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The Blog Assignment: Confronting “Spirituality” in Teaching Religious Studies

Richard Ascough and Sharday Mosurinjohn

In this second of a two-part series, Richard Ascough adds his voice to Sharday Mosurinjohn’s reflections on a new blog post assignment used in a course on Spirituality, Secularity, and Nonreligion taught through the School of Religion at Queen’s University. In the earlier post, Sharday noted that she learned two key lessons: that students are concerned about what it means to be “critical” in a public posting and that they do not have a level of digital literacy that one might expect in a generation that grew up fully immersed in digital technologies. In this follow-up post, Sharday and Richard discuss strengths and weaknesses in students’ digital literacy and explore how understanding one of the weaknesses might actually help us understand a particularly troublesome religious studies concept – what they consider a “threshold concept.”

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Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam here.

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


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 8 December 2015

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has submitted calls for papers, event notifications, job vacancies, etc. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

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Calls for papers

Journal: Open Theology

Special issue: Multiple Religious Belonging

Deadline: April 1, 2016

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Conference: FINYAR-konferanse 2016: Mellomvesen og mellom vesen: Kommunikasjon i og om nyreligiøsiteten

April 27–28, 2016

Bergen, Norway

Deadline: December 20, 2015

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Conference: NSRN Conference: The Diversity of Nonreligion

July 7–9, 2016

Universität Zürich, Switzerland

Deadline: January 15, 2016

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Conference: SOCREL: Construction and disruption: The power of religion in the public sphere

July 12–14, 2016

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: December 11, 2015

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Conference: BRISMES: Networks: Connecting the Middle East through Time, Space and Cyberspace

July 13–15, 2016

University of Wales, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

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Conference panel: EASR: Relocating Protestants: Pilgrimage and De-/Re-Reformation

June 28–July 1, 2016

Helsinki, Finland

Deadline: December 31, 2015

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Conference panel: EASR: Christianity in diaspora: Ethnographic case studies of religoius practice and identity construction

June 28–July 1, 2016

Helsinki, Finland

Deadline: December 31, 2015

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Conference panel: EASR: Contesting and Relocating Authority

Helsinki, Finland

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Events

Animals in Mesopotamia

December 14–15, 2015

Helsinki, Finland

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Jobs

Assistant Professor: Islamic Studies

Virginia Commonwealth University, USA

Deadline: January 15, 2016

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Assistant Professor, Associate Professor: Roman History and Culture

University of British Columbia, Canada

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Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany

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The Expanding Thought Trench: Ivy League Authority in South Korea

I spent two years as an English teacher in South Korea. I went because they wanted native speakers in their classrooms and promotional photos, particularly young American females, which made the salary tempting due to capitalistic law. Almost everyone I met there was desperate to learn from me, and I taught just about every demographic imaginable. I crawled on the floor with drooling toddlers, sipped Starbucks coffee with black-tie businessmen, gossiped with housewives over kimchi and tea, and kept awake teenagers cramming for exams until nearly midnight on Friday.

For the most part, overlooking several significant outliers, my students’ goals for learning the language was not communication. The goal was advancement within an extremely competitive system. English was the language of authority. It was generally accepted that English-speaking universities were somehow better than their Korean counterparts to the extent that a degree from a brand-name university was claimed to guarantee career success.

As a scholar trained in this university system, I feel the urge now to offer peer-reviewed evidence in support of my claims. The works I have read suggest a link between the demand for English and a mix of economic colonialism and Confucian values.[1] In my experience, this feels true, but these historical forces are expressed in a nuanced way that I have yet to find clearly or comprehensively expressed in literature. But the phenomenon is certainly there, and for my purpose here, its existence is enough.

What is relevant and clear from my experience in relation to the Masuzawa interview, though, is that British and American universities possess significant authority in Korean culture over the accepted way knowledge should be acquired, classified, and acknowledged.

What Masuzawa’s research shows is something both Koreans and Americans often forget: that the university, even the idea of the university as an institution, has a history, and their structures and traditions are less often the products of pure reason and rather products of specific historical circumstances. They are like the humans who made them, creatures of evolution.

More specifically, as Masuzawa chronicles for us, the current knowledge categories of the university were never inevitable nor even are they permanent as they stand. The interview shows us specifically how our current of understanding of religion is particular to our current point in history.

As a student of religious studies raised in the American intellectual tradition, this history, once pointed out, is obvious. Moreover, it is embedded within my language. In English, I can easily think of religion as an abstract concept, and call to mind specific behaviours that I think of as religious. Yet as the history of scholarship on religion shows, defining religion itself is a slippery task and has mostly abandoned.

The ability to be within an institution of knowledge and to still be critical of its foundations and categories is important. We can become aware of the logical fallacies and dialectical reactions within our institutions and work to correct them.

My point, however, is that the history of the university is not well known and perhaps is even willfully ignored in places where a degree from elite universities make significant practical differences. This is not limited to Korea, for these institutions are given similar authority by groups everywhere, even by those who are disenfranchised by that very elitism.[2]

Does it matter that many individuals aspiring so hard to attend these schools do not possess a critical understanding of the unsteady ground upon which disciplines draw their lines? In some senses, perhaps not. In time, and once inside the institutions, these individuals may come to understand their history just as I have.

It’s more likely, though, that in the short term, the authority of the universities will stand in the minds of those sending their children to Ivy Prep Academy.[3] That authority can be good when it sets in place standards and practices which leads to clear thinking. However, it also limits categories of thought by predetermining them.

New ideas begin with critical thinking, which is enhanced by diversity.[4] In Korea, for example, I questioned unfamiliar things, and sometimes the subsequent dialogue hatched new thoughts in myself and my students. The reverse process should occur when Korean students attend elite universities. Unfamiliar with the European cultural traditions and their associated thought trenches, they should question the standards and categories of knowledge. It is likely, though, that because of the status they give to elite universities, such questioning rarely happens. As a result, it is likely that they too will adopt the language of European universalism.

While I respect Masuwaza’s work on many levels, I mostly like it because she reminds me, again and again, to look at my tools of inquiry and see how my tools have shaped what I have found.

[1] A couple of the better titles I have found are the following: 1. Tsui, A. and Tollefson, J. (2007) Language Policy, Culture, and Identity in Asian Contexts. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 2. Sorensen, C. (1994) Success and Education in South Korea. Comparative Education Review. 38(1): 10-35. 3. Lee, S. and Brinton, M. (1996) Elite Education and Social Capital: The Case of South Korea. Sociology of Education. 69(3): 177-192. 4. Seth, M. (2002) Education Fever: Society, Politics, and the Pursuit of Schooling in South Korea. University of Hawaii Press.

[2] Mullen, for example, describes how some high-achieving but less-wealthy students avoid elite schools precisely because of they are elite. Mullen, A. (2009) Elite Destinations: Pathways to Attending an Ivy League University. British Journal of Sociology of Education. 30(1): 15-27.

[3] http://ivyprepacademy.net/pages/team/

[4] The relationship between critical thinking and diversity has often been studied. For example, see Laird, T. (2005). College Students’ Experiences with Diversity and Their Effects on Academic Self-Confidence, Social Agency, and Disposition toward Critical Thinking. Research in Higher Education. 46(4): 365-387.

Lived Religion: Part 2

Meredith McGuire shows how Lived Religion, a concept she has coined, is at the core of this distinction and offers a way of understanding religious experiences as creative, innovative and often unique enactment of power. This can be seen, as shown in one chapter of her book, within gendered spiritualities, as much as in the way she approaches the object of her studies.

In this interview, McGuire draws on her vast experiences on the field to talk about how religion is an embodied phenomenon that ultimately can’t be separated from the cognitive and the social. She also touches on issues of authenticity, normativity and authority in religious and ritual contexts, as well as important methodological aspects of her research.

Martin and Meredith. Part 1 was published on Monday (actually, it was Sunday, because Chris got confused). You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Changing Nature of Religion, Believing in Belonging, and Religious Experience.

Lived Religion: Part 1

Meredith McGuire shows how Lived Religion, a concept she has coined, is at the core of this distinction and offers a way of understanding religious experiences as creative, innovative and often unique enactment of power. This can be seen, as shown in one chapter of her book, within gendered spiritualities, as much as in the way she approaches the object of her studies.

In this interview, McGuire draws on her vast experiences on the field to talk about how religion is an embodied phenomenon that ultimately can’t be separated from the cognitive and the social. She also touches on issues of authenticity, normativity and authority in religious and ritual contexts, as well as important methodological aspects of her research.

Martin and Meredith. Part 2 will be published on Wednesday. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Changing Nature of Religion, Believing in Belonging, and Religious Experience.

Suspicious Minds? Mentalizing, Religious Hypocrisy and Apostasy

Put simply, ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM) and its associated near-cognates (mentalizing, mind reading, social cognition) refer to the socially indispensable human capacity to attribute mental states to others, thereby comprehending them as agents whose behaviour is driven by internal motivations. Generally this capacity is thought to arise in a predictable manner in the development of neurotypical individuals. Of course, this picture of ToM is not without its controversies: there is currently debate about whether, at least in more subtle aspects, it may actually be a culturally variable acquired skill; questions remain about how exactly it ‘works’ (i.e. through simulation, through the construction of naïve theories, or both); and the entire construct has been criticised as needing fractionation into more specific sub-mechanisms (Schaafsma et al, 2015). However, the main point here is to assess how the ToM construct has been applied in the cognitive science of religion (CSR), and in this respect it has been fertile indeed.

In his RSP interview Dr. Gervais gives us a clear and concise tour of many of the fundamental ways in which ToM is put to work in CSR (for a more in-depth treatment, see Gervais, 2013). The essential point is that we humans are so very primed to think in terms of agency that we overdetect it in (or overapply it to) our environments and this leads to the success of supernatural agent concepts which trigger the misattribution of mental states in ways that are intuitively compelling. ToM thus doesn’t ‘produce’ religious beliefs per se, but it does mould the forms they are likely to take; in the putative epidemiological struggle of concept against concept, we have a content bias to prefer those harnessing notions of agency. One branch of evidence for this comes in the form of Dr. Gervais’ own work, which suggests that there is a small but significant correlation between mentalizing fluency and willingness to entertain belief in supernatural agents (Norenzayan et al, 2012).

Content biases are not the only point of intersection between ToM and belief in supernatural agents, however. In some cases ToM itself may be purposefully manipulated through forms of practice to produce religiously ‘meaningful’ experiences. For example, Luhrmann’s ethnographic work describes the process whereby charismatic ‘Vineyard’ evangelicals painstakingly learn to ‘misrecognise’ some of their own cognitions as external thoughts channelled into their heads by Jesus, thereby ‘hearing His voice’ (Luhrman, 2012). Furthermore, as Gervais himself observes, content biases can explain why certain concepts are intuitively attention-grabbing, but not why people commit to the concepts they do (this is known as the Zeus problem – see Gervais & Henrich, 2010). In certain circumstances people may even commit to ‘concepts’ that cannot be grasped at all; Sperber’s largely ignored theory of the ‘guru effect’ – the tendency, visible in some religious contexts, to meta-represent recondite utterances as profoundly meaningful if they emanate from esteemed sources of authority – marks one interesting potential bias enabled by content that defies successful representation as opposed to content that ‘sticks in the mind’ (Sperber, 2010). More generally, context biases – namely biases to selectively attend to information based on features of its source – are also a factor of specific relevance to religious transmission. How many other people in our social circle hold the belief? Did we hear it from someone prestigious who is likely to be a source of fitness enhancing information? Did we hear it from someone we can trust – and how do we know they believe what they say they do?

One influential context bias proposed in the CSR literature is the CRED (Credibility Enhancing Display – Henrich, 2009): the idea that, due to the manipulative potential inherent in language, cultural learners have evolved the precautionary tendency to scrutinise cultural models for behavioural confirmation of commitment to stated beliefs. Accordingly, belief transmission, particularly in the case of empirically unverifiable beliefs, is strengthened when models ‘practice what they preach.’ Thus religious beliefs accompanied by costly actions the believer would not undertake if they did not believe what they said they did – painful or time-consuming rituals, charity, celibacy, martyrdom – will transmit more successfully than those that lack such trappings.

Suspecting another’s internal motivations of diverging from their stated intentions is a mentalizing operation if ever there was one. But if such a bias is exploited via CREDs to facilitate religious transmission, might there not also be scenarios in which similar capacities serve to actively undermine belief? Is irreligion aided simply by the absence of contextual cues to religiosity, or might there also be contextual cues to irreligion? As opposed to CREDs, my own research investigates ‘CRUDs’ – credibility undermining displays. In particular, I am interested in how displays by religious paragons which contradict expressed statements of belief may be uniquely corrosive to the religious certainty of believers. One does not need to look for long to locate examples of the connection between the attribution of insincerity to religious paragons and religious scepticism. New atheist forums are frequently aflame with outrage at perceived religious hypocrisy[i], and it often also features in atheist ‘conversion narratives’ (Wright et al, 2010). The steep and ongoing decline in Catholicism is often partially attributed to the clerical abuse scandals, and in particular the promulgation of such scandals in the media has been linked by sociologists to an acceleration in Irish secularisation since the early 1990s (Donnelly & Inglis, 2009). Indeed, modern methods of information exchange, through their reach and permanence, compound the problem of scandal for religion by tapping into the regulatory pan-human phenomenon of gossip: Mormonism, for example, seems to be currently experiencing a crisis of faith due to online revelations about Joseph Smith’s amorous adventures. Indeed, historically speaking, the credibility undermining display was effective enough to have been used as a form of counter-propaganda, at least in reported form; mediaeval anti-heresy tracts revelled in such rhetoric, describing heretics[ii] as ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ who preached chastity, compassion and asceticism while secretly indulging in orgies, rendering infants down into ceremonial black paste, and drinking toad excrement.

Perhaps part of the reason the relationship between mentalizing and suspicion of religious truth-claims has yet to come into focus in CSR may be due to an unspoken tendency to view ToM as an impartial would-be ‘mirror’ of sorts; though it errs and though its sensitivity may be extremely overtuned, we ultimately evolved the capacity in order to acquire optimally accurate representations of our own and others’ psychological motivations in order to facilitate cooperation. Much research in social psychology, however, would suggest that people can in fact be unkindly biased in the mental states they attribute to others versus those they attribute to themselves (Monin & Merritt, 2010). Moral failings are far more often seen as the results of malign intentions if performed by others, others’ pieties are often written off as the result of self-serving motivations, while individuals frequently overestimate the depth of their own moral commitment. It might be said that ToM seeks truth – insofar as it is useful for action. ToM is surely better seen as intertwined with and influenced by a range of other factors prioritising such phenomena as moral policing and deception-enhancing self-deception, frequently not so much an accurate gauge of others’ motivations as a cautiously (or opportunistically?) harsh one. Given these considerations, we might wonder about the relative potency of CREDs versus CRUDs. Such biases should mean that even a fairly insignificant act could trigger a CRUD warning; unlike with religiously bolstering displays, there is no ‘costliness’ barrier between an act of religious hypocrisy and its potential effects on belief. In fact, there may on the contrary be a heightened sensitivity to such transgressions.

Of course, there are many complexities to be teased apart here: Are some believers more prone to scepticism upon witnessing contradictory statement/behaviour pairings than others, and why might this be so? If CRUDs are so potent, then how do various religious traditions cope with them, and are some particularly vulnerable (see, for example, Wollschleger & Beach, 2011)? Might CRUDs affect theistic belief per se or only religious affiliation? And how does the issue of harm combine with religious hypocrisy in producing any putative effects on belief and/or affiliation (i.e. eating fish on a Friday versus abusing children)? It is possible that if religious scandals/hypocrisy can be a partial driver of religious decline, there may be at least two separable but intertwined psychological effects going on: CRUD-based socio-cognitive belief-scepticism on the one hand and institutional disaffiliation stemming from moral contempt on the other.

References

Donnely, S. & Inglis, T. (2009). “The Media and the Catholic Church in Ireland: Reporting Clerical Child Sex Abuse.” Journal of Contemporary Religion, 25:1, 1 – 19

Gervais, W. M. (2013). “Perceiving Minds and Gods: How Mind Perception Enables, Constrains and Is Triggered by Belief in Gods.” Perspectives in Psychological Science 8(4), 380 -394.

Gervais, W.M. & Henrich, J. (2010). “The Zeus Problem: Why Representational Content Biases Cannot Explain Faith in Gods.” Journal of Cognition and Culture, 10, 383 – 389

Henrich, J. (2009). “The evolution of costly displays, cooperation, and religion: Credibility enhancing displays and their implications for cultural evolution.” Evolution and Human Behaviour, 30, 244 – 260

Luhrmann, T. (2012). When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Vintage.

Monin, B. & Merritt, A. (2010). “Moral hypocrisy, moral inconsistency, and the struggle for moral integrity.” M. Mikulincer & P. Shaver (Eds.), The social psychology of morality: Exploring the causes of good and evil, Herzliya Series on Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 3, American Psychological Association.

Norenzayan, A., Gervais, W. M., & Trzesniewski, K. H. (2012). “Mentalizing deficits constrain belief in a personal god.” PLoS ONE, 7, e36880.

Schaafsma, S., Pfaff, D., Spunt, R., & Adoplhs, R. (2015) “Deconstructing and Reconstructing Theory of Mind.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19(2), 65-72

Sperber, D. (2010). Sperber, D. (2010). The Guru Effect. Review of Philosophy & Psychology, 1 (4), 583-592

Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Belknap Harvard

Wollschleger, J. & Beach, L. (2011). “A cucumber for a cow: a theoretical explanation of the causes and consequences of religious hypocrisy.” Rationality and Society, 23 (2), 155 – 174

Wright, B., Giovanelli, D., Dolan, E. & Edwards, M. (2011). “Explaining Deconversion from Christianity: A Study of Online Narratives.” Journal of Religion and Society, 13, 1-17

[i] Interestingly, this often includes both the hypocrisy of believers and also God’s own hypocrisy, i.e. theodicy.

[ii] And of course heretical movements have often been partially attributed to Church failings – simony, nepotism, corruption, venality and so on. I don’t assume here that the CRUD leads straight from orthodoxy to atheism by any means, but rather to scepticism about the expressed representation; historical and cultural context is key, and where theism is the inescapable idiom of the age, schism is the more likely outcome. The link to atheism becomes possible where it has come to exist as an option (i.e. Taylor, 2007).

Religious Authority in a Post-Religious Society

The question of charismatic and spiritual authority has become ever more relevant in present day Japan, which is an exceedingly “non-religious but spiritual” nation. In her interview, Dr. Erica Baffelli introduces us to a wide variety of perspectives on creating, distributing, maintaining and defending religious authority that can be found within Japanese new religious movements (NRMs). Japanese religious leaders operate in a complex social landscape in which they must constantly maneuver between tradition and modernity, specificity and universalism, nation and world, in their quest for legitimacy. The variety of approaches that can be found among NRMs, and the persistence of non-Western views of history and ritual that call the applicability of the category “religion” into question, make the country’s religious landscape difficult to characterize, but Dr. Baffelli does an admirable job of summarizing some major avenues of study into Japanese religious authority.

As Dr. Baffelli and her interviewer describe, religious authority in Japan can be analyzed through categories such as space, body, text, politics, media, and technology. The differences between Japanese and Western formations of these subjects, as well as the diversity within Japan, can help shed light on the assumptions we make about how authority is acquired and asserted. For example, Western understandings of religious text are closely linked to the concept of a “scripture,” a divinely inspired, normative document. But Japan has traditionally had many different kinds of religious text, which are not necessarily considered inspired or treated as normative. Japanese NRMs offer us many different ways to derive authority from a text.

Dr. Baffelli points to a recent article by Clark Chilson, “Cultivating Charisma: Ikeda Daisaku’s Self Presentations and Transformational Leadership”, which is an excellent study of the Sōka Gakkai leader’s use of text, primarily the roman à clef epic Human Revolution, to distribute authority to his readers. As Chilson describes it, Ikeda’s readers are apprentices as he once was. They have been initiated into his path to the Truth and are now striving to mature their own capacities for leadership. Ikeda’s text describes how his authority was not granted to him exclusively, but was acquired through experience and can be passed on to any Gakkai member. Ikeda is thus preparing the Gakkai to manage institutional authority and power long after he himself is gone.

Ikeda’s magnum opus makes for a sharp contrast with the texts of Ōkawa Ryūhō, founder of the NRM called, in English, Happy Science. Ōkawa’s many speeches and books make it evident that his authority belongs to him alone, through his hidden identity as God the Father, and cannot be acquired by anyone else. Ōkawa’s ability to expound on the past and future of humanity, and to channel the higher spirit of any human or extraterrestrial being, living or dead, makes reading his books a lesson in simple “awareness” of his omniscience, not an instruction manual for those who would want to maintain his sect in future generations.

The bumpy transition from charismatic to institutional authority has been a key turning point in many Japanese NRMs. Dr. Baffelli states that many groups find comfortable rule by a group of experienced members to be preferable to a continuation of unruly charismatic leadership. But the sudden loss of a charismatic leader just as frequently causes an NRM to lose its direction and unity. In a 2007 article, “Shifting Paradigms and Mediating Media,” Christal Whelan described how an NRM called God Light Association underwent radical changes and splits following the loss of its leader, Takahashi Shinji. Members in Osaka continued to revere Takahashi by watching videos of his glossolalic interpretations, while members in Tokyo reorganized around his daughter Keiko , who rebuilt the group into a completely different therapeutic program. Still other members joined Ōkawa Ryūhō at Happy Science, or another NRM known as Pana Wave Laboratory.

A notable point made at the end of this interview deserves the attention of scholars of religion. Since the 1980s, the innumerable thousands of organized Japanese NRMs, called shinshūkyō in Japanese, have been losing members. The 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyō, an esoteric NRM which had attracted the support of several Japanese religious scholars, certainly hastened criticism of NRMs in public discourse, but the trend away from NRMs did not begin with Aum. Since the 1980s, social and economic pressures to stay within mainstream society have become more prominent, and spiritually minded individuals more often seek more limited, loosely bonded participation in New Age-style modes of thought, dubbed “new spirituality movements” by Shimazono Susumu (c.f. Shimazono 2004).

But questions of charismatic, spiritual, and institutional authority remain with us. The scholarly work on NRMs is by no means outdated, but, in fact, is increasing in relevance as we try to make sense of Shimazono’s NSMs. From crystal healing and Reiki, to millenarian “ascension,” to attendance at shrines, to therapeutic forms of mass communication, NSMs are everywhere in 21st century Japan, and with them come new questions about how spiritual institutions can aid the bricoleurs who wander their way, and what sort of authority is possible in such loosely connected interactions.

In his book, “Spiritual” wa naze hayaru no ka, journalist Isomura Kentarō offers the counterintuitive but revealing example of an e-mail list and blog run by former video game designer Itoi Shigesato, which offers self-help advice and pick-me ups to roughly a hundred thousand subscribers every day. Readers are devoted to the heartwarming writings of Itoi, who is affectionately dubbed “Darling,” but when they bring up his blog posts in everyday life, they frequently get the impression of being perceived as adherents of a religious cult. Having discovered his charismatic authority, Itoi now has the full-time job of delicately managing a small media empire while avoiding the stain of religiousness. He aims to produce messages and physical products (most notably, a fancy notebook called the Hobonichi Planner) that readers will enjoy, but not to draw them in as closely as an NRM leader would have done.

A similar phenomenon is happening even in overtly spiritual movements. I will soon begin a study of a loose network of readers of the channeled text Hitsuki Shinji. After being the focus of two NRMs in the postwar years, the lengthy text was virtually abandoned until the 1990s, when the writer Nakaya Shin’ichi began publishing dozens of books offering a spiritually minded exegesis. But until this year, Nakaya’s interactions with his readers have been limited to a monthly magazine and public talks. Similar to Itoi’s mailing list, the text has been offered as a direct reading experience unmediated by any organization, and its implementation has been essentially left to the individual. But starting this spring, Nakaya intends to take the risk of forming a more tight-knit group and asserting authority as the text’s chief interpreter. Can an NSM be transformed into an NRM? The answer to this will be found in the complex social landscape of modern religious authority.

References

Chilson, Clark. 2014. “Cultivating Charisma: Ikeda Daisaku’s Self Presentations and Transformational Leadership” Journal of Global Buddhism, vol. 15, pp. 65-78

Isomura Kentarō. 2010. “Spiritual” wa naze hayaru no ka. PHP Kenkyūjo.

Whelan, Christal. 2007. “Shifting Paradigms and Mediating Media: Redefining a New Religion as ‘Rational’ in Contemporary Society.” Nova Religio, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 54-72

Shimazono Susumu. 2004. From Salvation to Spirituality: Popular Religious Movements in Modern Japan. Trans Pacific Press.

Religion and Authority in Asia

Given its contextual and perspectival malleability, the notion of ‘authority’, and even more so of ‘religious authority’, is challenging to define and to study. In October 2014, a number of scholars working on both ‘traditional’ and new modes of authority gathered for the Religious Authority in Asia: Problems and Strategies of Recognition workshop, which was funded by the Dr Erica Baffelli who in today’s interview with Paulina Kolata discusses the notion of authority and charismatic leadership in the context of her research on New and ‘New’ New religions in contemporary Japan.

It seems that the most problematic issue in discussions on authority in the Japanese religious context and beyond is the very recognition and identification of its existence and its impact on communities at trans-national, national and local levels. The assertion of authority can be perceived through the prism of the scholarly discourse on religions, relationships between religious specialists and their supporting communities, and the state-religion interface. There are two watershed dates – 1946 and 1995 – and the events associated with them can be considered as crucial in shaping the socio-economic and political conditions of the religious power struggle in Japanese society in post-war Japan. The first date is linked to the promulgation of the new post-war constitution which sanctioned freedom of religious belief, and separated religion and the state.  The second marks the date of an act of domestic terrorism – the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway – perpetrated by members of new religious group Aum Shinrikyō led by a charismatic figure of Asahara Shōkō. Listen to Erica Baffelli talk charisma, leadership and the media in assertion of religious authority in the context of New Religions in Japan.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with Pauline Hope Cheong on Religious Authority and Social Media.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, pet food, socks, digital radios, action figures, and more.

L Connelly Image

Authority Online: Construction and Implications

Authority Online: Construction and Implications

By Louise Connelly, University of Edinburgh, UK

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

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

Strategic Arbitration & Performance

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

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

New and evolving research

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

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

Virtual Buddhism and Authority

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

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

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

Additional Resources

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

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

References

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

Religious Authority and Social Media

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

As Cheong herself writes:

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

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

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

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

References and Further Reading

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

Networked religion, blurring boundaries and shifts in the field of authority

Central to questions of authority is the ability to define the tradition; to define how scripture should be interpreted, and to tell orthodoxy from heresy.

A freehand commentary, published by the Religious Studies Project on 12 June 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Heidi Campbell on Religion in a Networked Society (10 June 2013)

The past 15 years or so have witnessed a period of swift development of the World Wide Web and a wide range of other information and communication technologies (ICTs).  It has also become a truism that individuals, communities and cultures are more interconnected than ever before. This can be seen in all areas of life from economics and entertainment to education, and politics. Religion is no exception, and scholars of religious phenomena have increasingly turned their gaze to the ways in which these new technological possibilities affect religious communities.  As the field of interest has developed, researcher’s foci and insights have followed suit.

The Religious Studies Project’s interview with Heidi Campbell focuses mainly on her recently published article which examines the emergence of both online religion and the way scholars have approached this phenomenon. A key aspect examined in the article is the blurring boundaries between religion online and offline. Campbell uses the term ‘networked religion’ to better grasp the phenomenon.

The questions addressed in the interview are hugely interesting, and the topic is also a tricky one. The impact modern ICTs have on religious communities and religious activity must be mapped in an increasingly fluid and rapidly changing environment, in which distinctions between online and offline, public and private, as well as member and non-member is difficult, and often impossible, to maintain.

Blurred boundaries

Even though it is still technically possible to talk about time spent online and offline, this distinction is, according to Campbell, becoming more and more blurred. In everyday experience, this development seems fairly self-evident, as it is facilitated by the evolving communication technologies themselves. 15 years ago most people only had access to Internet from one or two, clearly defined geographical locations. For me, these were the family computer in our living room, and the single enormous PC with Internet access at the local library (under the watchful eye of the librarian). Growing connection speeds, the development of smart phones and tablets, and increasingly widespread access to wireless networks has made the Internet available almost everywhere. Consequently, ‘being online’ may – and in many cases, has – become a constant feature of everyday life.

Heidi Campbell uses the term networked religion to describe the more or less fused online/offline religion emerging in the digital age. With this term, Campbell wishes to point out how religion has been affected by the new ‘socio-technological infrastructure’ and its logic, much like all other areas of society. The term ‘network’ is probably most well-known from Manuel Castells’ extensive work on the emergence of the network society and the various social implications of the development of ICTs. Network has become a common metaphor in social sciences, but also outside academia.

Campbell mentions five core aspects that constitute a networked religion. These are convergent practice, multisite reality, network community, storied identity and shifts in authority. Although the names are different and the topic discussed here more specialized, these themes strike a familiar chord to many general sociological accounts of developments in contemporary religiosity. Dr Teemu Taira, for example, has written on ‘liquid religiosity’ (2006), which he describes as being individualistic and this-worldly in orientation. In Taira’s view this type of religiosity typically emphasizes the authority of the individual. Spiritual seekership and mix-and-match religiosity is accepted and common. Community formations are often loose networks or ‘coatrack communities’ where individuals come and go as they please. All sorts of religious and spiritual self-help materials, fairs, teachers and groups form a fluid milieu, in which people create their individual spiritual roadmaps – or ‘storied identities’, to borrow Campbell’s terminology.

Even though Taira’s work operates on a rather general level and does not focus on the Internet or ICTs, they are clearly present in his views. Where else can you find as liquid religion as on the Internet, where moving from one society and information source to another is only a matter of clicking a mouse?

An interesting question is, how do we research this type of religiosity and religious communities that are ‘liquid’ or in the state of ‘flux’? I for one am only beginning to examine these tricky methodological issues. On a more quantitative level, all sorts of new computer programs for data mining and network analysis are being developed rapidly. Ethnographically, though, how is it possible to fruitfully approach this kind of networked religion which stretches over the divide between online communities and offline environments, in which memberships are not clearly defined, and even the teachings are more or less open source, available for use and modification?  I am eagerly looking forward to innovative approaches.

Religion and technology

New technologies affect religious practices both directly and indirectly. Religions old and new take up these new tools and move in to these new forums, actively adopting innovative ways of organization, communication and attracting members. Needless to say, these new possibilities are not merely a passive medium in the hands of religion. They may well give rise to new questions and challenges, ranging from practical issues, to ethical and theological dilemmas. They may also affect the expectations people have of their community and of life in general. Some forms of religion handle these changes well, others less so.

New technologies allow for new possibilities for organizing communities, and for communication within communities as well as with the surrounding society. They also create new possibilities for thought and imagination, and so may affect values, expectations, and even inspire the creation of new religions.

An example of such connection between technology and religious thought is presented by Jeremy Stolow in his article Salvation by Electricity (2008). His article examines the relationship between the Spiritualist movement of the early 19th century and the newly invented telegraph. Stolow examines the ways in which Spiritualism developed hand in hand with the new technologies, and how both its ideas and the formation of the movement were in many ways facilitated by the technology. To put things briefly, on a material level, the telegraph made it possible to create loose grassroots networks and share ideas globally. Spirit mediums also found publicity and possibilities of voicing their opinions, thereby challenging powers that be and negotiating anew the existing locations of authority.

On a less tangible level, the new technologies brought with themselves very powerful new imageries. In Spiritualism, one of the most powerful images was electricity. Similarly, the Internet and other ICTs may also have an effect on new religious imaginations. There are religious groups that can be reasonably called digitally based. They may have existed before the Internet started spreading, but the Internet has given them the kind of environment where they can create a relatively free community. One interesting example is the Open Source Religion Project, an online community in which people discuss and debate religious ideas. As the name suggests, Open Source Religion shares the logic of collectively creating something that everyone can develop and improve.

Shifts in authority

The questions of networked religion are also central to my own research project. I am currently studying the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a quasi-religious community that is usually categorized as a spoof religion or a satire with political aims. The aim of my study is to examine precisely the blurring of boundaries – not only the border between online and offline, but also the blurring between the realms of public and private, and of religion, humour and politics.

Campbell notes that, on the one hand, religious communities and individuals online may challenge the authority of traditional authorities. On the other, these traditional authorities themselves have in some cases begun to use these new spaces to reassert their authority. Even the pope has a twitter account.

Central to questions of authority is the ability to define the tradition; to define how scripture should be interpreted, and to tell orthodoxy from heresy.  In the case of many new religious movements, such as some neo-pagan groups, it is not so much about definitions within the tradition but the category of religion in general. This is especially visible in cases where a religious community attempts become a state-recognized religious institution. Having been denied this status, these movements often claim that the definitions used in this legal framework are biased in favour of more established scriptural religions, often Christianity. This in turn creates interesting dilemmas for the state, as it has to define what a religion is and what it is not. Religion was, after all, supposed to be private and consequently not a political issue.

All in all, the interview with Professor Campbell gives a good, concise account on where the development of religion online seems to be headed. This is no small achievement, given the huge complexity of the field of online religion, and I am looking forward to getting my hands on her article. A small problem in general summaries like this is that they often tend to lose edge and become difficult to grasp and apply on a more concrete level.  Nevertheless, I think networked religion seems like a promising tool in examining the messy reality.  In this commentary I have tried to open up some possible fields where Campbell’s formulations could be taken and applied to. The next step is the quest for fruitful research methods…

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

About the Author

Digital CameraHanna Lehtinen is a graduate student and currently an intern in Comparative religion in Turku University, Finland. She is working on her MA thesis on the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Her research interests include parody religions, religious innovation, evolving discourse on religion, and power relations in general. She has also written the essays Divine Inspiration Revisited and What should we do with the study of new religions? for the Religious Studies Project.

 

References

  • Stolow, Jeremy. 2008. Salvation by Electricity pp. 668–686 in Hent de Vries (ed.) 2008: Religion. Beyond a Concept. New York: Fordham.
  • Taira, Teemu. 2006. Notkea uskonto. Published in Eetos-series. Turku: Eetos.

Podcasts

The Blog Assignment: Confronting “Spirituality” in Teaching Religious Studies

Richard Ascough and Sharday Mosurinjohn

In this second of a two-part series, Richard Ascough adds his voice to Sharday Mosurinjohn’s reflections on a new blog post assignment used in a course on Spirituality, Secularity, and Nonreligion taught through the School of Religion at Queen’s University. In the earlier post, Sharday noted that she learned two key lessons: that students are concerned about what it means to be “critical” in a public posting and that they do not have a level of digital literacy that one might expect in a generation that grew up fully immersed in digital technologies. In this follow-up post, Sharday and Richard discuss strengths and weaknesses in students’ digital literacy and explore how understanding one of the weaknesses might actually help us understand a particularly troublesome religious studies concept – what they consider a “threshold concept.”

Read more

Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam 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, Tiger Balm, and more.


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


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 8 December 2015

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April 27–28, 2016

Bergen, Norway

Deadline: December 20, 2015

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Conference: NSRN Conference: The Diversity of Nonreligion

July 7–9, 2016

Universität Zürich, Switzerland

Deadline: January 15, 2016

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Conference: SOCREL: Construction and disruption: The power of religion in the public sphere

July 12–14, 2016

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: December 11, 2015

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Conference: BRISMES: Networks: Connecting the Middle East through Time, Space and Cyberspace

July 13–15, 2016

University of Wales, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

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Conference panel: EASR: Relocating Protestants: Pilgrimage and De-/Re-Reformation

June 28–July 1, 2016

Helsinki, Finland

Deadline: December 31, 2015

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Conference panel: EASR: Christianity in diaspora: Ethnographic case studies of religoius practice and identity construction

June 28–July 1, 2016

Helsinki, Finland

Deadline: December 31, 2015

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Conference panel: EASR: Contesting and Relocating Authority

Helsinki, Finland

Deadline: December 31, 2015

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Events

Animals in Mesopotamia

December 14–15, 2015

Helsinki, Finland

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Jobs

Assistant Professor: Islamic Studies

Virginia Commonwealth University, USA

Deadline: January 15, 2016

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Assistant Professor, Associate Professor: Roman History and Culture

University of British Columbia, Canada

Deadline: January 16, 2016

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Postdoc Position

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany

Deadline: February 14, 2016

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Assistant Professor, Associate Professor: Japanese Religions

McGill University, Canada

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Coventry University, UK

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The Expanding Thought Trench: Ivy League Authority in South Korea

I spent two years as an English teacher in South Korea. I went because they wanted native speakers in their classrooms and promotional photos, particularly young American females, which made the salary tempting due to capitalistic law. Almost everyone I met there was desperate to learn from me, and I taught just about every demographic imaginable. I crawled on the floor with drooling toddlers, sipped Starbucks coffee with black-tie businessmen, gossiped with housewives over kimchi and tea, and kept awake teenagers cramming for exams until nearly midnight on Friday.

For the most part, overlooking several significant outliers, my students’ goals for learning the language was not communication. The goal was advancement within an extremely competitive system. English was the language of authority. It was generally accepted that English-speaking universities were somehow better than their Korean counterparts to the extent that a degree from a brand-name university was claimed to guarantee career success.

As a scholar trained in this university system, I feel the urge now to offer peer-reviewed evidence in support of my claims. The works I have read suggest a link between the demand for English and a mix of economic colonialism and Confucian values.[1] In my experience, this feels true, but these historical forces are expressed in a nuanced way that I have yet to find clearly or comprehensively expressed in literature. But the phenomenon is certainly there, and for my purpose here, its existence is enough.

What is relevant and clear from my experience in relation to the Masuzawa interview, though, is that British and American universities possess significant authority in Korean culture over the accepted way knowledge should be acquired, classified, and acknowledged.

What Masuzawa’s research shows is something both Koreans and Americans often forget: that the university, even the idea of the university as an institution, has a history, and their structures and traditions are less often the products of pure reason and rather products of specific historical circumstances. They are like the humans who made them, creatures of evolution.

More specifically, as Masuzawa chronicles for us, the current knowledge categories of the university were never inevitable nor even are they permanent as they stand. The interview shows us specifically how our current of understanding of religion is particular to our current point in history.

As a student of religious studies raised in the American intellectual tradition, this history, once pointed out, is obvious. Moreover, it is embedded within my language. In English, I can easily think of religion as an abstract concept, and call to mind specific behaviours that I think of as religious. Yet as the history of scholarship on religion shows, defining religion itself is a slippery task and has mostly abandoned.

The ability to be within an institution of knowledge and to still be critical of its foundations and categories is important. We can become aware of the logical fallacies and dialectical reactions within our institutions and work to correct them.

My point, however, is that the history of the university is not well known and perhaps is even willfully ignored in places where a degree from elite universities make significant practical differences. This is not limited to Korea, for these institutions are given similar authority by groups everywhere, even by those who are disenfranchised by that very elitism.[2]

Does it matter that many individuals aspiring so hard to attend these schools do not possess a critical understanding of the unsteady ground upon which disciplines draw their lines? In some senses, perhaps not. In time, and once inside the institutions, these individuals may come to understand their history just as I have.

It’s more likely, though, that in the short term, the authority of the universities will stand in the minds of those sending their children to Ivy Prep Academy.[3] That authority can be good when it sets in place standards and practices which leads to clear thinking. However, it also limits categories of thought by predetermining them.

New ideas begin with critical thinking, which is enhanced by diversity.[4] In Korea, for example, I questioned unfamiliar things, and sometimes the subsequent dialogue hatched new thoughts in myself and my students. The reverse process should occur when Korean students attend elite universities. Unfamiliar with the European cultural traditions and their associated thought trenches, they should question the standards and categories of knowledge. It is likely, though, that because of the status they give to elite universities, such questioning rarely happens. As a result, it is likely that they too will adopt the language of European universalism.

While I respect Masuwaza’s work on many levels, I mostly like it because she reminds me, again and again, to look at my tools of inquiry and see how my tools have shaped what I have found.

[1] A couple of the better titles I have found are the following: 1. Tsui, A. and Tollefson, J. (2007) Language Policy, Culture, and Identity in Asian Contexts. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 2. Sorensen, C. (1994) Success and Education in South Korea. Comparative Education Review. 38(1): 10-35. 3. Lee, S. and Brinton, M. (1996) Elite Education and Social Capital: The Case of South Korea. Sociology of Education. 69(3): 177-192. 4. Seth, M. (2002) Education Fever: Society, Politics, and the Pursuit of Schooling in South Korea. University of Hawaii Press.

[2] Mullen, for example, describes how some high-achieving but less-wealthy students avoid elite schools precisely because of they are elite. Mullen, A. (2009) Elite Destinations: Pathways to Attending an Ivy League University. British Journal of Sociology of Education. 30(1): 15-27.

[3] http://ivyprepacademy.net/pages/team/

[4] The relationship between critical thinking and diversity has often been studied. For example, see Laird, T. (2005). College Students’ Experiences with Diversity and Their Effects on Academic Self-Confidence, Social Agency, and Disposition toward Critical Thinking. Research in Higher Education. 46(4): 365-387.

Lived Religion: Part 2

Meredith McGuire shows how Lived Religion, a concept she has coined, is at the core of this distinction and offers a way of understanding religious experiences as creative, innovative and often unique enactment of power. This can be seen, as shown in one chapter of her book, within gendered spiritualities, as much as in the way she approaches the object of her studies.

In this interview, McGuire draws on her vast experiences on the field to talk about how religion is an embodied phenomenon that ultimately can’t be separated from the cognitive and the social. She also touches on issues of authenticity, normativity and authority in religious and ritual contexts, as well as important methodological aspects of her research.

Martin and Meredith. Part 1 was published on Monday (actually, it was Sunday, because Chris got confused). You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Changing Nature of Religion, Believing in Belonging, and Religious Experience.

Lived Religion: Part 1

Meredith McGuire shows how Lived Religion, a concept she has coined, is at the core of this distinction and offers a way of understanding religious experiences as creative, innovative and often unique enactment of power. This can be seen, as shown in one chapter of her book, within gendered spiritualities, as much as in the way she approaches the object of her studies.

In this interview, McGuire draws on her vast experiences on the field to talk about how religion is an embodied phenomenon that ultimately can’t be separated from the cognitive and the social. She also touches on issues of authenticity, normativity and authority in religious and ritual contexts, as well as important methodological aspects of her research.

Martin and Meredith. Part 2 will be published on Wednesday. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Changing Nature of Religion, Believing in Belonging, and Religious Experience.

Suspicious Minds? Mentalizing, Religious Hypocrisy and Apostasy

Put simply, ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM) and its associated near-cognates (mentalizing, mind reading, social cognition) refer to the socially indispensable human capacity to attribute mental states to others, thereby comprehending them as agents whose behaviour is driven by internal motivations. Generally this capacity is thought to arise in a predictable manner in the development of neurotypical individuals. Of course, this picture of ToM is not without its controversies: there is currently debate about whether, at least in more subtle aspects, it may actually be a culturally variable acquired skill; questions remain about how exactly it ‘works’ (i.e. through simulation, through the construction of naïve theories, or both); and the entire construct has been criticised as needing fractionation into more specific sub-mechanisms (Schaafsma et al, 2015). However, the main point here is to assess how the ToM construct has been applied in the cognitive science of religion (CSR), and in this respect it has been fertile indeed.

In his RSP interview Dr. Gervais gives us a clear and concise tour of many of the fundamental ways in which ToM is put to work in CSR (for a more in-depth treatment, see Gervais, 2013). The essential point is that we humans are so very primed to think in terms of agency that we overdetect it in (or overapply it to) our environments and this leads to the success of supernatural agent concepts which trigger the misattribution of mental states in ways that are intuitively compelling. ToM thus doesn’t ‘produce’ religious beliefs per se, but it does mould the forms they are likely to take; in the putative epidemiological struggle of concept against concept, we have a content bias to prefer those harnessing notions of agency. One branch of evidence for this comes in the form of Dr. Gervais’ own work, which suggests that there is a small but significant correlation between mentalizing fluency and willingness to entertain belief in supernatural agents (Norenzayan et al, 2012).

Content biases are not the only point of intersection between ToM and belief in supernatural agents, however. In some cases ToM itself may be purposefully manipulated through forms of practice to produce religiously ‘meaningful’ experiences. For example, Luhrmann’s ethnographic work describes the process whereby charismatic ‘Vineyard’ evangelicals painstakingly learn to ‘misrecognise’ some of their own cognitions as external thoughts channelled into their heads by Jesus, thereby ‘hearing His voice’ (Luhrman, 2012). Furthermore, as Gervais himself observes, content biases can explain why certain concepts are intuitively attention-grabbing, but not why people commit to the concepts they do (this is known as the Zeus problem – see Gervais & Henrich, 2010). In certain circumstances people may even commit to ‘concepts’ that cannot be grasped at all; Sperber’s largely ignored theory of the ‘guru effect’ – the tendency, visible in some religious contexts, to meta-represent recondite utterances as profoundly meaningful if they emanate from esteemed sources of authority – marks one interesting potential bias enabled by content that defies successful representation as opposed to content that ‘sticks in the mind’ (Sperber, 2010). More generally, context biases – namely biases to selectively attend to information based on features of its source – are also a factor of specific relevance to religious transmission. How many other people in our social circle hold the belief? Did we hear it from someone prestigious who is likely to be a source of fitness enhancing information? Did we hear it from someone we can trust – and how do we know they believe what they say they do?

One influential context bias proposed in the CSR literature is the CRED (Credibility Enhancing Display – Henrich, 2009): the idea that, due to the manipulative potential inherent in language, cultural learners have evolved the precautionary tendency to scrutinise cultural models for behavioural confirmation of commitment to stated beliefs. Accordingly, belief transmission, particularly in the case of empirically unverifiable beliefs, is strengthened when models ‘practice what they preach.’ Thus religious beliefs accompanied by costly actions the believer would not undertake if they did not believe what they said they did – painful or time-consuming rituals, charity, celibacy, martyrdom – will transmit more successfully than those that lack such trappings.

Suspecting another’s internal motivations of diverging from their stated intentions is a mentalizing operation if ever there was one. But if such a bias is exploited via CREDs to facilitate religious transmission, might there not also be scenarios in which similar capacities serve to actively undermine belief? Is irreligion aided simply by the absence of contextual cues to religiosity, or might there also be contextual cues to irreligion? As opposed to CREDs, my own research investigates ‘CRUDs’ – credibility undermining displays. In particular, I am interested in how displays by religious paragons which contradict expressed statements of belief may be uniquely corrosive to the religious certainty of believers. One does not need to look for long to locate examples of the connection between the attribution of insincerity to religious paragons and religious scepticism. New atheist forums are frequently aflame with outrage at perceived religious hypocrisy[i], and it often also features in atheist ‘conversion narratives’ (Wright et al, 2010). The steep and ongoing decline in Catholicism is often partially attributed to the clerical abuse scandals, and in particular the promulgation of such scandals in the media has been linked by sociologists to an acceleration in Irish secularisation since the early 1990s (Donnelly & Inglis, 2009). Indeed, modern methods of information exchange, through their reach and permanence, compound the problem of scandal for religion by tapping into the regulatory pan-human phenomenon of gossip: Mormonism, for example, seems to be currently experiencing a crisis of faith due to online revelations about Joseph Smith’s amorous adventures. Indeed, historically speaking, the credibility undermining display was effective enough to have been used as a form of counter-propaganda, at least in reported form; mediaeval anti-heresy tracts revelled in such rhetoric, describing heretics[ii] as ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ who preached chastity, compassion and asceticism while secretly indulging in orgies, rendering infants down into ceremonial black paste, and drinking toad excrement.

Perhaps part of the reason the relationship between mentalizing and suspicion of religious truth-claims has yet to come into focus in CSR may be due to an unspoken tendency to view ToM as an impartial would-be ‘mirror’ of sorts; though it errs and though its sensitivity may be extremely overtuned, we ultimately evolved the capacity in order to acquire optimally accurate representations of our own and others’ psychological motivations in order to facilitate cooperation. Much research in social psychology, however, would suggest that people can in fact be unkindly biased in the mental states they attribute to others versus those they attribute to themselves (Monin & Merritt, 2010). Moral failings are far more often seen as the results of malign intentions if performed by others, others’ pieties are often written off as the result of self-serving motivations, while individuals frequently overestimate the depth of their own moral commitment. It might be said that ToM seeks truth – insofar as it is useful for action. ToM is surely better seen as intertwined with and influenced by a range of other factors prioritising such phenomena as moral policing and deception-enhancing self-deception, frequently not so much an accurate gauge of others’ motivations as a cautiously (or opportunistically?) harsh one. Given these considerations, we might wonder about the relative potency of CREDs versus CRUDs. Such biases should mean that even a fairly insignificant act could trigger a CRUD warning; unlike with religiously bolstering displays, there is no ‘costliness’ barrier between an act of religious hypocrisy and its potential effects on belief. In fact, there may on the contrary be a heightened sensitivity to such transgressions.

Of course, there are many complexities to be teased apart here: Are some believers more prone to scepticism upon witnessing contradictory statement/behaviour pairings than others, and why might this be so? If CRUDs are so potent, then how do various religious traditions cope with them, and are some particularly vulnerable (see, for example, Wollschleger & Beach, 2011)? Might CRUDs affect theistic belief per se or only religious affiliation? And how does the issue of harm combine with religious hypocrisy in producing any putative effects on belief and/or affiliation (i.e. eating fish on a Friday versus abusing children)? It is possible that if religious scandals/hypocrisy can be a partial driver of religious decline, there may be at least two separable but intertwined psychological effects going on: CRUD-based socio-cognitive belief-scepticism on the one hand and institutional disaffiliation stemming from moral contempt on the other.

References

Donnely, S. & Inglis, T. (2009). “The Media and the Catholic Church in Ireland: Reporting Clerical Child Sex Abuse.” Journal of Contemporary Religion, 25:1, 1 – 19

Gervais, W. M. (2013). “Perceiving Minds and Gods: How Mind Perception Enables, Constrains and Is Triggered by Belief in Gods.” Perspectives in Psychological Science 8(4), 380 -394.

Gervais, W.M. & Henrich, J. (2010). “The Zeus Problem: Why Representational Content Biases Cannot Explain Faith in Gods.” Journal of Cognition and Culture, 10, 383 – 389

Henrich, J. (2009). “The evolution of costly displays, cooperation, and religion: Credibility enhancing displays and their implications for cultural evolution.” Evolution and Human Behaviour, 30, 244 – 260

Luhrmann, T. (2012). When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Vintage.

Monin, B. & Merritt, A. (2010). “Moral hypocrisy, moral inconsistency, and the struggle for moral integrity.” M. Mikulincer & P. Shaver (Eds.), The social psychology of morality: Exploring the causes of good and evil, Herzliya Series on Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 3, American Psychological Association.

Norenzayan, A., Gervais, W. M., & Trzesniewski, K. H. (2012). “Mentalizing deficits constrain belief in a personal god.” PLoS ONE, 7, e36880.

Schaafsma, S., Pfaff, D., Spunt, R., & Adoplhs, R. (2015) “Deconstructing and Reconstructing Theory of Mind.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19(2), 65-72

Sperber, D. (2010). Sperber, D. (2010). The Guru Effect. Review of Philosophy & Psychology, 1 (4), 583-592

Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Belknap Harvard

Wollschleger, J. & Beach, L. (2011). “A cucumber for a cow: a theoretical explanation of the causes and consequences of religious hypocrisy.” Rationality and Society, 23 (2), 155 – 174

Wright, B., Giovanelli, D., Dolan, E. & Edwards, M. (2011). “Explaining Deconversion from Christianity: A Study of Online Narratives.” Journal of Religion and Society, 13, 1-17

[i] Interestingly, this often includes both the hypocrisy of believers and also God’s own hypocrisy, i.e. theodicy.

[ii] And of course heretical movements have often been partially attributed to Church failings – simony, nepotism, corruption, venality and so on. I don’t assume here that the CRUD leads straight from orthodoxy to atheism by any means, but rather to scepticism about the expressed representation; historical and cultural context is key, and where theism is the inescapable idiom of the age, schism is the more likely outcome. The link to atheism becomes possible where it has come to exist as an option (i.e. Taylor, 2007).

Religious Authority in a Post-Religious Society

The question of charismatic and spiritual authority has become ever more relevant in present day Japan, which is an exceedingly “non-religious but spiritual” nation. In her interview, Dr. Erica Baffelli introduces us to a wide variety of perspectives on creating, distributing, maintaining and defending religious authority that can be found within Japanese new religious movements (NRMs). Japanese religious leaders operate in a complex social landscape in which they must constantly maneuver between tradition and modernity, specificity and universalism, nation and world, in their quest for legitimacy. The variety of approaches that can be found among NRMs, and the persistence of non-Western views of history and ritual that call the applicability of the category “religion” into question, make the country’s religious landscape difficult to characterize, but Dr. Baffelli does an admirable job of summarizing some major avenues of study into Japanese religious authority.

As Dr. Baffelli and her interviewer describe, religious authority in Japan can be analyzed through categories such as space, body, text, politics, media, and technology. The differences between Japanese and Western formations of these subjects, as well as the diversity within Japan, can help shed light on the assumptions we make about how authority is acquired and asserted. For example, Western understandings of religious text are closely linked to the concept of a “scripture,” a divinely inspired, normative document. But Japan has traditionally had many different kinds of religious text, which are not necessarily considered inspired or treated as normative. Japanese NRMs offer us many different ways to derive authority from a text.

Dr. Baffelli points to a recent article by Clark Chilson, “Cultivating Charisma: Ikeda Daisaku’s Self Presentations and Transformational Leadership”, which is an excellent study of the Sōka Gakkai leader’s use of text, primarily the roman à clef epic Human Revolution, to distribute authority to his readers. As Chilson describes it, Ikeda’s readers are apprentices as he once was. They have been initiated into his path to the Truth and are now striving to mature their own capacities for leadership. Ikeda’s text describes how his authority was not granted to him exclusively, but was acquired through experience and can be passed on to any Gakkai member. Ikeda is thus preparing the Gakkai to manage institutional authority and power long after he himself is gone.

Ikeda’s magnum opus makes for a sharp contrast with the texts of Ōkawa Ryūhō, founder of the NRM called, in English, Happy Science. Ōkawa’s many speeches and books make it evident that his authority belongs to him alone, through his hidden identity as God the Father, and cannot be acquired by anyone else. Ōkawa’s ability to expound on the past and future of humanity, and to channel the higher spirit of any human or extraterrestrial being, living or dead, makes reading his books a lesson in simple “awareness” of his omniscience, not an instruction manual for those who would want to maintain his sect in future generations.

The bumpy transition from charismatic to institutional authority has been a key turning point in many Japanese NRMs. Dr. Baffelli states that many groups find comfortable rule by a group of experienced members to be preferable to a continuation of unruly charismatic leadership. But the sudden loss of a charismatic leader just as frequently causes an NRM to lose its direction and unity. In a 2007 article, “Shifting Paradigms and Mediating Media,” Christal Whelan described how an NRM called God Light Association underwent radical changes and splits following the loss of its leader, Takahashi Shinji. Members in Osaka continued to revere Takahashi by watching videos of his glossolalic interpretations, while members in Tokyo reorganized around his daughter Keiko , who rebuilt the group into a completely different therapeutic program. Still other members joined Ōkawa Ryūhō at Happy Science, or another NRM known as Pana Wave Laboratory.

A notable point made at the end of this interview deserves the attention of scholars of religion. Since the 1980s, the innumerable thousands of organized Japanese NRMs, called shinshūkyō in Japanese, have been losing members. The 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyō, an esoteric NRM which had attracted the support of several Japanese religious scholars, certainly hastened criticism of NRMs in public discourse, but the trend away from NRMs did not begin with Aum. Since the 1980s, social and economic pressures to stay within mainstream society have become more prominent, and spiritually minded individuals more often seek more limited, loosely bonded participation in New Age-style modes of thought, dubbed “new spirituality movements” by Shimazono Susumu (c.f. Shimazono 2004).

But questions of charismatic, spiritual, and institutional authority remain with us. The scholarly work on NRMs is by no means outdated, but, in fact, is increasing in relevance as we try to make sense of Shimazono’s NSMs. From crystal healing and Reiki, to millenarian “ascension,” to attendance at shrines, to therapeutic forms of mass communication, NSMs are everywhere in 21st century Japan, and with them come new questions about how spiritual institutions can aid the bricoleurs who wander their way, and what sort of authority is possible in such loosely connected interactions.

In his book, “Spiritual” wa naze hayaru no ka, journalist Isomura Kentarō offers the counterintuitive but revealing example of an e-mail list and blog run by former video game designer Itoi Shigesato, which offers self-help advice and pick-me ups to roughly a hundred thousand subscribers every day. Readers are devoted to the heartwarming writings of Itoi, who is affectionately dubbed “Darling,” but when they bring up his blog posts in everyday life, they frequently get the impression of being perceived as adherents of a religious cult. Having discovered his charismatic authority, Itoi now has the full-time job of delicately managing a small media empire while avoiding the stain of religiousness. He aims to produce messages and physical products (most notably, a fancy notebook called the Hobonichi Planner) that readers will enjoy, but not to draw them in as closely as an NRM leader would have done.

A similar phenomenon is happening even in overtly spiritual movements. I will soon begin a study of a loose network of readers of the channeled text Hitsuki Shinji. After being the focus of two NRMs in the postwar years, the lengthy text was virtually abandoned until the 1990s, when the writer Nakaya Shin’ichi began publishing dozens of books offering a spiritually minded exegesis. But until this year, Nakaya’s interactions with his readers have been limited to a monthly magazine and public talks. Similar to Itoi’s mailing list, the text has been offered as a direct reading experience unmediated by any organization, and its implementation has been essentially left to the individual. But starting this spring, Nakaya intends to take the risk of forming a more tight-knit group and asserting authority as the text’s chief interpreter. Can an NSM be transformed into an NRM? The answer to this will be found in the complex social landscape of modern religious authority.

References

Chilson, Clark. 2014. “Cultivating Charisma: Ikeda Daisaku’s Self Presentations and Transformational Leadership” Journal of Global Buddhism, vol. 15, pp. 65-78

Isomura Kentarō. 2010. “Spiritual” wa naze hayaru no ka. PHP Kenkyūjo.

Whelan, Christal. 2007. “Shifting Paradigms and Mediating Media: Redefining a New Religion as ‘Rational’ in Contemporary Society.” Nova Religio, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 54-72

Shimazono Susumu. 2004. From Salvation to Spirituality: Popular Religious Movements in Modern Japan. Trans Pacific Press.

Religion and Authority in Asia

Given its contextual and perspectival malleability, the notion of ‘authority’, and even more so of ‘religious authority’, is challenging to define and to study. In October 2014, a number of scholars working on both ‘traditional’ and new modes of authority gathered for the Religious Authority in Asia: Problems and Strategies of Recognition workshop, which was funded by the Dr Erica Baffelli who in today’s interview with Paulina Kolata discusses the notion of authority and charismatic leadership in the context of her research on New and ‘New’ New religions in contemporary Japan.

It seems that the most problematic issue in discussions on authority in the Japanese religious context and beyond is the very recognition and identification of its existence and its impact on communities at trans-national, national and local levels. The assertion of authority can be perceived through the prism of the scholarly discourse on religions, relationships between religious specialists and their supporting communities, and the state-religion interface. There are two watershed dates – 1946 and 1995 – and the events associated with them can be considered as crucial in shaping the socio-economic and political conditions of the religious power struggle in Japanese society in post-war Japan. The first date is linked to the promulgation of the new post-war constitution which sanctioned freedom of religious belief, and separated religion and the state.  The second marks the date of an act of domestic terrorism – the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway – perpetrated by members of new religious group Aum Shinrikyō led by a charismatic figure of Asahara Shōkō. Listen to Erica Baffelli talk charisma, leadership and the media in assertion of religious authority in the context of New Religions in Japan.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with Pauline Hope Cheong on Religious Authority and Social Media.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, pet food, socks, digital radios, action figures, and more.

L Connelly Image

Authority Online: Construction and Implications

Authority Online: Construction and Implications

By Louise Connelly, University of Edinburgh, UK

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

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

Strategic Arbitration & Performance

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

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

New and evolving research

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

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

Virtual Buddhism and Authority

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

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

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

Additional Resources

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

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

References

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

Religious Authority and Social Media

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

As Cheong herself writes:

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

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

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

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

References and Further Reading

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

Networked religion, blurring boundaries and shifts in the field of authority

Central to questions of authority is the ability to define the tradition; to define how scripture should be interpreted, and to tell orthodoxy from heresy.

A freehand commentary, published by the Religious Studies Project on 12 June 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Heidi Campbell on Religion in a Networked Society (10 June 2013)

The past 15 years or so have witnessed a period of swift development of the World Wide Web and a wide range of other information and communication technologies (ICTs).  It has also become a truism that individuals, communities and cultures are more interconnected than ever before. This can be seen in all areas of life from economics and entertainment to education, and politics. Religion is no exception, and scholars of religious phenomena have increasingly turned their gaze to the ways in which these new technological possibilities affect religious communities.  As the field of interest has developed, researcher’s foci and insights have followed suit.

The Religious Studies Project’s interview with Heidi Campbell focuses mainly on her recently published article which examines the emergence of both online religion and the way scholars have approached this phenomenon. A key aspect examined in the article is the blurring boundaries between religion online and offline. Campbell uses the term ‘networked religion’ to better grasp the phenomenon.

The questions addressed in the interview are hugely interesting, and the topic is also a tricky one. The impact modern ICTs have on religious communities and religious activity must be mapped in an increasingly fluid and rapidly changing environment, in which distinctions between online and offline, public and private, as well as member and non-member is difficult, and often impossible, to maintain.

Blurred boundaries

Even though it is still technically possible to talk about time spent online and offline, this distinction is, according to Campbell, becoming more and more blurred. In everyday experience, this development seems fairly self-evident, as it is facilitated by the evolving communication technologies themselves. 15 years ago most people only had access to Internet from one or two, clearly defined geographical locations. For me, these were the family computer in our living room, and the single enormous PC with Internet access at the local library (under the watchful eye of the librarian). Growing connection speeds, the development of smart phones and tablets, and increasingly widespread access to wireless networks has made the Internet available almost everywhere. Consequently, ‘being online’ may – and in many cases, has – become a constant feature of everyday life.

Heidi Campbell uses the term networked religion to describe the more or less fused online/offline religion emerging in the digital age. With this term, Campbell wishes to point out how religion has been affected by the new ‘socio-technological infrastructure’ and its logic, much like all other areas of society. The term ‘network’ is probably most well-known from Manuel Castells’ extensive work on the emergence of the network society and the various social implications of the development of ICTs. Network has become a common metaphor in social sciences, but also outside academia.

Campbell mentions five core aspects that constitute a networked religion. These are convergent practice, multisite reality, network community, storied identity and shifts in authority. Although the names are different and the topic discussed here more specialized, these themes strike a familiar chord to many general sociological accounts of developments in contemporary religiosity. Dr Teemu Taira, for example, has written on ‘liquid religiosity’ (2006), which he describes as being individualistic and this-worldly in orientation. In Taira’s view this type of religiosity typically emphasizes the authority of the individual. Spiritual seekership and mix-and-match religiosity is accepted and common. Community formations are often loose networks or ‘coatrack communities’ where individuals come and go as they please. All sorts of religious and spiritual self-help materials, fairs, teachers and groups form a fluid milieu, in which people create their individual spiritual roadmaps – or ‘storied identities’, to borrow Campbell’s terminology.

Even though Taira’s work operates on a rather general level and does not focus on the Internet or ICTs, they are clearly present in his views. Where else can you find as liquid religion as on the Internet, where moving from one society and information source to another is only a matter of clicking a mouse?

An interesting question is, how do we research this type of religiosity and religious communities that are ‘liquid’ or in the state of ‘flux’? I for one am only beginning to examine these tricky methodological issues. On a more quantitative level, all sorts of new computer programs for data mining and network analysis are being developed rapidly. Ethnographically, though, how is it possible to fruitfully approach this kind of networked religion which stretches over the divide between online communities and offline environments, in which memberships are not clearly defined, and even the teachings are more or less open source, available for use and modification?  I am eagerly looking forward to innovative approaches.

Religion and technology

New technologies affect religious practices both directly and indirectly. Religions old and new take up these new tools and move in to these new forums, actively adopting innovative ways of organization, communication and attracting members. Needless to say, these new possibilities are not merely a passive medium in the hands of religion. They may well give rise to new questions and challenges, ranging from practical issues, to ethical and theological dilemmas. They may also affect the expectations people have of their community and of life in general. Some forms of religion handle these changes well, others less so.

New technologies allow for new possibilities for organizing communities, and for communication within communities as well as with the surrounding society. They also create new possibilities for thought and imagination, and so may affect values, expectations, and even inspire the creation of new religions.

An example of such connection between technology and religious thought is presented by Jeremy Stolow in his article Salvation by Electricity (2008). His article examines the relationship between the Spiritualist movement of the early 19th century and the newly invented telegraph. Stolow examines the ways in which Spiritualism developed hand in hand with the new technologies, and how both its ideas and the formation of the movement were in many ways facilitated by the technology. To put things briefly, on a material level, the telegraph made it possible to create loose grassroots networks and share ideas globally. Spirit mediums also found publicity and possibilities of voicing their opinions, thereby challenging powers that be and negotiating anew the existing locations of authority.

On a less tangible level, the new technologies brought with themselves very powerful new imageries. In Spiritualism, one of the most powerful images was electricity. Similarly, the Internet and other ICTs may also have an effect on new religious imaginations. There are religious groups that can be reasonably called digitally based. They may have existed before the Internet started spreading, but the Internet has given them the kind of environment where they can create a relatively free community. One interesting example is the Open Source Religion Project, an online community in which people discuss and debate religious ideas. As the name suggests, Open Source Religion shares the logic of collectively creating something that everyone can develop and improve.

Shifts in authority

The questions of networked religion are also central to my own research project. I am currently studying the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a quasi-religious community that is usually categorized as a spoof religion or a satire with political aims. The aim of my study is to examine precisely the blurring of boundaries – not only the border between online and offline, but also the blurring between the realms of public and private, and of religion, humour and politics.

Campbell notes that, on the one hand, religious communities and individuals online may challenge the authority of traditional authorities. On the other, these traditional authorities themselves have in some cases begun to use these new spaces to reassert their authority. Even the pope has a twitter account.

Central to questions of authority is the ability to define the tradition; to define how scripture should be interpreted, and to tell orthodoxy from heresy.  In the case of many new religious movements, such as some neo-pagan groups, it is not so much about definitions within the tradition but the category of religion in general. This is especially visible in cases where a religious community attempts become a state-recognized religious institution. Having been denied this status, these movements often claim that the definitions used in this legal framework are biased in favour of more established scriptural religions, often Christianity. This in turn creates interesting dilemmas for the state, as it has to define what a religion is and what it is not. Religion was, after all, supposed to be private and consequently not a political issue.

All in all, the interview with Professor Campbell gives a good, concise account on where the development of religion online seems to be headed. This is no small achievement, given the huge complexity of the field of online religion, and I am looking forward to getting my hands on her article. A small problem in general summaries like this is that they often tend to lose edge and become difficult to grasp and apply on a more concrete level.  Nevertheless, I think networked religion seems like a promising tool in examining the messy reality.  In this commentary I have tried to open up some possible fields where Campbell’s formulations could be taken and applied to. The next step is the quest for fruitful research methods…

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

About the Author

Digital CameraHanna Lehtinen is a graduate student and currently an intern in Comparative religion in Turku University, Finland. She is working on her MA thesis on the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Her research interests include parody religions, religious innovation, evolving discourse on religion, and power relations in general. She has also written the essays Divine Inspiration Revisited and What should we do with the study of new religions? for the Religious Studies Project.

 

References

  • Stolow, Jeremy. 2008. Salvation by Electricity pp. 668–686 in Hent de Vries (ed.) 2008: Religion. Beyond a Concept. New York: Fordham.
  • Taira, Teemu. 2006. Notkea uskonto. Published in Eetos-series. Turku: Eetos.