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Pilgrimage as Tension

That we now understand that people undertake pilgrimages for more than pious reasons has been one of the most significant advances in ‘pilgrimage studies’ to date. In Paulina Kolata’s interview with Prof. Ian Reader this is illustrated with a number of examples, though it is important to note that Reader shies away from a definition. For those who insist on the definition of terms this is a problem, of course, but I suspect the omission was deliberate. Among the reasons for this that are discussed is the notion that any term developed in one cultural-linguistic group will immediately face translation problems when being applied to another. Nonetheless, there is a tacit definition in use for the purposes of the interview which appears to be ‘travel connected to institutional religion’. The exception to this is ‘secular pilgrimage’ which Reader attaches to themes of popular culture, informal religious iconography and meanings, and, less obviously, questions of personal and collective meaning, all of which take place outside the jurisdiction of an institutional religious group. Questions of definition aside, there is an important theme Reader returns to a number of times throughout the interview; that pilgrims do a lot of stuff that is not ‘religious’ that scholars in religious studies have thus largely ignored.

In lieu of definitions, Reader asks questions about popularity and attraction, and, when prompted by Kolata, about meaning. By these routes a general picture of pilgrimage emerges. There are, Reader argues, certain conditions that must be met for a pilgrimage site to become successful and popular. Amongst these, infrastructure and marketing are important. Entertainment, Reader argues, has always been a part of religion and always a part of pilgrimage. In Western scholarship, however, there has been some kind of Protestant-informed unease with enjoyment when it comes to religiosity. This has given rise to a certain idea of pilgrims as serious travellers – a notion of pious, mobile flagellation in search of absolution – which contrasts with a domain of tourism in which entertainment is dominant and thus is frivolous and demanding of a scholarly shun (Digance 2006). But this dichotomy, Reader notes, is not present in many other traditions around the world. Furthermore, regardless of scholarly dismissal, pilgrimage sites are often places of entertainment – food, performances, conviviality, sex – regardless of culture or dominant religious group, and this is an important part of what attracts people. The reasons people might go on what they call ‘a pilgrimage’ are complex. Amusement may be as important as communion, escape from everyday life as important as prayer. But, and this is an important point that does not come up in the interview, they may not be the reasons a person may give when asked by fieldworking scholars. This is where a question asked by Kolata about the meaning of pilgrimage practices brings Reader to the heart of the interview’s thesis. Common themes in pilgrimage traditions, Reader infers, are metaphors of the journey of life, and, simultaneously, an escape from the realities of that life.

Reader’s argument is compelling and raises some important and intriguing questions. In my own work on spiritual tourism (Norman 2011) the themes he highlights were no less common,[1] and I too emphasise the importance of looking at the whole picture of a travel site or tradition in order to triangulate data and draw reliable conclusions. The working model Reader suggests is one that understands pilgrimages as travel to religious sites in which the motivations of travellers are a mixture of piety, curiosity, escape, boredom, transformation, and any number of other ‘non-religious’ and ‘religious’ reasons. The point, as noted in the interview, is that traditions of travel, apart from anything else, have probably always been, in part, about getting away from home and seeing something new, satisfying some human urge for mobility, to explore, to see new things, and to learn. In addition, popularity is also a factor as people desire to go where others also go. This is complicated by Reader’s assertion that piety is not a prerequisite for pilgrimage, though this, of course, depends on who one asks. Even a cursory examination of the historical record of pilgrimage traditions in Europe illustrates that pilgrims have always been suspicious of the peregrinatory status of other pilgrims. The overall point, however, is that from the outside, pilgrimage traditions are those traditions of travel in which meaning and/or transformation are portrayed as important, but that in practice hang in tension with other equally important, though less acknowledged motivations and desires.

For my current work, this notion has some important implications. At present I am working on the qualitative analysis of interview material gathered as part of the Shamatha Project, examining the effects of an intensive three-month shamatha meditation training retreat. If people have gone on pilgrimage to sites they consider special (as Taves 2012, would put it), but, as Reader contends, also in order to escape the everyday, to seek entertainment, and to ‘go to popular sites’, then in the phenomenon of people in Western societies going on Buddhist meditation retreats, we ought to be able to find evidence of those other ‘non-religious’ factors. At least somewhere and somehow. This, of course, assumes we are willing to consider ‘retreat tourism’ or ‘contemplative tourism’, as I’m going to neologise it here, in the same light as the range of vastly different traditions of travel that we are otherwise happy to lump under the ‘pilgrimage’ label. And I am, as are others (Eddy 2012), because if we look at some of the sociological studies of retreats and their touristic dimensions we can find some evidence of just such complex approaches (e.g. Voigt et al. 2010). An important implication is that, far from being simply about a journey towards truth, or of transformation or progression towards enlightenment or mindfulness, retreat practices in the West will also be about escape from the everyday, about seeing somewhere new, learning, and, overall, about being something different from normal for the retreatant/traveller/pilgrim.

Of course, the first step in testing the model Reader puts forward (albeit somewhat tacitly) is rigorous, qualitative research that investigates the interplay of expressed motivations, outcomes, and actual practices. I am confident enough in Reader’s model, especially in the light of my own research on spiritual tourism and on World Youth Day (2011), to predict that a complex mix of contesting interests held in tension is what will be found, at least in Western meditation retreat contexts. Certainly if we look at some examples of successful and popular retreats, like Spirit Rock Meditation Centre in California, we find the signs Reader predicts: good infrastructure, coordinated marketing, catering for many tastes and approaches, escape from the everyday, social gatherings apart from the practice, and so on. As opposed to undermining the special status of retreat practices, research showing such observations would, in fact, emphasise the sociological importance of retreat experiences for retreatants. Retreat visits/pilgrimages often are, by design, by intent, and in practice, journeys of significance for a range of personal and social reasons. But we cannot turn our eyes from the supposedly non-sacred, hedonistic, entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, or to put it simply, the enjoyable dimensions of retreats. For many who enter a retreat, just as for those who go on other pilgrimages, the journey is a special tradition of travel, a journey redolent with meaning, precisely because it occurs in response to complex personal and social motivations that are held in tension.

References

Digance, Justine. “Religious and Secular Pilgrimage: Journeys Redolent with Meaning.” In Tourism, Religion and Spiritual Journeys, edited by Dallen J. Timothy and Daniel H. Olsen, 36–48. London: Routledge, 2006.

Eddy, Glenys. “The Vipassana Retreat Experience: A Consideration of the Meditation Retreat as a Religious Paradigm of Travel.” Literature & Aesthetics 22, no. 1 (2012). http://ojs-prod.library.usyd.edu.au/index.php/LA/article/view/7574.

Norman, Alex. Spiritual Tourism: Travel and Religious Practice in Western Society. London: Continuum, 2011.

Norman, Alex, and Mark Johnson. “World Youth Day: The Creation of a Modern Pilgrimage Event for Evangelical Intent.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 26, no. 3 (2011): 371–85.

Taves, Ann. “Special Things as Building Blocks of Religions.” In The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, edited by Robert A. Orsi, 58–83. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Voigt, Cornelia, Gary Howat, and Graham Brown. “Hedonic and Eudaimonic Experiences among Wellness Tourists: An Exploratory Enquiry.” Annals of Leisure Research 13, no. 3 (January 1, 2010): 541–62. doi:10.1080/11745398.2010.9686862.

[1] I’ll put aside my wish to respond to Reader’s dismissal of ‘spirituality’ apart from noting the ironic similarity it bears to the dismissal of dimensions of pilgrimage he had just been discussing.

CESNUR 2013 Conference Report

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Not long after I arrived home following the 2013 CESNUR conference, having spent some forty-odd hours door-to-door flying from Sweden to Australia, I tweeted “Great conference, beautiful country, lovely people”. The lengthy transit (dare I say ‘pilgrimage’) usually involved in making one’s way to CESNUR from the Antipodes is never too much to bear, for despite being small the conference is always one filled with enthusiastic colleagues keen to share their research and listen to that of others. It is a pleasing atmosphere, especially given that, as research foci, even now NRMs are sometimes regarded as topics of occasional frivolous scholarly fancy.

This concern for research area validity is a common theme for CESNUR conferences, especially the plenary sessions, perhaps speaking more of the type of resistance faced by the professorial leaders of the field in their formative years than that of early-career types like myself and many other attendees. The resistance currently is less methodological and more economic; ‘cults’ are somehow less dangerous, and with this decline in public interest there is less money. A recurrent problem for the field, to be sure, but one for which we should feel proud, for in part it comes from the confounding of the ‘cult’ paradigm so prominent in the 1980s and 1990s. This year in Falun, Sweden, thanks to the organisation and leadership of Liselotte Frisk, of Darlana University, and CESNUR managing director Massimo Introvigne, the social, political, and cultural importance of NRMs studies was evidenced by scholars ostensibly gathered to discuss change and religious movements. This theme was set by Eileen Barker’s opening plenary in which she noted the inevitable lifecycle changes that NRMs undergo: the deaths of founders, children and ageing converts, and new ideas within still putatively New Religious Movements. This was fittingly followed by J. Gordon Melton’s plenary on the very definition of NRMs, using Texas Pentacostalism as a test case. Melton argued that Pentecostalism, worldwide, can variously be categorised as a NRM, an establishing group, or an established and normalised group. Critically, Melton reminded conference attendees that ‘NRM’ signifies anything that is in competition with dominant religious milieu in any given setting. Conceived along a spectrum with dominance at one end and alienation/minority status at the other, NRMs are those groups we may observe occupying the later, often at the explicit behest of the established/dominant religious stakeholders.

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This framework laid down some interesting questions that many other conference presenters picked up. Knut Melvaer and Margrethe Løøv (University of Bergen) presented some intriguing field data from Norway regarding self-designations by individuals at New Age fairs which gave some statistical data to long-held assumptions about what sort of beliefs people who describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ hold. Papers by David Webster (University of Gloucestershire) and Cimminnee Holt (Concordia University) were also notable for their concentration on the challenge to the scholar. Webster in particular noted that the NRMs scholars should not simply be concerned to observe and relay ‘objective’ information with which people may make their own decisions; scholars should also offer critical ethical judgements based on substantiated fact. This was serendipitously followed by Holt’s paper in which it was noted that such judgments tend to operate in the realm of the soundbite; and scholars shy away from anything less than a well referenced few thousand words. How to deal with these parallel problems in an increasingly mediatised, connected, and data saturated world is a core question for all subfields of Religious Studies.

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For many attendees not from Sweden, this very problem was highlighted in the plenary session on the Knutby Philadelphia Pentacostal Church, which included a presentation from one of the groups pastors. This was both a fascinating and enlightening insight to Swedish religions and one of the voices in the present new religious fugue in Sweden. It also reinforced Melton’s comment that the newness of NRMs is to be found in their social location in situ. The Knutby Philadelphia group were portrayed as clearly both ‘culturally and socially alienated’, largely through media representation, including suspect TV docu-dramas and news stories.

Concluding the conference, incoming ISSNR President Milda Alisauskiene’s plenary paper, ‘Pyramid of Merkine: New Age or Popular Catholicism?’ was a personal highlight. It combined a religious tourism location and fieldwork thereof which complicated any attempt to institutionally categorise the pyramid. I am looking forward to reading more from Milda about this site as it demonstrates well the dimension of syncretic ‘newness’, and therefore tension with the dominant, in much religiosity. Finally, Massimo Introvigne’s concluding plenary on Lithuanian Occulture was a tour not just of his venerable knowledge of the occult, but his fondness for works of art also.

I look forward to attending 2014’s CESNUR conference in the infamous and important Waco, Texas. I hope there we can see a continuation of the theme highlighted at Falun; that the change that is to come for NRM scholars is one of communication effectiveness and ensuring that our scholarly voices are not lost amid the din of hegemonic scholarship and funding. The theme for the Waco conference bodes well in this regard, ‘The Vitality of New Religions’. And vital too is the study of them. See you in Texas.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World

through examining [religions’] cultural DSC_0039_2products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World: Intention and Reception of Anthroposophical and Gurdjieffian Art Forms

By Dr Johanna Petsche, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 25 September 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production (23 September 2013)

The Religious Studies Project’s interview with Professor Carole M. Cusack of the University of Sydney covers an ambitious range of issues by tackling some huge open-ended questions: How does one define a cultural product of a religion? Must it be material? What makes a product religious or sacred? What about products that are secular, but traceable to a new religion? Does the culture of celebrity fit into this? Cusack’s rigorous unpacking of these topics, and the tangential issues explored along the way, make for scintillating listening. The interview loosely centres on the recently published Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (2012), which was edited by Cusack and Alex Norman. This comprehensive compendium examines the impact of new religions upon cultural production through a set of case studies exploring realms of music, architecture, food, art, books, film, video games, and more.

New religions have been increasingly emerging in the West and other regions since the beginning of the nineteenth century. They are, however, often ignored or devalued due to the common suspicion that they are not ‘real religions’ and cannot be equated with traditional, historical religions (Cusack and Norman 2012, 1). This human tendency to disregard new religions and new spiritualities is reflected in the way that the cultural products of different religions are perceived. Taking works of music as examples, it is clear that where J. S. Bach’s (1686-1750) ‘St Matthew Passion’, Handel’s (1685-1759) ‘Messiah’ (both overtly Christian works), and the Sufi devotional qawwali music of Pakistan are easily acknowledged as masterworks of religious music, the same dignity is not accorded to the reggae music of the Rastafarians or the piano music of G. I. Gurdjieff and his pupil Thomas de Hartmann (Cusack and Norman 2012, 2; Murrell and Snider 2012, 495-518; Petsche 2012, 271-295). Where the former have come to be celebrated as exemplary, timeless artistic achievements representative of reputable religions, the art associated with new religions is often considered trivial and unimportant, like new religions themselves. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the art of new religions has not yet ‘stood the test of time’, and also that it arose in the materialistic, largely secular world. In this way it seems less meaningful or ‘authentic’ than the art of past epochs, which we commonly admire with a sense of awe and nostalgia.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnaaXk9OxA0]

The cultural products of new religions are often produced by insiders for insiders, but many have attained a level of broader cultural acceptance through various means (see also Cusack and Norman 2012, 2). Take for example Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner’s (1861-1925) Goetheanum II in Dornach, Switzerland, which was completed in 1928. His Goetheanum I was built in 1913 but it was destroyed by fire in 1922, and then rebuilt as Goetheanum II. This is a building – known as “the Building” by Anthroposophists – set up deliberately as a spiritual centre embodying Anthroposophical ideals, with its symbolic, differently coloured windows representing Steiner’s colour theory, and special outside garden and water features designed to create specific effects on viewers. Goetheanum II seems to have been intentionally conceived by Steiner as a sacred site. Interestingly though, at the same time it has become a tourist attraction, with people being drawn to it purely for its aesthetic qualities. It is, after all, a beautiful example of Expressionist architecture (Cusack 2012, 175). Goetheanum II is actually a unique selling point for the village. In this way, the structure is simultaneously a desirable piece of architecture that tourists wish to visit and also, for Anthroposophists who must have much more nuanced, insider interpretations of it, a building imbued with spiritual meaning.

The Goetheanum

The Goetheanum

A number of modern architects, such as Swiss architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier), drew their influence from Steiner’s designs, without specifically calling upon Anthroposophical ideals. Other famous structures, such as the ING Bank headquarters in Amsterdam, built by Albert and van Huuts, have been erected to reflect Steiner principles (Cusack 2012, 188). One might also consider in this context the system of agriculture, known today as Biodynamic Agriculture or Biodynamics, which is discussed in Alex Norman’s chapter in the Handbook. Biodynamics has its starting point in Anthroposophical ideas (Steiner gave a series of eight lectures on the topic in 1924) but is now more concerned with the expression of terroir rather than spiritual development (Norman 2012, 213-234). G. I. Gurdjieff’s nine-pointed enneagram symbol is another example. The enneagram has, in recent years, been appropriated as a model for nine personality types, a model that has been widely promoted in business management and spiritual contexts, straying far from Gurdjieff’s use and teaching of the symbol. While cultural products might be inscribed with the intentions of their creators, it is social actors who make sense of the world and its cultural products (Cusack and Norman 2012, 4).

Another cultural product of a new religion is renowned theatre and film director Peter Brook’s 1979 film Meetings with Remarkable Men. The film is a cinematic adaptation of Armenian-Greek spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff’s (c.1866-1949) semi-autobiographical text of the same name. Brook’s film could be classed as a ‘Gurdjieffian film’ and a religious cultural product as it was created by a Gurdjieffian (Brook now heads the Gurdjieff Paris group), is based on one of Gurdjieff’s own books, and pays tribute to Gurdjieff. Unlike Steiner’s Goetheanum I and II, which were not really intended to cater for outsiders, Brook’s film about Gurdjieff was deliberately made for non-Gurdjieffian, as well as Gurdjieffian, audiences. It is interesting that spiritual meaning must be deeply embedded in the film, while Brook also intended it to fulfil the role of portraying the story of Gurdjieff’s life to ‘outsiders’, in an effective and entertaining way.

The study of new religions, a burgeoning area within the greater field of Religious Studies, gives a unique perspective on different facets of religion. Not only can we observe, through such a study, how religions begin, change, develop, and in some cases expire, but through examining their cultural products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

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

 

Bibliography

  • Cusack, Carole and Alex Norman (eds). “Introduction,” Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Cusack, Carole. “‘And the Building Becomes Man’: Meaning and Aesthetics in Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Murrell, Nathaniel and Justin Snider. “Identity, Subversion, and Reconstruction ‘Riddims’: Reggae as Cultural Expressions of Rastafarian Theology” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Norman, Alex. “Cosmic Flavour, Spiritual Nutrition?: The Biodynamic Agricultural Method and the Legacy of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy in Viticulture” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Petsche, Johanna. “G. I. Gurdjieff’s Piano Music and its Application in and Outside the ‘Work’” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
Michael Stausberg. Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Some Questions about Spiritual Tourism

Michael Stausberg. Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

On a more fundamental level, this raises the question whether ‘spiritual’ refers to a quality that may come in addition to an identification as religious, or whether the two refer to different groups and types of persons.

 

Some Questions about Spiritual Tourism

by Professor Michael Stausberg, University of Bergen

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 17 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project interview with Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism (15 April 2013)

In this podcast Alex Norman defines a spiritual tourist as a person who is travelling for spiritual betterment. As he himself admits, this is a pretty loose term. Alex carries on by saying that the people he interviewed in his research typically decided to change themselves or to reconstruct their lives, be it because they found their basic worldview unsatisfactory or because their lives in significant aspects went out of control. This need, obviously, can arise for people from all sorts of backgrounds, be they committed Christians or atheists. Is the term spiritual betterment as a project is applicable to everybody or only to such people from the spiritual milieu? Can also religious people travel for spiritual betterment or only such persons who have severed their ties to religious communities or ideologies (if they ever had such commitments)? In the podcast, the conversation partners seem to have a mutual understanding of the kind of practices characterized as ‘spiritual’, but no clear examples are given. On a more fundamental level, this raises the question whether ‘spiritual’ refers to a quality that may come in addition to an identification as religious, or whether the two refer to different groups and types of persons.

The podcast creates the impression that the persons interviewed by Alex are characterised by hostility towards Christianity and by a worldview that assigns agency to the subject; the latter aspect is often seen as a hallmark of New Age worldview (or spirituality). When seeking to better themselves spiritually, these people visit places or take part in activities that are part of religious traditions to which the tourists do not belong. Apparently, this exposure or this participation can contribute to the project of spiritual betterment, which thereby thrives on and is to some extent dependent on places and practices maintained by established religions. Given that the research was conducted at these sites we do not learn much about the travel careers of these spiritual tourists and the long-term biographical significance of their trips. This calls for follow-up research. It would also be interesting to know how widespread a social phenomenon this kind of spiritual tourism is.

In the interview, spiritual tourism is contrasted with the way many ordinary tourists visit religious buildings “between a baguette and a croissant”. This seems to imply the idea that, from a religious studies perspective, the ordinary tourists are less genuinely important, as if this somehow were not the real thing. As I have tried to show in my book Religion and Tourism (Routledge, 2011), when addressing tourism in the study of religion\s we should not restrict our inquiry to forms of tourism framed as religious or tourism but should cast our net wider to cover the variety of interfaces between the domains of religion and tourism—in the same way that we study the representation of religion in media instead of only focusing on religious newspaper, television channels or websites. While the Lonely Planet India may indeed, as Alex says, exhort its readers to try out different forms of religious places and practices, this volume is untypical for the series as a whole; yet, as a genre travel guidebooks are interesting because they are a kind of literature from which many travellers derive their information about religion. As I argue in my book, tourism is a major arena for religion (and spirituality) in the contemporary world, even though many intellectuals tend to despise tourism and tourists. Spiritual tourism as analysed by Alex is one such nexus.

Towards the end of the podcast, Alex seems to come close to a post-Durkheimian theory of the implicitly religious nature of holidaying. This line of thinking refers to three types of evidence: points of identification, gathering of masses that constitute society, and commitment. I don’t think that any of this will take us very far. If earlier on people identified with religion, and now they identify with traveling, does that amount to indicating a potentially religious nature of tourism (as if people would not identify with all sorts of things)? I also doubt that the very gathering of masses at beaches (an old trope in anti-tourism rhetoric!) is enough to qualify this phenomenon as ultimately resembling religion. As it proceeds, the argument seems to transport a Tillichian notion of religion, where religion is identified as what ultimately matters to us, so that people who spend much of their available money on holidays can be interpreted as expressing a ‘religious’ valuation of them. Is it necessary and theoretically compelling to turn everything of significance for people into something religious?

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

About the Author:

Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Michael Stausberg is professor of religion at the University of Bergen. His book publications in English include Religion and Tourism (Routledge, 2011), Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism (Equinox 2008) and, as editor or co-editor, Defining Magic (Equinox, 2013, with Bernd-Christian Otto), The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion (2011, with Steven Engler), Contemporary Theories of Religion (Routledge, 2009) and Theorizing Rituals (Brill, 2006-2007; with Jens Kreinath and Jan Snoek). See Michael Stausberg’s website for a full list of publications and downloads.

Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism

What would you think if I told you I had just come back from a holiday in Aya Napa? How about Santiago de Compostella or Glastonbury? How about Mecca? When does travel become pilgrimage, and what are the spiritual factors behind our holiday choices? In this week’s interview, Alex Norman and David Robertson discuss the history and modern relevance of journeys undertaken for spiritual benefit and transformation.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Alex Norman lectures at the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, where he completed his doctorate in 2010. His central research interests revolve around the confluence of travel practices and religious practices. His book Spiritual Tourism (Continuum 2011) examines the intersection of travel and secular spiritual practice by contemporary Westerners. His other main research interest is in new religious movements, and in 2012 he co-edited the Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (Brill 2012) with Carole M. Cusack. From 2010 to 2013 Alex was co-editor of Literature & Aesthetics, culminating in a special issue examining travel and literature published in 2012. His latest research project looks at the various ways in which travel events and traditions have impacted the formation of new religious movements.

Academic Publishing Roundtable

Publish, or be damned! But the world of publishing can be esoteric, especially the cloistered world of academic publishing. In this special roundtable discussion, recorded during the Australian Association for the Study of Religion annual conference last year, Zoe Alderton leads a group of academics with experience of all levels of academic publishing in a discussion which aims to demystify the process.

George, Zoe and Carole begin by talking about editing special themed Issues of academic journals. They talk about networking – that you have to make yourself available, but you have to put the work in when it’s needed. Alex then describes how a larger edited book is constructed from the proposals received. Simon then describes his experience of writing for an edited volume. Alex shares a cautionary tale about authorship and competition, and Carole recounts some less-than-positive experiences with editors.

Conversation then turns to the experience of being an editor yourself. George reads an email which he composed in order to reject someone as kindly as he could. Carole’s closing advice is “Write what you want, and write clear.” This podcast is essential information not only for prospective Religious Studies scholars, not only the humanities and social scientists, but anyone aiming for a career in academia.

Thanks to Zoe for chairing this, to Carole and Don for opening their home, and to Annabel Carr for providing photographs. And thanks to all the participants for an informative and entertaining recording.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Zoe Alderton is a PhD candidate in the department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. Her thesis concerns the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon and the nature of his audience reception. Zoe’s main interests are religion in modern art and religious communication via new media. Her recent publications include a discussion of the inheritance of Theosophy in Australian modernism, and an exploration of the contentious politics surrounding the Blake Prize for Religious Art. Upcoming publications concern imaginative pilgrimage in the work of Colin McCahon, and a discussion of the motifs in his beachside theology. Zoe is also a tutor in Sociology for the University of Western Sydney and reviews editor for the journal Literature & Aesthetics.

Carole M. Cusack (Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney) trained as a medievalist and her doctorate was published as Conversion Among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell, 1998). Since the late 1990s she has taught in contemporary religious trends, publishing on pilgrimage and tourism, modern Pagan religions, new religious movements, the interface between religion and politics, and religion and popular culture. She is the author of The Essence of Buddhism (Lansdowne, 2001), Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010), and The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), 2011. She has published in a number of edited volumes, and is the editor (with Christopher Hartney) of Religion and Retributive Logic: Essays in Honour of Garry W. Trompf (Brill, 2010). With Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney) she is editor of the Journal of Religious History (Wiley) and with Liselotte Frisk (Dalarna University) she is editor of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions (Equinox). She serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Literature & Aesthetics, and of the Sophia Monograph Series (Springer).

Alex NormanAlex Norman (“the Tourism Guy”) lectures at the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, where he completed his doctorate in 2010. His central research interests revolve around the confluence of travel practices and religious practices. His book Spiritual Tourism (Continuum 2011) examines the intersection of travel and secular spiritual practice by contemporary Westerners. His other main research interest is in new religious movements, and in 2012 he co-edited the Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (Brill 2012) with Carole M. Cusack. From 2010 to 2013 Alex was co-editor of Literature & Aesthetics, culminating in a special issue examining travel and literature published in 2012. His latest research project looks at the various ways in which travel events and traditions have impacted the formation of new religious movements.

George Ioannides studied comparative religion as part of his Undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, Australia.

 

 

Simon Theobold is a graduate student in the Archaeology and Anthropology department of the Australian National University. His current research examines food taboos in contemporary Australia.

Sarah K. Balstrup is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, and you can follow this link to read her paper Sentient Symbols: The Implications of Animal Cruelty Debates in Contemporary Australian Art.

 

Podcasts

Pilgrimage as Tension

That we now understand that people undertake pilgrimages for more than pious reasons has been one of the most significant advances in ‘pilgrimage studies’ to date. In Paulina Kolata’s interview with Prof. Ian Reader this is illustrated with a number of examples, though it is important to note that Reader shies away from a definition. For those who insist on the definition of terms this is a problem, of course, but I suspect the omission was deliberate. Among the reasons for this that are discussed is the notion that any term developed in one cultural-linguistic group will immediately face translation problems when being applied to another. Nonetheless, there is a tacit definition in use for the purposes of the interview which appears to be ‘travel connected to institutional religion’. The exception to this is ‘secular pilgrimage’ which Reader attaches to themes of popular culture, informal religious iconography and meanings, and, less obviously, questions of personal and collective meaning, all of which take place outside the jurisdiction of an institutional religious group. Questions of definition aside, there is an important theme Reader returns to a number of times throughout the interview; that pilgrims do a lot of stuff that is not ‘religious’ that scholars in religious studies have thus largely ignored.

In lieu of definitions, Reader asks questions about popularity and attraction, and, when prompted by Kolata, about meaning. By these routes a general picture of pilgrimage emerges. There are, Reader argues, certain conditions that must be met for a pilgrimage site to become successful and popular. Amongst these, infrastructure and marketing are important. Entertainment, Reader argues, has always been a part of religion and always a part of pilgrimage. In Western scholarship, however, there has been some kind of Protestant-informed unease with enjoyment when it comes to religiosity. This has given rise to a certain idea of pilgrims as serious travellers – a notion of pious, mobile flagellation in search of absolution – which contrasts with a domain of tourism in which entertainment is dominant and thus is frivolous and demanding of a scholarly shun (Digance 2006). But this dichotomy, Reader notes, is not present in many other traditions around the world. Furthermore, regardless of scholarly dismissal, pilgrimage sites are often places of entertainment – food, performances, conviviality, sex – regardless of culture or dominant religious group, and this is an important part of what attracts people. The reasons people might go on what they call ‘a pilgrimage’ are complex. Amusement may be as important as communion, escape from everyday life as important as prayer. But, and this is an important point that does not come up in the interview, they may not be the reasons a person may give when asked by fieldworking scholars. This is where a question asked by Kolata about the meaning of pilgrimage practices brings Reader to the heart of the interview’s thesis. Common themes in pilgrimage traditions, Reader infers, are metaphors of the journey of life, and, simultaneously, an escape from the realities of that life.

Reader’s argument is compelling and raises some important and intriguing questions. In my own work on spiritual tourism (Norman 2011) the themes he highlights were no less common,[1] and I too emphasise the importance of looking at the whole picture of a travel site or tradition in order to triangulate data and draw reliable conclusions. The working model Reader suggests is one that understands pilgrimages as travel to religious sites in which the motivations of travellers are a mixture of piety, curiosity, escape, boredom, transformation, and any number of other ‘non-religious’ and ‘religious’ reasons. The point, as noted in the interview, is that traditions of travel, apart from anything else, have probably always been, in part, about getting away from home and seeing something new, satisfying some human urge for mobility, to explore, to see new things, and to learn. In addition, popularity is also a factor as people desire to go where others also go. This is complicated by Reader’s assertion that piety is not a prerequisite for pilgrimage, though this, of course, depends on who one asks. Even a cursory examination of the historical record of pilgrimage traditions in Europe illustrates that pilgrims have always been suspicious of the peregrinatory status of other pilgrims. The overall point, however, is that from the outside, pilgrimage traditions are those traditions of travel in which meaning and/or transformation are portrayed as important, but that in practice hang in tension with other equally important, though less acknowledged motivations and desires.

For my current work, this notion has some important implications. At present I am working on the qualitative analysis of interview material gathered as part of the Shamatha Project, examining the effects of an intensive three-month shamatha meditation training retreat. If people have gone on pilgrimage to sites they consider special (as Taves 2012, would put it), but, as Reader contends, also in order to escape the everyday, to seek entertainment, and to ‘go to popular sites’, then in the phenomenon of people in Western societies going on Buddhist meditation retreats, we ought to be able to find evidence of those other ‘non-religious’ factors. At least somewhere and somehow. This, of course, assumes we are willing to consider ‘retreat tourism’ or ‘contemplative tourism’, as I’m going to neologise it here, in the same light as the range of vastly different traditions of travel that we are otherwise happy to lump under the ‘pilgrimage’ label. And I am, as are others (Eddy 2012), because if we look at some of the sociological studies of retreats and their touristic dimensions we can find some evidence of just such complex approaches (e.g. Voigt et al. 2010). An important implication is that, far from being simply about a journey towards truth, or of transformation or progression towards enlightenment or mindfulness, retreat practices in the West will also be about escape from the everyday, about seeing somewhere new, learning, and, overall, about being something different from normal for the retreatant/traveller/pilgrim.

Of course, the first step in testing the model Reader puts forward (albeit somewhat tacitly) is rigorous, qualitative research that investigates the interplay of expressed motivations, outcomes, and actual practices. I am confident enough in Reader’s model, especially in the light of my own research on spiritual tourism and on World Youth Day (2011), to predict that a complex mix of contesting interests held in tension is what will be found, at least in Western meditation retreat contexts. Certainly if we look at some examples of successful and popular retreats, like Spirit Rock Meditation Centre in California, we find the signs Reader predicts: good infrastructure, coordinated marketing, catering for many tastes and approaches, escape from the everyday, social gatherings apart from the practice, and so on. As opposed to undermining the special status of retreat practices, research showing such observations would, in fact, emphasise the sociological importance of retreat experiences for retreatants. Retreat visits/pilgrimages often are, by design, by intent, and in practice, journeys of significance for a range of personal and social reasons. But we cannot turn our eyes from the supposedly non-sacred, hedonistic, entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, or to put it simply, the enjoyable dimensions of retreats. For many who enter a retreat, just as for those who go on other pilgrimages, the journey is a special tradition of travel, a journey redolent with meaning, precisely because it occurs in response to complex personal and social motivations that are held in tension.

References

Digance, Justine. “Religious and Secular Pilgrimage: Journeys Redolent with Meaning.” In Tourism, Religion and Spiritual Journeys, edited by Dallen J. Timothy and Daniel H. Olsen, 36–48. London: Routledge, 2006.

Eddy, Glenys. “The Vipassana Retreat Experience: A Consideration of the Meditation Retreat as a Religious Paradigm of Travel.” Literature & Aesthetics 22, no. 1 (2012). http://ojs-prod.library.usyd.edu.au/index.php/LA/article/view/7574.

Norman, Alex. Spiritual Tourism: Travel and Religious Practice in Western Society. London: Continuum, 2011.

Norman, Alex, and Mark Johnson. “World Youth Day: The Creation of a Modern Pilgrimage Event for Evangelical Intent.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 26, no. 3 (2011): 371–85.

Taves, Ann. “Special Things as Building Blocks of Religions.” In The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, edited by Robert A. Orsi, 58–83. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Voigt, Cornelia, Gary Howat, and Graham Brown. “Hedonic and Eudaimonic Experiences among Wellness Tourists: An Exploratory Enquiry.” Annals of Leisure Research 13, no. 3 (January 1, 2010): 541–62. doi:10.1080/11745398.2010.9686862.

[1] I’ll put aside my wish to respond to Reader’s dismissal of ‘spirituality’ apart from noting the ironic similarity it bears to the dismissal of dimensions of pilgrimage he had just been discussing.

CESNUR 2013 Conference Report

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Not long after I arrived home following the 2013 CESNUR conference, having spent some forty-odd hours door-to-door flying from Sweden to Australia, I tweeted “Great conference, beautiful country, lovely people”. The lengthy transit (dare I say ‘pilgrimage’) usually involved in making one’s way to CESNUR from the Antipodes is never too much to bear, for despite being small the conference is always one filled with enthusiastic colleagues keen to share their research and listen to that of others. It is a pleasing atmosphere, especially given that, as research foci, even now NRMs are sometimes regarded as topics of occasional frivolous scholarly fancy.

This concern for research area validity is a common theme for CESNUR conferences, especially the plenary sessions, perhaps speaking more of the type of resistance faced by the professorial leaders of the field in their formative years than that of early-career types like myself and many other attendees. The resistance currently is less methodological and more economic; ‘cults’ are somehow less dangerous, and with this decline in public interest there is less money. A recurrent problem for the field, to be sure, but one for which we should feel proud, for in part it comes from the confounding of the ‘cult’ paradigm so prominent in the 1980s and 1990s. This year in Falun, Sweden, thanks to the organisation and leadership of Liselotte Frisk, of Darlana University, and CESNUR managing director Massimo Introvigne, the social, political, and cultural importance of NRMs studies was evidenced by scholars ostensibly gathered to discuss change and religious movements. This theme was set by Eileen Barker’s opening plenary in which she noted the inevitable lifecycle changes that NRMs undergo: the deaths of founders, children and ageing converts, and new ideas within still putatively New Religious Movements. This was fittingly followed by J. Gordon Melton’s plenary on the very definition of NRMs, using Texas Pentacostalism as a test case. Melton argued that Pentecostalism, worldwide, can variously be categorised as a NRM, an establishing group, or an established and normalised group. Critically, Melton reminded conference attendees that ‘NRM’ signifies anything that is in competition with dominant religious milieu in any given setting. Conceived along a spectrum with dominance at one end and alienation/minority status at the other, NRMs are those groups we may observe occupying the later, often at the explicit behest of the established/dominant religious stakeholders.

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This framework laid down some interesting questions that many other conference presenters picked up. Knut Melvaer and Margrethe Løøv (University of Bergen) presented some intriguing field data from Norway regarding self-designations by individuals at New Age fairs which gave some statistical data to long-held assumptions about what sort of beliefs people who describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ hold. Papers by David Webster (University of Gloucestershire) and Cimminnee Holt (Concordia University) were also notable for their concentration on the challenge to the scholar. Webster in particular noted that the NRMs scholars should not simply be concerned to observe and relay ‘objective’ information with which people may make their own decisions; scholars should also offer critical ethical judgements based on substantiated fact. This was serendipitously followed by Holt’s paper in which it was noted that such judgments tend to operate in the realm of the soundbite; and scholars shy away from anything less than a well referenced few thousand words. How to deal with these parallel problems in an increasingly mediatised, connected, and data saturated world is a core question for all subfields of Religious Studies.

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For many attendees not from Sweden, this very problem was highlighted in the plenary session on the Knutby Philadelphia Pentacostal Church, which included a presentation from one of the groups pastors. This was both a fascinating and enlightening insight to Swedish religions and one of the voices in the present new religious fugue in Sweden. It also reinforced Melton’s comment that the newness of NRMs is to be found in their social location in situ. The Knutby Philadelphia group were portrayed as clearly both ‘culturally and socially alienated’, largely through media representation, including suspect TV docu-dramas and news stories.

Concluding the conference, incoming ISSNR President Milda Alisauskiene’s plenary paper, ‘Pyramid of Merkine: New Age or Popular Catholicism?’ was a personal highlight. It combined a religious tourism location and fieldwork thereof which complicated any attempt to institutionally categorise the pyramid. I am looking forward to reading more from Milda about this site as it demonstrates well the dimension of syncretic ‘newness’, and therefore tension with the dominant, in much religiosity. Finally, Massimo Introvigne’s concluding plenary on Lithuanian Occulture was a tour not just of his venerable knowledge of the occult, but his fondness for works of art also.

I look forward to attending 2014’s CESNUR conference in the infamous and important Waco, Texas. I hope there we can see a continuation of the theme highlighted at Falun; that the change that is to come for NRM scholars is one of communication effectiveness and ensuring that our scholarly voices are not lost amid the din of hegemonic scholarship and funding. The theme for the Waco conference bodes well in this regard, ‘The Vitality of New Religions’. And vital too is the study of them. See you in Texas.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World

through examining [religions’] cultural DSC_0039_2products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World: Intention and Reception of Anthroposophical and Gurdjieffian Art Forms

By Dr Johanna Petsche, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 25 September 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production (23 September 2013)

The Religious Studies Project’s interview with Professor Carole M. Cusack of the University of Sydney covers an ambitious range of issues by tackling some huge open-ended questions: How does one define a cultural product of a religion? Must it be material? What makes a product religious or sacred? What about products that are secular, but traceable to a new religion? Does the culture of celebrity fit into this? Cusack’s rigorous unpacking of these topics, and the tangential issues explored along the way, make for scintillating listening. The interview loosely centres on the recently published Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (2012), which was edited by Cusack and Alex Norman. This comprehensive compendium examines the impact of new religions upon cultural production through a set of case studies exploring realms of music, architecture, food, art, books, film, video games, and more.

New religions have been increasingly emerging in the West and other regions since the beginning of the nineteenth century. They are, however, often ignored or devalued due to the common suspicion that they are not ‘real religions’ and cannot be equated with traditional, historical religions (Cusack and Norman 2012, 1). This human tendency to disregard new religions and new spiritualities is reflected in the way that the cultural products of different religions are perceived. Taking works of music as examples, it is clear that where J. S. Bach’s (1686-1750) ‘St Matthew Passion’, Handel’s (1685-1759) ‘Messiah’ (both overtly Christian works), and the Sufi devotional qawwali music of Pakistan are easily acknowledged as masterworks of religious music, the same dignity is not accorded to the reggae music of the Rastafarians or the piano music of G. I. Gurdjieff and his pupil Thomas de Hartmann (Cusack and Norman 2012, 2; Murrell and Snider 2012, 495-518; Petsche 2012, 271-295). Where the former have come to be celebrated as exemplary, timeless artistic achievements representative of reputable religions, the art associated with new religions is often considered trivial and unimportant, like new religions themselves. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the art of new religions has not yet ‘stood the test of time’, and also that it arose in the materialistic, largely secular world. In this way it seems less meaningful or ‘authentic’ than the art of past epochs, which we commonly admire with a sense of awe and nostalgia.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnaaXk9OxA0]

The cultural products of new religions are often produced by insiders for insiders, but many have attained a level of broader cultural acceptance through various means (see also Cusack and Norman 2012, 2). Take for example Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner’s (1861-1925) Goetheanum II in Dornach, Switzerland, which was completed in 1928. His Goetheanum I was built in 1913 but it was destroyed by fire in 1922, and then rebuilt as Goetheanum II. This is a building – known as “the Building” by Anthroposophists – set up deliberately as a spiritual centre embodying Anthroposophical ideals, with its symbolic, differently coloured windows representing Steiner’s colour theory, and special outside garden and water features designed to create specific effects on viewers. Goetheanum II seems to have been intentionally conceived by Steiner as a sacred site. Interestingly though, at the same time it has become a tourist attraction, with people being drawn to it purely for its aesthetic qualities. It is, after all, a beautiful example of Expressionist architecture (Cusack 2012, 175). Goetheanum II is actually a unique selling point for the village. In this way, the structure is simultaneously a desirable piece of architecture that tourists wish to visit and also, for Anthroposophists who must have much more nuanced, insider interpretations of it, a building imbued with spiritual meaning.

The Goetheanum

The Goetheanum

A number of modern architects, such as Swiss architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier), drew their influence from Steiner’s designs, without specifically calling upon Anthroposophical ideals. Other famous structures, such as the ING Bank headquarters in Amsterdam, built by Albert and van Huuts, have been erected to reflect Steiner principles (Cusack 2012, 188). One might also consider in this context the system of agriculture, known today as Biodynamic Agriculture or Biodynamics, which is discussed in Alex Norman’s chapter in the Handbook. Biodynamics has its starting point in Anthroposophical ideas (Steiner gave a series of eight lectures on the topic in 1924) but is now more concerned with the expression of terroir rather than spiritual development (Norman 2012, 213-234). G. I. Gurdjieff’s nine-pointed enneagram symbol is another example. The enneagram has, in recent years, been appropriated as a model for nine personality types, a model that has been widely promoted in business management and spiritual contexts, straying far from Gurdjieff’s use and teaching of the symbol. While cultural products might be inscribed with the intentions of their creators, it is social actors who make sense of the world and its cultural products (Cusack and Norman 2012, 4).

Another cultural product of a new religion is renowned theatre and film director Peter Brook’s 1979 film Meetings with Remarkable Men. The film is a cinematic adaptation of Armenian-Greek spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff’s (c.1866-1949) semi-autobiographical text of the same name. Brook’s film could be classed as a ‘Gurdjieffian film’ and a religious cultural product as it was created by a Gurdjieffian (Brook now heads the Gurdjieff Paris group), is based on one of Gurdjieff’s own books, and pays tribute to Gurdjieff. Unlike Steiner’s Goetheanum I and II, which were not really intended to cater for outsiders, Brook’s film about Gurdjieff was deliberately made for non-Gurdjieffian, as well as Gurdjieffian, audiences. It is interesting that spiritual meaning must be deeply embedded in the film, while Brook also intended it to fulfil the role of portraying the story of Gurdjieff’s life to ‘outsiders’, in an effective and entertaining way.

The study of new religions, a burgeoning area within the greater field of Religious Studies, gives a unique perspective on different facets of religion. Not only can we observe, through such a study, how religions begin, change, develop, and in some cases expire, but through examining their cultural products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

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

 

Bibliography

  • Cusack, Carole and Alex Norman (eds). “Introduction,” Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Cusack, Carole. “‘And the Building Becomes Man’: Meaning and Aesthetics in Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Murrell, Nathaniel and Justin Snider. “Identity, Subversion, and Reconstruction ‘Riddims’: Reggae as Cultural Expressions of Rastafarian Theology” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Norman, Alex. “Cosmic Flavour, Spiritual Nutrition?: The Biodynamic Agricultural Method and the Legacy of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy in Viticulture” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Petsche, Johanna. “G. I. Gurdjieff’s Piano Music and its Application in and Outside the ‘Work’” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
Michael Stausberg. Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Some Questions about Spiritual Tourism

Michael Stausberg. Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

On a more fundamental level, this raises the question whether ‘spiritual’ refers to a quality that may come in addition to an identification as religious, or whether the two refer to different groups and types of persons.

 

Some Questions about Spiritual Tourism

by Professor Michael Stausberg, University of Bergen

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 17 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project interview with Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism (15 April 2013)

In this podcast Alex Norman defines a spiritual tourist as a person who is travelling for spiritual betterment. As he himself admits, this is a pretty loose term. Alex carries on by saying that the people he interviewed in his research typically decided to change themselves or to reconstruct their lives, be it because they found their basic worldview unsatisfactory or because their lives in significant aspects went out of control. This need, obviously, can arise for people from all sorts of backgrounds, be they committed Christians or atheists. Is the term spiritual betterment as a project is applicable to everybody or only to such people from the spiritual milieu? Can also religious people travel for spiritual betterment or only such persons who have severed their ties to religious communities or ideologies (if they ever had such commitments)? In the podcast, the conversation partners seem to have a mutual understanding of the kind of practices characterized as ‘spiritual’, but no clear examples are given. On a more fundamental level, this raises the question whether ‘spiritual’ refers to a quality that may come in addition to an identification as religious, or whether the two refer to different groups and types of persons.

The podcast creates the impression that the persons interviewed by Alex are characterised by hostility towards Christianity and by a worldview that assigns agency to the subject; the latter aspect is often seen as a hallmark of New Age worldview (or spirituality). When seeking to better themselves spiritually, these people visit places or take part in activities that are part of religious traditions to which the tourists do not belong. Apparently, this exposure or this participation can contribute to the project of spiritual betterment, which thereby thrives on and is to some extent dependent on places and practices maintained by established religions. Given that the research was conducted at these sites we do not learn much about the travel careers of these spiritual tourists and the long-term biographical significance of their trips. This calls for follow-up research. It would also be interesting to know how widespread a social phenomenon this kind of spiritual tourism is.

In the interview, spiritual tourism is contrasted with the way many ordinary tourists visit religious buildings “between a baguette and a croissant”. This seems to imply the idea that, from a religious studies perspective, the ordinary tourists are less genuinely important, as if this somehow were not the real thing. As I have tried to show in my book Religion and Tourism (Routledge, 2011), when addressing tourism in the study of religion\s we should not restrict our inquiry to forms of tourism framed as religious or tourism but should cast our net wider to cover the variety of interfaces between the domains of religion and tourism—in the same way that we study the representation of religion in media instead of only focusing on religious newspaper, television channels or websites. While the Lonely Planet India may indeed, as Alex says, exhort its readers to try out different forms of religious places and practices, this volume is untypical for the series as a whole; yet, as a genre travel guidebooks are interesting because they are a kind of literature from which many travellers derive their information about religion. As I argue in my book, tourism is a major arena for religion (and spirituality) in the contemporary world, even though many intellectuals tend to despise tourism and tourists. Spiritual tourism as analysed by Alex is one such nexus.

Towards the end of the podcast, Alex seems to come close to a post-Durkheimian theory of the implicitly religious nature of holidaying. This line of thinking refers to three types of evidence: points of identification, gathering of masses that constitute society, and commitment. I don’t think that any of this will take us very far. If earlier on people identified with religion, and now they identify with traveling, does that amount to indicating a potentially religious nature of tourism (as if people would not identify with all sorts of things)? I also doubt that the very gathering of masses at beaches (an old trope in anti-tourism rhetoric!) is enough to qualify this phenomenon as ultimately resembling religion. As it proceeds, the argument seems to transport a Tillichian notion of religion, where religion is identified as what ultimately matters to us, so that people who spend much of their available money on holidays can be interpreted as expressing a ‘religious’ valuation of them. Is it necessary and theoretically compelling to turn everything of significance for people into something religious?

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

About the Author:

Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Michael Stausberg is professor of religion at the University of Bergen. His book publications in English include Religion and Tourism (Routledge, 2011), Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism (Equinox 2008) and, as editor or co-editor, Defining Magic (Equinox, 2013, with Bernd-Christian Otto), The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion (2011, with Steven Engler), Contemporary Theories of Religion (Routledge, 2009) and Theorizing Rituals (Brill, 2006-2007; with Jens Kreinath and Jan Snoek). See Michael Stausberg’s website for a full list of publications and downloads.

Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism

What would you think if I told you I had just come back from a holiday in Aya Napa? How about Santiago de Compostella or Glastonbury? How about Mecca? When does travel become pilgrimage, and what are the spiritual factors behind our holiday choices? In this week’s interview, Alex Norman and David Robertson discuss the history and modern relevance of journeys undertaken for spiritual benefit and transformation.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Alex Norman lectures at the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, where he completed his doctorate in 2010. His central research interests revolve around the confluence of travel practices and religious practices. His book Spiritual Tourism (Continuum 2011) examines the intersection of travel and secular spiritual practice by contemporary Westerners. His other main research interest is in new religious movements, and in 2012 he co-edited the Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (Brill 2012) with Carole M. Cusack. From 2010 to 2013 Alex was co-editor of Literature & Aesthetics, culminating in a special issue examining travel and literature published in 2012. His latest research project looks at the various ways in which travel events and traditions have impacted the formation of new religious movements.

Academic Publishing Roundtable

Publish, or be damned! But the world of publishing can be esoteric, especially the cloistered world of academic publishing. In this special roundtable discussion, recorded during the Australian Association for the Study of Religion annual conference last year, Zoe Alderton leads a group of academics with experience of all levels of academic publishing in a discussion which aims to demystify the process.

George, Zoe and Carole begin by talking about editing special themed Issues of academic journals. They talk about networking – that you have to make yourself available, but you have to put the work in when it’s needed. Alex then describes how a larger edited book is constructed from the proposals received. Simon then describes his experience of writing for an edited volume. Alex shares a cautionary tale about authorship and competition, and Carole recounts some less-than-positive experiences with editors.

Conversation then turns to the experience of being an editor yourself. George reads an email which he composed in order to reject someone as kindly as he could. Carole’s closing advice is “Write what you want, and write clear.” This podcast is essential information not only for prospective Religious Studies scholars, not only the humanities and social scientists, but anyone aiming for a career in academia.

Thanks to Zoe for chairing this, to Carole and Don for opening their home, and to Annabel Carr for providing photographs. And thanks to all the participants for an informative and entertaining recording.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Zoe Alderton is a PhD candidate in the department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. Her thesis concerns the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon and the nature of his audience reception. Zoe’s main interests are religion in modern art and religious communication via new media. Her recent publications include a discussion of the inheritance of Theosophy in Australian modernism, and an exploration of the contentious politics surrounding the Blake Prize for Religious Art. Upcoming publications concern imaginative pilgrimage in the work of Colin McCahon, and a discussion of the motifs in his beachside theology. Zoe is also a tutor in Sociology for the University of Western Sydney and reviews editor for the journal Literature & Aesthetics.

Carole M. Cusack (Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney) trained as a medievalist and her doctorate was published as Conversion Among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell, 1998). Since the late 1990s she has taught in contemporary religious trends, publishing on pilgrimage and tourism, modern Pagan religions, new religious movements, the interface between religion and politics, and religion and popular culture. She is the author of The Essence of Buddhism (Lansdowne, 2001), Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010), and The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), 2011. She has published in a number of edited volumes, and is the editor (with Christopher Hartney) of Religion and Retributive Logic: Essays in Honour of Garry W. Trompf (Brill, 2010). With Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney) she is editor of the Journal of Religious History (Wiley) and with Liselotte Frisk (Dalarna University) she is editor of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions (Equinox). She serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Literature & Aesthetics, and of the Sophia Monograph Series (Springer).

Alex NormanAlex Norman (“the Tourism Guy”) lectures at the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, where he completed his doctorate in 2010. His central research interests revolve around the confluence of travel practices and religious practices. His book Spiritual Tourism (Continuum 2011) examines the intersection of travel and secular spiritual practice by contemporary Westerners. His other main research interest is in new religious movements, and in 2012 he co-edited the Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (Brill 2012) with Carole M. Cusack. From 2010 to 2013 Alex was co-editor of Literature & Aesthetics, culminating in a special issue examining travel and literature published in 2012. His latest research project looks at the various ways in which travel events and traditions have impacted the formation of new religious movements.

George Ioannides studied comparative religion as part of his Undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, Australia.

 

 

Simon Theobold is a graduate student in the Archaeology and Anthropology department of the Australian National University. His current research examines food taboos in contemporary Australia.

Sarah K. Balstrup is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, and you can follow this link to read her paper Sentient Symbols: The Implications of Animal Cruelty Debates in Contemporary Australian Art.