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Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Disenchanting India

This week, Ella Bock tells us why she thinks you should re-listen to our interview with Johannes Quack on Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Non-religion: “A great listen for better understanding the boundary between religion and non-religion, especially outside of a western context!”

Why do we believe? Evolution, Primates, and the Human Niche

“Humans can see the world around them, imagine how it might be different, and translate those imaginings into reality…or at least try to. Humans believe. Meaning, imagination, and hope are as central to the human story as are bones, genes, and ecologies. Neither selfish aggression nor peaceful altruism dominates human behavior as a whole. We are a species distinguished by our extraordinary capacity for creative cooperation, our ability to imagine possibilities and to make them material, and our powerful aptitudes for belief, hope, and cruelty.” So begins the abstract for Agustín Fuentes’ 2018 Gifford Lecture series at the University of Edinburgh on the topic “Why We Believe: evolution, making meaning, and the development of human natures.”

In this wide-ranging interview, Chris and Professor Fuentes discuss the themes of the lecture series, the intersections of research on human evolution, ethnoprimatology, and human nature, with the study of religion more generally, the Planet of the Apes films, and more. Along the way, important distinctions are made between specific “beliefs”, “belief systems” and the human “capacity to believe”, and we ask some important questions about the future.

All six lectures in the series were filmed, and are available by clicking here.

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, Wu-Tang CD’s, old copies of “Dunston checks In,” and more.

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

Why Do We Believe? Evolution, Primates and the Human Niche

Podcast with Agustin Fuentes (23 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Fuentes – Why Do We Believe 1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): “Humans can see the world around them, imagine how it might be different, and translate those imaginings into reality – or at least try to. Humans believe. Meaning, imagination and hope are as central to the human story as our bones, genes and ecologies. Neither selfish aggression nor peaceful altruism dominates human behaviour as a whole. We are a species distinguished by our extraordinary capacity for creative co-operation, our ability to imagine possibilities and to make them material, and our powerful aptitudes for belief, hope and cruelty.” So begins the abstract of the 2018 Gifford Lecture Series, at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic: “Why We Believe: Evolution, Meaning-Making and the Development of Human Natures”. And I’m joined today by the deliverer of those lectures, Professor Agustin Fuentes, who is the Edmund P Joyce, CSC, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. His research delves into the how-and-why of being human, ranging from chasing monkeys in jungles and cities to exploring the lives of our evolutionary ancestors, to examining what people actually do across the globe. Professor Fuentes is interested in both the big questions and the small details of what makes humans, and our closest relatives, tick. And his recent books include: Evolution of Human Behaviour; Race, Monogamy and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature; and The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional. So first off: Professor Fuentes, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Agustin Fuentes (AF): I’m very glad to be here.

CC: And you’ve been getting all of the weather in Edinburgh. It’s sunny at the moment, but when we recorded last week we were snowed in. So you’ve had all of that. In fact one of the lectures was cancelled and then rescheduled, so I missed it! So if you can fill me in on that one . . . .

AF: It’ll be on-line soon I think, with the video. So . . . .

CC: Exactly. And we’ll link in this podcast to that page when it goes out. So all the lectures – everyone who’s listening – you can hear and watch the full six lectures of the series. When I pitched this interview to you, I said, “The combination of your expertise in human evolution, ethno-primatology and human nature, and the interaction between that and the study of religion more generally, would make for an excellent and important interview.”

AF: (Laughs).

CC: So, now we’re going to have to live up to that!

AF: Ah. Well, humans love a challenge!

CC: Exactly. But, first of all, if you just tell me a little bit about who you are. I mean, I’ve done your academic, sort-of CV there. But, who you are; how did you get interested in these questions of belief; and, as an ethno-primatologist, what do you do all day?!

AF: So this is a great opportunity to plug Anthropology. In North America, unlike here in Europe, Anthropology is a rubric – a label that covers a much broader area of expertise. So, for example, my two undergraduate degrees are in Zoology and Anthropology. And while that may sound strange to many, it’s quite a logical trajectory for a kind of North American Anthropology that seeks to think through the behaviour, the culture and the history of humanity, and combine that with an understanding of the physiology of the body that embodies an ecology. And so connecting those two things together is sort-of the underlying . . . my joie de vivre, in an academic sense. And because I’m interested in the human, I’m also interested in other primates. Humans are primates, or part of the world in that way. And so, to really contextualise what is distinctive and fascinating about humanity, I need to understand where humans sit in relation to not just their closest cousins but to the broader landscapes. And so that training . . . this is what I bring to bear on understanding human distinctiveness, in context, and by comparison with others.

CC: And I’m imagining a situation like, I don’t know, James Franco in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, sitting around your resident ape!

AF: (Laughs). Yes. I think it’s really important to point out, first of all, that the original Planet of the Apes movies are fantastic because they have subtext, and they are situated in the political moment. These recent remakes are just not very good.

CC: But that’s by the by!

AF: But what does one do when doing primate studies? One watches the primates. One tries to get inside into their day to day interactions, their relationships, and the massive social complexity of their day to day lives. And that, actually, informs us a lot about what we, as humans, have as our base. If we understand what primates are, we don’t need to understand why humans are so social, why relationships are so central to our being. That’s because we’re primates. However, we are particularly distinctive. We are the strangest of all the primates. And therein lies the really interesting question about humanity: how do we differ from everything else? (5:00) So, watching primates is a very good training for, I think, scholarly endeavours. Because it usually means spending hours, after hours, after hours, piling on more hours of sitting watching other organisms. And most organisms, unlike humans, actually relax most of the time. So, a lot of the time they’re really not doing that much. So, it takes a lot of perseverance to do fieldwork.

CC: Yes. And I guess you get a lot of thinking time in there as well.

AF: Yes.

CC: So you said, there, about primates and humans being distinctive. Maybe that’s a nice way to weave in . . . ?

AF: Yes. So I think there’s something really important here, and this is critical. I’m an evolutionary scientist and I’m interested in the broad . . . the long durée of human history, and that’s millions and millions of years. When thinking about evolutionary processes, people tend to take one of two sides. Either the “continuity” emphasis, which is very hip right now. Everyone wants to place humans as connected to everything else, which we are, absolutely. That is a fact. However, interesting stories in evolution are not just about connectedness but also about discontinuities. Because evolution is about branching and changing. So we have common ancestors, but then we diverge. And each lineage changes unto itself in particular, distinctive and important ways. And so when I ask questions about the human, I’m very interested in knowing what our baseline line is – by looking at other primates – but much more interested in those distinctive changes that occur across our specific lineage and how that influences what we can know, and think, about the human. And so that’s the distinctive aspect. But you have to understand the continuities to be able to really talk about the distinctions.

CC: And, well, you call that in your lecture series, “the human niche – this element of the human niche. And then that’s connected to this broader question of why we believe. Perhaps that’s a good way for us to go? If you could tell us, what is this human niche, and how has it developed, and maybe some its key characteristics?

AF: So, what’s really incredible is to think in an evolutionary way, to also think in an ecological way, and also a deeply philosophical way. So Jakob von Uexküll, the philosopher and biologist, provided us with the conceptualisation the umwelt: the lifeworld of an organism. Each organism is distinctive in the way in which they are in the world. And so understanding us, humans, in our umwelt – in our contemporary context – is to think through our niche. Niches are these complex ecological, behavioural, historical ways in which we are in the world. So the human niche – the one I’m most interested in – has developed over the last two million years, over the evolution of our genus: the genus Homo. We are, today, Homo sapiens. So the evolutionary trajectory, over the last two million years of our particular lineage, involves changes in bodies, behaviour, genes, neurobiologies and ecologies. And observing the material remains in the physical, in the bones and the materials left behind over time, allows us to attempt to reconstruct the patterns and processes of the development of the human niche. Today, our niche is this unbelievably complicated reality that is challenging and enticing to study. But to really think about contemporary humanity, from my perspective, one should examine the ways in which the niche has changed over time – the bits and pieces. So, for example, the critical extension of the human childhood. The fact that we are born with less than 40% of our brain developed. That is absolutely unique for all mammals. So our brain growth is very, very extended and very plastic and thus the teaching, the social, the nurturing, the inculcating in becoming human is a central part of our niche – much more so than any other animal. So from the very first breath we take, the social, the interaction, the communal is central in the physical, and the experiential, and the perceptual.

CC: Exactly. And in maybe your third lecture you were talking about even things like storage – the development of storage, and how that has affected things. I would never have thought of that in terms of being a major evolutionary . . . .

AF: I think people underplay what evolutionary processes are. Everyone tends to think of: there’s a large thing trying to eat you, and if you’re not eaten and you successfully produce offspring, then you win. It’s actually a lot more complicated than that. Evolutionary process is all of the dynamics that go into long-term change across bodies, behaviours, genomes and ecologies. And so understanding those dynamics is critical. And in humans it’s not just about the localised ecologies or behaviours, it’s also about the ways in which we’ve reshaped our world. Humans are the only species . . . well, not the only species, but a species that has a major hand in creating its own ecologies that then feed back and create us. (10:00) And so we bring up storage, or things of domestication: storage, the alteration of environments. Here we are sitting in a beautiful room, surrounded by history, and a bunch of wood and cement and metal and electrical light. All of those things are part and parcel of the construction of the human niche. And so by looking backward we can identify storage, particular patterns of stone tool use, early technologies, the move to bronze and metals. All of these things have had huge influences on how humans interface in the world, which then feeds back on how we perceive and experience the world.

CC: Wonderful. So that brings us, I think . . . we’re already getting on in time, so we need to get to this notion of belief, and then how this relates to everything. So belief, in Religious Studies – well, in everything – is a contested term. How are you understanding belief, first of all?

AF: So this is really important, because I want to be absolutely clear. I believe . . .

CC: Right.

AF: . . . that belief, in the way I’m structuring it and deploying it here, is the human capacity to imagine, to be creative, to hope and dream, to infuse the world with meanings, and to cast our aspirations far and wide. It’s a commitment, an investment, a devotion to possibilities. So belief is a human capacity that has emerged over our evolutionary histories to take our cognitive, social, communal, historical and logical processes; to include what we can call “detached representation” or off-line thinking – the imaginary; to combine those, such that the imaginary – even the transcendent – can become part of the physical, the perceptual, the material in our niche. Using belief that way, it is not only about religious engagement. It is a capacity of the human. And I use the argument that belief is not some emerging thing in the mind, floating above our heads. Belief is like the fingers on our hand. It is a part and parcel of the human system that has been modified over evolutionary history and that it is critical in our interface with the world and with each other.

CC: OK. I’ll want to push on that towards the end, but that will be a final question that our listeners would not forgive me for not asking. So with that in mind, then: how did we develop this? Where did this come from, and why?

AF: So early on . . . . We can talk about many other – let’s just use other primates, or cetaceans – very complex social mammals, have this incredible deep social reality. And part of their making it their world, their umwelt, their niche, is about social engagement and the social relationship. So that’s a baseline for humans. Humans take that one step further by invoking the capacity for a particular kind of imaginary. That is, we can see in items the possibilities of other items: we can take a stone and see inside that stone is a stone tool. We can see relationships and imagine how they could be, even though they’re not that way at the moment. So this perceptual capacity enables us to do what we call “cognitive and behavioural prospecting”: to imagine into the future the way the world could be, the way that we might want it to be, and attempt to make that a material reality. And that, over evolutionary history, we see in the material remains: ramping up more and more – not just making tools that are functional so that we can live, but creating items of meaning and using those items of meaning to feedback, to create and ramp up the complex cumulative cultural changes that have happened over our histories. So meaning-making is a central outcome of the capacity for belief.

CC: Yes. You were commenting on the structures that have clearly taken generations upon generations to be built, and don’t seem to serve any obvious function, and things like that . . . .

AF: I think that’s really important, because we say they don’t seem . . . . That’s the sort-of functional talk: this reductive notion of, “Everything must . . . if it doesn’t serve a function, it must be magic or ritual.” And what I’d like to do is sort-of push against that, very directly, by saying, “No, this is part of the human experience.” These things that we see are not for making food, or for housing humans or some clear obvious function. We don’t need to be reductive about the human experience. Because the human experience denies a total reduction; it’s always more than the sum of its parts. And so if we acknowledge that that capacity – these multigenerational building projects that mean something to those populations, that have impact not just on the perception but on their bodies, and their lives, and how they see and experience the world – that is important. It just is not reduced to the material elements or some specific function.

CC: Exactly. And we’ve got . . . “We” – in quotation marks – have an awful tendency, if we’re looking at other cultures or things in the past, to go, “Oh there’s a symbol. That must be their religion, it must be ritual.” (15:00) Whereas here, you know, outside there’ll be the Scottish Flag, the Saltire, the St Andrews Cross: no-one goes, “Oh, that’s a religious symbol!” But we have a tendency, when looking at the past . . . .

AF: And here it’s very, very important. And I make a very explicit argument differentiating belief – the capacity to be religious – and religion. I think, for me, it’s very important. There’s many, many scholarly intellectual arguments that could push against this in valid ways, but in an evolutionary sense you must make this distinction. So I invoke Clifford Geertz, when I talk about the capacity to be religious, defining religious as: “the use of one’s capacity for belief in the context of becoming, with particular perceptual, experiential and agential practices involving the transcendent, that act to establish powerful, persuasive and long lasting moods and motivations that may be, but are not necessarily tied to specific formal doctrines, practices, texts and institutions.” And in that way it is inherent, as a part of the process of our capacity for belief, that humans have a capacity to be religious. And I think anyone worth their salt, looking at our history, says humans have been and are religious. Religions, however, I have to separate off in my engagement with the long durée of human evolutionary history, because contemporary religion is defined as follows: “the formal coalition of religious beliefs and practices and materials, symbols and structural institutions that unite them into a single community via specific theological doctrine and ritual.” And that’s borrowing from Durkheim. The reason I do that is because our contemporary religions as institutions have histories, have texts, have theologies – but those do not have very deep roots, from my perspective.

CC: Exactly.

AF: That is, they don’t go back . . . we can’t find anything that really connects them clearly, materially, more than 6-8000 years ago. That means, what do I do with the other two million years? And so, for me, there is clear evidence of meaning-making and absolute commitment to an importance of the transcendent experience in the human, well before 6-8000 years ago. For me, I see this as the capacity to be religious; as an openness to possibilities that has, in our current times, formalised in particular institutional and theological practices.

CC: Exactly. And there’re, I can jump in and go: “Well, Whoah!” You asked the question, why we believe. You could also ask the question: why do we not believe? There are plenty around who would probably bristle at you saying “I’m a believer.” (Laughs).

AF: So I think that’s great. People should bristle because they’re ignorant. When I say belief – and here I don’t mean to be insulting – but I think it’s very important to point out that what I’m talking about is not the human association with particular institution, or history, or even a particular theology, or philosophy. What I’m talking about is the human capacity to be with, to experience awe, to have the transcendent perceptions influence the way in which we are in life. All humans have that capacity. How we choose to engage with it, how we choose to deploy it, and what histories and structures we enable to come forth from that I think that’s a very good question. The problem today is we’re in this mode, this contemporary moment, where the politics of aggression between different patterns and traditions of faith and practice have incredible salience. So the New Atheists, for example, would argue that all religion is delusion. To that I respond, “So, 83% – let’s say 6.2 billion human beings are idiots?” No. 6.2 billion human beings are doing what humans do, and participating in an incredible opportunity to deploy their capacity to be religious alongside particular institutions, theologies and faith traditions. Other humans who do not belong to those faith traditions are actually believing in different ways.

CC: Exactly.

AF: Everyone has this capacity. And so I think the argument, stemming from ignorance, that we should be envisioning the human as without access to the transcendent – or to that broader experience – is dangerous, because it cuts us off from what we know has been one of the keys to our success in the past.

CC: Exactly. And the danger, then, with this sort of talk, can be that we lose that we’re talking about a capacity. We’re not saying whether there is a transcendent. But sometimes people . . . I imagine lot of people, even listening to your lectures, will be sitting there going, “This proves that God is real!” And things like that.

AF: Well this is the wonderful thing that, again, stems from this really interesting jumping to conclusions and not thinking things through. (20:00) You cannot prove faith. That is the point of it. Faith is felt and is real. That’s the entire reason it works. It is real. And so whatever the faith practices that you engage in, if they’re not real for you, if you have to find some sort of mathematical equation, then I have to ask, what is it that you’re seeking? And it might be something else. So I think these are great debates to have. I think they’re very important. And I think we have to distinguish institutional religion from the capacity to be religious or from what most people do day in and day out. Because religious institutions – like political institutions and economical institutions – have histories, and histories that are often fraught with really complex and problematic realities. But that doesn’t mean they’re static and they don’t change. And we know today, making a difference in the world without participating with religions is going to be impossible.

CC: Absolutely. And yes, it belies this myth of the division between the religious and the secular, that there is . . . . You mention the New Atheists. So, they talk as if they’re completely 100% empirical and rational all of the time, and they have no – quote – “faith commitments” – unquote. And they don’t do anything based on tradition or intuition or emotion.

AF: And to be honest with you, that’s an extreme version and only a few are like that. The vast majority of people are not, and they recognise that if you make such a dogmatic assertion, you are in fact demonstrating faith. That’s exactly the point. You are demonstrating a belief system. And I think that’s something that just needs to be recognised. And let’s go back to what you said about that religious versus secular realities. Most of the world, even today, does not have that division. And until very recently that division did not exist. People are in the world and the experience of awe, the potential for transcendence are part of their daily lives. We now divide it politically: this notion that there’s faith traditions and then there’s the rest of your life. And that’s just a very strange way to be human – and quite atypical, even today.

CC: Exactly. So I mentioned earlier I was going to push you on the notion of belief. So you’ve got this very nuanced, non-theological definition that you use, but I imagine that many people coming to your work bring with them a sort-of folk understanding of the term belief, which is quite – quote – “protestant” – unquote.

AF: (Laughs).

CC: So why use that word? Is there a danger that the work that you’re doing is sort-of tainted by association with the word?

AF: Yes. I mean there is that danger, but I think it’s a risk that’s worth taking. Because I think belief is powerful. You could say, “Why don’t you just stick with imagination?” Well, imagination isn’t the whole picture, it’s a component of belief. “Well, why don’t you just stick with humans’ capacity to have detached mental representation?” Like, well that’s one tool, one process, within this larger system of belief. And I think it’s actually very important that we recognise that belief is a human capacity, as I’ve outlined here, that is deployed in many different instances. Now, I think it resonates particularly well with many theological and philosophical engagements, because philosophers and particularly theologians have been asking about belief; that’s their forte, they’re interested in that area. Whereas other people, say economists, pretend they’re not talking about belief.

CC: Exactly.

AF: And I think that’s the danger: the idea that economic systems or political systems reflect reality, not belief systems, is a threat to the potential for humans to navigate those.

CC: And you’ve just hit on . . . in my postdoctoral project I’ve used the word “unbelief” in the title. So I’m interested in all those people who want to distance themselves from, I’ll say, “religion”. But the word unbelief – it’s nicely slippery, in that it covers so much. Whereas I’d previously used “non-religion” – but then you’re into a binary, and it’s “versus” all the time.

AF: I love unbelief. I think that’s fantastic. And I’m going to place it with my – with acknowledgement to use this – and place it with another one of my favourite phrases which is “incurious”. (25:00) So I think using unbelief is critical, because that’s a political act, right, to say “I am not participating in belief; I am doing this; mine is realty, yours is not”? That’s a political statement. Anyone who tells you humans are rational and reasonable, when they get rid of the capacity for this perceptual experience of the more-than-the-material, is wrong. And they’re trying to sell you something. They know, as human beings, what they can experience and have experienced. And so when they argue that, “No this is the rational reality, versus your reality”, they’re trying to sell you their goods.

CC: Exactly. So we’re coming up on time. Your final lecture is tonight, so I haven’t heard that yet. So what’s your big conclusion going to be . . . your big admonition? Give us a taste!

AF: Well, I facetiously titled it, “Can Belief Matter?” And everyone knows the answer is, “Yes!” But what I really mean – and I will go into more detail – is: can we make belief truly matter in the 21st century, when we are on the precipice of so many catastrophic issues for not just humans, but the whole planet? How do we, then, engage the scientific, the religious, the political, the economic, in dialogue so that we can do what so many of us want – and that is to move forward on the planet in ways that are sustainable, as equitable as possible, compassionate and caring in spite of all the problems? We’re not going to get rid of inequality, and warfare, and horrors, but we can probably manage them more effectively than we are now. And I would like to suggest – and I think many philosophers and theologians have been saying this for quite some time – that it is through belief, through the patterns and processes of diverse belief systems and the individual ability to believe, to commit, to hope, to imagine, that we have a better chance. And if we ignore that, and we try to trust in just particular political or economic systems to push forward, or our creativity and our ingenuity – and it’s gotten us out of problems before it’ll work in the future – I cannot see that is turning out well.

CC: Fantastic. And one of the pervasive and problematic discourses that one hears in the UK context, and I’m sure in the States and elsewhere, is that it’s not polite to talk about . . . well it’s sex, religion and politics.

AF: If we don’t talk about sex, religion, politics and race, we are doomed!

CC: Exactly! And that is how ideologies get stuck.

AF: Absolutely! The power of ideologies are when they go truly unchallenged.

CC: Exactly! And hopefully this interview has helped spark some conversations and some ideas. As I’ve said, Listeners, you can check out the full series, and there’s a link in the podcast page, or just by searching for Adam Gifford Lectures 2018, or for Agustin Fuentes. It’s been a pleasure speaking to you.

AF: Oh, this has been a great discussion! Thank you so much for having me.

CC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Fuentes, Agustin and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Why Do We Believe? Evolution, Primates and the Human Niche”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 23 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/why-do-we-believe-evolution-primates-and-the-human-niche/

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.

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Autism, Religion, and Imagination

Due to their atypical thinking styles, individuals on the autism spectrum represent a unique population of study in the cognitive and psychological sciences of religion. Because religious cognition stems from normal social-cognitive capacities, which are altered for individuals on the spectrum, researchers also expect variation in how they think about supernatural agents. In her interview with Thomas J. Coleman III for the Religious Studies Project, PhD student Ingela Visuri, from Sodertorn and Gavle Universities in Sweden, discusses the findings of her research with adolescents on the spectrum, which challenges and informs past theorization in the scientific study of religion and nonreligion.

 

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

Autism, Religion and Imagination

Podcast with Ingela Visuri (5 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas J. Coleman III

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Visuri_-_Autism,_Religion_and_Imagination_1.1

 

Thomas Coleman (TC): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. My name is Thomas Coleman and today I have the pleasure of speaking with a doctoral student at Södertörn and Gavle Universities, Miss Ingela Visuri, who is conducting some fascinating multi-method research, which I suspect is going to change the way Cognitive Science of Religion conceptualises the relationship between individuals on the autism spectrum and belief, or lack thereof, in supernatural agents. Ingela, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Ingela Visuri (IV): Thanks Tommy, I’m so happy to be here.

TC: Good. I was hoping you could start by telling us, briefly, about how your research began and then we will jump straight into some general questions, and end with a more detailed account of your current research.

IV: Right. So I was always very interested in empathy and role-taking while I was at university doing my basic courses. And after graduating I started working in schools, teaching religious education which is a non-confessional subject here in Sweden. And by coincidence I was recruited to this special educational department with pupils who are on the autism spectrum. And at that time it was just called Asperger’s syndrome, which is high functioning autism. And I had a pupil there at this department who was a member of a Pentecostal congregation. He used to ask me questions about glossolalia and he didn’t really understand why he didn’t speak in tongues. And also, he had had teachers who were religious and they had told him that God used to speak to them, and told him a lot of different things. So one day this pupil said, “You know, sometimes I think that God might be talking to everyone else but me.” And, for me, this was the moment when my research actually began. Because I immediately came to think of theories about how people use their empathy to communicate with invisible agents. And this was before I was acquainted with the Cognitive Science of Religion. But already in the fifties, in Social Psychology, there were such discussions which I knew about. So I decided first to write a Master’s thesis trying to explore how individuals who do have autism, but also have religion or spirituality in their lives, how does communication work for them with theses invisible agents? And this was how I slipped into the Cognitive field, discovering that there were a lot of interesting theories that could be useful.

TC: Very cool. So you have mentioned specifically the autism spectrum, or I think we’ll call it the autism spectrum continuum. What is that, for listeners? I wondered if you could give us a brief description.

IV: I would say that autism is a different type of cognition, and it’s really a collection of symptoms. So, for instance, there are difficulties in the intuitive understanding of social communication and there’s also unusual sensory processing in individuals with autism. Just to exemplify, people who don’t have autism are typically unaware of automatically responding to social cues that are really subtle, such as reading facial expressions, or interpreting the intonation when speaking to people, or drawing information from body language. But for autistic people this doesn’t happen intuitively or automatically. And I think it’s important to understand that people who are high functioning and autistic, they are able to compensate by using their intelligence and verbal ability. So they may learn how to do it, but it takes a lot of effort because these responses are not automated.

TC: So, just summarising here – if I understand correctly – that individuals on the spectrum aren’t lacking cognitions per se, but they go about thinking about the world – and particularly other people – in a little bit different way than we neuro-typicals might . . . your average person.

IV: Exactly. And I also think it’s important . . . in autism studies there’s an ongoing debate on the role of sensory perception (5:00). And I think this has been very much overlooked in the Cognitive Science of Religion when we’re discussing autism. And so, for instance, autistic people might be hypo- or hyper-sensitive to different social input and this differs a lot between people. And it also differs between senses; it can fluctuate. And there also seems to be difficulties in the synchronisation of multi-modal input. And I think this is also crucial when we’re trying to understand how autistic people experience the world.

TC: An example of multimodal input would be, like, listening to someone and watching them as they’re speaking as well. Just to give some examples.

IV: Exactly. So watching a movie, for instance, would be a multimodal experience, while reading a book is a unimodal experience.

TC: Now why have Cognitive Scientists of Religion been interested in individuals on the spectrum?

IV: Well, cognitive researchers who depart from what is called the “naturalness hypothesis of religion”, they have expected that social abilities such as mind reading or theory of mind – as it’s also called at times – that this is what underpins belief in superhuman agents. So to figure out what gods or ghosts or ancestors want, you need to sort-of think of their mind in a similar way as when you’re thinking about agency in any person, right? But with autism there’s a case of mind reading difficulties. And number of scholars had expected that autistic people may not be able to mentalise or believe in invisible agents. But for me it was a little bit different, because I had this teaching experience. And I couldn’t really see any difference in my different classrooms – because I was teaching autistic pupils certain days and non-autistic pupils on other days. And I couldn’t really see any difference between how many religious or spiritual pupils there would be in these groups, or how many were, you know, really disinterested or atheistically oriented. So what I did was, I decided to turn the question around. And I wanted to explore how individuals who do experience differences in social communication, why do they still engage in invisible relations? Right? Why do they keep on reading invisible minds if mind reading would be so difficult for them? Right?

TC: Right.

IV: So this was a starting point for the PhD thesis that I’m now working on.

TC: Fascinating. So you had some suspicions that, maybe, the current the state of the field in CSR, as it related to the autism spectrum, might be incomplete. And I was hoping, I guess, that we could get into how some of your research perhaps challenges and informs some of this past theory. And, I guess we’ll add, there hasn’t been much work done on individuals on the spectrum within the cognitive science of religion.

IV: Right. And the previous research has been quantitative, and hypotheses that people are testing on large groups. But I decided to design an explorative study using mixed methods. And I’m also aiming to work a bit like an anthropologist, because I think that all new fields of research – we need this phase before we move onto testing hypotheses, right? We need to explore the field. And what I’m doing, I’m using my participants as experts, because I’m not autistic, right? So I can never experience the world form an autistic perspective. So I need them to help me get insights into what’s happening. So, for instance, I let them prepare their own interviews. This is to minimise my own impact on the material. And also, when I’m formulating my own hypotheses I discuss – with both my participants and also other people that I know that are on the spectrum – if they think that this makes sense to them. Because if it doesn’t make sense to them, then it’s probably not right.

TC: Right

IV: And my finding so far is that, my participants in this study, they do really think of their preferred superhuman agents in relational terms. So there seems to be a lot of mind reading going on in thinking why these agents cause certain things to happen, or what these agents think of one’s behaviour, like (10:00): “Is this a good thing to do, or is it a bad thing to do?” And you would feel what God wants, for instance.

TC: So I was hoping you could also maybe discuss some of the narratives that some of your participants have shared with you, and how do they relate or contrast with the previous theory?

IV: Well, for instance, I have an example from my participant who calls himself John. And he calls himself a spiritual Christian. And when I asked him if there was a specific starting point for his current view of life he told me – this a quote from the interview: “I think it has developed because I . . . . It kind-of happened a couple of times, that if I did something that felt morally right or something, I felt like I got quite happy, and I got energised, and it kind-of felt like the world was more with me. It’s like something agreed with what I did and said, ‘That’s good,’ and gave me pat on the shoulder and kind-of: ‘You did something right.’ And that, I think, developed into me doing something according to God.” And I think this is also an interesting example, because it begins with an emotion, an experience, and that developed into what he perceives to be God.

TC: Fascinating. So how, then, does some of this research perhaps pose new questions for the field to follow up on, with more anthropological, ethnographic research as well as quantitative and perhaps experimental?

IV: Well, I think to begin with I would like to challenge this previous supposition that we need intuitive mentalising skills for interpreting superhuman agents. And I actually think that when autistic people get rid of bodies it helps mentalising. Because you have both the automated, quick responses and then you have the slower, more reflective responses. And despite lacking the intuitive responses they use their reflective mentalising skills to think of what these agents want. And it helps that they don’t have any facial expressions, they don’t have any body language, they don’t need to interpret any intonation. And there’s also an emotional coherence in invisible agents that you don’t get in ordinary people.

TC: How so?

IV: Well, people who are non-autistic, we are quite good at hiding our emotions.

TC: I have to disagree. No, just kidding. Of course, of course! (Laughs)

IV: (Laughs) If you spend time with autistic people you’ll notice that they are very straightforward and they tell you what’s going on. Which also gets them into trouble because we’re not expected to be that straightforward. We’re expected to be, you know, lying a little bit here and there. But these kind of lies in terms of body language are really confusing for autistic people. So if I’m really annoyed with you, for instance, I still want you to like me so I’m trying to hide that I’m annoyed and trying to behave . . .

TC: Is that what’s going on here? (Laughs) No, just kidding.

IV: No, Tommy! But for autistic people they able to feel what other people feel, but it’s difficult to understand what other people are thinking. So this discrepancy between emotional and cognitive input is really confusing. This is also something you get rid of in superhuman agents that are bodiless.

TC: So is it almost a limiting of distractions: that bodiless agents perhaps make it easier – I think you’re suggesting – to interact with?

IV: Exactly. I think. And I’m not suggesting that autistic people would be more or less religious. That’s not my point. But what my study shows is that people who have both autism and religion or spirituality in their lives, for them it seems to be easier to think of a mind when you don’t have any bodies. That messes up communication (15:00). And it’s pretty much the same if you’re communicating with a friend over the internet. It’s easier because you don’t have a body, right? And also, because you have a lot of time to think about what the other person means and you also have time to formulate a proper response. You don’t get that in real life interaction, because it’s quite fast and quick, because we’re expecting people to have these intuitive skills.

TC: And many people on the spectrum actually prefer kind-of remote or internet-type communication, is that correct?

IV: Yes. That’s correct.

IV: I guess precisely because it’s lacking in some of the more embodied features that we use, on an everyday basis, to understand other people.

IV: Exactly. And I was actually asking – this is an example of my anthropological method, if you would call it that – I was hanging out on a sofa one day in one of these schools – because I’ve been spending a lot time with my participants and other pupils in their schools – and I notice that autistic people generally, in Sweden, they’re really good at speaking English. And I asked a group of pupils, “How come the autistic people seem to be so much better at speaking English?” And one guy, he said that, “For us it’s so much easier to interact with people online, and therefore we become gamers. And gamers interact in English. And that’s why we become better.” Right?

TC: Now, how does this open up perhaps some new directions for researching religion and non-religion in neuro-typicals? Because, as I understand it, your work primarily concerns individuals on the spectrum but it also, of course, has implications for people who are not on the spectrum.

IV: Yes. So first, when it comes to mentalising, cognitive research on mentalising, I think it’s important to think of that as a complex construct. It’s like a toolbox with different instruments that we can use in different manners. So first we have this difference between fast and intuitive processes, that I’ve been talking a lot about, and the slow and reflective processing. And then there is also the difference between emotional and cognitive empathy. So we sort-of have to elaborate with all these different mentalising aspects.

TC: Could I ask for an example between cognitive and more emotional empathy for our listeners? How are the two different?

IV: Yes. The emotional empathy is feeling what other people are feeling. So, for instance, if someone is sad you would become affected by that sadness, right? But the cognitive empathy is more in the head, so to speak. So for instance, if you’re nodding you would know that someone is still listening to you or you know you just get these little cues. Or someone’s frowning, for instance, then you can interpret that this is an emotional response going on. But it’s more in the cognitive level.

TC: Alright. And so then, how does this distinction relate to individuals on the spectrum and off the spectrum and belief in supernatural agents?

IV: Well I think . . . and my point is that this is for both autistic and non-autistic individuals. I think that we need to acknowledge that people use reflected thinking a lot more than has been expected in the Cognitive Science of Religion. For instance, non-autistic people might have intuitions about supernatural agency, but if you’re living in Sweden, for instance, it’s not the norm to be religious. We have a rather secular norm, so that means that you might discard your intuitions and search for another explanation. But also, in autistic people, I don’t really see that it should affect them so much that these intuitive responses are not there. Because they use these slow processes instead.

TC: So they’re not lacking the intuiting, certainly, but perhaps they’re a little bit different. And therefore they rely more on reflective-type thinking. As I understand, you’ve also crept into some interesting avenues with your research having to do with fantasy. I think you touched on imagination earlier. I was wondering if you could further elucidate how those might play into religiosity or non-religiosity, for those individuals on the spectrum (20:00).

IV: Well something that surprised me in my results was the majority of my autistic participants turned out to be fantasy-prone. And some of these fantasy-prone people, they’re gamers and some of them love fantasy fiction. But what’s common for all of them is that they switch between different realities. So they have their empirical reality which is quite fragmented and difficult and exhausting. And then they create their own imaginary realities which they switch into. And I suspect this is a kind of coping mechanism. So they create – with the help of their imagination – really interesting worlds that they fill with characters that might be influenced from religion and spirituality, but also fantasy fiction and popular culture. It could even be artists, you know, pop stars for instance. And they have these worlds, and they interact with all these characters in a sense that reminds me a lot about how cognitive research describes interaction with superhuman agents.

TC: Really? Ok.

IV: So I think this is something that we need to look into. That if mentalising is used, and it’s a non-human agent, I think that’s equivalent to the study of gods and spirits and ancestors, which is more traditional. And I also think this is relevant for younger generations. This is something really interesting to look into.

TC: I know on the Religious Studies Project we usually pride ourselves in challenging traditional conceptualisations of the category of religion. And of course, supernatural agents as well. And what I’m hearing is that some of your work does just that, as well as, perhaps, the Cognitive Science of Religion in general. And I think we can certainly expect it to open up some exciting new avenues for religious agents as they are traditionally understood: perhaps, maybe, the magic of Harry Potter; or massive multi-player online gaming; and all these other types of fantastical imaginative agents that people seem to engage with on a daily basis, but perhaps don’t think of as religious or spiritual.

IV: I totally agree with you and, for instance, one of my participants who describes himself as a Christian, he also says that he’s totally into Harry Potter. And until he was 14 years old, he literally believed that there were unicorns. And now that he’s older he says that, “Well, I don’t believe in them in the ontological sense any more, but they’re still with me and I fantasise a lot about them. And when I’m fantasising it becomes real for me.” And I think this is also something that we risk missing out on, if we don’t do these explorative studies, if we just hold onto scales and questionnaires that have always been used. Because many of my participants might describe themselves . . . well, you know. It’s not that they believe in God and they don’t go to Church, but they still experience a lot of interesting things that they interpret: it’s spirits; or ghosts; or demons; or then you have these fictional characters, as well, that they interact with on a daily basis.

TC: And it seems like an even further challenge to the notion of belief: what it means to believe, or whether belief is important – as we often think it is – if there are all these various other imaginative fantasy religious agents that perhaps people wouldn’t say that they believe in per se, but interact with, engage with perhaps emotionally, in a number of manners. So it’s very interesting. So, just wrapping up here, I was hoping, if you felt we had left anything out of this podcast, or if you had any closing words, or some take-away points for the listeners: anything else you’d like to discuss with us today about your researching the field.

IV: I think I would like to return to your previous comment. I think that when we’re researching belief it’s very easy to end up in these ontological categories (25:00). It’s like a statement: is it true? Is it not? It’s like a number of things that you need to sort-of hold on to or reject. But this is not interesting for the people that I have interviewed. They start from their own experience. And I think the body’s important here: that you feel, you know, that you have a sensed presence of a ghost, for instance. And these sensed presences they turn into some kind of notion of what’s going on in invisible agency. But they don’t depart from, you know, thinking; “Is it true, or is it not, that there are ghosts?” Because it’s not interesting for them, because they experience them. So I think that experience is the really interesting analytical category that we could use a lot more in the Cognitive Science of Religions.

TC: Awesome. I think that’s a good note to end on. Ingela Visuri thank you very much for joining us today on the Religious Studies Project.

IV: Thanks Tommy.

TC: I want to remind our listeners, be sure to check out some of the previous podcasts that are closely related to today’s topics. I’ll include some links in the description, such as interviews with Dr Will Gervais, on God’s Mind, Your Mind, and Theory of Mind, and also with Dr Stuart Guthrie on Religion as Anthropomorphism. So thank you all for listening.

Citation Info: Visuri, Ingela, and Thomas J. Coleman III. 2018. “Autism, Religion and Imagination”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 31 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/autism-religion-and-imagination/

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Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes

In this interview, recorded at the SocRel 2017 Annual Conference, Professor James Spickard talks about his latest project. Starting with a critique of North American sociology’s approach to religion, Spickard emphasises how our concepts of religion are historically grounded, arising from a particular time and place. How can we remedy this, and how can we look at our own concepts more critically and reflexively? Spickard presents three examples of how religion might be understood differently – from the point of view of Confucianism, Navajo religion, and the work of Arab scholar Ibn Khaldoun – and shows how these different approaches can alter our perspectives. What can Confucianism show us about North American church congregations? How can the work of Ibn Khaldoun affect our understandings of race and ethnicity? Building on ideas such as Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory, Spickard explores how researchers could begin to move toward a ‘world-conscious sociology of religion’.

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

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

Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes

Podcast with James V. Spickard  (23 October 2017).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Spickard_-_Alternative_Sociologies_of_Religion-_through_Non-Western_Eyes_1.1

 

Sammy Bishop (SB): Hi, I’m Sammy Bishop. I’m here with the RSP at SocREL 2017. I’m here with Professor James Spickard, from the University of Redlands. So, thank you for joining us today.

James Spickard (JS): It’s a pleasure.

SB: So we’re here to talk abut your newest publication: Alternative Sociologies of Religion:Through Non-Western Eyes. Could you tell us first a little bit about how you came to work on this topic?

JS: Well, every project is complex. And like every other scholar in the world, I’m in the midst of a series of conversations with various folks. Technically, I have a Religious Studies degree, but I’m trained in Anthropology and Sociology. I’m one of those few people who doesn’t make a distinction between them, except historically. So I’m very primed, as a theorist, I’m primed to look and see what the underlying presumptions are of any way of understanding what a particular phenomenon is. And since I’m studying religion and going on the American context, I’ve been reasonably appalled at the kinds of things that the American context can’t seem to understand. The first one of those that came up, during the ‘90s, was the inability of American Sociology of Religion to actually grasp experience in Religious Studies. I did my first fieldwork on one of the Japanese religions where the practitioners do something called (audio unclear). Which, crudely put, involves projecting invisible light out of the palms of peoples hands to clean the clouds off their spiritual bodies. And you can imagine why an anthropologist would be interested in this and I learned all sorts of wonderful anthropological things about it. But – and frankly I don’t much care what [the ritual] was – but it was the thing that attracted everybody. And the discipline of Sociology of Religion said, “Oh no, no, no. That can’t be right. Something else must be going on.” There must be, you know, the deprivation hypothesis or some . . . crap! And so, it wasn’t until a couple of folks did a survey where they asked a bunch of people involved with Asian religions, “Why are you attracted to it ?” And it wasn’t the social life, and it wasn’t connection with other people, and it wasn’t deprivation, it was “Hey, dude. Something happened to us when we were sitting in meditation.” And the discipline had no concepts for dealing with that. So Mary Jo Neitz  and I wrote a couple of articles about that and put together a series of ways of thinking about that. And I ended up working on some pieces based in Navajo religion where you don’t have churches, you don’t have priests. You’ve got myths, you’ve got belief systems, but there aren’t doctrines. But you’ve got these nine day and night ceremonies. And they were categorised as “symbolic”, but they’re not symbolic. I mean, why would you do something as symbolism for nine days and nights? It’s based on the experience, it picks people up from one place and moves them to someplace else. One thing leads to another there. I began working on Confucian ways of seeing what’s sacred in Confucian tradition. I was doing stuff on human rights and on the Confucian notion of human rights – which is a very different notion than in the West – and trying to get at that from the inside, following a series of  contemporary neo-Confucians into this notion of the relation of self. The self is constructed quite differently in Confucianism than it is in the West. And this sacred relationships of . . . . It’s all about relationships. And the sacred inheres in the connections between people and the practice and maintenance of Li, which we call ritual propriety, but it’s . . . . The maintenance of the relationships that create the self and create the social community generates virtue. But virtue isn’t individual, virtue is collective. So, it’s a whole different way of thinking about things. So I get these two things going on, then I got interested in the work of Ibn Khaldoun from the 14th century  who has a way of . . . he thinks about the concept of Asabiyya or group feeling. And it’s a form of social solidarity that is centred, centripetal, it draws things to the centre rather than being boundary oriented. (5:00) But he treats that Asabiyya as something that is generated by kinship, but also by Islam. And so, you know, you’ve got these three things: “What do I do with this stuff?” And it struck me that there was a narrative here. There’s a . . . well, where I end up – and I think the underlying place of this book – is that those are the three examples, but they’re not exhaustive. The argument is that all of our concepts, including Western concepts and Western sociological concepts are historically and culturally grounded. That is, they arise out of a particular time and place. And reading Manuel Vasquez’ article in Religions on the Edge, which is the theme of this conference. Vasquez points out the way in which in sociology’s origins, sociology treated religion as the “other” and so secularisation approaches are built into Sociology from the very beginning. And that was more articulate than I’d been able to get out of it. So, we have a beginning of a narrative. And I had already studied how religion is presented in American Sociology textbooks. And it is all about belief and organisations and morality and its all. . . it’s isolated in its own chapter, just as Sociology of Religion is isolated in the discipline at large. So what was the default view? How was it created? How was it a historical cultural product, that then lets us see certain things really, really well, but not see other things, not see experience, not see relationships, etc? So that’s the opening of the book. And then there’s a chapter where I dive deep – I love writing this stuff because you actually get to dive deeply into things and read everybody in the world. And dive into the Confucian material. And then I take that and I’ve written a chapter where I apply it. And, what would a Confucian sociologist see about American church life? Or church life in Europe? But I’m dealing with the American case here. What would that sociologist see that we don’t normally see? And the Confucian case is probably the most striking, that – despite the patriarchalism of China’s religion and Chinese culture in general – who maintains the sacred relationships that keep the congregation together? It’s women cooking church suppers. They’re doing – or in the Black African American church it’s called “kitchen ministry”, they’ve got a name for it, and it isn’t always women, just women, in African American churches. And in Midwestern Protestantism it is all women. And there’s a long history of church suppers forming the basis of the social church. In San Antonio, on the west side of San Antonio,  which is Latina area, people are in fact nominally Catholic, but people don’t really attend church very often. But there are women who will put on Christmas plays and they will do what they call a promesa, which is: if your nephew gets off drugs or something like that, you promise El Nino Dios that you will do one of these plays and that you will fed the neighbourhood. And the play people, the actors, come and they do the pastoral play, with shepherds and Jesus. And it’s a religious event. But it doesn’t happen in church. And so these women are not counted as religious in American quantitative sociology, they’re just not. We miss all of this richness because we don’t see it. So the relational notion, it wouldn’t necessarily put women at the centre, but it empirically puts them at the centre – which is this lovely irony – and Sociology doesn’t do that. Sociology ignores the role of women by and large. So, you know, then there’s two chapters on Ibn Khaldoun and two chapters on what the Navajo, or what you would do with a Navajo approach. (10:00) And one of them outlines  what the Navajo would do – how Navajo philosophy works and the notion of ritual as creating the original beauty, order its hózhó is the term, creating the beauty, order etc that was present at the creation. And at the creation it was done, in the myth, by thought and speech. Long Life Boy and Happiness Girl who take out this bundle, and they unroll the bundle and they do this sand painting. And that’s what happens in the ceremony: they unroll the bundle, they do the sand painting, they recreate the original perfection. And people experience that connection. So then I take that and apply it. And this was actually an article that I had written in 2005, based on 13 years of fieldwork with a radical Catholic group that you can read the house mass that that group does every week, or did at that time every week, as a way of recreating the world, a sense of rightness, a sense of beauty, or of order in the lives of people who spent their time working with homeless folks, or sitting in at the Cathedral because the Bishop isn’t spending enough money or poor people. Or sitting in at City Hall so that they will release (audio unclear) so that the poor people don’t have to put their stuff all over the street. Those are . . . how do you recreate that world? Well it’s the ritual that does it. And there’s other things too, but the overall argument is that  if we go to these other places and take a look at what other concepts are there, it’s like if you’re a photographer, and I’m a photographer, so I look at it: you hold the camera; you point the camera at something; you frame it, based on whatever; and you take a photo you get something, you see something. If you take twenty steps around to your right or left and take a picture you’ll see something else. And so, what I’m advocating is that if we look at these other cultural, historical settings and places we can get notions, we can locate our camera in different places. The three I happen to choose are ones – I mean there are others, I suggest some in the last chapter, but I could only handle three. From the first article that dealt with some of this stuff to now, I think it’s . . . well, it’s been twenty-eight years. No, twenty-six years. Which is a long time, thank you very much! But the project really only gelled about eleven years ago. Anyway that’s a long answer to a short question!

SB: It’s great.

JS: So, where do you want to go next?

SB: Well, one thing that we could ask would be why you chose to, or why you prefer to go to these other perspectives – such as the Navajo or the Chinese Confucian perspective – rather than looking for relational theories kind-of closer to home?

JS: Well. You can get there by going closer to home. And when I first looked at experience, and wrote the first set of articles on experience I went two places: one, to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi –who’s an American, or Hungarian American psychologist – who looks at the phenomenon of attention and how when you attend to something deeply the ego shifts and the experience of the ego, in that strict Husserlian phenomenological sense, the experience that you have of the world changes. And I went to that and I went to the work of Alfred Schütz, particularly his article on making music together. And Mary Jo Neitz and I wrote a piece on that, her coming out of feminist theory and my coming out of whatever it is I come out of. But we’re fellow travellers on this particular trip. And those were spots in the Western tradition where we could find it. And Schütz basically argues, and I think he’s right, when you listen to music it’s a polythetic experience. That is, there are multiple things happening, it unrolls in time and rituals unroll in time. You can’t grasp a ritual just like you can’t grasp a symphony in a set of words. But you have to play it again. And if you don’t play it again then you lose something. And putting the two – Csikszentmihalyi and Shütz – together, what those rituals do is they focus our attention on different places. And how well you know the ritual . . . Csikszentmihalyi talks about this distinction between the difference between anxiety and boredom (15:00) If you know it too well, you’re bored. If you don’t know it at all, you’re anxious. If you’re exactly on the right spot, then your experience transforms. And so I’m using that to look at Navajo ritual, but I’m also using a Navajo theology to look at the Catholic ritual. Because . . . what is it accomplishing? It rights the world again, it puts the world back in order. And I think that’s significant. Sure, you can get there in another way. Nobody has. Sure, you don’t have to go to China to find out about relationalism. Nobody’s done it. And my complaint, my criticism and I said this in my review of the book Religion on the Edge, is that people are laying out all of these critiques of standard sociology and then what they put in their place are really not very good understandings of symbolic interactionism, not even going to Mead’s Philosophy of the Act where there really is some good stuff, but going  back to Goffman, going to things that don’t actually produce anything new. So the wish is fine, but there’s no delivery. If you go. . . . It’s like travelling. You go some place else. Here I am, an American, sitting in a British conference. People think differently – we have two countries divided by the same language (that’s not my line, it’s probably Churchill. I don’t know who it is) But you begin to see things in a different way. And so I think it’s important, for example, to go and read Ibn Khaldoun even though we don’t have a cyclical . . . I didn’t go to his cyclical notion of history – and Brad  Turner at one point wrote that the problem with Khaldoun is that he has no theory of modernisation. Well, that’s right, but that isn’t where you go in this case. What are the concepts that work? And then realising and we think of him as an historian and he thought of himself as a judge on the Islamic tradition. He was trying to justify Islam, and a particular kind of anti-Sufi Islam which we might call Islamism today, based on the ability of that Islam to overcome kin divisions and create a larger community where people are tied together by ritual. Well, those are really interesting ideas. What do they illumine about a particular case that we wouldn’t otherwise see? In that case, since I haven’t described that one yet,  I use that lens to look at the miracles of magic origin in Bosnia, in the Marian apparition in Bosnia, in 1981 and ongoing. And that was in the sociological literature as a religious experience, and as a religious event. And of course, it was. Then, ten years later, they have this ethnic war in that place, which is then described as an ethnic experience, and an ethnic event. Which of course it was. What’s the relationship between the two of these? Is religion creating social solidarity which then becomes tied up with the ethnic line? because you can’t tell a Croat from a Serb unless you ask as Bosnian what prayers they learned as child. Is it an instrumental way of killing people? In that case, I actually decide that Ibn Khaldoun doesn’t do it right, because he has the centre-focussed notion of  pulling people together. And the war makes it  very clear that this was an edge focussed way of dividing people. but we still learn something by putting ethnicity and religion in the same frame, where they do not appear in standard sociology. Could we get there? Sure we could get there, but nobody’s done it. I mean, it standardly isn’t done. And so that’s why I did this. Now that’s reason one. There’s reason two, which is: my previous book – I write slowly – is on ethnography and  critique of un-reflexive ethnography in the study of religion. And it brought some of the material from anthropology into Sociology and into Religious Studies. So that’s the notion of how ethnographers need to be aware of their own position in the process of doing their ethnography. (20:00)And one of the articles in there has eight different levels of representation in the ethnographic process. I didn’t write that one but it’s a brilliant piece by Shawn Landres. Uh, I discovered there’s a ninth. But, you know, these are the kinds of things we have to think about. Ethnography is now- it’s sort of de rigueur that it’s reflexive. We are not, in the historical cultural position of late nineteenth century France and Germany and the United States. We’re in this sort of emerging global world where there’re connections all over the place. It’s after colonialism but it’s not post-colonial. And that’s particularly true because the post-colonial people are still doing anti-colonialism, effectively. But we’re in a world where we have to begin thinking about it as not a unipolar world. And there’s a long history in Sociology, not just American, and in Anthropology as well. We make the concepts, we export the concepts, folks in other places apply those to their own situations and frequently misunderstand what’s going on. Not their fault. And there’s been a counter-push to, “Ok how do you develop an indigenous sociologies?” and so on.  And the ISA has sponsored some. Some of them are worthwhile, some of them are not. But we live in a world where we’re beginning to have to talk from one another and learn from one another and so on. And so the second reason for going elsewhere is to remind ourselves that we’re not the centre of the universe. Probably my favourite line in the book is the line in the last chapter where, you know: “Only men are allowed to imagine that there’s no such thing as gender; only white people are allowed to imagine that there’s no such thing as race; only heterosexuals are allowed to imagine that there are not these wonderful and glorious and multiple forms of sexuality; and only people living at the centre of the empire can imagine that the empire doesn’t matter. So that’s where we are. And here I am a white male heterosexual inhabitant of the empire and I can’t forget that. And so what are the responsibilities? How do we move from that polarity to do something where we are all at least in conversation with one another? And I spent the last couple of chapters wrestling with questions of  Orientalism, questions of cultural appropriation, and the questions of what is the epistemological grounding of what a global sociology would be. And my first title for the book, the one I sent it to the publisher with, was “Through Non-Western eyes: Towards a World-Conscious Sociology of Religion”. And in many ways, that’s the best description of what the book is about. The marketing department of course, said, “No. You can’t do that. We want Global Sociology”. I said, “No, that’s white male, blahblahblah.” And so we fought for a month, and two months, and then the editor came up with the title we have. I received a copy of the book the day after “alternative facts” became an American political meme. And part of me said, “Oh my God!” and the other part of me said, “Instant Karma for the marketing department.” And yet it also does describe what’s going on. Because it’s not saying, “These are the only ways to do things,” but “these are three models of what we could be doing”. And there’s was dealing with the concept of (audio unclear), that had to do with Latina religious agency. And Nigerian, Professor (audio unclear) was dealing with some (audio unclear) concepts and there are some other people who’ve pursued these.And they’re great. They’re beyond me. I can’t dive into all of those, I’d bee doing this for the next forty life times. But the stuff is out there. Some of it’s good. Some of it isn’t. Some of it works. Some of it doesn’t. Some of the stuff that I think works might not work as well as I think it does. Other things that I think don’t work, might work better, but this is the conversation we have to be having.  (25:00) So there’s a sense that what I’m trying to do here is – well, as the subtitle [suggests], decentring the sociology of religion. Which is the subtitle of the Bender et al. book. It’s the theme of the conference.

SB: One final question. How do you hope the book might be used by other scholars or students?

JS:I hope people will read it. You know. You always want people to read your book.And in this case, one of the reasons it’s taken so long to write is that I try to write for . . . I don’t just write for specialists. I try to have the prose be readable by people who are literate and interested in things. I actually write for my father, but he’s dead. So I don’t actually write for him. Somebody who can understand, who is not a scholar but can understand wel- reasoned argument. So I tell stories. And other people will have stories. And if people . . . what I hope is that people will understand what it is I’m trying to do and then figure out ways that they might want to do something similar.Well, there a whole series of fellow travellers here, because I’m not the only person: Raewyn Connell’s book, Southern Theory– it’s a fellow traveller with that. And in that book she looks at a very Western question about the nature of colonialism. But from the point of view of people who have been suffering from colonialism. Not the same question but parallel. Mary Jo Neitz’ work on Feminist Theory, Feminist Sociologies of Religion is a connected work. Meredith McGuire’s work on Lived Religion is . . . . These are things breaking down the sort of standard modal of how religion works and looking at things through other lenses. Now I of course have criticisms of all of those – of things that they catch and things that they don’t catch – but that doesn’t matter if people read this, appreciate the stories, figure out, “Well how does this change how I think about what it is I’m doing, and what might I do differently?” That’s great. And if people then say, “OK, I’m going to engage with people who are really coming from a fundamentally different place.” This is the ethnographer in me. I said that my first fieldwork was with one of the main Japanese religions so I had to immerse myself in a completely different way of thinking about the world. And that, I think, that’s kind-of our duty at this point. Unless we want to ignore the fact that there’s an empire around us, and I can’t do that.

SB: Professor Spickard, thank you very much for your time.

JS: Sure. Thanks a lot.

Citation Info: Spickard, James V. and Sammy Bishop. 2017. “ Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 23 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 October 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/alternative-sociologies-of-religion-through-non-western-eyes/

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Witchcraft in Rural Slovenia

In this podcast, professor Mirjam Mencej talks about contemporary witchcraft in Styria region in rural Eastern Slovenia. Based on her ethnographic fieldwork in the area, Mencej describes witchcraft from a variety of angles, from psychological to anthropological and historical, providing a detailed understanding of witchcraft as part of the lived social reality of the community. In what kind of situations are witchcraft narratives evoked? What makes them effective? Who could gain the reputation of being a witch and why? Mencej also describes the role of the ‘unwitcher’, a person who had the power to counter bewitchment and detect the witch responsible.

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


Podcast with Mirjam Mencej 

Interviewed by Hannah Lehtinen

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Hannah Lehtinen (HL): So, welcome to the Religious Studies Project. My name is Hannah Lehtinen and we are currently in Turku. It’s early morning and it’s relatively cloudy.And with me is Mirjam Mencej from the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. And she is the Professor of Folklore Studies at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology there. And her accomplishments include, but are not limited to, numerous articles and six published monographs on various topics related to vernacular religion, folklore and witchcraft, which is what we’ll be discussing here today. Professor Mencej’s latest volume, which will be out later this year, is called Styrian Witches in European Perspective. It’s based on her ethnographical work in the rural areas of Eastern Slovenia and it deals with witchcraft from a variety of angles. So welcome, Mirjam. It’s great to have you here today.

Mirjam Mencej (MM): Good Morning. Thank you for inviting me.

HL: So, we might just begin with, witchcraft. As we saw yesterday, the lecture was a huge success.

MM: Thank you

HL: But witchcraft probably brings up lots of different images and ideas of what we are exactly dealing with. How would you define witchcraft, in the context of your own work?

MM: Well first, let me answer the first part of your question. Indeed witchcraft, nowadays, appears in many guises. It has become a commodity, really. Witches flood the movies, the internet, the journals, the books – even cook books! Women dress up as witches to partake in Halloween parties. And, actually, it has become a trademark of radical feminism, etc. But all these witchcrafts have nothing to do with what traditional witchcraft is about, which I actually researched in this Styrian area of Slovenia and lectured on yesterday. Traditional witchcraft was typically set in more-or-less, small-scale, close-knit, face-to-face agricultural communities. And witchcraft, in fact, served as an explanation of misfortune: interpreting the source of personal misfortunes as the consequence of another’s malevolent agency. So the basic premise in witchcraft, is that the origin of misfortune is social. And the person responsible for misfortune is understood to be the witch. Now, when misfortune occurs, people usually seek culprits amongst their close neighbours or immediate vicinity, their immediate environment. And especially close neighbours were particularly feared in this regard. In most ethnographic areas, sometimes, also foreigners feature in witchcraft, but this is much less typical than the neighbours – particularly close neighbours. And it was, basically, their envy that was particularly feared. And, actually, they represented a constant threat of possible misfortune.

HL: Yes. And how did you end up studying witchcraft, actually?

MM: This was more-or-less by accident! In summer 2000 I arrived with a group of my students to a [rural region] in Slovenian Styria. I mean, Styria is a wider region, really, and this was a part of the Styrian region. (5:00) And our aim was to conduct fieldwork in order to help the local institutions’ mission to promote local heritage, really. So, what I hoped for was, basically, the etiological legends, related to some features or plants, or caves or some buildings in the region, etc. Yet, knowing that these kinds of legends tend to be rarer than the so-called belief narratives or belief legends, I also instructed my students to ask about witchcraft, the dead , and the supernatural in general. Now when the groups met, in the evening, to share the results of their first day of fieldwork – and also all the following evenings – one thing became clear: that the topic in the region was actually witchcraft. And so after that, we just continued to focus on witchcraft. And actually, really encountered plenty of people who still believed in witchcraft, and some even still practised witchcraft – although we never witnessed any of these practices. But, obviously, some people still buried bones or eggs on their neighbours’ property in order to do them harm. And some people even still understood witchcraft as an institution – actually they relied on witchcraft as an institution, explaining the misfortunes that befell them.

HL: Exactly. And this area, where you were conducting your study, could you describe it a little bit. It’s very remote?

MM: Yes. Actually this is a very remote area, with poor transport connections. The farms are small – the land divided into small parcels. And the people mainly engage in subsistence agriculture. Our interlocutors were mainly old people, because mostly older people lived there. Because most of the younger generation just moved into the cities or usually migrated somewhere. And, in fact, this is the region that is – in the frames of Slovenia – still a synonym for backwardness, and remoteness, and poverty, really. But the region where we were doing fieldwork was even more impoverished until the ‘70s. The ’70s brought some changes into the life of the population, for instance: electricity and water supply became available to more households than before; many houses were rebuilt; free medical care became available even to farmers; and several factories and tourism facilities were established at the periphery of the region – this actually offered some job opportunities to people living in the region, which consequently triggered daily migrations of part of the population; and also the improvement of the roads and transport facilities.Better roads also allowed for the use of tractors, which improved agricultural yields, etc. This was also the time when television started to make its way into rural households. And all these changes consequently triggered the loosening of the bonds of close communities and changed the social life in the villages. Now in our area, the key setting for the communication of witchcraft narratives, and also the basic context in which theses narratives were narrated and evaluated, was always “shared work”: the time when people gathered together in this or that house to shell beans, or pluck feathers, husk corn and do similar work. And with these economic changes and other changes like television etc, this basic setting was over. There was no such thing as common work in the evenings. And this, consequently, actually caused the witchcraft discourse to start losing its adherence and communal support. So, people did not have this framework anymore within which they could discuss witchcraft. I mean, they obviously still managed to find ways to tell narratives about witchcraft and even to practise some sort of magical practices, (10:00) but this basic setting was over, and they could not talk publicly about it as they used to do.

HL: So it wasn’t quite as accepted anymore, perhaps, as an explanation?

MM: Not generally accepted. They definitely were still able to talk about it within the family circles, or with some of the neighbours that still believed in witchcraft, but it was not an overt practice to discuss it anymore.

HL: So when you said that witchcraft sort-of struck you, when you were doing the fieldwork, as something really to focus on . . . . Did people talk about it very openly, or was there some reservation?

MM: No, generally people . . . yes. Generally, they had no problems talking about witchcraft overtly, although some did use . . . some did try to, somehow, hide their beliefs from me or the students – at least at the beginning of the interview. They would often start talking about witchcraft like: “No, I never heard about witchcraft! I don’t believe in witchcraft”, and similar. But then, after a while, they would just tell you a great story about their own involvement in witchcraft, or their discovery of bewitched items or their visit to a fortune-teller, who acted as an unwitcher inthe region, and so on. You know, like Jeanne Favret-Saada, who wrote a fascinating book on French witchcraft, understands this as a kind of reconciliation between their witchcraft discourse and the assumed rational discourse of the researcher . . . as a way to reconcile these two, at least at the beginning. There was no problem, really. It was quite a topic that croppeed up more-or-less by itself. We didn’t really expect it to be there or to find it.

HL: We already touched upon this, but perhaps again: how would you define witchcraft, in this context? What is it? And what is a witch?

MM: Well as I said, basically, the answer you would get from anthropological research, would be: “a witch is a person who is considered to be doing . . . to use some supernatural means to do harm to others. So, basically, the idea is witchcraft is a social thing: the origin of witchcraft is social. If a misfortune befalls you, basically there is a human being – usually from the same community – that is supposed to have caused it, right? But in fact, I actually defined in my book various layers of witchcraft and various types of witches. And I think one should actually pay attention, during the research, to different types of witches. Because, if you don’t, the answers can be a bit confusing. Basically, I would say, there is this social layer of witchcraft that anthropologists often research. But within it one could actually distinguish between a “neighbourhood witch” – I call it a neighbourhood witch, some would probably call it a social witch – and the “village witch”, that some researchers called the “scapegoat witch”. Now there is a difference between these two. The neighbourhood witch was mostly blamed for the misfortune that befell the neighbour. So, you assumed your neighbour caused the misfortune that befell you by either, for instance, burying bones or eggs on your property or by praising your child, or your livestock – there are various modes of bewitching, I can discuss this later, perhaps – but on the other hand, the village witch was not necessarily blamed for any misfortune, although some village witches, of course, get a reputation based on the general consensus of their harmful activities (15:00) – usually born out of envy – which is typical for the neighbourhood witch. But also, [there are] other reasons that have nothing to do with this accusation of causing misfortunes and are more or less related to some stereotypical notions about a witch, like: if she looked ugly, unkempt or old, of course, this already was a strong sign that she could be a witch. Or, moreover, if she behaved quarrelsome, if she quarrelled a lot, if she was inquisitive, this was even more likely to cause a reputation. If the family in which . . . . Well, if her family was proclaimed to be related to witchcraft, like for instance, if her mother already had such a reputation, the reputation was likely passed over to her daughter. Because it was also generally believed that a mother transmits her knowledge to her daughter. Or, if her father owned magic books, or a magic book – and it was usually men who were believed to have these books – his daughter would also kind-of inherit such a reputation. And sometimes they would even judge about who the village witch is, according to the way she died. So a person could acquire a reputation even after her death. Like [if] something unusual happened during the funeral, she was likely[to be] recognised as a witch afterwards. Or also, any extra knowledge – something that others would not know, but she allegedly knew – likely, also, could cause a reputation. So this was a social layer of witchcraft. But there was another layer, which I would tentatively call a “supernatural layer”, that anthropologists often skipped from their research. And it was also not always necessarily present in the regions where the fieldwork was done. These are witches that I call “night witches” because they usually appear at night, often in the shape of some flickering lights, sometimes invisible, and usually causing people to lose their orientation, to get totally disoriented in the forest and to get lost. Often, the same deeds and the same shapes and appearances are referred to: fairies, or the souls of the dead, or any other supernatural entities within European folklore. Anyway, in our region, they were always called witches. And while they had no. . . they did not do any economic damage, they were still blamed for misfortune of another type: they caused people to lose their way, to spend the night in the forest. And sometimes, subsequently, they were recognised as a certain person from the community. Not always, but sometimes people would say, “Yes, I recognised those witches that looked like lights” – it’s always plural – “during the night”. And the next day they would scold them or threaten them. So there are differences. There are differences in the discourses between these social and supernatural layers; there are differences in the manner of protection and the attitudes towards the different witches; also the attitude toward the neighbourhood and the village witch was different, right? So [there are] many differences, and yet people would talk about these witches in the same breath. If you asked them about witches, they could either answer with the response that referred to neighbourhood, village, or night witches.

HL: Well it seems pretty obvious – from general depictions of witches, and also from what you’re saying – that witches were often considered to be women, or it was to do with women?

MM: Yes. Actually, in our region, it was mostly women, except for, basically, one category of village witch which also encountered men. (20:00) As I said, those men basically that possessed – or allegedly possessed, because one couldn’t check, right? – the magic book. They were mostly men. And men could sometimes appear as witches, also, when they severely transgressed social norms, like in the case of blasphemy or cursing and drinking heavily. But this was really seldom. Mostly, it was women.

HL: Can you think up any reasons why it would be?

MM: Well, actually, this is quite historic. This has historical roots. Women were always related to witchcraft. This idea that women were connected to, well, night and moon, but also to magic, are ideas that spread up already in antiquity. So there is a strong connection in this notion in traditional ideas, I would say. But also during the witch trials, several historians pointed out that women were often regarded as somehow more prone to be able to be seduced by a devil, they were weaker, and well, actually, all theses accusations somehow reflected the misogyny of the period, right? Also, women were often proclaimed witches when they were old and when they were in the period of menopause, which was related to the idea about menstruation: that, while they still have their menstruation they can kind-of purify themselves and, afterwards, they could not do that any more. So these bad fluids just prevailed in their bodies. And there are many reasons, of course. Widows and unmarried women were among the first targets of accusation, also. One [reason was] because their status was unclear and, in the early modern period, the idea about a woman was to be married, to have a man by their side, this strong patriarchal approach to looking at the role of women in society. And, on the other hand, it was also their weaker position in this case: they had no social . . . they did not have a husband who would perhaps protect them, in this regard, against the gossip, against the accusations.

HL: Exactly. So these witchcraft accusations could also act as a very powerful tool for social control.

MM: Oh definitely, yes. Actually, the narratives themselves acted as a form of social control. People tried to behave in a way that they could not possibly be accused of witchcraft. So, yes, definitely this is one way to look at witchcraft.

HL: Another interesting category that you bring up in your work is the so-called “unwitchers”. So could you tell us a little bit about them, and how they belong into this dynamic of the witchcraft discourse?

MM: Yes well, unwitchers, or some would probably call them “counter-witches”, or “unbewitchers”, were an important figure in this triangle of victim, witch and unwitcher. In our region, it was fortune-tellers that acted as unwitchers in the sense that they could counteract the bewitchment, and act in the direction to identify the witch responsible for the misfortune. (25:00) Now, the people would usually [approach] unwitchers [if it was] the case that many misfortunes happened in very different areas of their life, or household etc. And unwitchers would, actually, first . . . well the first step in their procedure would usually be to proclaim the misfortune as a result of witchcraft. And in further steps they would usually try to annihilate the bewitchment by various instructions that they gave to their clients, and to identify the witch. Because the identification was crucial in this regard. It allowed the client to face their opponents, to materialise something that was abstract, beforehand. And, in the end, they also offered a possibility of the redirection of this bewitchment, or the evil, back to its source, which, of course, people usually didn’t like to accept. Well, basically, in my book I argued that the main role of unwitchers was in helping, especially women, to . . . well, one thing was to help them in times of economic insecurity, when their household were not prospering. But the basic thing was to help women maintain their social position in times when it was endangered. Because women were basically evaluated according to their work: how they managed to do the household works; were they successful in this regard? And if they were not, their social position was strongly threatened and in this case they actually needed, I think – at least in our region, that’s the way I understood the situation – they needed the unwitchers to help them transpose or relocate the blame from themselves to the outside witch, or to somebody else and thus help them maintain their social position. Because it was not them that was to be blamed for the misfortunes that befell the household, but some outsider coming from the other household – coming from usually the same community, but not from within the household.

HL: So, identifying some kind of enemy, or some kind of cause, from the outside was very crucial?

MM: Exactly, yes.

HL: We already mentioned that if, for example, the livestock or in some other way the livelihood was endangered, this would be one reason to suspect witchcraft. Could you mention some other cases or situations where this witchcraft discourse, or the accusations of witchcraft, even could be invoked?

MM: Well, the main targets of bewitchment in our region, were livestock, really. Now this is a different situation than the one I encountered in Bosnia – where I just recently did three months’ fieldwork – when witchcraft is mostly directed against people, against their wellbeing and health and jobs etc. In our region, it was really mostly livestock – sometimes small children, but basically livestock – that were the main target of bewitchment. But, of course, there were other situations where people could use the witchcraft discourse to their benefit. And it was not necessarily related to their personal belief in the proposition. Many, many situations, many circumstances, could . . . . In many circumstances, witchcraft discourse could be used for people to save face, for instance, or to give an acceptable explanation to the family, or to the community at large. And I can just give you some examples, for instance, a young man was unable to work, to find a job, to search for a job. A young man who, actually, withdrew himself from society and was probably suffering some sort of depression or perhaps some mental illness.(30:00) The explanation , in terms of witchcraft, was actually a suitable explanation at hand for a family to give to the community at large which, probably not understanding the depression as a serious mental state, would proclaim him an idler or perhaps even blame his family for a failed upbringing. And, on the other hand, this helped the family to cope with the situation, to understand and to accept their son’s position. Also, for instance, when marital quarrels appeared, when a couple quarrelled and suddenly. . . and then one story told by a certain interlocutor . . . . Suddenly, when a woman threw her husband out of bed, she said, “at that moment I saw a toad under the bed. And I trampled her, I destroyed her and the next day I saw a woman in the village who lost her leg just at the same time.” Now this is how they recognised that it was that woman that was transformed into the toad and this was a general notion in our region that witches can either transform into toads, or sand toads. Actually, she recognised the witch that transformed into a toad by her losing a leg in the same moment. And there are many such circumstances that actually allowed people to use the witchcraft discourse, especially when they’d transgressed social norms., you know: having spent a night in the forest after a night drinking, you could just say, “Night witches carried me away so I couldn’t find the way out of the forest”; or, it could be a cover up for sexual relationships that were illicit; or it could just be flat sexual fantasies sometimes; or, I don’t know, it was also used as an education means in the upbringing of children, you know, walking into dangerous areas at night; or to prevent people from doing illicit things in the night, like meeting other men and wives. It could even be invoked by workers who wanted to stop work during the night, you know at 2am – I guess everybody would propose to stop working already – and they could just invoke this idea about witches: “No, I’m going to go home now, because otherwise witches will come . . . ” etc. So there were many opportunities for the use of witchcraft discourse. And this was not really related to one’s belief or disbelief in the proposition, and they were not also used intentionally in order to manipulate other people’s opinion, but acted more like a spontaneous act, based on the habitus, really. Of course, it could be used to manipulate public opinion [as well], especially if they gossip with others. Like, I was told that this witchcraft accusation often occurred when a son of a wealthy family wanted to marry a woman from a poor family. In this case the mother of that woman was often proclaimed to be a witch, you know, who made some witchcraft in order for the son of the wealthy family to fall in love with this poor girl. Bribery is another case, of course, and an accusation of witchcraft could also redefine the social position, lower the social prestige of a certain person.

HL: Yes. So there are very various ways that you can use it.

MM: Definitely.

HL: Did you, when you were conducting this work – I understood that people talked about these experiences – but did you ever speak with a witch? Or anyone who would admit using witchcraft? Or who knew, at least, that they were [accused] of witchcraft?

MM: (35:00) Well, nobody would ever admit that they used witchcraft. There is no such thing, you know. If they admitted that they used witchcraft this would immediately ruin their social position, probably forever, right?

HL: Yes.

MM: Of course, I could sometimes realise that some people did indeed practice some sort of magic practices. Like – one thing that I mentioned before was burying objects, usually eggs or bones on a neighbour’s property. And, while they would never admit that they buried a certain object on their neighbour’s property, they did sometimes admit that they buried it as a response for the buried object they found in their property. They assumed that it came from a certain neighbour, with whom they were probably in some conflict or tense relationships, and they just threw it back to their property, or buried it back on their property. So, obviously, something was going on. But I only received several admissions of this kind and never as being the first perpetrator, but always as a response to the act that was done before. Anyway, I did also hear about several people, several women, that had a reputation for being a witch in the community, and I did interview them. And I tried to make them tell me that they were aware of their reputation. But I was never successful. Nobody actually ever admitted that they knew about their reputation, and I’m not really sure if they knew or not. I often got an impression that they didn’t. But I do not dare declaim, because it’s a difficult thing, I guess, to admit that people treat you as the witch, right? Well I heard, also, about some circumstances in which people overtly told some women in the community that they were a witch – like, especially when they were drunk, you know, they would just tell them to their face, “You’re a witch!” or something. Otherwise, generally, they would try to avoid blaming directly because, if it was a village witch they feared that she would take revenge and do some witchcraft, and if it was a neighbourhood witch they always said, “Well, you never know, you can never be sure, you can suspect this or that neighbour, but you can never be sure, because you never actually saw them doing some bewitching.” So, they never really dared to blame them overtly.

HL: It also brings to mind, perhaps – especially with this neighbourhood witch case – if you would blame directly, wouldn’t that maybe take away from the functioning of the accusation dynamic? Because if you blame directly, perhaps, then it can be disputed more easily, or refuted, that this is not the case.

MM: Oh yes. You’re right.

HL: It could change the dynamics of how the accusations work.

MM: Yes. It could, yes. In one way it could. But also you know, you’d be in the position of the accuser. And yes, if you did not get the public support in this case, right, you could end up – perhaps not as a witch – but you could end up with your social position, again, being lowered because you did something that you were not supposed to do. And if you did not have any proofs of their bewitching activities then, how could you do it?

HL: And the evidence would be difficult to produce, so that would be a high risk thing to do.

MM: Yes

HL: Exactly. So, I understand that there are no unwitchers in the region anymore. So, it was simply in the stories . . . about . . . ?

MM: Well, you see, there was a very famous unwitching family that provided services for people in this region. And this family – well the starter of the family’s business was a certain woman who was born at the beginning of the 19th -century. (40:00) And then the profession was continued by her son. And after her son died, during World War II, it was continued by his widow. And that last in line, of these famous fortune-tellers, actually died at the beginning of the ’80s. I was lucky to find her grandson, who actually lived with her when he was a child, and observed her working. But anyway, he told me that already in the ’70s she started losing her clients. That her job . . . . She had no job any more at the end of the ’70s, and at the beginning of the ’80s she died. So, basically, there are no traditional unwitchers in the region any more. I know that there was another unwitcher who was practising, offering similar services to the clients, living quite nearby. But, obviously, she did not use the same discourse. She did not continue to work on counteracting witches – instead she used the term enemy, which is much more generalised idea. So, I guess, she was able to continue with this work and she focussed much more on fortune-telling in general, not unwitching procedure as such. But of course, nowadays, people can just turn to New Age therapists, which are often, especially, in bigger cities and communities. And they actually do this nowadays. They actually go to New Age therapists. I’m not sure about people from my region: I did not ask them about that. But I, actually, recently conducted an interview with a woman – an educated woman, an intelligent woman – living quite close to this region, who actually experienced the same type of bewitchment, obviously, as was generally proclaimed to be the main sort of bewitchment in our region. That was – she kept finding eggs buried in her property. And she, indeed, turned to a New Age therapist. This was a Taoist therapist, or dealing with Taoist chrystal therapy and, you know, she helped her clients with some angels’ blessing, did angel therapy etc. So it was not a traditional unwitcher but a New Age therapist, who, in a way, took over the work of traditional unwitchers.

HL: So, was the procedure the same, or. . . ?

MM: In fact it was very similar, in many regards. But there were also differences in her discourse, in relation to the unwitcher’s discourse. Well, first she would admit, just like traditional unwitchers, that – not admit but confirm – that something “was done”, which was a typical discursive expression, in the region, that related to bewitchment, really: that somebody bewitched you, in a way. Although, she definitely denied the involvement of witchcraft. So she said, “There is no such thing as witchcraft.” Anyway, she confirmed that this was done by a certain person who wishes bad to the woman that I had an interview with, and she also tried to annihilate the bewitchment – now it should be “bewitchment” in inverted commas, right?- she gave her some angels’ blessings, in order to annihilate the harm that was being done. But the basic difference is that of trying to help the client identify their witch, which was a really crucial thing in the traditional therapy, the traditional unwitchers procedure: she actually redirected the blame from the outside to one’s own body and mind, within. So, actually, she said, “We should not condemn anyone, you know? It doesn’t matter. There are people . . . ” she vaguely admitted there are people who wish us bad, or who are envious etc, but basically she redirected the blame to ourselves. (45:00) So it is us who have to – actually, it is that woman I mentioned, but I can say generally “us” – we have to purify ourselves, we have to meditate, we have to strengthen our energy etc, and when we do that, no one can blame us any more. So there is just a basic difference, I think that, you know, from finding and searching for the perpetrator on the outside, and finding the “witch” inside within us. That’s the change in this New Age discourse. And, of course, I think it’s got a lot to do with the changes also that happened in Western neoliberal society, where we are actually encouraged to think of our own lives, our own wellbeing, as something that is entirely under our own control, right? It’s ourselves who are responsible for this. And it’s entirely in our hands. We have to look at our own lives as an artistic product or an enterprise, right? We cannot absolutely obtain relief anymore by blaming someone on the outside for our failures.We have become trained to search for the one who is to blame for any misfortune that befell us, in ourselves.

HL: Yes. That’s . . . . So that would be this kind-of: on the one hand it continues, but it changes shape?

MM: It adopts to the demands of this neoliberal capitalistic society that we live in nowadays, right?

HL: Yes.

MM: But basically its the same thing. You can call it witchcraft, or you cannot call it witchcraft, basically. It’s just the transformation, it’s adaptation. But basically, its a continuation.

HL: Thank you. This has been very interesting.

MM: Thank you. You’re welcome.

HL: Thank you for joining us today.

MM: Thank you.


Citation Info: Mencej, Mirjam 2017. “Witchcraft in Rural Slovenia”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 15 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 11 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/witchcraft-in-rural-slovenia/

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AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation

This roundtable, in association with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, considers the impact of recent technological advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics on religion, religious conceptions of the world, and the human. It draws attention to how such advances push religion beyond how it has been commonly defined and considered.

1389397212614In March 2016 ‘AlphaGo’, a Google/Deepmind programme, defeated an international champion at the Chinese game ‘Go’ in a five game match. This victory was, by current understandings of AI, a vast leap forward towards a future that could contain human-like technological entities, technology-like humans, and embodied machines. As corporations like Google invest heavily in technological and theoretical developments leading towards further, effective advances – a new ‘AI Summer’ – we can also see that hopes, and fears, about what AI and robotics will bring humanity are gaining pace, leading to new speculations and expectations, even amidst those who would position themselves as non-religious.

Speculations include Transhumanist and Singularitarian teleological and eschatological schemes, assumptions about the theistic inclinations of thinking machines, the impact of the non-human on our conception of the uniqueness of human life and consciousness, and the moral boundary work of secular technologists in relation to their construct, ‘religion’. New religious impulses in the face of advancing technology have been largely ignored by the institutions founded to consider the philosophical, ethical and societal meanings of AI and robotics. This roundtable is an initial conversation on this topic, with the intention for further discussion and publications.

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, tin foil hats, Jeff Goldblum custom water proof shower curtains, and more.

Study of Religion in Peru

UnfCTAnTfj8yQGyHYpsbntqMPeru’s religious inheritance has been the subject of inquiry by scholars since the first decade of the twentieth century (Ortmann, 2002). In this RSP interview, we are joined by professor Dorothea Ortmann from the University of Rostock, to discuss the foundations of the study of religion in this country. She first states the major differences between the confessional studies or studies oriented to theological or pastoral matters, and the social scientific study of religious phenomena (Ortmann, 2004). She then follows the conversation by giving some background history of the most notable works from the first attempts at doing research on the sciences of religion. Particularly important are the works of Tello (1943), Larco Hoyle (1946), Valcárcel (2009), and Carrión (2005).

In what remains of the interview, professor Ortmann discusses the public benefits of studying religion. It ends with an interesting discussion about the current institutional and theoretical situations of the field in Peru, taking into account new tendencies coming from Europe and North America (Xygalatas, 2015).

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, drink coasters, T.V. Dinners, and more.

References
-Carrión, R. (2005). Culto al agua en el antiguo Perú. Lima: Instituto Nacional de Cultura.
-Ortmann, D. (2002). Ciencias de la religión en el Perú. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos.
-Ortmann, D. (2004). “Fundamentos de las Ciencias de la Religión”. In Ortmann, Dorothea (compiler). Anuario de Ciencias de La Religión: Las Religiones En El Perú de Hoy. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, pp. 13–29.
-Larco Hoyle, R. (1946). A culture sequence of the north coast of Perú. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. Accesed on: August 15, 2016.
http://www.museolarco.org/listapublicaciones/a-culture-sequence-for-the-north-coast-of-peru/
-Tello, J. (1943). “Sobre el descubrimiento de la cultura Chavín en el Perú”. Letras. Lima, No. 26, pp. 226-373.
-Valcárcel, L. (2011). Machu Picchu. Lima: Fondo de Cultura Económica
-Xygalatas, Dimitris (2015). IACSR year in review: 2015. Georgia. Accessed on: January 15 of 2016.

New Horizons in the Sociology of Religion: Beyond Secularization?

Since September we have been running a series of podcasts, co-produced with the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) to celebrate their 40th anniversary. The series was entitled “New Horizons in British Sociology of Religion”, and began with “An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion” with Grace Davie, and has featured interviews with Dawn Llewellyn (on “Religion and Feminism“), Anna Strhan (on “Evangelicalism and Civic Space“), Naomi Thompson (on “Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality“), Mat Francis (on “Researching Radicalization“) and Titus Hjelm & Paul-Francois Tremlett (on “The Sociology of Religion and Religious Studies“). To conclude this series, we invited scholars from a variety of fields to contribute to a collaborative compilation episode, under the title “New Horizons in the earth-rising-sun-desktop-backgroundSociology of Religion: Beyond Secularization?”

In this longer-than-usual episode, Chris and David provide an interlinking narrative between Grace Davie, Joe Webster, Carole Cusack, Jonathan Jong, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Linda Woodhead and Kim Knott, reflecting on current or future developments in the sociology of religion which challenge the ubiquity of the secularization thesis, problematize it, or go beyond it. The key question: beyond secularization, what is the sociology of religion for you?

Many thanks to SOCREL for supporting this collaboration. Remember that you can keep the conversation going in the comments below each podcast and response, on our social media feeds, or by sending an email to the editors.

Also, check out some of our other great compilation podcasts: After the World Religions Paradigm…?; What is the future of Religious Studies?; and Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?

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, Turducken, dinosaur slippers, and more.

Nature alive: Amazonian religion in Peru

book cover ReganThe Amazon rainforest has always been a land filled with mystery since its ‘discovery’. Ranging from the first expedition of the conquistador Francisco de Orellana, to the establishment of Jesuit missions across the Marañon river, and the naturalistic explorations of Humboldt and la Condamine, it still feels as if it has more to be known.

This was also the case for the earliest ‘ethnographic’ records of Gaspar de Carvajal and Francisco de Figueroa . As was often the case with Spanish chroniclers, they ‘misunderstood’ the ‘indigenous’ way of thinking, in some cases even labeling them as atheists (Regan: 2015). In time, this would change, in part because of the continuing social interaction (between missionaries, laymen, other indigenous groups, and so on) but also in more recent times, because of the ethnographic research undertaken by many different anthropologists. This has enabled a more comprehensive knowledge about the beliefs and way of life of the Amazonian indigenous people. In this podcast, Dr Jaime Regan Mainville, a leading researcher in the anthropology of religion and linguistics, discusses his ethnographic research among some of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin; namely the kukama, the awajún, and the wampís, among others.

Regan argues that one particular characteristic of Amazonian  belief is highlighted above the rest: close links with the environment. Amazonian identity and belief systems are articulated into what Philippe Descola and other anthropologists have regarded as animism (Regan: 2015). Of course, these beliefs haven’t remained ‘untouched’ or ‘pure’, but have been particularly influenced by encounters with Jesuits and Franciscans during the sixteenth century. The interview continues to focus upon some of the impacts of this these encounters upon existing belief systems, practices and cosmologies (cf. Regan: 2001).

remate-libro-a-la-sombra-de-los-cerros-las-raices-513001-MPE20264898860_032015-F (1)In the final part of the interview Regan states that the indigenous way of life has drastically changed, because of the Peruvian state’s oil exploration policy s, combined with illegal mining and logging. For example, in the case of oil exploration, in June 2009 the “Baguazo” or Bagua conflict took place in part due to failed attempts at consultation and negotiation between with indigenous leaders of the Amazon region (mostly awajún and wampís) and the Peruvian state: Regan traces this to a conflict of worldviews (Regan: 2010).

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Andean Religion in Peru, Vernacular Religion, and the category of “indigenous religion”. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, stuffed animals, gobstoppers, and more..

References

Of Demons, Saints and Heaven: Andean religious beliefs in Peru

What happens when two vastly different civilizations meet each other? History tells us that on the one hand, they could make war or, on the other, begin to establish kinship or state alliances. The colonization process of Peru is one that had a lot of the first, and a bit of the second. Just as the people came to conflict, so did their gods. However, the local gods who lost this conflict did not vanish in oblivion, but remained in other forms, even in some places in their original one.

In his interview with Sidney Castillo, Dr. Luis Millones discusses some of the traditions that have formed the basis for his research, particularly in the northern coast, northern highlands and south highlands of Peru. He mentions that, with the impact of colonization, many of the indigenous beliefs were replaced or mixed (to some extent), in order to facilitate the installation of a status quo that incorporated many of the ethnic groups’s beliefs (among other, more ‘earthly’ institutions) that were present prior to the Spaniards’ arrival (Millones 2005). And this is when when different traditions emerge commonly know as folklore (see also vernacular religion).

Ranging from different conceptions of the devil – less as a punisher and more as a trickster (Millones & López Austin 2013) – to the festival in honor of Felipe, Santiago de Zebedeo’s horse (Millones 2015), and from Jesus as a punisher, and the existence of an actual hell on earth (Millones 2010), to being joyful at children’s funerals (Millones 2007), Dr. Millones provides a clear articulation of how these local beliefs makes sense in everyday life. Fortunately, in this worldview, one thing is for sure: we all will go to heaven.

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on vernacular religion (in general, and in the US)situational belief, the category of ‘indigenous’, Meso-American religion

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

References

  • Millones, L. (2010). Después de la muerte. Voces del Limbo y el Infierno en territorio andino. Lima: Fondo Editorial del Congreso del Perú.
  • Millones, L. (2005). Ensayos de historia andina. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos-Fondo Editorial.
  • Millones, L. (2015). “Las muchas caras de Santiago, por Luis Millones”. El Comercio. Lima, 01 of August. Accesed on: 04 de agosto de 2015.http://elcomercio.pe/opinion/columnistas/muchas-caras-santiago-luis-millones-noticia-1829935
  • Millones, L. (2007). Todos los niños van al cielo. Lima: Instituto Riva Agüero.
  • Millones, L. & Lopez Austin, A. (2013). Cuernos y colas. Reflexiones en torno al Demonio en los Andes y Mesoamérica. Lima: Asamblea Nacional de Rectores.

“Religion in Peru” — conference report, 2015

The conference, “Religion in Peru : Research itineraries from the social sciences,” was held at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Lima-Peru, 24 September 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Sidney Castillo.

Opening session. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

Opening session. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

The study of religion has deep roots in the South American country of Peru. Over twenty years ago, one of this country’s most eminent scholars of religion, the late Manuel Marzal, (1996) wrote an article detailing a century of religious studies in Peru. Since the dawn of social sciences in Peruvian academia, scholars from different schools of thought and institutions have applied their own perspectives to religion, from indigenism to Marxism—and of course the catholic church. These scholars wanted to get a grip on what means to be religious in Peru in order to better understand its people, however they also differed in key ways. For example, some have been concerned with religion as it may relate to establishing enduring political structures, to gain more adherents, or for good old fashioned criticism. Peru is a country rich with not only religious tradition, but also religious innovation. For example, we have both our equivalent of the Popol Vuh, the Dioses y hombres de Huarochirí [1] manuscript from the sixteenth century, and also a Peruvian new religious movement, the Asociación Evangélica de la Misión Israelita del Nuevo Pacto Universal from the twentieth century  as examples; this is why the conference presented different approaches to the study of religious phenomena, and discussed its relevance in the 21st century.

The conference was organized by the Master’s Degree in Sciences of Religion of the Faculty of Social Sciences from Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, represented by its Coordinator, Jaime Regan and myself (Sidney Castillo) as organizer, in collaboration with the Students Center of Anthropology of the same university (CEAN in Spanish) and the Peruvian Academy of the Sciences of Religion (APECREL also in Spanish). The conference featured anthropological researches based on case study and comparative religion approaches, as well as sociological research in the field of secularism and state regulations, and the sciences of religion itself as an academic field. The scholars who participated in the event were Luis Millones (Professor Emeritus of Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos), Diego Huerta (University of Helsinki), Marco Huaco (University of Strasbourg) and Dorothea Ortmann (University of Rostock).

From left to right: Huaco, Castillo, Millones, Ortmann and Huerta. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

From left to right: Huaco, Castillo, Millones, Ortmann and Huerta. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

For myself, as an organizer, it was particularly fulfilling to see the conference auditorium packed and the scholars ready to take the lead on the subject that was of our interest. And it was also fulfilling because we had a lot of competition that day: three academic events in the same faculty at pretty much the same time! We can say then, that people is really getting interested in learning about religion outside mainstream means e.g. churches.

Luis Millones’s talk was about Apostle Santiago and the Moors (Millones : 2015). He presented his latest research done in San Lucas de Colan, a small town within the Paita province in the coastal part of Piura region. His ethnographic research provided an insiders appreciation of the festival offered to Santiago Apostle’s horse, Felipe, in which the image of the patron saint observes the symbolic representation of the horse battling against the Moors. The festival commands both a huge participation on money and coordination from the brotherhood of the saint. Millones viewed this as a means of obtaining prestige among the townsfolk. Interestingly, these kind of festivities are a staple in many different rural and urban places. Particularly, as it’s a way of recreating social bonds with fellow members of the community (or former communities since a lot of people that participate in these celebrations are migrants) by venerating the patron saint and having a huge party lasting several days.

In the second talk, Diego Huerta used a comparative approach in discussing two religious phenomenons comprising some of his past research: the pilgrimage of the Christ of Huamantanga in the outer part of Lima, in the Canta district ; and the (neo)paganism in the urban parts of Lima (Huerta : 2012). His aim was to put into question the factual realization of the secularization process in Peru, in order to examine folk religion and new religious movements as manifestations of an alternative religiosity. Huerta suggested that while the former is more related to popular interpretations of Catholicism, the latter stems more from a product of globalization, embedded in a culture of media driven information on different religious traditions. I found his presentation as indicating that not even tradition is written in stone, tradition changes.

Lawyer, Marco Huaco. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

Lawyer, Marco Huaco. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

In the third presentation, Marco Huaco’s discussed the policy of laicidad, a.k.a. secularism in church-state relations (Huaco : 2013). He detailed the historical trajectory of the Peruvian constitutions, demonstrating their evolution, developing from constitutions of doctrinal confessionality towards constitutions of historical-sociological confessionality, finally arriving to the present day constitution. This constitution acknowledges the Catholic Church an important element of Peruvian society, and allows the State to take part in partnership with other religious denominations. This is highlighted by the 1980 Agreement between the Holy See and Peru, which he explained, has important consequences in the ordering of public policies (e.g., birth control and lgbt rights) and primary education.

The closing presentation was delivered by Dorothea Ortmann. In it, she presented how the Sciences of Religion was first established in Peru (Ortmann: 2002). Ortmann traced the beginnings of this development from the researches of Julio C. Tello, Rafael Larco Hoyle and Luis Válcarcel, where they tried to explain the syncretism process, noting the economic and political implications of these mixtures on many Andean deities. For example, the Lanzon of Chavin de Huantar and the Teja Amaru[2]. Ortmann discussed how researchers utilized the tools from different disciplines to explain this process (e.g. archaeology, linguistics and anthropology), in order to gain a wider overview of the Andean societies.

The variety of research that was presented at the conference allowed Peru’s academic community to gather a comprehensive entry into what the academic study of religion was and is, noting future possibilities for research. In echoing Ortmann’s sentiments, the academic study of religion in Peru has existed, at least to date, due to the personal interests and dedication of lone researchers (largely at their own costs) and not due to established monetary support from institutions. However, while some valuable research has been supported at religiously affiliated institutions (e.g., Centro de Estudios Teológicos de la Amazonía, Instituto de Pastoral Andina with the Allpanchis journal, Instituto Bartolomé de las Casas, Centro de Estudios y Publicaciones) other perspectives are needed, and at further distance from pastoral inspiration. Shedding some level of ties with the insider perspectives often provided via religious institutions will allow Peruvian academics to study religious phenomena from a variety of fresh perspectives[3].

 

That this conference took place at the National University of San Marcos was quite inspiring. This was the first university on the continent with a theology and arts faculty during the second half of the sixteenth century. Now, almost five hundred years later, Peruvian academics still have an interest in studying religion. However, our current perspectives and methodologies are far more diverse, and ever broadening. I remain optimistic that, in the near future, the academic study of religion in Peru will be as widespread and supported as other research areas. No doubt, this will be due in large part to the dedication and interest of Peruvian scholars, as this conference exemplifies.

References

Marzal, Manuel. (1996). “Un siglo de investigación de la religión en el Perú”. Anthropologica. Lima, volumen 14, número 14, pp. 7-28. Accesed on: november 29, 2015. http://revistas.pucp.edu.pe/index.php/anthropologica/article/view/1876/1809

Millones, L. (2015). “Las muchas caras de Santiago, por Luis Millones”. El Comercio. Lima, 01 of August. Accesed on: 04 de agosto de 2015. http://elcomercio.pe/opinion/columnistas/muchas-caras-santiago-luis-millones-noticia-1829935

Huaco, M. (2013). Procesos constituyentes y discursos contra-hegemónicos sobre laicidad, sexualidad y religión: Ecuador, Perú y Bolivia.  Buenos Aires: CLACSO. Accesed on: november 28, 2015.

http://biblioteca.clacso.edu.ar/clacso/sur-sur/20121108040727/ProcesosConstituyentes.pdf

Ortmann, D. (2002). Ciencias de la religión en el Perú. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. Accesed on: november 29, 2015. http://sisbib.unmsm.edu.pe/bibvirtual/libros/sociologia/c_religion/indice.htm

Huerta, D. (2012). De eclécticos e iniciados o una aproximación etnográfica a la práctica del (neo) paganismo en Lima. Licenciate thesis on Social Sciences with mention in Anthropology. Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Faculty of Social Sciences.

 

[1] Gathered by Francisco de Avila around 1598, and then translated from quechua to spanish by Jose Maria Arguedas in the middle of the tweinthieth century, it’s the only text that accounts for the mainstream fundational mythos of Peru, prior to the spaniards arrival.

[2] The first deity refers to a monolith of 4.5 meters located in the Temple of Chavin. It depicted a zooantropomorphic god with feline and avian features (animals found in the jungle and andes respectively), and was the main deity of the Chavin culture (1000 B.C.). The second one refers to a clay shaped tile representing the Amaru god with features of a otorongo (the peruvian feline), symbolizing the resistance of the spanish influence on andean culture. Some of these tiles were found in southern andean part of Peru and date from the early XIX century.

[3] Many scholars of religion like the late Fernando Fuenzalida, Harold Hernández, Jaime Regan, Juan Ossio and our own speakers of the conference have been doing innovative work in this manner, since they have provided great insights regarding new religious movements, andean and amazonian religion, and the relationship of religion and politics.

Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Nonreligion

It is an unfortunate fact that in popular ‘Western’ imagination, the land of India is frequently orientalised, and naively conceptualized as ‘the quintessential land of religion, spirituality, and miracles.’ Although we would certainly not want to completely invert this stereotype by substituting one unnuanced and inaccurate construct for another, what happens when we take a closer look at a constituency who challenge this narrative, those who identify as ‘rationalists’ and engage in the criticism of ‘religion’ in India? One scholar who has done just that is Johannes Quack in his book Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India, published by Oxford in 2012. In this podcast, we discuss Johannes’ ‘relational’ approach to ‘nonreligion,’ before moving to concrete examples from his work in India.

What is a ‘relational approach’ to nonreligion? What does it achieve? What are some of the key characteristics of organized rationalism in India? What does all of this have to do with ‘religion’, ‘non-religion’, ‘atheism’ etc? What does this in-depth ethnographic work in this very particular context contribute to wider academic debates within the study of nonreligion, and religion more broadly?

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, magic wands, faux leather belts and more!

“Practice What You Preach”: CREDs and CRUDs

 

Actions typically speak louder than words. A common version of this statement – practice what you preach – is a popular conversational quip, used by the religious and nonreligious alike to scoff hypocrites. In short, action codifies our cognitive sentiments – our beliefs. It is one thing to say you believe and quite another to act “as if” you believe. We typically take some actions (e.g. going to a church) to both entail, and lend credence to certain beliefs (e.g. believing in the Christian God), as opposed to others (e.g. not believing in a god, or believing in Allah). Nonetheless it is quite possible to attend church or participate in ritual without holding belief in a God or gods (c.f. Silver, Coleman, Hood & Holcombe, 2014). Importantly however, acting on our beliefs only lends CREDibility to them, and not veridicality. Conversely, failing to act on a professed belief has the potential to undermine the credibility of said belief (CRUDs): if it is important to attend church, but no one goes – is it really that important to attend? Moreover, if no one is going to church, maybe belief in God is not that important after all?

Much of the past research in the cognitive sciences of religion (CSR) has dealt primarily with how abstract symbols (minimally counterintuitive content (MCI); e.g. a talking mouse or invisible entities that can communicate with you) are processed by our mental architecture, and easily transmitted within populations due to their conceptual shape (for a critical review see, Purzycki & Willard, practices what they preach (both in and out of the religious domain), they may be seen as credible sources with which to acquire further information from (Henrich, 2009; Lanman, 2012). In this interview with Thomas Coleman, Dr. Jonathan Lanman highlights the role that public displays of commitment (CREDs & CRUDs) play in the acquisition of both belief and nonbelief.

Dr. Lanman begins by discussing his research interests and some of the current work underway at the Institute of Cognition and Culture.  Next, he explains both content and context biases, and briefly outlines the notion of dual-inheritance theory. Importantly, Lanman goes on to emphasize how actions (CREDs), and failing to act (CRUDs), may contribute to the varying levels of religiosity seen throughout the world. In closing, Lanman suggests that while content biases are important for the transmission of religious concepts, they always occur in a given context: “upon initial evidence…[CREDs/CRUDs are] one of the most important factors in determining who ends up a theist and who ends up a nontheist.”

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

References

  • Silver, C. F., Coleman, T. J. III, Hood, R. W. Jr., & Holcombe, J. M., (2014) The Six Types of Nonbelief: A qualitative and quantitative study of type and narrative. Mental Health, Religion & Culture. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13674676.2014.987743
  • Henrich, J. (2009). The evolution of costly displays, cooperation and religion. Evolution And Human Behavior, 30(4), 244-260. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.03.005
  • Lanman, J. (2012). The Importance of Religious Displays for Belief Acquisition and Secularization. Journal Of Contemporary Religion, 27(1), 49-65. doi:10.1080/13537903.2012.642726
  • Purzycki, B. G., & Willard, A. K. (in press). MCI Theory: A Critical Discussion [Target Article with Commentaries]. Religion, Brain and Behavior.

Bricolage

BRICOLAGE: construction (as of a sculpture or a structure of ideas) achieved by using whatever comes to hand; also : something constructed in this way

“Bricolage.” Merriam-Webster.com.

Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1960s and has undergone a complex genealogy of modifications within the sociologies of culture and religion. As Véronique Altglas writes in a forthcoming article, ‘originally a metaphor, “bricolage'” became an anthropological concept to understand cultural and religious creativity, with an emphasis on what organizes it, despite its contingent nature. Transposed in the study of contemporary European societies, bricolage became about what individuals do in relation to cultural practices and lifestyles’ (Altglas Forthcoming).

In this interview with Chris, Altglas – the author of the recent OUP monograph From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage – discusses this complex genealogy, tracing a movement from forms of cultural warfare to ‘playful, postmodern bricoleurs’ – what many might be tempted to dub ‘pick and mix spirituality’. However, as Altglas goes on to demonstrate, with a particular empirical focus upon Hindu-based Yoga centres and the Kabbalah centre, far from a carefree process of shopping at the ‘spiritual supermarket’, ‘the original meanings and otherness of elements used in this religious bricolage matter, and in fact limits, the popularization of “exotic” religions’ (Forthcoming).

IMG_20141112_114757This broad-ranging interview provides a fascinating overview of an important concept that is not only relevant for the study of contemporary ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’, but also speaks to cultural appropriation and construction in general, utilizing a number of stimulating contextual examples along the way. Chris enjoyed the interview so much, he immediately went out and bout Véronique’s book… and he suggests you do too!

This interview was recorded at the European Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference in Belfast in September 2014. You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

Picture-41

Thanks to Culture on the Edge for posting this passage. http://edge.ua.edu/monica-miller/the-myth-of-origins/

References

  • Forthcoming 2015. ‘Bricolage’: Reclaiming a Conceptual Tool. Culture & Religion. 2015. 4.

Prayer, Pretense, and Personification: How God becomes real

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

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

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

group_prayer

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

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

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

Citations

Podcasts

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Disenchanting India

This week, Ella Bock tells us why she thinks you should re-listen to our interview with Johannes Quack on Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Non-religion: “A great listen for better understanding the boundary between religion and non-religion, especially outside of a western context!”

Why do we believe? Evolution, Primates, and the Human Niche

“Humans can see the world around them, imagine how it might be different, and translate those imaginings into reality…or at least try to. Humans believe. Meaning, imagination, and hope are as central to the human story as are bones, genes, and ecologies. Neither selfish aggression nor peaceful altruism dominates human behavior as a whole. We are a species distinguished by our extraordinary capacity for creative cooperation, our ability to imagine possibilities and to make them material, and our powerful aptitudes for belief, hope, and cruelty.” So begins the abstract for Agustín Fuentes’ 2018 Gifford Lecture series at the University of Edinburgh on the topic “Why We Believe: evolution, making meaning, and the development of human natures.”

In this wide-ranging interview, Chris and Professor Fuentes discuss the themes of the lecture series, the intersections of research on human evolution, ethnoprimatology, and human nature, with the study of religion more generally, the Planet of the Apes films, and more. Along the way, important distinctions are made between specific “beliefs”, “belief systems” and the human “capacity to believe”, and we ask some important questions about the future.

All six lectures in the series were filmed, and are available by clicking here.

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, Wu-Tang CD’s, old copies of “Dunston checks In,” and more.

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

Why Do We Believe? Evolution, Primates and the Human Niche

Podcast with Agustin Fuentes (23 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Fuentes – Why Do We Believe 1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): “Humans can see the world around them, imagine how it might be different, and translate those imaginings into reality – or at least try to. Humans believe. Meaning, imagination and hope are as central to the human story as our bones, genes and ecologies. Neither selfish aggression nor peaceful altruism dominates human behaviour as a whole. We are a species distinguished by our extraordinary capacity for creative co-operation, our ability to imagine possibilities and to make them material, and our powerful aptitudes for belief, hope and cruelty.” So begins the abstract of the 2018 Gifford Lecture Series, at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic: “Why We Believe: Evolution, Meaning-Making and the Development of Human Natures”. And I’m joined today by the deliverer of those lectures, Professor Agustin Fuentes, who is the Edmund P Joyce, CSC, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. His research delves into the how-and-why of being human, ranging from chasing monkeys in jungles and cities to exploring the lives of our evolutionary ancestors, to examining what people actually do across the globe. Professor Fuentes is interested in both the big questions and the small details of what makes humans, and our closest relatives, tick. And his recent books include: Evolution of Human Behaviour; Race, Monogamy and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature; and The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional. So first off: Professor Fuentes, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Agustin Fuentes (AF): I’m very glad to be here.

CC: And you’ve been getting all of the weather in Edinburgh. It’s sunny at the moment, but when we recorded last week we were snowed in. So you’ve had all of that. In fact one of the lectures was cancelled and then rescheduled, so I missed it! So if you can fill me in on that one . . . .

AF: It’ll be on-line soon I think, with the video. So . . . .

CC: Exactly. And we’ll link in this podcast to that page when it goes out. So all the lectures – everyone who’s listening – you can hear and watch the full six lectures of the series. When I pitched this interview to you, I said, “The combination of your expertise in human evolution, ethno-primatology and human nature, and the interaction between that and the study of religion more generally, would make for an excellent and important interview.”

AF: (Laughs).

CC: So, now we’re going to have to live up to that!

AF: Ah. Well, humans love a challenge!

CC: Exactly. But, first of all, if you just tell me a little bit about who you are. I mean, I’ve done your academic, sort-of CV there. But, who you are; how did you get interested in these questions of belief; and, as an ethno-primatologist, what do you do all day?!

AF: So this is a great opportunity to plug Anthropology. In North America, unlike here in Europe, Anthropology is a rubric – a label that covers a much broader area of expertise. So, for example, my two undergraduate degrees are in Zoology and Anthropology. And while that may sound strange to many, it’s quite a logical trajectory for a kind of North American Anthropology that seeks to think through the behaviour, the culture and the history of humanity, and combine that with an understanding of the physiology of the body that embodies an ecology. And so connecting those two things together is sort-of the underlying . . . my joie de vivre, in an academic sense. And because I’m interested in the human, I’m also interested in other primates. Humans are primates, or part of the world in that way. And so, to really contextualise what is distinctive and fascinating about humanity, I need to understand where humans sit in relation to not just their closest cousins but to the broader landscapes. And so that training . . . this is what I bring to bear on understanding human distinctiveness, in context, and by comparison with others.

CC: And I’m imagining a situation like, I don’t know, James Franco in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, sitting around your resident ape!

AF: (Laughs). Yes. I think it’s really important to point out, first of all, that the original Planet of the Apes movies are fantastic because they have subtext, and they are situated in the political moment. These recent remakes are just not very good.

CC: But that’s by the by!

AF: But what does one do when doing primate studies? One watches the primates. One tries to get inside into their day to day interactions, their relationships, and the massive social complexity of their day to day lives. And that, actually, informs us a lot about what we, as humans, have as our base. If we understand what primates are, we don’t need to understand why humans are so social, why relationships are so central to our being. That’s because we’re primates. However, we are particularly distinctive. We are the strangest of all the primates. And therein lies the really interesting question about humanity: how do we differ from everything else? (5:00) So, watching primates is a very good training for, I think, scholarly endeavours. Because it usually means spending hours, after hours, after hours, piling on more hours of sitting watching other organisms. And most organisms, unlike humans, actually relax most of the time. So, a lot of the time they’re really not doing that much. So, it takes a lot of perseverance to do fieldwork.

CC: Yes. And I guess you get a lot of thinking time in there as well.

AF: Yes.

CC: So you said, there, about primates and humans being distinctive. Maybe that’s a nice way to weave in . . . ?

AF: Yes. So I think there’s something really important here, and this is critical. I’m an evolutionary scientist and I’m interested in the broad . . . the long durée of human history, and that’s millions and millions of years. When thinking about evolutionary processes, people tend to take one of two sides. Either the “continuity” emphasis, which is very hip right now. Everyone wants to place humans as connected to everything else, which we are, absolutely. That is a fact. However, interesting stories in evolution are not just about connectedness but also about discontinuities. Because evolution is about branching and changing. So we have common ancestors, but then we diverge. And each lineage changes unto itself in particular, distinctive and important ways. And so when I ask questions about the human, I’m very interested in knowing what our baseline line is – by looking at other primates – but much more interested in those distinctive changes that occur across our specific lineage and how that influences what we can know, and think, about the human. And so that’s the distinctive aspect. But you have to understand the continuities to be able to really talk about the distinctions.

CC: And, well, you call that in your lecture series, “the human niche – this element of the human niche. And then that’s connected to this broader question of why we believe. Perhaps that’s a good way for us to go? If you could tell us, what is this human niche, and how has it developed, and maybe some its key characteristics?

AF: So, what’s really incredible is to think in an evolutionary way, to also think in an ecological way, and also a deeply philosophical way. So Jakob von Uexküll, the philosopher and biologist, provided us with the conceptualisation the umwelt: the lifeworld of an organism. Each organism is distinctive in the way in which they are in the world. And so understanding us, humans, in our umwelt – in our contemporary context – is to think through our niche. Niches are these complex ecological, behavioural, historical ways in which we are in the world. So the human niche – the one I’m most interested in – has developed over the last two million years, over the evolution of our genus: the genus Homo. We are, today, Homo sapiens. So the evolutionary trajectory, over the last two million years of our particular lineage, involves changes in bodies, behaviour, genes, neurobiologies and ecologies. And observing the material remains in the physical, in the bones and the materials left behind over time, allows us to attempt to reconstruct the patterns and processes of the development of the human niche. Today, our niche is this unbelievably complicated reality that is challenging and enticing to study. But to really think about contemporary humanity, from my perspective, one should examine the ways in which the niche has changed over time – the bits and pieces. So, for example, the critical extension of the human childhood. The fact that we are born with less than 40% of our brain developed. That is absolutely unique for all mammals. So our brain growth is very, very extended and very plastic and thus the teaching, the social, the nurturing, the inculcating in becoming human is a central part of our niche – much more so than any other animal. So from the very first breath we take, the social, the interaction, the communal is central in the physical, and the experiential, and the perceptual.

CC: Exactly. And in maybe your third lecture you were talking about even things like storage – the development of storage, and how that has affected things. I would never have thought of that in terms of being a major evolutionary . . . .

AF: I think people underplay what evolutionary processes are. Everyone tends to think of: there’s a large thing trying to eat you, and if you’re not eaten and you successfully produce offspring, then you win. It’s actually a lot more complicated than that. Evolutionary process is all of the dynamics that go into long-term change across bodies, behaviours, genomes and ecologies. And so understanding those dynamics is critical. And in humans it’s not just about the localised ecologies or behaviours, it’s also about the ways in which we’ve reshaped our world. Humans are the only species . . . well, not the only species, but a species that has a major hand in creating its own ecologies that then feed back and create us. (10:00) And so we bring up storage, or things of domestication: storage, the alteration of environments. Here we are sitting in a beautiful room, surrounded by history, and a bunch of wood and cement and metal and electrical light. All of those things are part and parcel of the construction of the human niche. And so by looking backward we can identify storage, particular patterns of stone tool use, early technologies, the move to bronze and metals. All of these things have had huge influences on how humans interface in the world, which then feeds back on how we perceive and experience the world.

CC: Wonderful. So that brings us, I think . . . we’re already getting on in time, so we need to get to this notion of belief, and then how this relates to everything. So belief, in Religious Studies – well, in everything – is a contested term. How are you understanding belief, first of all?

AF: So this is really important, because I want to be absolutely clear. I believe . . .

CC: Right.

AF: . . . that belief, in the way I’m structuring it and deploying it here, is the human capacity to imagine, to be creative, to hope and dream, to infuse the world with meanings, and to cast our aspirations far and wide. It’s a commitment, an investment, a devotion to possibilities. So belief is a human capacity that has emerged over our evolutionary histories to take our cognitive, social, communal, historical and logical processes; to include what we can call “detached representation” or off-line thinking – the imaginary; to combine those, such that the imaginary – even the transcendent – can become part of the physical, the perceptual, the material in our niche. Using belief that way, it is not only about religious engagement. It is a capacity of the human. And I use the argument that belief is not some emerging thing in the mind, floating above our heads. Belief is like the fingers on our hand. It is a part and parcel of the human system that has been modified over evolutionary history and that it is critical in our interface with the world and with each other.

CC: OK. I’ll want to push on that towards the end, but that will be a final question that our listeners would not forgive me for not asking. So with that in mind, then: how did we develop this? Where did this come from, and why?

AF: So early on . . . . We can talk about many other – let’s just use other primates, or cetaceans – very complex social mammals, have this incredible deep social reality. And part of their making it their world, their umwelt, their niche, is about social engagement and the social relationship. So that’s a baseline for humans. Humans take that one step further by invoking the capacity for a particular kind of imaginary. That is, we can see in items the possibilities of other items: we can take a stone and see inside that stone is a stone tool. We can see relationships and imagine how they could be, even though they’re not that way at the moment. So this perceptual capacity enables us to do what we call “cognitive and behavioural prospecting”: to imagine into the future the way the world could be, the way that we might want it to be, and attempt to make that a material reality. And that, over evolutionary history, we see in the material remains: ramping up more and more – not just making tools that are functional so that we can live, but creating items of meaning and using those items of meaning to feedback, to create and ramp up the complex cumulative cultural changes that have happened over our histories. So meaning-making is a central outcome of the capacity for belief.

CC: Yes. You were commenting on the structures that have clearly taken generations upon generations to be built, and don’t seem to serve any obvious function, and things like that . . . .

AF: I think that’s really important, because we say they don’t seem . . . . That’s the sort-of functional talk: this reductive notion of, “Everything must . . . if it doesn’t serve a function, it must be magic or ritual.” And what I’d like to do is sort-of push against that, very directly, by saying, “No, this is part of the human experience.” These things that we see are not for making food, or for housing humans or some clear obvious function. We don’t need to be reductive about the human experience. Because the human experience denies a total reduction; it’s always more than the sum of its parts. And so if we acknowledge that that capacity – these multigenerational building projects that mean something to those populations, that have impact not just on the perception but on their bodies, and their lives, and how they see and experience the world – that is important. It just is not reduced to the material elements or some specific function.

CC: Exactly. And we’ve got . . . “We” – in quotation marks – have an awful tendency, if we’re looking at other cultures or things in the past, to go, “Oh there’s a symbol. That must be their religion, it must be ritual.” (15:00) Whereas here, you know, outside there’ll be the Scottish Flag, the Saltire, the St Andrews Cross: no-one goes, “Oh, that’s a religious symbol!” But we have a tendency, when looking at the past . . . .

AF: And here it’s very, very important. And I make a very explicit argument differentiating belief – the capacity to be religious – and religion. I think, for me, it’s very important. There’s many, many scholarly intellectual arguments that could push against this in valid ways, but in an evolutionary sense you must make this distinction. So I invoke Clifford Geertz, when I talk about the capacity to be religious, defining religious as: “the use of one’s capacity for belief in the context of becoming, with particular perceptual, experiential and agential practices involving the transcendent, that act to establish powerful, persuasive and long lasting moods and motivations that may be, but are not necessarily tied to specific formal doctrines, practices, texts and institutions.” And in that way it is inherent, as a part of the process of our capacity for belief, that humans have a capacity to be religious. And I think anyone worth their salt, looking at our history, says humans have been and are religious. Religions, however, I have to separate off in my engagement with the long durée of human evolutionary history, because contemporary religion is defined as follows: “the formal coalition of religious beliefs and practices and materials, symbols and structural institutions that unite them into a single community via specific theological doctrine and ritual.” And that’s borrowing from Durkheim. The reason I do that is because our contemporary religions as institutions have histories, have texts, have theologies – but those do not have very deep roots, from my perspective.

CC: Exactly.

AF: That is, they don’t go back . . . we can’t find anything that really connects them clearly, materially, more than 6-8000 years ago. That means, what do I do with the other two million years? And so, for me, there is clear evidence of meaning-making and absolute commitment to an importance of the transcendent experience in the human, well before 6-8000 years ago. For me, I see this as the capacity to be religious; as an openness to possibilities that has, in our current times, formalised in particular institutional and theological practices.

CC: Exactly. And there’re, I can jump in and go: “Well, Whoah!” You asked the question, why we believe. You could also ask the question: why do we not believe? There are plenty around who would probably bristle at you saying “I’m a believer.” (Laughs).

AF: So I think that’s great. People should bristle because they’re ignorant. When I say belief – and here I don’t mean to be insulting – but I think it’s very important to point out that what I’m talking about is not the human association with particular institution, or history, or even a particular theology, or philosophy. What I’m talking about is the human capacity to be with, to experience awe, to have the transcendent perceptions influence the way in which we are in life. All humans have that capacity. How we choose to engage with it, how we choose to deploy it, and what histories and structures we enable to come forth from that I think that’s a very good question. The problem today is we’re in this mode, this contemporary moment, where the politics of aggression between different patterns and traditions of faith and practice have incredible salience. So the New Atheists, for example, would argue that all religion is delusion. To that I respond, “So, 83% – let’s say 6.2 billion human beings are idiots?” No. 6.2 billion human beings are doing what humans do, and participating in an incredible opportunity to deploy their capacity to be religious alongside particular institutions, theologies and faith traditions. Other humans who do not belong to those faith traditions are actually believing in different ways.

CC: Exactly.

AF: Everyone has this capacity. And so I think the argument, stemming from ignorance, that we should be envisioning the human as without access to the transcendent – or to that broader experience – is dangerous, because it cuts us off from what we know has been one of the keys to our success in the past.

CC: Exactly. And the danger, then, with this sort of talk, can be that we lose that we’re talking about a capacity. We’re not saying whether there is a transcendent. But sometimes people . . . I imagine lot of people, even listening to your lectures, will be sitting there going, “This proves that God is real!” And things like that.

AF: Well this is the wonderful thing that, again, stems from this really interesting jumping to conclusions and not thinking things through. (20:00) You cannot prove faith. That is the point of it. Faith is felt and is real. That’s the entire reason it works. It is real. And so whatever the faith practices that you engage in, if they’re not real for you, if you have to find some sort of mathematical equation, then I have to ask, what is it that you’re seeking? And it might be something else. So I think these are great debates to have. I think they’re very important. And I think we have to distinguish institutional religion from the capacity to be religious or from what most people do day in and day out. Because religious institutions – like political institutions and economical institutions – have histories, and histories that are often fraught with really complex and problematic realities. But that doesn’t mean they’re static and they don’t change. And we know today, making a difference in the world without participating with religions is going to be impossible.

CC: Absolutely. And yes, it belies this myth of the division between the religious and the secular, that there is . . . . You mention the New Atheists. So, they talk as if they’re completely 100% empirical and rational all of the time, and they have no – quote – “faith commitments” – unquote. And they don’t do anything based on tradition or intuition or emotion.

AF: And to be honest with you, that’s an extreme version and only a few are like that. The vast majority of people are not, and they recognise that if you make such a dogmatic assertion, you are in fact demonstrating faith. That’s exactly the point. You are demonstrating a belief system. And I think that’s something that just needs to be recognised. And let’s go back to what you said about that religious versus secular realities. Most of the world, even today, does not have that division. And until very recently that division did not exist. People are in the world and the experience of awe, the potential for transcendence are part of their daily lives. We now divide it politically: this notion that there’s faith traditions and then there’s the rest of your life. And that’s just a very strange way to be human – and quite atypical, even today.

CC: Exactly. So I mentioned earlier I was going to push you on the notion of belief. So you’ve got this very nuanced, non-theological definition that you use, but I imagine that many people coming to your work bring with them a sort-of folk understanding of the term belief, which is quite – quote – “protestant” – unquote.

AF: (Laughs).

CC: So why use that word? Is there a danger that the work that you’re doing is sort-of tainted by association with the word?

AF: Yes. I mean there is that danger, but I think it’s a risk that’s worth taking. Because I think belief is powerful. You could say, “Why don’t you just stick with imagination?” Well, imagination isn’t the whole picture, it’s a component of belief. “Well, why don’t you just stick with humans’ capacity to have detached mental representation?” Like, well that’s one tool, one process, within this larger system of belief. And I think it’s actually very important that we recognise that belief is a human capacity, as I’ve outlined here, that is deployed in many different instances. Now, I think it resonates particularly well with many theological and philosophical engagements, because philosophers and particularly theologians have been asking about belief; that’s their forte, they’re interested in that area. Whereas other people, say economists, pretend they’re not talking about belief.

CC: Exactly.

AF: And I think that’s the danger: the idea that economic systems or political systems reflect reality, not belief systems, is a threat to the potential for humans to navigate those.

CC: And you’ve just hit on . . . in my postdoctoral project I’ve used the word “unbelief” in the title. So I’m interested in all those people who want to distance themselves from, I’ll say, “religion”. But the word unbelief – it’s nicely slippery, in that it covers so much. Whereas I’d previously used “non-religion” – but then you’re into a binary, and it’s “versus” all the time.

AF: I love unbelief. I think that’s fantastic. And I’m going to place it with my – with acknowledgement to use this – and place it with another one of my favourite phrases which is “incurious”. (25:00) So I think using unbelief is critical, because that’s a political act, right, to say “I am not participating in belief; I am doing this; mine is realty, yours is not”? That’s a political statement. Anyone who tells you humans are rational and reasonable, when they get rid of the capacity for this perceptual experience of the more-than-the-material, is wrong. And they’re trying to sell you something. They know, as human beings, what they can experience and have experienced. And so when they argue that, “No this is the rational reality, versus your reality”, they’re trying to sell you their goods.

CC: Exactly. So we’re coming up on time. Your final lecture is tonight, so I haven’t heard that yet. So what’s your big conclusion going to be . . . your big admonition? Give us a taste!

AF: Well, I facetiously titled it, “Can Belief Matter?” And everyone knows the answer is, “Yes!” But what I really mean – and I will go into more detail – is: can we make belief truly matter in the 21st century, when we are on the precipice of so many catastrophic issues for not just humans, but the whole planet? How do we, then, engage the scientific, the religious, the political, the economic, in dialogue so that we can do what so many of us want – and that is to move forward on the planet in ways that are sustainable, as equitable as possible, compassionate and caring in spite of all the problems? We’re not going to get rid of inequality, and warfare, and horrors, but we can probably manage them more effectively than we are now. And I would like to suggest – and I think many philosophers and theologians have been saying this for quite some time – that it is through belief, through the patterns and processes of diverse belief systems and the individual ability to believe, to commit, to hope, to imagine, that we have a better chance. And if we ignore that, and we try to trust in just particular political or economic systems to push forward, or our creativity and our ingenuity – and it’s gotten us out of problems before it’ll work in the future – I cannot see that is turning out well.

CC: Fantastic. And one of the pervasive and problematic discourses that one hears in the UK context, and I’m sure in the States and elsewhere, is that it’s not polite to talk about . . . well it’s sex, religion and politics.

AF: If we don’t talk about sex, religion, politics and race, we are doomed!

CC: Exactly! And that is how ideologies get stuck.

AF: Absolutely! The power of ideologies are when they go truly unchallenged.

CC: Exactly! And hopefully this interview has helped spark some conversations and some ideas. As I’ve said, Listeners, you can check out the full series, and there’s a link in the podcast page, or just by searching for Adam Gifford Lectures 2018, or for Agustin Fuentes. It’s been a pleasure speaking to you.

AF: Oh, this has been a great discussion! Thank you so much for having me.

CC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Fuentes, Agustin and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Why Do We Believe? Evolution, Primates and the Human Niche”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 23 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/why-do-we-believe-evolution-primates-and-the-human-niche/

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.

Autism, Religion, and Imagination

Due to their atypical thinking styles, individuals on the autism spectrum represent a unique population of study in the cognitive and psychological sciences of religion. Because religious cognition stems from normal social-cognitive capacities, which are altered for individuals on the spectrum, researchers also expect variation in how they think about supernatural agents. In her interview with Thomas J. Coleman III for the Religious Studies Project, PhD student Ingela Visuri, from Sodertorn and Gavle Universities in Sweden, discusses the findings of her research with adolescents on the spectrum, which challenges and informs past theorization in the scientific study of religion and nonreligion.

 

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Autism, Religion and Imagination

Podcast with Ingela Visuri (5 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas J. Coleman III

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Visuri_-_Autism,_Religion_and_Imagination_1.1

 

Thomas Coleman (TC): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. My name is Thomas Coleman and today I have the pleasure of speaking with a doctoral student at Södertörn and Gavle Universities, Miss Ingela Visuri, who is conducting some fascinating multi-method research, which I suspect is going to change the way Cognitive Science of Religion conceptualises the relationship between individuals on the autism spectrum and belief, or lack thereof, in supernatural agents. Ingela, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Ingela Visuri (IV): Thanks Tommy, I’m so happy to be here.

TC: Good. I was hoping you could start by telling us, briefly, about how your research began and then we will jump straight into some general questions, and end with a more detailed account of your current research.

IV: Right. So I was always very interested in empathy and role-taking while I was at university doing my basic courses. And after graduating I started working in schools, teaching religious education which is a non-confessional subject here in Sweden. And by coincidence I was recruited to this special educational department with pupils who are on the autism spectrum. And at that time it was just called Asperger’s syndrome, which is high functioning autism. And I had a pupil there at this department who was a member of a Pentecostal congregation. He used to ask me questions about glossolalia and he didn’t really understand why he didn’t speak in tongues. And also, he had had teachers who were religious and they had told him that God used to speak to them, and told him a lot of different things. So one day this pupil said, “You know, sometimes I think that God might be talking to everyone else but me.” And, for me, this was the moment when my research actually began. Because I immediately came to think of theories about how people use their empathy to communicate with invisible agents. And this was before I was acquainted with the Cognitive Science of Religion. But already in the fifties, in Social Psychology, there were such discussions which I knew about. So I decided first to write a Master’s thesis trying to explore how individuals who do have autism, but also have religion or spirituality in their lives, how does communication work for them with theses invisible agents? And this was how I slipped into the Cognitive field, discovering that there were a lot of interesting theories that could be useful.

TC: Very cool. So you have mentioned specifically the autism spectrum, or I think we’ll call it the autism spectrum continuum. What is that, for listeners? I wondered if you could give us a brief description.

IV: I would say that autism is a different type of cognition, and it’s really a collection of symptoms. So, for instance, there are difficulties in the intuitive understanding of social communication and there’s also unusual sensory processing in individuals with autism. Just to exemplify, people who don’t have autism are typically unaware of automatically responding to social cues that are really subtle, such as reading facial expressions, or interpreting the intonation when speaking to people, or drawing information from body language. But for autistic people this doesn’t happen intuitively or automatically. And I think it’s important to understand that people who are high functioning and autistic, they are able to compensate by using their intelligence and verbal ability. So they may learn how to do it, but it takes a lot of effort because these responses are not automated.

TC: So, just summarising here – if I understand correctly – that individuals on the spectrum aren’t lacking cognitions per se, but they go about thinking about the world – and particularly other people – in a little bit different way than we neuro-typicals might . . . your average person.

IV: Exactly. And I also think it’s important . . . in autism studies there’s an ongoing debate on the role of sensory perception (5:00). And I think this has been very much overlooked in the Cognitive Science of Religion when we’re discussing autism. And so, for instance, autistic people might be hypo- or hyper-sensitive to different social input and this differs a lot between people. And it also differs between senses; it can fluctuate. And there also seems to be difficulties in the synchronisation of multi-modal input. And I think this is also crucial when we’re trying to understand how autistic people experience the world.

TC: An example of multimodal input would be, like, listening to someone and watching them as they’re speaking as well. Just to give some examples.

IV: Exactly. So watching a movie, for instance, would be a multimodal experience, while reading a book is a unimodal experience.

TC: Now why have Cognitive Scientists of Religion been interested in individuals on the spectrum?

IV: Well, cognitive researchers who depart from what is called the “naturalness hypothesis of religion”, they have expected that social abilities such as mind reading or theory of mind – as it’s also called at times – that this is what underpins belief in superhuman agents. So to figure out what gods or ghosts or ancestors want, you need to sort-of think of their mind in a similar way as when you’re thinking about agency in any person, right? But with autism there’s a case of mind reading difficulties. And number of scholars had expected that autistic people may not be able to mentalise or believe in invisible agents. But for me it was a little bit different, because I had this teaching experience. And I couldn’t really see any difference in my different classrooms – because I was teaching autistic pupils certain days and non-autistic pupils on other days. And I couldn’t really see any difference between how many religious or spiritual pupils there would be in these groups, or how many were, you know, really disinterested or atheistically oriented. So what I did was, I decided to turn the question around. And I wanted to explore how individuals who do experience differences in social communication, why do they still engage in invisible relations? Right? Why do they keep on reading invisible minds if mind reading would be so difficult for them? Right?

TC: Right.

IV: So this was a starting point for the PhD thesis that I’m now working on.

TC: Fascinating. So you had some suspicions that, maybe, the current the state of the field in CSR, as it related to the autism spectrum, might be incomplete. And I was hoping, I guess, that we could get into how some of your research perhaps challenges and informs some of this past theory. And, I guess we’ll add, there hasn’t been much work done on individuals on the spectrum within the cognitive science of religion.

IV: Right. And the previous research has been quantitative, and hypotheses that people are testing on large groups. But I decided to design an explorative study using mixed methods. And I’m also aiming to work a bit like an anthropologist, because I think that all new fields of research – we need this phase before we move onto testing hypotheses, right? We need to explore the field. And what I’m doing, I’m using my participants as experts, because I’m not autistic, right? So I can never experience the world form an autistic perspective. So I need them to help me get insights into what’s happening. So, for instance, I let them prepare their own interviews. This is to minimise my own impact on the material. And also, when I’m formulating my own hypotheses I discuss – with both my participants and also other people that I know that are on the spectrum – if they think that this makes sense to them. Because if it doesn’t make sense to them, then it’s probably not right.

TC: Right

IV: And my finding so far is that, my participants in this study, they do really think of their preferred superhuman agents in relational terms. So there seems to be a lot of mind reading going on in thinking why these agents cause certain things to happen, or what these agents think of one’s behaviour, like (10:00): “Is this a good thing to do, or is it a bad thing to do?” And you would feel what God wants, for instance.

TC: So I was hoping you could also maybe discuss some of the narratives that some of your participants have shared with you, and how do they relate or contrast with the previous theory?

IV: Well, for instance, I have an example from my participant who calls himself John. And he calls himself a spiritual Christian. And when I asked him if there was a specific starting point for his current view of life he told me – this a quote from the interview: “I think it has developed because I . . . . It kind-of happened a couple of times, that if I did something that felt morally right or something, I felt like I got quite happy, and I got energised, and it kind-of felt like the world was more with me. It’s like something agreed with what I did and said, ‘That’s good,’ and gave me pat on the shoulder and kind-of: ‘You did something right.’ And that, I think, developed into me doing something according to God.” And I think this is also an interesting example, because it begins with an emotion, an experience, and that developed into what he perceives to be God.

TC: Fascinating. So how, then, does some of this research perhaps pose new questions for the field to follow up on, with more anthropological, ethnographic research as well as quantitative and perhaps experimental?

IV: Well, I think to begin with I would like to challenge this previous supposition that we need intuitive mentalising skills for interpreting superhuman agents. And I actually think that when autistic people get rid of bodies it helps mentalising. Because you have both the automated, quick responses and then you have the slower, more reflective responses. And despite lacking the intuitive responses they use their reflective mentalising skills to think of what these agents want. And it helps that they don’t have any facial expressions, they don’t have any body language, they don’t need to interpret any intonation. And there’s also an emotional coherence in invisible agents that you don’t get in ordinary people.

TC: How so?

IV: Well, people who are non-autistic, we are quite good at hiding our emotions.

TC: I have to disagree. No, just kidding. Of course, of course! (Laughs)

IV: (Laughs) If you spend time with autistic people you’ll notice that they are very straightforward and they tell you what’s going on. Which also gets them into trouble because we’re not expected to be that straightforward. We’re expected to be, you know, lying a little bit here and there. But these kind of lies in terms of body language are really confusing for autistic people. So if I’m really annoyed with you, for instance, I still want you to like me so I’m trying to hide that I’m annoyed and trying to behave . . .

TC: Is that what’s going on here? (Laughs) No, just kidding.

IV: No, Tommy! But for autistic people they able to feel what other people feel, but it’s difficult to understand what other people are thinking. So this discrepancy between emotional and cognitive input is really confusing. This is also something you get rid of in superhuman agents that are bodiless.

TC: So is it almost a limiting of distractions: that bodiless agents perhaps make it easier – I think you’re suggesting – to interact with?

IV: Exactly. I think. And I’m not suggesting that autistic people would be more or less religious. That’s not my point. But what my study shows is that people who have both autism and religion or spirituality in their lives, for them it seems to be easier to think of a mind when you don’t have any bodies. That messes up communication (15:00). And it’s pretty much the same if you’re communicating with a friend over the internet. It’s easier because you don’t have a body, right? And also, because you have a lot of time to think about what the other person means and you also have time to formulate a proper response. You don’t get that in real life interaction, because it’s quite fast and quick, because we’re expecting people to have these intuitive skills.

TC: And many people on the spectrum actually prefer kind-of remote or internet-type communication, is that correct?

IV: Yes. That’s correct.

IV: I guess precisely because it’s lacking in some of the more embodied features that we use, on an everyday basis, to understand other people.

IV: Exactly. And I was actually asking – this is an example of my anthropological method, if you would call it that – I was hanging out on a sofa one day in one of these schools – because I’ve been spending a lot time with my participants and other pupils in their schools – and I notice that autistic people generally, in Sweden, they’re really good at speaking English. And I asked a group of pupils, “How come the autistic people seem to be so much better at speaking English?” And one guy, he said that, “For us it’s so much easier to interact with people online, and therefore we become gamers. And gamers interact in English. And that’s why we become better.” Right?

TC: Now, how does this open up perhaps some new directions for researching religion and non-religion in neuro-typicals? Because, as I understand it, your work primarily concerns individuals on the spectrum but it also, of course, has implications for people who are not on the spectrum.

IV: Yes. So first, when it comes to mentalising, cognitive research on mentalising, I think it’s important to think of that as a complex construct. It’s like a toolbox with different instruments that we can use in different manners. So first we have this difference between fast and intuitive processes, that I’ve been talking a lot about, and the slow and reflective processing. And then there is also the difference between emotional and cognitive empathy. So we sort-of have to elaborate with all these different mentalising aspects.

TC: Could I ask for an example between cognitive and more emotional empathy for our listeners? How are the two different?

IV: Yes. The emotional empathy is feeling what other people are feeling. So, for instance, if someone is sad you would become affected by that sadness, right? But the cognitive empathy is more in the head, so to speak. So for instance, if you’re nodding you would know that someone is still listening to you or you know you just get these little cues. Or someone’s frowning, for instance, then you can interpret that this is an emotional response going on. But it’s more in the cognitive level.

TC: Alright. And so then, how does this distinction relate to individuals on the spectrum and off the spectrum and belief in supernatural agents?

IV: Well I think . . . and my point is that this is for both autistic and non-autistic individuals. I think that we need to acknowledge that people use reflected thinking a lot more than has been expected in the Cognitive Science of Religion. For instance, non-autistic people might have intuitions about supernatural agency, but if you’re living in Sweden, for instance, it’s not the norm to be religious. We have a rather secular norm, so that means that you might discard your intuitions and search for another explanation. But also, in autistic people, I don’t really see that it should affect them so much that these intuitive responses are not there. Because they use these slow processes instead.

TC: So they’re not lacking the intuiting, certainly, but perhaps they’re a little bit different. And therefore they rely more on reflective-type thinking. As I understand, you’ve also crept into some interesting avenues with your research having to do with fantasy. I think you touched on imagination earlier. I was wondering if you could further elucidate how those might play into religiosity or non-religiosity, for those individuals on the spectrum (20:00).

IV: Well something that surprised me in my results was the majority of my autistic participants turned out to be fantasy-prone. And some of these fantasy-prone people, they’re gamers and some of them love fantasy fiction. But what’s common for all of them is that they switch between different realities. So they have their empirical reality which is quite fragmented and difficult and exhausting. And then they create their own imaginary realities which they switch into. And I suspect this is a kind of coping mechanism. So they create – with the help of their imagination – really interesting worlds that they fill with characters that might be influenced from religion and spirituality, but also fantasy fiction and popular culture. It could even be artists, you know, pop stars for instance. And they have these worlds, and they interact with all these characters in a sense that reminds me a lot about how cognitive research describes interaction with superhuman agents.

TC: Really? Ok.

IV: So I think this is something that we need to look into. That if mentalising is used, and it’s a non-human agent, I think that’s equivalent to the study of gods and spirits and ancestors, which is more traditional. And I also think this is relevant for younger generations. This is something really interesting to look into.

TC: I know on the Religious Studies Project we usually pride ourselves in challenging traditional conceptualisations of the category of religion. And of course, supernatural agents as well. And what I’m hearing is that some of your work does just that, as well as, perhaps, the Cognitive Science of Religion in general. And I think we can certainly expect it to open up some exciting new avenues for religious agents as they are traditionally understood: perhaps, maybe, the magic of Harry Potter; or massive multi-player online gaming; and all these other types of fantastical imaginative agents that people seem to engage with on a daily basis, but perhaps don’t think of as religious or spiritual.

IV: I totally agree with you and, for instance, one of my participants who describes himself as a Christian, he also says that he’s totally into Harry Potter. And until he was 14 years old, he literally believed that there were unicorns. And now that he’s older he says that, “Well, I don’t believe in them in the ontological sense any more, but they’re still with me and I fantasise a lot about them. And when I’m fantasising it becomes real for me.” And I think this is also something that we risk missing out on, if we don’t do these explorative studies, if we just hold onto scales and questionnaires that have always been used. Because many of my participants might describe themselves . . . well, you know. It’s not that they believe in God and they don’t go to Church, but they still experience a lot of interesting things that they interpret: it’s spirits; or ghosts; or demons; or then you have these fictional characters, as well, that they interact with on a daily basis.

TC: And it seems like an even further challenge to the notion of belief: what it means to believe, or whether belief is important – as we often think it is – if there are all these various other imaginative fantasy religious agents that perhaps people wouldn’t say that they believe in per se, but interact with, engage with perhaps emotionally, in a number of manners. So it’s very interesting. So, just wrapping up here, I was hoping, if you felt we had left anything out of this podcast, or if you had any closing words, or some take-away points for the listeners: anything else you’d like to discuss with us today about your researching the field.

IV: I think I would like to return to your previous comment. I think that when we’re researching belief it’s very easy to end up in these ontological categories (25:00). It’s like a statement: is it true? Is it not? It’s like a number of things that you need to sort-of hold on to or reject. But this is not interesting for the people that I have interviewed. They start from their own experience. And I think the body’s important here: that you feel, you know, that you have a sensed presence of a ghost, for instance. And these sensed presences they turn into some kind of notion of what’s going on in invisible agency. But they don’t depart from, you know, thinking; “Is it true, or is it not, that there are ghosts?” Because it’s not interesting for them, because they experience them. So I think that experience is the really interesting analytical category that we could use a lot more in the Cognitive Science of Religions.

TC: Awesome. I think that’s a good note to end on. Ingela Visuri thank you very much for joining us today on the Religious Studies Project.

IV: Thanks Tommy.

TC: I want to remind our listeners, be sure to check out some of the previous podcasts that are closely related to today’s topics. I’ll include some links in the description, such as interviews with Dr Will Gervais, on God’s Mind, Your Mind, and Theory of Mind, and also with Dr Stuart Guthrie on Religion as Anthropomorphism. So thank you all for listening.

Citation Info: Visuri, Ingela, and Thomas J. Coleman III. 2018. “Autism, Religion and Imagination”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 31 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/autism-religion-and-imagination/

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.

Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes

In this interview, recorded at the SocRel 2017 Annual Conference, Professor James Spickard talks about his latest project. Starting with a critique of North American sociology’s approach to religion, Spickard emphasises how our concepts of religion are historically grounded, arising from a particular time and place. How can we remedy this, and how can we look at our own concepts more critically and reflexively? Spickard presents three examples of how religion might be understood differently – from the point of view of Confucianism, Navajo religion, and the work of Arab scholar Ibn Khaldoun – and shows how these different approaches can alter our perspectives. What can Confucianism show us about North American church congregations? How can the work of Ibn Khaldoun affect our understandings of race and ethnicity? Building on ideas such as Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory, Spickard explores how researchers could begin to move toward a ‘world-conscious sociology of religion’.

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

Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes

Podcast with James V. Spickard  (23 October 2017).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Spickard_-_Alternative_Sociologies_of_Religion-_through_Non-Western_Eyes_1.1

 

Sammy Bishop (SB): Hi, I’m Sammy Bishop. I’m here with the RSP at SocREL 2017. I’m here with Professor James Spickard, from the University of Redlands. So, thank you for joining us today.

James Spickard (JS): It’s a pleasure.

SB: So we’re here to talk abut your newest publication: Alternative Sociologies of Religion:Through Non-Western Eyes. Could you tell us first a little bit about how you came to work on this topic?

JS: Well, every project is complex. And like every other scholar in the world, I’m in the midst of a series of conversations with various folks. Technically, I have a Religious Studies degree, but I’m trained in Anthropology and Sociology. I’m one of those few people who doesn’t make a distinction between them, except historically. So I’m very primed, as a theorist, I’m primed to look and see what the underlying presumptions are of any way of understanding what a particular phenomenon is. And since I’m studying religion and going on the American context, I’ve been reasonably appalled at the kinds of things that the American context can’t seem to understand. The first one of those that came up, during the ‘90s, was the inability of American Sociology of Religion to actually grasp experience in Religious Studies. I did my first fieldwork on one of the Japanese religions where the practitioners do something called (audio unclear). Which, crudely put, involves projecting invisible light out of the palms of peoples hands to clean the clouds off their spiritual bodies. And you can imagine why an anthropologist would be interested in this and I learned all sorts of wonderful anthropological things about it. But – and frankly I don’t much care what [the ritual] was – but it was the thing that attracted everybody. And the discipline of Sociology of Religion said, “Oh no, no, no. That can’t be right. Something else must be going on.” There must be, you know, the deprivation hypothesis or some . . . crap! And so, it wasn’t until a couple of folks did a survey where they asked a bunch of people involved with Asian religions, “Why are you attracted to it ?” And it wasn’t the social life, and it wasn’t connection with other people, and it wasn’t deprivation, it was “Hey, dude. Something happened to us when we were sitting in meditation.” And the discipline had no concepts for dealing with that. So Mary Jo Neitz  and I wrote a couple of articles about that and put together a series of ways of thinking about that. And I ended up working on some pieces based in Navajo religion where you don’t have churches, you don’t have priests. You’ve got myths, you’ve got belief systems, but there aren’t doctrines. But you’ve got these nine day and night ceremonies. And they were categorised as “symbolic”, but they’re not symbolic. I mean, why would you do something as symbolism for nine days and nights? It’s based on the experience, it picks people up from one place and moves them to someplace else. One thing leads to another there. I began working on Confucian ways of seeing what’s sacred in Confucian tradition. I was doing stuff on human rights and on the Confucian notion of human rights – which is a very different notion than in the West – and trying to get at that from the inside, following a series of  contemporary neo-Confucians into this notion of the relation of self. The self is constructed quite differently in Confucianism than it is in the West. And this sacred relationships of . . . . It’s all about relationships. And the sacred inheres in the connections between people and the practice and maintenance of Li, which we call ritual propriety, but it’s . . . . The maintenance of the relationships that create the self and create the social community generates virtue. But virtue isn’t individual, virtue is collective. So, it’s a whole different way of thinking about things. So I get these two things going on, then I got interested in the work of Ibn Khaldoun from the 14th century  who has a way of . . . he thinks about the concept of Asabiyya or group feeling. And it’s a form of social solidarity that is centred, centripetal, it draws things to the centre rather than being boundary oriented. (5:00) But he treats that Asabiyya as something that is generated by kinship, but also by Islam. And so, you know, you’ve got these three things: “What do I do with this stuff?” And it struck me that there was a narrative here. There’s a . . . well, where I end up – and I think the underlying place of this book – is that those are the three examples, but they’re not exhaustive. The argument is that all of our concepts, including Western concepts and Western sociological concepts are historically and culturally grounded. That is, they arise out of a particular time and place. And reading Manuel Vasquez’ article in Religions on the Edge, which is the theme of this conference. Vasquez points out the way in which in sociology’s origins, sociology treated religion as the “other” and so secularisation approaches are built into Sociology from the very beginning. And that was more articulate than I’d been able to get out of it. So, we have a beginning of a narrative. And I had already studied how religion is presented in American Sociology textbooks. And it is all about belief and organisations and morality and its all. . . it’s isolated in its own chapter, just as Sociology of Religion is isolated in the discipline at large. So what was the default view? How was it created? How was it a historical cultural product, that then lets us see certain things really, really well, but not see other things, not see experience, not see relationships, etc? So that’s the opening of the book. And then there’s a chapter where I dive deep – I love writing this stuff because you actually get to dive deeply into things and read everybody in the world. And dive into the Confucian material. And then I take that and I’ve written a chapter where I apply it. And, what would a Confucian sociologist see about American church life? Or church life in Europe? But I’m dealing with the American case here. What would that sociologist see that we don’t normally see? And the Confucian case is probably the most striking, that – despite the patriarchalism of China’s religion and Chinese culture in general – who maintains the sacred relationships that keep the congregation together? It’s women cooking church suppers. They’re doing – or in the Black African American church it’s called “kitchen ministry”, they’ve got a name for it, and it isn’t always women, just women, in African American churches. And in Midwestern Protestantism it is all women. And there’s a long history of church suppers forming the basis of the social church. In San Antonio, on the west side of San Antonio,  which is Latina area, people are in fact nominally Catholic, but people don’t really attend church very often. But there are women who will put on Christmas plays and they will do what they call a promesa, which is: if your nephew gets off drugs or something like that, you promise El Nino Dios that you will do one of these plays and that you will fed the neighbourhood. And the play people, the actors, come and they do the pastoral play, with shepherds and Jesus. And it’s a religious event. But it doesn’t happen in church. And so these women are not counted as religious in American quantitative sociology, they’re just not. We miss all of this richness because we don’t see it. So the relational notion, it wouldn’t necessarily put women at the centre, but it empirically puts them at the centre – which is this lovely irony – and Sociology doesn’t do that. Sociology ignores the role of women by and large. So, you know, then there’s two chapters on Ibn Khaldoun and two chapters on what the Navajo, or what you would do with a Navajo approach. (10:00) And one of them outlines  what the Navajo would do – how Navajo philosophy works and the notion of ritual as creating the original beauty, order its hózhó is the term, creating the beauty, order etc that was present at the creation. And at the creation it was done, in the myth, by thought and speech. Long Life Boy and Happiness Girl who take out this bundle, and they unroll the bundle and they do this sand painting. And that’s what happens in the ceremony: they unroll the bundle, they do the sand painting, they recreate the original perfection. And people experience that connection. So then I take that and apply it. And this was actually an article that I had written in 2005, based on 13 years of fieldwork with a radical Catholic group that you can read the house mass that that group does every week, or did at that time every week, as a way of recreating the world, a sense of rightness, a sense of beauty, or of order in the lives of people who spent their time working with homeless folks, or sitting in at the Cathedral because the Bishop isn’t spending enough money or poor people. Or sitting in at City Hall so that they will release (audio unclear) so that the poor people don’t have to put their stuff all over the street. Those are . . . how do you recreate that world? Well it’s the ritual that does it. And there’s other things too, but the overall argument is that  if we go to these other places and take a look at what other concepts are there, it’s like if you’re a photographer, and I’m a photographer, so I look at it: you hold the camera; you point the camera at something; you frame it, based on whatever; and you take a photo you get something, you see something. If you take twenty steps around to your right or left and take a picture you’ll see something else. And so, what I’m advocating is that if we look at these other cultural, historical settings and places we can get notions, we can locate our camera in different places. The three I happen to choose are ones – I mean there are others, I suggest some in the last chapter, but I could only handle three. From the first article that dealt with some of this stuff to now, I think it’s . . . well, it’s been twenty-eight years. No, twenty-six years. Which is a long time, thank you very much! But the project really only gelled about eleven years ago. Anyway that’s a long answer to a short question!

SB: It’s great.

JS: So, where do you want to go next?

SB: Well, one thing that we could ask would be why you chose to, or why you prefer to go to these other perspectives – such as the Navajo or the Chinese Confucian perspective – rather than looking for relational theories kind-of closer to home?

JS: Well. You can get there by going closer to home. And when I first looked at experience, and wrote the first set of articles on experience I went two places: one, to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi –who’s an American, or Hungarian American psychologist – who looks at the phenomenon of attention and how when you attend to something deeply the ego shifts and the experience of the ego, in that strict Husserlian phenomenological sense, the experience that you have of the world changes. And I went to that and I went to the work of Alfred Schütz, particularly his article on making music together. And Mary Jo Neitz and I wrote a piece on that, her coming out of feminist theory and my coming out of whatever it is I come out of. But we’re fellow travellers on this particular trip. And those were spots in the Western tradition where we could find it. And Schütz basically argues, and I think he’s right, when you listen to music it’s a polythetic experience. That is, there are multiple things happening, it unrolls in time and rituals unroll in time. You can’t grasp a ritual just like you can’t grasp a symphony in a set of words. But you have to play it again. And if you don’t play it again then you lose something. And putting the two – Csikszentmihalyi and Shütz – together, what those rituals do is they focus our attention on different places. And how well you know the ritual . . . Csikszentmihalyi talks about this distinction between the difference between anxiety and boredom (15:00) If you know it too well, you’re bored. If you don’t know it at all, you’re anxious. If you’re exactly on the right spot, then your experience transforms. And so I’m using that to look at Navajo ritual, but I’m also using a Navajo theology to look at the Catholic ritual. Because . . . what is it accomplishing? It rights the world again, it puts the world back in order. And I think that’s significant. Sure, you can get there in another way. Nobody has. Sure, you don’t have to go to China to find out about relationalism. Nobody’s done it. And my complaint, my criticism and I said this in my review of the book Religion on the Edge, is that people are laying out all of these critiques of standard sociology and then what they put in their place are really not very good understandings of symbolic interactionism, not even going to Mead’s Philosophy of the Act where there really is some good stuff, but going  back to Goffman, going to things that don’t actually produce anything new. So the wish is fine, but there’s no delivery. If you go. . . . It’s like travelling. You go some place else. Here I am, an American, sitting in a British conference. People think differently – we have two countries divided by the same language (that’s not my line, it’s probably Churchill. I don’t know who it is) But you begin to see things in a different way. And so I think it’s important, for example, to go and read Ibn Khaldoun even though we don’t have a cyclical . . . I didn’t go to his cyclical notion of history – and Brad  Turner at one point wrote that the problem with Khaldoun is that he has no theory of modernisation. Well, that’s right, but that isn’t where you go in this case. What are the concepts that work? And then realising and we think of him as an historian and he thought of himself as a judge on the Islamic tradition. He was trying to justify Islam, and a particular kind of anti-Sufi Islam which we might call Islamism today, based on the ability of that Islam to overcome kin divisions and create a larger community where people are tied together by ritual. Well, those are really interesting ideas. What do they illumine about a particular case that we wouldn’t otherwise see? In that case, since I haven’t described that one yet,  I use that lens to look at the miracles of magic origin in Bosnia, in the Marian apparition in Bosnia, in 1981 and ongoing. And that was in the sociological literature as a religious experience, and as a religious event. And of course, it was. Then, ten years later, they have this ethnic war in that place, which is then described as an ethnic experience, and an ethnic event. Which of course it was. What’s the relationship between the two of these? Is religion creating social solidarity which then becomes tied up with the ethnic line? because you can’t tell a Croat from a Serb unless you ask as Bosnian what prayers they learned as child. Is it an instrumental way of killing people? In that case, I actually decide that Ibn Khaldoun doesn’t do it right, because he has the centre-focussed notion of  pulling people together. And the war makes it  very clear that this was an edge focussed way of dividing people. but we still learn something by putting ethnicity and religion in the same frame, where they do not appear in standard sociology. Could we get there? Sure we could get there, but nobody’s done it. I mean, it standardly isn’t done. And so that’s why I did this. Now that’s reason one. There’s reason two, which is: my previous book – I write slowly – is on ethnography and  critique of un-reflexive ethnography in the study of religion. And it brought some of the material from anthropology into Sociology and into Religious Studies. So that’s the notion of how ethnographers need to be aware of their own position in the process of doing their ethnography. (20:00)And one of the articles in there has eight different levels of representation in the ethnographic process. I didn’t write that one but it’s a brilliant piece by Shawn Landres. Uh, I discovered there’s a ninth. But, you know, these are the kinds of things we have to think about. Ethnography is now- it’s sort of de rigueur that it’s reflexive. We are not, in the historical cultural position of late nineteenth century France and Germany and the United States. We’re in this sort of emerging global world where there’re connections all over the place. It’s after colonialism but it’s not post-colonial. And that’s particularly true because the post-colonial people are still doing anti-colonialism, effectively. But we’re in a world where we have to begin thinking about it as not a unipolar world. And there’s a long history in Sociology, not just American, and in Anthropology as well. We make the concepts, we export the concepts, folks in other places apply those to their own situations and frequently misunderstand what’s going on. Not their fault. And there’s been a counter-push to, “Ok how do you develop an indigenous sociologies?” and so on.  And the ISA has sponsored some. Some of them are worthwhile, some of them are not. But we live in a world where we’re beginning to have to talk from one another and learn from one another and so on. And so the second reason for going elsewhere is to remind ourselves that we’re not the centre of the universe. Probably my favourite line in the book is the line in the last chapter where, you know: “Only men are allowed to imagine that there’s no such thing as gender; only white people are allowed to imagine that there’s no such thing as race; only heterosexuals are allowed to imagine that there are not these wonderful and glorious and multiple forms of sexuality; and only people living at the centre of the empire can imagine that the empire doesn’t matter. So that’s where we are. And here I am a white male heterosexual inhabitant of the empire and I can’t forget that. And so what are the responsibilities? How do we move from that polarity to do something where we are all at least in conversation with one another? And I spent the last couple of chapters wrestling with questions of  Orientalism, questions of cultural appropriation, and the questions of what is the epistemological grounding of what a global sociology would be. And my first title for the book, the one I sent it to the publisher with, was “Through Non-Western eyes: Towards a World-Conscious Sociology of Religion”. And in many ways, that’s the best description of what the book is about. The marketing department of course, said, “No. You can’t do that. We want Global Sociology”. I said, “No, that’s white male, blahblahblah.” And so we fought for a month, and two months, and then the editor came up with the title we have. I received a copy of the book the day after “alternative facts” became an American political meme. And part of me said, “Oh my God!” and the other part of me said, “Instant Karma for the marketing department.” And yet it also does describe what’s going on. Because it’s not saying, “These are the only ways to do things,” but “these are three models of what we could be doing”. And there’s was dealing with the concept of (audio unclear), that had to do with Latina religious agency. And Nigerian, Professor (audio unclear) was dealing with some (audio unclear) concepts and there are some other people who’ve pursued these.And they’re great. They’re beyond me. I can’t dive into all of those, I’d bee doing this for the next forty life times. But the stuff is out there. Some of it’s good. Some of it isn’t. Some of it works. Some of it doesn’t. Some of the stuff that I think works might not work as well as I think it does. Other things that I think don’t work, might work better, but this is the conversation we have to be having.  (25:00) So there’s a sense that what I’m trying to do here is – well, as the subtitle [suggests], decentring the sociology of religion. Which is the subtitle of the Bender et al. book. It’s the theme of the conference.

SB: One final question. How do you hope the book might be used by other scholars or students?

JS:I hope people will read it. You know. You always want people to read your book.And in this case, one of the reasons it’s taken so long to write is that I try to write for . . . I don’t just write for specialists. I try to have the prose be readable by people who are literate and interested in things. I actually write for my father, but he’s dead. So I don’t actually write for him. Somebody who can understand, who is not a scholar but can understand wel- reasoned argument. So I tell stories. And other people will have stories. And if people . . . what I hope is that people will understand what it is I’m trying to do and then figure out ways that they might want to do something similar.Well, there a whole series of fellow travellers here, because I’m not the only person: Raewyn Connell’s book, Southern Theory– it’s a fellow traveller with that. And in that book she looks at a very Western question about the nature of colonialism. But from the point of view of people who have been suffering from colonialism. Not the same question but parallel. Mary Jo Neitz’ work on Feminist Theory, Feminist Sociologies of Religion is a connected work. Meredith McGuire’s work on Lived Religion is . . . . These are things breaking down the sort of standard modal of how religion works and looking at things through other lenses. Now I of course have criticisms of all of those – of things that they catch and things that they don’t catch – but that doesn’t matter if people read this, appreciate the stories, figure out, “Well how does this change how I think about what it is I’m doing, and what might I do differently?” That’s great. And if people then say, “OK, I’m going to engage with people who are really coming from a fundamentally different place.” This is the ethnographer in me. I said that my first fieldwork was with one of the main Japanese religions so I had to immerse myself in a completely different way of thinking about the world. And that, I think, that’s kind-of our duty at this point. Unless we want to ignore the fact that there’s an empire around us, and I can’t do that.

SB: Professor Spickard, thank you very much for your time.

JS: Sure. Thanks a lot.

Citation Info: Spickard, James V. and Sammy Bishop. 2017. “ Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 23 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 October 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/alternative-sociologies-of-religion-through-non-western-eyes/

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Witchcraft in Rural Slovenia

In this podcast, professor Mirjam Mencej talks about contemporary witchcraft in Styria region in rural Eastern Slovenia. Based on her ethnographic fieldwork in the area, Mencej describes witchcraft from a variety of angles, from psychological to anthropological and historical, providing a detailed understanding of witchcraft as part of the lived social reality of the community. In what kind of situations are witchcraft narratives evoked? What makes them effective? Who could gain the reputation of being a witch and why? Mencej also describes the role of the ‘unwitcher’, a person who had the power to counter bewitchment and detect the witch responsible.

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


Podcast with Mirjam Mencej 

Interviewed by Hannah Lehtinen

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Hannah Lehtinen (HL): So, welcome to the Religious Studies Project. My name is Hannah Lehtinen and we are currently in Turku. It’s early morning and it’s relatively cloudy.And with me is Mirjam Mencej from the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. And she is the Professor of Folklore Studies at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology there. And her accomplishments include, but are not limited to, numerous articles and six published monographs on various topics related to vernacular religion, folklore and witchcraft, which is what we’ll be discussing here today. Professor Mencej’s latest volume, which will be out later this year, is called Styrian Witches in European Perspective. It’s based on her ethnographical work in the rural areas of Eastern Slovenia and it deals with witchcraft from a variety of angles. So welcome, Mirjam. It’s great to have you here today.

Mirjam Mencej (MM): Good Morning. Thank you for inviting me.

HL: So, we might just begin with, witchcraft. As we saw yesterday, the lecture was a huge success.

MM: Thank you

HL: But witchcraft probably brings up lots of different images and ideas of what we are exactly dealing with. How would you define witchcraft, in the context of your own work?

MM: Well first, let me answer the first part of your question. Indeed witchcraft, nowadays, appears in many guises. It has become a commodity, really. Witches flood the movies, the internet, the journals, the books – even cook books! Women dress up as witches to partake in Halloween parties. And, actually, it has become a trademark of radical feminism, etc. But all these witchcrafts have nothing to do with what traditional witchcraft is about, which I actually researched in this Styrian area of Slovenia and lectured on yesterday. Traditional witchcraft was typically set in more-or-less, small-scale, close-knit, face-to-face agricultural communities. And witchcraft, in fact, served as an explanation of misfortune: interpreting the source of personal misfortunes as the consequence of another’s malevolent agency. So the basic premise in witchcraft, is that the origin of misfortune is social. And the person responsible for misfortune is understood to be the witch. Now, when misfortune occurs, people usually seek culprits amongst their close neighbours or immediate vicinity, their immediate environment. And especially close neighbours were particularly feared in this regard. In most ethnographic areas, sometimes, also foreigners feature in witchcraft, but this is much less typical than the neighbours – particularly close neighbours. And it was, basically, their envy that was particularly feared. And, actually, they represented a constant threat of possible misfortune.

HL: Yes. And how did you end up studying witchcraft, actually?

MM: This was more-or-less by accident! In summer 2000 I arrived with a group of my students to a [rural region] in Slovenian Styria. I mean, Styria is a wider region, really, and this was a part of the Styrian region. (5:00) And our aim was to conduct fieldwork in order to help the local institutions’ mission to promote local heritage, really. So, what I hoped for was, basically, the etiological legends, related to some features or plants, or caves or some buildings in the region, etc. Yet, knowing that these kinds of legends tend to be rarer than the so-called belief narratives or belief legends, I also instructed my students to ask about witchcraft, the dead , and the supernatural in general. Now when the groups met, in the evening, to share the results of their first day of fieldwork – and also all the following evenings – one thing became clear: that the topic in the region was actually witchcraft. And so after that, we just continued to focus on witchcraft. And actually, really encountered plenty of people who still believed in witchcraft, and some even still practised witchcraft – although we never witnessed any of these practices. But, obviously, some people still buried bones or eggs on their neighbours’ property in order to do them harm. And some people even still understood witchcraft as an institution – actually they relied on witchcraft as an institution, explaining the misfortunes that befell them.

HL: Exactly. And this area, where you were conducting your study, could you describe it a little bit. It’s very remote?

MM: Yes. Actually this is a very remote area, with poor transport connections. The farms are small – the land divided into small parcels. And the people mainly engage in subsistence agriculture. Our interlocutors were mainly old people, because mostly older people lived there. Because most of the younger generation just moved into the cities or usually migrated somewhere. And, in fact, this is the region that is – in the frames of Slovenia – still a synonym for backwardness, and remoteness, and poverty, really. But the region where we were doing fieldwork was even more impoverished until the ‘70s. The ’70s brought some changes into the life of the population, for instance: electricity and water supply became available to more households than before; many houses were rebuilt; free medical care became available even to farmers; and several factories and tourism facilities were established at the periphery of the region – this actually offered some job opportunities to people living in the region, which consequently triggered daily migrations of part of the population; and also the improvement of the roads and transport facilities.Better roads also allowed for the use of tractors, which improved agricultural yields, etc. This was also the time when television started to make its way into rural households. And all these changes consequently triggered the loosening of the bonds of close communities and changed the social life in the villages. Now in our area, the key setting for the communication of witchcraft narratives, and also the basic context in which theses narratives were narrated and evaluated, was always “shared work”: the time when people gathered together in this or that house to shell beans, or pluck feathers, husk corn and do similar work. And with these economic changes and other changes like television etc, this basic setting was over. There was no such thing as common work in the evenings. And this, consequently, actually caused the witchcraft discourse to start losing its adherence and communal support. So, people did not have this framework anymore within which they could discuss witchcraft. I mean, they obviously still managed to find ways to tell narratives about witchcraft and even to practise some sort of magical practices, (10:00) but this basic setting was over, and they could not talk publicly about it as they used to do.

HL: So it wasn’t quite as accepted anymore, perhaps, as an explanation?

MM: Not generally accepted. They definitely were still able to talk about it within the family circles, or with some of the neighbours that still believed in witchcraft, but it was not an overt practice to discuss it anymore.

HL: So when you said that witchcraft sort-of struck you, when you were doing the fieldwork, as something really to focus on . . . . Did people talk about it very openly, or was there some reservation?

MM: No, generally people . . . yes. Generally, they had no problems talking about witchcraft overtly, although some did use . . . some did try to, somehow, hide their beliefs from me or the students – at least at the beginning of the interview. They would often start talking about witchcraft like: “No, I never heard about witchcraft! I don’t believe in witchcraft”, and similar. But then, after a while, they would just tell you a great story about their own involvement in witchcraft, or their discovery of bewitched items or their visit to a fortune-teller, who acted as an unwitcher inthe region, and so on. You know, like Jeanne Favret-Saada, who wrote a fascinating book on French witchcraft, understands this as a kind of reconciliation between their witchcraft discourse and the assumed rational discourse of the researcher . . . as a way to reconcile these two, at least at the beginning. There was no problem, really. It was quite a topic that croppeed up more-or-less by itself. We didn’t really expect it to be there or to find it.

HL: We already touched upon this, but perhaps again: how would you define witchcraft, in this context? What is it? And what is a witch?

MM: Well as I said, basically, the answer you would get from anthropological research, would be: “a witch is a person who is considered to be doing . . . to use some supernatural means to do harm to others. So, basically, the idea is witchcraft is a social thing: the origin of witchcraft is social. If a misfortune befalls you, basically there is a human being – usually from the same community – that is supposed to have caused it, right? But in fact, I actually defined in my book various layers of witchcraft and various types of witches. And I think one should actually pay attention, during the research, to different types of witches. Because, if you don’t, the answers can be a bit confusing. Basically, I would say, there is this social layer of witchcraft that anthropologists often research. But within it one could actually distinguish between a “neighbourhood witch” – I call it a neighbourhood witch, some would probably call it a social witch – and the “village witch”, that some researchers called the “scapegoat witch”. Now there is a difference between these two. The neighbourhood witch was mostly blamed for the misfortune that befell the neighbour. So, you assumed your neighbour caused the misfortune that befell you by either, for instance, burying bones or eggs on your property or by praising your child, or your livestock – there are various modes of bewitching, I can discuss this later, perhaps – but on the other hand, the village witch was not necessarily blamed for any misfortune, although some village witches, of course, get a reputation based on the general consensus of their harmful activities (15:00) – usually born out of envy – which is typical for the neighbourhood witch. But also, [there are] other reasons that have nothing to do with this accusation of causing misfortunes and are more or less related to some stereotypical notions about a witch, like: if she looked ugly, unkempt or old, of course, this already was a strong sign that she could be a witch. Or, moreover, if she behaved quarrelsome, if she quarrelled a lot, if she was inquisitive, this was even more likely to cause a reputation. If the family in which . . . . Well, if her family was proclaimed to be related to witchcraft, like for instance, if her mother already had such a reputation, the reputation was likely passed over to her daughter. Because it was also generally believed that a mother transmits her knowledge to her daughter. Or, if her father owned magic books, or a magic book – and it was usually men who were believed to have these books – his daughter would also kind-of inherit such a reputation. And sometimes they would even judge about who the village witch is, according to the way she died. So a person could acquire a reputation even after her death. Like [if] something unusual happened during the funeral, she was likely[to be] recognised as a witch afterwards. Or also, any extra knowledge – something that others would not know, but she allegedly knew – likely, also, could cause a reputation. So this was a social layer of witchcraft. But there was another layer, which I would tentatively call a “supernatural layer”, that anthropologists often skipped from their research. And it was also not always necessarily present in the regions where the fieldwork was done. These are witches that I call “night witches” because they usually appear at night, often in the shape of some flickering lights, sometimes invisible, and usually causing people to lose their orientation, to get totally disoriented in the forest and to get lost. Often, the same deeds and the same shapes and appearances are referred to: fairies, or the souls of the dead, or any other supernatural entities within European folklore. Anyway, in our region, they were always called witches. And while they had no. . . they did not do any economic damage, they were still blamed for misfortune of another type: they caused people to lose their way, to spend the night in the forest. And sometimes, subsequently, they were recognised as a certain person from the community. Not always, but sometimes people would say, “Yes, I recognised those witches that looked like lights” – it’s always plural – “during the night”. And the next day they would scold them or threaten them. So there are differences. There are differences in the discourses between these social and supernatural layers; there are differences in the manner of protection and the attitudes towards the different witches; also the attitude toward the neighbourhood and the village witch was different, right? So [there are] many differences, and yet people would talk about these witches in the same breath. If you asked them about witches, they could either answer with the response that referred to neighbourhood, village, or night witches.

HL: Well it seems pretty obvious – from general depictions of witches, and also from what you’re saying – that witches were often considered to be women, or it was to do with women?

MM: Yes. Actually, in our region, it was mostly women, except for, basically, one category of village witch which also encountered men. (20:00) As I said, those men basically that possessed – or allegedly possessed, because one couldn’t check, right? – the magic book. They were mostly men. And men could sometimes appear as witches, also, when they severely transgressed social norms, like in the case of blasphemy or cursing and drinking heavily. But this was really seldom. Mostly, it was women.

HL: Can you think up any reasons why it would be?

MM: Well, actually, this is quite historic. This has historical roots. Women were always related to witchcraft. This idea that women were connected to, well, night and moon, but also to magic, are ideas that spread up already in antiquity. So there is a strong connection in this notion in traditional ideas, I would say. But also during the witch trials, several historians pointed out that women were often regarded as somehow more prone to be able to be seduced by a devil, they were weaker, and well, actually, all theses accusations somehow reflected the misogyny of the period, right? Also, women were often proclaimed witches when they were old and when they were in the period of menopause, which was related to the idea about menstruation: that, while they still have their menstruation they can kind-of purify themselves and, afterwards, they could not do that any more. So these bad fluids just prevailed in their bodies. And there are many reasons, of course. Widows and unmarried women were among the first targets of accusation, also. One [reason was] because their status was unclear and, in the early modern period, the idea about a woman was to be married, to have a man by their side, this strong patriarchal approach to looking at the role of women in society. And, on the other hand, it was also their weaker position in this case: they had no social . . . they did not have a husband who would perhaps protect them, in this regard, against the gossip, against the accusations.

HL: Exactly. So these witchcraft accusations could also act as a very powerful tool for social control.

MM: Oh definitely, yes. Actually, the narratives themselves acted as a form of social control. People tried to behave in a way that they could not possibly be accused of witchcraft. So, yes, definitely this is one way to look at witchcraft.

HL: Another interesting category that you bring up in your work is the so-called “unwitchers”. So could you tell us a little bit about them, and how they belong into this dynamic of the witchcraft discourse?

MM: Yes well, unwitchers, or some would probably call them “counter-witches”, or “unbewitchers”, were an important figure in this triangle of victim, witch and unwitcher. In our region, it was fortune-tellers that acted as unwitchers in the sense that they could counteract the bewitchment, and act in the direction to identify the witch responsible for the misfortune. (25:00) Now, the people would usually [approach] unwitchers [if it was] the case that many misfortunes happened in very different areas of their life, or household etc. And unwitchers would, actually, first . . . well the first step in their procedure would usually be to proclaim the misfortune as a result of witchcraft. And in further steps they would usually try to annihilate the bewitchment by various instructions that they gave to their clients, and to identify the witch. Because the identification was crucial in this regard. It allowed the client to face their opponents, to materialise something that was abstract, beforehand. And, in the end, they also offered a possibility of the redirection of this bewitchment, or the evil, back to its source, which, of course, people usually didn’t like to accept. Well, basically, in my book I argued that the main role of unwitchers was in helping, especially women, to . . . well, one thing was to help them in times of economic insecurity, when their household were not prospering. But the basic thing was to help women maintain their social position in times when it was endangered. Because women were basically evaluated according to their work: how they managed to do the household works; were they successful in this regard? And if they were not, their social position was strongly threatened and in this case they actually needed, I think – at least in our region, that’s the way I understood the situation – they needed the unwitchers to help them transpose or relocate the blame from themselves to the outside witch, or to somebody else and thus help them maintain their social position. Because it was not them that was to be blamed for the misfortunes that befell the household, but some outsider coming from the other household – coming from usually the same community, but not from within the household.

HL: So, identifying some kind of enemy, or some kind of cause, from the outside was very crucial?

MM: Exactly, yes.

HL: We already mentioned that if, for example, the livestock or in some other way the livelihood was endangered, this would be one reason to suspect witchcraft. Could you mention some other cases or situations where this witchcraft discourse, or the accusations of witchcraft, even could be invoked?

MM: Well, the main targets of bewitchment in our region, were livestock, really. Now this is a different situation than the one I encountered in Bosnia – where I just recently did three months’ fieldwork – when witchcraft is mostly directed against people, against their wellbeing and health and jobs etc. In our region, it was really mostly livestock – sometimes small children, but basically livestock – that were the main target of bewitchment. But, of course, there were other situations where people could use the witchcraft discourse to their benefit. And it was not necessarily related to their personal belief in the proposition. Many, many situations, many circumstances, could . . . . In many circumstances, witchcraft discourse could be used for people to save face, for instance, or to give an acceptable explanation to the family, or to the community at large. And I can just give you some examples, for instance, a young man was unable to work, to find a job, to search for a job. A young man who, actually, withdrew himself from society and was probably suffering some sort of depression or perhaps some mental illness.(30:00) The explanation , in terms of witchcraft, was actually a suitable explanation at hand for a family to give to the community at large which, probably not understanding the depression as a serious mental state, would proclaim him an idler or perhaps even blame his family for a failed upbringing. And, on the other hand, this helped the family to cope with the situation, to understand and to accept their son’s position. Also, for instance, when marital quarrels appeared, when a couple quarrelled and suddenly. . . and then one story told by a certain interlocutor . . . . Suddenly, when a woman threw her husband out of bed, she said, “at that moment I saw a toad under the bed. And I trampled her, I destroyed her and the next day I saw a woman in the village who lost her leg just at the same time.” Now this is how they recognised that it was that woman that was transformed into the toad and this was a general notion in our region that witches can either transform into toads, or sand toads. Actually, she recognised the witch that transformed into a toad by her losing a leg in the same moment. And there are many such circumstances that actually allowed people to use the witchcraft discourse, especially when they’d transgressed social norms., you know: having spent a night in the forest after a night drinking, you could just say, “Night witches carried me away so I couldn’t find the way out of the forest”; or, it could be a cover up for sexual relationships that were illicit; or it could just be flat sexual fantasies sometimes; or, I don’t know, it was also used as an education means in the upbringing of children, you know, walking into dangerous areas at night; or to prevent people from doing illicit things in the night, like meeting other men and wives. It could even be invoked by workers who wanted to stop work during the night, you know at 2am – I guess everybody would propose to stop working already – and they could just invoke this idea about witches: “No, I’m going to go home now, because otherwise witches will come . . . ” etc. So there were many opportunities for the use of witchcraft discourse. And this was not really related to one’s belief or disbelief in the proposition, and they were not also used intentionally in order to manipulate other people’s opinion, but acted more like a spontaneous act, based on the habitus, really. Of course, it could be used to manipulate public opinion [as well], especially if they gossip with others. Like, I was told that this witchcraft accusation often occurred when a son of a wealthy family wanted to marry a woman from a poor family. In this case the mother of that woman was often proclaimed to be a witch, you know, who made some witchcraft in order for the son of the wealthy family to fall in love with this poor girl. Bribery is another case, of course, and an accusation of witchcraft could also redefine the social position, lower the social prestige of a certain person.

HL: Yes. So there are very various ways that you can use it.

MM: Definitely.

HL: Did you, when you were conducting this work – I understood that people talked about these experiences – but did you ever speak with a witch? Or anyone who would admit using witchcraft? Or who knew, at least, that they were [accused] of witchcraft?

MM: (35:00) Well, nobody would ever admit that they used witchcraft. There is no such thing, you know. If they admitted that they used witchcraft this would immediately ruin their social position, probably forever, right?

HL: Yes.

MM: Of course, I could sometimes realise that some people did indeed practice some sort of magic practices. Like – one thing that I mentioned before was burying objects, usually eggs or bones on a neighbour’s property. And, while they would never admit that they buried a certain object on their neighbour’s property, they did sometimes admit that they buried it as a response for the buried object they found in their property. They assumed that it came from a certain neighbour, with whom they were probably in some conflict or tense relationships, and they just threw it back to their property, or buried it back on their property. So, obviously, something was going on. But I only received several admissions of this kind and never as being the first perpetrator, but always as a response to the act that was done before. Anyway, I did also hear about several people, several women, that had a reputation for being a witch in the community, and I did interview them. And I tried to make them tell me that they were aware of their reputation. But I was never successful. Nobody actually ever admitted that they knew about their reputation, and I’m not really sure if they knew or not. I often got an impression that they didn’t. But I do not dare declaim, because it’s a difficult thing, I guess, to admit that people treat you as the witch, right? Well I heard, also, about some circumstances in which people overtly told some women in the community that they were a witch – like, especially when they were drunk, you know, they would just tell them to their face, “You’re a witch!” or something. Otherwise, generally, they would try to avoid blaming directly because, if it was a village witch they feared that she would take revenge and do some witchcraft, and if it was a neighbourhood witch they always said, “Well, you never know, you can never be sure, you can suspect this or that neighbour, but you can never be sure, because you never actually saw them doing some bewitching.” So, they never really dared to blame them overtly.

HL: It also brings to mind, perhaps – especially with this neighbourhood witch case – if you would blame directly, wouldn’t that maybe take away from the functioning of the accusation dynamic? Because if you blame directly, perhaps, then it can be disputed more easily, or refuted, that this is not the case.

MM: Oh yes. You’re right.

HL: It could change the dynamics of how the accusations work.

MM: Yes. It could, yes. In one way it could. But also you know, you’d be in the position of the accuser. And yes, if you did not get the public support in this case, right, you could end up – perhaps not as a witch – but you could end up with your social position, again, being lowered because you did something that you were not supposed to do. And if you did not have any proofs of their bewitching activities then, how could you do it?

HL: And the evidence would be difficult to produce, so that would be a high risk thing to do.

MM: Yes

HL: Exactly. So, I understand that there are no unwitchers in the region anymore. So, it was simply in the stories . . . about . . . ?

MM: Well, you see, there was a very famous unwitching family that provided services for people in this region. And this family – well the starter of the family’s business was a certain woman who was born at the beginning of the 19th -century. (40:00) And then the profession was continued by her son. And after her son died, during World War II, it was continued by his widow. And that last in line, of these famous fortune-tellers, actually died at the beginning of the ’80s. I was lucky to find her grandson, who actually lived with her when he was a child, and observed her working. But anyway, he told me that already in the ’70s she started losing her clients. That her job . . . . She had no job any more at the end of the ’70s, and at the beginning of the ’80s she died. So, basically, there are no traditional unwitchers in the region any more. I know that there was another unwitcher who was practising, offering similar services to the clients, living quite nearby. But, obviously, she did not use the same discourse. She did not continue to work on counteracting witches – instead she used the term enemy, which is much more generalised idea. So, I guess, she was able to continue with this work and she focussed much more on fortune-telling in general, not unwitching procedure as such. But of course, nowadays, people can just turn to New Age therapists, which are often, especially, in bigger cities and communities. And they actually do this nowadays. They actually go to New Age therapists. I’m not sure about people from my region: I did not ask them about that. But I, actually, recently conducted an interview with a woman – an educated woman, an intelligent woman – living quite close to this region, who actually experienced the same type of bewitchment, obviously, as was generally proclaimed to be the main sort of bewitchment in our region. That was – she kept finding eggs buried in her property. And she, indeed, turned to a New Age therapist. This was a Taoist therapist, or dealing with Taoist chrystal therapy and, you know, she helped her clients with some angels’ blessing, did angel therapy etc. So it was not a traditional unwitcher but a New Age therapist, who, in a way, took over the work of traditional unwitchers.

HL: So, was the procedure the same, or. . . ?

MM: In fact it was very similar, in many regards. But there were also differences in her discourse, in relation to the unwitcher’s discourse. Well, first she would admit, just like traditional unwitchers, that – not admit but confirm – that something “was done”, which was a typical discursive expression, in the region, that related to bewitchment, really: that somebody bewitched you, in a way. Although, she definitely denied the involvement of witchcraft. So she said, “There is no such thing as witchcraft.” Anyway, she confirmed that this was done by a certain person who wishes bad to the woman that I had an interview with, and she also tried to annihilate the bewitchment – now it should be “bewitchment” in inverted commas, right?- she gave her some angels’ blessings, in order to annihilate the harm that was being done. But the basic difference is that of trying to help the client identify their witch, which was a really crucial thing in the traditional therapy, the traditional unwitchers procedure: she actually redirected the blame from the outside to one’s own body and mind, within. So, actually, she said, “We should not condemn anyone, you know? It doesn’t matter. There are people . . . ” she vaguely admitted there are people who wish us bad, or who are envious etc, but basically she redirected the blame to ourselves. (45:00) So it is us who have to – actually, it is that woman I mentioned, but I can say generally “us” – we have to purify ourselves, we have to meditate, we have to strengthen our energy etc, and when we do that, no one can blame us any more. So there is just a basic difference, I think that, you know, from finding and searching for the perpetrator on the outside, and finding the “witch” inside within us. That’s the change in this New Age discourse. And, of course, I think it’s got a lot to do with the changes also that happened in Western neoliberal society, where we are actually encouraged to think of our own lives, our own wellbeing, as something that is entirely under our own control, right? It’s ourselves who are responsible for this. And it’s entirely in our hands. We have to look at our own lives as an artistic product or an enterprise, right? We cannot absolutely obtain relief anymore by blaming someone on the outside for our failures.We have become trained to search for the one who is to blame for any misfortune that befell us, in ourselves.

HL: Yes. That’s . . . . So that would be this kind-of: on the one hand it continues, but it changes shape?

MM: It adopts to the demands of this neoliberal capitalistic society that we live in nowadays, right?

HL: Yes.

MM: But basically its the same thing. You can call it witchcraft, or you cannot call it witchcraft, basically. It’s just the transformation, it’s adaptation. But basically, its a continuation.

HL: Thank you. This has been very interesting.

MM: Thank you. You’re welcome.

HL: Thank you for joining us today.

MM: Thank you.


Citation Info: Mencej, Mirjam 2017. “Witchcraft in Rural Slovenia”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 15 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 11 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/witchcraft-in-rural-slovenia/

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AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation

This roundtable, in association with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, considers the impact of recent technological advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics on religion, religious conceptions of the world, and the human. It draws attention to how such advances push religion beyond how it has been commonly defined and considered.

1389397212614In March 2016 ‘AlphaGo’, a Google/Deepmind programme, defeated an international champion at the Chinese game ‘Go’ in a five game match. This victory was, by current understandings of AI, a vast leap forward towards a future that could contain human-like technological entities, technology-like humans, and embodied machines. As corporations like Google invest heavily in technological and theoretical developments leading towards further, effective advances – a new ‘AI Summer’ – we can also see that hopes, and fears, about what AI and robotics will bring humanity are gaining pace, leading to new speculations and expectations, even amidst those who would position themselves as non-religious.

Speculations include Transhumanist and Singularitarian teleological and eschatological schemes, assumptions about the theistic inclinations of thinking machines, the impact of the non-human on our conception of the uniqueness of human life and consciousness, and the moral boundary work of secular technologists in relation to their construct, ‘religion’. New religious impulses in the face of advancing technology have been largely ignored by the institutions founded to consider the philosophical, ethical and societal meanings of AI and robotics. This roundtable is an initial conversation on this topic, with the intention for further discussion and publications.

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, tin foil hats, Jeff Goldblum custom water proof shower curtains, and more.

Study of Religion in Peru

UnfCTAnTfj8yQGyHYpsbntqMPeru’s religious inheritance has been the subject of inquiry by scholars since the first decade of the twentieth century (Ortmann, 2002). In this RSP interview, we are joined by professor Dorothea Ortmann from the University of Rostock, to discuss the foundations of the study of religion in this country. She first states the major differences between the confessional studies or studies oriented to theological or pastoral matters, and the social scientific study of religious phenomena (Ortmann, 2004). She then follows the conversation by giving some background history of the most notable works from the first attempts at doing research on the sciences of religion. Particularly important are the works of Tello (1943), Larco Hoyle (1946), Valcárcel (2009), and Carrión (2005).

In what remains of the interview, professor Ortmann discusses the public benefits of studying religion. It ends with an interesting discussion about the current institutional and theoretical situations of the field in Peru, taking into account new tendencies coming from Europe and North America (Xygalatas, 2015).

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, drink coasters, T.V. Dinners, and more.

References
-Carrión, R. (2005). Culto al agua en el antiguo Perú. Lima: Instituto Nacional de Cultura.
-Ortmann, D. (2002). Ciencias de la religión en el Perú. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos.
-Ortmann, D. (2004). “Fundamentos de las Ciencias de la Religión”. In Ortmann, Dorothea (compiler). Anuario de Ciencias de La Religión: Las Religiones En El Perú de Hoy. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, pp. 13–29.
-Larco Hoyle, R. (1946). A culture sequence of the north coast of Perú. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. Accesed on: August 15, 2016.
http://www.museolarco.org/listapublicaciones/a-culture-sequence-for-the-north-coast-of-peru/
-Tello, J. (1943). “Sobre el descubrimiento de la cultura Chavín en el Perú”. Letras. Lima, No. 26, pp. 226-373.
-Valcárcel, L. (2011). Machu Picchu. Lima: Fondo de Cultura Económica
-Xygalatas, Dimitris (2015). IACSR year in review: 2015. Georgia. Accessed on: January 15 of 2016.

New Horizons in the Sociology of Religion: Beyond Secularization?

Since September we have been running a series of podcasts, co-produced with the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) to celebrate their 40th anniversary. The series was entitled “New Horizons in British Sociology of Religion”, and began with “An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion” with Grace Davie, and has featured interviews with Dawn Llewellyn (on “Religion and Feminism“), Anna Strhan (on “Evangelicalism and Civic Space“), Naomi Thompson (on “Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality“), Mat Francis (on “Researching Radicalization“) and Titus Hjelm & Paul-Francois Tremlett (on “The Sociology of Religion and Religious Studies“). To conclude this series, we invited scholars from a variety of fields to contribute to a collaborative compilation episode, under the title “New Horizons in the earth-rising-sun-desktop-backgroundSociology of Religion: Beyond Secularization?”

In this longer-than-usual episode, Chris and David provide an interlinking narrative between Grace Davie, Joe Webster, Carole Cusack, Jonathan Jong, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Linda Woodhead and Kim Knott, reflecting on current or future developments in the sociology of religion which challenge the ubiquity of the secularization thesis, problematize it, or go beyond it. The key question: beyond secularization, what is the sociology of religion for you?

Many thanks to SOCREL for supporting this collaboration. Remember that you can keep the conversation going in the comments below each podcast and response, on our social media feeds, or by sending an email to the editors.

Also, check out some of our other great compilation podcasts: After the World Religions Paradigm…?; What is the future of Religious Studies?; and Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?

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, Turducken, dinosaur slippers, and more.

Nature alive: Amazonian religion in Peru

book cover ReganThe Amazon rainforest has always been a land filled with mystery since its ‘discovery’. Ranging from the first expedition of the conquistador Francisco de Orellana, to the establishment of Jesuit missions across the Marañon river, and the naturalistic explorations of Humboldt and la Condamine, it still feels as if it has more to be known.

This was also the case for the earliest ‘ethnographic’ records of Gaspar de Carvajal and Francisco de Figueroa . As was often the case with Spanish chroniclers, they ‘misunderstood’ the ‘indigenous’ way of thinking, in some cases even labeling them as atheists (Regan: 2015). In time, this would change, in part because of the continuing social interaction (between missionaries, laymen, other indigenous groups, and so on) but also in more recent times, because of the ethnographic research undertaken by many different anthropologists. This has enabled a more comprehensive knowledge about the beliefs and way of life of the Amazonian indigenous people. In this podcast, Dr Jaime Regan Mainville, a leading researcher in the anthropology of religion and linguistics, discusses his ethnographic research among some of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin; namely the kukama, the awajún, and the wampís, among others.

Regan argues that one particular characteristic of Amazonian  belief is highlighted above the rest: close links with the environment. Amazonian identity and belief systems are articulated into what Philippe Descola and other anthropologists have regarded as animism (Regan: 2015). Of course, these beliefs haven’t remained ‘untouched’ or ‘pure’, but have been particularly influenced by encounters with Jesuits and Franciscans during the sixteenth century. The interview continues to focus upon some of the impacts of this these encounters upon existing belief systems, practices and cosmologies (cf. Regan: 2001).

remate-libro-a-la-sombra-de-los-cerros-las-raices-513001-MPE20264898860_032015-F (1)In the final part of the interview Regan states that the indigenous way of life has drastically changed, because of the Peruvian state’s oil exploration policy s, combined with illegal mining and logging. For example, in the case of oil exploration, in June 2009 the “Baguazo” or Bagua conflict took place in part due to failed attempts at consultation and negotiation between with indigenous leaders of the Amazon region (mostly awajún and wampís) and the Peruvian state: Regan traces this to a conflict of worldviews (Regan: 2010).

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Andean Religion in Peru, Vernacular Religion, and the category of “indigenous religion”. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, stuffed animals, gobstoppers, and more..

References

Of Demons, Saints and Heaven: Andean religious beliefs in Peru

What happens when two vastly different civilizations meet each other? History tells us that on the one hand, they could make war or, on the other, begin to establish kinship or state alliances. The colonization process of Peru is one that had a lot of the first, and a bit of the second. Just as the people came to conflict, so did their gods. However, the local gods who lost this conflict did not vanish in oblivion, but remained in other forms, even in some places in their original one.

In his interview with Sidney Castillo, Dr. Luis Millones discusses some of the traditions that have formed the basis for his research, particularly in the northern coast, northern highlands and south highlands of Peru. He mentions that, with the impact of colonization, many of the indigenous beliefs were replaced or mixed (to some extent), in order to facilitate the installation of a status quo that incorporated many of the ethnic groups’s beliefs (among other, more ‘earthly’ institutions) that were present prior to the Spaniards’ arrival (Millones 2005). And this is when when different traditions emerge commonly know as folklore (see also vernacular religion).

Ranging from different conceptions of the devil – less as a punisher and more as a trickster (Millones & López Austin 2013) – to the festival in honor of Felipe, Santiago de Zebedeo’s horse (Millones 2015), and from Jesus as a punisher, and the existence of an actual hell on earth (Millones 2010), to being joyful at children’s funerals (Millones 2007), Dr. Millones provides a clear articulation of how these local beliefs makes sense in everyday life. Fortunately, in this worldview, one thing is for sure: we all will go to heaven.

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on vernacular religion (in general, and in the US)situational belief, the category of ‘indigenous’, Meso-American religion

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

References

  • Millones, L. (2010). Después de la muerte. Voces del Limbo y el Infierno en territorio andino. Lima: Fondo Editorial del Congreso del Perú.
  • Millones, L. (2005). Ensayos de historia andina. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos-Fondo Editorial.
  • Millones, L. (2015). “Las muchas caras de Santiago, por Luis Millones”. El Comercio. Lima, 01 of August. Accesed on: 04 de agosto de 2015.http://elcomercio.pe/opinion/columnistas/muchas-caras-santiago-luis-millones-noticia-1829935
  • Millones, L. (2007). Todos los niños van al cielo. Lima: Instituto Riva Agüero.
  • Millones, L. & Lopez Austin, A. (2013). Cuernos y colas. Reflexiones en torno al Demonio en los Andes y Mesoamérica. Lima: Asamblea Nacional de Rectores.

“Religion in Peru” — conference report, 2015

The conference, “Religion in Peru : Research itineraries from the social sciences,” was held at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Lima-Peru, 24 September 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Sidney Castillo.

Opening session. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

Opening session. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

The study of religion has deep roots in the South American country of Peru. Over twenty years ago, one of this country’s most eminent scholars of religion, the late Manuel Marzal, (1996) wrote an article detailing a century of religious studies in Peru. Since the dawn of social sciences in Peruvian academia, scholars from different schools of thought and institutions have applied their own perspectives to religion, from indigenism to Marxism—and of course the catholic church. These scholars wanted to get a grip on what means to be religious in Peru in order to better understand its people, however they also differed in key ways. For example, some have been concerned with religion as it may relate to establishing enduring political structures, to gain more adherents, or for good old fashioned criticism. Peru is a country rich with not only religious tradition, but also religious innovation. For example, we have both our equivalent of the Popol Vuh, the Dioses y hombres de Huarochirí [1] manuscript from the sixteenth century, and also a Peruvian new religious movement, the Asociación Evangélica de la Misión Israelita del Nuevo Pacto Universal from the twentieth century  as examples; this is why the conference presented different approaches to the study of religious phenomena, and discussed its relevance in the 21st century.

The conference was organized by the Master’s Degree in Sciences of Religion of the Faculty of Social Sciences from Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, represented by its Coordinator, Jaime Regan and myself (Sidney Castillo) as organizer, in collaboration with the Students Center of Anthropology of the same university (CEAN in Spanish) and the Peruvian Academy of the Sciences of Religion (APECREL also in Spanish). The conference featured anthropological researches based on case study and comparative religion approaches, as well as sociological research in the field of secularism and state regulations, and the sciences of religion itself as an academic field. The scholars who participated in the event were Luis Millones (Professor Emeritus of Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos), Diego Huerta (University of Helsinki), Marco Huaco (University of Strasbourg) and Dorothea Ortmann (University of Rostock).

From left to right: Huaco, Castillo, Millones, Ortmann and Huerta. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

From left to right: Huaco, Castillo, Millones, Ortmann and Huerta. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

For myself, as an organizer, it was particularly fulfilling to see the conference auditorium packed and the scholars ready to take the lead on the subject that was of our interest. And it was also fulfilling because we had a lot of competition that day: three academic events in the same faculty at pretty much the same time! We can say then, that people is really getting interested in learning about religion outside mainstream means e.g. churches.

Luis Millones’s talk was about Apostle Santiago and the Moors (Millones : 2015). He presented his latest research done in San Lucas de Colan, a small town within the Paita province in the coastal part of Piura region. His ethnographic research provided an insiders appreciation of the festival offered to Santiago Apostle’s horse, Felipe, in which the image of the patron saint observes the symbolic representation of the horse battling against the Moors. The festival commands both a huge participation on money and coordination from the brotherhood of the saint. Millones viewed this as a means of obtaining prestige among the townsfolk. Interestingly, these kind of festivities are a staple in many different rural and urban places. Particularly, as it’s a way of recreating social bonds with fellow members of the community (or former communities since a lot of people that participate in these celebrations are migrants) by venerating the patron saint and having a huge party lasting several days.

In the second talk, Diego Huerta used a comparative approach in discussing two religious phenomenons comprising some of his past research: the pilgrimage of the Christ of Huamantanga in the outer part of Lima, in the Canta district ; and the (neo)paganism in the urban parts of Lima (Huerta : 2012). His aim was to put into question the factual realization of the secularization process in Peru, in order to examine folk religion and new religious movements as manifestations of an alternative religiosity. Huerta suggested that while the former is more related to popular interpretations of Catholicism, the latter stems more from a product of globalization, embedded in a culture of media driven information on different religious traditions. I found his presentation as indicating that not even tradition is written in stone, tradition changes.

Lawyer, Marco Huaco. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

Lawyer, Marco Huaco. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

In the third presentation, Marco Huaco’s discussed the policy of laicidad, a.k.a. secularism in church-state relations (Huaco : 2013). He detailed the historical trajectory of the Peruvian constitutions, demonstrating their evolution, developing from constitutions of doctrinal confessionality towards constitutions of historical-sociological confessionality, finally arriving to the present day constitution. This constitution acknowledges the Catholic Church an important element of Peruvian society, and allows the State to take part in partnership with other religious denominations. This is highlighted by the 1980 Agreement between the Holy See and Peru, which he explained, has important consequences in the ordering of public policies (e.g., birth control and lgbt rights) and primary education.

The closing presentation was delivered by Dorothea Ortmann. In it, she presented how the Sciences of Religion was first established in Peru (Ortmann: 2002). Ortmann traced the beginnings of this development from the researches of Julio C. Tello, Rafael Larco Hoyle and Luis Válcarcel, where they tried to explain the syncretism process, noting the economic and political implications of these mixtures on many Andean deities. For example, the Lanzon of Chavin de Huantar and the Teja Amaru[2]. Ortmann discussed how researchers utilized the tools from different disciplines to explain this process (e.g. archaeology, linguistics and anthropology), in order to gain a wider overview of the Andean societies.

The variety of research that was presented at the conference allowed Peru’s academic community to gather a comprehensive entry into what the academic study of religion was and is, noting future possibilities for research. In echoing Ortmann’s sentiments, the academic study of religion in Peru has existed, at least to date, due to the personal interests and dedication of lone researchers (largely at their own costs) and not due to established monetary support from institutions. However, while some valuable research has been supported at religiously affiliated institutions (e.g., Centro de Estudios Teológicos de la Amazonía, Instituto de Pastoral Andina with the Allpanchis journal, Instituto Bartolomé de las Casas, Centro de Estudios y Publicaciones) other perspectives are needed, and at further distance from pastoral inspiration. Shedding some level of ties with the insider perspectives often provided via religious institutions will allow Peruvian academics to study religious phenomena from a variety of fresh perspectives[3].

 

That this conference took place at the National University of San Marcos was quite inspiring. This was the first university on the continent with a theology and arts faculty during the second half of the sixteenth century. Now, almost five hundred years later, Peruvian academics still have an interest in studying religion. However, our current perspectives and methodologies are far more diverse, and ever broadening. I remain optimistic that, in the near future, the academic study of religion in Peru will be as widespread and supported as other research areas. No doubt, this will be due in large part to the dedication and interest of Peruvian scholars, as this conference exemplifies.

References

Marzal, Manuel. (1996). “Un siglo de investigación de la religión en el Perú”. Anthropologica. Lima, volumen 14, número 14, pp. 7-28. Accesed on: november 29, 2015. http://revistas.pucp.edu.pe/index.php/anthropologica/article/view/1876/1809

Millones, L. (2015). “Las muchas caras de Santiago, por Luis Millones”. El Comercio. Lima, 01 of August. Accesed on: 04 de agosto de 2015. http://elcomercio.pe/opinion/columnistas/muchas-caras-santiago-luis-millones-noticia-1829935

Huaco, M. (2013). Procesos constituyentes y discursos contra-hegemónicos sobre laicidad, sexualidad y religión: Ecuador, Perú y Bolivia.  Buenos Aires: CLACSO. Accesed on: november 28, 2015.

http://biblioteca.clacso.edu.ar/clacso/sur-sur/20121108040727/ProcesosConstituyentes.pdf

Ortmann, D. (2002). Ciencias de la religión en el Perú. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. Accesed on: november 29, 2015. http://sisbib.unmsm.edu.pe/bibvirtual/libros/sociologia/c_religion/indice.htm

Huerta, D. (2012). De eclécticos e iniciados o una aproximación etnográfica a la práctica del (neo) paganismo en Lima. Licenciate thesis on Social Sciences with mention in Anthropology. Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Faculty of Social Sciences.

 

[1] Gathered by Francisco de Avila around 1598, and then translated from quechua to spanish by Jose Maria Arguedas in the middle of the tweinthieth century, it’s the only text that accounts for the mainstream fundational mythos of Peru, prior to the spaniards arrival.

[2] The first deity refers to a monolith of 4.5 meters located in the Temple of Chavin. It depicted a zooantropomorphic god with feline and avian features (animals found in the jungle and andes respectively), and was the main deity of the Chavin culture (1000 B.C.). The second one refers to a clay shaped tile representing the Amaru god with features of a otorongo (the peruvian feline), symbolizing the resistance of the spanish influence on andean culture. Some of these tiles were found in southern andean part of Peru and date from the early XIX century.

[3] Many scholars of religion like the late Fernando Fuenzalida, Harold Hernández, Jaime Regan, Juan Ossio and our own speakers of the conference have been doing innovative work in this manner, since they have provided great insights regarding new religious movements, andean and amazonian religion, and the relationship of religion and politics.

Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Nonreligion

It is an unfortunate fact that in popular ‘Western’ imagination, the land of India is frequently orientalised, and naively conceptualized as ‘the quintessential land of religion, spirituality, and miracles.’ Although we would certainly not want to completely invert this stereotype by substituting one unnuanced and inaccurate construct for another, what happens when we take a closer look at a constituency who challenge this narrative, those who identify as ‘rationalists’ and engage in the criticism of ‘religion’ in India? One scholar who has done just that is Johannes Quack in his book Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India, published by Oxford in 2012. In this podcast, we discuss Johannes’ ‘relational’ approach to ‘nonreligion,’ before moving to concrete examples from his work in India.

What is a ‘relational approach’ to nonreligion? What does it achieve? What are some of the key characteristics of organized rationalism in India? What does all of this have to do with ‘religion’, ‘non-religion’, ‘atheism’ etc? What does this in-depth ethnographic work in this very particular context contribute to wider academic debates within the study of nonreligion, and religion more broadly?

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, magic wands, faux leather belts and more!

“Practice What You Preach”: CREDs and CRUDs

 

Actions typically speak louder than words. A common version of this statement – practice what you preach – is a popular conversational quip, used by the religious and nonreligious alike to scoff hypocrites. In short, action codifies our cognitive sentiments – our beliefs. It is one thing to say you believe and quite another to act “as if” you believe. We typically take some actions (e.g. going to a church) to both entail, and lend credence to certain beliefs (e.g. believing in the Christian God), as opposed to others (e.g. not believing in a god, or believing in Allah). Nonetheless it is quite possible to attend church or participate in ritual without holding belief in a God or gods (c.f. Silver, Coleman, Hood & Holcombe, 2014). Importantly however, acting on our beliefs only lends CREDibility to them, and not veridicality. Conversely, failing to act on a professed belief has the potential to undermine the credibility of said belief (CRUDs): if it is important to attend church, but no one goes – is it really that important to attend? Moreover, if no one is going to church, maybe belief in God is not that important after all?

Much of the past research in the cognitive sciences of religion (CSR) has dealt primarily with how abstract symbols (minimally counterintuitive content (MCI); e.g. a talking mouse or invisible entities that can communicate with you) are processed by our mental architecture, and easily transmitted within populations due to their conceptual shape (for a critical review see, Purzycki & Willard, practices what they preach (both in and out of the religious domain), they may be seen as credible sources with which to acquire further information from (Henrich, 2009; Lanman, 2012). In this interview with Thomas Coleman, Dr. Jonathan Lanman highlights the role that public displays of commitment (CREDs & CRUDs) play in the acquisition of both belief and nonbelief.

Dr. Lanman begins by discussing his research interests and some of the current work underway at the Institute of Cognition and Culture.  Next, he explains both content and context biases, and briefly outlines the notion of dual-inheritance theory. Importantly, Lanman goes on to emphasize how actions (CREDs), and failing to act (CRUDs), may contribute to the varying levels of religiosity seen throughout the world. In closing, Lanman suggests that while content biases are important for the transmission of religious concepts, they always occur in a given context: “upon initial evidence…[CREDs/CRUDs are] one of the most important factors in determining who ends up a theist and who ends up a nontheist.”

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

References

  • Silver, C. F., Coleman, T. J. III, Hood, R. W. Jr., & Holcombe, J. M., (2014) The Six Types of Nonbelief: A qualitative and quantitative study of type and narrative. Mental Health, Religion & Culture. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13674676.2014.987743
  • Henrich, J. (2009). The evolution of costly displays, cooperation and religion. Evolution And Human Behavior, 30(4), 244-260. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.03.005
  • Lanman, J. (2012). The Importance of Religious Displays for Belief Acquisition and Secularization. Journal Of Contemporary Religion, 27(1), 49-65. doi:10.1080/13537903.2012.642726
  • Purzycki, B. G., & Willard, A. K. (in press). MCI Theory: A Critical Discussion [Target Article with Commentaries]. Religion, Brain and Behavior.

Bricolage

BRICOLAGE: construction (as of a sculpture or a structure of ideas) achieved by using whatever comes to hand; also : something constructed in this way

“Bricolage.” Merriam-Webster.com.

Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1960s and has undergone a complex genealogy of modifications within the sociologies of culture and religion. As Véronique Altglas writes in a forthcoming article, ‘originally a metaphor, “bricolage'” became an anthropological concept to understand cultural and religious creativity, with an emphasis on what organizes it, despite its contingent nature. Transposed in the study of contemporary European societies, bricolage became about what individuals do in relation to cultural practices and lifestyles’ (Altglas Forthcoming).

In this interview with Chris, Altglas – the author of the recent OUP monograph From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage – discusses this complex genealogy, tracing a movement from forms of cultural warfare to ‘playful, postmodern bricoleurs’ – what many might be tempted to dub ‘pick and mix spirituality’. However, as Altglas goes on to demonstrate, with a particular empirical focus upon Hindu-based Yoga centres and the Kabbalah centre, far from a carefree process of shopping at the ‘spiritual supermarket’, ‘the original meanings and otherness of elements used in this religious bricolage matter, and in fact limits, the popularization of “exotic” religions’ (Forthcoming).

IMG_20141112_114757This broad-ranging interview provides a fascinating overview of an important concept that is not only relevant for the study of contemporary ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’, but also speaks to cultural appropriation and construction in general, utilizing a number of stimulating contextual examples along the way. Chris enjoyed the interview so much, he immediately went out and bout Véronique’s book… and he suggests you do too!

This interview was recorded at the European Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference in Belfast in September 2014. You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

Picture-41

Thanks to Culture on the Edge for posting this passage. http://edge.ua.edu/monica-miller/the-myth-of-origins/

References

  • Forthcoming 2015. ‘Bricolage’: Reclaiming a Conceptual Tool. Culture & Religion. 2015. 4.

Prayer, Pretense, and Personification: How God becomes real

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

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

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

group_prayer

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

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

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

Citations