turned into a gym during the Soviet era. And the bell tower was demolished and so on. But it still had the very specific features of a sacral building, like large arched windows and so on. I heard from my informants that when they were children, during the Soviet period, that when this building was finally given back to the congregation and turned into a sacral building again, they were really surprised when they learned that it was actually a church building! So we can call it a “religious blindness”, or something like that. And secularisation of language is the third interesting feature which I have found. It’s actually not so much secularisation. (15:00) It’s more like de-Christianisation: when religious terms have run dry of their Christian context. This example of church is sort of a text-book example. Where church is understood only as a building, not an organisation, or a group of people. So it can create a lot of confusion. So, yes. And then I got interested in that, because I had a hunch that non-religious people might not understand the questions in the surveys in the way they were meant to. And to some extent it seems to be true. And also it seems to be true that many questions asked in the surveys just prompt the answers, and have no relevance to people before and after that. So I’m a bit hesitant how meaningful this collected data is. And, of course, it’s always a problem but it can have much more serious results in a context where religious illiteracy is more widespread.

CC: Absolutely. It might help if we get some percentages here. I know that you had them in your presentation. You mightn’t have them to hand. But in certain surveys it’s quite an extraordinarily high number of, we might say, atheists – you might say non-identifiers, depending what the survey is. But then, on this national identity front, I notice that there was a large population of Russian Orthodox in Estonia. And so, maybe you could comment on the sort of connection between – I don’t know – Estonia, and atheism, and Russian Orthodoxy as it plays out?

AR: Yes. The point seems to be that orthodoxy is much stickier than Lutheranism. And the story with Estonians is that one of the things is the Estonian national narrative, which is a construct from 19th century, and tells a story about the Estonians’ everlasting fight for freedom. And there are two types of national narratives. One is the Golden past, another is the Promised Land. And Estonian one is the Golden Past type. But, usually, this Golden Past refers to the time where the country was very powerful, great kings and so on. But in the Estonian case this Golden Past is located into pre-Christian times. And Christianity is sort-of seen as responsible for its demise. And another thing is this connection between Estonian nationality and atheism. And it’s a really interesting story. But it has actually very little to do with believing or not believing in the existence of God, and rather it started out as an ethnic conflict. So the background is that Estonians were Christianised in the 13th century, during the Northern Crusades. And after that they were ruled by different other nations, until the 20th century. And this 19th century Romanticism resulted in the rise of Estonian national consciousness. And by that time, Estonia was incorporated to the Russian Empire, but Estonians were ruled by a Baltic German upper class. So most of the clergy was also German. So the Church was not perceived as Estonian, but more like German. Now, in 1905 there was a revolution in Russian Empire, and in Estonia as well. But in Estonia it took a sort-of nationalist form, so it was a fight for national autonomy. And the revolution was soon crushed and punitive squads started to do their work. And many people were executed. And then many Estonians accused German pastors that they didn’t protect their parish members, and rather collaborated with the troops. And, as a result, many Estonians didn’t go to Church any more. And, in return, Baltic Germans accused Estonians of atheism. And during the Soviet era, atheist propaganda, of course, made good use of both motives. (20:00) And then it created a new story of Estonians as historically being very sceptical towards religion, or being a religiously lukewarm nation. So in 2005 the Eurobarometer survey was published, and that revealed that only 16% of Estonians believe in a personal God. And all this information was happily put together. And Estonians started to understand themselves as the least religious – or most atheistic – country in the world, despite the fact that the survey covered only Europe!

CC: (Laughs).

AR: However, Estonians are actually not the only ones with this claim, and similar motives are present also in the Czech Republic, in Denmark, in Sweden, and in the Netherlands. So I question which country will be the least religious or most atheistic. It’s probably going to be a new Olympic Games discipline or something like that!

CC: Yes! And I wonder what the prize will be?

AR: (Laughs). God!

CC: You also had a leaflet in your presentation that said, “If you are an Estonian. . .” and listed a few things. It said ,“you do not believe in God . . . unless it’s Eurovision!” (Laughs).

AR: Right!

CC: Now I’ve only really got one more question before we talk about that important conference. But presumably, this isn’t getting the whole picture. You were showing a lot of nuance yesterday, and a lot of the beliefs and practices that these so-called non-believers, non-identifiers subscribe to. So maybe you could add a bit more nuance to this contemporary situation?

AR: Well, I will say that when we are talking about non- believers or atheists, then it basically boils down . . . that means that we are taking their identity as primary indicator, when we are talking in this way. Then, of course, the meaning of atheism in the Estonian case is sort-of different than in the Western context. It doesn’t mean the explicit denial of God, or something like that. Rather it refers to just not being Christian. And since atheism is the only known secular tradition in the Estonian context it has a very, very wide meaning.

CC: Excellent. So we are at about 25 minutes, which is a perfect time for me to just say that obviously we’re recording at the EASR in Bern, in Switzerland. But the 2019 EASR is in Tartu in Estonia. So perhaps you could maybe sell the conference a little bit? Just in terms of why might people want to come? But also, you could give us a hint of the intellectual thrust of the conference.

AR: The topic of the conference is “Religion: Continuations and Disruptions”. And, you know, conferences are very much like birthday parties. When you like the people, then you go! And at the same time they are like sort of style parties. And the topic gives the debates this general direction. So this topic was, of course, inspired by Eastern European recent history – which is actually a continuation of different disruptions. And this notion applies to religion as well. And religion and the understanding of religion is constantly changing. So we thought that it would give a good direction for our style party, to become fruitful basis for discussing whatever changes occur in regard to religion. But other than that, Tartu is just a very lovely town. And by the way, our restaurant street is just 50 metres from the conference venue! And for the conference party we have a place called Gunpowder Cellar, which is really an old gunpowder cellar that is turned into a restaurant and claims to be a pub with the highest ceiling in the world. Which is around 11 metres.

CC: So, the highest ceiling in the world and the lowest religiosity in the world!

AR: (Laughs). Exactly! They go together, hand-in-hand!

CC: Fantastic! One final question. (25:00) This conference that we’re at right now, the theme is “Multiple Religious Identities.” So, maybe, just a final thought from you on how the Estonian context and that conference theme of multiple religious identities maybe speak to each other? Or not?

AR: Of course they speak to each other: they are both religion-related. But, of course, there are continuations of religious identities, and all this overlapping and constant changing. So I would say this: our conference in Tartu will be a mental continuation of this topic here.

CC: Excellent! Well, Listeners, if you want to continue with a mental continuation, in about a year’s time we should have a number of podcasts from Tartu for you! But, for now, thanks for that really expansive, but also quite specific, teaser for the situation in Estonia and for your own research. So do check out Atko’s profile. And thank you very much!

AR: Thank you!


Citation Info: Remmel, Atko and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 January 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 October 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-study-of-religion-and-national-identity-in-estonia/

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

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

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Co-Dependency of Religion and the Secular

In our fifth editors’ pick, Marek Sullivan writes “Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!”

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

Continuing the ‘series’ is our new features co-editor, Marek Sullivan.

Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!

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

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Pulp Fiction memorabilia, astronaut ice cream and more.

Spirituality

To discuss ‘spirituality’, we are joined by Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe. We discuss the genealogy of ‘spirituality’, and its contemporary significance, with particular reference to the New Age movement. The second half focuses on how spirituality may trouble the religion / secular distinction, and its implications for the critical study of religion.

‘Spirituality’ is a term with enormous currency in contemporary discourse on religion, but despite this, it remains under-theorised. Little consideration is given to its development, and most scholarly work simply dismisses ‘spirituality’ as shallow and commercialised. Boaz Huss argues that “the vehement and disparaging criticism of contemporary spirituality is stimulated by the threat that this new cultural category poses to entrenched scholarly assumptions and research practices” (2014, 58).

To discuss ‘spirituality’, we are joined by Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe. We discuss the genealogy of ‘spirituality’, and its contemporary significance, with particular reference to the New Age movement. The second half focuses on how spirituality may trouble the religion / secular distinction, and its implications for the critical study of religion.

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

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

Spirituality

Podcast with Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe (11 June 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Huss and Sutcliffe – Spirituality 1.1

David Robertson (DR): Spirituality is a term with enormous currency in contemporary discourse in religion but, despite this, it remains under-theorised. Little consideration is given to its development, and most scholarly work simply dismisses it as shallow and commercialised. To discuss spirituality I’m joined today by Boaz Huss, a professor of Jewish thought at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and also by Steve Sutcliffe who is senior lecturer in Religious Studies, here at the University of Edinburgh, where we’re speaking today. So, we thought we could maybe start, then, by setting out . . . well, setting out the stall. Tell us about spirituality, and particularly the way it emerges as an identifier during the New Age and the post-war period.

Steven Sutcliffe (SS): Ok. Well I could start and say something about that. But it’s very good to have Boaz here to join in the discussion. So, welcome to Boaz.

Boaz Huss (BH): It’s good to be here.

SS: I came across spirituality, and became pretty-much convinced of its significance as a cultural category, when I was researching the so-called New Age movement. And in the work that I did on that, I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a very strong movement that we could call New Age. There was a term New Age, which was mobilised in a whole series of networks, but, increasingly, what scholars were calling the New Age movement after the 1970s was better understood as a network of people whose preferred term was becoming spirituality, sometimes qualified by “mind-body-spirit spirituality”, and sometimes “holistic spirituality”. Often just “spirituality”. And that this kind of shift seems to have been happening particularly, I would say, since after the 1960s, or the post-war period, is important as well. But of course there’s also a complicated and lengthy genealogy of the term emerging, and a number of different groups as well. So it’s a very complex but lively cultural category about which we still know very little, I think.

DR: And what are some of the sort-of themes and motifs that we can pick out in this discourse of spirituality, and the various other terms?

SS: Well I think, I mean, Boaz will have his own ideas here. For me, I’ve been interested in how it is often a kind of signifier for a form of what we might call vitalism, in some ways. There’s something more bubbling away in social life, and beyond social life, that the old category of religion, for users, doesn’t adequately tackle. Spirituality – a bit more nebulous, a bit more amorphous, but actually does quite a good job, through that nebulosity and amorphousness, in pointing to something that people feel. You know: “There’s a something more going on here. Things have got more life to them. They’ve got more energy. There’s something else going on.” So that’s been the route which I’ve been interested in, in the term. Why people are using it to point to this feeling that there’s something more going on in life.

DR: And maybe we can turn to Boaz, then. How does this . . . ? There’s a shift there. When spirituality starts to get picked up by the New Age movement, it changes its meaning. It’s not a new term, but it takes on a new set of connotations.

BH: Yes, yes definitely. I think there is . . . . Very similar to Steven, I was very much impressed by the prominent presence of spirituality as a term in contemporary New Age movements when I was working on in Israel – contemporary Kabbalistic movements – and, actually, also amongst my friends. It’s a term that’s very much alive and very easily used by people to define themselves. Now what, for me, was striking – maybe because I’m a historian and I started my work working on evil in Judaism and religions in the early modern period – is this really significant shift of meaning in spirituality. Because spirituality is a very old term, actually. It is a Biblical term, very prominent, signifying spirit in contrast to the body, to materiality, corporeality. And it played a very important role in medieval Christian theology, in translation – also in Jewish theology. And it seemed to me that the use today is very different and, actually, I think the two main centres of the use of the term in early modern period changed (5:00). One is the juxtaposition of spirituality to corporeality and materiality, which was very central. And today people use the term spiritual applying it to corporeal, material things: yoga, sports, martial arts, healing etc. And the other thing was the detachment from religion. Because spirituality was considered the core of religion, related, part of religion, and really the core of Christianity and religion. And today, I think the term that caught my attention was “spiritual but not religious”. Which . . . I think people tend to dismiss it. Well a lot of people use it, but some scholars, at least, dismiss this notion as they’re saying it. But actually they are religious or secular. But I think we should take it very seriously that people choose to define secularity in opposition to a term that spirituality came from and that is religious.

DR: Except, yes, as well as the “spiritual but not religious”, you are seeing very recently – in the last ten years or so – the churches making a kind-of reclaiming of that. And you’ll see “spiritual AND religious” pop up. So it’s not so much that . . . . I mean, from the point of view of these religious practitioners, spirituality is still the ur-concept with religion being part of that. So it’s shifting in different ways, even in the last few years.

SS: Well it’s a very user-friendly concept, isn’t it? And it’s also a multi-functional concept, I think. So the user-friendliness is that it’s got a warmth and a vitality to it, I think, that religion doesn’t have. And religion in popular parlance has been demonised, in a sense – stereotyped as this oppressive, institutional force. You’ll often hear the term “institutional religion” which is juxtaposed to “free-floating spirituality” or something like that. So it’s a kind of attractive word for people. But it’s also multi-functional, I think. It does various things at different levels for different audiences. And I think, for the folks who might have been involved in New Age and related networks, it fulfils that function of a fairly free-wheeling, personal, networked approach and discourse. But it’s also been picked up – and this is interesting as well, I think – it’s also been picked up in sort-of Government policy, educational health circles. So we have, here in the UK – as you probably know, Boaz – we’ve got spiritual chaplains now, in NHS hospitals. We have spirituality as a kind of perennial all-encompassing term in interfaith circles. We have various think-tank’s exploring the meaning of spirituality in cultural life. And so it’s a term . . . these uses of the term are not all doing the same thing. Sometimes they’re camouflaging various positions behind them. They’re ways of putting new pawns on the chess board to advance rather concealed causes. And other times they’re much more grass-roots and naive in their use.

DR: And that reminds me of the way that interfaith is often used, with a rather ecumenical agenda behind it: “We might as well team up in order to promote religion in the public sphere.” And spirituality is another way of doing that, of course. Because if you accept that, “OK, maybe religions don’t have a place, but spirituality does.” And so, “Who shall we get to speak for spirituality? Let’s get, you know, somebody from the Church of England.”

SS: Yes. Indeed

BH: I think it shows the cultural power of this term, that it’s adopted. Now what’s interesting . . . you know the people related to churches don’t go back to, I don’t know, early spiritual practices. They adopt spirituality from its modern, unchurched use and it comes together. It enters the churches with yoga, with Tai Chi classes, with other New Age . . . . So I see that as part of, really, the language of New Age and spirituality, also entering new places. And you said, also, of course medicine, government and business.

SS: Yes – business, indeed.

BH: Business is very strong. So I think that shows really, somehow, the relevance: it’s a good term for people today – if not, they wouldn’t use it. There’s something very, I think, serious and significant about it. (10:00) And I think the tendency of some scholars to dismiss it – it’s really, you know, not looking at something very interesting that’s going on around us.

SS: Yes. Yes. That might be an opportunity, some of the scholars . . . two books come to mind that have been very critical, often in a slightly polemical way about this, which is Kimberley Lau’s book: New Age Capitalism, and then, also, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book: Selling Spirituality. Now, both of those books have got a similar purpose. Kimberley Lau works out quite a sophisticated account of ideology, and how spirituality is an ideology, in her book – but she’s still got this kind of criticism. In the case of Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book, it seems to be more about a slightly nostalgic reach back to authentic, good-old religion, as opposed to this nasty, sort-of . . .

BH: Capitalist . . .

SS: Yes. However, what I was going to say is, if it is a multi-functional term, there is one angle of it that it seems to me in which the Carrette and King critique is correct: in businesses, as we just mentioned, there can be a sense in which spirituality is a way of producing a happier work force, a more comfortable workforce, a more productive workforce. But that doesn’t seem to me to be the whole of the picture. So that was what I was saying about how it’s a multifunctional kind of discourse. It’s layered or stacked with different kinds of uses or goals.

DR: I think an important aspect of it, to take in parallel with that sort-of neoliberal critique, is the Jungian kind of psychological idea. And those aren’t separate, but you see the growth of psychological Jungian ideas in the business sphere, particularly because it’s well, you know . . . . The Marxist critique is that by treating the mental health issues that arise because of neoliberalism, then it allows neoliberalism to continue as an economic model. But of course, that’s also the foundational model of large parts of the New Age movement.

SS: Right.

DR: You know – the sense of the self, and the purpose of life being to develop the self. Which, as well, maybe points to this blurring between the idea of the spirit as something not the body, but simultaneously also the body.

SS: Yes, that reminds me a bit of Paul Heelas’ work on self-spirituality or self-religion that he was developing a while ago, where- I mean he’s been critiqued by Matthew Wood and others, for having a rather asocial model of the self – which I think is right. But nevertheless he was pointing, in some of his early work, to one of these telephone marketing companies who were working on the idea that if you were in touch with your “true whole self” when you were at work, you would get better business results in your cold-calling of people. If you were doing that, and were “present in yourself”, that would have an impact.

DR: You would have authenticity.

SS: Yes. And you would be “at cause” and not “at effect”, which is what happens if you are not in touch with yourself – you are just acted upon. So there seems to be something about being in touch with the self that is an important part of the ideology of spirituality – whether that comes through practice is another thing.

BH: I want to go back to this point of neoliberalism, because I think it’s important. I think, definitely, the recognition that there is a connection is true. I think it merges neoliberal ideology, and post-modern culture, and post-capitalistic global economics: they and spirituality all emerge at the same period, and sometimes there’s an overlap between the social compositions of the people who are involved. But I think the fact that there are similarities, and there is interconnection between, doesn’t mean that spirituality is a disguised neoliberal ideology. It can be also a response, sometimes, to neoliberalism. So, from that point of view, I think the connection is definitely there. As I said, we can look at spirituality as a kind of post-modern, new cultural formation, and New Age also, but that doesn’t mean that it identifies with other post-modern cultural formations. And, again sometimes it is. I think, on the one hand, you can show points where it strengthens neoliberal ideology, but also other groups – there are so many varieties of spiritualties and New Age – that are a response and trying to undermine it. But still, again, I’ve seen it’s something very relevant. And, you know, we live in a post-modern, late-capitalistic society. The cultural formations that we use – and I think all of us are part of them, to a certain degree – you know, they are those which are relevant to our society, and of course they are interconnected (15:00). But this nostalgia that you mentioned, I think it’s not relevant to criticise spirituality. I don’t see my role as a scholar to give marks or grade religious and spiritual phenomena, but to try to understand the function.

SS: Yes.

DR: Because of course, I mean, the churches in the early twentieth century or earlier – kind-of in the earlier economic systems with the nation state and these kind of things – there are examples of institutional religion working with the state, and working against the state, then. And there are examples of New Age and spirituality working with the state and against the state now. It’s no different. But, of course, if you’re looking at it from a nostalgic point of view, with this modern organisation of the state, and you’re looking for things that look like the church you grew up in, then maybe you are going to come to that conclusion.

SS: In terms of that counter-cultural impetus, I think Paul Heelas talks about what he most recently calls New Age Spiritualties of Life. He says something like “a gentle counter-flow” or something like that. He’s kind-of not going full on for the kind of counter-cultural stances of the ’60s, but he’s saying there is some kind of modest critique here, in the stuff he’s looking at. And sort-of connected with that, with the data for the Kendal project – that Spiritual Revolution book that Paul did with Linda Woodhead. And there they did quite a lot of valuable data – I mean, now it’s a little bit old perhaps, the early 2000s it was – but there was clearly a correlation between the folks participating in the holistic milieu in Kendal and environmental, ecological, Green values. And there was also a correlation, when asked in the various questionnaires and interviews, with left-of-centre political attitudes as well. So I go some way towards saying, here’s one small body of evidence that bears out what you’re saying, Boaz. It’s not only a question of being subsumed by neoliberal positions. There is agency here in a more political – small p . . . .

DR: But this language is also taken up wholesale amongst the sort of New Right, and the conspiracy milieu that I look at. I mean, when I was down looking at . . . . Ok, so most of the case studies I looked at were left-leaning. But certainly in the right wing – it’s a little bit blurred because we tend to focus on US data, and of course US data strongly identifies as Christian. But if you look at the right outside of the US, there’s a strong association with spirituality. And you can find, for example, Red Ice Radio podcast, on a TV show out of Sweden, started off doing very much kind of New Age and healing kind of stuff and have gradually moved over until they’re now just completely right-wing, pagan-identifying. But you can see in the space of a few years there, as they make that shift, you still have language of spirituality and “higher purpose” and all these kind of things, focus on health practices – all of these things are still there, so that discourse is not restricted to the left at all.

BH: A few years ago we had a project on the politics of the New Age. Actually, my interest in spirituality started from that project. And, again, it became very clear first of all that, in difference to the self-declaration of many spiritualist and New Agers, “We are not interested in politics”, they are involved in politics. But you can find the combination, you can find New Age practices and use of spiritual terminology in the extreme right, religious, national right in Israel and, of course – what you would more expect – in the left and Green movements, etc. So it really is applied . . . and I think, again, showing that it’s a key cultural concept that can be used by very different political and ideological agendas. And I think it’s interesting. Actually, I think the use is quite similar. It’s not that they just use it and each one gives it a completely different . . . . They integrate it in very different ideologies, but the practices themselves: you go and do some kind of violent political act in the evening, and in the morning you grow organic vegetables and do meditation practices etc., and connect with the nature around you!

SS: (Laughs) OK. Yes!

DR: And lots of food! (20:00) You know, like eating pro-biotic and vegetarian diets and all this stuff. It’s right across the board.

BH: It’s very interesting, the use of the New Age terminology to justify, for instance, violence. That’s a natural, you know, part of the . . . . But the extreme right movements will say revenge is something very basic. And because of that, we can do revenge acts. Because that’s part of going back to nature, connecting with the earth. It’s amazing to see this combination!

SS: And so that raises the question: it sounds to me as though you’re saying that spirituality, as a concept, has travelled very well in Israel for example, in non-Christian contexts. Because it’s often seemed to me that there are some kind of affinities with a kind of a post-Christian culture and a spirituality discourse. But it seems clear, even if that’s the case, that it can acculturate elsewhere quite happily. So there’s no problem with secular Jews, religious Jews, all kinds of folk picking up the term in an Israeli context?

BH: Yes. I think it would be all across the board. But I think you will find some kind of American / Western connection. Even in ultra. Because many of the ultra-Orthodox movements, many of the people, of the members, are actually returning to religion. So, actually, they’ve had that grounding or acquaintance. But it’s so available and present here, that even if you grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family you know, it’s available, the practices and terminology are there. So they are easily reached. And I believe it’s similar in, at least in Westernised and middle-class populations also in other non-Christina cultures: Turkey, Indonesia, Morocco, you will find, again, language of spiritual and definitely the New Age practices.

SS: Yes.

BH: Very interesting to look at . . .

DR: And in Asia as well. In Japan and China, particularly.

BH: Japan, definitely, yes.

DR: Yes. Which you actually mentioned something about this, Boaz, in one of the papers I read, about how this was essentially swapping a dualistic Western model for an Eastern monistic model. And I wonder if actually that would indicate that this would have quite a lot of currency in Asian countries? Because it kind of maps much better than the imported model of religion, and spirituality.

BH: Yes, I’m not sure how it goes in all this. It’s the pizza effect. You know of coming . . . receiving back Indian meditation practices after they were Westernised, and then incorporating them back. Similar things with Kabbalah for instance, with New Kabbalah and then integrated. So there is some kind of coming back, but I think I would be hesitant to say that there’s something . . . . Definitely many practices were borrowed from non-Christian cultures, but to say that they’re more open to them because of that . . . . I would put more emphasis on the globalisation. This is part of that.

DR: I haven’t made myself very clear. What I mean is that the model of talking about spirituality, rather than talking about religion and the secular, makes more sense in an Asian country where they were never things that were separate to start with.

SS: Oh I see, right, right.

DR: So if you were going to import a Western construct, then spirituality works better than religion and the secular. Does that make sense?

SS: Yes. That’s clearer, yes. But I mean, so what is it? It starts the same . . . . I mean, I’m not convinced that there is one discourse. There are several different layered and stacked discourses, but they probably share something in common. What is it they share in common? And why are these discourses so attractive? What are they doing? What kind of empowerment, or status or capital are they giving people? Do you have any developed thoughts on this, Boaz? What’s the attraction?

BH: Not today! (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs) Not right now, yes!

SS: (Laughs) But this is the million-dollar question, I think, yes.

BH: But again, I think some of the emphasis of the New Age practices and this concept spirituality are really in line with contemporary ideologies, ways of living. As I suggested, and as you just said, the strict separation between religious and secular had its role in modernity. And it seems it doesn’t have that role (now) (25:00). And people can use something new – which, again, I don’t want to say it’s a new way of going back to religion, because I think it’s something different. But, really, having a position which they don’t have to define as secular or religious, and making those borders between them, and then really giving what is called spiritual meaning for body practices, for instance, seems positive, in a positive way, regarding the body – giving it a value that wasn’t there, I think, in Christian medieval early modern culture. Maybe the globalisation tendency . . . I think of all of us, of tourism, of cultural consumption etc. – so you can pick from many different cultures, all those practices – this is something the concept of spirituality enables, which the concept of religion didn’t. You know, you couldn’t go to church and practice yoga. It was uncomfortable, I assume, in the early twentieth century! Today, you can go to church and have a yoga practice. And, exactly as you said, this is justified using the term spirituality.

DR: And I suspect, as well, that modern communications technology means that although people would have been doing heterodox practices – sometimes practices from outside but sometimes folk kind of things – the degree to which we were aware that other people were doing them was limited. You know, you’d have to know somebody pretty well to know that they were also making charms or doing healings or these kind of things. Whereas now we know that everywhere . . . It’s vernacular and there are all sorts of heterodox things going on in every Christian group. But when we didn’t have those ways of communicating, and all the knowledge was mandated from the church authorities, that wasn’t the impression you would have got. So it’s not only changed the degree to which these are available, it’s changed the fact that we now know that it’s been available and everybody does it. And it’s fine.

BH: The idea of self, for instance: it’s so central to our culture. Criticise it or not, we are not in a communal culture any more. And so the self – I think that’s a wonderful expression. And Paul has hit the nail, you know, with this “self-spirituality”. It’s not God spirituality and it’s not . . . the self is in the centre. Self-improvement, self-progress: that’s the core value of our society. I think, in a way, we’re all part of it. I think similar things happen in the university. What happens now . The whole concept of knowledge as something practical, something that improves our life. That’s the most important thing. And that’s exactly what spirituality offers people: a way of having something practical that doesn’t take too much of your time – which, again, it’s not necessarily negative.

SS: Is it a bit like having your cake and eating it? You know that phrase where you kind-of can have the best of both worlds. You can – at the personal, embodied and relational level – you can have something more than is vouchsafed by a purely secular materialist regime. But one does not have to go the whole hog. One does not have to go the whole way into a more developed, or fully blown, practice or identification.

BH: Yes, I think it’s a bit too critical for my part . . .

SS: (Laughs).

BH: Because, again, I . .

SS: Well, I mean it descriptively rather than . . .

DR: (Laughs).

BH: You want your cake and not! (Laughs).

SS: Well, that’s true!

BH: I don’t know. The difference between psychoanalysis and contemporary clinical psychology, which is treatment: I think it’s the same direction, and it’s not necessarily bad. You don’t have the time, or you don’t have the justification of, you know, digging into your past for hours on the sofa. That’s something that was ok for certain people, of course – quite limited to people in the early mid-twentieth century! Now, today, people want to go to a session that will improve their mental or psychological (wellbeing), going for three or four times, having some time. And I think that’s also what spirituality . . . . You don’t have to read the whole Hindu literature in order to do yoga! (Laughs).

DR: Yes. Well, you know, in which case that fits neoliberalism quite well! Because we’re getting to increasing productivity and minimalising work (30:00).

SS: (Laughs).

BH: Yes, that’s part of it. But it’s not necessarily the same.

SS: OK. Well in that case, what about the question of secularisation? Because in one or two of your writings you have suggested that there is some kind of push back here, or a reversing of the conditions of secularisation, or of the qualifications, shall we say, of the conditions of secularisation. But in fact what you’ve just said would be used by strong secularisation theorists to say, “Well, that’s exactly it! This is just a kind-of boost of secular conditions.”

BH: No I think secularisation and religionisation . . . . We’re speaking about secularisation, but actually the interesting term – one interesting term – is “religionisation”

SS: Religionisation.

BH: Because the assumption that there is a process of . . . . Secularisation assumes that before, there was a state of religion, of religiosity, and then secularisation came and started, you know, going forth and maybe now coming back. I see the process of secularisation working in tandem with the process of religionisation. These are two concepts that started in Western Europe in early-modern/ modern period and were applied to other cultures. It wasn’t there before – neither religion, nor secularity. And then we had this process. And I think now we have a different process. It’s not that it’s going back. It’s still in play, of course. Religionisation is looking at things and saying, “Ahh! This is a religion.” Or looking at myself and saying, “I’m religious, so I’m behaving in such and such. . . . That’s what I believe.” That’s the process of religionisation. Or secularisation – the same thing: “This is secular, so it’s supposed to behave like secular. . . . I’m secular so there are certain things that I do, and that I don’t do.” And I think that’s not relevant to many people today, who say, “No I’m not secular, I’m not religious, it’s not relevant, I’m spiritual.”

SS: Yes. Right.

BH: And then they start doing things which are really . . . and look – kind-of things like yoga and going to church sometimes, and swimming. And saying, “Wow, I have a spiritual experience now!” And all those new things. So I don’t see it as part of secularisation. It’s something basically different.

SS: So is it the case that just as people like Timothy Fitzgerald have argued that the religious and the secular are kind-of co-constitutive, so secularisation and religionisation are kind-of mutually generating each other? And what we have here is now a different kind of situation that transcends that, or has moved beyond those kinds of concerns?

BH: Yes. I think that spirituality actually corroborates and strengthens the position of Fitzgerald and McCutcheon and Talal Asad, because it shows that not only in non-Western cultures or pre-modern cultures, there was no concept of religion and secular – also in our society, Western society, they knew it. It didn’t disappear, this concept. I don’t think they will disappear. But there is a new option which is neither secular nor religion. So I think that strengthens their point that it’s not something universal.

DR: Yes. Well. Any last thoughts on the sort-of . . . the situation in the field, in our field? How do we move forward? How do we start to deal with this within Religious Studies?

SS: Good question. Well I don’t know about you, Boaz, and I know a bit about David, but teaching this material is an interesting challenge. And here, in many ways, this is a whole topic in itself. David has written an edited work on this. But we tend to still . . . . In Religious studies, or the Study of Religions, we’re very much constrained by a very hegemonic model of religion as World Religions: these big institutional blocks of things that are almost like corporate institutions that are said to have these kinds of identities. And that really does constrain how you can insert this material into the curriculum to teach to students. Because I do think as well as theorising this material, and researching it, we need to be able to try and educate the next generation of students who will come and take our place so that we can get more work done on this. I mean it’s not just an idle contemporary issue. One would say that they – whole worlds of what gets called the occult, the esoteric – have been very, very important in the last couple of hundred years at least, but are scarcely researched at all (35:00). They scarcely get the resources to work with them that, you know, Judaism, the various Christianities, the various Judaisms get. So, it’s a real question about how we can bring to people’s attention the significance of this stuff, working with such conservative paradigms of religion – which themselves are the product of the very conditions you’re describing.

DR: Religionisation!

SS: I mean, I teach a course called “New Spiritualties” and I’ve been beavering away at this course for years. I don’t know if you do any teaching in this line, about this material, where you are, Boaz?

BH: Yes. I’m in a different position, because I’m in a department of Jewish Studies. But in a way, it’s similar, because it’s also very conservative. I think not many departments of Jewish thought would . . . But, definitely, I give courses on New age Kabbalah, contemporary Kabbalah, sometimes even wider New Age ( topics) – although that’s stepping the line, because it’s not even Jewish!

All: (Laugh).

BH: But definitely, I think – and it’s good that we are doing it. When I started, I received very negative reactions from some of my colleagues who really sneered at: “You’re not doing serious scholarship! What happened Boaz? You were a serious scholar. How can you leave manuscripts and go and study . . . !” But I think, slowly – that was twenty years ago – I think our work is . . . . I think it’s changing, and people are much more in academia now, open to working, and recognising the significance of the (audio unclear) or what you’re calling spirituality or New age or religiosity.

SS: Well I do think the key there, in terms of the academic capital of the project, is to connect the debates with larger debates about religion and modernity, religion and secularisation, consumption, political ideologies, economics, all that kind of thing. And, I think, when we start to do that we find more colleagues taking us seriously, both in the field of various studies of religion, but outside of that in cultural studies and Sociology. Do you think that’s the case, David? Because you’ve always connected these things to wider processes.

DR: Yes. And partly the problem is that there also hasn’t been a lot of work on this kind of material from within the Critical Religion . . . you know, that approach. That’s tended to focus more on historical genealogy. And we’re now starting to get things like Aaron Hughes’ work on Islam, for instance. But there still needs to be a focussed project looking at the emergence of New Age spirituality and other alternative religious movements, within the critical history of the idea of religion and the category of religion. But absolutely, yes, that’s how we need to establish the importance of what we’re doing. And that will also help us to move . . . as so much of that work is done from an insider perspective, unfortunately. It’s a whole other conversation, but it’s worth mentioning. But yes, absolutely, I agree with what both of you are saying. We just need to get enough of a foothold in the academy that we can actually do this work. And I think, with hindsight, it will be clear what the importance of it was.

SS: Right.

BH: I think it’s also a question of connecting. Because I think there’s more work done than you’re aware of. Sometimes I meet someone: “Wow! You’re doing the same! I didn’t know that you were working on that!” So there’s a group working on new religiosities in Turkey – very interesting. Quite a large group. Many of them Francophones – so that maybe where there’s less connection. There’s also the question of different academic cultures. But there are people working on it in Morocco, and I think that’s fascinating. And I ‘m very happy to be here to meet you! I think those connections between scholars who are working, sometimes, in corners – that’s also very important.

DR: Because, of course, there are no institutes where we can do this work! That’s the problem!

SS: No, I think that’s right. I mean Jean-Francois Mayer, the Swiss scholar, put me onto a paper, through his Relgioscope Foundation, about new spiritualties in Azerbaijan, for example. Very interesting paper. And then as you say, there’s Morocco, there’s Turkey, but there’s also new spiritualties in sort-of Catholic contexts like Mexico, as well. So you’re probably right.

BH: South America – there’s a lot going on there.

SS: Sure. So here’s . . . It’s a question of connecting, and a question of resources to do the connecting as well, of course. Because, in my view, academia doesn’t free-float. It’s always dependent on money and institutional support.

DR: OK. Well that’s a good point to end on, I think. It’s relatively positive, but realistic! (40:00)

All: (Laugh).

DR: So – thanks to you, Boaz, and to Steve, for this very stimulating conversation. Thank you both.

BH: Thank you, David.

SS: Thank you.

Citation Info: Huss, Boaz, Steven Sutcliffe and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 11 June 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/spirituality/

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Worldviews and Ways of Life

Ann Taves joins us to discuss her work arguing that we should study religions under the broader rubric of “worldviews” and “ways of life”. This ambitious interdisciplinary project aims to place a micro-level analysis of individual worldviews into a broader evolutionary perspective. Through case-studies (including ‘secular’ worldviews like Alcoholics Anonymous alongside more traditional ‘religions’), she explains how worldviews form in response to existential ‘Big Questions’ – here understood as core biological needs and goals, rather than theological or moral concerns – and are enacted in Ways of Life, individually or collectively.

This interview summarizes her Gunning Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh, 19-21 March 2018.

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

Worldviews and Ways of Life

Podcast with Ann Taves (21 May 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Taves_-_Worldviews_and_Ways_of_Life_1.1

David Robertson (DR): It’s my pleasure to be joined here today by Professor Ann Taves from the Religious Studies Department and the University of California, Santa Barbara. It’s not her first visit to the podcast, but the first full-length interview I think. So this should be interesting. She’s here in Edinburgh to deliver the Gunning Lectures and that’s where the topic of today’s discussion has come from: talking about worldviews and ways of life. So let’s start where we were kind-of already talking before I started recording: a little bit, maybe, about, how did we come to this position? You were asked to write a blog? Is that right?

Ann Taves (AT): Yes. I mean, really the question is: why am I even talking about worldviews and ways of life, or studying religion as worldviews and ways of life? Which was the topic of the Gunning Lectures. And, as we were just talking about before, I was pretty much what I would call an “anti-definitionalist”, when it comes to defining religion for research purposes. Because I think it’s really important that we look at how people understand religion – and other related sorts of terms – on the ground. But I was kind-of forced to make a more constructive move – internally forced – after I was asked to write a blog post on method for the Non-Religion and Secularity Project. And it just struck me that talking about non-religion and religion, without ever specifying any larger category or rubric under which these two items fell, was kind of absurd.

DR: Yes.

AT: So that got me searching for . . . trying to answer the question: what do these two things have in common? And terms like worldviews and ways of life are actually very widely used, as an overarching framework for talking about these things. In fact, Lois Lee’s first objection to the worldviews language was it was too commonplace, and too ordinary.

DR: Yes. And there’s a question, there, why ordinary and commonplace . . . ? That should be fine, really? Maybe that’s part of the Protestant thing that religion should be special and set apart? But . . .

AT: Yes, I think her concern – and I’m putting words in her mouth . . .

DR: Yes. She can respond, if she wants!

AT: Right. I think her concern was actually one that came up in the Q and A after my first lecture. The ease with which everyday definitions of worldviews might get confused with whatever we might want to mean by it, in a more technical sense. And that’s one of our problems with defining religion.

DR: Yes. Very much so.

AT: We construct these technical definitions of what we mean, but then everybody has their meanings on the ground. What I’m arguing with worldviews and ways of life is that we actually can define them in a way that I’m arguing can stabilise them, in a way that we can’t stabilise definitions of religion; that religion is a complex, cultural concept – it simply does not have a stable meaning. But worldviews and ways of life – I think that we can root them in a perspective, and show how the ability to actually generate a worldview is something that humans can do that’s grounded in evolved capacities, basically, that emerge out of all mobile organisms having a way of life.

DR: That’s really interesting. I’m going to get you to take us through some of that – albeit in a truncated way – later on. First though, I think we need to jump back a little bit. (5:00) So, tell us what you mean by worldviews. And you also use this term ways of life.

AT: Yes

DR: Just unpack, for the listeners, a little bit what we mean by these terms.

AT: Well, let me start with worldviews. Basically, there’s a range of scholarship on worldviews. There still is an interdisciplinary group in Belgium and there are scholars and anthropologists such as André Droogers in Amsterdam who’ve been working on this idea of worldviews. And generally, in this literature, they define worldviews in terms of what I would call Big Questions. So the kind of . . . they use fundamental terms that you hear in philosophy. So terms like ontology, cosmology epistemology, anthropology, axiology, and praxeology – those are the big philosophical concepts. But we can translate those into very everyday language.

DR: OK.

AT: So that’s basically how Egil Asprem and I are working to define worldviews: in terms of answers to these six fundamental big questions.

DR: Can you give us a couple of examples of those as questions?

AT: Yes, so the ontology questions would be, “What exists? What’s real?” And the cosmology question would start with the very basic question of either, “Who am I?” or “Who are we?” But it would expand to “Where do we come from?” and “Where are we going?” The anthropology question would be, “What is our situation? What is the situation in which we find ourselves?” It could also then expand to, “What is our nature?” But two really crucial questions . . . . Well, let me just give you all of them. Because in relation to the “What’s real?” and “Who are we?”, “Where are we going?” questions, the next question is the epistemology question: “How do we know that?” And so you get answers from human beings, or science, or revelation – things like that. But then, after the one about our situation would come the question of goals and values. So, “What’s the good, or what’s the goal that we should be striving for?” And then, finally, the big path or action question: “How do we get there?” So we’re arguing that we can use this set of questions to unpack lots of things. From – at a very high level – teachings of a broad tradition, all the way down to how individuals would answer that question.

DR: So there’s a real scalability to this then?

AT: exactly

DR: And so these build into . . . am I understanding correctly, that the responses to these questions become embodied in ways of life? Would that be correct?

AT: Yes. We’re arguing that all mobile organisms, broadly speaking, have what we can think of as a way of life. But the more basic the organism, the more basic the way of life. There’s not going to be any choices. There’s certainly not going to be any mental reflection on ways of life, right? So, ways of life can get more and more complicated. But we see that as one of the ways that we can talk about humans as evolved animals. And we want to stress both continuity and difference. We’re trying to do a “both/and” kind of thing, rather than an “either/or”.

DR: OK

AT: But you were asking then, for humans, how do worldviews relate to ways of life?

DR: Yes. And prior to that, how do the big questions relate to ways of life and worldviews? What’s the direct relationship there?

AT: Yes. Well. We’re distinguishing – and I keep saying we, because Egil Asprem and I have been collaborating on some of this work. We’re talking about modes of worldview expression. And we’re distinguishing between enacted, articulated and recounted worldviews. (10:00) So recounted would include both oral traditions, where things are memorised, and textualised traditions. But before you can get to recounting, we’ve just got articulating a worldview in language. Then, prior to that, we’ve got the fact that they can be enacted without even being articulated. And all these levels can work together and interact. And so, at the enacted level, you’ve basically got implicit worldviews embedded in ways of life. And as researchers we would have to extract or infer answers to big questions, based on people’s actions and behaviour.

DR: So is it with this embodied, recounted level – is that where we start talking about worldviews rather than simply ways of life?

AT: Yes. Yes. So we’re arguing that, basically, you have to have a cultural capacity before you can have a worldview. And so we used a distinction, on the one hand, between natural and cultural affordances that we borrow from ecological psychology, and also a distinction between evolved and cultural schemas, which are a psychological construct for the kinds of representations that we have for things. And the distinction between natural and cultural is that natural affordances, or evolved schemas, are very much . . . there’s a direct relationship between the organism and the environment.

DR: OK.

AT: There’s no mediating possibility for some kind of cultural construct that organisms have agreed upon together. It’s not until we get to humans that – as far as we know – we have those more collective kinds of agreements about things that can be detached from the environment.

DR: So, maybe something like: you think you’ve seen something in the shadows, and you’re frightened – so it might be a schema: there’s an embodied reaction of fear. But that you saw a ghost, you are therefore frightened of ghosts – that’s more of a worldview? Or at least part of a way of life?

AT: Yes. It’s drawing in a cultural schema about ghosts.

DG: A collective cultural schema.

AT: And layering that on top of the evolved schema of when you hear a sound – or, more likely, when you perceive some sort of movement, right? We have an evolved tendency to assume there’s something animate there – something potentially dangerous.

DR: And potentially then, that would also tie into a larger view of the world. Because in order to have ghosts going about, you have to have some sort of notion of survival after death or non-real beings of some sort.

AT: Exactly. Right. So you can expand from that in steps to develop a larger underlying conception of how they would describe what’s real in the world.

DR: Right. And what’s nice about this schema, I think, is that it’s definitely a bottom-up approach to this, rather than top-down. So we’re starting with the most basic kind of responses and then building up to the worldviews from there.

AT: Well, certainly, if you want to start at the level of individual behaviour. But we actually can start in all kinds of places as long – I would argue – as we’re being responsible about the nature of our starting points. I mean as long as we’re up front about that.

DR: Yes.

AT: I think, as you know, I’ve been teaching Comparing Worldviews-type courses, which is an attempt to overcome some of the problems with the world religions paradigm.

DR: Which our listeners should, by now, be very familiar with! (Laughs).

AT: Exactly. That’s why I brought it up in this context, because I figured it might be relevant.

DR: Yes.

AT: But there, starting with a textbook depiction of the teachings of a so-called world religion, (15:00) we can have the students analyse that in terms of the big questions, to give themselves a basic sort-of framework. And I can then analyse or show them, using historical materials, how over time that those answers to the big questions coalesced into some sort of, say, orthodoxy, or some sort of tradition – including looking at the power structures and the authority structures that would make it coalesce into being that. But it doesn’t mean that every individual or all the groups all adhere to that. But we can still start at that level, and use this conception that way, is my point.

DR: How – and the answer to this might just be, “Not at all.” – but how is this in any way related to what Ninian Smart was trying to do, or at least what Ninian Smart said he was trying to do?

AT: Right. No, I think there is a relationship. And I think it’s important to see both what Ninian Smart did that I think is extremely positive, and the limitations of what he did. So the really positive thing is articulating, in a kind of obscure article (that I think more of us ought to be aware of) in which he, basically, argued that we ought to subsume the philosophy of religion under the philosophy of worldviews: the history of religions, in the broad religionsgeschichte sense, under the history of worldviews and the anthropology of religion under an anthropology of worldviews. So sort-of the whole range of methodologies that we tend to use in Religious Studies he saw as part of an expansive conception of Worldviews Studies. And I think that’s really cool.

DR: Yes.

AT: But the limitation is that he never defined what he meant by worldview. And what he did was simply import his six – or later, seven – dimensions of religion from the study of religion to the study of worldviews. And to me that was kind of importing . . . . You know, that was almost a new version of the missionary move – of taking our definition of religion and now applying it to worldviews.

DR: Yes. And the choice of the dimensions, and the relative weighting of them, kind-of speaks to that. So you know, like “texts” is there . . . But also, I’m not sure where exactly, but he certainly states at one point that obviously while we can view all of these things as worldviews, some of them are “more profound than others”. So, implicitly, he’s still making distinctions!

AT: Right. Right.

DR: And, of course, Christianity is going to be right at the top! I mean, I would put money on that.

AT: Right. But part of our move to viewing worldviews and ways of life from an evolutionary perspective is to try to turn that on its head. Because it makes the highly rationalised, highly systematised worldviews that philosophers and theologians are into – and maybe even world religions textbooks – into a very high end product that may, or may not, have that much relationship to everyday life. Or at least it’s a very open question – as scholars of so-called lived religion would argue – to how people live their everyday lives. So part of what we see, working from the bottom up, is a lot of open questions about: how integrated are people’s enacted worldviews? Do they need to articulate them in order to function? Or can an enculturated way of life be perfectly sufficient until it’s challenged in some way, by something or other? Then maybe people have to start to think about it on a need-to-know basis (20:00).

DR: And this is something that really interests me, actually. You said something about this. I think you said that we can see external . . . . What’s the term you used? Schemas. We can see schemas that are external to us, in other societies, very easily. But it’s very difficult to see schemas in our own. Which, obviously, is something that, as scholars, we’re trained to do, and we try and inculcate in our students as well. But I was thinking about . . . I’m very interested in the idea of challenging the idea of belief in the study of religion. I think there’s a lot of stress put on, “This is people’s belief.” And, when you actually look at the data on the ground, people are not consistent in these kind of things. Beliefs are not performative statements which people hold in their brain and then act in accordance to. And, for instance, we have ideas like situational belief, where people will respond differently in different circumstances. And I certainly saw this a lot in my research on New Age and conspiracy theories. That, for instance, people who were suffering from chronic pain will change their position or adopt multiple positions on alternative therapies. They may be the most scientifically-minded person going, but when pain-killers no longer work they’re willing to, subjunctively, entertain the idea that acupuncture, or flower remedies, or something else might work. And then, of course, if those seem to work, they may completely change their worldview.

AT: Or not completely.

DR: So yes. You can see where I’m . . .

AT: Yes. Because they may still be going to a more conventional physician or healer at the same time. So they may, people may actually be able to keep multiple variant implicit worldviews going, without thinking really carefully about the conflicts between them – as long as the conflicts aren’t causing them any problems.

DR: So are we seeing people, then, moving between different schemas? Are they moving between different worldviews, then? Or are we able to negotiate multiple schemas in different contexts?

AT: Yes. I mean I think . . . . Let me answer that a couple of ways. Because, if we think about other animals who would have evolved schemas that would be cued by the environment to elicit certain behaviours in certain situations, then certainly we could think that, at that basic level, we have tons of schemas that get differentially cued by different environmental contexts. Each of those contexts would be a whole situation where we could ask, “What’s the situation in which we find ourselves?” “What’s the goal in this situation?” “What is the means to get the goal?” “What kind of action . . .?” So, in that sense, we could begin to flesh out a micro-worldview, or micro-answers to the big questions, in that context. So part of the thing to keep in mind, I think, is the answers to the big questions don’t have to be super-big sounding! (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs). No, absolutely! Yes!

AT: But at a more human level, I think, another way to think about your question, that again came up at our discussions, was to think about it in relationship to people that are bicultural. And it seems to me that there’s an analogy between the kinds of people dealing with medical problems switching between healing frames, we could call it, that could develop into a whole consistent way of life, but could just be these partial things that people can flip back and forth between. And if we look at bicultural people, they get cued to speak different languages, bring whole different sets of cultural schemas into play when they’re with their relatives, wherever their family came from, or when they’re with their family in their new context.

DR: Interestingly – I didn’t mention this when we were talking about this yesterday (25:00) – but, because I worked in catering for a long time, I’ve known a lot of bicultural people. And several of them have said to me that their personality is slightly different when they’re in the other register. Like, I’ve known a French friend of mine who says she’s much more sarcastic and aggressive with her French family and friends than she is with her Scottish friends, for instance.

AT: Yes, I think that’s really interesting. I mean, in that she’s answering the big question about “Who am I?” With different answers.

DR: Differently.

AT: Yes. And I think we need a language to make sense of that, to explore that. And that’s part of what I see as the power of this approach. It seems to me there’s a whole lot of different directions that we can use it to explore.

DR: Yes. So let’s pursue that then – briefly, I mean. In the Gunning lectures you used the example of the AA quite a lot. And I thought you could, maybe, talk us quite quickly through that – just so the listeners have a real world example to play with. So taking the Alcoholics Anonymous – a group that kind-of . . . you know: a debatable case, an edge case as to whether we’re talking about something that’s religious or not. So let’s see how the model works.

AT: Yes, well that was exactly why I picked it. Because they are adamant that they are not a religion.

DR: Absolutely, yes.

AT: So, alcoholics Anonymous is happy to call itself a spiritual . . . as embodying a spiritual path, or a spiritual way of life. They actually use the way of life kind of language, or call themselves a fellowship. So that was why I picked them. Plus, I know a fair amount about them – so it seemed like an example I could spell out.

DR: Yes. That helps!

AT: Yes. So part of what I did in the first lecture was just to show the variety of ways that we can analyse it. So in the first lecture I talked about it at the sort-of high level of itself as a group with official documents, you know, describing who they are collectively. And so I used the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions, which are their core defining documents, to analyse how as an organisation they would officially answer the big questions. They don’t officially answer the big questions, but how we can tease out their answers to the big questions based on their official documents.

DR: OK

AT: And then I indicated that we could look, we could take that analysis in two directions. We could compare it to other groups in the culture to help us better understand how they were trying to position themselves, and why they wanted to insist they were not a religion. And it’s basically because they wanted to argue that their path is compatible with any religion or none at all. But then the other thing that I showed is how we can look at subgroups within AA, or individual narratives within AA, and examine the extent to which they buy the official conception that this is a generic spiritual path. And so I alluded to some of the different commentaries: feminist, Native American, Buddhist, Vedanta – you know. There’s all these different attempts to translate the Twelve Steps into other religious or spiritual terms.

DR: Yes.

AT: So that’s the kind of thing that I was looking at in the first lecture: some of the big picture things we could do. Then in the second lecture, when I looked at the evolutionary perspective, or foundations of worldviews, I used the kind of layered approach – developing the idea that we have these evolved schemas, and also internalised cultural schemas, that can lead us to act very quickly without thinking about it – to tease apart Bill Wilson – one of the Founders of AA – what he would describe as the sort of drinkers’ dilemma, which is that they can make this conscious choice to quit drinking and then have that immediately undermined when somebody hands them a drink (30:00). And so I use that to differentiate between an enacted way of life which is, “I’m an alcoholic”, and an articulated way of life, which is, “I’m going to quit drinking and I have the willpower to do it”.

DR: Yes.

AT: In the last lecture I looked at the emergence of AA and the transformation of the alcoholic as processes of change, both of groups and of individuals. And so I used this kind of analysis to analyse sort-of the before and after, and the transition from one way of life to another.

DR: We’re getting towards time, now. So let’s switch to the bigger questions. So, we’re talking about maybe the idea of subsuming RS under a broader umbrella of worldviews and stuff – where we started. But why is this so important now? What . . . ? This has some strong resonances with the field, and issues within the field generally, I think. And it would be good to speak to that, briefly.

AT: I think I’m frustrated with the field on a couple of levels. I’m frustrated with what strikes me as a continuing spinning of our wheels when it comes to critique. We’re very good at critiquing and identifying all the problems with the concept of religion. But I don’t see that much effort being put into solving the problems. And too often I see the potential solutions, including this one, being shut down because it might undermine our departments, and so-to-speak our way of life. So even if it might be more responsible intellectually, more consistent intellectually, we want to safeguard our way of life and therefore we’re not going to go there, and we’re going to continue to spin our wheels conceptually. I find that really frustrating – although I certainly understand why we might want to protect our way of life. The other frustration, for me, is the kind of polarisation between people that are deeply committed to a humanistic approach to the study of religion and people that are trying to approach it from a more scientific or cognitive scientific point of view. And I really see myself as trying to bridge between those two. And I strongly would argue for the value of both approaches. It’s not an either/or kind of thing. So, taken together, this kind of approach that I’m talking about is designed, one: to offer a constructive kind-of option to get us beyond just critique, and second: to bridge between the humanistic and the scientific approaches. So I’d just like to see more of us engaging in both bridge-building and trying to solve some of our problems.

DR: Yes. And we at the Religious Studies Project . . . those are two issues that we – well, certainly the former: moving beyond critique is something that we’ve taken quite seriously. And the interdisciplinary . . . I mean, we feature a lot of psychology and cognitive people on. But proper interdisciplinary work that builds on both sides equally is rare. But it’s also challenging to do, I think. This is may be a legacy of the way that the field’s construed. We’re already . . . you know, I’ve had to learn Sociology and History as methodologies, just in a standard RS context. So, then, to start building in Psychology and Cognitive Studies, you know – it’s big ask!

AT: I totally agree. It is a big ask. And I’ve been motivated to do it because I find it really fascinating. So if people don’t have any kind of internal curiosity driving them to do it, then you know it’s probably going to be pretty tough (35:00). But, on the other hand, people could be more open to those who are interested in doing it. But the second thing that I think we need to be really aware of is that people in the sciences tend to work collaboratively and people in the humanities tend to be single-author type folks.

DR: Yes.

AT: And so, the more of this kind of bridge-building work I’ve tried to do, the more I’ve been collaborating. So, just in this conversation, I’ve been mentioning Egil Asprem. I’ve been working with him on this worldviews and ways of life stuff, but when we decided to work out some of these ideas for a psychology journal we enlisted a psychologist as a third author. And we’re also working on a another paper that I’m going to be giving in an evolution of religion conference, where I’m going to argue about: why are we talking about the evolution of religion? Shouldn’t we be talking about the evolution of worldviews and ways of life? But, anyway, we’re enlisting an evolutionary psychologist as a third author on that paper. So, I want to have that kind of collaborative input so that I’m more confident that the ways that we’re pushing these ideas makes sense to people who are deeply invested in those particular fields. So it’s one thing to kind-of sketch a big picture, but it’s another to present it with the kind of detail that the people specialising in that area would want to have.

DR: Absolutely. And, you know, I know this myself from the limited amount of collaboration I’ve had in terms of working with conspiracy theory scholars. Because, as someone trained in Religious Studies, I’m kind of a minority there. Probably 50% of them are psychologists and maybe 30% are political science – so very different methodologies. But very clear that the next stage in the scholarship needs to take the humanities’ critiques, and analyses, and understanding of terms together with the kind of data-generating ability, and the quantitative analysis that they can do. And so, yes, I think there’s a very timely call. And it’s probably a good place to leave, on that kind-of rousing call to action!

AT: Yes.

DR: So I’m just going to say – thanks so much for joining us today, Ann. Thank you.

Citation Info: Taves, Ann, and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Worldviews and Ways of Life”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 21 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/worldviews-and-ways-of-life/

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

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

No, Secularism is not a World Religion

No, secularism is not a world religion. That is my response to the question posed to Donovan Schaefer concerning the relationship between secularism and religion. In this podcast, Schaefer suggested that incorporating secularism as an “object of study” within the world religion paradigm could be a useful pedagogical tool to challenge it from within, but I think this is the wrong approach. The reason for my rejection of  Schaefer’s solution is not because I think incorporating secularism in the world religion paradigm would muddy the sanctity of the category, nor because Schaefer’s proposal fails some more critical definition of religion, but simply because it would only end up reifying religion even more. In my view, incorporating secularism in the world religions paradigm doesn’t challenge this paradigm from within, as Schaefer suggests, but merely gives it more life by expanding its scope and reach. Committing this error would be the same as trying to fix the eurocentrism implicit in the world religion paradigm by expanding the various cultures and histories that fall under its domain, which is exactly the same error that thinkers made in the middle of the twentieth century. In contrast to Schaefer, I would suggest that the way to challenge the world religions paradigm is not by incorporating more diverse―and possibly anti-religious―phenomenon into its structure, but by simply historicizing the category and showing how it operates at an ideological level.

To begin, let me assert that I recognize and respect the general scholarly position from which Schaefer  is coming. At the beginning of the podcast he notes that a lot of recent scholarship has challenged the idea that secularism stands in contrast to religion, and on this point he is certainly correct. In the past century, prominent theorist like Karl Löwith, Hans Blumenberg, Charles Taylor, and Marcel Gauchet have all challenged the traditional narrative that pits modernity against religion and frames Western history as an increasing process of secularization that is liberated from religion. For instance, Blumenberg tries to expose the unique legitimacy of the modern age that recognizes but does not reduce it to its Christian legacy, and Taylor takes the extreme position of suggesting that the modern secular age was brought about by developments latent in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Indeed, for Taylor, the generative seeds of modernity don’t begin with modern developments in science and philosophy but with various Judeo-Christian influences that we can trace back to the wider Mediterranean civilization from which they emerged. This implies that secularism is not some anti-religious movement in the West but is deeply intertwined with the rise and fall of the civilization that once called itself “Christendom.”

Indeed, as both Schaefer and Cotter acknowledge during the course of the pod cast, both “religion” and the “secular” are categories that emerge out of a certain “Christian”―or more broadly stated, “Western”―provenance. In regard to religion, thinkers such as Talal Asad, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Tomoko Masuzawa have all noted that it was only after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century that the word “religion” began to take on the connotation of personal belief in a subjective sense, and to denote a universal human sense or capacity for religion. In Roman and early Christian Latin literature the nouns religio, religiones, the adjective religiosus, and the adverb religios were mainly used to describe the performance of ritual obligations. This early use has more in common with the Latin Pietas than with our modern notion of the word “religion,” which has acquired the sense of inner belief or faith. The invention of religion in this modern sense took place because various thinkers―from Jean Bodin to G. W. F. Hegel―argued that true religion is a matter of proper belief, not just cultic participation. Moreover, it occurred when this idea was carried around the world by the forces of colonization and globalization, which eventually led to the normative divisions of the subject that make up world religion textbooks (i.e. the division between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.)

Similarly, the secular was also invented in the context of Christians―or Christian critics―struggling to make sense of the post-reformation world. In fact, the first modern use of the word “secular” can be traced to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which brought an end to the wars of religion. The treaty uses the term “secularity” to describe “the conversion of an ecclesiastical or religious institution or its property to sovereigns, princes or lay people.” In this manner, the secular emerged as a space of worldly authority that was distinct from, yet deeply interconnected with, Western religious institutions. From this perspective, as Schaefer notes, secularism can be viewed as “an offshoot of Christianity… as something that Christianity does.” When we view the history of the West from a broad lens it is possible to see the great schisms between the various Christian orthodoxies and the “secular” forms of thought that took inspiration from them as “part of the story of Christianity.”

Where I disagree with Schaefer is in his attempt to see these intertwined genealogies through the cross-hairs of the world religion paradigm. Once we acknowledge that the invention of religion as a universal category and its subsequent critique by the forces of secularism took place under a certain Western provenance, why would we continue expanding the scope and reach of the world religion paradigm? I agree with Schaefer that this paradigm is not “evil,” as he puts it, but it is incorrect; it does not adequately describe the phenomena, so why would we continue to expand its application? From my perspective, to do what Schaefer is suggesting would be tantamount to the same error made by Ernst Troeltsch or Ninian Smart in the twentieth century, as it would try to correct the study of religion by expanding its scope. Smart, for instance, always tried to instruct students in a “broad religious outlook” by showing how religion is constituted by cultural difference,  and I think what Schaefer has suggested would end up being very similar. Recall that Smart’s classification of world religions included not just Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, but various indigenous traditions and even Maoist communism. In this light, incorporating secularism within the world religion paradigm is no different than attempting to challenge the paradigm by incorporating non-traditional or atheist forms of religion within the classroom.

For instance, Schaefer cites the work of Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, and suggests that one way to critically challenge religion from within is by showing how there is not just one type of secularism, but multiple secularisms. Like Talal Asad and Charles Taylor, he suggests that there are different formations of the secular that emerge out of different cultures and contexts, and that they expose the diversity at the heart of our models of religious classification. In this light, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu cultures (etc.) give rise to different types of secularism, and there is even a difference between Hindu forms of secularism in India and Hindu forms of secularism in America. Now, to be fair, I do think this is a good way to understand different cultural forms in light of globalization, but why try to incorporate these secularisms within the world religion paradigm? In contrast to Schaefer, I am worried that including non-religious or atheist forms of culture within the paradigm doesn’t challenge it from within, but merely revitalizes it by incorporating more data within its fold.

To put the matter plainly, I think we need to push the genealogy and historical situatedness of religion and secularism further than Schaefer proposes. Schaefer suggests that he wants to deconstruct the world religion paradigm by destabilizing it from within, yet I don’t think he goes far enough in this regard. He is right that deconstruction always takes place within the very thing under analysis, but this doesn’t mean that we should proceed by expanding the same old reified categories at a wider level. I follow Jacques Derrida in thinking that we need to question both our students and ourselves (as scholars) whether religion and secularism exist at all outside of their Western contexts, and thereby attempt to limit their further application. In Above All No Journalists! Derrida states this bluntly when he asks what a non-Christian is doing when they say “Islam, or Judaism, or Buddhism is my religion.” Is there even a word for “religion” in Arabic, he questions? Certainly not an adequate translation of the Latin. Moreover, what really characterizes Judaism as a religion, or Buddhism? What we know for certain, Derrida suggests, is that the history of the concept religion is wrapped up with a “political and ideological space dominated by Christianity,” and that “to engage in the obscure and equivocal strug­gle in which the putatively “universal” value of the concept of religion, even of religious tolerance,” is to engage in a semantic space appropriated by Christianity.  According to this approach, deconstruction occurs by exposing the limits of traditional modes of classification and retreating from their normative application, not applying these norms to even more phenomena.

For these reasons, I would suggest that the best way to challenge the world religions paradigm is simply by historicizing the category and showing how it functions at an ideological level. I am all in favor of deconstructing something from within “in order to destabilize it,” as Schaefer suggests, but we can do this without expanding the scope of the same old categories along the way. Hence, rather than merely incorporating more diverse―and possibly anti-religious―phenomenon into the world religions paradigm, I think we need to expose the ideological forces at play and thereby challenge their application on a global scale. Schaefer is correct that there is “only so much we can do to destabilize the way that students think,” but if that is the case then let’s expose the limits of the normative forces at play by properly situating them within their ideological contexts.

 

 

 

 

How to solve a problem like World Religions? An interdisciplinary approach.

The deluge of responses to Teemu Taira’s recent RSP podcast show that “What is religion?” (and so implicitly, “What is secular?”)  remains the subject of ongoing debate that is unlikely to be resolved soon. As Donovan Schaefer explains in his interview with Christopher Cotter, however, there are considerable problems with the idea that secularism is either the opposite of religion or its absence. The subtraction story of secularism, the idea that you can simply remove ‘religion’ and be left with something neutral, is simply not true (Taylor, 2007). Secularism is itself an ideology that presents both a characterisation of how the world is and how it should be. Schaefer suggests that the conceptualisation of religion as something concrete that can be removed to leave an objective, rational base is a consequence of the World Religions paradigm and its roots in 19th Century scientific rationalism. Challenging this simplistic conception of religion and its consequences lies at the core of the Critical Religion movement. Schaefer’s interview is an invitation to explore how we can do that most effectively. How do we translate critical insights that have significant real world implications into ideas that can easily be transmitted to students and the wider public?

To answer that, we must consider why we teach about religion(s) at all.  As teachers, it is important that we both impart knowledge about our subject areas but also that we should challenge and expand the worldviews of our students to help them develop as individuals. To do that successfully we need to find a starting point that is sufficiently familiar and accessible to our students, so that they can engage in constructive dialogue. As Schaefer notes, despite its flaws the World Religions paradigm was an improvement on previous colonialist approaches and it remains a useful pedagogical tool. If people already think in terms of an implicit World Religions paradigm, then it provides a sensible starting point for teaching.

According to the latest British Social attitudes report 64% of British 18-24 year olds do not belong to a religious tradition and so ignoring secularism in the study of religion and beliefs is an untenable approach. The vocal claims of so-called New Atheists, about non-religion and ‘rationality’ should be critically examined, just as the claims of religious and other social groups should be scrutinised when they have public implications. Challenging the assumptions of these students and encouraging them to examine their own intellectual heritage is also an important step towards teaching them to understand the beliefs of those from other cultural traditions. Schaefer is correct that encouraging critical thought about secularism and religion should be seen as complimentary exercises. Exploring these topics can stimulate both academic and personal development.

Schaefer lays out two possibilities for mixing Secularism Studies and World Religions. The first option is to focus on the form of secularism that is most familiar to our students, that of the contemporary West, and to locate this secularism as part of the Christian tradition in which it has its historical roots. This view positions the Enlightenment as a consequence of the Reformation and views the split between those who accept the (more or less) literal truths of Christian tradition and those who reject them as part of a long line of doctrinal schisms. Positioning a secularism such as New Atheism in this way highlights its historically contingent nature and can lead to fruitful discussions and debates in a teaching environment. However, such an approach can be criticised for neglecting secularisms that have or could arise in other contexts. Schaefer’s second option is a better, albeit more time consuming, approach that examines secularist trends within each of the World Religions and stresses how they are all historically contingent. The choice between these two options will probably be made pragmatically, depending on both the teacher’s expertise and the time that they can devote to secularism within a broader course.

There is, perhaps, a third and more radical way that still retains the broad strokes of the World Religions paradigm but which critiques it more directly and opens up the issues and core themes for discussion during future weeks. At the risk of sounding partial, perhaps the solution is a greater integration of psychology and the social sciences into the conceptualisation and teaching of religion. By starting with the questions of why people believe what they believe, and what distinguishes religious beliefs from other beliefs, the problems of both the World Religions paradigm and Secularism Studies are placed into a wider context. Questions like how we construct worldviews and conceptions of ourselves are fundamental to understanding lived and implicit religion and other existential cultures (Lee, 2015). “What do you believe?” and “Why do you believe it?” are, perhaps, the most important questions that religious studies should be challenging non-academics to ask themselves. Answering these questions sets the stage for subsequent discussions about the differences between various existential cultures, for the diversity of religious traditions, and for an appreciation of the complex and often contradictory beliefs and behaviours of individuals (Chaves, 2010). Is it practical to introduce such an approach into a single World Religions course? Like Schaefer, I am unsure – it is something I would like to have the opportunity to try but can only theorise about currently. It should, however, certainly be possible within the broader context of a Religious Studies degree.

The danger raised at the end of the interview by David Robertson about potentially reinforcing unhelpful models of religion is real. Is the main reason that people think in terms of the World Religions paradigm because that is how they are taught religion in schools and because that is how religion is generally conceptualised in the public sphere? As Fitzgerald (2000) noted, that paradigm is beneficial to many and it is now heavily entrenched. Perhaps a more radical approach, based as much in the social sciences as the humanities, can fix that – but until then Schaefer’s suggestion to inhabit the paradigm and critique it from within is a sound option for teaching religion in higher education. It is certainly better than ignoring secularism entirely and, within a British context at least, the introduction of humanism or secularism in religious studies classrooms and lecture halls as a method of critiquing the world religions and introducing wider conceptual problems should be encouraged.

References

Chaves, M. (2010). Rain Dances in the Dry Season: Overcoming the Religious Congruence Fallacy. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49(1), 1–14. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01489.x

Fitzgerald, T. (2000). The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Lee, L. (2015). Recognizing the non-religious: Reimagining the secular. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Is Secularism a World Religion?

Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will know that we are not the biggest fans of the World Religions Paradigm. Indeed, it was James Cox’s excellent introduction to the topic back in February 2013, and the accompanying response that asked what Religious Studies should do “After the World Religions Paradigm…?” that prompted David and Chris, with some encouragement from Steve Sutcliffe, Russell McCutcheon and Craig Martin, to co-edit the volume “published in February 2016 with Routledge. Listeners will also be relatively familiar with the concept of “secularism”, “the secular” and so on – particularly from our podcasts with Joseph Blankholm on “Permutations of the Secular” and with Phil Zuckerman and John Shook on “Understanding the Secular“. Today we thought it would be an interesting exercise to weave these two strands together and rhetorically ask “Is Secularism a World Religion?” Discussion starts with the entanglement of the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’, a brief discussion of the problems associated with the World Religions Paradigm, and then moves to the pedagogical merits and challenges of teaching ‘secularism/s’ within a World Religions model. We hope you enjoy this experiment!


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


(pssst…check out these podcasts below too!)

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

Is religion ‘sui generis,? with Russell McCutcheon

Secular Humanism with Tom Flynn

The Secularisation Thesis with Linda Woodhead

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Podcast with Donovan Schaefer (28th November 2016)

Interviewed by Christopher R. Cotter

Transcribed by Catrin J. Sawford

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/is-secularism-a-world-religion/

Christopher R. Cotter (CC): Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will know that we’re not the biggest fans of the “World religions” paradigm. Indeed, it was James Cox’s excellent introduction to the topic back in February 2013 and the accompanying response that asked what religious studies should do after the world religions paradigm that prompted David and I, with some encouragement from Steve Sutcliffe, Russell McCutcheon, and Craig Martin, to co-edit the volume ‘After World religions’, published in February 2016.  Listeners will also be relatively familiar with concepts of Secularism, the secular, and so on, particularly from podcasts with Joe Blankholm on Permutations of the Secular and with Phil Zuckerman and John Shook on Understanding the Secular.  Today we thought it would be an interesting exercise to weave these two strands together and rhetorically ask, ‘is Secularism a world religion?’ So I’m joined today to discuss this question by Donovan Schaefer at the British Association for the Study of Religion’s annual conference at the University of Wolverhampton. Dr Schaefer is departmental lecturer in science and religion, in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford University and his first book ‘Religious Affects, Animality, Evolution, and Power’ was published in November 2015 by Duke, and has current projects on the relationship between emotion, science, and Secularism. So Donovan, first off welcome to The Religious Studies Project.

Donovan Schaefer (DS): Thanks a lot Chris, thanks for having me.

(CC): It’s a pleasure. So first of all, in the spirit of rhetorically asking, why are we even asking this question? I mean, Secularism is surely as far removed from the category of world religions as we can get, I mean…why are you asking it?

(DS): Yeah, definitely. A lot of recent research has actually challenged that seemingly common-sensical argument that Secularism is the opposite of religion. This has come from a lot of different directions, historical analysis, cultural studies, even a lot of work in philosophy of religion has started to challenge this idea that there is a clear line between the secular and the religious.

(CC): Mm. And, because they’re so intertwined as concepts even if you were to accept they’re-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): opposites, you’ve always got the study…the opposites within…you know, you can’t know what religion is without studying it’s supposed opposite anyway.

(DS): Yeah, absolutely.

(CC): So, perhaps it would be best to start, I mean, we’ve covered the Secularisation Thesis and a lot of these topics in other podcasts but we should start with that, so let’s paint the context in which this question is being asked then.

(DS): Sure, so the Secularisation Thesis really gets off the ground in the 19th Century and it comes from a variety of different quarters in the sort of, early movements in sociology, some of the early conversations that are being asked in science and religion, late 20th Century, sorry, late 19th Century, philosophy of religion, all of these different conversations start to thematise this idea that religion is a specific thing in the world that is gradually going away.

(CC): Mmm.

(DS): Now, in the 20th century you have thinkers like Max Weber in sociology who formalise this, they make it, they make it even more of a kind of, article of social-scientific faith that religion is on a trajectory of decline. What happens though, is that, later in the 20th Century, you have these historical moments that start to challenge the Secularisation Thesis. So something like the rise of the religious right in the United States in the 1970s in reaction to things like the civil rights movement, or the (05:00) Roe V Wade Supreme Court ruling. The religious right by the mid to late 1970s has become an incredibly powerful force and of course in 1980 you have the election of Ronald Regan with a specifically Christian agenda backing him. Or even across the world, something like the Iranian revolution in 1978 to ’79 that creates a new Islamic Republic where previously there had been a secular state. Stuff like this, it’s just not supposed to happen according to the classical Secularisation narrative. There isn’t supposed to be a return of religion, religion is supposed to be evaporating. And that puts a, it puts pressure on the classical secularisation narrative. So scholars throughout the 1980s, 1990s and up to the present have started to ask questions about the secularisation narrative and have come up with a very robust dialogue about what went wrong with the classical secularisation paradigm and what will replace it.

(CC): Mmm. And that also sort of introduces an ideological element this sort of idea-

(DS): -Right.

 (CC): –that the notion of secularisation is itself a form of ideology, it’s a sort of…thinking of the way things should be-

(DS): Definitely, yeah.

(CC): -it’s not mirroring reality.

(DS): Right.

(CC): So we’ve already alluded to even if these things are dichotomous, obviously it’s studying them alongside each other so…many of us at Universities will be familiar with the standard introductory sort of  ‘here’s a survey of world religions’ like ‘Religion 101’ or something. So I think one of the questions you’re really asking is should… where’s the place of the secular in that sort of Religion 101 class?

(DS): Yeah, exactly.

(CC): Is it a World Religion, so if we’re going to segue into that, we’re going to need to talk about what is a world religion first of all, and then ask why we might want to try and fit the secular into that mould.

(DS): I mean I should really be asking you that but my take on it is that the idea of World religions again has its emergence in the 19th Century, it comes out of these 19th Century thinkers like Max Muller who are interested in making the study of religion into a science, they want to formalize the study of religion and turn it into something that moves away from the obviously supremacist classification scheme that had been used previously in Western Europe. That said though, Tomoko Masuzawa in her book ‘The Invention of World religions’ is actually…even though she spends a great deal of time sort of researching the archives, trying to find out where this paradigm comes from. Even she ultimately says she doesn’t know where it comes from. It emerges obviously through a sort of confluence of different conversations that are taking place throughout the 19th Century and early 20th century. Where precisely it comes from is…is a little bit opaque. Regardless, what we’re left with by the mid to late 20th Century is an understanding of religions as discrete objects that can be studied in the world that have particular histories, they’re often organised under a particular heading. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and they’re very often structured around a specific text and a specific set of practices. And that structure is something that has become, at least at the level of the dissemination of religious studies in terms of undergraduate teaching, central.

(CC): Yes.

(DS): How did I do?

(CC): You did well, Sir, you did well. And it’s…Yes, so it’s sort of ubiquitous in undergraduate teaching and it’s ubiquitous in society, you know-

(DS): -Right

(CC): –we think about ‘what is your religion’ as a question that makes sense to people and then we have these certain silos-

(DS): -Right

(CC): -that we try and put that into. So yes, this has been…regardless of the origins of it this has been subjected to a number of critiques right so, it’s very Protestant, for example –

(DS): -Yeah.

(CC): –that idea of a text and it being about belief, you can only have one faith and all that sort of thing. This seemingly objective model sort of becomes Oh…that’s a little bit Protestant.

(DS): Definitely. And also something that I think we can see as being a by-product of (10:00) a particular idiom of 19th Century science. 19th Century science it’s the age of classification, it’s the age of grand theories, and that prism divides up the world in a particular way, and I think we can see the World religions paradigm as being a product of that particular way of thinking about the world.

(CC): Mmm. And that particular way of thinking about the world is deeply connected with Colonialism as well.

(DS): Definitely.

(CC): We were encountering others and then classifying them.

(DS): Absolutely.

(CC): ‘Classify and conquer’ was, I think was Max Muller’s term. And then of course it encourages this notion that there is a thing called religion that is made manifest in various forms.

(DS): Right.

(CC): So Russ McCutcheon would take great issue with that.

(DS): Yeah.

(CC): So given all that problem with the World religions paradigm why would we want to try and fit Secularism into that model. What would be the point, shouldn’t we just be jettisoning it?

(DS): Yeah, right. Well, I mean, I have a few thoughts on that. I am not…I’m not blanketly hostile to the World religions paradigm. I think that …I would give it about a six out of ten or a seven out of ten in terms of a pedagogical tool for explaining religion to undergraduates, especially if we start from the assumption that many undergraduates are only going to take one religious studies class. Is the World religions paradigm the best way of doing that? I’m not sure. But I don’t think that it necessarily is evil. However, I do think that it needs to be deconstructed from within. I think that precisely as we’re teaching students within this framework we need to be calling attention to the limitations of this framework. And part of the reason why I think it’s important to talk about Secularism within that context is because I think that it sets the stage for conversation about the World religions paradigm in and of itself.

(CC): Mmm. Yes, and the paradigm, you know, I think it was my colleague Kate Daley-Bailey described it as, you know, it’s a useful way of getting people from one side of the road to the other-

(DS): Absolutely.

(CC):– and if that’s what you need to do, you get them there. But you can also along the way be explaining to them why you chose that why of doing it if it wasn’t the best…

(DS): Exactly. Yeah, right.

(CC): Okay, so… let’s do this then. Let’s take the World religions model and let’s take the notion of Secularism. So how are we going to go about answering the question is it a world religion?

(DS): Definitely. So this is where I want to get a conversation started. I don’t have clear answers to this but what I sort of see us doing is shuffling the deck of Secularism studies into the deck of the World religions paradigm and just seeing what comes out on the other end. So I think that, in terms of a kind of structure, an overall architecture to this, there would be two ways of doing it. So Secularism studies scholars have roughly speaking two ways of talking about Secularism. One of the ways of talking about it is to say that Secularism is itself a particular iteration of Protestant Christianity, that we have the version of Secularism that we have because we are an offshoot of a cultural historical context that defined religion in a particular way. This goes back to something you were saying earlier about the inextricability of the category of religion from the category of the secular. It’s precisely because we see religion as something that is potentially private, individualised, and belief orientated that religion is something that can be relegated to the private sphere and therefore… and therefore secularised, according to the conventional definition.

(CC): Yeah. So we can see that there’s sort of like a Hegelian dialectic there even-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -look to Feuerbach, and even… you know that we produce the… yeah the… As Christianity secularized… As Catholicism changed to Protestantism that started-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -started a transition.

(DS): Yeah, absolutely. Or even like, one thing that historians and especially intellectual historians like Jonathan Z. Smith, Talal Asad, when he’s wearing that hat, or someone like Craig Calhoun, they really liked to emphasize the beginning of modernity and the immediate aftermath of the Protestant reformation.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): So you could look at it theoretically in the way that religion gets defined as something that is personal rather than corporate. (15:00) You could look at it historically and the way that the resolution to the wars of religion that emerge in the aftermath of the reformation. The political…the political compromises that are made in that wake tend to make religion into something that is detachable, it’s something that is sort of, as Locke puts it, can be kept in the private sphere rather than the public sphere. All of these…all of these…all of these details of Protestantism, whether they’re sort of, part of the DNA of Protestantism or whether they’re sort of historical accidents that shoot off from Protestantism, they make up the coordinates of what would eventually become Secularism.

(CC): Okay.

(DS): So one of the ways that I could see us potentially integrating Secularism into the World religions classroom would be to talk about it as an offshoot from Christianity.

(CC): Mmhmm.

(DS): When we teach Christianity we teach Secularism as something that Christianity does in exactly the same way as you know, depending on how many days you have for teaching Christianity, you would give a sort of capsule history where you would talk about the great schisms, orthodoxy from Catholicism, Protestantism from Catholicism and then could also locate Secularism as, in a sense, another schism, as another permutation of Christianity that is part of the story of Christianity as a World Religion.

(CC): Mmm. And indeed, some of the annoyance that some proponents of Secularism feel with that approach to my mind indicates the very importance of taking that approach-

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): –because people don’t feel annoyance unless there’s some sort of deep connection to the category that you’re talking about.

(DS): I think that’s right and especially building on that if we’re talking about teaching students in a Western/Anglo/Euro/American context, we’re going to be teaching students who are going to be coming from a variety of faith positions some of whom will be coming from a non-faith position and probably see their status as neutral. They probably see the religions they’re looking at as in a sense, under glass, as something that is disconnected from where they are. And I think it’s important for those students to recognise that even the liberal Secular idiom that they might see themselves located within, has a history. That it, even it, the agenda of that is set by a particular set of Christian coordinates. Saba Mahmood has done some really excellent work on this, talking about the way that these sort of ostensibly secular legal codes throughout Europe actually privilege a kind of ghost of Christianity, that they are marshalled in the service of defending a sort of Christian heritage and they suppress other ways of being religious.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): Even when they…they give Christianity a special sort of protection. A perfect example of this would be like the Burkini ban-

(CC): –Yes.

(DS): -that’s been happening in the summer of 2016 where Burkinis, this article of clothing that seems like it would be inoffensive enough has actually become offensive to French Secularism. Precisely because it is encoding a set of Christian presuppositions about ways that you are Secular and religious.

(CC): On that note I saw that, it was in the Guardian, they were quoting sort of, the ruling and it said it might offend the people’s (non) religious (non) convictions.

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): So your non-religious non-conviction might be offended by it, there’s something interesting going on there.

(DS): Exactly. I think that that’s exactly…I think that that’s a really important pedagogical manoeuvre  with students is showing them how even our own liberal democratic structures have a sort of conserved Christian genetic coding in them. That’s not to create an equivalence, that’s not to say that the difference aren’t meaningful, it’s just to say that we need to…we need to take a critical eye on our own intellectual inheritance rather than presupposing it’s neutral. So all of that would be one way that I would see Secularism entering the World religions paradigm… structure. I think there’s another way though, which would be equally interesting.

(CC): Mhhmm.

(DS): So one of the ways that scholars working in the mode of critical Secularism studies have approached Secularism is to say there is not just one Secularism.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): There are in fact multiple Secularisms. This is the title of a book, an anthology (20:00) by Janet Jakobsen and Anne Pellegrini, ‘Secularisms’, and this, as I see it, is coming out of these two sort of, kind of, guiding lights of the critical Secularism studies field.  Talal Asad and Charles Taylor. So Talal Asad is very interested in this idea that the Secularism that we have is a result of a particular history and he says that rather than assuming that Secularism is going to be the same everywhere we anticipate a multiplicity of what he calls ‘formations of the Secular’.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): There are different Secularisms that correspond to different historical moments, and they have different priorities, they have different coordinates, they have different outcomes precisely because their starting points, the sort of ingredients out of, the landscape out of which they secularise is different. So his sort of cardinal example of this is the difference between Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity and Islam. Protestant Christianity de-ritualises religion so its version of Secularism is a version of Secularism that doesn’t pay a lot of attention to ritual, doesn’t pay a lot of attention to practices. Asad will say, you know, when we have formations of the secular emerging out of Islamic contexts we need to be attentive to the way that they are…that they are…that they always keep an eye on practices. And the version, the formations of the Secular that emerge in these other contexts will have a different configuration. Charles Taylor calls this…he calls this ‘the myth of the subtraction story’. The myth of the subtraction story is this idea that once you get rid of religion, you’re left with a neutral landscape.

(CC): Yeah. Indeed, yeah, I’ve always thought of using a quotation from my supervisor Kim Knott who just says that there is no neutral point from which to observe religion-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -we’re participants in that discourse. So would the logical outcome of that then be that if you were incorporating that Secularism(s) into the World religions classroom that you would sort of pair off-

(DS): -Yeah.

(CC):- you would teach Christianity and Christian Secularism, Islam and Islamic Secularism.

(DS): That’s what I’m thinking of. I’m, again, I’m presenting this conversationally, this isn’t something that I’m, I’m at a point where I could publish it but I think that we need to consider this possibility that the best way to teach Secularism within the context of the World religions classroom would be exactly this pairing, to say that Buddhist secularisms, Christian Secularisms, Jewish Secularisms, even we might want to get more specific than that, like Jewish Secularism in the United States, very different from Jewish Secularism in Israel. Islamic Secularism in Saudi Arabia is very different from Islamic Secularism in Iran. To thematise this I think would be a really productive way of getting Secularism into the conversation, but also raising this idea which I think is one of the challenges that you’ve, that you’ve sort of discussed very ably in your own work with Secularism, which is the way it creates a sort of silo model as you said it-

(CC):- Mhhmm.

(DS):- of these religions being sort of ahistorical, sort of fixed compilations of ideas and practices that can be very easily, sort of clinically diagnosed as you know-

(CC):- Mhhmm.

(DS): -you know like, okay, you’ve got, you’ve got your five pillars, you’ve got Islam. That’s not actually adequate, that’s never been adequate for teaching what religion is, but it’s particularly inadequate in the context of a situation, a global situation now, of accelerating mediatisation and globalisation where transactions between different traditions are becoming more and more…more and more rich. They’re just more and more…the dynamic between different traditions is becoming deeper and deeper. And I think that emphasising that localism of Secularism would be a way of raising that to the surface.

(CC): Mhhm. And this is exactly the sort of thing that we should be discussing at this conference, the theme being ‘religion beyond the textbook’.

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): So, conclusion then. So, are you going to do this?

(DS): Yeah, I think I will. I’m not in a situation right now where I teach world religions but as I think about, as I think about that syllabus next time that that portfolio falls into my lap it’s something that I’m actually quite excited to do, precisely because of the way that I think (25:00) it, it reciprocally calls attention to the limits of both the world religions paradigm, which I think is a useful, if limited, pedagogical tool, and the Secularisation narrative.

(CC): And how do we avoid…one of the main problems with subversively employing anything, so subversively employing the world religions category, is that your critical intent isn’t really communicated to the students, again as you say if they’ve come for a one semester course and then they’re gone, they’ve gone in and they’ve done the world religions course and they’ve come out. So say they’ve come to this course and they do a world religions and Secularisms thing and then they come out with this sort of very strict siloed model on Islamic Secularism is this, Christian Secularism is that, what, is there a danger there, going down that route, you could be sort of reifying the very distinction that we…

(DS): Yeah. I think all discourses have dangers. All discourses are going to be provisional ways of organising the abundance of information that is the world. And they’re always going to have certain limitations attached to them. I think that the best that we can do is inhabit those discourses with a sort of deconstructive eye. And my hope is that among other things I think that there are lots of ways of sort of reciprocally critiquing the world religions paradigm while teaching it. I’ve tried to do that in the past when I’ve taught world religions. I think that this method of introducing Secularism as a legitimate object of study within the architecture of the religions, world religions paradigm could be a way of amplifying that technique.

(CC): Yeah. And, you know, you can only resist the dominant expectations of your students so much before they stop coming to your classes and also I can see this being a really good exercise perhaps for higher level students, just to pose the question that we’ve asked-

(DS):- Right.

(CC): –is Secularism a world religion, set it as an essay topic or something, I can see some really excellent discussions happening there.

(DS): That would be fascinating. I mean, I think too, like, I absolutely agree with what you’re saying, that pedagogically that, I mean, there’s only so much we can do to sort of…there’s only so much we can do to sort of destabilise the way that students think, but I’m also…I’m also a firm believer in the pedagogical value of inhabiting something from the inside in order to destabilise it.

(CC): Mhhm.

(DS): Rather than standing so far outside of it that students can’t necessarily see what you’re doing.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): And my hope is, and again I mean, this is just an optimism, it’s not something that I’ve actually put into play, and really I see it more of just a conversation starter in pedagogy circles than anything, and my hope is that this practice of introducing Secularism as an object of study within the context of the world religions paradigm would be a way of inhabiting that paradigm from the inside and leaving students with a very vivid impression of its own limitations.

(CC): That is a wonderful way to end. Bang on half an hour, so thanks so much Donovan.

(DS): Thanks so much Chris, this was wonderful.

(CC): Well, I very much enjoyed recording that interview with Donovan and we both were in the session where he presented that paper at the BASR.

David Robertson: Yeah I was going to mention that, there was an odd moment there. It wasn’t the best attended of sessions, I don’t think it got the audience it deserves let’s put it that way, but I think there was eight or nine people in the room of whom two, two of, were myself and Chris. And he immediately showed a picture of our book, ‘The RSP Volume’ you know, After World Religions, which you should read if you haven’t, and started attacking our argument, which was-

(CC): He didn’t attack our argument!

(DR): I thought it was wonderful, I loved every minute of it [laughs].

(CC): But yeah, it was one of those lovely moments that was sort of the first proper one in my “career” in quotation marks. And so hopefully the catchy title there will have dragged in some listeners, you might have thought ‘what, what, that’s ridiculous!’ But hearing Donovan talk about it as an interesting thought experiment, as a way of dismantling in a way the hegemony of the paradigm itself.

(DR): Indeed, and problematizing the term and its application and the rest of it, and Chris and I have talked about an After After World Religions, be it a journal or a second volume of the book, and Donovan is going to contribute to that (30:00) hopefully, if and when it happens.

(CC): You hear that Donovan? You’re under contract now.

(DR): He gave me a verbal agreement and in Scotland that’s legally binding. It was in Helsinki.

(CC): And in Wolverhampton. Same difference.

(DR): Was it?

(CC): Yes.

(DR): Oh. Either way, I’m Scottish so that’s binding.

[they laugh].

(DR): I think we may be showing too much of the man behind the curtain this week.


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Podcasts

Race, Religious Freedom & Empire in Post-War Japan

At the 2019 American Academy of Religion conference in San Diego, California, Brett Esaki sat down with Jolyon Thomas to discuss Thomas’ new book Faking Liberties and the complex intersection of religious freedom, empire, and racialization in the post-war relationship between Japan and the United States. The processes or projects of secularization, says Thomas, were instrument of American empire. By looking at the ways discourses about religious freedom regulated race, gender, and ritual practices in occupation-era Japan, we can see the double-standard of what America has advocated for abroad versus practiced at home. Thomas calls for deeper scholarly engagement with the category of “freedom” and how freedom of religious expression has been racially coded as white in the United States. It is a cautionary tale with important pedagogical and institutional lessons. If we find that discussing “diversity looks like activism,” he suggests, then “we have a huge problem” that reveals why diversity in the academy is essential for discussing secularism, religious freedom, and religion today.

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Race, Religious Freedom and Empire in Post- War Japan

Podcast with Jolyon Thomas (11 May 2020).

Interviewed by Brett Esaki.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/race-religious-freedom-and-empire-in-post-war-japan/

Brett Esaki (BE): Welcome to sunny San Diego. I’m Brett Esaki, and I’m really excited to talk about your book today. So the book, Faking Liberties, Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. It’s about a lot of things, but primarily in the area . . . about Japan before, during and after the American Occupation. But it’s also, interestingly, a reflection upon the United States and its projects abroad. So, can you briefly introduce the book’s thesis, and list a few of the items of comparison across the countries?

Jolyon Thomas (JT): Well, thank you for taking the time to do the interview. I’m Jolyon Thomas and I’m really pleased to be here. So the book’s main thesis is that there’s a story that’s been told that the United States brought religious freedom to Japan at the end of the Second World War. And, as I was looking at this history, I was really struck by the fact that it just seemed to not be true. Now it turns out that the United States did bring religious freedom to Japan, only it had brought religious freedom to Japan much earlier, in the 1850s, as part of a sort-of diplomatic package. And indeed, the concept of religion comes to Japan in that time. But the sort-of triumphalist Occupation era narrative about the United States bringing religious freedom to Japan is a really problematic story, because it sets up the Americans as being sort-of the holders of freedom and the Japanese as being these benighted people that need to be saved, or rescued, by the Americans. So I was really inspired by literature on secularism, and secularity studies, in thinking through the ways that religious freedom is a really good topic for thinking about what secularism is. But I was also trying to make an intervention in the history of Japan and the United States, thinking perhaps a little more critically about American empire. And then thinking perhaps a little bit more – what’s the way to put this? – in a sort-of radical credulity about one of these claims that Japanese people in the Pre-War and War-time period made, that Shinto was not a religion. And so one of the things I wanted to do was take that claim at face value and think, “Well, what would the history look like if that turned out to be true?”

BE: Right. And that kind-of explains one of the shifts you make from going from essentialist and functionalist definitions of freedom of religion to more of a project or claims-making. Can you walk us through that transition?

JT: Yes. So one of the things that really struck me in thinking about the Occupation era narrative about “Japanese people don’t have religious freedom”, is that it basically makes an essentialist claim, saying “Japanese people, as such, in their being, don’t get it.” And, you know, I think that many of us in the academy, in 2019, we’re well aware that we should avoid essentialising claims. But there are still a lot of them that sort-of lurk out there. They’re sort-of shambling around in our midst, right? So the first sort-of correction for that is the suspicious move to do the functionalist claim, like: “What’s really happening behind the scenes?” And I think that, for most of time that I’ve been professionally studying religions in Japan, I’ve seen more of the functionalist move where it’s like: “Well, Shinto is essentially a religion of Japanese people. And State Shinto is functionally the political co-option this benign ancient religion”, or whatever. It turns out that the scholarship has shown that both of those claims are just not accurate. And that one of things that I really push, in a more constructivist bent, is to look at who speaks about Shinto and about religious freedom, and how do they engage in projects of religion making? And so, you know, in this critical secularisms and secularities literature there’s a sort-of focus on the constructed nature of both . . . the co-constructed nature, I should say, of both religion and secularism. And so, as I was thinking through those issues, it was very obvious that religious freedom is a place where you see religion-making happening in real time. Because to free religion, people have to designate one thing as “religion” and something else as “not religion”. And so I find that to be endlessly fascinating, and fun to think through and with.

BE: So, to try and summarise that, there are these two projects of secularisation, or kind-of defining what religion and what non-religion is, both within pre-War Japan and also in the United States in its later Occupation. So it’s a nice line of comparison, having those two (5:00). So, one thing I’d like to turn to, is one of these provocative claims that you’ve made – and I think it’s actually – as the argument goes in your book – a quite tempered claim, for my view, that religious freedom and human rights have been used functionally as tools of empire – and that’s the term you use. Can you explain what you mean by that term, tool of empire? And maybe provide an example?

JT: Sure. So I think I’m not alone in making this sort of claim. And just to give a shout out to other scholars working in the field of Critical Religious Freedom Studies: Tisa Wenger‘s book Religious Freedom – I forget the subtitle . . . something about an American ideal – is . . . . She uses this idea about religious freedom. As white settlers move west then they take religious freedom with them, and it helps them occupy territory, and so forth. Writing in a more contemporary period, Elizabeth Shackman Hurd has talked about the global promotion of religious freedom, or what she calls international religious freedom. And, you know, this is something that the Trump administration takes very seriously. So did the Obama administration before it, and so forth. And the reason that this is a sort-of tool of empire is that it’s a way for Americans to do assert a certain type of moral superiority, and to . . . . Even if not dominating politically another territory and population, the language of religious freedom allows Americans to sort-of assert a certain degree of political hegemony. So in the book there are two main examples of this, I would say. Chapter Three looks at territorial Hawai’i, which is, at the time, you know, an American territory, not a state. I’m looking at Hawai’i in the 1910s and twenties, mostly. And there, under the plantation economy, religious freedom and the notion of white Christian supremacy work hand in hand. So, to make a long story very short, Japanese American Buddhists make an attempt to use the language of religious freedom, and they fail utterly. And this is partly . . . and the reason they fail is that there’s a very carefully constructed political economy of the Islands. And if Japanese people are allowed to use religious freedom, then that really calls into question the white supremacy that dominates that. And the other place is, of course, the Occupation itself. Japan is an autonomous state. It has its own sovereignty at this stage. I would say that it’s fair to describe Japan as a client state. It’s utterly dependent on the US military presence in a very conflicted way. And Japan is America’s . . . the forward base for the United States in East Asia that reflects the geopolitics of the Cold War. There’s a lot of emphasis on using Japan as a sort-of place to maintain freedom of navigation in the Pacific and so forth. All of that is to say, religious freedom was central to the Occupation project. It was one of the main rationales for why the United States needed to be in Japan in the first place. These people, we fought a war with them, they fought the war because of their religion: “Their religion was bad, we’re going to fix it. And, having fixed it, then we’re going to incorporate them under the sort-of military umbrella of the United States.” So, you know, we could parse the term empire all day. But I’m totally comfortable with thinking of America as an empire and that’s quite accurate in many respects.

BE: And we could also use the adjective empirical, like . . . things related to those goals. Can we also categorise other similar freedoms, spread abroad, with the same kind of analysis of projects?

JT: Yes, I think so. You know, other people have talked about this sort of thing. One of the things that immediately comes to mind when you ask this question is, sort-of gender and women’s rights. I think we see a lot of Americans really worked up about genital cutting and in a very complicated way. And there are a number of scholars who have worked on sort-of calling that into question. But sort-of saying like “Women need to be protected either from themselves or from the terrible men who are doing stuff”. And, of course, Saba Mahmood has talked about this sort of thing with veiling, and there are others like Rick Shweder at the University of Chicago, who have written articles on genital cutting and so forth, where there are double standards that are applied (10:00). So one of the things that I think is really interesting thinking about the US project of spreading freedoms abroad, is that we often operate under double standards, where what we do at home is a little bit different from what we project overseas. And I think that we really need to sort-of slow down, and pay attention to that dynamic. It’s insidious in its worst instantiations.

BE: From maybe my interests, and my lines of questioning, maybe you have like a presumption, maybe, of a kind-of underlying interest that I have. And that’s really your experiences of racialisation and how that informs your scholarly perspective. Now, I’m not imposing this on your book. But, in fact, it’s explicitly stated in the epilogue, you’re a multi-racial African American, if that’s the right term you’d like to use to identify yourself. And without giving away the book’s awesome finale – stated in musical form – really cool! – can you just touch upon, maybe, how your study of Asian religions, in particular, has been affected by your own experiences of racialisation.

JT: Yes. Thank you so much for asking that question. So one of the things that struck me as I was getting into the archival materials for this book, was how frequently the occupiers described themselves as white. And how they also positioned themselves as . . . they thought of America as white. And the American armed forces were still segregated at this time. America’s self-understanding was figured around whiteness. And as a non-white person, that really was jarring. But it also was one of the things that I . . . . You know, it’s part of this longer autobiography, I guess, that I share in a brief form in the epilogue, which is that if you’re a non-white person in the United States then it’s very obvious – I shouldn’t speak for all of us, but I’ll just speak for myself. It was really obvious to me growing up that when American’s talk about freedom that freedom is not extended to all of us equally. And so I saw a lot of work in the critical religious freedom literature, tearing apart the word religion. And very important to do. I saw less on freedom. And I thought that freedom was something that really needed to be addressed more directly. And to think about how there are both emancipatory and coercive qualities to freedom. And that different people, and different groups, get freedom in different ways. One of the things that . . . . So the Epilogue, as you’ve seen, is written in a very personal tone. I had a lot of trepidations putting it out there in the world. So far, when I’ve heard from people, they’ve generally . . . the response has been positive from people who have already read the book. But one thing that I notice is that a number of people said that it was . . . that my project was an activist project. And so, in the Introduction, I say very explicitly it’s not an activist project for all of these reasons. But one of the things that people are taking away, having read the Epilogue, was that this made the book an activist project. And I’ve been thinking about that recently. And this goes to your question about racialisation. Because I think that that reading is actually a racialised reading of the book. So, in other words, if I were like a white American and I close the book by being like, “Oh I went on the JET programme and I had this lovely experience in this small town in rural Japan.” Nobody would read that as activist. They would be like “Oh, that’s just a book.” Right? But because I’m talking about my experience as a racialised minority in the United States, and because it’s built into the apparatus of the book, suddenly the book becomes activist. And I think we really have to think about, you know, what sort of burden that places on racialised scholars of religion, and what we can do about that. Because – sorry, this is turning into a long rant! But one of the things that I think is that . . . . The Epilogue was designed to show, rather than tell. But it was showing the value of diversity in the academy. And if diversity looks like activism then we have a huge problem. So I think that one of the things that I really . . . like, my hope for people reading the Epilogue is that “Oh, this represents why diverse voices are valuable in the academy; this represents why we need to foster diversity in the lower ranks of the academy”, and so forth.

BE: Right. So there’s so much in there to unpack. I would like to actually walk back to more of your archival discussion.

JT: Sure.

BE: So let’s take us back into that time (15:00). You look at his archive, and then, over and over, you’re reading, with the name America, some reference – either explicitly or implicitly – to concepts of whiteness. What goes through your mind as you’re going through this archive? And again, I’m trying to help you out here, with the . . . and I do that myself, your experiences shape your lens. They don’t make your project activism. So I trying to help you articulate that process.

JT: Yes great, OK. So let me just talk about the archive in general. It’s actually multiple archives in the United States in Japan. So I’m looking at American military government records at the National Archives and Records Administration. That’s in College Park, Maryland. And also there is this fabulous collection at the University of Maryland called the Prange Collection. During the years of the Occupation, every document that was published in Japanese was censored. So, you know, there’s this irony in the Occupation to promote freedom of expression, that the occupiers censor everything! (Laughter). To promote religious freedom, they quash some religious groups, and so forth. I talk about this in great detail in the book. So the Prange Collection has all these censored documents. And then I was looking at archives in Southern California, in Oregon, for people who had been influential in Occupation policy, or active in the Occupation, as well as archives in Japan. So Government records, a lot of magazines and so forth. One of the things that I noticed, as I was going through the American military government records, was that they told a very sort-of hasty story of the Japanese past, the recent Japanese past. And their story was designed to make Japan look like it was an inferior, sort-of uncivilised place. So with the concept . . . . I want to stress the concept of civilisation here, for a second, like really spell that out. Because civilisation was the dominant frame for understanding the world in the first half of the twentieth century and the late nineteenth century. And so civilisation was basically equated with whiteness. And so any time the Americans are talking about civilisation, they’re often – if not explicitly, at least implicitly – sort-of tying this to “these people who are insufficiently white”. And, of course, those people who know the history will know that Japan has had this ambiguous status geopolitically, because Japan was an empire in its own right. Japan staved off being colonised by colonising the other countries of Asia. And that’s a very complicated history that I won’t go into in too much detail. But where does that leave the scholar? Well I felt like I had a responsibility, then, to unpack the stories the Japanese people were telling about themselves. How did they think of themselves? How did they mobilise the language of civilisation in a different way? And so, you know, at first I thought I was just writing a book about the years of the Occupation. But it turned out that I needed to write a whole half of the book that was about whatever was happening before the Occupation, to really let Japanese people speak in their own voices. And, strikingly, one of the things that happened was that a lot of them were saying a lot of things about religious freedom. And they’re laughing at the United States through a lot of it. A lot of them were just like, “Look at those crazy Americans! They are way too lapse with their laws about religious freedom! We’re going to use religious freedom, but we’re going do it our own way.” And I think that that’s a very important kind of story. And, of course, just amplifying the Japanese voices, and all of their complicated conflicted ways, is part of the project of the book.

BE: So, one thing you’re pointing to is that quick summarisation of what Japan used to be. So what are we doing now, as an American project? What was Japan before this? And one of the interesting things you point to is how they drew upon Religious Studies scholars to make this claim about what Japan used to be like. And so this actually discusses it . . . . It’s a major discussion you have about the politics of Religious Studies scholarship. And so here we have an example where . . . I don’t know if those scholars really thought of themselves as world-influencing in terms of their work. However, they ended up being it. And so one major portion of the book is called “The Occupation of Religious Studies” And obviously you have a double entendre there with the job, as well as the American Occupation. And there are some really interesting points made through this probably secondarily archival work, right? But there’s these terms of a spiritual vacuum, and also what happens after the American Occupation, the flourishing of new religions (20:00). And so this new term, “new religions and new religious movements”, and other terms that come out of there, actually come out of this definition of what Japan was like before and then what it was like after. So reflecting on these discussions and maybe – well, you can maybe parse out some of that for the Listeners. But also, maybe, words of advice about us as scholars of religion and what our potential political impact could be, based on our ways of framing religions.

JT: Great. Thanks so much for that question. OK. So I’m going to answer it by looping back to an earlier part of our conversation with the activism stuff. So the reason I said that it was deliberately not an activist project was precisely because so much stuff that I was seeing in the archive was scholars of religion adopting a prescriptive tone, saying “This is good religion, and that’s bad religion.”

BE: Right.

JT: “This is superstition. That’s real religion.” And that sort of thing. I think the category of State Shinto, which I alluded to before, it had that whole story built into it. Two-words, whole story, right? And so I wanted to be very deliberate. Of course, there’s always going to be some sort of prescription that we’re doing. But I think in general, for me, I think the first order level of prescription is about scholarly method. And if there’s an intervention I’m making in the book, it’s: how do we periodise, how do we tell our stories? Whose voices are we paying attention to? And that sort of thing. Those are the kinds of things that I think I’m very explicit about in the book. On reflection, I think I could have been even more deliberate, or taken a little bit more time to – in this case – rather than show, actually tell people what I was doing, in terms of playing with chronological presentation. The book is organised chronologically, but it’s also not organised chronologically. And that was my way of sort-of doing the historical method, but also kind-of screwing with it at the same time! But in terms of the sort-of nitty-gritty of what was happening in the Occupation – before, during and immediately after the Occupation – we have scholars of religion who are really minor until they become major, because of a sudden policy need. So the person I have in mind is Daniel Clarence Holtom, who’s a Baptist Missionary, who’s a scholar of Shinto and nobody was reading his stuff really, right? He’s completely under-appreciated. I think a small number of people are looking at him. But after Pearl Harbour the sort-of dominant narrative at the time was that Japanese people were ultra-nationalist because of Buddhism, not Shinto. And then somebody in the state department or in the Office of Strategic Services finds Holtom’s work and they’re like: “Oh my God! This guy is this expert who’s been telling us all of this stuff about why Japanese people are the way they are!” And so, suddenly, Holtom’s work has this whole new life, where it’s explaining Japanese ultra-nationalism. So this guy comes to . . . and then he ends up having like an outsize role after being on the margins of the scholarly community. So his ideas about Shinto as the national faith of Japan, and so forth, come to inform a lot of policy. This is particularly the case in the fall of 1945, when the occupiers have a sudden policy change that’s dictated by Washington. And the people in Washington suddenly announce on American public radio that Shinto, as a state religion, is going to be abolished. For the occupiers, stationed in Japan, this was the first they were hearing of it, and then they suddenly had to come up with a policy to support this objective. They had to come up with a reason to support this objective, while also protecting and promoting religious freedom. Which is an impossible task! So the only way to make that work is to designate Japan’s – quote-unquote – “national religion” as not being religion. Or as being sort-of insufficiently distinguishing between the religious and the political. How do you do that? You go to scholarly experts. So they relied on Holtom’s work, and they also relied on local Japanese scholars of religion, particularly this guy Kishimoto Hideo, and were asking them to basically support this for ordained objective and sure enough by 15 December of that year, of 1945, you get this document called the Shinto Directive, which formally abolishes this thing that they have now come to call State Shinto. And one thing I just want to put here – a sort-of asterisk to all of this – is that the language of – quote-unquote – “State Shinto” doesn’t solidify until December 1945. It is not something that is widely used, in Japanese or in English, up until that point. And that’s really crucial (25:00).

BE: And, in the book, you do a really good job of pointing out the kind-of lineage of the debates within Japan about the relationship of religion to the state. And so, it’s very clear from that there is no solidification of the State Shinto idea. So I think what this is actually . . . it’s bringing it back to, maybe, one of the earlier points about racialisation. So instead of it being an activist work, it’s really –and you can rephrase this how you want – your experiences shape your lens. That lens would be obvious . . . that lens is obvious to anyone who’s had similar experience of racialisation. On the other hand, maybe another scholar would take some of these assumptions about State Shinto for granted. Can you maybe loop those together? Like, how your own experience of racialisation allows you to break free of that presumption that the previous Religious Studies scholarship was fully accurate.

JT: Yes. Thank you so much for that question. OK, so I’m going to sort-of build on what we were just talking about with State Shinto, and tie it to this other concept that may be lurking in some Listeners’ minds, which is civil religion. OK, so Robert Bellah starts off, as I understand it, Talcott Parsons tells Robert Bellah, “You’re going do Japan” And he writes this book, Tokugawa Religion. And then he ends up shifting focus, and he ends up the being one of the major sociologists of American religion and so forth, and we’re all very indebted to him. One of the things that . . . one of his most influential essays is about Americas’ civil religion. And I think one of the things that a lot of people forget – maybe a lot of our Americanist colleagues forget – is that Bellah’s experience studying Japan directly affects his civil religion essay. And there’s even a footnote in that essay where he’s like: “I’m not talking about an American Shinto” – which I think says exactly what he’s doing. Right? There’s a sort-of proleptic quality to that that I think is really, really telling. So there are maybe one or two pages in Chapter One, where I’m talking about how Bellah, writing in his time – 1967, I think it is – he’s capable of telling a story about America’s civil religion that picks a set number of saints and heroes and monuments and so forth, and he’s talking about things like national sacrifice. But look at who he’s including and not including. There is no mention of blackness. There is no . . . like, black people are not present in this stories.

BE: Let’s repeat the date.

JT: 1967. Yes! Exactly! And so it’s just utterly striking. And so I’ve had a number of colleagues say, “Well, actually, shouldn’t civil religion be helpful in talking through your critique of State Shinto?” and I want to say, “No!” I want to flip the table over and say. “No. This is not helpful. Because Bellah was both using a racialised notion of Japan to tacitly to build his argument about American civil religion. He was rejecting what was going on in Japan to say, “Well, what we do is actually really good. And it’s the healthy stuff that bonds us all together.” That’s exactly what Japanese people were saying about . . . what they did not call State Shinto, but they called like the Imperial Way or shrine rites, or whatever. They had lots of different names for this stuff. And, you know, one of the things that Bellah’s . . . I mention this explicitly in my discussion of Bellah’s piece. But there’s no reference to Martin Luther King. There’s certainly no reference to Malcolm X, I mean can you imagine?! Right? But these are people who were speaking in prophetic voices. They were talking about the problems of the American project. There’s . . . and so, I think, to answer your question directly, I see that because of the way that I am, and because of the circumstances of my embodiment. I’m sure that . . . and I would not say that a white person would not see that. I want to be very clear here. But I think that because of growing up with this sort of ambiguous racial identity, as a multi-racial person, it’s always been sort-of in my face. I’ve never been able to not think about race. And so it took me a long time to figure out why I was so dissatisfied with the civil religion explanation. And it actually wasn’t until very late in the book that I finally came up with an answer for it. But it has to do with this issue: the circumstances of who I am, the nature of where I was born, how I grew up and all that stuff affects how I approach the archive, and so forth (30:00).

BE: Thank you so much. One more thing. And this is just like a nuts-and-bolts thing. So, we’ve discussed all the origins of the creation of the term State Shinto. Yet still . . . and I have to admit it, for myself, when I ‘m doing an Introduction to World Religions, there it is: the term State Shinto’s there. And you discuss it. Is there a nuts-and-bolts better way to describe what was happening in pre-Occupation Japan?

JT: Yes. I think we just need to talk about Japanese secularism. I describe it as a secularism. I describe what I call the Meiji constitutional regime as a secularist system. It’s premised on the distinction between “religion” and “not religion”. And I mean that in two ways. There’s like the forbidden not religion, which is things that end up being called superstitions, and so forth. And then there are the permitted or even encouraged not religion, which is the compulsory shrine rites, where you’d get a bunch of school kids to go to the shrine and pay their respects, or, like, bow to a picture of the Emperor. That’s secularism. That’s what’s happening in America too, at exactly the same time. There’s a sort-of a sense. . . . This is what Bellah would call America’s civil religion. But I think it’s actually much more complicated than that. I don’t want to reduce things to religion. I want to maintain the complexity of the language games that people play, in terms of parsing things as being religion or not religion, right? And I think that collapsing everything into the category of religion actually misses part of the point. So it is not my job to police what other people say. I know that I will be shouting into the wind, and there are going to be people who insist on using the term State Shinto. But I really think that, historically, it’s just inaccurate. And so if you’re in the classroom, you’re teaching your world religions class or whatever, what do you do? Well, use Japan as an opportunity to talk through the issues of secularism more broadly. Say, “We used to tell the story this way. Our text books or readings use this term. But you know, this is actually reflective of a different sort of politics of good and bad religion. Let’s talk about that. Let’s tie it to contemporary things. Like, when people are saying ‘Islamism’, what are they doing?” I argue in the book that Islamism is basically like the State Shinto of our day. It’s taking something and describing it as being illegitimate, just by adding that “ism” to the end. And I think there are a lot of other example that we could use. That’s the one that immediately comes to mind. So, you know, in one of your earlier questions you asked about the sort-of impact of scholars of religion. And one of the things that I do in the last chapter of the book is to show how these things – categories like State Shinto, for example – they have echoes. And they continue to influence the academy, our classrooms, policy-making and so forth. And so, if we can attend to the moments when those categories are developed historically, if we can pay attention to the politics of that moment, then we can also pay attention to how those echoes are working in our contemporary moment. It’s not to be presentist. It’s just to say that there are problems in the State Shinto concept, so let’s deal with those.

BE: Well, thank you so much. You’ve given us a lot to think about: religious freedom, secularism, secularisation, the concepts we use, the politics that we – either implicitly or explicitly – work through as Religious Studies scholars. So, thank you so much for your time today, and your excellent work: Taking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American Occupied Japan.

JT: Thanks so much. I really enjoyed your questions and the conversation. I really appreciate it.

 

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Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System

This second interview with Timothy Fitzgerald covers his later work, from Discourse on Civility and Barbarity (2007) and Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (2011). In these works, thinking about the historical development of the category “religion” leads to consideration of other ‘modern’ categories which make up the colonial epistemé. If religion is deconstructed, where does that leave the other categories that use or rely on it? What happens to its common opposites like “the secular”, “science”, “liberalism” or even “politics”?

Fitzgerald argues that this mutually-dependent signalling system largely emerged in the late 17th century.  As rhetorical terms expressing specific class interests and aspirations in concrete situations of power, this system of signals originated in the context of the ancient regimes and sacred Monarchies of Christian Europe. Since then, each category has been continually contested, with shifting and unstable meanings. Now they have become so capacious and universalised that they have no clear boundaries, and we cannot properly distinguish between them. Yet these ideas have, over time and through repetition, become normalised and neutralised such that they appear as common sense. Today they form the basic categories for the organisation of our institutions, including academia and universities.

Listen to the first part of David G. Robertson’s interview with Timothy Fitzgerald on The Ideology of Religious Studies here: Episode 322 “The Problem with ‘Religion’ and Related Categories”

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Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System

Podcast with Timothy Fitzgerald (16 March 2020).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/empty-signs-in-an-automatic-signalling-systerm/

David Robertson (DR): I’m here with Tim Fitzgerald of the University of Queensland, where he’s a visiting research professor. This interview follows on from his recent interview, entitled “The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)“. And at the end of that interview we had talked about his fieldwork in India, and his time living in Japan, and how this had led to him writing The Ideology of Religious Studies. And central to that was an attempt to kind-of pin down and locate this category religion. Maybe you could pick the story up for us there, Tim?

Timothy Fitzgerald (TF): Yes. Sure. I mean one of my targets, when I was in Japan, was the religion industry – which was applied to Japan itself in the form of the study of Japanese religions – and the difficulty in actually identifying what constitutes a religion in Japan – which was also the problem about what constitutes the non-religious secular. And a lot of my work was aimed at trying to show there is this basic contradiction between the study of religion – whether that’s by Japanese or non-Japanese scholars – and, you know, the actual problem of locating it. And the problem of religion is therefore the problem of the non-secular, and how we ended up with this idea that there is a religious world of the Japanese which is somehow distinguishable from the non-religious world of the Japanese. So this led me to look, historically, for the source of this binary that we have in this religion-secular construction. And that led me back, actually, to the seventeenth century in England. And I started doing a lot of reading on . . . well, not only the seventeenth century, but going back to the sixteenth century. The post-Reformation discourse on religion was really what I was looking for. And what I found was that right the way through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – and I think that this is true going right the way through into the 18th and 19th and possibly up to the present in certain respects – is that the dominant meaning of religion was our Protestant faith. And it was a male literate construct of our Protestant faith, in a world where faith does not mean a weak form of belief. Faith is Truth, fundamentally. Christian Truth. It was a claim about Christian Truth. And the opposite of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and coming on much more recently, was not the non-religious secular. It was pagan irrationality, superstition and barbarism. And so what you have is not some dichotomy between the religious and the non-religious, but between True religion and a whole number of practices which are being discovered around the globe which look like a kind of mistaken attempt at finding God, from the point of view of the Christians. So these are superstitious practices. And what interested me, at what point did that discourse on religion as Christian Truth, or Protestant Christian Truth, become re-defined as religion as a private inner personal practice which is completely distinct from government? You see, the thing is that when you go back into reading these texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there’s no such distinction between religion and non-religion. And this is actually the research that led up to a book I published – two books that I published – in 2007, one was Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories (5:00). And the other was an edited volume which came out of a conference I organised at Sterling, which was called, Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations. And in that collection of essays I published a chapter called “Encompassing Religion, Privatised Religion and the Invention of Modern Politics”. And that theme, privatised religion, encompassing religion and the invention of modern politics, is central to Discourse on Civility and Barbarity. And it represents in some ways a move forward from The Ideology of Religious Studies. Because it’s actually looking at the historical documents that can guide us, or suggest to us, what are the circumstances in which somebody – i.e. someone like John Locke who was probably the most powerful inventor of the modern religion/non-religion dichotomy in my view – John Locke, but not only John Locke – there were plenty of others who were doing it – who were rhetorically redefining what the term religion means, in order to formulate a theory of government in which government is free from the domination of religion. And that introduces many, many interesting problems. Because what you have is, from the time of John Locke going into if you like the Enlightenment . . . . I’m not going to leave the Enlightenment untouched by critique as a term but, for the moment, let’s think of the Enlightenment in the general sense that we do typically think about it, which is a lot of men (mostly men – I didn’t come across any female texts at this period but no doubt there may have been some, but it’s mostly men) who wanted to have the right to accumulate private property, and for that private property to be clearly their property, and not to be invaded and tampered with by the sacred monarch. We have to remember that when John Locke was writing in the 1680s and 1690s this was a time of enormous turmoil in England. We’d had the execution of the previous king, King Charles 1 in 1649. We’d had the Putney Debates in the 1640s, which were very radical and which were questioning a great deal of the status quo. After the execution of Charles 1, in about 1652 I think it was, Hobbes published Leviathan. And in Leviathan you find several references to politics, the noun-word politics. And in John Locke’s essays on government and his other writings, his essays on toleration, for example, you get references to politics, by which he means government which is not dominated by religion and which represents the interests of male private property accumulators. And this was formulated in terms of natural rights. And there are a whole string of natural rights which were argued for. But these were really rights formulated by men, many of them Non-Conformists who were chafing against the restrictions of the sacred monarch and his court, and the Established Church that legitimated the sacred monarch, performed the coronation ceremonies, gave him the legitimation to do what he liked, basically. He was an arbitrary monarch. He was portrayed as a tyrant by the people who wanted to free up government from the control of this particular ideological complex of the sacred monarch. We can call it the Ancien Régime, to generalise it. Because France was in a very similar situation where you have a closed hierarchy of classes, which is born into land ownership and born into status, and it’s basically a fixed order of divine conception (10:00). And the sacred monarch is the heart of the nation. The sacred monarch is God’s appointed and anointed representative on earth. So the sacred monarch had enormous powers. And there were a lot of people at this time who were Non-Conformist, who didn’t believe in the Established Church and who didn’t believe in the sacred monarch. It was very dangerous to say so. Now John Locke was one of the most powerful and influential writers to question the status quo of the time, and to try and redefine what a number of terms really mean. And religion is obviously is one of the most important. But you see, I can’t find a consistent discourse on the noun-word politics in English before around the middle of the seventeenth century. The most consistent, in developed discourse on politics, that I can find is in John Locke where he defines politics as a government not representing the arbitrary power of a sacred monarch, but governments protecting the natural rights of Englishmen. And this is gendered. I’m using the expression Englishmen because women were not really much in the picture.

DR: And it’s not all men either, is it? It’s the wealthy, landowning classes. So it’s not only gendered, but there’s class in there as well.

TF: Oh yes, definitely. Because, of course, one of the great sources . . . the new sources of private property at this time was from the enclosures. And the enclosures were where legislation, bills, were passed in the House of Parliament – which is the legislature – in order to transform a piece of common land into private property. Now common land was land which for centuries had been conventionally shared in ways which were determined by local customs, you know. But there were very definite ways in which people subsisted on common land. Often a lot of the most poor people in feudal society, they were working part of the time for the local master, the local lord, but they were also working for their own subsistence. And they had common land to do this on. Now when that common land started disappearing through the Enclosure Acts, land that had been shared by different classes of people according to different conventions and customs was now being enclosed and declared to be private property of an individual. And I think this is very significant, because these enclosures were continuing right the way through the seventeenth, the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century. And more and more people were being deprived of their traditional subsistence, and were being forced out into homelessness, and poverty, and starvation. And you get, during that period, you get a growing problem of vagabondage – huge numbers of poor people who were being turned into vagabonds. And these vagabonds were despised by the owners of land, because they were a living source of disharmony, and conflict, and discord. And they were treated really badly. And there was a parish system of which was called the Poor Laws, where people without any kind of subsistence had the right to seek help from various parishes. And the parishes were supposed to give them help, and food, and various other necessities. The Poor Law system was becoming very overburdened because there were more and more poor people who were calling on it. And this created resentments from other people. So you get a very messy situation. Now what’s happening to all these vagabonds, all these poor families that are being turned off the common land and no longer have anywhere to subsist, any land to subsist on? Well gradually – especially during the eighteenth century, they’re going into the new industrial centres and becoming wage labour (15:00). Before that, a lot of them were becoming wage labour, agricultural labour. There was a huge growing agricultural wage labour. So the people who lost subsistence land were losing their conventional ties to the old estate system, the old feudal system, and were becoming like loose cannons. They didn’t have any place in any kind of system or structure. So they were becoming, as it were, peas out of a pod. They were rolling around the place, and looking for work, and often going into the growing craft centres. But they were also working as agricultural wage labour. So that was one of the complex processes, but a very definite process that was occurring as part of what I would describe as the emergence of Modernity. And it’s important to realise that the natural rights that these men were proclaiming – from John Locke and many others going right the way up to the natural rights of the declaration of independence, and the US constitution, and beyond – these natural rights were habeas corpus: you can’t be arrested without being charged with some crime, you have to have access to a lawyer. Another right would be to express one’s views in public, the right to publishing, and so on. But I think that the key right was the right to accumulate private property. And to have that private property represented in parliament. So if you traced the way that parliament and government changed during the second half of the seventeenth century, going on into the eighteenth, you get, increasingly, the idea that the real function of parliament is to represent the natural, inalienable rights of individual private property holders against the predations of the sacred monarch, against the invasions of the tyrant prince, against arbitrary taxation, and these kinds of things.

DR: It’s not a liberty in some abstract, metaphysical sense. It’s the liberal order: the freedom to own property without interference from, as you say, from the divinely appointed monarch.

TF: Yes, I think that’s true. I think that that was . . . . Because, after all, not only through the Enclosure Acts but also in this colonial situation which was burgeoning, more and more money could be made out of colonial production – including the slave trade. I mean, the men that we’re talking about who were demanding representation in parliament on the basis of property qualification, these were often the same men who were not only benefiting from the enclosures but they were benefitting from the plantations and colonies that were being established. For example, in North America, John Locke had very specific interests in the Carolinas. William Penn, who was another rather like-minded Non-Conformist – he was a Quaker – was the founder of Pennsylvania. Both of them were people who loved to write bills of rights. They were the inventors of bills of rights and constitutions. And their bills of rights and constitutions were actually adopted in the Americas. And what they were demanding was, again, they wanted government that represented natural rights – but particularly the natural rights of white, male, private property accumulators – including, of course, the salve trade. I don’t think William Penn was involved in the slave trade.

DR: No. But George Washington certainly was!

TF: Yes, absolutely. And so was John Locke. I mean, John Locke had investments in the Africa Corporation or whatever it was called. You had the East India Company (20:00). But there were also other companies dealing with specialised areas of trade. They were royal charters, but they had private investors. And I think it was the Africa Company that was very much involved in the slave trade. So I mean these men, people like John Locke, they were ambitious. They wanted private property, they wanted to accumulate and they wanted representation in Parliament. I think an awful lot of the 1688 Bill of Rights and the invitation for the Protestants from Holland, William and Mary. . . this was all involved in consolidating this new view of Parliament. Now, you mention the word “liberty” and that’s a very important one. Because liberty was a term that comes up in the Magna Carta in the 1215. And I think there was a second Magna Carta in 1225, or something. Liberty is central to the Magna Carta. But that was in a very, very different situation. The liberty that was being demanded then was the liberty of powerful nobles, with their own private armies, demanding liberties from the king. Well in the beginning of the seventeenth century, Sir Edward Coke, who was a very effective jurist, he began to really do a lot of work on this term liberty, and to extend its meaning in a way which became much more useful for the situation in the seventeenth century. And the meaning of liberty became very much to do with the liberty of being represented in Parliament – your own natural inalienable rights being represented in Parliament. Particularly, it was about property. I mean, you could call it the democratisation of property, but I think it was a new system of private property whereby land became commodified in such a way that it could be bought and sold for cash. And we’re talking about the land which was derived from the enclosures. We’re talking about the theft of Irish Catholic lands by Cromwell, who took over . . . . He took over with him a man called Sir William Petty who was a polymath, a brilliant guy. He was good at just about everything. And he was taken over by Cromwell as the Land Surveyor General of Ireland. And he measured out a great deal of land in measured plots. He devised a method to measure plots of land, so that it could easily be quantified, valued, bought and sold. And the methods that he used were actually used on a much larger scale by Thomas Jefferson in the 1780s, when they started surveying the land systematically from the East Coast, going right up to the Appellations. And later it would go much further. But these are vast tracts of what they thought were empty land. Actually they were Native American lands. But the Native Americans didn’t think that any individual could own land. It was completely inconceivable to them. So these empty lands were being measured out in saleable plots by Thomas Jefferson and a whole team of land surveyors. So what you have is not only the emergence, the birth, of a global private property market in land, but private property in capital. I mean, private property can take a lot of different forms. And going back again to John Locke, John Locke was involved in the founding of the Bank of England in 1694. This seems to me to be . . . . The founding of the Bank of England seems to me to be as important to the invention of religion in its modern dominant sense as a private, personal, communication with God which has nothing to do with government.

DR: Well I think this is what’s so fascinating about Discourse on Civility and Barbarity, particularly, is this analysis of the historic development of the category of religion and its others. In fact it leads to a clearer idea of the function of this category which is to normalise and mystify the processes of colonial power and the power of land owners (25:00). But what’s interesting is that that mystification has been so successful that despite these being historically contingent, and shifting, and unstable, and sometimes empty categories, nonetheless it makes up this contemporary episteme in which we live and in which these ideas have become so normalised. And not only normalised and neutralised, but the actual basic organisation of so many of our institutions – you know, aspects of law and of parliament and academia and just everyday speech.

TF: Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. I think that there is a process where a number of narratives or stories are being told. For example, “man in the state of nature“ – which was a story told slightly differently by Hobbes, by Locke and later by Rousseau. But man in the state of nature, it seems to me to be a complete fiction but which nevertheless had great rhetorical power, because it invented a kind-of an original human nature which is of the lone, individual survivor – kind-of savage survivor – using his native intelligence to accumulate everything that he needs for himself and his family. And, again, I’m using gendered terminology because, after all, it wasn’t woman and the state of nature, it was man and the state of nature. And women don’t . . . they usually get included in family. You can imagine this noble savage, or just let’s say this savage, surviving through the wit of his own native intelligence. And providing for his family against the competition of other individual savages who are also trying to grab what they can for their own ends. And this is a completely unrealistic picture. We know from anthropology . . . . Anthropologists who have studied say hunter-gatherers know that this is completely not as humans groups survived or prospered. They didn’t survive as competing individuals. But this idea of man and the state of nature puts that on the table in a powerful way. And it’s aimed against other alternative versions. For example, John Locke. The first of his treatises on government is an extended critique of a man called Sir Robert Filmer who wrote a book called Patriarcha. And Patriarcha is . . . it’s actually a very powerful representation of what was considered to be an orthodox Christian Protestant, post-Reformation – but pre-Modern, I would say – view of the world. And basically it’s this enclosed, hierarchical, fixed system in which everybody knows their place. And the whole is harmonious as long as everybody does what they’re supposed to do, at whatever level of the organisation they operate, whatever their status is. And man in the state of nature was a deliberate attempt to subvert this idea of the harmonious hierarchical, patriarchal society, and to introduce the idea that we’re all in our real, natural souls individuals who are struggling to survive, and we do it through our own native intelligence. And those of us who have the higher intelligence will be able to accumulate more. However, the people who were in this situation at some point came to realise that this is all so fictitious that they needed a system of rules that protected each other’s property, so that if there was any contestations over property rights then the rules could be used to sort them out (30:00). And, of course, the rules were the laws which we needed a government to represent and to enforce. So government or politics ought to be about the representation of laws that defend the various natural rights that such as private property. So this is the fiction of the contract theory of government. You start with man and the state of nature. How do human beings get out of the state of nature? Why they make a contract with a particular form of government which will look after the laws that ensure that their property is kept safe and that whoever owns what gets their just rewards. That’s a completely new . . . this idea of government completely dislocates the old one. I mean, it was both heretical and treasonous. And that’s why John Locke, and other people who argued like him, had to keep escaping from England and going to Amsterdam to get free of these charges of heresy or treason. So this is what these narratives do, it’s that they explain what the real meaning of other ideas are. Liberty – the real meaning of liberty comes through these narratives. And the term “liberal” is another one that begins to crop up, which I’ve done quite a lot of work on. So I think that . . . does that . . . ? Sorry, I’ve rather lost myself! Does that answer what you were mentioning?

DR: Yes. Well, what I want to do now is kind-of step up a level, and sort-of think a little more broadly about this . . .we can call it like cognitive colonialism, or this modern episteme, where terms like religion, the secular, liberal, liberalism, politics, where these kind-of make sense. And you’ve described these as being “empty signs in an automatic signalling system”. And I wondered if you would tell us a little about what you mean by this?

TF: OK. Well, I mentioned to you that in the last session that I found that there were so many references for religion, so many things are religious that the term seemed to lose any specific meaning.

DR: Right, yes. There’s a religion of everything!

TF: There’s a religion of everything. So it’s become the generic abstraction with very problematic boundaries. It’s very difficult to know what cannot be included in this term. But on the other hand, you’re getting the development at first of a very minority Non-Conformist idea that religion has a very specific meaning, which is that it to do with your own inner devotion and worship and your own morality and your own concerns with life after death and it has to be clearly distinguished from another domain which is about the government of this world, according to laws. And particularly the defence of the private rights of individuals. So but then, at the same time, you find that all of these terms, as they get used in more and more rhetorical situations throughout the eighteenth century, they all develop the sense of losing their original fairly concrete meaning and becoming inter-generic categories. So that today, not only do we have a religion of everything but there’s a politics of everything. So politics, it seems to me, is a noun-word which is actually invented in the second half of the seventeenth century, to talk about a particular form of government which was both treasonous and heretical at the time, but which has become so generic, so abstract, there is now a politics of everything. There are political systems everywhere, and at all times in history. And this also leads onto the question of political economy. Because you know the term political economy is also around from an early time in the seventeenth century (35:00). And by the time of Adam Smith, say, in his Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776, political economy is itself a discourse: there is a subject called political economy which is emerging in the eighteenth century. So the question of where does politics end and political economy begin becomes important. And I couldn’t find . . . I’ve done a lot of research on the history of the term political economy, and I can’t find. . . . There doesn’t seem to be a solution to this. And then in the late eighteenth century, early nineteenth century, you get the term economics breaking off from political economy, and becoming a subject of study in itself: a science of economics, classical economics, liberal classical economics. So economics becomes defined as its own area of expertise. But what is, actually, the area itself? How do we define economics, and distinguish it from political economy, or simply politics? You know, what part of economics can be distinguished from politics, and what part of politics can be distinguished from economics in modern discourse? So that was another problem. There was also. . . I came to realise that what was happening from the late seventeenth century is that a number of terms which have a kind-of typical deployment, were becoming abstracted, and reified, and turned into generic abstractions. And one of them was history, which I’ve more recently been doing a lot of work on. You know, you get an older term, history, which had, if you like, local meanings referring to the genealogies of kings and great events, heroes, local memory, all sorts of things in history. But by the end of the eighteenth century you’ve got History with a capital H emerging as a scientific study, and it’s become Universal History. You know, it’s the History of the World: Turgot in 1751. He was a very influential French philosophe. He developed some really interesting writing on the idea of the progress of the human mind through universal history. I mean, look how far we’ve come – the progress of the human mind through universal history. Progress – you can’t think of history without progress. The modern dominant idea of history as a professionalised academic discipline was born in conjunction with the idea of progress. Not only does history seek to find how we progress – the route by which humans progressed from the past into the present state of European Enlightenment – but also history comes to be a sign of progress. In other words, only Euro-Americans are advanced enough to come to realise that there is a history of the world, a universal history, which is the history of the progress of the human race up until that point in history – i.e., the leaders of this progress, the European philosophes, whether they’re in France, or Germany, or Scotland, or England or North America, or wherever. So you get all of these terms which are increasingly problematic. You’ve got religion, politics, political economy, economics, progress, history. You’ve also got the term “modern”. Well what does modern mean? Where it did come from? You’ve also got the term “the Enlightenment”. Again, I’ve done quite a lot of research into the concept of the Enlightenment. And what I’ve found is that nobody can agree on when the Enlightenment began. Nobody can agree on when it ended, if it at all ended – some people think the Enlightenment is still going on. Nobody can agree on which the most important thinkers were – which is interesting because some come straight to mind, but there’s enormous disagreement among experts on that – nor on what the fundamental ideas of the Enlightenment are. In other words, all of these things are contested (40:00). But the term the Enlightenment, like the term modern, like the term progress, like the term history, like the term religion, or politics, or political economy, we use them as though it’s obvious what they mean. So it seems to me that what’s happened is that they’ve . . . that the rhetorical history, if you like, of these terms, has progressedly buried the history of conflict, contestation, the indefinability of all these terms, and they have become as it were just unitary signs which we can deploy automatically, without thinking about their history of conflictual contestation and so on, without thinking about what they mean. We can bury a whole number of very problematic aspects of these generic categories by simply deploying them as though they’re signs in an automatic signalling system. And in fact, I would go further, it seems to me that we are more operated on than operating. I mean these signs, these general categories, operate our texts. In fact they constitute our own subjectivity to a large extent. Our idea of ourselves as being autonomous agents – which actually feels like an inherently intuitive experience of myself as an autonomous agent, but is very much dependent on this whole ideology that has been constructed out of these empty categories . . . of which the individual may be one of the most empty. So this is how I move from talking in a kind-of Dumontian sense of the configuration of modern categories. I was influenced by Durkheim‘s attempt to describe collective symbolic representations in his work on totemism. I’ve been, to a certain extent, influenced by the idea of the expression meta-categories and meta-narratives of Lyotard. I have probably been influenced, largely unconsciously, by semiotics deriving from Saussure, possibly Derrida, but I’m not directly indebted to them at all, because I didn’t come by that route. I think, probably, I’ve absorbed through the skin a great deal of the influence of these writers and thinkers. But basically, I came to this idea of signs in a signalling system through just looking at these categories and trying to work out what they are, what they mean, what their range of applications is, what their origin was and how they were used in the origin, and how they’re now used. Does that make sense?

DR: Very much so. And I think it’s a perfect place to wrap up. I think you’ve summarised . . . . And it was nice that you brought it back to where we started, actually. That’s nice. But I just wanted to say thanks for speaking to us today, Tim, and sharing your ideas with the RSP.

TF: No, it’s a pleasure. Thank you very much for having me. And I hope we can continue this, because there’s a lot more to be said . . .

DR: Oh, absolutely! I’m stopping because we’ve run out of time. And that’s literally the only reason. But we’ll definitely organise another conversation soon.

TF: That’s brilliant.

DR: Thank you so much.

TF: OK. Thank you very much, David. Thank you. Nice to talk. Very good to hear from you.

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Narrating Secularism in the Continental Philosophy of Religion: Onishi and the Enduring Consequences of the Secularization Thesis

Building largely from the thesis he developed in his 2018 The Sacrality of the Secular: Postmodern Philosophy of Religion, Bradley Onishi in his interview with David McConeghy outlines the rejection of the secularization thesis in the philosophy of religion, as well as its implications for the study of religion more broadly. For those not familiar, the secularization thesis is the contention emerging from the work of Max Weber, which insists that modernism’s trajectory toward greater rationalism will invariably lead to greater secularization. Along with a chorus of scholars in fields ranging from the philosophy of religion to behavioral economics, Onishi makes a clear case for the heuristic futility of the secularization thesis, primarily because it overstates the modern subject as a rational maximizer.

In this conversation, Onishi’s original contribution emerges not from his critique of the secularization thesis, but rather in his ability to diagnose what the failure of the secularization thesis implies for the delineation of subdisciplines in the study of religion. Put simply, Onishi rightly notes that scholars of religion conceptualized the ideological distinctions between the fields of the continental philosophy of religion and philosophical theology prior to understanding the limitations of the secularization thesis. More than a trivial historical observation, Onishi’s insight cogently explains that several of the now-defunct core premises of the secularization thesis remain present in how scholars of religion justify why it is that philosophers of religion must not learn from the religious traditions they study—at least without falling prey to the common critique of becoming a crypto-theologian.

Though Onishi is himself not guilty of this, his analysis raises one of the most persistent concerns I have held for the narration of religious affiliation: namely, the insistence that many people who are not religious, upon closer examination, hold the same core attitudes that are the hallmark of religious experience. Framed otherwise, though I agree with Onishi’s critique of the secularization thesis, there remains the problem of the precedent that the secularization thesis poses for how the conversation regarding secularization functions in the first place. That is, if one identifies the secularization thesis as the status quo against which contemporary scholars of religion are to rebel, then even the most critical and generative analysis will leave secularism in a default position of hostility against religion. To be clear, this is not to suggest anything about compatibility models for science and religion, such as from Ian Barbour. Rather, what is consequential in this conversation is the how such a point of departure narrates the direction of the ideological hostility itself.

Above, the interior of the Nottingham, England Pitcher & Piano, which is housed in a building that was a Unitarian Church from 1876 to 1982. While Pitcher & Piano has 18 locations in the UK, this is the only one in a former house of worship. Image from the Pitcher & Piano website.

Put simply, Onishi’s analysis of post-secularity leaves me with the lingering suspicion that scholars of religion still retain the understanding of secularity as encroaching upon the territory of religion, and not the other way around. On this point, I must be careful not to overstate my concern. It is not so much that I view Onishi as arguing for a problematic understanding of the religious as prior to secularization; it is abundantly clear that his intention is more accurately to destabilize a facile binary between the sacred and the secular, which includes offering a more generous possibility for secular persons to participate in various forms of enchantment that were previously monopolized by faith traditions.

The problem as I see it is that this method of framing the evolving relation of secularity to religion presumes that enchantment is a primordially religious experience, which religious persons generously share with secularists who were just persecuting them. Allow me to explain.

Though I recognize that such a reference may risk placing me firmly back within a modernist framework where the secularization thesis reigns unchecked, on this matter I am continually haunted by one of the most compelling charges that Freud offers for conceptualizing the relation between religious and scientific Weltanschauungen—a bit of text that I foregrounded a recent volume with. In his New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Freud interrogates the relation between secular science and the religious worldview in the following way.

The struggle of the scientific spirit against the religious Weltanschauung is, as you know, not at an end: it is still going on to-day under our eyes. […] Religion may not be critically examined because it is the highest, most precious, and most sublime thing that the human spirit has produced, because it gives expression to the deepest feelings and alone makes the world tolerable and life worthy of men [sic]. We need not reply by disputing this estimate of religion but by drawing attention to another matter. What we do is to emphasize the fact that what is in question is not in the least an invasion of the field of religion by the scientific spirit, but on the contrary an invasion by religion of the sphere of scientific thought. Whatever may be the value and importance of religion, it has no right in any way to restrict thought—no right, therefore, to exclude itself from having thought applied to it.[1]

One does not have to accept Freud’s critical vision of religion qua wish fulfillment to be persuaded by his account of the relation between secular science—of which Freud believes psychoanalysis is a part—and religion. More modestly, the historical priority of religion’s dominance should not suggest that any conflict with secularism is always a form of secular aggression as understood by the secularization thesis. Rather, Freud suggests, it is completely possible that science and secular persons are merely asserting their right to have space to breathe and carry out their work without impedance from religion. Any claim that secularism is encroaching upon religion is nothing more than a deluded persecution complex.

I offer the Freudian critique not to concern troll Onishi and McConeghy’s genuinely riveting interview. I broadly agree with Onishi’s conviction that being a secular person does not make one a secularist, that it is possible to hold an enchanted secularity, and that the decolonization of the philosophy of religion will be vital for clarifying these possibilities. My question, more concretely, is how we as philosophers of religion can create space for secular persons to be secular, without the presumption that any claim to meaning and enchantment is somehow co-opting religion. Practically speaking, this has little to do with secular persons feeling they have permission to be enchanted; anecdotally speaking, no secular person in my world feels particularly compelled to get approval from religion before they engage in a ritual practice, for example. Rather, as a philosopher of religion who is also not afraid to learn from faith traditions—some of which I unapologetically participate in—I am more specifically irked by scholars of religion such as Paul Tillich who narrate secular persons as facing a pathetic ultimatum: acquiescence to the meaningful domain of religion, or resignation to nihilism.

This is, naturally, a deplorable framing—one which I know Onishi and McConeghy would also reject. My suspicion, simply, that there is likely a parallel problem between the task of rejecting the secularization thesis, and the tired problem of overcoming metaphysics in the continental philosophy of religion. In other words, once the conversation is framed in those terms, even the most creatively valiant efforts to subvert them will only ever reaffirming their flawed premises. If my suspicion is correct—it may not be—then this is in no way an indictment of Onishi’s project. Rather, it is a worthwhile struggle with which I sympathize. I am grateful for his labor here.

[1] Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1965), 209-10.

The Sacrality of the Secular and Philosophy of Religion

“It’s possible,” says Professor Bradley Onishi, “to hold an enchanted secularity” if we stop thinking of secularism as mere rationalism. In this week’s podcast, we hear about the ways in which philosophy of religion has thought “with” religion rather than for or against religion. Tracing alternative models of secularity through Martin Heidegger, Geoges Bataille, and others, Onishi calls on us to rethink how the philosophy of religion can help religious studies find different ways to frame the categories of secular and religious. As a resource in the academy, he says, religions themselves provide ways to question our basic assumptions about what religion does for us and look at our normative assumptions about anew.

 

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Atheism, New Religious Movements, and Cultural Tension

Extensive research has been conducted in exploration of the American religious landscape; however, only recently has social science research started to explore nonbelief in any detail. Research on nonbelief has been limited as most research focuses on the popularity of the religious “nones” or the complexities of alternative faith expressions such as spirituality. Through two studies, one qualitative and one quantitative, Dr. Christopher F. Silver’s research explored how nonbelievers’ self-identify. Study 1 (the qualitative study) discovered that individuals have shared definitional agreement but use different words to describe different types of nonbelief. Through thematic coding, a typology of six different types of nonbelief was observed. Those are Academic Atheists, Activist Atheist/Agnostics, Seeker Agnostics, Antitheists, Non-Theists, and the Ritual Atheists. Study 2 explored the empirical aspects of these types related to the Big Five Domain, Ryff Psychological Well-Being, Narcissistic Personality Inventory, Multidimensional Anger Inventory, Rokeach Dogmatism Scale, and intersections related to religious and spiritual ontology.

If you enjoyed this podcast, check out Chris Silver’s podcasts about grad school and academia with “The Unlikely Academics” here.

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


Atheism, New Religious Movements and Cultural Tension

Podcast with Chris Silver (8 April 2019).

Interviewed by Kris Black.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Silver_-_Atheism,_New_Religious_Movements_and_Cultural_Tension_1.1

 

Kris Black (KB): How many kinds of atheism are there? Are there different kinds of atheists, different kinds of atheism, and what’s the deal between new religious movements, non-religious belief and cultural tension? Dr Chris Silver joins me today – and welcome, Chris!

Chris Silver (CS): Thank you!

KB: We’re here to talk about your wonderful previous work and your current work in atheism and new religious movements. Why don’t we just start with visiting briefly your previous work on the six different type of atheism?

CS: Sure. Well, I should also mention I got my start as one of the assistant editors of the Religious Studies Project!

KB: That’s right!

CS: Back in 2011-2012. So it’s strange to be on the other side of the microphone.

KB: In the other chair! (Laughs).

CS: Yes. It’s really weird so hopefully I don’t embarrass Chris, David and Tommy. So here goes, guys, I’ll try. Yes. So a number of years ago Tommy Coleman and I . . . Tommy Coleman’s now at Coventry University in the UK, a former both under-grad and graduate student of mine. I was in the process of working on a doctoral degree in Learning and Leadership at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga and was really, really interested in a sort of fallacy – particularly in psychology but even wider in sociology – that some others had about atheism and agnosticism. So, for example, you’d see a lot of surveys and you’d have all, you know, where people would identify their beliefs or their religious and spiritual associations. And you’d always see “atheism” and “agnosticism”. Sometimes you’d see “none”: n-o-n-e-s, or “unaffiliated”. But, you know, with that community growing – we’ve seen this in Pew Forum and . . .

KB: Fastest growing demographic.

CS: Yes. So it just bothered me because, you know, I thought there was more complexity there, and I was afraid that by us collapsing all that variability into a nominal variable we’re missing some richness that could be captured. But through the inquiry I wasn’t exactly sure what was going to be the most efficient way to do that. So I’d both say that I was blessed to do this study, and I also apologise profusely! Because when you’re the first person to try to do something like this you don’t know what you’re doing! So I don’t ever claim that it has predictive power, although we have got a lot of anecdotal feedback from atheists and agnostics saying that it really resonates. So anyway, we set out originally, Tommy and I did, and we conducted a series of interviews with people from all around the US and we started discovering exactly what . . . . We started finding very common themes.

KB: Themes of non-belief?

CS: No. Of non-belief and how they identify to others, you know, other things like their opinions of religious believers and how they interact with them. And how they interact with families. And so what we did was we sort-of did a mix of both grounded theory and then sort-of social constructionism with a little sprinkle of phenomenology on top!

KB: (Laughs). That’s nice!

CS: And basically we’re trying to look at what is the shared reality. Initially we set out to try to find what terms of identity they used. But we failed miserably!

KB: (Laughs).

CS: I mean, because everyone had a different (understanding) depending on who they were reading. If somebody was reading Sam Harris or somebody was reading Dawkins . . . everybody had . . . . They used the (same) terms, but the definitions were radically different. But the sort-of diamond in the rough here was, when we said “Alright, well, if we don’t have agreement with the terms, we’ve got to do the definitions.” And all of a sudden, just cleanly, these themes started emerging of agreement. And so all of a sudden we started finding that there are attitudinal behavioural dimensions common among different kinds, including like how they saw the world and those kinds of things. So Tommy and I – who’s an editor of the RSP, I believe, still – he and I then started thematically pulling those together and sharpening them.(5:00) And so, for a second study, we then started using various psychometrics like the Big Five and the Ryff Psychological Wellbeing Scale. We used the Rokeach Dogmatism Scale.

KB: Oh, right.

CS: And yeah. So when we made all these measures we ended up finding some decent effects between the different groups, and significant differences and different aspects. And so it was cool. And so we actually promised our participants, you know . . . . We shared the results. We set up this webpage so that they could see what their efforts went towards. And all of a sudden one of the participants, it turned out, was actually a journalist.

KB: Oh?

CS: And he picked up our results. And the next thing you know we’re on the Christian Post, CNN and I mean . . . I didn’t know what to do! And we had some wild stuff happen! Like, first of all, some folks mispresented our work – but I still appreciated the shout out! Like the Christian Post, for example: their leading head was, “Atheist Might be Standing Next to You in Church”!

KB: Oh! (Laughs)

CS: Because one of our groups that we found was this, what we call “ritual atheist agnostics”, which are basically their atheists but they still . . .

KB: Right. Active non-believers.

CS: And since then, there’s been evidence in the Netherlands, and a few other places, that have found similar patterns.

KB: Yeah. So what was the name of that? If someone wanted to find out about that article . . .

CS: I think we, what did we call it? Atheists and non-belief . . . six types. . . (Correction: The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative)

KB: Six types of atheists and non-belief?

CS: Something like that. I’m a terrible scholar! I can’t even remember my own work!

KB: (Laughs).

CS: But yeah. It was in that. And so it’s been published. It’s in, most appropriately it’s actually in Psychology of Religion and Mental Health (Correction: Mental Health, Religion and Culture)

KB: There you go. In that journal.

CS: Yes. And so that’s a good international journal. So it’s not Tier One, but they do some really great interdisciplinary work. And that’s why we went for them versus some of the others, because we wanted to have a wider range . . .

KB: A wider audience . . .

CS: Even though they may not have as many readers, they have great interdisciplinary work. So, perfect.

KB: OK. So what was the feedback that you got from that?

CS: So, you know, we’ve had . . . interestingly, not one secular community ended up really . . . and I mean secular in a broader sense . . . . I mean, a lot of folks said that it resonated with them. I got invited to the Center for Inquiry at Buffalo, New York, to present. I’m very humbled by that. I’ve been invited to various universities around, to sort-of share some of the results.

KB: Oh, that’s great!

CS: And of course, I always lead with the disclaimer that this is just an attempt, it’s not going to be perfect. I’m sure that there are amazing statisticians out there who could do light years better cool stuff than I ever could. Originally, the goal that Tommy and I had was to start the conversation.

KB: And that’s what it’s done.

CS: And Tommy’s gone on to do some really, really cool stuff in atheism. He’s written some very powerful pieces in terms of theory which have been really good, so I’m incredibly proud of him for that. Also I’ve got my graduate student now, who just presented, actually, on concealment and disclosure. He just created a non-belief concealment scale and has had really robust results, regional differences that are really interesting. I’ll use the stats terms and then put it in English. It’s got a really interesting factor structure, which means that there’s very clean sub-scales that are there, that have been used.

KB: So you can project trends?

CS: It’s like an institutional kind of concealment, versus a personal kind of concealment.

KB: Right

CS: And so, warmly received by sociologists and psychologists. He’s got some really good feedback, but also, people went: “Yes! This needed to happen!” So, really proud of Cameron Mackey. I should mention his name! Because I’m very, very proud of him. This was his big day. He did a good job.

KB: Wonderful!

CS: And so, yeah. I’ve been very, very lucky.

KB: Yeah. Well, I’m sure that work will take on even more projects in future. So we’ll look forward to that.

CS: I hope so.

KB: That would be great. OK. So let’s just shift a little bit now to your current work on the new religious movements, and the cultural tension that’s happening between religious belief and non-belief.

CS: Yes. (10:00) So for a long time – and I need to give a shout out to some other colleagues who have been working on it – for about since 2000 I’ve been working with colleagues from Bielefeld, Germany, on . . . research originally started on faith development, but we’ve actually shifted to faith styles. We’ve got a number of books as well. There’s academic publications on the topic. So my shout out would be to Dr Heinz Streib who’s at Bielefeld University, Dr Barbara Keller who’s at Bielefeld University, Ramona Bullik who’s been a long time on the project manager and she’s been working on her doctorate at Bielefeld. And then, of course, I was academically born and raised by Dr Ralph Hood. And so I’ve been working with him since the early days. And so we’ve collaborated with Bielefeld now for eighteen years. That’s half my life! And so we’ve got to co-author a book. And you’ve got to realise in my mind I’m a nobody! So I mean, seriously, I really am. I’m not saying that like some kind of “humble start” or something. I really am nobody. So we did a book on spirituality. Multiple chapters of qualitative quantitative, mixed methods design. And we’re working on some other . . . . We’ve got two more books in the works that we’re working on right now, as well as a couple of manuscripts. But we’re actually going to do a longitudinal study of people’s changes in their belief and faith. And we’ve actually been able to find some of the original participants from eighteen years ago!

KB: Oh, wow!

CS: And then we’ve also got some, over the years, that we’re tracking now. So we’ve had generous funding from the John Templeton Foundation, we’re now actually going to some pretty heavy, longitudinal, mixed-methods work. And I’m sure you can appreciate how that’s a massive thing. . .

KB: Yes.

CS: So one of the things I’ve been looking at is, I’ve been interested in social cohesion and how ideology sort-of signals group membership. And so this is sort-of a spin-off of Streib, Keller and Hood’s work but it’s not to say that it is there work – and I want to make sure there’s some clarity on that – although I do have their support in terms of the data analysis and things I’ve done thus far. But the way that the theory goes – and there’s been some preliminary findings already – is that, if you think of . . . I assume the audience is probably mostly academics and theologians, social science researchers,

KB: Students.

CS: Students, yeah. If you think of a particular cultural context anywhere – it could be Utah, it could be Tennessee, it could be New Zealand or Africa – you’d sort-of accept the fact that there’s this cultural norm of a particular tradition which is, like, in the middle – they’re not really controversial, or anything like that – but everybody knows this is the norm, right? We’ve actually theorised that . . . we call that group in our book . . . . Well, we borrow from David Bromley’s work on apostasy and style of exit from back in the early 2000s. But we call that an “integrated” group, meaning like, they’re just culturally . . . there’s virtually no social tension. So that group could be Methodists in Eastern Tennessee, it could be Mormons in Utah. It’s whoever the norm is in that geographic context. Then, the more you’re sort-of moving away from the centre of the bell curve and you start moving out into the maybe say . . . The bottom line is, we’re starting to move away from the norm that you get in that middle area. We call those “accommodating”. It means they participate in society, but there may be certain behaviours, rituals, attitudes, beliefs; something that still makes them stand out just enough to create cultural tension. But they still tend to participate. So if you think of being, say, Mormon, you know, in Southern Georgia, right? So, yes, you go to church on Sunday like everybody else, but you have this additional theology which they would go . . . they’d look at you a little . . .

KB: Mmm. A little suspect.

CS: (15:00) Like in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is where I’m from, an example would actually be the Seventh Day Adventists. They’re actually pretty common, because they’ve got a university there, they’ve got Seventh Day Adventist churches but in their mind, they think that others, of course, are judging them for being a little different. Sometimes they aren’t and sometimes they are. But that would be like an accommodating group. But then – and this answers your question – there’s what we call “opposition” groups. Which are broadly called subversives. These are groups that have no real interests in participating in the larger culture. In some cases they make their own micro-culture, so that they sustain themselves and they try not to participate as much as possible. An example I would use is, in Chattanooga we have this group called the Twelve Tribes. They started there. And they’re a new religious movement. I don’t like the term cult because it now . . . while in the sixties it was used as a sociological term, it now carries this media stigma. Quite frankly, there are some incredibly wonderful people that I’ve gotten to know in that tradition. But yeah, their beliefs are very much different from others. And so oppositional doesn’t mean that there’s something bad about them. It just means that they plainly stand out from . . .

KB: From the norm.

CS: So the way . . . so my modification, where I’m going with this theory, is that I believe that much like a bell curve, the more you get out on the tails the more distance there is between the members, in position. I actually have a view that the more a group differs from the norm, the more social tension there is – and therefore, the more likely that there’s going to be inter-group prejudice.

KB: Interesting.

CS: This is my argument

KB: Within both groups?

CS: Yes. Because, if you think about it . . . . So, if you think of the bell curve and the mean’s right in the middle, one side would be like religious and spiritual groups, right, that are inter-normative – everyone accepts they’re part of the culture, I mean, yeah, you get a weirdo now and again, but most everybody’s, you know, pretty cool. But then you start moving out, and you start getting into not only more fundamentalism, and more sort-of . . . if you think about institutional and structural authoritarianism, rigidity . . . depending on which discipline of sociology or psychology you’re using, there’s different terms.

KB: (Laughs).

CS: But the more you’re moving out to the tails: a) the more protective you are of your group and you’re looking for any signal – be it verbal, behavioural – but you’re trying to look for authenticity of who’s in your group, versus those that are outside. Right? So the more you’re out this way, the more prejudiced you’re going to be of the norm. But here’s the other thing: from the norm’s perspective, the more prejudiced you’re going to be of the outside.

KB: Right.

CS: Now, that’s only one side of the bell curve. So, then, think about the other side of the bell curve. This is where we get into spiritual. So, folks who are spiritual, not religious. They’re not trying to half-identify with something. But it’s moving into a more individualised belief system as opposed to more structural. So, you know, as you’re moving out you start getting into non-affiliated, religious nones, agnosticism and then atheism. Here’s the beauty of it: it’s like the bell curve plots one side on the other. In theory the tension should be the same, the behaviours would be the same, the attitudinal dimensions of rigidity would be the same.

KB: Yeah. That’s fascinating!

CS: And from our six types data we already know that anti-theists are just as dogmatic as fundamentalists!

KB: Right.

CS: So the point is, we’ve already got some evidence of this. And when I say we, I mean . . . this is, of course, where I deviate from my colleagues although I hope it doesn’t create confusion that they’re doing this too. They’ve been very kind and given me some of their data. But what’s interesting is . . . I will give a shout out to Dr Streib that he has this measure called the “religious styles scale”. It predicts these categories really well. And what’s funny is, he didn’t make the scale with this intention.

KB: Oh really? But it fits perfectly?

CS: Yeah. So we did . . . . I’ll give the stats term and then I’ll translate in English. So what I did is, I did binomial regression which allows us to create group identity. So, essentially, you’re predicting nominal identity and you’re looking to see, what are the certain measures that contributed to variants of that prediction? So, “Does a measure predict the group?” in English. Sure enough, at least with the integrated and accommodating groups, it’s good and it’s strong. And so there is some interesting potential there. So one of the things I’m going to speak about tomorrow is that I actually think that the oppositional should be the same way. I mean, you’ve already got some clean evidence. (20:00) We’ve already got somewhat related evidence in some of these other studies that not just me, but some much more brilliant people like Cotter, Lois Lee, Ryan Cragun, definitely, on the atheism side. And even on the new religious movements’ side, you look at Gordon Melton, again Bromley, shout out to Lorne Dawson who was one of my professors when I was at Milford Laurier University, a long time ago. They’ve got some really interesting stuff that does seem to parallel what I’m suggesting.

KB: It sounds like you’ve got a really good theoretical lens, a good foundation there, a really good base that you can . . .

CS: We’ll see what happens! But, again the problem I have is there’s so many brilliant people out in the world, but I still feel compelled to study it. So what I’m trying to do . . . before . . . I was trying to do it as just me, but then I started to collaborate with other people, because that way they can help me. And I’m also completing a doctorate in social psychology at the University of Tennessee Knoxville and I’m working with a wonderful advisor by the name of Dr Michael Olson who does dual process theory research which is cognitive . . .

KB: Oh, right.

CS: And what I like about what I’m working on here is that it taps into some of that. So there’s this sort of . . . if you think about it in social terms, you know, when somebody’s so radically different than you could have these sort-of feelings of disgust for somebody that’s so radically different. Not to mention anxiety, prejudice, anger, sadness. And so, interestingly enough, my current dissertation – as soon as I get it proposed and can start pulling data (almost done – the proposal, anyway!) – is to actually study high status individuals like Christians, mainly integrated Christians, who believe they’re stigmatised.

KB: Ah. Yes.

CS: In the post-Trump era we’ve seen some . . . but it’s been around for a while, this theory. But I want to look and see, you know: do we see the same kinds of psychological patterns for someone who is high status, who has enjoyed “privilege” to use the sort-of liberal term . . .

KB: And by high status you mean like someone who’s been the norm, who’s already experiencing circumstantial privilege?

CS: That’s right. They’re in the norm. They’ve enjoyed privilege but then at the same time, for whatever reason, they feel like they’ve been discriminated against. But mainly, the big thing is that if they lose status will they self-report feeling stigmatised? And so we have an experiment where we actually tell them they’re losing status, versus a condition where we say they’re not.

KB: And kind-of see what the reaction is?

CS: Yes. So, we’ll see.

KB: I know there are some groups who use persecution and loss of status as a kind-of confirmation of themselves. Is that the kind of thing . . .?

CS: Yes. That’s kind-of it, it’s interesting. But we’re also going to look at white males, too. So that way we’re not just making it about religion. We’re going to see, what do white males believe? And again there’s some at least preliminary correlational data that seems to indicate that some people feel this way. It’s not to say everyone who’s Christian feels that way, or every male. But in (audio unclear), because I’m an Appalachian kid, so I’m from the country – I’m sure you can’t tell from my accent at all!

KB: (Laughs). No.

CS: But the other side of it is that you think about those who’ve grown up in Appalachia, in extreme poverty, and they’re being told they have privilege. And so that creates a certain interesting level of cognitive dissonance. So how would the person who’s grown up in that environment, how would they respond to sort-of diversity initiatives, and what is that there? It’s not a judgement that I’m making. I’m just saying that from a psychological perspective, what does that look like socially?

KB: Yes. And what does that mean out in society?

CS: Absolutely. And so when you have a West Virginia coal miner who’s supporting Trump, you know, who’s like “We’re going to bring coal back. And we’re going to . . .” you know. And because I think in some ways . . . I think I can say this with some certainty, from my own anecdotal experience, is that they feel like they’ve not been a part of the national narrative.

KB: Right. They haven’t been part of the network. They haven’t had that status.

CS: That’s right. And so, if you define privilege in terms of things like seeing themselves on TV – absolutely. The definition works. But if we talk about in terms of opportunity for employment, opportunities for resources (25:00) . . .

KB: Power to make change.

CS: Education access. In many respects I see very similar patterns with my students – my undergrads, at least – those who are first generation college students from Appalachia, and some urban folks. Now, the urban folks probably have more adverse kinds of challenges but the point is, I gave a diversity talk one day at our university, about dual process theory (Thankyou, Dr Olson!). And what was fascinating was, was I’d made this similar argument and would you believe after I gave the talk I had a number of folks who were sort-of the minority advocates, and – wait for it – conservative opinions and beliefs, all come up and say that they agreed with my view.

KB: Wow!

CS: Radical positions that were like, “Yeah. What you said makes complete sense.”

KB: It really resonated with them.

CS: And what was crazy was – remember this is post-Trump – they were talking amongst themselves about how they agree about their socioeconomic inequities, and that is what brought them together. And they actually had a constructive conversation. I almost cried!

KB: Yes.

CS: Because, when you think . . .

KB: Well and that’s what I was wondering about this polarisation, that there is such a big divide. Is there a place for that type of coming together?

CS: Yeah. And I think we’re . . . I’m totally pulling a Chris Silver and going down a rabbit hole, I’m sorry!

KB: (Laughs).

CS: But I think we’re in an interesting moment here in history. Because for the first time, not only do we have access to any information we ever wanted, we’re highly diverse, we interact with far more people than any of our ancestors ever did. So there’s interesting both social, cognitive, evolutionary . . .

KB: On every level.

CS: Yes. So we’re at a weird nexus in history and I think, for some of us, we’ve moved too fast. And I think some of the things we’re seeing is that they a feel that they don’t have a voice, but also I think they haven’t had time to adjust to all the change.

KB: Right.

CS: And in many respects some changes need to happen and they’ve got to make that change. But then at the same time . . . I think a lot of this uncertainty and fear that we have about change is also driving some of our closed-minded attitudes. And I’d say this from not just the right but also it’s now on the left.

KB: Awesome

CS: But it’s an interesting time. It’s a really interesting time. So cultural tension, for me – I ‘m going to circle back round – cultural tension, for me, is a really interesting aspect and that, to me, how we signal to others our group membership, it’s no longer about discourse, it’s about tribalism.

KB: Ah. Wow!

CS: Sorry I’ve just . . .

KB: Fascinating stuff here! Really look forward to reading more of your work. And best of luck with your dissertation and your continued success with Six Types of Atheism.

CS: Yes, I don’t know what we’re going to do next. I’d like at some point to talk to more intelligent people. Might buy Ryan Cragun a beer!

KB: There you go! (Laughs).

CS: Chris Cotter would be interesting.

KB: (Laughs). Alright. Well, thanks for joining us!

CS: No, thank you again. And shout out to all my old buddies at the Religious Studies Project! Thank you, guys.


Citation Info: Silver, Christopher and Kristeen Black. 2019. “Atheism, New Religious Movements and Cultural Tension”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 8 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/atheism-new-religious-movements-and-cultural-tension/

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

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

The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia

Estonia, the northernmost of the Baltic states, has a reputation of being one of the most secularized countries in Europe. Although the visibility of religion is rising, being ‘not religious’ is still considered normative. Estonia is a context in which notions and debates on religion, atheism, and indifference are interrelated in complex ways with the history of Estonian nationalism, and two foreign religious-secular regimes: German Lutheran and Soviet Atheism. In this interview, Chris and Atko Remmel discuss why the Estonian context is – or should be – interesting to scholars of ‘religion’. What happened during the Soviet era? What about the academic study of religion in Estonia? How did the strong connection between Estonian national identity and ‘atheism’ develop? How does this play out in the contemporary context?

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ 2018 conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, and concludes by looking ahead to the 2019 EASR conference in Tartu, Estonia.

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


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


The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia

Podcast with Atko Remmel (28 January 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Remmel_-_The_Study_of_Religion_and_National_Identity_in_Estonia_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): The Estonian case in the study of religion is something that we’ve not really talked about very much on the Religious Studies Project. But I am speaking to you right now from the EASR conference in Bern where I’ve been hearing quite a bit about it. I’ve heard some papers, and it was even mentioned quite a bit in one of the keynote lectures yesterday. And so I thought it would be fantastic to get Atko Remmel, who I’ve known for a number of years now, onto the RSP to talk about the Estonian context, the study of religion in Estonia and some of the complex intersections between religion, non-religion, nationalism in this context that’s sort of been dominated historically by two foreign religious secular regimes: the German Lutheran Church and Soviet atheism. So first of all, Atko Remmel, it’s my pleasure to welcome you to the Religious Studies Project.

Atko Remmel (AR): It’s nice to be here. Thank you for having me.

CC: It’s an absolute pleasure. Just to say, Atko is senior researcher in Religious Studies and also a researcher in Cultural Studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia. And his work discusses religion, religious indifference, national identity and more, in Estonia, which is set as I’ve indicated, to be one of the most secularised countries in Europe. He has a number of publications in this broad area, including one called “Religion Interrupted: Observations on Religious Indifference in Estonia“, which is in a book, in which I and a number of RSP friends have chapters, that’s called Religious Indifference: New Perspectives from Studies on Secularisation and Non-religion, edited by Johannes Quack and Kora Schuh. And Atko is also the PI on one of the Understanding Unbelief projects, looking at Estonia. But we’ll not be talking too much about that just today. So, many of our Listeners out there may never have really thought much about the Estonian context at all. So, perhaps the way to start would be a broad introduction to Estonia, I guess, in relation to religion. A potted history! Away you go!

AR: Well, Estonia is a small country, by the Baltic Sea – one of the northern-most Baltic countries. And yes, it’s known for its very far-reaching secularisation.

CC: Yes. So we’ll be talking a lot about that in a moment, but the study of religion in Estonia: is that something relatively new – like Religious Studies, at an academic institution?

AR: Well actually, no. But to answer this question we have to look back into history. So, during the Soviet Union the only possibility to study religion was within the framework of Scientific Atheism. And another possibility was Folkloristics, where folk beliefs were studied as a part of national heritage. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Scientific Atheism of course faded away. And the Study of Religion was newly established under the label of Theology which, in Estonia, is an umbrella term for both Theology and the Study of Religion. And this, I would say, in the early days was more influenced by theological thinking. But in the last decade it has moved towards the Study of Religion. And the focus is on religious change, new religious movements, but mostly it’s still about Christian churches and their relationship to the state. And apart from that, religion is still studied under the discipline of Folkloristics, which in the Estonian context is another umbrella term that covers anthropology, ethnology, ethnography, but also folkloristics in its traditional sense. Since Estonia is in a bit better position than other Finno-Ugric nations that were incorporated into the Soviet Union, my colleagues have a keen interest towards their religious situation, language and so on.

CC: And of course, we’ll be hearing at the end of the interview, I hope, about a certain conference that’s going to be happening in Estonia, hosted by the Estonia Association. So it’s clearly been something that’s developing there. You mentioned the Soviet times there, and I suppose anything that we’re going to talk about in the rest of this interview will probably require a bit of historical contextualisation. So the stereotype we have is obviously (5:00) Soviets were not a massive fan of religion – suppression – end of Soviet time – maybe some sort of resurgence. But let’s . . . . Give me an actual picture.

AR: Well, it’s correct that the usual understanding of Soviet anti-religious policy is understood as something monolithic that was uniform from the start to the end. But actually, there were quite big changes in religious policy. And in some periods it was harsher, and other times less harsh. And after the Second World War, during Stalin‘s reign, the question of religion was sort-of secondary. But it changed radically under Nikita Khrushchev, who initiated an anti-religious campaign that lasted from 1958 until 1964. And in Estonia this policy had three main directions: the first one was so-called administration of the churches, which meant that different kind of legislative restrictions and direct control over the inner life of Churches; the second one was ethics propaganda for newspapers and lectures; and the third one was the development of Soviet secular rituals, to substitute religious rituals. And I would say that this administration and secular rituals were most effective. And as a result they manged to create an interruption in religious tradition, and to get rid of religion from public space. This, of course, didn’t mean that they managed to turn people into atheists. And, apart from the years of the Khrushchev anti-religious drive, atheist propaganda was actually not very visible. And atheism was one of so-called “red” subjects closely associated with the hated Soviet ideology. And also the level of atheist propaganda was quite low. And therefore it didn’t appeal to people. And so the result was widespread indifference both towards religion and atheism – like a sort of ideological vacuum, which was filled with all kinds of things when the Soviet Union finally collapsed. And this actually explains why Estonians, while considering themselves not religious, have a plethora of different beliefs and practices and so on, which are usually – in student terms – alternative spiritualties.

CC: Excellent. Thanks for that. This might be putting you on the spot a little bit. But, just for those of our Listeners who aren’t familiar with the dates, could you maybe give us the key dates in the 20th century, in Estonian history?

AR: In Estonian history . . . . Well, Estonia was at first occupied by Soviet forces in 1940, then again in 1944, then Joseph Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev was pushed aside in 1964, and then finally the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

CC: Fantastic. I just wanted to make sure that we got that in there. I guess if our Listeners have seen “The Death of Stalin” they might be familiar with Khrushchev.

AR: Yes.

CC: Excellent. So you’ve already alluded, there, to the suppression of religion and how this, maybe, largely succeeded in the public space. But a lot of your work, then, has been focussing upon contemporary surveys, and how effective this might have been on individual lives. So, let’s get specifically into your own research. You might just want to tell us a little bit about your research journey – the kind of questions that you’ve been asking – and then, what it can tell us about religious indifference, non-religion. And then we’ll get onto this national identity element, as well.

AR: Well . . . long story short. I started out as a historian and my PhD thesis was on the institutions that were involved in Soviet anti-religious policy. It was mainly archival work. And by the time it was finished, in 2011, then the research on non-religion was already booming. (10:00) And then I got interested in how this Soviet background influences contemporary Estonian society. And by that time Estonians had already discovered this forgotten link between atheism and Estonian national identity. So for the last 4-5 years I have tried to keep a track on what’s happening in Estonian society, in connection with religion and non-religiosity. And I’m currently involved in several projects that touch these subjects. And one of them is on the Relocation of the Sacred around the Baltic Sea, which is led by my good colleague from Sweden, David Thurfjell. And it deals with the relationship between secularisation and nature spirituality. Another approach, which you already mentioned, was this Understanding Unbelief. And, in addition, we are – together with colleagues from the Czech Republic – we are compiling an edited volume with a preliminary title: Atheism and Freethinking in Central and Eastern Europe, which focusses on the twentieth and twenty-first century. And it’s a combination of historical and sociological approaches. And, hopefully, will be the first comprehensive overview of the development of current states of secular developments in that region.

CC: Fantastic. So how about we dive right into it, then? One of my favourite anecdotes from your presentation yesterday – and this might serve as a useful starter – was when the survey question, “Should the churches modernise?” was being asked. And people who were religious, people who were non-religious were maybe ticking agree, slightly agree, don’t have any opinion, vastly disagree. All over the place. And when you actually got to your qualitative work, the story was, “Should the churches modernise? Should they have electricity? Should they have Wi-Fi?” So, even the vocabulary of the questions were sort-of indicating what you might describe as secularisation of language.

AR: Yes.

CC: So, maybe that’s a way into the conversation?

AR: Yes, well. This religious gap, or this era of indifference, it’s really interesting how it has influenced society. And one of my research interests is the language my informants use, and I have identified some really interesting features. And one of them is that words or terms, religious terms, they have very negative connotations. One of the most loaded words is probably, “believer”. That has an association with mental abnormality or ignorance. And this is of course one of the successes of atheist propaganda. And I also have heard from my Russian colleagues, when they interview people and ask, “Are you a believer?” The response was “No, I’m normal.”

CC: (Laughs).

AR: And another thing – that you mentioned – is religious illiteracy. And also this secularisation of language. So this religious illiteracy: since religion in Estonian Society has had really low visibility, people sort-of don’t recognise the appearances of it. And they also are unable to express their thoughts about religion because of the lack of knowledge. And there is a really interesting story. In Turto there is a Marian Church that was turned into a gym during the Soviet era. And the bell tower was demolished and so on. But it still had the very specific features of a sacral building, like large arched windows and so on. I heard from my informants that when they were children, during the Soviet period, that when this building was finally given back to the congregation and turned into a sacral building again, they were really surprised when they learned that it was actually a church building! So we can call it a “religious blindness”, or something like that. And secularisation of language is the third interesting feature which I have found. It’s actually not so much secularisation. (15:00) It’s more like de-Christianisation: when religious terms have run dry of their Christian context. This example of church is sort of a text-book example. Where church is understood only as a building, not an organisation, or a group of people. So it can create a lot of confusion. So, yes. And then I got interested in that, because I had a hunch that non-religious people might not understand the questions in the surveys in the way they were meant to. And to some extent it seems to be true. And also it seems to be true that many questions asked in the surveys just prompt the answers, and have no relevance to people before and after that. So I’m a bit hesitant how meaningful this collected data is. And, of course, it’s always a problem but it can have much more serious results in a context where religious illiteracy is more widespread.

CC: Absolutely. It might help if we get some percentages here. I know that you had them in your presentation. You mightn’t have them to hand. But in certain surveys it’s quite an extraordinarily high number of, we might say, atheists – you might say non-identifiers, depending what the survey is. But then, on this national identity front, I notice that there was a large population of Russian Orthodox in Estonia. And so, maybe you could comment on the sort of connection between – I don’t know – Estonia, and atheism, and Russian Orthodoxy as it plays out?

AR: Yes. The point seems to be that orthodoxy is much stickier than Lutheranism. And the story with Estonians is that one of the things is the Estonian national narrative, which is a construct from 19th century, and tells a story about the Estonians’ everlasting fight for freedom. And there are two types of national narratives. One is the Golden past, another is the Promised Land. And Estonian one is the Golden Past type. But, usually, this Golden Past refers to the time where the country was very powerful, great kings and so on. But in the Estonian case this Golden Past is located into pre-Christian times. And Christianity is sort-of seen as responsible for its demise. And another thing is this connection between Estonian nationality and atheism. And it’s a really interesting story. But it has actually very little to do with believing or not believing in the existence of God, and rather it started out as an ethnic conflict. So the background is that Estonians were Christianised in the 13th century, during the Northern Crusades. And after that they were ruled by different other nations, until the 20th century. And this 19th century Romanticism resulted in the rise of Estonian national consciousness. And by that time, Estonia was incorporated to the Russian Empire, but Estonians were ruled by a Baltic German upper class. So most of the clergy was also German. So the Church was not perceived as Estonian, but more like German. Now, in 1905 there was a revolution in Russian Empire, and in Estonia as well. But in Estonia it took a sort-of nationalist form, so it was a fight for national autonomy. And the revolution was soon crushed and punitive squads started to do their work. And many people were executed. And then many Estonians accused German pastors that they didn’t protect their parish members, and rather collaborated with the troops. And, as a result, many Estonians didn’t go to Church any more. And, in return, Baltic Germans accused Estonians of atheism. And during the Soviet era, atheist propaganda, of course, made good use of both motives. (20:00) And then it created a new story of Estonians as historically being very sceptical towards religion, or being a religiously lukewarm nation. So in 2005 the Eurobarometer survey was published, and that revealed that only 16% of Estonians believe in a personal God. And all this information was happily put together. And Estonians started to understand themselves as the least religious – or most atheistic – country in the world, despite the fact that the survey covered only Europe!

CC: (Laughs).

AR: However, Estonians are actually not the only ones with this claim, and similar motives are present also in the Czech Republic, in Denmark, in Sweden, and in the Netherlands. So I question which country will be the least religious or most atheistic. It’s probably going to be a new Olympic Games discipline or something like that!

CC: Yes! And I wonder what the prize will be?

AR: (Laughs). God!

CC: You also had a leaflet in your presentation that said, “If you are an Estonian. . .” and listed a few things. It said ,“you do not believe in God . . . unless it’s Eurovision!” (Laughs).

AR: Right!

CC: Now I’ve only really got one more question before we talk about that important conference. But presumably, this isn’t getting the whole picture. You were showing a lot of nuance yesterday, and a lot of the beliefs and practices that these so-called non-believers, non-identifiers subscribe to. So maybe you could add a bit more nuance to this contemporary situation?

AR: Well, I will say that when we are talking about non- believers or atheists, then it basically boils down . . . that means that we are taking their identity as primary indicator, when we are talking in this way. Then, of course, the meaning of atheism in the Estonian case is sort-of different than in the Western context. It doesn’t mean the explicit denial of God, or something like that. Rather it refers to just not being Christian. And since atheism is the only known secular tradition in the Estonian context it has a very, very wide meaning.

CC: Excellent. So we are at about 25 minutes, which is a perfect time for me to just say that obviously we’re recording at the EASR in Bern, in Switzerland. But the 2019 EASR is in Tartu in Estonia. So perhaps you could maybe sell the conference a little bit? Just in terms of why might people want to come? But also, you could give us a hint of the intellectual thrust of the conference.

AR: The topic of the conference is “Religion: Continuations and Disruptions”. And, you know, conferences are very much like birthday parties. When you like the people, then you go! And at the same time they are like sort of style parties. And the topic gives the debates this general direction. So this topic was, of course, inspired by Eastern European recent history – which is actually a continuation of different disruptions. And this notion applies to religion as well. And religion and the understanding of religion is constantly changing. So we thought that it would give a good direction for our style party, to become fruitful basis for discussing whatever changes occur in regard to religion. But other than that, Tartu is just a very lovely town. And by the way, our restaurant street is just 50 metres from the conference venue! And for the conference party we have a place called Gunpowder Cellar, which is really an old gunpowder cellar that is turned into a restaurant and claims to be a pub with the highest ceiling in the world. Which is around 11 metres.

CC: So, the highest ceiling in the world and the lowest religiosity in the world!

AR: (Laughs). Exactly! They go together, hand-in-hand!

CC: Fantastic! One final question. (25:00) This conference that we’re at right now, the theme is “Multiple Religious Identities.” So, maybe, just a final thought from you on how the Estonian context and that conference theme of multiple religious identities maybe speak to each other? Or not?

AR: Of course they speak to each other: they are both religion-related. But, of course, there are continuations of religious identities, and all this overlapping and constant changing. So I would say this: our conference in Tartu will be a mental continuation of this topic here.

CC: Excellent! Well, Listeners, if you want to continue with a mental continuation, in about a year’s time we should have a number of podcasts from Tartu for you! But, for now, thanks for that really expansive, but also quite specific, teaser for the situation in Estonia and for your own research. So do check out Atko’s profile. And thank you very much!

AR: Thank you!


Citation Info: Remmel, Atko and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 January 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 October 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-study-of-religion-and-national-identity-in-estonia/

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

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

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Co-Dependency of Religion and the Secular

In our fifth editors’ pick, Marek Sullivan writes “Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!”

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

Continuing the ‘series’ is our new features co-editor, Marek Sullivan.

Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!

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

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Pulp Fiction memorabilia, astronaut ice cream and more.

Spirituality

To discuss ‘spirituality’, we are joined by Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe. We discuss the genealogy of ‘spirituality’, and its contemporary significance, with particular reference to the New Age movement. The second half focuses on how spirituality may trouble the religion / secular distinction, and its implications for the critical study of religion.

‘Spirituality’ is a term with enormous currency in contemporary discourse on religion, but despite this, it remains under-theorised. Little consideration is given to its development, and most scholarly work simply dismisses ‘spirituality’ as shallow and commercialised. Boaz Huss argues that “the vehement and disparaging criticism of contemporary spirituality is stimulated by the threat that this new cultural category poses to entrenched scholarly assumptions and research practices” (2014, 58).

To discuss ‘spirituality’, we are joined by Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe. We discuss the genealogy of ‘spirituality’, and its contemporary significance, with particular reference to the New Age movement. The second half focuses on how spirituality may trouble the religion / secular distinction, and its implications for the critical study of religion.

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

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

Spirituality

Podcast with Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe (11 June 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Huss and Sutcliffe – Spirituality 1.1

David Robertson (DR): Spirituality is a term with enormous currency in contemporary discourse in religion but, despite this, it remains under-theorised. Little consideration is given to its development, and most scholarly work simply dismisses it as shallow and commercialised. To discuss spirituality I’m joined today by Boaz Huss, a professor of Jewish thought at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and also by Steve Sutcliffe who is senior lecturer in Religious Studies, here at the University of Edinburgh, where we’re speaking today. So, we thought we could maybe start, then, by setting out . . . well, setting out the stall. Tell us about spirituality, and particularly the way it emerges as an identifier during the New Age and the post-war period.

Steven Sutcliffe (SS): Ok. Well I could start and say something about that. But it’s very good to have Boaz here to join in the discussion. So, welcome to Boaz.

Boaz Huss (BH): It’s good to be here.

SS: I came across spirituality, and became pretty-much convinced of its significance as a cultural category, when I was researching the so-called New Age movement. And in the work that I did on that, I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a very strong movement that we could call New Age. There was a term New Age, which was mobilised in a whole series of networks, but, increasingly, what scholars were calling the New Age movement after the 1970s was better understood as a network of people whose preferred term was becoming spirituality, sometimes qualified by “mind-body-spirit spirituality”, and sometimes “holistic spirituality”. Often just “spirituality”. And that this kind of shift seems to have been happening particularly, I would say, since after the 1960s, or the post-war period, is important as well. But of course there’s also a complicated and lengthy genealogy of the term emerging, and a number of different groups as well. So it’s a very complex but lively cultural category about which we still know very little, I think.

DR: And what are some of the sort-of themes and motifs that we can pick out in this discourse of spirituality, and the various other terms?

SS: Well I think, I mean, Boaz will have his own ideas here. For me, I’ve been interested in how it is often a kind of signifier for a form of what we might call vitalism, in some ways. There’s something more bubbling away in social life, and beyond social life, that the old category of religion, for users, doesn’t adequately tackle. Spirituality – a bit more nebulous, a bit more amorphous, but actually does quite a good job, through that nebulosity and amorphousness, in pointing to something that people feel. You know: “There’s a something more going on here. Things have got more life to them. They’ve got more energy. There’s something else going on.” So that’s been the route which I’ve been interested in, in the term. Why people are using it to point to this feeling that there’s something more going on in life.

DR: And maybe we can turn to Boaz, then. How does this . . . ? There’s a shift there. When spirituality starts to get picked up by the New Age movement, it changes its meaning. It’s not a new term, but it takes on a new set of connotations.

BH: Yes, yes definitely. I think there is . . . . Very similar to Steven, I was very much impressed by the prominent presence of spirituality as a term in contemporary New Age movements when I was working on in Israel – contemporary Kabbalistic movements – and, actually, also amongst my friends. It’s a term that’s very much alive and very easily used by people to define themselves. Now what, for me, was striking – maybe because I’m a historian and I started my work working on evil in Judaism and religions in the early modern period – is this really significant shift of meaning in spirituality. Because spirituality is a very old term, actually. It is a Biblical term, very prominent, signifying spirit in contrast to the body, to materiality, corporeality. And it played a very important role in medieval Christian theology, in translation – also in Jewish theology. And it seemed to me that the use today is very different and, actually, I think the two main centres of the use of the term in early modern period changed (5:00). One is the juxtaposition of spirituality to corporeality and materiality, which was very central. And today people use the term spiritual applying it to corporeal, material things: yoga, sports, martial arts, healing etc. And the other thing was the detachment from religion. Because spirituality was considered the core of religion, related, part of religion, and really the core of Christianity and religion. And today, I think the term that caught my attention was “spiritual but not religious”. Which . . . I think people tend to dismiss it. Well a lot of people use it, but some scholars, at least, dismiss this notion as they’re saying it. But actually they are religious or secular. But I think we should take it very seriously that people choose to define secularity in opposition to a term that spirituality came from and that is religious.

DR: Except, yes, as well as the “spiritual but not religious”, you are seeing very recently – in the last ten years or so – the churches making a kind-of reclaiming of that. And you’ll see “spiritual AND religious” pop up. So it’s not so much that . . . . I mean, from the point of view of these religious practitioners, spirituality is still the ur-concept with religion being part of that. So it’s shifting in different ways, even in the last few years.

SS: Well it’s a very user-friendly concept, isn’t it? And it’s also a multi-functional concept, I think. So the user-friendliness is that it’s got a warmth and a vitality to it, I think, that religion doesn’t have. And religion in popular parlance has been demonised, in a sense – stereotyped as this oppressive, institutional force. You’ll often hear the term “institutional religion” which is juxtaposed to “free-floating spirituality” or something like that. So it’s a kind of attractive word for people. But it’s also multi-functional, I think. It does various things at different levels for different audiences. And I think, for the folks who might have been involved in New Age and related networks, it fulfils that function of a fairly free-wheeling, personal, networked approach and discourse. But it’s also been picked up – and this is interesting as well, I think – it’s also been picked up in sort-of Government policy, educational health circles. So we have, here in the UK – as you probably know, Boaz – we’ve got spiritual chaplains now, in NHS hospitals. We have spirituality as a kind of perennial all-encompassing term in interfaith circles. We have various think-tank’s exploring the meaning of spirituality in cultural life. And so it’s a term . . . these uses of the term are not all doing the same thing. Sometimes they’re camouflaging various positions behind them. They’re ways of putting new pawns on the chess board to advance rather concealed causes. And other times they’re much more grass-roots and naive in their use.

DR: And that reminds me of the way that interfaith is often used, with a rather ecumenical agenda behind it: “We might as well team up in order to promote religion in the public sphere.” And spirituality is another way of doing that, of course. Because if you accept that, “OK, maybe religions don’t have a place, but spirituality does.” And so, “Who shall we get to speak for spirituality? Let’s get, you know, somebody from the Church of England.”

SS: Yes. Indeed

BH: I think it shows the cultural power of this term, that it’s adopted. Now what’s interesting . . . you know the people related to churches don’t go back to, I don’t know, early spiritual practices. They adopt spirituality from its modern, unchurched use and it comes together. It enters the churches with yoga, with Tai Chi classes, with other New Age . . . . So I see that as part of, really, the language of New Age and spirituality, also entering new places. And you said, also, of course medicine, government and business.

SS: Yes – business, indeed.

BH: Business is very strong. So I think that shows really, somehow, the relevance: it’s a good term for people today – if not, they wouldn’t use it. There’s something very, I think, serious and significant about it. (10:00) And I think the tendency of some scholars to dismiss it – it’s really, you know, not looking at something very interesting that’s going on around us.

SS: Yes. Yes. That might be an opportunity, some of the scholars . . . two books come to mind that have been very critical, often in a slightly polemical way about this, which is Kimberley Lau’s book: New Age Capitalism, and then, also, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book: Selling Spirituality. Now, both of those books have got a similar purpose. Kimberley Lau works out quite a sophisticated account of ideology, and how spirituality is an ideology, in her book – but she’s still got this kind of criticism. In the case of Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book, it seems to be more about a slightly nostalgic reach back to authentic, good-old religion, as opposed to this nasty, sort-of . . .

BH: Capitalist . . .

SS: Yes. However, what I was going to say is, if it is a multi-functional term, there is one angle of it that it seems to me in which the Carrette and King critique is correct: in businesses, as we just mentioned, there can be a sense in which spirituality is a way of producing a happier work force, a more comfortable workforce, a more productive workforce. But that doesn’t seem to me to be the whole of the picture. So that was what I was saying about how it’s a multifunctional kind of discourse. It’s layered or stacked with different kinds of uses or goals.

DR: I think an important aspect of it, to take in parallel with that sort-of neoliberal critique, is the Jungian kind of psychological idea. And those aren’t separate, but you see the growth of psychological Jungian ideas in the business sphere, particularly because it’s well, you know . . . . The Marxist critique is that by treating the mental health issues that arise because of neoliberalism, then it allows neoliberalism to continue as an economic model. But of course, that’s also the foundational model of large parts of the New Age movement.

SS: Right.

DR: You know – the sense of the self, and the purpose of life being to develop the self. Which, as well, maybe points to this blurring between the idea of the spirit as something not the body, but simultaneously also the body.

SS: Yes, that reminds me a bit of Paul Heelas’ work on self-spirituality or self-religion that he was developing a while ago, where- I mean he’s been critiqued by Matthew Wood and others, for having a rather asocial model of the self – which I think is right. But nevertheless he was pointing, in some of his early work, to one of these telephone marketing companies who were working on the idea that if you were in touch with your “true whole self” when you were at work, you would get better business results in your cold-calling of people. If you were doing that, and were “present in yourself”, that would have an impact.

DR: You would have authenticity.

SS: Yes. And you would be “at cause” and not “at effect”, which is what happens if you are not in touch with yourself – you are just acted upon. So there seems to be something about being in touch with the self that is an important part of the ideology of spirituality – whether that comes through practice is another thing.

BH: I want to go back to this point of neoliberalism, because I think it’s important. I think, definitely, the recognition that there is a connection is true. I think it merges neoliberal ideology, and post-modern culture, and post-capitalistic global economics: they and spirituality all emerge at the same period, and sometimes there’s an overlap between the social compositions of the people who are involved. But I think the fact that there are similarities, and there is interconnection between, doesn’t mean that spirituality is a disguised neoliberal ideology. It can be also a response, sometimes, to neoliberalism. So, from that point of view, I think the connection is definitely there. As I said, we can look at spirituality as a kind of post-modern, new cultural formation, and New Age also, but that doesn’t mean that it identifies with other post-modern cultural formations. And, again sometimes it is. I think, on the one hand, you can show points where it strengthens neoliberal ideology, but also other groups – there are so many varieties of spiritualties and New Age – that are a response and trying to undermine it. But still, again, I’ve seen it’s something very relevant. And, you know, we live in a post-modern, late-capitalistic society. The cultural formations that we use – and I think all of us are part of them, to a certain degree – you know, they are those which are relevant to our society, and of course they are interconnected (15:00). But this nostalgia that you mentioned, I think it’s not relevant to criticise spirituality. I don’t see my role as a scholar to give marks or grade religious and spiritual phenomena, but to try to understand the function.

SS: Yes.

DR: Because of course, I mean, the churches in the early twentieth century or earlier – kind-of in the earlier economic systems with the nation state and these kind of things – there are examples of institutional religion working with the state, and working against the state, then. And there are examples of New Age and spirituality working with the state and against the state now. It’s no different. But, of course, if you’re looking at it from a nostalgic point of view, with this modern organisation of the state, and you’re looking for things that look like the church you grew up in, then maybe you are going to come to that conclusion.

SS: In terms of that counter-cultural impetus, I think Paul Heelas talks about what he most recently calls New Age Spiritualties of Life. He says something like “a gentle counter-flow” or something like that. He’s kind-of not going full on for the kind of counter-cultural stances of the ’60s, but he’s saying there is some kind of modest critique here, in the stuff he’s looking at. And sort-of connected with that, with the data for the Kendal project – that Spiritual Revolution book that Paul did with Linda Woodhead. And there they did quite a lot of valuable data – I mean, now it’s a little bit old perhaps, the early 2000s it was – but there was clearly a correlation between the folks participating in the holistic milieu in Kendal and environmental, ecological, Green values. And there was also a correlation, when asked in the various questionnaires and interviews, with left-of-centre political attitudes as well. So I go some way towards saying, here’s one small body of evidence that bears out what you’re saying, Boaz. It’s not only a question of being subsumed by neoliberal positions. There is agency here in a more political – small p . . . .

DR: But this language is also taken up wholesale amongst the sort of New Right, and the conspiracy milieu that I look at. I mean, when I was down looking at . . . . Ok, so most of the case studies I looked at were left-leaning. But certainly in the right wing – it’s a little bit blurred because we tend to focus on US data, and of course US data strongly identifies as Christian. But if you look at the right outside of the US, there’s a strong association with spirituality. And you can find, for example, Red Ice Radio podcast, on a TV show out of Sweden, started off doing very much kind of New Age and healing kind of stuff and have gradually moved over until they’re now just completely right-wing, pagan-identifying. But you can see in the space of a few years there, as they make that shift, you still have language of spirituality and “higher purpose” and all these kind of things, focus on health practices – all of these things are still there, so that discourse is not restricted to the left at all.

BH: A few years ago we had a project on the politics of the New Age. Actually, my interest in spirituality started from that project. And, again, it became very clear first of all that, in difference to the self-declaration of many spiritualist and New Agers, “We are not interested in politics”, they are involved in politics. But you can find the combination, you can find New Age practices and use of spiritual terminology in the extreme right, religious, national right in Israel and, of course – what you would more expect – in the left and Green movements, etc. So it really is applied . . . and I think, again, showing that it’s a key cultural concept that can be used by very different political and ideological agendas. And I think it’s interesting. Actually, I think the use is quite similar. It’s not that they just use it and each one gives it a completely different . . . . They integrate it in very different ideologies, but the practices themselves: you go and do some kind of violent political act in the evening, and in the morning you grow organic vegetables and do meditation practices etc., and connect with the nature around you!

SS: (Laughs) OK. Yes!

DR: And lots of food! (20:00) You know, like eating pro-biotic and vegetarian diets and all this stuff. It’s right across the board.

BH: It’s very interesting, the use of the New Age terminology to justify, for instance, violence. That’s a natural, you know, part of the . . . . But the extreme right movements will say revenge is something very basic. And because of that, we can do revenge acts. Because that’s part of going back to nature, connecting with the earth. It’s amazing to see this combination!

SS: And so that raises the question: it sounds to me as though you’re saying that spirituality, as a concept, has travelled very well in Israel for example, in non-Christian contexts. Because it’s often seemed to me that there are some kind of affinities with a kind of a post-Christian culture and a spirituality discourse. But it seems clear, even if that’s the case, that it can acculturate elsewhere quite happily. So there’s no problem with secular Jews, religious Jews, all kinds of folk picking up the term in an Israeli context?

BH: Yes. I think it would be all across the board. But I think you will find some kind of American / Western connection. Even in ultra. Because many of the ultra-Orthodox movements, many of the people, of the members, are actually returning to religion. So, actually, they’ve had that grounding or acquaintance. But it’s so available and present here, that even if you grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family you know, it’s available, the practices and terminology are there. So they are easily reached. And I believe it’s similar in, at least in Westernised and middle-class populations also in other non-Christina cultures: Turkey, Indonesia, Morocco, you will find, again, language of spiritual and definitely the New Age practices.

SS: Yes.

BH: Very interesting to look at . . .

DR: And in Asia as well. In Japan and China, particularly.

BH: Japan, definitely, yes.

DR: Yes. Which you actually mentioned something about this, Boaz, in one of the papers I read, about how this was essentially swapping a dualistic Western model for an Eastern monistic model. And I wonder if actually that would indicate that this would have quite a lot of currency in Asian countries? Because it kind of maps much better than the imported model of religion, and spirituality.

BH: Yes, I’m not sure how it goes in all this. It’s the pizza effect. You know of coming . . . receiving back Indian meditation practices after they were Westernised, and then incorporating them back. Similar things with Kabbalah for instance, with New Kabbalah and then integrated. So there is some kind of coming back, but I think I would be hesitant to say that there’s something . . . . Definitely many practices were borrowed from non-Christian cultures, but to say that they’re more open to them because of that . . . . I would put more emphasis on the globalisation. This is part of that.

DR: I haven’t made myself very clear. What I mean is that the model of talking about spirituality, rather than talking about religion and the secular, makes more sense in an Asian country where they were never things that were separate to start with.

SS: Oh I see, right, right.

DR: So if you were going to import a Western construct, then spirituality works better than religion and the secular. Does that make sense?

SS: Yes. That’s clearer, yes. But I mean, so what is it? It starts the same . . . . I mean, I’m not convinced that there is one discourse. There are several different layered and stacked discourses, but they probably share something in common. What is it they share in common? And why are these discourses so attractive? What are they doing? What kind of empowerment, or status or capital are they giving people? Do you have any developed thoughts on this, Boaz? What’s the attraction?

BH: Not today! (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs) Not right now, yes!

SS: (Laughs) But this is the million-dollar question, I think, yes.

BH: But again, I think some of the emphasis of the New Age practices and this concept spirituality are really in line with contemporary ideologies, ways of living. As I suggested, and as you just said, the strict separation between religious and secular had its role in modernity. And it seems it doesn’t have that role (now) (25:00). And people can use something new – which, again, I don’t want to say it’s a new way of going back to religion, because I think it’s something different. But, really, having a position which they don’t have to define as secular or religious, and making those borders between them, and then really giving what is called spiritual meaning for body practices, for instance, seems positive, in a positive way, regarding the body – giving it a value that wasn’t there, I think, in Christian medieval early modern culture. Maybe the globalisation tendency . . . I think of all of us, of tourism, of cultural consumption etc. – so you can pick from many different cultures, all those practices – this is something the concept of spirituality enables, which the concept of religion didn’t. You know, you couldn’t go to church and practice yoga. It was uncomfortable, I assume, in the early twentieth century! Today, you can go to church and have a yoga practice. And, exactly as you said, this is justified using the term spirituality.

DR: And I suspect, as well, that modern communications technology means that although people would have been doing heterodox practices – sometimes practices from outside but sometimes folk kind of things – the degree to which we were aware that other people were doing them was limited. You know, you’d have to know somebody pretty well to know that they were also making charms or doing healings or these kind of things. Whereas now we know that everywhere . . . It’s vernacular and there are all sorts of heterodox things going on in every Christian group. But when we didn’t have those ways of communicating, and all the knowledge was mandated from the church authorities, that wasn’t the impression you would have got. So it’s not only changed the degree to which these are available, it’s changed the fact that we now know that it’s been available and everybody does it. And it’s fine.

BH: The idea of self, for instance: it’s so central to our culture. Criticise it or not, we are not in a communal culture any more. And so the self – I think that’s a wonderful expression. And Paul has hit the nail, you know, with this “self-spirituality”. It’s not God spirituality and it’s not . . . the self is in the centre. Self-improvement, self-progress: that’s the core value of our society. I think, in a way, we’re all part of it. I think similar things happen in the university. What happens now . The whole concept of knowledge as something practical, something that improves our life. That’s the most important thing. And that’s exactly what spirituality offers people: a way of having something practical that doesn’t take too much of your time – which, again, it’s not necessarily negative.

SS: Is it a bit like having your cake and eating it? You know that phrase where you kind-of can have the best of both worlds. You can – at the personal, embodied and relational level – you can have something more than is vouchsafed by a purely secular materialist regime. But one does not have to go the whole hog. One does not have to go the whole way into a more developed, or fully blown, practice or identification.

BH: Yes, I think it’s a bit too critical for my part . . .

SS: (Laughs).

BH: Because, again, I . .

SS: Well, I mean it descriptively rather than . . .

DR: (Laughs).

BH: You want your cake and not! (Laughs).

SS: Well, that’s true!

BH: I don’t know. The difference between psychoanalysis and contemporary clinical psychology, which is treatment: I think it’s the same direction, and it’s not necessarily bad. You don’t have the time, or you don’t have the justification of, you know, digging into your past for hours on the sofa. That’s something that was ok for certain people, of course – quite limited to people in the early mid-twentieth century! Now, today, people want to go to a session that will improve their mental or psychological (wellbeing), going for three or four times, having some time. And I think that’s also what spirituality . . . . You don’t have to read the whole Hindu literature in order to do yoga! (Laughs).

DR: Yes. Well, you know, in which case that fits neoliberalism quite well! Because we’re getting to increasing productivity and minimalising work (30:00).

SS: (Laughs).

BH: Yes, that’s part of it. But it’s not necessarily the same.

SS: OK. Well in that case, what about the question of secularisation? Because in one or two of your writings you have suggested that there is some kind of push back here, or a reversing of the conditions of secularisation, or of the qualifications, shall we say, of the conditions of secularisation. But in fact what you’ve just said would be used by strong secularisation theorists to say, “Well, that’s exactly it! This is just a kind-of boost of secular conditions.”

BH: No I think secularisation and religionisation . . . . We’re speaking about secularisation, but actually the interesting term – one interesting term – is “religionisation”

SS: Religionisation.

BH: Because the assumption that there is a process of . . . . Secularisation assumes that before, there was a state of religion, of religiosity, and then secularisation came and started, you know, going forth and maybe now coming back. I see the process of secularisation working in tandem with the process of religionisation. These are two concepts that started in Western Europe in early-modern/ modern period and were applied to other cultures. It wasn’t there before – neither religion, nor secularity. And then we had this process. And I think now we have a different process. It’s not that it’s going back. It’s still in play, of course. Religionisation is looking at things and saying, “Ahh! This is a religion.” Or looking at myself and saying, “I’m religious, so I’m behaving in such and such. . . . That’s what I believe.” That’s the process of religionisation. Or secularisation – the same thing: “This is secular, so it’s supposed to behave like secular. . . . I’m secular so there are certain things that I do, and that I don’t do.” And I think that’s not relevant to many people today, who say, “No I’m not secular, I’m not religious, it’s not relevant, I’m spiritual.”

SS: Yes. Right.

BH: And then they start doing things which are really . . . and look – kind-of things like yoga and going to church sometimes, and swimming. And saying, “Wow, I have a spiritual experience now!” And all those new things. So I don’t see it as part of secularisation. It’s something basically different.

SS: So is it the case that just as people like Timothy Fitzgerald have argued that the religious and the secular are kind-of co-constitutive, so secularisation and religionisation are kind-of mutually generating each other? And what we have here is now a different kind of situation that transcends that, or has moved beyond those kinds of concerns?

BH: Yes. I think that spirituality actually corroborates and strengthens the position of Fitzgerald and McCutcheon and Talal Asad, because it shows that not only in non-Western cultures or pre-modern cultures, there was no concept of religion and secular – also in our society, Western society, they knew it. It didn’t disappear, this concept. I don’t think they will disappear. But there is a new option which is neither secular nor religion. So I think that strengthens their point that it’s not something universal.

DR: Yes. Well. Any last thoughts on the sort-of . . . the situation in the field, in our field? How do we move forward? How do we start to deal with this within Religious Studies?

SS: Good question. Well I don’t know about you, Boaz, and I know a bit about David, but teaching this material is an interesting challenge. And here, in many ways, this is a whole topic in itself. David has written an edited work on this. But we tend to still . . . . In Religious studies, or the Study of Religions, we’re very much constrained by a very hegemonic model of religion as World Religions: these big institutional blocks of things that are almost like corporate institutions that are said to have these kinds of identities. And that really does constrain how you can insert this material into the curriculum to teach to students. Because I do think as well as theorising this material, and researching it, we need to be able to try and educate the next generation of students who will come and take our place so that we can get more work done on this. I mean it’s not just an idle contemporary issue. One would say that they – whole worlds of what gets called the occult, the esoteric – have been very, very important in the last couple of hundred years at least, but are scarcely researched at all (35:00). They scarcely get the resources to work with them that, you know, Judaism, the various Christianities, the various Judaisms get. So, it’s a real question about how we can bring to people’s attention the significance of this stuff, working with such conservative paradigms of religion – which themselves are the product of the very conditions you’re describing.

DR: Religionisation!

SS: I mean, I teach a course called “New Spiritualties” and I’ve been beavering away at this course for years. I don’t know if you do any teaching in this line, about this material, where you are, Boaz?

BH: Yes. I’m in a different position, because I’m in a department of Jewish Studies. But in a way, it’s similar, because it’s also very conservative. I think not many departments of Jewish thought would . . . But, definitely, I give courses on New age Kabbalah, contemporary Kabbalah, sometimes even wider New Age ( topics) – although that’s stepping the line, because it’s not even Jewish!

All: (Laugh).

BH: But definitely, I think – and it’s good that we are doing it. When I started, I received very negative reactions from some of my colleagues who really sneered at: “You’re not doing serious scholarship! What happened Boaz? You were a serious scholar. How can you leave manuscripts and go and study . . . !” But I think, slowly – that was twenty years ago – I think our work is . . . . I think it’s changing, and people are much more in academia now, open to working, and recognising the significance of the (audio unclear) or what you’re calling spirituality or New age or religiosity.

SS: Well I do think the key there, in terms of the academic capital of the project, is to connect the debates with larger debates about religion and modernity, religion and secularisation, consumption, political ideologies, economics, all that kind of thing. And, I think, when we start to do that we find more colleagues taking us seriously, both in the field of various studies of religion, but outside of that in cultural studies and Sociology. Do you think that’s the case, David? Because you’ve always connected these things to wider processes.

DR: Yes. And partly the problem is that there also hasn’t been a lot of work on this kind of material from within the Critical Religion . . . you know, that approach. That’s tended to focus more on historical genealogy. And we’re now starting to get things like Aaron Hughes’ work on Islam, for instance. But there still needs to be a focussed project looking at the emergence of New Age spirituality and other alternative religious movements, within the critical history of the idea of religion and the category of religion. But absolutely, yes, that’s how we need to establish the importance of what we’re doing. And that will also help us to move . . . as so much of that work is done from an insider perspective, unfortunately. It’s a whole other conversation, but it’s worth mentioning. But yes, absolutely, I agree with what both of you are saying. We just need to get enough of a foothold in the academy that we can actually do this work. And I think, with hindsight, it will be clear what the importance of it was.

SS: Right.

BH: I think it’s also a question of connecting. Because I think there’s more work done than you’re aware of. Sometimes I meet someone: “Wow! You’re doing the same! I didn’t know that you were working on that!” So there’s a group working on new religiosities in Turkey – very interesting. Quite a large group. Many of them Francophones – so that maybe where there’s less connection. There’s also the question of different academic cultures. But there are people working on it in Morocco, and I think that’s fascinating. And I ‘m very happy to be here to meet you! I think those connections between scholars who are working, sometimes, in corners – that’s also very important.

DR: Because, of course, there are no institutes where we can do this work! That’s the problem!

SS: No, I think that’s right. I mean Jean-Francois Mayer, the Swiss scholar, put me onto a paper, through his Relgioscope Foundation, about new spiritualties in Azerbaijan, for example. Very interesting paper. And then as you say, there’s Morocco, there’s Turkey, but there’s also new spiritualties in sort-of Catholic contexts like Mexico, as well. So you’re probably right.

BH: South America – there’s a lot going on there.

SS: Sure. So here’s . . . It’s a question of connecting, and a question of resources to do the connecting as well, of course. Because, in my view, academia doesn’t free-float. It’s always dependent on money and institutional support.

DR: OK. Well that’s a good point to end on, I think. It’s relatively positive, but realistic! (40:00)

All: (Laugh).

DR: So – thanks to you, Boaz, and to Steve, for this very stimulating conversation. Thank you both.

BH: Thank you, David.

SS: Thank you.

Citation Info: Huss, Boaz, Steven Sutcliffe and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 11 June 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/spirituality/

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Worldviews and Ways of Life

Ann Taves joins us to discuss her work arguing that we should study religions under the broader rubric of “worldviews” and “ways of life”. This ambitious interdisciplinary project aims to place a micro-level analysis of individual worldviews into a broader evolutionary perspective. Through case-studies (including ‘secular’ worldviews like Alcoholics Anonymous alongside more traditional ‘religions’), she explains how worldviews form in response to existential ‘Big Questions’ – here understood as core biological needs and goals, rather than theological or moral concerns – and are enacted in Ways of Life, individually or collectively.

This interview summarizes her Gunning Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh, 19-21 March 2018.

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

Worldviews and Ways of Life

Podcast with Ann Taves (21 May 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Taves_-_Worldviews_and_Ways_of_Life_1.1

David Robertson (DR): It’s my pleasure to be joined here today by Professor Ann Taves from the Religious Studies Department and the University of California, Santa Barbara. It’s not her first visit to the podcast, but the first full-length interview I think. So this should be interesting. She’s here in Edinburgh to deliver the Gunning Lectures and that’s where the topic of today’s discussion has come from: talking about worldviews and ways of life. So let’s start where we were kind-of already talking before I started recording: a little bit, maybe, about, how did we come to this position? You were asked to write a blog? Is that right?

Ann Taves (AT): Yes. I mean, really the question is: why am I even talking about worldviews and ways of life, or studying religion as worldviews and ways of life? Which was the topic of the Gunning Lectures. And, as we were just talking about before, I was pretty much what I would call an “anti-definitionalist”, when it comes to defining religion for research purposes. Because I think it’s really important that we look at how people understand religion – and other related sorts of terms – on the ground. But I was kind-of forced to make a more constructive move – internally forced – after I was asked to write a blog post on method for the Non-Religion and Secularity Project. And it just struck me that talking about non-religion and religion, without ever specifying any larger category or rubric under which these two items fell, was kind of absurd.

DR: Yes.

AT: So that got me searching for . . . trying to answer the question: what do these two things have in common? And terms like worldviews and ways of life are actually very widely used, as an overarching framework for talking about these things. In fact, Lois Lee’s first objection to the worldviews language was it was too commonplace, and too ordinary.

DR: Yes. And there’s a question, there, why ordinary and commonplace . . . ? That should be fine, really? Maybe that’s part of the Protestant thing that religion should be special and set apart? But . . .

AT: Yes, I think her concern – and I’m putting words in her mouth . . .

DR: Yes. She can respond, if she wants!

AT: Right. I think her concern was actually one that came up in the Q and A after my first lecture. The ease with which everyday definitions of worldviews might get confused with whatever we might want to mean by it, in a more technical sense. And that’s one of our problems with defining religion.

DR: Yes. Very much so.

AT: We construct these technical definitions of what we mean, but then everybody has their meanings on the ground. What I’m arguing with worldviews and ways of life is that we actually can define them in a way that I’m arguing can stabilise them, in a way that we can’t stabilise definitions of religion; that religion is a complex, cultural concept – it simply does not have a stable meaning. But worldviews and ways of life – I think that we can root them in a perspective, and show how the ability to actually generate a worldview is something that humans can do that’s grounded in evolved capacities, basically, that emerge out of all mobile organisms having a way of life.

DR: That’s really interesting. I’m going to get you to take us through some of that – albeit in a truncated way – later on. First though, I think we need to jump back a little bit. (5:00) So, tell us what you mean by worldviews. And you also use this term ways of life.

AT: Yes

DR: Just unpack, for the listeners, a little bit what we mean by these terms.

AT: Well, let me start with worldviews. Basically, there’s a range of scholarship on worldviews. There still is an interdisciplinary group in Belgium and there are scholars and anthropologists such as André Droogers in Amsterdam who’ve been working on this idea of worldviews. And generally, in this literature, they define worldviews in terms of what I would call Big Questions. So the kind of . . . they use fundamental terms that you hear in philosophy. So terms like ontology, cosmology epistemology, anthropology, axiology, and praxeology – those are the big philosophical concepts. But we can translate those into very everyday language.

DR: OK.

AT: So that’s basically how Egil Asprem and I are working to define worldviews: in terms of answers to these six fundamental big questions.

DR: Can you give us a couple of examples of those as questions?

AT: Yes, so the ontology questions would be, “What exists? What’s real?” And the cosmology question would start with the very basic question of either, “Who am I?” or “Who are we?” But it would expand to “Where do we come from?” and “Where are we going?” The anthropology question would be, “What is our situation? What is the situation in which we find ourselves?” It could also then expand to, “What is our nature?” But two really crucial questions . . . . Well, let me just give you all of them. Because in relation to the “What’s real?” and “Who are we?”, “Where are we going?” questions, the next question is the epistemology question: “How do we know that?” And so you get answers from human beings, or science, or revelation – things like that. But then, after the one about our situation would come the question of goals and values. So, “What’s the good, or what’s the goal that we should be striving for?” And then, finally, the big path or action question: “How do we get there?” So we’re arguing that we can use this set of questions to unpack lots of things. From – at a very high level – teachings of a broad tradition, all the way down to how individuals would answer that question.

DR: So there’s a real scalability to this then?

AT: exactly

DR: And so these build into . . . am I understanding correctly, that the responses to these questions become embodied in ways of life? Would that be correct?

AT: Yes. We’re arguing that all mobile organisms, broadly speaking, have what we can think of as a way of life. But the more basic the organism, the more basic the way of life. There’s not going to be any choices. There’s certainly not going to be any mental reflection on ways of life, right? So, ways of life can get more and more complicated. But we see that as one of the ways that we can talk about humans as evolved animals. And we want to stress both continuity and difference. We’re trying to do a “both/and” kind of thing, rather than an “either/or”.

DR: OK

AT: But you were asking then, for humans, how do worldviews relate to ways of life?

DR: Yes. And prior to that, how do the big questions relate to ways of life and worldviews? What’s the direct relationship there?

AT: Yes. Well. We’re distinguishing – and I keep saying we, because Egil Asprem and I have been collaborating on some of this work. We’re talking about modes of worldview expression. And we’re distinguishing between enacted, articulated and recounted worldviews. (10:00) So recounted would include both oral traditions, where things are memorised, and textualised traditions. But before you can get to recounting, we’ve just got articulating a worldview in language. Then, prior to that, we’ve got the fact that they can be enacted without even being articulated. And all these levels can work together and interact. And so, at the enacted level, you’ve basically got implicit worldviews embedded in ways of life. And as researchers we would have to extract or infer answers to big questions, based on people’s actions and behaviour.

DR: So is it with this embodied, recounted level – is that where we start talking about worldviews rather than simply ways of life?

AT: Yes. Yes. So we’re arguing that, basically, you have to have a cultural capacity before you can have a worldview. And so we used a distinction, on the one hand, between natural and cultural affordances that we borrow from ecological psychology, and also a distinction between evolved and cultural schemas, which are a psychological construct for the kinds of representations that we have for things. And the distinction between natural and cultural is that natural affordances, or evolved schemas, are very much . . . there’s a direct relationship between the organism and the environment.

DR: OK.

AT: There’s no mediating possibility for some kind of cultural construct that organisms have agreed upon together. It’s not until we get to humans that – as far as we know – we have those more collective kinds of agreements about things that can be detached from the environment.

DR: So, maybe something like: you think you’ve seen something in the shadows, and you’re frightened – so it might be a schema: there’s an embodied reaction of fear. But that you saw a ghost, you are therefore frightened of ghosts – that’s more of a worldview? Or at least part of a way of life?

AT: Yes. It’s drawing in a cultural schema about ghosts.

DG: A collective cultural schema.

AT: And layering that on top of the evolved schema of when you hear a sound – or, more likely, when you perceive some sort of movement, right? We have an evolved tendency to assume there’s something animate there – something potentially dangerous.

DR: And potentially then, that would also tie into a larger view of the world. Because in order to have ghosts going about, you have to have some sort of notion of survival after death or non-real beings of some sort.

AT: Exactly. Right. So you can expand from that in steps to develop a larger underlying conception of how they would describe what’s real in the world.

DR: Right. And what’s nice about this schema, I think, is that it’s definitely a bottom-up approach to this, rather than top-down. So we’re starting with the most basic kind of responses and then building up to the worldviews from there.

AT: Well, certainly, if you want to start at the level of individual behaviour. But we actually can start in all kinds of places as long – I would argue – as we’re being responsible about the nature of our starting points. I mean as long as we’re up front about that.

DR: Yes.

AT: I think, as you know, I’ve been teaching Comparing Worldviews-type courses, which is an attempt to overcome some of the problems with the world religions paradigm.

DR: Which our listeners should, by now, be very familiar with! (Laughs).

AT: Exactly. That’s why I brought it up in this context, because I figured it might be relevant.

DR: Yes.

AT: But there, starting with a textbook depiction of the teachings of a so-called world religion, (15:00) we can have the students analyse that in terms of the big questions, to give themselves a basic sort-of framework. And I can then analyse or show them, using historical materials, how over time that those answers to the big questions coalesced into some sort of, say, orthodoxy, or some sort of tradition – including looking at the power structures and the authority structures that would make it coalesce into being that. But it doesn’t mean that every individual or all the groups all adhere to that. But we can still start at that level, and use this conception that way, is my point.

DR: How – and the answer to this might just be, “Not at all.” – but how is this in any way related to what Ninian Smart was trying to do, or at least what Ninian Smart said he was trying to do?

AT: Right. No, I think there is a relationship. And I think it’s important to see both what Ninian Smart did that I think is extremely positive, and the limitations of what he did. So the really positive thing is articulating, in a kind of obscure article (that I think more of us ought to be aware of) in which he, basically, argued that we ought to subsume the philosophy of religion under the philosophy of worldviews: the history of religions, in the broad religionsgeschichte sense, under the history of worldviews and the anthropology of religion under an anthropology of worldviews. So sort-of the whole range of methodologies that we tend to use in Religious Studies he saw as part of an expansive conception of Worldviews Studies. And I think that’s really cool.

DR: Yes.

AT: But the limitation is that he never defined what he meant by worldview. And what he did was simply import his six – or later, seven – dimensions of religion from the study of religion to the study of worldviews. And to me that was kind of importing . . . . You know, that was almost a new version of the missionary move – of taking our definition of religion and now applying it to worldviews.

DR: Yes. And the choice of the dimensions, and the relative weighting of them, kind-of speaks to that. So you know, like “texts” is there . . . But also, I’m not sure where exactly, but he certainly states at one point that obviously while we can view all of these things as worldviews, some of them are “more profound than others”. So, implicitly, he’s still making distinctions!

AT: Right. Right.

DR: And, of course, Christianity is going to be right at the top! I mean, I would put money on that.

AT: Right. But part of our move to viewing worldviews and ways of life from an evolutionary perspective is to try to turn that on its head. Because it makes the highly rationalised, highly systematised worldviews that philosophers and theologians are into – and maybe even world religions textbooks – into a very high end product that may, or may not, have that much relationship to everyday life. Or at least it’s a very open question – as scholars of so-called lived religion would argue – to how people live their everyday lives. So part of what we see, working from the bottom up, is a lot of open questions about: how integrated are people’s enacted worldviews? Do they need to articulate them in order to function? Or can an enculturated way of life be perfectly sufficient until it’s challenged in some way, by something or other? Then maybe people have to start to think about it on a need-to-know basis (20:00).

DR: And this is something that really interests me, actually. You said something about this. I think you said that we can see external . . . . What’s the term you used? Schemas. We can see schemas that are external to us, in other societies, very easily. But it’s very difficult to see schemas in our own. Which, obviously, is something that, as scholars, we’re trained to do, and we try and inculcate in our students as well. But I was thinking about . . . I’m very interested in the idea of challenging the idea of belief in the study of religion. I think there’s a lot of stress put on, “This is people’s belief.” And, when you actually look at the data on the ground, people are not consistent in these kind of things. Beliefs are not performative statements which people hold in their brain and then act in accordance to. And, for instance, we have ideas like situational belief, where people will respond differently in different circumstances. And I certainly saw this a lot in my research on New Age and conspiracy theories. That, for instance, people who were suffering from chronic pain will change their position or adopt multiple positions on alternative therapies. They may be the most scientifically-minded person going, but when pain-killers no longer work they’re willing to, subjunctively, entertain the idea that acupuncture, or flower remedies, or something else might work. And then, of course, if those seem to work, they may completely change their worldview.

AT: Or not completely.

DR: So yes. You can see where I’m . . .

AT: Yes. Because they may still be going to a more conventional physician or healer at the same time. So they may, people may actually be able to keep multiple variant implicit worldviews going, without thinking really carefully about the conflicts between them – as long as the conflicts aren’t causing them any problems.

DR: So are we seeing people, then, moving between different schemas? Are they moving between different worldviews, then? Or are we able to negotiate multiple schemas in different contexts?

AT: Yes. I mean I think . . . . Let me answer that a couple of ways. Because, if we think about other animals who would have evolved schemas that would be cued by the environment to elicit certain behaviours in certain situations, then certainly we could think that, at that basic level, we have tons of schemas that get differentially cued by different environmental contexts. Each of those contexts would be a whole situation where we could ask, “What’s the situation in which we find ourselves?” “What’s the goal in this situation?” “What is the means to get the goal?” “What kind of action . . .?” So, in that sense, we could begin to flesh out a micro-worldview, or micro-answers to the big questions, in that context. So part of the thing to keep in mind, I think, is the answers to the big questions don’t have to be super-big sounding! (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs). No, absolutely! Yes!

AT: But at a more human level, I think, another way to think about your question, that again came up at our discussions, was to think about it in relationship to people that are bicultural. And it seems to me that there’s an analogy between the kinds of people dealing with medical problems switching between healing frames, we could call it, that could develop into a whole consistent way of life, but could just be these partial things that people can flip back and forth between. And if we look at bicultural people, they get cued to speak different languages, bring whole different sets of cultural schemas into play when they’re with their relatives, wherever their family came from, or when they’re with their family in their new context.

DR: Interestingly – I didn’t mention this when we were talking about this yesterday (25:00) – but, because I worked in catering for a long time, I’ve known a lot of bicultural people. And several of them have said to me that their personality is slightly different when they’re in the other register. Like, I’ve known a French friend of mine who says she’s much more sarcastic and aggressive with her French family and friends than she is with her Scottish friends, for instance.

AT: Yes, I think that’s really interesting. I mean, in that she’s answering the big question about “Who am I?” With different answers.

DR: Differently.

AT: Yes. And I think we need a language to make sense of that, to explore that. And that’s part of what I see as the power of this approach. It seems to me there’s a whole lot of different directions that we can use it to explore.

DR: Yes. So let’s pursue that then – briefly, I mean. In the Gunning lectures you used the example of the AA quite a lot. And I thought you could, maybe, talk us quite quickly through that – just so the listeners have a real world example to play with. So taking the Alcoholics Anonymous – a group that kind-of . . . you know: a debatable case, an edge case as to whether we’re talking about something that’s religious or not. So let’s see how the model works.

AT: Yes, well that was exactly why I picked it. Because they are adamant that they are not a religion.

DR: Absolutely, yes.

AT: So, alcoholics Anonymous is happy to call itself a spiritual . . . as embodying a spiritual path, or a spiritual way of life. They actually use the way of life kind of language, or call themselves a fellowship. So that was why I picked them. Plus, I know a fair amount about them – so it seemed like an example I could spell out.

DR: Yes. That helps!

AT: Yes. So part of what I did in the first lecture was just to show the variety of ways that we can analyse it. So in the first lecture I talked about it at the sort-of high level of itself as a group with official documents, you know, describing who they are collectively. And so I used the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions, which are their core defining documents, to analyse how as an organisation they would officially answer the big questions. They don’t officially answer the big questions, but how we can tease out their answers to the big questions based on their official documents.

DR: OK

AT: And then I indicated that we could look, we could take that analysis in two directions. We could compare it to other groups in the culture to help us better understand how they were trying to position themselves, and why they wanted to insist they were not a religion. And it’s basically because they wanted to argue that their path is compatible with any religion or none at all. But then the other thing that I showed is how we can look at subgroups within AA, or individual narratives within AA, and examine the extent to which they buy the official conception that this is a generic spiritual path. And so I alluded to some of the different commentaries: feminist, Native American, Buddhist, Vedanta – you know. There’s all these different attempts to translate the Twelve Steps into other religious or spiritual terms.

DR: Yes.

AT: So that’s the kind of thing that I was looking at in the first lecture: some of the big picture things we could do. Then in the second lecture, when I looked at the evolutionary perspective, or foundations of worldviews, I used the kind of layered approach – developing the idea that we have these evolved schemas, and also internalised cultural schemas, that can lead us to act very quickly without thinking about it – to tease apart Bill Wilson – one of the Founders of AA – what he would describe as the sort of drinkers’ dilemma, which is that they can make this conscious choice to quit drinking and then have that immediately undermined when somebody hands them a drink (30:00). And so I use that to differentiate between an enacted way of life which is, “I’m an alcoholic”, and an articulated way of life, which is, “I’m going to quit drinking and I have the willpower to do it”.

DR: Yes.

AT: In the last lecture I looked at the emergence of AA and the transformation of the alcoholic as processes of change, both of groups and of individuals. And so I used this kind of analysis to analyse sort-of the before and after, and the transition from one way of life to another.

DR: We’re getting towards time, now. So let’s switch to the bigger questions. So, we’re talking about maybe the idea of subsuming RS under a broader umbrella of worldviews and stuff – where we started. But why is this so important now? What . . . ? This has some strong resonances with the field, and issues within the field generally, I think. And it would be good to speak to that, briefly.

AT: I think I’m frustrated with the field on a couple of levels. I’m frustrated with what strikes me as a continuing spinning of our wheels when it comes to critique. We’re very good at critiquing and identifying all the problems with the concept of religion. But I don’t see that much effort being put into solving the problems. And too often I see the potential solutions, including this one, being shut down because it might undermine our departments, and so-to-speak our way of life. So even if it might be more responsible intellectually, more consistent intellectually, we want to safeguard our way of life and therefore we’re not going to go there, and we’re going to continue to spin our wheels conceptually. I find that really frustrating – although I certainly understand why we might want to protect our way of life. The other frustration, for me, is the kind of polarisation between people that are deeply committed to a humanistic approach to the study of religion and people that are trying to approach it from a more scientific or cognitive scientific point of view. And I really see myself as trying to bridge between those two. And I strongly would argue for the value of both approaches. It’s not an either/or kind of thing. So, taken together, this kind of approach that I’m talking about is designed, one: to offer a constructive kind-of option to get us beyond just critique, and second: to bridge between the humanistic and the scientific approaches. So I’d just like to see more of us engaging in both bridge-building and trying to solve some of our problems.

DR: Yes. And we at the Religious Studies Project . . . those are two issues that we – well, certainly the former: moving beyond critique is something that we’ve taken quite seriously. And the interdisciplinary . . . I mean, we feature a lot of psychology and cognitive people on. But proper interdisciplinary work that builds on both sides equally is rare. But it’s also challenging to do, I think. This is may be a legacy of the way that the field’s construed. We’re already . . . you know, I’ve had to learn Sociology and History as methodologies, just in a standard RS context. So, then, to start building in Psychology and Cognitive Studies, you know – it’s big ask!

AT: I totally agree. It is a big ask. And I’ve been motivated to do it because I find it really fascinating. So if people don’t have any kind of internal curiosity driving them to do it, then you know it’s probably going to be pretty tough (35:00). But, on the other hand, people could be more open to those who are interested in doing it. But the second thing that I think we need to be really aware of is that people in the sciences tend to work collaboratively and people in the humanities tend to be single-author type folks.

DR: Yes.

AT: And so, the more of this kind of bridge-building work I’ve tried to do, the more I’ve been collaborating. So, just in this conversation, I’ve been mentioning Egil Asprem. I’ve been working with him on this worldviews and ways of life stuff, but when we decided to work out some of these ideas for a psychology journal we enlisted a psychologist as a third author. And we’re also working on a another paper that I’m going to be giving in an evolution of religion conference, where I’m going to argue about: why are we talking about the evolution of religion? Shouldn’t we be talking about the evolution of worldviews and ways of life? But, anyway, we’re enlisting an evolutionary psychologist as a third author on that paper. So, I want to have that kind of collaborative input so that I’m more confident that the ways that we’re pushing these ideas makes sense to people who are deeply invested in those particular fields. So it’s one thing to kind-of sketch a big picture, but it’s another to present it with the kind of detail that the people specialising in that area would want to have.

DR: Absolutely. And, you know, I know this myself from the limited amount of collaboration I’ve had in terms of working with conspiracy theory scholars. Because, as someone trained in Religious Studies, I’m kind of a minority there. Probably 50% of them are psychologists and maybe 30% are political science – so very different methodologies. But very clear that the next stage in the scholarship needs to take the humanities’ critiques, and analyses, and understanding of terms together with the kind of data-generating ability, and the quantitative analysis that they can do. And so, yes, I think there’s a very timely call. And it’s probably a good place to leave, on that kind-of rousing call to action!

AT: Yes.

DR: So I’m just going to say – thanks so much for joining us today, Ann. Thank you.

Citation Info: Taves, Ann, and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Worldviews and Ways of Life”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 21 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/worldviews-and-ways-of-life/

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

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

No, Secularism is not a World Religion

No, secularism is not a world religion. That is my response to the question posed to Donovan Schaefer concerning the relationship between secularism and religion. In this podcast, Schaefer suggested that incorporating secularism as an “object of study” within the world religion paradigm could be a useful pedagogical tool to challenge it from within, but I think this is the wrong approach. The reason for my rejection of  Schaefer’s solution is not because I think incorporating secularism in the world religion paradigm would muddy the sanctity of the category, nor because Schaefer’s proposal fails some more critical definition of religion, but simply because it would only end up reifying religion even more. In my view, incorporating secularism in the world religions paradigm doesn’t challenge this paradigm from within, as Schaefer suggests, but merely gives it more life by expanding its scope and reach. Committing this error would be the same as trying to fix the eurocentrism implicit in the world religion paradigm by expanding the various cultures and histories that fall under its domain, which is exactly the same error that thinkers made in the middle of the twentieth century. In contrast to Schaefer, I would suggest that the way to challenge the world religions paradigm is not by incorporating more diverse―and possibly anti-religious―phenomenon into its structure, but by simply historicizing the category and showing how it operates at an ideological level.

To begin, let me assert that I recognize and respect the general scholarly position from which Schaefer  is coming. At the beginning of the podcast he notes that a lot of recent scholarship has challenged the idea that secularism stands in contrast to religion, and on this point he is certainly correct. In the past century, prominent theorist like Karl Löwith, Hans Blumenberg, Charles Taylor, and Marcel Gauchet have all challenged the traditional narrative that pits modernity against religion and frames Western history as an increasing process of secularization that is liberated from religion. For instance, Blumenberg tries to expose the unique legitimacy of the modern age that recognizes but does not reduce it to its Christian legacy, and Taylor takes the extreme position of suggesting that the modern secular age was brought about by developments latent in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Indeed, for Taylor, the generative seeds of modernity don’t begin with modern developments in science and philosophy but with various Judeo-Christian influences that we can trace back to the wider Mediterranean civilization from which they emerged. This implies that secularism is not some anti-religious movement in the West but is deeply intertwined with the rise and fall of the civilization that once called itself “Christendom.”

Indeed, as both Schaefer and Cotter acknowledge during the course of the pod cast, both “religion” and the “secular” are categories that emerge out of a certain “Christian”―or more broadly stated, “Western”―provenance. In regard to religion, thinkers such as Talal Asad, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Tomoko Masuzawa have all noted that it was only after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century that the word “religion” began to take on the connotation of personal belief in a subjective sense, and to denote a universal human sense or capacity for religion. In Roman and early Christian Latin literature the nouns religio, religiones, the adjective religiosus, and the adverb religios were mainly used to describe the performance of ritual obligations. This early use has more in common with the Latin Pietas than with our modern notion of the word “religion,” which has acquired the sense of inner belief or faith. The invention of religion in this modern sense took place because various thinkers―from Jean Bodin to G. W. F. Hegel―argued that true religion is a matter of proper belief, not just cultic participation. Moreover, it occurred when this idea was carried around the world by the forces of colonization and globalization, which eventually led to the normative divisions of the subject that make up world religion textbooks (i.e. the division between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.)

Similarly, the secular was also invented in the context of Christians―or Christian critics―struggling to make sense of the post-reformation world. In fact, the first modern use of the word “secular” can be traced to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which brought an end to the wars of religion. The treaty uses the term “secularity” to describe “the conversion of an ecclesiastical or religious institution or its property to sovereigns, princes or lay people.” In this manner, the secular emerged as a space of worldly authority that was distinct from, yet deeply interconnected with, Western religious institutions. From this perspective, as Schaefer notes, secularism can be viewed as “an offshoot of Christianity… as something that Christianity does.” When we view the history of the West from a broad lens it is possible to see the great schisms between the various Christian orthodoxies and the “secular” forms of thought that took inspiration from them as “part of the story of Christianity.”

Where I disagree with Schaefer is in his attempt to see these intertwined genealogies through the cross-hairs of the world religion paradigm. Once we acknowledge that the invention of religion as a universal category and its subsequent critique by the forces of secularism took place under a certain Western provenance, why would we continue expanding the scope and reach of the world religion paradigm? I agree with Schaefer that this paradigm is not “evil,” as he puts it, but it is incorrect; it does not adequately describe the phenomena, so why would we continue to expand its application? From my perspective, to do what Schaefer is suggesting would be tantamount to the same error made by Ernst Troeltsch or Ninian Smart in the twentieth century, as it would try to correct the study of religion by expanding its scope. Smart, for instance, always tried to instruct students in a “broad religious outlook” by showing how religion is constituted by cultural difference,  and I think what Schaefer has suggested would end up being very similar. Recall that Smart’s classification of world religions included not just Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, but various indigenous traditions and even Maoist communism. In this light, incorporating secularism within the world religion paradigm is no different than attempting to challenge the paradigm by incorporating non-traditional or atheist forms of religion within the classroom.

For instance, Schaefer cites the work of Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, and suggests that one way to critically challenge religion from within is by showing how there is not just one type of secularism, but multiple secularisms. Like Talal Asad and Charles Taylor, he suggests that there are different formations of the secular that emerge out of different cultures and contexts, and that they expose the diversity at the heart of our models of religious classification. In this light, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu cultures (etc.) give rise to different types of secularism, and there is even a difference between Hindu forms of secularism in India and Hindu forms of secularism in America. Now, to be fair, I do think this is a good way to understand different cultural forms in light of globalization, but why try to incorporate these secularisms within the world religion paradigm? In contrast to Schaefer, I am worried that including non-religious or atheist forms of culture within the paradigm doesn’t challenge it from within, but merely revitalizes it by incorporating more data within its fold.

To put the matter plainly, I think we need to push the genealogy and historical situatedness of religion and secularism further than Schaefer proposes. Schaefer suggests that he wants to deconstruct the world religion paradigm by destabilizing it from within, yet I don’t think he goes far enough in this regard. He is right that deconstruction always takes place within the very thing under analysis, but this doesn’t mean that we should proceed by expanding the same old reified categories at a wider level. I follow Jacques Derrida in thinking that we need to question both our students and ourselves (as scholars) whether religion and secularism exist at all outside of their Western contexts, and thereby attempt to limit their further application. In Above All No Journalists! Derrida states this bluntly when he asks what a non-Christian is doing when they say “Islam, or Judaism, or Buddhism is my religion.” Is there even a word for “religion” in Arabic, he questions? Certainly not an adequate translation of the Latin. Moreover, what really characterizes Judaism as a religion, or Buddhism? What we know for certain, Derrida suggests, is that the history of the concept religion is wrapped up with a “political and ideological space dominated by Christianity,” and that “to engage in the obscure and equivocal strug­gle in which the putatively “universal” value of the concept of religion, even of religious tolerance,” is to engage in a semantic space appropriated by Christianity.  According to this approach, deconstruction occurs by exposing the limits of traditional modes of classification and retreating from their normative application, not applying these norms to even more phenomena.

For these reasons, I would suggest that the best way to challenge the world religions paradigm is simply by historicizing the category and showing how it functions at an ideological level. I am all in favor of deconstructing something from within “in order to destabilize it,” as Schaefer suggests, but we can do this without expanding the scope of the same old categories along the way. Hence, rather than merely incorporating more diverse―and possibly anti-religious―phenomenon into the world religions paradigm, I think we need to expose the ideological forces at play and thereby challenge their application on a global scale. Schaefer is correct that there is “only so much we can do to destabilize the way that students think,” but if that is the case then let’s expose the limits of the normative forces at play by properly situating them within their ideological contexts.

 

 

 

 

How to solve a problem like World Religions? An interdisciplinary approach.

The deluge of responses to Teemu Taira’s recent RSP podcast show that “What is religion?” (and so implicitly, “What is secular?”)  remains the subject of ongoing debate that is unlikely to be resolved soon. As Donovan Schaefer explains in his interview with Christopher Cotter, however, there are considerable problems with the idea that secularism is either the opposite of religion or its absence. The subtraction story of secularism, the idea that you can simply remove ‘religion’ and be left with something neutral, is simply not true (Taylor, 2007). Secularism is itself an ideology that presents both a characterisation of how the world is and how it should be. Schaefer suggests that the conceptualisation of religion as something concrete that can be removed to leave an objective, rational base is a consequence of the World Religions paradigm and its roots in 19th Century scientific rationalism. Challenging this simplistic conception of religion and its consequences lies at the core of the Critical Religion movement. Schaefer’s interview is an invitation to explore how we can do that most effectively. How do we translate critical insights that have significant real world implications into ideas that can easily be transmitted to students and the wider public?

To answer that, we must consider why we teach about religion(s) at all.  As teachers, it is important that we both impart knowledge about our subject areas but also that we should challenge and expand the worldviews of our students to help them develop as individuals. To do that successfully we need to find a starting point that is sufficiently familiar and accessible to our students, so that they can engage in constructive dialogue. As Schaefer notes, despite its flaws the World Religions paradigm was an improvement on previous colonialist approaches and it remains a useful pedagogical tool. If people already think in terms of an implicit World Religions paradigm, then it provides a sensible starting point for teaching.

According to the latest British Social attitudes report 64% of British 18-24 year olds do not belong to a religious tradition and so ignoring secularism in the study of religion and beliefs is an untenable approach. The vocal claims of so-called New Atheists, about non-religion and ‘rationality’ should be critically examined, just as the claims of religious and other social groups should be scrutinised when they have public implications. Challenging the assumptions of these students and encouraging them to examine their own intellectual heritage is also an important step towards teaching them to understand the beliefs of those from other cultural traditions. Schaefer is correct that encouraging critical thought about secularism and religion should be seen as complimentary exercises. Exploring these topics can stimulate both academic and personal development.

Schaefer lays out two possibilities for mixing Secularism Studies and World Religions. The first option is to focus on the form of secularism that is most familiar to our students, that of the contemporary West, and to locate this secularism as part of the Christian tradition in which it has its historical roots. This view positions the Enlightenment as a consequence of the Reformation and views the split between those who accept the (more or less) literal truths of Christian tradition and those who reject them as part of a long line of doctrinal schisms. Positioning a secularism such as New Atheism in this way highlights its historically contingent nature and can lead to fruitful discussions and debates in a teaching environment. However, such an approach can be criticised for neglecting secularisms that have or could arise in other contexts. Schaefer’s second option is a better, albeit more time consuming, approach that examines secularist trends within each of the World Religions and stresses how they are all historically contingent. The choice between these two options will probably be made pragmatically, depending on both the teacher’s expertise and the time that they can devote to secularism within a broader course.

There is, perhaps, a third and more radical way that still retains the broad strokes of the World Religions paradigm but which critiques it more directly and opens up the issues and core themes for discussion during future weeks. At the risk of sounding partial, perhaps the solution is a greater integration of psychology and the social sciences into the conceptualisation and teaching of religion. By starting with the questions of why people believe what they believe, and what distinguishes religious beliefs from other beliefs, the problems of both the World Religions paradigm and Secularism Studies are placed into a wider context. Questions like how we construct worldviews and conceptions of ourselves are fundamental to understanding lived and implicit religion and other existential cultures (Lee, 2015). “What do you believe?” and “Why do you believe it?” are, perhaps, the most important questions that religious studies should be challenging non-academics to ask themselves. Answering these questions sets the stage for subsequent discussions about the differences between various existential cultures, for the diversity of religious traditions, and for an appreciation of the complex and often contradictory beliefs and behaviours of individuals (Chaves, 2010). Is it practical to introduce such an approach into a single World Religions course? Like Schaefer, I am unsure – it is something I would like to have the opportunity to try but can only theorise about currently. It should, however, certainly be possible within the broader context of a Religious Studies degree.

The danger raised at the end of the interview by David Robertson about potentially reinforcing unhelpful models of religion is real. Is the main reason that people think in terms of the World Religions paradigm because that is how they are taught religion in schools and because that is how religion is generally conceptualised in the public sphere? As Fitzgerald (2000) noted, that paradigm is beneficial to many and it is now heavily entrenched. Perhaps a more radical approach, based as much in the social sciences as the humanities, can fix that – but until then Schaefer’s suggestion to inhabit the paradigm and critique it from within is a sound option for teaching religion in higher education. It is certainly better than ignoring secularism entirely and, within a British context at least, the introduction of humanism or secularism in religious studies classrooms and lecture halls as a method of critiquing the world religions and introducing wider conceptual problems should be encouraged.

References

Chaves, M. (2010). Rain Dances in the Dry Season: Overcoming the Religious Congruence Fallacy. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49(1), 1–14. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01489.x

Fitzgerald, T. (2000). The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Lee, L. (2015). Recognizing the non-religious: Reimagining the secular. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Is Secularism a World Religion?

Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will know that we are not the biggest fans of the World Religions Paradigm. Indeed, it was James Cox’s excellent introduction to the topic back in February 2013, and the accompanying response that asked what Religious Studies should do “After the World Religions Paradigm…?” that prompted David and Chris, with some encouragement from Steve Sutcliffe, Russell McCutcheon and Craig Martin, to co-edit the volume “published in February 2016 with Routledge. Listeners will also be relatively familiar with the concept of “secularism”, “the secular” and so on – particularly from our podcasts with Joseph Blankholm on “Permutations of the Secular” and with Phil Zuckerman and John Shook on “Understanding the Secular“. Today we thought it would be an interesting exercise to weave these two strands together and rhetorically ask “Is Secularism a World Religion?” Discussion starts with the entanglement of the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’, a brief discussion of the problems associated with the World Religions Paradigm, and then moves to the pedagogical merits and challenges of teaching ‘secularism/s’ within a World Religions model. We hope you enjoy this experiment!


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


(pssst…check out these podcasts below too!)

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

Is religion ‘sui generis,? with Russell McCutcheon

Secular Humanism with Tom Flynn

The Secularisation Thesis with Linda Woodhead

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Podcast with Donovan Schaefer (28th November 2016)

Interviewed by Christopher R. Cotter

Transcribed by Catrin J. Sawford

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/is-secularism-a-world-religion/

Christopher R. Cotter (CC): Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will know that we’re not the biggest fans of the “World religions” paradigm. Indeed, it was James Cox’s excellent introduction to the topic back in February 2013 and the accompanying response that asked what religious studies should do after the world religions paradigm that prompted David and I, with some encouragement from Steve Sutcliffe, Russell McCutcheon, and Craig Martin, to co-edit the volume ‘After World religions’, published in February 2016.  Listeners will also be relatively familiar with concepts of Secularism, the secular, and so on, particularly from podcasts with Joe Blankholm on Permutations of the Secular and with Phil Zuckerman and John Shook on Understanding the Secular.  Today we thought it would be an interesting exercise to weave these two strands together and rhetorically ask, ‘is Secularism a world religion?’ So I’m joined today to discuss this question by Donovan Schaefer at the British Association for the Study of Religion’s annual conference at the University of Wolverhampton. Dr Schaefer is departmental lecturer in science and religion, in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford University and his first book ‘Religious Affects, Animality, Evolution, and Power’ was published in November 2015 by Duke, and has current projects on the relationship between emotion, science, and Secularism. So Donovan, first off welcome to The Religious Studies Project.

Donovan Schaefer (DS): Thanks a lot Chris, thanks for having me.

(CC): It’s a pleasure. So first of all, in the spirit of rhetorically asking, why are we even asking this question? I mean, Secularism is surely as far removed from the category of world religions as we can get, I mean…why are you asking it?

(DS): Yeah, definitely. A lot of recent research has actually challenged that seemingly common-sensical argument that Secularism is the opposite of religion. This has come from a lot of different directions, historical analysis, cultural studies, even a lot of work in philosophy of religion has started to challenge this idea that there is a clear line between the secular and the religious.

(CC): Mm. And, because they’re so intertwined as concepts even if you were to accept they’re-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): opposites, you’ve always got the study…the opposites within…you know, you can’t know what religion is without studying it’s supposed opposite anyway.

(DS): Yeah, absolutely.

(CC): So, perhaps it would be best to start, I mean, we’ve covered the Secularisation Thesis and a lot of these topics in other podcasts but we should start with that, so let’s paint the context in which this question is being asked then.

(DS): Sure, so the Secularisation Thesis really gets off the ground in the 19th Century and it comes from a variety of different quarters in the sort of, early movements in sociology, some of the early conversations that are being asked in science and religion, late 20th Century, sorry, late 19th Century, philosophy of religion, all of these different conversations start to thematise this idea that religion is a specific thing in the world that is gradually going away.

(CC): Mmm.

(DS): Now, in the 20th century you have thinkers like Max Weber in sociology who formalise this, they make it, they make it even more of a kind of, article of social-scientific faith that religion is on a trajectory of decline. What happens though, is that, later in the 20th Century, you have these historical moments that start to challenge the Secularisation Thesis. So something like the rise of the religious right in the United States in the 1970s in reaction to things like the civil rights movement, or the (05:00) Roe V Wade Supreme Court ruling. The religious right by the mid to late 1970s has become an incredibly powerful force and of course in 1980 you have the election of Ronald Regan with a specifically Christian agenda backing him. Or even across the world, something like the Iranian revolution in 1978 to ’79 that creates a new Islamic Republic where previously there had been a secular state. Stuff like this, it’s just not supposed to happen according to the classical Secularisation narrative. There isn’t supposed to be a return of religion, religion is supposed to be evaporating. And that puts a, it puts pressure on the classical secularisation narrative. So scholars throughout the 1980s, 1990s and up to the present have started to ask questions about the secularisation narrative and have come up with a very robust dialogue about what went wrong with the classical secularisation paradigm and what will replace it.

(CC): Mmm. And that also sort of introduces an ideological element this sort of idea-

(DS): -Right.

 (CC): –that the notion of secularisation is itself a form of ideology, it’s a sort of…thinking of the way things should be-

(DS): Definitely, yeah.

(CC): -it’s not mirroring reality.

(DS): Right.

(CC): So we’ve already alluded to even if these things are dichotomous, obviously it’s studying them alongside each other so…many of us at Universities will be familiar with the standard introductory sort of  ‘here’s a survey of world religions’ like ‘Religion 101’ or something. So I think one of the questions you’re really asking is should… where’s the place of the secular in that sort of Religion 101 class?

(DS): Yeah, exactly.

(CC): Is it a World Religion, so if we’re going to segue into that, we’re going to need to talk about what is a world religion first of all, and then ask why we might want to try and fit the secular into that mould.

(DS): I mean I should really be asking you that but my take on it is that the idea of World religions again has its emergence in the 19th Century, it comes out of these 19th Century thinkers like Max Muller who are interested in making the study of religion into a science, they want to formalize the study of religion and turn it into something that moves away from the obviously supremacist classification scheme that had been used previously in Western Europe. That said though, Tomoko Masuzawa in her book ‘The Invention of World religions’ is actually…even though she spends a great deal of time sort of researching the archives, trying to find out where this paradigm comes from. Even she ultimately says she doesn’t know where it comes from. It emerges obviously through a sort of confluence of different conversations that are taking place throughout the 19th Century and early 20th century. Where precisely it comes from is…is a little bit opaque. Regardless, what we’re left with by the mid to late 20th Century is an understanding of religions as discrete objects that can be studied in the world that have particular histories, they’re often organised under a particular heading. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and they’re very often structured around a specific text and a specific set of practices. And that structure is something that has become, at least at the level of the dissemination of religious studies in terms of undergraduate teaching, central.

(CC): Yes.

(DS): How did I do?

(CC): You did well, Sir, you did well. And it’s…Yes, so it’s sort of ubiquitous in undergraduate teaching and it’s ubiquitous in society, you know-

(DS): -Right

(CC): –we think about ‘what is your religion’ as a question that makes sense to people and then we have these certain silos-

(DS): -Right

(CC): -that we try and put that into. So yes, this has been…regardless of the origins of it this has been subjected to a number of critiques right so, it’s very Protestant, for example –

(DS): -Yeah.

(CC): –that idea of a text and it being about belief, you can only have one faith and all that sort of thing. This seemingly objective model sort of becomes Oh…that’s a little bit Protestant.

(DS): Definitely. And also something that I think we can see as being a by-product of (10:00) a particular idiom of 19th Century science. 19th Century science it’s the age of classification, it’s the age of grand theories, and that prism divides up the world in a particular way, and I think we can see the World religions paradigm as being a product of that particular way of thinking about the world.

(CC): Mmm. And that particular way of thinking about the world is deeply connected with Colonialism as well.

(DS): Definitely.

(CC): We were encountering others and then classifying them.

(DS): Absolutely.

(CC): ‘Classify and conquer’ was, I think was Max Muller’s term. And then of course it encourages this notion that there is a thing called religion that is made manifest in various forms.

(DS): Right.

(CC): So Russ McCutcheon would take great issue with that.

(DS): Yeah.

(CC): So given all that problem with the World religions paradigm why would we want to try and fit Secularism into that model. What would be the point, shouldn’t we just be jettisoning it?

(DS): Yeah, right. Well, I mean, I have a few thoughts on that. I am not…I’m not blanketly hostile to the World religions paradigm. I think that …I would give it about a six out of ten or a seven out of ten in terms of a pedagogical tool for explaining religion to undergraduates, especially if we start from the assumption that many undergraduates are only going to take one religious studies class. Is the World religions paradigm the best way of doing that? I’m not sure. But I don’t think that it necessarily is evil. However, I do think that it needs to be deconstructed from within. I think that precisely as we’re teaching students within this framework we need to be calling attention to the limitations of this framework. And part of the reason why I think it’s important to talk about Secularism within that context is because I think that it sets the stage for conversation about the World religions paradigm in and of itself.

(CC): Mmm. Yes, and the paradigm, you know, I think it was my colleague Kate Daley-Bailey described it as, you know, it’s a useful way of getting people from one side of the road to the other-

(DS): Absolutely.

(CC):– and if that’s what you need to do, you get them there. But you can also along the way be explaining to them why you chose that why of doing it if it wasn’t the best…

(DS): Exactly. Yeah, right.

(CC): Okay, so… let’s do this then. Let’s take the World religions model and let’s take the notion of Secularism. So how are we going to go about answering the question is it a world religion?

(DS): Definitely. So this is where I want to get a conversation started. I don’t have clear answers to this but what I sort of see us doing is shuffling the deck of Secularism studies into the deck of the World religions paradigm and just seeing what comes out on the other end. So I think that, in terms of a kind of structure, an overall architecture to this, there would be two ways of doing it. So Secularism studies scholars have roughly speaking two ways of talking about Secularism. One of the ways of talking about it is to say that Secularism is itself a particular iteration of Protestant Christianity, that we have the version of Secularism that we have because we are an offshoot of a cultural historical context that defined religion in a particular way. This goes back to something you were saying earlier about the inextricability of the category of religion from the category of the secular. It’s precisely because we see religion as something that is potentially private, individualised, and belief orientated that religion is something that can be relegated to the private sphere and therefore… and therefore secularised, according to the conventional definition.

(CC): Yeah. So we can see that there’s sort of like a Hegelian dialectic there even-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -look to Feuerbach, and even… you know that we produce the… yeah the… As Christianity secularized… As Catholicism changed to Protestantism that started-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -started a transition.

(DS): Yeah, absolutely. Or even like, one thing that historians and especially intellectual historians like Jonathan Z. Smith, Talal Asad, when he’s wearing that hat, or someone like Craig Calhoun, they really liked to emphasize the beginning of modernity and the immediate aftermath of the Protestant reformation.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): So you could look at it theoretically in the way that religion gets defined as something that is personal rather than corporate. (15:00) You could look at it historically and the way that the resolution to the wars of religion that emerge in the aftermath of the reformation. The political…the political compromises that are made in that wake tend to make religion into something that is detachable, it’s something that is sort of, as Locke puts it, can be kept in the private sphere rather than the public sphere. All of these…all of these…all of these details of Protestantism, whether they’re sort of, part of the DNA of Protestantism or whether they’re sort of historical accidents that shoot off from Protestantism, they make up the coordinates of what would eventually become Secularism.

(CC): Okay.

(DS): So one of the ways that I could see us potentially integrating Secularism into the World religions classroom would be to talk about it as an offshoot from Christianity.

(CC): Mmhmm.

(DS): When we teach Christianity we teach Secularism as something that Christianity does in exactly the same way as you know, depending on how many days you have for teaching Christianity, you would give a sort of capsule history where you would talk about the great schisms, orthodoxy from Catholicism, Protestantism from Catholicism and then could also locate Secularism as, in a sense, another schism, as another permutation of Christianity that is part of the story of Christianity as a World Religion.

(CC): Mmm. And indeed, some of the annoyance that some proponents of Secularism feel with that approach to my mind indicates the very importance of taking that approach-

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): –because people don’t feel annoyance unless there’s some sort of deep connection to the category that you’re talking about.

(DS): I think that’s right and especially building on that if we’re talking about teaching students in a Western/Anglo/Euro/American context, we’re going to be teaching students who are going to be coming from a variety of faith positions some of whom will be coming from a non-faith position and probably see their status as neutral. They probably see the religions they’re looking at as in a sense, under glass, as something that is disconnected from where they are. And I think it’s important for those students to recognise that even the liberal Secular idiom that they might see themselves located within, has a history. That it, even it, the agenda of that is set by a particular set of Christian coordinates. Saba Mahmood has done some really excellent work on this, talking about the way that these sort of ostensibly secular legal codes throughout Europe actually privilege a kind of ghost of Christianity, that they are marshalled in the service of defending a sort of Christian heritage and they suppress other ways of being religious.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): Even when they…they give Christianity a special sort of protection. A perfect example of this would be like the Burkini ban-

(CC): –Yes.

(DS): -that’s been happening in the summer of 2016 where Burkinis, this article of clothing that seems like it would be inoffensive enough has actually become offensive to French Secularism. Precisely because it is encoding a set of Christian presuppositions about ways that you are Secular and religious.

(CC): On that note I saw that, it was in the Guardian, they were quoting sort of, the ruling and it said it might offend the people’s (non) religious (non) convictions.

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): So your non-religious non-conviction might be offended by it, there’s something interesting going on there.

(DS): Exactly. I think that that’s exactly…I think that that’s a really important pedagogical manoeuvre  with students is showing them how even our own liberal democratic structures have a sort of conserved Christian genetic coding in them. That’s not to create an equivalence, that’s not to say that the difference aren’t meaningful, it’s just to say that we need to…we need to take a critical eye on our own intellectual inheritance rather than presupposing it’s neutral. So all of that would be one way that I would see Secularism entering the World religions paradigm… structure. I think there’s another way though, which would be equally interesting.

(CC): Mhhmm.

(DS): So one of the ways that scholars working in the mode of critical Secularism studies have approached Secularism is to say there is not just one Secularism.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): There are in fact multiple Secularisms. This is the title of a book, an anthology (20:00) by Janet Jakobsen and Anne Pellegrini, ‘Secularisms’, and this, as I see it, is coming out of these two sort of, kind of, guiding lights of the critical Secularism studies field.  Talal Asad and Charles Taylor. So Talal Asad is very interested in this idea that the Secularism that we have is a result of a particular history and he says that rather than assuming that Secularism is going to be the same everywhere we anticipate a multiplicity of what he calls ‘formations of the Secular’.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): There are different Secularisms that correspond to different historical moments, and they have different priorities, they have different coordinates, they have different outcomes precisely because their starting points, the sort of ingredients out of, the landscape out of which they secularise is different. So his sort of cardinal example of this is the difference between Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity and Islam. Protestant Christianity de-ritualises religion so its version of Secularism is a version of Secularism that doesn’t pay a lot of attention to ritual, doesn’t pay a lot of attention to practices. Asad will say, you know, when we have formations of the secular emerging out of Islamic contexts we need to be attentive to the way that they are…that they are…that they always keep an eye on practices. And the version, the formations of the Secular that emerge in these other contexts will have a different configuration. Charles Taylor calls this…he calls this ‘the myth of the subtraction story’. The myth of the subtraction story is this idea that once you get rid of religion, you’re left with a neutral landscape.

(CC): Yeah. Indeed, yeah, I’ve always thought of using a quotation from my supervisor Kim Knott who just says that there is no neutral point from which to observe religion-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -we’re participants in that discourse. So would the logical outcome of that then be that if you were incorporating that Secularism(s) into the World religions classroom that you would sort of pair off-

(DS): -Yeah.

(CC):- you would teach Christianity and Christian Secularism, Islam and Islamic Secularism.

(DS): That’s what I’m thinking of. I’m, again, I’m presenting this conversationally, this isn’t something that I’m, I’m at a point where I could publish it but I think that we need to consider this possibility that the best way to teach Secularism within the context of the World religions classroom would be exactly this pairing, to say that Buddhist secularisms, Christian Secularisms, Jewish Secularisms, even we might want to get more specific than that, like Jewish Secularism in the United States, very different from Jewish Secularism in Israel. Islamic Secularism in Saudi Arabia is very different from Islamic Secularism in Iran. To thematise this I think would be a really productive way of getting Secularism into the conversation, but also raising this idea which I think is one of the challenges that you’ve, that you’ve sort of discussed very ably in your own work with Secularism, which is the way it creates a sort of silo model as you said it-

(CC):- Mhhmm.

(DS):- of these religions being sort of ahistorical, sort of fixed compilations of ideas and practices that can be very easily, sort of clinically diagnosed as you know-

(CC):- Mhhmm.

(DS): -you know like, okay, you’ve got, you’ve got your five pillars, you’ve got Islam. That’s not actually adequate, that’s never been adequate for teaching what religion is, but it’s particularly inadequate in the context of a situation, a global situation now, of accelerating mediatisation and globalisation where transactions between different traditions are becoming more and more…more and more rich. They’re just more and more…the dynamic between different traditions is becoming deeper and deeper. And I think that emphasising that localism of Secularism would be a way of raising that to the surface.

(CC): Mhhm. And this is exactly the sort of thing that we should be discussing at this conference, the theme being ‘religion beyond the textbook’.

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): So, conclusion then. So, are you going to do this?

(DS): Yeah, I think I will. I’m not in a situation right now where I teach world religions but as I think about, as I think about that syllabus next time that that portfolio falls into my lap it’s something that I’m actually quite excited to do, precisely because of the way that I think (25:00) it, it reciprocally calls attention to the limits of both the world religions paradigm, which I think is a useful, if limited, pedagogical tool, and the Secularisation narrative.

(CC): And how do we avoid…one of the main problems with subversively employing anything, so subversively employing the world religions category, is that your critical intent isn’t really communicated to the students, again as you say if they’ve come for a one semester course and then they’re gone, they’ve gone in and they’ve done the world religions course and they’ve come out. So say they’ve come to this course and they do a world religions and Secularisms thing and then they come out with this sort of very strict siloed model on Islamic Secularism is this, Christian Secularism is that, what, is there a danger there, going down that route, you could be sort of reifying the very distinction that we…

(DS): Yeah. I think all discourses have dangers. All discourses are going to be provisional ways of organising the abundance of information that is the world. And they’re always going to have certain limitations attached to them. I think that the best that we can do is inhabit those discourses with a sort of deconstructive eye. And my hope is that among other things I think that there are lots of ways of sort of reciprocally critiquing the world religions paradigm while teaching it. I’ve tried to do that in the past when I’ve taught world religions. I think that this method of introducing Secularism as a legitimate object of study within the architecture of the religions, world religions paradigm could be a way of amplifying that technique.

(CC): Yeah. And, you know, you can only resist the dominant expectations of your students so much before they stop coming to your classes and also I can see this being a really good exercise perhaps for higher level students, just to pose the question that we’ve asked-

(DS):- Right.

(CC): –is Secularism a world religion, set it as an essay topic or something, I can see some really excellent discussions happening there.

(DS): That would be fascinating. I mean, I think too, like, I absolutely agree with what you’re saying, that pedagogically that, I mean, there’s only so much we can do to sort of…there’s only so much we can do to sort of destabilise the way that students think, but I’m also…I’m also a firm believer in the pedagogical value of inhabiting something from the inside in order to destabilise it.

(CC): Mhhm.

(DS): Rather than standing so far outside of it that students can’t necessarily see what you’re doing.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): And my hope is, and again I mean, this is just an optimism, it’s not something that I’ve actually put into play, and really I see it more of just a conversation starter in pedagogy circles than anything, and my hope is that this practice of introducing Secularism as an object of study within the context of the world religions paradigm would be a way of inhabiting that paradigm from the inside and leaving students with a very vivid impression of its own limitations.

(CC): That is a wonderful way to end. Bang on half an hour, so thanks so much Donovan.

(DS): Thanks so much Chris, this was wonderful.

(CC): Well, I very much enjoyed recording that interview with Donovan and we both were in the session where he presented that paper at the BASR.

David Robertson: Yeah I was going to mention that, there was an odd moment there. It wasn’t the best attended of sessions, I don’t think it got the audience it deserves let’s put it that way, but I think there was eight or nine people in the room of whom two, two of, were myself and Chris. And he immediately showed a picture of our book, ‘The RSP Volume’ you know, After World Religions, which you should read if you haven’t, and started attacking our argument, which was-

(CC): He didn’t attack our argument!

(DR): I thought it was wonderful, I loved every minute of it [laughs].

(CC): But yeah, it was one of those lovely moments that was sort of the first proper one in my “career” in quotation marks. And so hopefully the catchy title there will have dragged in some listeners, you might have thought ‘what, what, that’s ridiculous!’ But hearing Donovan talk about it as an interesting thought experiment, as a way of dismantling in a way the hegemony of the paradigm itself.

(DR): Indeed, and problematizing the term and its application and the rest of it, and Chris and I have talked about an After After World Religions, be it a journal or a second volume of the book, and Donovan is going to contribute to that (30:00) hopefully, if and when it happens.

(CC): You hear that Donovan? You’re under contract now.

(DR): He gave me a verbal agreement and in Scotland that’s legally binding. It was in Helsinki.

(CC): And in Wolverhampton. Same difference.

(DR): Was it?

(CC): Yes.

(DR): Oh. Either way, I’m Scottish so that’s binding.

[they laugh].

(DR): I think we may be showing too much of the man behind the curtain this week.


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