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Challenges and Responsibilities for the Public Scholar of Religion

In this interview, Megan Goodwin examines the current state of public religious studies scholarship. “Public scholar” has become a buzzword in some corners of the discipline of religious studies, variously referring to scholars who share their research to a broader audience on social media platforms, in popular media outlets, or through multimedia such as podcasts and online video. As more scholars have entered these ranks, the broader field has taken notice. The American Academy of Religion even declared the 2018 presidential theme as “Religious Studies in Public: The Civic Responsibilities, Opportunities, and Risks Facing Scholars of Religion.” What challenges do public scholars of religion face? Are academic institutions prepared to support these scholars as they are exposed both to greater scrutiny from their academic peers as well as vitriolic hate from trolls online? Where is public religious studies scholarship headed in the coming years?

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


Challenges and Responsibilities for the Public Scholar of Religion

Podcast with Megan Goodwin (25 March 2019).

Interviewed by Andrew Henry.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Goodwin_-_Challenges_and_Responsibilities_for_the_Public_Scholar_of_Religion_1.1

Andrew Henry (AH): Welcome Listeners. I’m recording from Boston, at Northeastern University. I’m with Dr Megan Goodwin. She’s a scholar of gender, sexuality and race, and contemporary American minority religions at Northeastern University. She’s a visiting lecturer at Northeastern University and the programme director of a new initiative called “Sacred Writes

Megan Goodwin (MG): W-r-i-t-e-s.

AH: Right, OK. Tell us a little bit about this new initiative.

MG: So Liz Bucar and I last year worked on a grant that Liz proposed to ACLS and Luce for Religion Journalism and International affairs. And working on this Reporting Religion project we started conversations around what would best help shift the conversation around religion, right. How would you make the most impact with the work that folks were already doing in the academy and make sure that that’s not a conversation that’s only happening within the academy? So we spent last year proposing a project that helps train scholars to translate their work for non-experts and to think about partnering with media outlets – who were already doing fairly smart reporting, often on religion but are just under-sourced. And even when they’re not under sourced they’re not trained as experts in religion. So, how do we make the most out of both media expertise and religion expertise, and make that the most useful for folks who are not experts in media or religion?

AH: So you’re looking to be the creative bridge between the academy and . . . not just the general public – however we define that – but, specifically, journalist and media outlets.

MG: So we can think of it, I think, broadly as a communication breakdown, right? (I got that Led Zeppelin thing happening in my head.) So we are in a political moment where religion is deeply shaping so many facets of public life. At the same time religion is not something that gets taught as a subject of scholarly enquiry, right. It’s something personal, it’s something you do at home, it is not something that we’re taught how to think about. So the folks who have been taught how to think about it have developed that expertise, but aren’t trained to do that translation work. And frankly, largely speaking, institutions haven’t valued that work as scholarship. It’s seen as, potentially, “community service” or an amusing side-hobby for tech nerds, but not something that’s serious scholarship, that people who are really invested in being intellectuals would ever really invest in. So the way that we’re thinking about the work that Sacred Writes does is both helping scholars shift public conversations around religion – helping non-experts understand why they need to know something about religion in order to understand the election process, or the conversation about healthcare – and at the same time, hopefully, teaching institutions how to value that work as legitimate scholarship, as opposed to something we do for funsies.

AH: So you’ve brought up a lot of interesting ideas here. And I want to try to take them systematically. And the one that you mentioned was how the discipline of Religious Studies, the academic discipline, values engaging the public. You mentioned that it would count as community service but presumably, if you’re going up for tenure, the monographs from a good university press would count much more than running a podcast like this, for example?

MG: Right. And best-case scenario is that it’s seen as public service or a civic good. Worst case scenario, it works against your tenure case. And I certainly know folks who have raised this as an issue for reasons they’ve been denied tenure: that participating in public-facing work suggests a lack of investment in scholarly gravitas. So what we’re hoping, as part of the outcome of Sacred Writes, is using this incredible pool of expertise that we’ve gathered in our leadership team to take those areas of expertise, and frankly the weight of those scholarly identities, back to institutions and help them understand that this is serious scholarship. And cultivate best practices for scholars who are interested in doing this work, so that their work can be legible, again, to non-experts but also to their own institutions. My thinking on this is largely informed by the work that Hannah McGregor is doing currently. She hosts a podcast called “ Secret Feminist Agenda“ (audio unclear) but one of the things that’s really remarkable about Secret Feminist Agenda is that it’s currently being experimentally peer reviewed (5:00). So there is a peer reviewing institution that is crafting a mechanism by which this work that she’s doing, which is so smart but also so accessible, can be valued by her tenure granting institution. And I’m hoping that possibly in conversation with her, but certainly in conversation with our leadership team, we can think about what peer reviewing a podcast or a YouTube series might look like, so that it can count toward tenure, promotion, scholarly gravitas, being a valued part of the institution and not just, again, best-case scenario, something that you do for fun or something that you do in your spare time as community service.

AH: So I want to focus in on this idea of why is public-facing scholarship – whether it’s a podcast or a YouTube series – why is it looked down upon by some corners of the academy. Is it because there’s a lack of nuance . . . like there’s nuance being lost in that translation process from the scholarly to the public? So we, in the academy, are trained to be critical: trained to pull apart arguments. And I wonder if that plays into the scepticism of these public-facing outlets. Because you must necessarily go through this translation process to make academic research more accessible. And through that translation process nuance is lost, and therefore it invites more criticism and scrutiny from scholars.

MG: So I think there are a couple of moving pieces here. The training criticism is, I think, a well-made point. But i also think there’s frankly a counter-productive valuation of . . . trying to think of nice way to say this . . . . I think we often interpret nuance as

AH: You could say it meanly, too!

MG: OK. We don’t value clear writing. And we don’t value clear communication. And part of that is academic hazing. I think being the folks who had to read Hegel and Heidegger in order to read Derrida in order to make something of contemporary postmodern feminist thought, for example ( I bring this up for no reason whatsoever; it certainly didn’t impact my reading!) There’s an expectation that your writing will reflect the complexity of your thought, right? And so I think we tend to elide complex thinking with complex writing. As someone who was trained in critical theory, as someone who attempts to write theory, it is so much harder to communicate abstract nuanced thinking in clear concise language. It is incredibly challenging. And possibly not something that everyone can do. I think there is a suspicion of folks who try to communicate with non-experts, despite the fact if for no other reason, this is where funding comes from, right? You never get funding for Religious Studies work from a Religious Studies specific-to-your-mini-discipline funding institution. You have to be able to say: this is the work that I’m doing and here is why you should care. It is, I think, a failing on our part that we can do that work in order to fund our own research, but we can’t do that work to shift the public conversation about why folks should care about religion. I also think, frankly, that there is –certainly not at Northeastern, but at some institutions – a devaluation of teaching over research. And not thinking about those two pieces as part of a whole scholarly identity. So when I’m thinking about public-facing work, I’m thinking about first and foremost it’s a pedagogical challenge. How do I take these incredibly complicated ideas and get to the root of : here’s why the public should care; here’s why this should inform, frankly, how they’re voting; how they’re living in their communities; how they’re thinking about . . . I’ve been watching a lot of “The Good Place“ so forgive me . . . But how does this help us think about what we owe to each other as a society, right? If you work in an institution where not only is public-facing scholarship devalued but, frankly, pedagogy and teaching is devalued, how do you learn to see the value in translating your work to non-specialist audience? And, again, most of us are required to do that every week. You get in front of an audience of very highly paying non-experts and you explain to them why they should care (10:00). We in the academy talk a very good game, very often, about pedagogy or teaching and how much we value it, possibly in job interviews. I don’t see that, frankly, translated into a whole lot of departmental politics. The folks that are most highly-valued at most institutions, small liberal arts colleges aside, are the folks that are turning out the most research. And frankly there’s not a whole lot of departmental or institutional support for learning how to be good at teaching. And again small liberal arts colleges are an exception here. So again, I think the significance of the work that we’re trying to do with Sacred Writes is potentially one we can think about as a pedagogical challenge. How do we teach these scholars to be teachers, not just of their students, but of the public? And how to we teach the institutions to recognise this? To be able to read this as legitimate scholarship? And I don’t think that you have to sacrifice nuance. You have be patient. The pacing is different. And this is also I think a place where American Religion scholars maybe have a particular challenge. So some of my very closest friends in the academy are Islamicists and they get very grumpy at me because I can say things like, “the Civil War” and I can just expect everybody in the audience to know what I mean when I say the Civil War. I should be able to rely on them to know the time period, the basic political arguments there, as opposed to – I’m thinking very specifically of my friend Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst who just wrote a book about Religion, Rebels and Jihad and how Muslims were coded specifically as inherently rebellious against the crown. The 1857 rebellion, I’m given to understand, was quite an important moment in Indian history. And the reason that I know that is because I read her book. Right? She can’t just say, “the Rebellion”. There is this necessary instruction of readers who are not experts in Islam or Indian history or Salvation history. Americanists don’t have to do that. So I am thinking particularly of my own scholarship, I have had to learn from these experiences of folks who don’t work on American Religion to say: what am I assuming when I go into these conversations? How can I help folks understand these incredibly intricate, multi-faceted historical moments without losing them, without not being able to explain why they should care? Right?

AH: Yes. And this pedagogical challenge raises issues of religious literacy at this point. Where you can mention the Civil War in an American context and assume that there’s a baseline knowledge there. But having taught undergraduates, that’s often dangerous that there’s baseline knowledge there.

MG: True. Yes!

AH: So, how does that introduce a further challenge to this work of public engagement? That you want to bring in nuance, you want to bring in complexity, but sometimes you just don’t even know the difference between . . . your audience doesn’t even know the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism.

MG: Yes. So, you know what? Honestly, I think you have to earn nuance. If the American public doesn’t know the difference between Catholics and Protestants and the scholarship of religion in the United States is – let’s be generous – call it a hundred and fifty years old, what have we been doing for a hundred and fifty years that the public doesn’t know the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant? That’s on us. And I understand that the make-up of the United States has complicated public education about religion for some very important reasons. At the same time, and I’m thinking very specifically of . . . . I’m a product of a public school, right? I did my doctorate at UNC. So the first conversation we had every single semester was, “How does the work that we’re doing when we teach serve Carolina, and serve the voters?” Right? These are folks who are going to be citizens or participate in the public sphere in some way. So how are we helping them do that? I think, I hope that public scholarship done well can first build baseline knowledge about how religion is functioning in the United States; how religion continues to function around the world; how that is wrapped up in things like power and colonialism and imperialism. And then, hopefully, we can get to a nuanced conversation of like, “You’re really not understanding healthcare if you don’t know something about the Conference of Catholic Bishops. You just don’t.” But first, yeah, you need to know what a Catholic is. So good, earn that and then you can have a conversation in public about why you need to know about the Catholic bishops’ interference around reproductive justice.

AH: OK. We’re going to think more broadly here, then. How would you rate the academic discipline of Religious Studies? (15:00) Like how successful is it at public engagement, in the past, let’s say, five or six years? And we’re both Religious Studies scholars here, so it’s hard for us to see exactly how other disciplines are doing it. But I have at least enough friends in History departments that seem to be doing a pretty good job. There’s dozens upon dozens of solid academic history podcasts, for example. How would you rate the discipline of Religious Studies in this endeavour? Because the reason why I ask is that there might be many people out there listening to this who say, “Hey, we’re doing this already!” Like we’re both on Twitter. There’s a ton of Religious Studies scholars on Twitter. So to respond to those people that might say, “Hey, this is already happening! There’s already committees at the American Academy of Religion doing this hard work.”

MG: I think you’re right. I think History has been a really impressive force in trying to shape public conversations around nuance and historical nuance. I was particularly impressed with the conversation around medieval race and racism. That Twitter conversation blew up and resulted in a number of really smart pieces. And engaged thousands of people from all over the world. That was really impressive. The places where I see this being done really well, if I’m thinking Twitter I’m thinking the scholars who take the time to really translate their incredibly nuanced thinking to two hundred and forty characters, now, right? So, top of my list: Judith Weisenfeld – obviously; Anthea Butler – obviously; Nyasha Junior – obviously. It isn’t, I don’t think, an accident that these are all black women, who are incredibly nuanced thinkers but also participate in this really rigorous – but, again, usually very accessible – public conversation. Ed Curtis through the Journal of Africana Religions (JAR) is another really good example of folks that have taken the time to engage with non-experts and explain, for example, why using the word “cult” in a headline – while click-baity, while eye-grabbing – compromises the integrity of the folks participating in a group. It doesn’t think about the racist imperialist history of categorising religion, particularly religions that involve largely black people as cults, when white religions, civilised religions, get to count as actual religions and not cults. Other places where this has been really good: the African American Studies podcast, AAS 21, at Princeton, I think has been really impressive – but again, my favourite episode of that was Judith Weisenfeld’s episode with Eddie Gloude; the (audio unclear) Project – I think it’s in a transition period right now. But one of the things that was really exciting about that project was that it paired open access, rigorous scholarship with more contemporary kind-of pop culture analysis. So there was something there for everyone. And, again, the commitment to open access I think is deeply, deeply important, if we’re going to think about public-facing work as a civic good. But also, shout out to “The Immanent Frame“ – not that blogging is particularly innovative anymore – but they have been leading the conversation for, what, a decade, in trying to . . . not necessarily address the public at large, but at least the field of Religious Studies at large, and help Religious Studies scholars broadly understand some of these really complicated nuanced issues, in the context of Religious Studies. And this is not to say that the JAR doesn’t do that as well. But the JAR really rewards dense, nuanced writing in a way that just doesn’t work in a blog format, right? So when I’m thinking about teaching, for example, contemporary sexual scandals – which is where a lot of my own work lives, and something that informs my religion and sexuality class – one of the first places I go is to The Immanent Frame to review all of the stuff on the clergy sex abuse scandal. This is scholarship that was . . . information, right? That conference happened, what, five years ago at Yale? And you’ve got some of the brightest scholars who work on religion and sexuality thinking out loud about what to do with this material. And coming at it from all different angles. So those would be my big hits.

AH: Great.

MG: Although the way that is was phrased in the email was “whether or not religion is a special issue” which did a very Antaeus thing in my head. So like Antaeus would definitely say that it was a special issue. It is an issue of specialness. (That’s a dumb American Religions joke. I’m not even sorry.) But yes, I think it is a special issue in American context for two reasons. The first is that religion is – politics nerd, here – but religion, and the protection of specific kinds of religion, is enshrined in our founding documents (20:00). So we, as a people, have collectively agreed that religion does a thing that many other kinds of human culture do not. But the other piece is that frankly everybody thinks they’re an expert in religion, based largely on their personal experiences. I have thoughts about why this is. I think it has a lot to do with Protestantism and individual relationships with God, and individual experiences being valid. But it does lead to things like – I’m never getting over this: a reporter from a public radio asked me, a couple of years back, to comment on . . . I think it was a PRRI survey that had identified Maine as one of the least religious states in the country. And she asked me why that is. And I said, “Well, Maine is also one of the whitest states in the country.” And (I explained) why whiteness, and identifying as a religion or “spiritual but not religious”, might be connected. And she said, “No, I don’t think that’s it.” So, yeah. So I think the identification of personal experience as synonymous with expertise in religion does make this a particular challenge for Religious Studies scholars.

AH: Well, we mentioned earlier this idea of pedagogical challenges in this field of public engagement. And I think you hit the nail on the head with one, which is people already assume they know what religion is. So what is our role? Like, “Who are you to come in and tell me what religion is?” So let’s reflect more on that. I think this is an interesting thread.

MG: Well, I mean . . . I think that it is both “special because religion”, and then part of a larger conversation about a systematic devaluation of expertise in the public sphere for . . . call it fifty, sixty years. But yeah, religion is this very particular challenge because everyone feels authorised to speak on it. So as Religious Studies scholars, again, we have to earn the nuance. So let’s start with “What you think about religion does not exhaust all of religion.” So let’s start by thinking about multiplicity before we even get to complexity. What you know, even about Christianity, is not all there is to know about Christianity. So can we offer windows into: “Religion is more complicated than you think”; “Religion is always more than you think that it is”? And then, conservatively, I don’t know, maybe ten years from now, maybe we could get to, “Here’s why it’s important that we not emphasise religion equals faith or religion equals belief. Here’s how we, as a community, not just as a small chunk of experts, can think about what work it does to value religions that emphasise belief over religions that emphasise practice. And then, fifty years from now, we can worry about that US Catholic Conference of Bishops, I guess. It is . . . . One of the particular challenges, I think, of doing public scholarship is this question of time, right? The reason, frankly, that I was moved to pursue public-facing scholarship was that I taught a class called, “Election: Race religion and politics” in 2016. And the entire class is about providing historical context for the election that was happening that year. It’s a long game, right? And then the election made we wonder if we had that kind of time. So I got deeply invested in having conversations with folks who don’t work on religion about how religion helped shape what led up to the election and certainly what came after. It made me feel a real sense of urgency – a need to intervene. And I think I want to believe that public-facing scholarship can be that kind of critical positive intervention, at the same time as – you raised the level of religious literacy – just awareness of the scope of religious difference. The bar is so, so low. We have so much work to do that it can feel like we’re never getting anywhere. We’re never going to raise the bar to the point where we can really talk about lived complexity. But since the alternative is doing nothing I say, let’s intervene and hope for the best. This is better than just letting us all go down with the ship. Let’s shift the conversation as much as we can shift the conversation. If the Religious Studies Overton Window is simply “Hey! Religion is more than I thought it was!” I’m going to call that a win (25:00).

AH: Let’s pivot the conversation to the idea of the public intellectual. I hate this term. I prefer the term public scholar, because at least that points to our scholarship and not to our intellect. But doing this work – especially here in the twenty-first century – is difficult. It opens you up to a lot of criticism, not only from your colleagues but from the hordes of trolls, whether they’re on YouTube or Twitter. And you’re competing against public intellectuals in this space that are not scholars of religion and feel very comfortable to talk about it . . .

MG: (Coughs) Richard Dawkins!

AH: Right. What comes to mind would be Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the meteoric rise of Jordan B.Peterson who has entire lectures on the Bible on YouTube that get millions of views.

MG: And “Bless his heart”, as we say in the South.

AH: Then we also have Reza Aslan who’s problematic in his own ways. So we have this issue of public intellectuals, then we have to raise up our colleagues who are willing to be in this space to take those places of public scholars. So instead of turning to Richard Dawkins or Jordan B Peterson they go to someone that is trained in Religious Studies and who is skilled at doing this work of translation, of keeping complexity and nuance, and still be able to engage the public as it were. But this offers so many challenges. So I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this concept of the public scholar. And how this job is not cut out for everybody.

MG: Yes. So I think there are two issues that you raised there. And they’re both really important. I want to start with the vulnerability issue. It is not a safe thing to do this work. And it is doubly, triply unsafe to do it as a person of colour, as a queer person, as a woman. Because the internet is not for us, right? We are reminded of that every time we speak in public: that we should settle down and maybe smile more. There is an incredible vulnerability to doing any sort of public intellectual scholarship work. There is an incredible vulnerability to being, for example, a black woman scholar standing up and saying, “I know a thing and you should know it too.” That is . . . it should not have to be an act of courage, but it is an act of almost unimaginable courage to stand in front of the internet, in all its horrid glory, and say, “I know more about this than you do. Let me help you.” Which actually brings me to my second point pretty neatly. You mentioned public intellectuals versus public scholars. And I think the dichotomy I’d rather set up is public intellectuals versus public scholarship. Public intellectuals is about – you know what, I’m going to say it – it’s about a cult of personality. (I see you Jordan B. Peterson, I see you.) It is about building up your personal brand, it is about showing everybody that you’re the smartest – usually – straight, white boy in the room. I don’t think public scholarship necessarily needs to be about individual scholars. I think it is important for us to recognise the contribution of specific figures, particularly folks who are taking bigger risks, to say what needs to be said. But public scholarship, hopefully, is just raising the calibre of public knowledge, raising the quality of public conversation, promoting the public understanding of religion. And that doesn’t need to be about one individual scholar. That needs to be about all of us doing better, because we’ll know better. And in order to do that work we need institutional support. This is a conversation that Alice Hunt and I had last month, two months ago. So the American Academy of Religion (AAR) is very publicly supporting the promotion of public understanding of religion. And as you can imagine, I’m deeply invested in that. At the same time I worry about developing mechanisms for supporting scholars that we’ve invited, if not required, to be vulnerable in this way. If we are going to say that one of our two core goals as an academic learned institution is promoting the public understanding of religion – is engaging the public so that they can know better – how are we going to support people when they get death threats? Because they will get death threats. Particularly if they are people of colour. Particularly if they are women. Particularly if they are queer. Right? My concern is that we are ready to call for the public understanding of religion. We are not prepared to support the folks that are doing that promotion. And I don’t know what that looks like. And I know that the issue has been raised within the AAR, at least by me, because I’ve had this conversation both with David Gushee and with Alice Hunt (30:00). But it’s complicated, right? How do we promote institutional support for this? And that I think, I hope, is another piece of the best practices that Sacred Writes is hoping to help develop.

AH: So, talking about institutional support leads me to the next angle of the criticism. If you are putting yourself out there to talk about religion in public, you can get an untold amount of hate from random trolls on Twitter, especially if you’re a woman, person of colour or queer person. But you can also receive criticism from your own discipline, your institution – we talked about this earlier. And I feel like this is particularly felt if you are a part of the academic precariat . . .

MG: I love that!

AH: Whether you’re an adjunct, visiting faculty member, or a graduate student like myself, there’s a risk to do this. I frequently think about how, with my YouTube channel I could say something stupid accidentally on one video and torpedo my career. So how do we support the more contingent faculty side of the public engagement world of our discipline? Because I see a lot of public engagement happening from these scholars who don’t have full time positions, who don’t have tenure to protect them.

MG: Yes. I think that’s an incredibly important question that I don’t have a strong answer to, aside from hoping that the mechanism of Sacred Writes is, at least in part, teaching institutions to value this work. I think there’s a strong correspondence here with media personalities as well, right? Very often in order to land a position in any new sort of media outlet of impact, you have to have already cultivated something of a brand. Often that brand has been deliberately provocative. That’s how you get followers. That’s how you get noticed. And then, once you are elevated to this noteworthy publication, very often the women, queer people, people of colour are lambasted publicly for having said horrible provocative things like, “white people are white”. Horrible! For those who do not spend their entire lives on Twitter, there was a specific Asian woman science journalist who had a very provocative Twitter presence, landed a very plumb gig at an important publication, and then had to publicly apologise for having told white people that they were white. So this is something that I think about a lot. At the same time and this is not, I think, universally applicable advice. While I was teaching about the election I was in a visiting position and it just broke me. It broke me. It broke me in concert with the job market which I have spent more time than I’d prefer exploring. And I got to a stage where the sense of urgency that I felt around being publicly engaged around religious education – or education about religion, I should say – that urgency out-weighed my caution. And I am deeply aware of the ways in which that has increased my own precarity. And at the same time it has facilitated so many intellectually rich, personally fulfilling conversations around this issue and created all these support networks in the academy that I would not have had access to, had I not engaged, say, Twitter in this way. So I can’t recommend it. I am, for all that I am in this position of precarity, I am at an R1 institution, having been funded by a very large grant, having been sponsored, frankly, by some really impressive senior women scholars in Islam. And I am married and unlikely to wind up on the street, eating cat food. I was in a position where I could do that. I don’t know that that’s available to everyone. And I worry that the voices that are really taking risks, that have really innovative approaches to shaping this conversation, are the ones who are most at risk and who are potentially the most likely to suffer for having tried to do this incredibly important work. I don’t know that that’s a fulfilling answer, but that’s where I’m at with it.

AH: No, I think that that’s a good answer.

MG: So just in terms of: how do we do this work? Where do we start? If we’re thinking about what makes an engaging piece of public-facing scholarship I think we need to start by thinking about the audience, which is not something that scholars are trained to do, right? Sure, we think about audience in that we’re engaging a community of our peers who have similar levels of training (35:00). But if we’re not only ever talking to Religious Studies experts we need to think about who we want to talk to, and, what do we want to get across? And we have to be willing to do that in non-specialist language, which again is deeply challenging. But I mean, some of this is really simple, right? The thing that makes a good piece of scholarship is the same thing that makes any good media. Can you tell a clear, concise story and explain why the viewer or the listener or the reader should care? So being able to think about . . . alright: I am deeply invested in conversations about religious freedom and how they tend to privilege specific forms of Christianity, right? (Shout out to Beth Shakman Hurd.) How do I take all of that incredibly dense, nuanced, smart literature and bring that out to an audience that’s going to think, “Well, religious freedom sounds good. Let’s do that.” So thinking about: OK, am I going to do this as a blog post? Do I do this as a YouTube channel? What’s an infographic, and how do I put that together? (Something that Sacred Writes are still working on, but we’re interested, please stay tuned.) Thinking about where your energy is. How you can best communicate that idea in the clearest, most concise, most engaging way possible, is going to make a good piece of public scholarship. Again, I’m coming back to Hannah McGregor because I’m a huge fan. But one of the things that she’s said about her podcasting work is that despite the fact that she’s bringing her scholarly expertise in publishing to all of this work, she keeps having a hard time thinking of it as scholarly because it’s fun, because she’s enjoying it! And I wonder what it might look like to bring that kind of enjoyment, that kind of energy, that kind of fun, frankly, to doing this, often really serious, really hard work. I am somebody who works on sex abuse and violence in minority religions. And my case studies involve mothers holding onto beams and weeping because their children have been taken away. And the deployment of armoured personnel carriers against American citizens on American soil. So if I can do that by making jokes about Vanilla Isis and Captain Moroni, you know what? That’s the way to both explain to the public that they need to care about this, but also stay sane while you’re doing it. Because I think otherwise I think that the onslaught, and the scope of the problem, is just overwhelming.

AH: Well, thank you so much Dr Goodwin. I think this was a great conversation on the implications of public scholarship here in the twenty-first century, especially for Religious Studies scholars, as we try to bring more academic scholarship to more people.

MG: Thanks for having me.

AH: No problem.


Citation Info: Goodwin, Megan and Andrew Henry. 2019. “Challenges and Responsibilities for the Public Scholar of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 25 March 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 March 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/challenges-and-responsibilities-for-the-public-scholar-of-religion/

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Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-Member Narratives

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

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

Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member narratives

Podcast with George Chryssides (20 November 2017).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Chryssides- Changing Your Story 1.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BF: (laughs)

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

BF: That’s very interesting.

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

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

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

BF: Oh, wow!

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

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

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

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

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

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

GC: Oh dear!

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

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

BF: Yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GC: I hope so.

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

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

BF: It’s our pleasure.

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

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Higher Education in the Digital Age In response to Simmons and Altman

Merinda Simmons and Michael J Altman’s discussion of their new Masters programme, Religion in Culture, at The University of Alabama left me feeling as if I had just listened to a 30 minute advert for their university rather than a purposeful discussion about the vital and expansive changes essential to advance higher education in the digital age. I had hoped for the latter, but instead, found the former. Perhaps this only reflects upon another difficulty with higher education in the West—turning departments into profitable business commodities. Nevertheless, Simmons and Altman do raise a vital consideration: that we, as academics and scholars, need to change the narrow and disciplinarian approach of graduate and post-graduate religious studies in our universities, and I couldn’t agree more.

What I may not necessarily agree with Simmons and Altman on, however, is their presentation of an academic challenge that appears to be in a vacuum neither discussing these issues as they relate to higher education in America, nor mentioning any other programmes that do so – implicitly implying that the University of Alabama is attempting a radical programme that no other university in the world is attempting, and that may not, in part, be true.

As I listened to Simmons and Altman discuss the importance of “Dorothea Ortmann and my response to her interview. Ortmann also discusses the important of a multidisciplinary approach combined with the use of the social sciences, including empirical data, to assist in the study of religious phenomena in her native Peru.

In my response to Ortmann, I briefly detail why a multidisciplinary approach and the use of social science data was fundamental to my own doctoral research. While I spoke in my response to Ortmann about the struggle to include such supporting data into my final thesis, I didn’t mention why I chose to pursue my doctoral research in Glasgow versus staying in the US.

The answer to that question is simple: I needed a multidisciplinary department that would support my pursuit of the questions raised in my Master’s thesis—questions that were literary, theological, thealogical, psychological, anthropological, cultural, and sociological. Theology and Religious Studies departments across the US have held close the traditional, monocular lens of disciplinary study, and those who wish to combine disciplines are most often encouraged to study subject matter more reductive and intransigent.

There is a level of multidisciplinary approach to academic enquiry that is far more prevalent in the United Kingdom. I chose the University of Glasgow as the centre for my doctoral research based not only on the great city and friendly people, but also on the University’s Centre for Literature, Theology, and the Arts. The Centre, founded by Professor David Jasper, afforded me the opportunity to pursue my queries where they led—through a range of disciplinary material including psychology, history, anthropology, sociological data, and governmental statistics. This multidisciplinary approach afforded me, as researcher, the opportunity to explore not only the original questions from the source material, but also to truly examine the sociological impact these modern faith traditions are having in the US and UK.

I wasn’t locked in a tower of theology and religious studies, I was let loose on the entire geography of academic and scholarly pursuit to roam the map where my queries took me. In the end, and only through such a wonderfully supportive multidisciplinary research programme, I could see results in three dimensions rather than one—living, breathing models rather than flat photographs. Identifying the thealogical and theological implications of these new faith traditions in the flat first dimension led to answers akin to a 3D model of the cultural and sociological impact they continue to have on modern faith traditions, practitioners, and seekers. In my opinion, multidisciplinary departments are vital to academic research and growth.

The new programme, Religion in Culture, does take a welcome and necessary step in this modern, digital age, by including both public and digital humanities to their foundational training alongside Social Theory. Given that social media is not only taking over our daily lives, but also shaping and altering our lives for good and ill, the inclusion of digital humanities and the prominence of social media is a wonderful approach to address and expand religious studies in the digital age.

A variety of universities both in the US and the UK use social media as a tool for effective outreach. The Religious Studies Project in the UK and State of Formation in the US stand out as two exemplary religious studies projects, often, as with these two, in collaboration with other universities, (as opposed to individual departments or programmes) that utilise social media daily to reach and interact with their intended audience.

Moreover, the internet and social media have changed the way academics interact with each other and the outside world. Indeed, conferences are shared in situ with global audiences as participants and attendees share photos and quotes on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Most conference instructions come with suggested hashtags included, and no doubt both interest and future participation are increased through this social interaction through media. You can find a number of prominent scholars and activists on Twitter from second wave feminists such as Carol P Christ to modern thinkers and activists such as Gina Messina, Eboo Patel and Reza Aslan including Simmons and Altman (linked in the opening of this response). Ideas about religious studies, theologies, and modernity are exchanged, criticised, or retweeted daily. Blogs published and shared. Books reviewed and promoted. Therefore, teaching future academics and scholars how to successfully navigate social media in the digital world can only help to extend the reach and impact of our research, queries, and ideas. If only more universities would follow suit.

 

L Connelly Image

Authority Online: Construction and Implications

Authority Online: Construction and Implications

By Louise Connelly, University of Edinburgh, UK

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 2 October 2013, in response to Pauline Hope Cheong’s interview on Religious Authority and Social Media (30 September 2013).

Pauline Hope Cheong is Associate Professor at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University. She has written extensively on the subject of digital religion and specifically the subject of religious authority. In a recent interview with Christopher Cotter, she provides an insight into her research on the subject of religious authority online and focuses the discussion to include: how authority manifests online, strategic arbitration, constructing tradition, performance, and this emerging research area.  In this review, I highlight some of the key points from the interview, as well as discussing Buddhist authority online.

Strategic Arbitration & Performance

Cheong argues that there is strategic arbitration by the clergy (religious leaders), as they are often having to select and interpret competing online texts, as well as negotiate texts presented by their congregation. Strategically arbitrating texts instils a responsibility and element of labour in which the religious leader needs to address both the impact of technology and the cultural shift in how people engage with technology. Consequently, the clergy need to manage this situation in order to maintain legitimacy within the organisation.

Cheong argues that some religious leaders may embrace the use of digital media, rather than shy away from it, as there are many advantages to being ‘connected’ online. An example given in the interview is the use of the micro-blogging platform known as Twitter and how tweets (140 characters or less) might serve as micro sacred texts to followers. Thus, the clergy can potentially engage with a much wider and more diverse audience (geographically and culturally) than would be possible in the face-to-face environment. Cheong refers to a forthcoming article on ‘top clergy tweeters’ and the possible explanation for their success. She argues that their success may be attributed to their willingness to share personal aspects of their life via Twitter and therefore building a more intimate relationship with their followers. Nonetheless, they often only share what is ‘culturally acceptable’. By constructing tweets which intentionally select topics and shy away from ‘less favourable’ topics, it could be argued that this is a type of online public/private performance.

New and evolving research

There are a number of disciplines which have taken an interest in the emerging area of religion online, including religious studies, media studies, and cultural studies;  to name but a few. Cheong highlights that “in the digital age, adherents, audiences, listeners, communities of shared practice and shared memory, and various ‘publics’ are now active in the production, circulation, imbrication, selection , and re-making of ‘the religious’ and ‘the spiritual’” (Cheong et al., 2012, p.xii). However, understanding how authority manifests online and is negotiated offline is an area needing further attention. Cheong proposes that future research could include an examination of religious apps and how authority is communicated through such apps (see Wagner, who proposes six categories of religious apps, 2012, p.102-105); as well as an exploration of religious authority and other cultures and languages (not just North America) use of online media. The latter would provide a comparative analysis of authority, which is a research area also proposed by Dawson and Cowan (2004, p.10-11).

Cheong’s interview provides a valuable insight into how different media platforms are being used by religious individuals and organisations. Understanding the relationship between religion, media and culture enables us to gain a greater awareness of the potential implications for religion due to cultural changes and technological developments in the twenty-first century.

Virtual Buddhism and Authority

I would now like to continue the discussion of authority on the internet by providing some examples of how Buddhist authority is manifesting online. The examination of Buddhism on the internet is an emerging area and includes a small number of studies which have addressed the issue of Buddhist authority online (see Cheong et al. 2011; Baffelli et al. 2011; Connelly, 2012). Cheong et al. focus on how Buddhist clergy use new and old media, whereas Baffelli et al. examine Japanese New Religious Movements and their use of video sharing sites as a means to instill authority.  Other research examines Buddhist ritual in the online virtual world known as Second Life and questions whether online Buddhism, or ‘Virtual Buddhism’ could result in changes to Buddhist authority, community, identity and ritual – both online and offline (Connelly, 2010; 2012).

Buddhism in Second Life can be found in a number of locations, such as the Buddha Center (http://secondlife.com/, in-world address, 137, 130, 21). It is here that avatars (online personas) can participate in virtual meditation, spin prayer-wheels, or visit the temple or Deer Garden. The virtual activities, artefacts and locations at the Buddha Center often replicate those found offline, thus providing a sense of authenticity (Connelly, 2010, p.19). Many of the meditation sessions or talks are led by ordained Buddhist monks or nuns and therefore, could be said to legitimate their sense of authority online. On the other hand, the Buddha Center is not affiliated with one specific school of Buddhism and includes Zen, Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist practices and artifacts  One of the founders of the Center, Delani Gabardini (in-world name) maintains that this creates a type of “universal Buddhism” (Connelly, 2010, p.15). Examples of virtual locations, activities and individuals such as those found at the Buddha Center enable us to examine how Buddhist identity, community, ritual and authority manifests online and the possible challenges and implications which may arise, for Buddhism, both online and offline (Connelly 2012, p.134).

Buddhist religious authority online is an area which needs further exploration, so that we can truly understand how the internet is providing an opportunity for new forms of religious authority and leadership to develop, while at the same time establishing traditional religious authority. It will also help us to answer questions, such as who has the “true legitimate voice for a particular religious tradition or community” (Campbell 2012, p.76).

Additional Resources

P.H. Cheong website http://paulinehopecheong.com/

Virtual Buddhism blog http://virtualbuddhism.blogspot.co.uk/

References

  • Baffelli, E., Reader, I. & Staemmler, B. (2011). Japanese religions on the internet: innovation, representation, and authority. Routledge.
  • Campbell, H. (ed.). (2012). Digital religion: understanding religious practice in new media worlds. London: Routledge.
  • Cheong, Fisher-Nieleen, Gelgren & Ess (2012). Digital religion, social media and culture. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
  • Cheong, P.H., Huang, S. & Poon, J.P.H. (2011). “Cultivating Online and Offline Pathways to Enlightenment”. Information, Communication & Society, 14:8, 1160-1180.
  • Connelly, L. (2010). “Virtual Buddhism: An Analysis of Aesthetics in Relation to Religious Practice within Second Life”. 4.1 ed., Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet
  • ________. (2012). “Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist Ritual in Second Life” in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, H. Campbell (ed.), pp. 128-135. London: Routledge.
  • Dawson, L. L. & Cowan, D. (eds.) (2004). Religion Online. London, Routledge.
  • Wagner, R. (2012). Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality. New York: Routledge. 

Religious Authority and Social Media

Throughout the history of the RSP, we have been privileged to feature a number of interviews and responses which have focused upon the interaction of ‘religion’ with information and communications technology, including Jonathan’s interview with Tim Hutchings on Digital Religion, and Louise’s interview with Heidi Campbell on Religion in a Networked Society. However, up until now, we haven’t paid particular attention to the impact of social media upon ‘religion’ and Religious Studies. Today’s interview features Chris speaking with Pauline Hope Cheong of Arizona State University on the topic of religious authority, the impact of social media upon this aspect of religion, and how scholars can potentially go about utilizing this seemingly infinite repository of information and chatter in their research.

As Cheong herself writes:

Given its rich and variable nature, authority itself is challenging to define and study. Although the words “clergy” and “priests” are commonly used, in the west, to connote religious authority, the variety of related titles is immense (e.g. “pastor,” “vicar,” “monk,” “iman,” “guru,” “rabbi,” etc). Studies focused on religious authority online have been few, compared to studies centered on religious community and identity. Despite interest and acknowledgment of the concept, there is a lack of definitional clarity over authority online, and no comprehensive theory of religious authority… (2013, 73)

Hopefully this interview shall go some way to addressing this lack.

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

This interview was recorded in London, in June 2013, at the Open University’s Digital Media and Sacred Text Conference. We are very grateful to Tim Hutchings and the Open University for their support in facilitating this recording, and for just generally being awesome.

References and Further Reading

  • Cheong, P.H. (2013) Authority. In H. Campbell (Ed). Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds. Pp 72-87. NY: Routledge
  • Cheong, P.H., P. Fischer-Nielsen, P., S. Gelfgren, & C. Ess (Eds) (2012) Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices, Futures. pp. 1-24. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Cheong, P.H., Hwang, J.M. & Brummans, H.J.M. (forthcoming, 2013). Transnational immanence: The autopoietic co-constitution of a Chinese spiritual organization through mediated organization. Information, Communication & Society.
  • Cheong, P.H., Huang, S.H., & Poon, J.P.H. (2011). Religious Communication and Epistemic Authority of Leaders in Wired Faith Organizations. Journal of Communication, 61 (5), 938-958.
  • Cheong, P.H., Huang, S.H., & Poon, J.P.H (2011). Cultivating online and offline pathways to enlightenment: Religious authority in wired Buddhist organizations. Information, Communication & Society, 14 (8), 1160-1180.

Podcasts

Challenges and Responsibilities for the Public Scholar of Religion

In this interview, Megan Goodwin examines the current state of public religious studies scholarship. “Public scholar” has become a buzzword in some corners of the discipline of religious studies, variously referring to scholars who share their research to a broader audience on social media platforms, in popular media outlets, or through multimedia such as podcasts and online video. As more scholars have entered these ranks, the broader field has taken notice. The American Academy of Religion even declared the 2018 presidential theme as “Religious Studies in Public: The Civic Responsibilities, Opportunities, and Risks Facing Scholars of Religion.” What challenges do public scholars of religion face? Are academic institutions prepared to support these scholars as they are exposed both to greater scrutiny from their academic peers as well as vitriolic hate from trolls online? Where is public religious studies scholarship headed in the coming years?

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, Tori Amos CD’s, Super Mario Bros. U. Deluxe, and more.


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


Challenges and Responsibilities for the Public Scholar of Religion

Podcast with Megan Goodwin (25 March 2019).

Interviewed by Andrew Henry.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Goodwin_-_Challenges_and_Responsibilities_for_the_Public_Scholar_of_Religion_1.1

Andrew Henry (AH): Welcome Listeners. I’m recording from Boston, at Northeastern University. I’m with Dr Megan Goodwin. She’s a scholar of gender, sexuality and race, and contemporary American minority religions at Northeastern University. She’s a visiting lecturer at Northeastern University and the programme director of a new initiative called “Sacred Writes

Megan Goodwin (MG): W-r-i-t-e-s.

AH: Right, OK. Tell us a little bit about this new initiative.

MG: So Liz Bucar and I last year worked on a grant that Liz proposed to ACLS and Luce for Religion Journalism and International affairs. And working on this Reporting Religion project we started conversations around what would best help shift the conversation around religion, right. How would you make the most impact with the work that folks were already doing in the academy and make sure that that’s not a conversation that’s only happening within the academy? So we spent last year proposing a project that helps train scholars to translate their work for non-experts and to think about partnering with media outlets – who were already doing fairly smart reporting, often on religion but are just under-sourced. And even when they’re not under sourced they’re not trained as experts in religion. So, how do we make the most out of both media expertise and religion expertise, and make that the most useful for folks who are not experts in media or religion?

AH: So you’re looking to be the creative bridge between the academy and . . . not just the general public – however we define that – but, specifically, journalist and media outlets.

MG: So we can think of it, I think, broadly as a communication breakdown, right? (I got that Led Zeppelin thing happening in my head.) So we are in a political moment where religion is deeply shaping so many facets of public life. At the same time religion is not something that gets taught as a subject of scholarly enquiry, right. It’s something personal, it’s something you do at home, it is not something that we’re taught how to think about. So the folks who have been taught how to think about it have developed that expertise, but aren’t trained to do that translation work. And frankly, largely speaking, institutions haven’t valued that work as scholarship. It’s seen as, potentially, “community service” or an amusing side-hobby for tech nerds, but not something that’s serious scholarship, that people who are really invested in being intellectuals would ever really invest in. So the way that we’re thinking about the work that Sacred Writes does is both helping scholars shift public conversations around religion – helping non-experts understand why they need to know something about religion in order to understand the election process, or the conversation about healthcare – and at the same time, hopefully, teaching institutions how to value that work as legitimate scholarship, as opposed to something we do for funsies.

AH: So you’ve brought up a lot of interesting ideas here. And I want to try to take them systematically. And the one that you mentioned was how the discipline of Religious Studies, the academic discipline, values engaging the public. You mentioned that it would count as community service but presumably, if you’re going up for tenure, the monographs from a good university press would count much more than running a podcast like this, for example?

MG: Right. And best-case scenario is that it’s seen as public service or a civic good. Worst case scenario, it works against your tenure case. And I certainly know folks who have raised this as an issue for reasons they’ve been denied tenure: that participating in public-facing work suggests a lack of investment in scholarly gravitas. So what we’re hoping, as part of the outcome of Sacred Writes, is using this incredible pool of expertise that we’ve gathered in our leadership team to take those areas of expertise, and frankly the weight of those scholarly identities, back to institutions and help them understand that this is serious scholarship. And cultivate best practices for scholars who are interested in doing this work, so that their work can be legible, again, to non-experts but also to their own institutions. My thinking on this is largely informed by the work that Hannah McGregor is doing currently. She hosts a podcast called “ Secret Feminist Agenda“ (audio unclear) but one of the things that’s really remarkable about Secret Feminist Agenda is that it’s currently being experimentally peer reviewed (5:00). So there is a peer reviewing institution that is crafting a mechanism by which this work that she’s doing, which is so smart but also so accessible, can be valued by her tenure granting institution. And I’m hoping that possibly in conversation with her, but certainly in conversation with our leadership team, we can think about what peer reviewing a podcast or a YouTube series might look like, so that it can count toward tenure, promotion, scholarly gravitas, being a valued part of the institution and not just, again, best-case scenario, something that you do for fun or something that you do in your spare time as community service.

AH: So I want to focus in on this idea of why is public-facing scholarship – whether it’s a podcast or a YouTube series – why is it looked down upon by some corners of the academy. Is it because there’s a lack of nuance . . . like there’s nuance being lost in that translation process from the scholarly to the public? So we, in the academy, are trained to be critical: trained to pull apart arguments. And I wonder if that plays into the scepticism of these public-facing outlets. Because you must necessarily go through this translation process to make academic research more accessible. And through that translation process nuance is lost, and therefore it invites more criticism and scrutiny from scholars.

MG: So I think there are a couple of moving pieces here. The training criticism is, I think, a well-made point. But i also think there’s frankly a counter-productive valuation of . . . trying to think of nice way to say this . . . . I think we often interpret nuance as

AH: You could say it meanly, too!

MG: OK. We don’t value clear writing. And we don’t value clear communication. And part of that is academic hazing. I think being the folks who had to read Hegel and Heidegger in order to read Derrida in order to make something of contemporary postmodern feminist thought, for example ( I bring this up for no reason whatsoever; it certainly didn’t impact my reading!) There’s an expectation that your writing will reflect the complexity of your thought, right? And so I think we tend to elide complex thinking with complex writing. As someone who was trained in critical theory, as someone who attempts to write theory, it is so much harder to communicate abstract nuanced thinking in clear concise language. It is incredibly challenging. And possibly not something that everyone can do. I think there is a suspicion of folks who try to communicate with non-experts, despite the fact if for no other reason, this is where funding comes from, right? You never get funding for Religious Studies work from a Religious Studies specific-to-your-mini-discipline funding institution. You have to be able to say: this is the work that I’m doing and here is why you should care. It is, I think, a failing on our part that we can do that work in order to fund our own research, but we can’t do that work to shift the public conversation about why folks should care about religion. I also think, frankly, that there is –certainly not at Northeastern, but at some institutions – a devaluation of teaching over research. And not thinking about those two pieces as part of a whole scholarly identity. So when I’m thinking about public-facing work, I’m thinking about first and foremost it’s a pedagogical challenge. How do I take these incredibly complicated ideas and get to the root of : here’s why the public should care; here’s why this should inform, frankly, how they’re voting; how they’re living in their communities; how they’re thinking about . . . I’ve been watching a lot of “The Good Place“ so forgive me . . . But how does this help us think about what we owe to each other as a society, right? If you work in an institution where not only is public-facing scholarship devalued but, frankly, pedagogy and teaching is devalued, how do you learn to see the value in translating your work to non-specialist audience? And, again, most of us are required to do that every week. You get in front of an audience of very highly paying non-experts and you explain to them why they should care (10:00). We in the academy talk a very good game, very often, about pedagogy or teaching and how much we value it, possibly in job interviews. I don’t see that, frankly, translated into a whole lot of departmental politics. The folks that are most highly-valued at most institutions, small liberal arts colleges aside, are the folks that are turning out the most research. And frankly there’s not a whole lot of departmental or institutional support for learning how to be good at teaching. And again small liberal arts colleges are an exception here. So again, I think the significance of the work that we’re trying to do with Sacred Writes is potentially one we can think about as a pedagogical challenge. How do we teach these scholars to be teachers, not just of their students, but of the public? And how to we teach the institutions to recognise this? To be able to read this as legitimate scholarship? And I don’t think that you have to sacrifice nuance. You have be patient. The pacing is different. And this is also I think a place where American Religion scholars maybe have a particular challenge. So some of my very closest friends in the academy are Islamicists and they get very grumpy at me because I can say things like, “the Civil War” and I can just expect everybody in the audience to know what I mean when I say the Civil War. I should be able to rely on them to know the time period, the basic political arguments there, as opposed to – I’m thinking very specifically of my friend Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst who just wrote a book about Religion, Rebels and Jihad and how Muslims were coded specifically as inherently rebellious against the crown. The 1857 rebellion, I’m given to understand, was quite an important moment in Indian history. And the reason that I know that is because I read her book. Right? She can’t just say, “the Rebellion”. There is this necessary instruction of readers who are not experts in Islam or Indian history or Salvation history. Americanists don’t have to do that. So I am thinking particularly of my own scholarship, I have had to learn from these experiences of folks who don’t work on American Religion to say: what am I assuming when I go into these conversations? How can I help folks understand these incredibly intricate, multi-faceted historical moments without losing them, without not being able to explain why they should care? Right?

AH: Yes. And this pedagogical challenge raises issues of religious literacy at this point. Where you can mention the Civil War in an American context and assume that there’s a baseline knowledge there. But having taught undergraduates, that’s often dangerous that there’s baseline knowledge there.

MG: True. Yes!

AH: So, how does that introduce a further challenge to this work of public engagement? That you want to bring in nuance, you want to bring in complexity, but sometimes you just don’t even know the difference between . . . your audience doesn’t even know the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism.

MG: Yes. So, you know what? Honestly, I think you have to earn nuance. If the American public doesn’t know the difference between Catholics and Protestants and the scholarship of religion in the United States is – let’s be generous – call it a hundred and fifty years old, what have we been doing for a hundred and fifty years that the public doesn’t know the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant? That’s on us. And I understand that the make-up of the United States has complicated public education about religion for some very important reasons. At the same time, and I’m thinking very specifically of . . . . I’m a product of a public school, right? I did my doctorate at UNC. So the first conversation we had every single semester was, “How does the work that we’re doing when we teach serve Carolina, and serve the voters?” Right? These are folks who are going to be citizens or participate in the public sphere in some way. So how are we helping them do that? I think, I hope that public scholarship done well can first build baseline knowledge about how religion is functioning in the United States; how religion continues to function around the world; how that is wrapped up in things like power and colonialism and imperialism. And then, hopefully, we can get to a nuanced conversation of like, “You’re really not understanding healthcare if you don’t know something about the Conference of Catholic Bishops. You just don’t.” But first, yeah, you need to know what a Catholic is. So good, earn that and then you can have a conversation in public about why you need to know about the Catholic bishops’ interference around reproductive justice.

AH: OK. We’re going to think more broadly here, then. How would you rate the academic discipline of Religious Studies? (15:00) Like how successful is it at public engagement, in the past, let’s say, five or six years? And we’re both Religious Studies scholars here, so it’s hard for us to see exactly how other disciplines are doing it. But I have at least enough friends in History departments that seem to be doing a pretty good job. There’s dozens upon dozens of solid academic history podcasts, for example. How would you rate the discipline of Religious Studies in this endeavour? Because the reason why I ask is that there might be many people out there listening to this who say, “Hey, we’re doing this already!” Like we’re both on Twitter. There’s a ton of Religious Studies scholars on Twitter. So to respond to those people that might say, “Hey, this is already happening! There’s already committees at the American Academy of Religion doing this hard work.”

MG: I think you’re right. I think History has been a really impressive force in trying to shape public conversations around nuance and historical nuance. I was particularly impressed with the conversation around medieval race and racism. That Twitter conversation blew up and resulted in a number of really smart pieces. And engaged thousands of people from all over the world. That was really impressive. The places where I see this being done really well, if I’m thinking Twitter I’m thinking the scholars who take the time to really translate their incredibly nuanced thinking to two hundred and forty characters, now, right? So, top of my list: Judith Weisenfeld – obviously; Anthea Butler – obviously; Nyasha Junior – obviously. It isn’t, I don’t think, an accident that these are all black women, who are incredibly nuanced thinkers but also participate in this really rigorous – but, again, usually very accessible – public conversation. Ed Curtis through the Journal of Africana Religions (JAR) is another really good example of folks that have taken the time to engage with non-experts and explain, for example, why using the word “cult” in a headline – while click-baity, while eye-grabbing – compromises the integrity of the folks participating in a group. It doesn’t think about the racist imperialist history of categorising religion, particularly religions that involve largely black people as cults, when white religions, civilised religions, get to count as actual religions and not cults. Other places where this has been really good: the African American Studies podcast, AAS 21, at Princeton, I think has been really impressive – but again, my favourite episode of that was Judith Weisenfeld’s episode with Eddie Gloude; the (audio unclear) Project – I think it’s in a transition period right now. But one of the things that was really exciting about that project was that it paired open access, rigorous scholarship with more contemporary kind-of pop culture analysis. So there was something there for everyone. And, again, the commitment to open access I think is deeply, deeply important, if we’re going to think about public-facing work as a civic good. But also, shout out to “The Immanent Frame“ – not that blogging is particularly innovative anymore – but they have been leading the conversation for, what, a decade, in trying to . . . not necessarily address the public at large, but at least the field of Religious Studies at large, and help Religious Studies scholars broadly understand some of these really complicated nuanced issues, in the context of Religious Studies. And this is not to say that the JAR doesn’t do that as well. But the JAR really rewards dense, nuanced writing in a way that just doesn’t work in a blog format, right? So when I’m thinking about teaching, for example, contemporary sexual scandals – which is where a lot of my own work lives, and something that informs my religion and sexuality class – one of the first places I go is to The Immanent Frame to review all of the stuff on the clergy sex abuse scandal. This is scholarship that was . . . information, right? That conference happened, what, five years ago at Yale? And you’ve got some of the brightest scholars who work on religion and sexuality thinking out loud about what to do with this material. And coming at it from all different angles. So those would be my big hits.

AH: Great.

MG: Although the way that is was phrased in the email was “whether or not religion is a special issue” which did a very Antaeus thing in my head. So like Antaeus would definitely say that it was a special issue. It is an issue of specialness. (That’s a dumb American Religions joke. I’m not even sorry.) But yes, I think it is a special issue in American context for two reasons. The first is that religion is – politics nerd, here – but religion, and the protection of specific kinds of religion, is enshrined in our founding documents (20:00). So we, as a people, have collectively agreed that religion does a thing that many other kinds of human culture do not. But the other piece is that frankly everybody thinks they’re an expert in religion, based largely on their personal experiences. I have thoughts about why this is. I think it has a lot to do with Protestantism and individual relationships with God, and individual experiences being valid. But it does lead to things like – I’m never getting over this: a reporter from a public radio asked me, a couple of years back, to comment on . . . I think it was a PRRI survey that had identified Maine as one of the least religious states in the country. And she asked me why that is. And I said, “Well, Maine is also one of the whitest states in the country.” And (I explained) why whiteness, and identifying as a religion or “spiritual but not religious”, might be connected. And she said, “No, I don’t think that’s it.” So, yeah. So I think the identification of personal experience as synonymous with expertise in religion does make this a particular challenge for Religious Studies scholars.

AH: Well, we mentioned earlier this idea of pedagogical challenges in this field of public engagement. And I think you hit the nail on the head with one, which is people already assume they know what religion is. So what is our role? Like, “Who are you to come in and tell me what religion is?” So let’s reflect more on that. I think this is an interesting thread.

MG: Well, I mean . . . I think that it is both “special because religion”, and then part of a larger conversation about a systematic devaluation of expertise in the public sphere for . . . call it fifty, sixty years. But yeah, religion is this very particular challenge because everyone feels authorised to speak on it. So as Religious Studies scholars, again, we have to earn the nuance. So let’s start with “What you think about religion does not exhaust all of religion.” So let’s start by thinking about multiplicity before we even get to complexity. What you know, even about Christianity, is not all there is to know about Christianity. So can we offer windows into: “Religion is more complicated than you think”; “Religion is always more than you think that it is”? And then, conservatively, I don’t know, maybe ten years from now, maybe we could get to, “Here’s why it’s important that we not emphasise religion equals faith or religion equals belief. Here’s how we, as a community, not just as a small chunk of experts, can think about what work it does to value religions that emphasise belief over religions that emphasise practice. And then, fifty years from now, we can worry about that US Catholic Conference of Bishops, I guess. It is . . . . One of the particular challenges, I think, of doing public scholarship is this question of time, right? The reason, frankly, that I was moved to pursue public-facing scholarship was that I taught a class called, “Election: Race religion and politics” in 2016. And the entire class is about providing historical context for the election that was happening that year. It’s a long game, right? And then the election made we wonder if we had that kind of time. So I got deeply invested in having conversations with folks who don’t work on religion about how religion helped shape what led up to the election and certainly what came after. It made me feel a real sense of urgency – a need to intervene. And I think I want to believe that public-facing scholarship can be that kind of critical positive intervention, at the same time as – you raised the level of religious literacy – just awareness of the scope of religious difference. The bar is so, so low. We have so much work to do that it can feel like we’re never getting anywhere. We’re never going to raise the bar to the point where we can really talk about lived complexity. But since the alternative is doing nothing I say, let’s intervene and hope for the best. This is better than just letting us all go down with the ship. Let’s shift the conversation as much as we can shift the conversation. If the Religious Studies Overton Window is simply “Hey! Religion is more than I thought it was!” I’m going to call that a win (25:00).

AH: Let’s pivot the conversation to the idea of the public intellectual. I hate this term. I prefer the term public scholar, because at least that points to our scholarship and not to our intellect. But doing this work – especially here in the twenty-first century – is difficult. It opens you up to a lot of criticism, not only from your colleagues but from the hordes of trolls, whether they’re on YouTube or Twitter. And you’re competing against public intellectuals in this space that are not scholars of religion and feel very comfortable to talk about it . . .

MG: (Coughs) Richard Dawkins!

AH: Right. What comes to mind would be Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the meteoric rise of Jordan B.Peterson who has entire lectures on the Bible on YouTube that get millions of views.

MG: And “Bless his heart”, as we say in the South.

AH: Then we also have Reza Aslan who’s problematic in his own ways. So we have this issue of public intellectuals, then we have to raise up our colleagues who are willing to be in this space to take those places of public scholars. So instead of turning to Richard Dawkins or Jordan B Peterson they go to someone that is trained in Religious Studies and who is skilled at doing this work of translation, of keeping complexity and nuance, and still be able to engage the public as it were. But this offers so many challenges. So I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this concept of the public scholar. And how this job is not cut out for everybody.

MG: Yes. So I think there are two issues that you raised there. And they’re both really important. I want to start with the vulnerability issue. It is not a safe thing to do this work. And it is doubly, triply unsafe to do it as a person of colour, as a queer person, as a woman. Because the internet is not for us, right? We are reminded of that every time we speak in public: that we should settle down and maybe smile more. There is an incredible vulnerability to doing any sort of public intellectual scholarship work. There is an incredible vulnerability to being, for example, a black woman scholar standing up and saying, “I know a thing and you should know it too.” That is . . . it should not have to be an act of courage, but it is an act of almost unimaginable courage to stand in front of the internet, in all its horrid glory, and say, “I know more about this than you do. Let me help you.” Which actually brings me to my second point pretty neatly. You mentioned public intellectuals versus public scholars. And I think the dichotomy I’d rather set up is public intellectuals versus public scholarship. Public intellectuals is about – you know what, I’m going to say it – it’s about a cult of personality. (I see you Jordan B. Peterson, I see you.) It is about building up your personal brand, it is about showing everybody that you’re the smartest – usually – straight, white boy in the room. I don’t think public scholarship necessarily needs to be about individual scholars. I think it is important for us to recognise the contribution of specific figures, particularly folks who are taking bigger risks, to say what needs to be said. But public scholarship, hopefully, is just raising the calibre of public knowledge, raising the quality of public conversation, promoting the public understanding of religion. And that doesn’t need to be about one individual scholar. That needs to be about all of us doing better, because we’ll know better. And in order to do that work we need institutional support. This is a conversation that Alice Hunt and I had last month, two months ago. So the American Academy of Religion (AAR) is very publicly supporting the promotion of public understanding of religion. And as you can imagine, I’m deeply invested in that. At the same time I worry about developing mechanisms for supporting scholars that we’ve invited, if not required, to be vulnerable in this way. If we are going to say that one of our two core goals as an academic learned institution is promoting the public understanding of religion – is engaging the public so that they can know better – how are we going to support people when they get death threats? Because they will get death threats. Particularly if they are people of colour. Particularly if they are women. Particularly if they are queer. Right? My concern is that we are ready to call for the public understanding of religion. We are not prepared to support the folks that are doing that promotion. And I don’t know what that looks like. And I know that the issue has been raised within the AAR, at least by me, because I’ve had this conversation both with David Gushee and with Alice Hunt (30:00). But it’s complicated, right? How do we promote institutional support for this? And that I think, I hope, is another piece of the best practices that Sacred Writes is hoping to help develop.

AH: So, talking about institutional support leads me to the next angle of the criticism. If you are putting yourself out there to talk about religion in public, you can get an untold amount of hate from random trolls on Twitter, especially if you’re a woman, person of colour or queer person. But you can also receive criticism from your own discipline, your institution – we talked about this earlier. And I feel like this is particularly felt if you are a part of the academic precariat . . .

MG: I love that!

AH: Whether you’re an adjunct, visiting faculty member, or a graduate student like myself, there’s a risk to do this. I frequently think about how, with my YouTube channel I could say something stupid accidentally on one video and torpedo my career. So how do we support the more contingent faculty side of the public engagement world of our discipline? Because I see a lot of public engagement happening from these scholars who don’t have full time positions, who don’t have tenure to protect them.

MG: Yes. I think that’s an incredibly important question that I don’t have a strong answer to, aside from hoping that the mechanism of Sacred Writes is, at least in part, teaching institutions to value this work. I think there’s a strong correspondence here with media personalities as well, right? Very often in order to land a position in any new sort of media outlet of impact, you have to have already cultivated something of a brand. Often that brand has been deliberately provocative. That’s how you get followers. That’s how you get noticed. And then, once you are elevated to this noteworthy publication, very often the women, queer people, people of colour are lambasted publicly for having said horrible provocative things like, “white people are white”. Horrible! For those who do not spend their entire lives on Twitter, there was a specific Asian woman science journalist who had a very provocative Twitter presence, landed a very plumb gig at an important publication, and then had to publicly apologise for having told white people that they were white. So this is something that I think about a lot. At the same time and this is not, I think, universally applicable advice. While I was teaching about the election I was in a visiting position and it just broke me. It broke me. It broke me in concert with the job market which I have spent more time than I’d prefer exploring. And I got to a stage where the sense of urgency that I felt around being publicly engaged around religious education – or education about religion, I should say – that urgency out-weighed my caution. And I am deeply aware of the ways in which that has increased my own precarity. And at the same time it has facilitated so many intellectually rich, personally fulfilling conversations around this issue and created all these support networks in the academy that I would not have had access to, had I not engaged, say, Twitter in this way. So I can’t recommend it. I am, for all that I am in this position of precarity, I am at an R1 institution, having been funded by a very large grant, having been sponsored, frankly, by some really impressive senior women scholars in Islam. And I am married and unlikely to wind up on the street, eating cat food. I was in a position where I could do that. I don’t know that that’s available to everyone. And I worry that the voices that are really taking risks, that have really innovative approaches to shaping this conversation, are the ones who are most at risk and who are potentially the most likely to suffer for having tried to do this incredibly important work. I don’t know that that’s a fulfilling answer, but that’s where I’m at with it.

AH: No, I think that that’s a good answer.

MG: So just in terms of: how do we do this work? Where do we start? If we’re thinking about what makes an engaging piece of public-facing scholarship I think we need to start by thinking about the audience, which is not something that scholars are trained to do, right? Sure, we think about audience in that we’re engaging a community of our peers who have similar levels of training (35:00). But if we’re not only ever talking to Religious Studies experts we need to think about who we want to talk to, and, what do we want to get across? And we have to be willing to do that in non-specialist language, which again is deeply challenging. But I mean, some of this is really simple, right? The thing that makes a good piece of scholarship is the same thing that makes any good media. Can you tell a clear, concise story and explain why the viewer or the listener or the reader should care? So being able to think about . . . alright: I am deeply invested in conversations about religious freedom and how they tend to privilege specific forms of Christianity, right? (Shout out to Beth Shakman Hurd.) How do I take all of that incredibly dense, nuanced, smart literature and bring that out to an audience that’s going to think, “Well, religious freedom sounds good. Let’s do that.” So thinking about: OK, am I going to do this as a blog post? Do I do this as a YouTube channel? What’s an infographic, and how do I put that together? (Something that Sacred Writes are still working on, but we’re interested, please stay tuned.) Thinking about where your energy is. How you can best communicate that idea in the clearest, most concise, most engaging way possible, is going to make a good piece of public scholarship. Again, I’m coming back to Hannah McGregor because I’m a huge fan. But one of the things that she’s said about her podcasting work is that despite the fact that she’s bringing her scholarly expertise in publishing to all of this work, she keeps having a hard time thinking of it as scholarly because it’s fun, because she’s enjoying it! And I wonder what it might look like to bring that kind of enjoyment, that kind of energy, that kind of fun, frankly, to doing this, often really serious, really hard work. I am somebody who works on sex abuse and violence in minority religions. And my case studies involve mothers holding onto beams and weeping because their children have been taken away. And the deployment of armoured personnel carriers against American citizens on American soil. So if I can do that by making jokes about Vanilla Isis and Captain Moroni, you know what? That’s the way to both explain to the public that they need to care about this, but also stay sane while you’re doing it. Because I think otherwise I think that the onslaught, and the scope of the problem, is just overwhelming.

AH: Well, thank you so much Dr Goodwin. I think this was a great conversation on the implications of public scholarship here in the twenty-first century, especially for Religious Studies scholars, as we try to bring more academic scholarship to more people.

MG: Thanks for having me.

AH: No problem.


Citation Info: Goodwin, Megan and Andrew Henry. 2019. “Challenges and Responsibilities for the Public Scholar of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 25 March 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 March 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/challenges-and-responsibilities-for-the-public-scholar-of-religion/

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.

Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-Member Narratives

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

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

Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member narratives

Podcast with George Chryssides (20 November 2017).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Chryssides- Changing Your Story 1.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BF: (laughs)

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

BF: That’s very interesting.

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

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

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

BF: Oh, wow!

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

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

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

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

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

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

GC: Oh dear!

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

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

BF: Yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GC: I hope so.

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

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

BF: It’s our pleasure.

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

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, 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.

Higher Education in the Digital Age In response to Simmons and Altman

Merinda Simmons and Michael J Altman’s discussion of their new Masters programme, Religion in Culture, at The University of Alabama left me feeling as if I had just listened to a 30 minute advert for their university rather than a purposeful discussion about the vital and expansive changes essential to advance higher education in the digital age. I had hoped for the latter, but instead, found the former. Perhaps this only reflects upon another difficulty with higher education in the West—turning departments into profitable business commodities. Nevertheless, Simmons and Altman do raise a vital consideration: that we, as academics and scholars, need to change the narrow and disciplinarian approach of graduate and post-graduate religious studies in our universities, and I couldn’t agree more.

What I may not necessarily agree with Simmons and Altman on, however, is their presentation of an academic challenge that appears to be in a vacuum neither discussing these issues as they relate to higher education in America, nor mentioning any other programmes that do so – implicitly implying that the University of Alabama is attempting a radical programme that no other university in the world is attempting, and that may not, in part, be true.

As I listened to Simmons and Altman discuss the importance of “Dorothea Ortmann and my response to her interview. Ortmann also discusses the important of a multidisciplinary approach combined with the use of the social sciences, including empirical data, to assist in the study of religious phenomena in her native Peru.

In my response to Ortmann, I briefly detail why a multidisciplinary approach and the use of social science data was fundamental to my own doctoral research. While I spoke in my response to Ortmann about the struggle to include such supporting data into my final thesis, I didn’t mention why I chose to pursue my doctoral research in Glasgow versus staying in the US.

The answer to that question is simple: I needed a multidisciplinary department that would support my pursuit of the questions raised in my Master’s thesis—questions that were literary, theological, thealogical, psychological, anthropological, cultural, and sociological. Theology and Religious Studies departments across the US have held close the traditional, monocular lens of disciplinary study, and those who wish to combine disciplines are most often encouraged to study subject matter more reductive and intransigent.

There is a level of multidisciplinary approach to academic enquiry that is far more prevalent in the United Kingdom. I chose the University of Glasgow as the centre for my doctoral research based not only on the great city and friendly people, but also on the University’s Centre for Literature, Theology, and the Arts. The Centre, founded by Professor David Jasper, afforded me the opportunity to pursue my queries where they led—through a range of disciplinary material including psychology, history, anthropology, sociological data, and governmental statistics. This multidisciplinary approach afforded me, as researcher, the opportunity to explore not only the original questions from the source material, but also to truly examine the sociological impact these modern faith traditions are having in the US and UK.

I wasn’t locked in a tower of theology and religious studies, I was let loose on the entire geography of academic and scholarly pursuit to roam the map where my queries took me. In the end, and only through such a wonderfully supportive multidisciplinary research programme, I could see results in three dimensions rather than one—living, breathing models rather than flat photographs. Identifying the thealogical and theological implications of these new faith traditions in the flat first dimension led to answers akin to a 3D model of the cultural and sociological impact they continue to have on modern faith traditions, practitioners, and seekers. In my opinion, multidisciplinary departments are vital to academic research and growth.

The new programme, Religion in Culture, does take a welcome and necessary step in this modern, digital age, by including both public and digital humanities to their foundational training alongside Social Theory. Given that social media is not only taking over our daily lives, but also shaping and altering our lives for good and ill, the inclusion of digital humanities and the prominence of social media is a wonderful approach to address and expand religious studies in the digital age.

A variety of universities both in the US and the UK use social media as a tool for effective outreach. The Religious Studies Project in the UK and State of Formation in the US stand out as two exemplary religious studies projects, often, as with these two, in collaboration with other universities, (as opposed to individual departments or programmes) that utilise social media daily to reach and interact with their intended audience.

Moreover, the internet and social media have changed the way academics interact with each other and the outside world. Indeed, conferences are shared in situ with global audiences as participants and attendees share photos and quotes on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Most conference instructions come with suggested hashtags included, and no doubt both interest and future participation are increased through this social interaction through media. You can find a number of prominent scholars and activists on Twitter from second wave feminists such as Carol P Christ to modern thinkers and activists such as Gina Messina, Eboo Patel and Reza Aslan including Simmons and Altman (linked in the opening of this response). Ideas about religious studies, theologies, and modernity are exchanged, criticised, or retweeted daily. Blogs published and shared. Books reviewed and promoted. Therefore, teaching future academics and scholars how to successfully navigate social media in the digital world can only help to extend the reach and impact of our research, queries, and ideas. If only more universities would follow suit.

 

L Connelly Image

Authority Online: Construction and Implications

Authority Online: Construction and Implications

By Louise Connelly, University of Edinburgh, UK

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 2 October 2013, in response to Pauline Hope Cheong’s interview on Religious Authority and Social Media (30 September 2013).

Pauline Hope Cheong is Associate Professor at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University. She has written extensively on the subject of digital religion and specifically the subject of religious authority. In a recent interview with Christopher Cotter, she provides an insight into her research on the subject of religious authority online and focuses the discussion to include: how authority manifests online, strategic arbitration, constructing tradition, performance, and this emerging research area.  In this review, I highlight some of the key points from the interview, as well as discussing Buddhist authority online.

Strategic Arbitration & Performance

Cheong argues that there is strategic arbitration by the clergy (religious leaders), as they are often having to select and interpret competing online texts, as well as negotiate texts presented by their congregation. Strategically arbitrating texts instils a responsibility and element of labour in which the religious leader needs to address both the impact of technology and the cultural shift in how people engage with technology. Consequently, the clergy need to manage this situation in order to maintain legitimacy within the organisation.

Cheong argues that some religious leaders may embrace the use of digital media, rather than shy away from it, as there are many advantages to being ‘connected’ online. An example given in the interview is the use of the micro-blogging platform known as Twitter and how tweets (140 characters or less) might serve as micro sacred texts to followers. Thus, the clergy can potentially engage with a much wider and more diverse audience (geographically and culturally) than would be possible in the face-to-face environment. Cheong refers to a forthcoming article on ‘top clergy tweeters’ and the possible explanation for their success. She argues that their success may be attributed to their willingness to share personal aspects of their life via Twitter and therefore building a more intimate relationship with their followers. Nonetheless, they often only share what is ‘culturally acceptable’. By constructing tweets which intentionally select topics and shy away from ‘less favourable’ topics, it could be argued that this is a type of online public/private performance.

New and evolving research

There are a number of disciplines which have taken an interest in the emerging area of religion online, including religious studies, media studies, and cultural studies;  to name but a few. Cheong highlights that “in the digital age, adherents, audiences, listeners, communities of shared practice and shared memory, and various ‘publics’ are now active in the production, circulation, imbrication, selection , and re-making of ‘the religious’ and ‘the spiritual’” (Cheong et al., 2012, p.xii). However, understanding how authority manifests online and is negotiated offline is an area needing further attention. Cheong proposes that future research could include an examination of religious apps and how authority is communicated through such apps (see Wagner, who proposes six categories of religious apps, 2012, p.102-105); as well as an exploration of religious authority and other cultures and languages (not just North America) use of online media. The latter would provide a comparative analysis of authority, which is a research area also proposed by Dawson and Cowan (2004, p.10-11).

Cheong’s interview provides a valuable insight into how different media platforms are being used by religious individuals and organisations. Understanding the relationship between religion, media and culture enables us to gain a greater awareness of the potential implications for religion due to cultural changes and technological developments in the twenty-first century.

Virtual Buddhism and Authority

I would now like to continue the discussion of authority on the internet by providing some examples of how Buddhist authority is manifesting online. The examination of Buddhism on the internet is an emerging area and includes a small number of studies which have addressed the issue of Buddhist authority online (see Cheong et al. 2011; Baffelli et al. 2011; Connelly, 2012). Cheong et al. focus on how Buddhist clergy use new and old media, whereas Baffelli et al. examine Japanese New Religious Movements and their use of video sharing sites as a means to instill authority.  Other research examines Buddhist ritual in the online virtual world known as Second Life and questions whether online Buddhism, or ‘Virtual Buddhism’ could result in changes to Buddhist authority, community, identity and ritual – both online and offline (Connelly, 2010; 2012).

Buddhism in Second Life can be found in a number of locations, such as the Buddha Center (http://secondlife.com/, in-world address, 137, 130, 21). It is here that avatars (online personas) can participate in virtual meditation, spin prayer-wheels, or visit the temple or Deer Garden. The virtual activities, artefacts and locations at the Buddha Center often replicate those found offline, thus providing a sense of authenticity (Connelly, 2010, p.19). Many of the meditation sessions or talks are led by ordained Buddhist monks or nuns and therefore, could be said to legitimate their sense of authority online. On the other hand, the Buddha Center is not affiliated with one specific school of Buddhism and includes Zen, Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist practices and artifacts  One of the founders of the Center, Delani Gabardini (in-world name) maintains that this creates a type of “universal Buddhism” (Connelly, 2010, p.15). Examples of virtual locations, activities and individuals such as those found at the Buddha Center enable us to examine how Buddhist identity, community, ritual and authority manifests online and the possible challenges and implications which may arise, for Buddhism, both online and offline (Connelly 2012, p.134).

Buddhist religious authority online is an area which needs further exploration, so that we can truly understand how the internet is providing an opportunity for new forms of religious authority and leadership to develop, while at the same time establishing traditional religious authority. It will also help us to answer questions, such as who has the “true legitimate voice for a particular religious tradition or community” (Campbell 2012, p.76).

Additional Resources

P.H. Cheong website http://paulinehopecheong.com/

Virtual Buddhism blog http://virtualbuddhism.blogspot.co.uk/

References

  • Baffelli, E., Reader, I. & Staemmler, B. (2011). Japanese religions on the internet: innovation, representation, and authority. Routledge.
  • Campbell, H. (ed.). (2012). Digital religion: understanding religious practice in new media worlds. London: Routledge.
  • Cheong, Fisher-Nieleen, Gelgren & Ess (2012). Digital religion, social media and culture. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
  • Cheong, P.H., Huang, S. & Poon, J.P.H. (2011). “Cultivating Online and Offline Pathways to Enlightenment”. Information, Communication & Society, 14:8, 1160-1180.
  • Connelly, L. (2010). “Virtual Buddhism: An Analysis of Aesthetics in Relation to Religious Practice within Second Life”. 4.1 ed., Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet
  • ________. (2012). “Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist Ritual in Second Life” in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, H. Campbell (ed.), pp. 128-135. London: Routledge.
  • Dawson, L. L. & Cowan, D. (eds.) (2004). Religion Online. London, Routledge.
  • Wagner, R. (2012). Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality. New York: Routledge. 

Religious Authority and Social Media

Throughout the history of the RSP, we have been privileged to feature a number of interviews and responses which have focused upon the interaction of ‘religion’ with information and communications technology, including Jonathan’s interview with Tim Hutchings on Digital Religion, and Louise’s interview with Heidi Campbell on Religion in a Networked Society. However, up until now, we haven’t paid particular attention to the impact of social media upon ‘religion’ and Religious Studies. Today’s interview features Chris speaking with Pauline Hope Cheong of Arizona State University on the topic of religious authority, the impact of social media upon this aspect of religion, and how scholars can potentially go about utilizing this seemingly infinite repository of information and chatter in their research.

As Cheong herself writes:

Given its rich and variable nature, authority itself is challenging to define and study. Although the words “clergy” and “priests” are commonly used, in the west, to connote religious authority, the variety of related titles is immense (e.g. “pastor,” “vicar,” “monk,” “iman,” “guru,” “rabbi,” etc). Studies focused on religious authority online have been few, compared to studies centered on religious community and identity. Despite interest and acknowledgment of the concept, there is a lack of definitional clarity over authority online, and no comprehensive theory of religious authority… (2013, 73)

Hopefully this interview shall go some way to addressing this lack.

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This interview was recorded in London, in June 2013, at the Open University’s Digital Media and Sacred Text Conference. We are very grateful to Tim Hutchings and the Open University for their support in facilitating this recording, and for just generally being awesome.

References and Further Reading

  • Cheong, P.H. (2013) Authority. In H. Campbell (Ed). Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds. Pp 72-87. NY: Routledge
  • Cheong, P.H., P. Fischer-Nielsen, P., S. Gelfgren, & C. Ess (Eds) (2012) Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices, Futures. pp. 1-24. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Cheong, P.H., Hwang, J.M. & Brummans, H.J.M. (forthcoming, 2013). Transnational immanence: The autopoietic co-constitution of a Chinese spiritual organization through mediated organization. Information, Communication & Society.
  • Cheong, P.H., Huang, S.H., & Poon, J.P.H. (2011). Religious Communication and Epistemic Authority of Leaders in Wired Faith Organizations. Journal of Communication, 61 (5), 938-958.
  • Cheong, P.H., Huang, S.H., & Poon, J.P.H (2011). Cultivating online and offline pathways to enlightenment: Religious authority in wired Buddhist organizations. Information, Communication & Society, 14 (8), 1160-1180.