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Religious Studies and the Paranormal, Part 1

In October 2013, a four day international conference was held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, on the theme of ‘Anthropology and the Paranormal’. This special two part episode explores some aspects of the sometimes fraught relationship between “paranormal” events and beliefs (The World Religions“) and Religious Studies. This two-part episode has been produced in collaboration with Jack Hunter, editor of the journal Paranthropology, and co-convenor of the Esalen conference.

In this first part, we ask, why has the study of “paranormal” experience been somewhat ignored by academia in general and Religious Studies in particular? Is the problem the term “paranormal”? What importance of these kinds of studies have for the field? Is there concern that such studies necessarily seek to justify the ontological claims of the paranormal? This latter issue is pursued in part two, to be broadcast this wednesday. Many of the scholars also offer advice for those interested in this area but are worried about “employability”. You will hear, in the following order, the voices of Jeffery Kripal, Ann Taves, Tanya Luhrmann, Fiona Bowie, Paul Stoller, Charles Emmons, Stanley Krippner and David Hufford.

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 Christmas presents etc. Fifteen international scholars from anthropology, religious studies, folklore and psychology met to discuss the potential contributions of these interrelated disciplines to the investigation of paranormal beliefs and experiences. Fiona Bowie’s report of the conference may be read here.

esalen_lineup

From left to right, back row: Michael Murphy, Susan Greenwood, Jane Hartford, Jeffrey Kripal, Raphael Locke, David Hufford, Charles Emmons, Jack Hunter, Thomas E. Bullard, Stanley Krippner, Edward F. Kelly, Loriliai Biernacki. Middle row: Edith Turner, Tanya Luhrmann, Ann Taves, Deb Frost. Front row: Geoffrey Samuel, Antonia Mills, Fiona Bowie, Sam Yau, Frank Poletti, Paul Stoller, Gregory Shushan.

 

Young People of ‘No Religion’ and Religious Education Beyond Religious Belief

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 30 October 2013, in response to Abby Day’s interview on Believing, Belonging, and Academic Careers  (28 October 2013).

Divided into two distinct halves, Christopher Cotter’s interview with Abby Day begins with a discussion of her research on the nature of belief and what ordinary people in a modern western society actually believe; and concludes with advice on publishing journal articles and acquiring funding for research projects. In my response, I’ll focus on some of the points raised concerning belief, suggest how Day’s work could benefit youth and education studies and, in particular, explain how I’ve found her approach to the study of belief helpful in my own exploration of the lives of young people who identify as having ‘no religion’.

For Day, the concept of belief has often been taken for granted in the study of religion. Rarely do we ask, what do we mean when we talk about belief? As David Morgan has observed, the academic study of religion in the West has been ‘shaped by the idea that a religion is what someone believes’, and that this amounts to a ‘discrete, subjective experience of assent to propositions concerning the origin of the cosmos, the nature of humanity, the existence of deities, or the purpose of life’ (2010, 1). Although there have been a number of scholars and researchers, particularly within anthropology, who have critiqued this view of religion (Needham 1972; Ruel 2002; Lindquist and Coleman 2008), such an understanding persists and remains prevalent within religious education (RE) in secondary schools. Day’s research not only raises questions about what we mean by belief; she also demonstrates how religious identity is often more complicated than assent to propositions. And both of these insights could be of great value to the study of religion and belief at school, as well as to researchers’, teachers’ and policy-makers’ understandings of the nature of belief within the lives of both religious and ‘non-religious’ young people.

The initial impetus for Day’s interest in what people actually believe came from the 2001 Census in England and Wales, in which 72% of the respondents identified as ‘Christian’. In what appeared to be an increasingly secular society, it seemed puzzling that such a large proportion of the population would self-identify in this way. Day decided to explore more deeply what some of these census respondents meant in their adoption of a Christian identity, by examining what they actually believed. Introducing herself to potential participants as a social sciences researcher rather than a researcher of religion, Day also began her interviews by asking people ‘what do you believe in?’ rather than ‘what is your religion?’ It was only at the very end of her interviews that she raised the topic of religious identity in connection with the 2001 Census. This approach enabled her to focus on belief without asking religious questions. And, by focusing instead on values and meaning, as well as what was important to her participants, Day was able to learn much more about how belief functioned in their lives.

Day’s study of belief beyond ‘religious belief’ encouraged me to adopt a similar methodological approach in my own research with 14- and 15-year-olds who report ‘no religion’, exploring how ticking the ‘no religion’ box related to their wider lives without asking questions about religion. I wanted to learn about the people, places, objects, activities and times – the material cultures – that were significant to these young people, as well as to understand their beliefs and values, their methods of constructing narratives of meaning and purpose, and the influence of family, friends and society on their lives and identities. My primary research method was photo-elicitation interviews, in which the photos taken act as ‘prompts and supports to participant narrative’ (Liebenberg, 2009, 448). But I also wanted to avoid any tendencies to take photos that specifically focused on participants’ ‘non-religiosity’ or illustrated their attitudes towards religion. So I embedded the religion question from the 2011 Census alongside questions that collected other seemingly unconnected data and left explicit discussion of participants’ reasons for self-identifying as having ‘no religion’, as well as of their understandings of ‘religion’, to the end of the interview.

Just as Day discovered, however, where it remains important, interview questions about ‘belief’ or ‘life’ more generally still enable participants to talk freely about religion. But, while Day found that religion and religious beliefs played a relatively unimportant part in the lives of some participants who nonetheless chose ‘Christian’ as their religious identity in the 2001 Census, my research with young people who ticked ‘no religion’ indicates that some who self-identify in this way nonetheless find religion and religious beliefs to be significant in their lives.

Day’s research offers valuable insights into some of the reasons people in a modern western society choose to adopt a ‘Christian’ identity when surveyed. For some, it acts as a ‘social marker’ that helps them to feel secure within their communities, creating a boundary between themselves and others; being Christian is something that they are born into, akin to an ethnic identity. This position is nicely illustrated in her interview with ‘Jordan’, a 14-year-old who she describes as an ‘unbelieving Christian’. Although he states ‘I don’t believe in any religions’, Jordan identifies as ‘Christian’ because ‘on my birth certificate it says I’m Christian’. Day explains that, for him, ‘Christian’ doesn’t mean much, he doesn’t do anything that is typically ‘Christian’, and his understanding of a Christian is ‘someone who believes in God and Jesus and Bible and stuff’. While he does not believe in these things, his grandparents do because they are ‘Irish and really strong Christians’. This understanding of what being a Christian entailed is perhaps not surprising, considering Jordan was ‘reflecting how the term “belief” has become associated with “Christian” over the centuries’ (Day, 2009, 266-7). Day’s research provides a welcome corrective to an understanding of belief as primarily propositional and Christian, illustrating the various ways belief functions in all our everyday lives, cutting across conventional boundaries between the religious and the secular.

Although Jordan differs from my participants in that he identifies as ‘Christian’ rather than as having ‘no religion’, understandings of the Christian religion and of what a Christian identity entails are similar. In many of my interviews, it became clear that participants reduce ‘religion’ to metaphysical, existential and/or ethical belief systems that are either true or false. Since participants do not hold these beliefs, they tick the ‘no religion’ box. For some, in order to identify as Christian it is not only necessary to believe everything within that religion, but to have a strong faith in those beliefs. As one 15-year-old girl told me, ‘I don’t think my belief in God is strong enough for me to tick “Christian”. … If there was a sort of “in between” box, I probably would have ticked that. But to categorise what I believe, I’d say I don’t really have a religion’.

My research interests in the lives of young people who report ‘no religion’ dovetails with the emerging field of Nonreligion and Secularity Studies. Lois Lee has provided a working definition of ‘non-religion’ as ‘anything that is primarily defined in a relationship of difference to religion’ (2012, 131), indicating the necessity of reflexivity not only about specific relationships of ‘difference’ but about understandings of ‘religion’ itself. Day is right to emphasise the importance of clarity in relation to the term ‘belief’, but perhaps she could have spoken more during the interview about what she means by ‘religion’. This would then assist further discussion of her proposal that ‘belief’ crosses conventional boundaries between ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’, making religion, as she says, ‘a subset of belief’.

For the young people of ‘no religion’ that I interviewed, ‘religion’ is understood as consisting of impossible propositional beliefs that are displaced by scientific knowledge. Religion requires acceptance of all its beliefs and cannot incorporate participants’ diversity of beliefs; as another 15-year-old girl said, ‘there would never be a religion for everything I thought’. Religion demands restrictive ethical beliefs, behaviours and belongings that limit autonomy and authenticity. And even when religious ethics are admirable, participants separate ethics from religion because religion remains reduced to primarily metaphysical beliefs.

Although there were a number of reasons that these young people viewed religion and belief in this way, one influence on their understanding clearly came from what they were taught in school. In state-maintained secondary schools in England, some form of RE is mandatory and one of the ways in which schools meet this requirement is through exam courses at GCSE. ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ is one of the most popular strands of exam RE, with pupils being tested on their knowledge of how religious adherents are supposed to live and act, and on their ability to critique religious truth claims and provide rationale for their own beliefs about what is true. For example, the following questions have been set on recent exam papers:

Explain why some people say that religious revelation is only an illusion (AQA GCSE Religious Studies Short Course Specification A, June 2010)

Explain why most Christians are against euthanasia (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Do you think the universe is designed? Give two reasons for your point of view (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Although this might help pupils develop their critical thinking skills, this approach to the study of religion seems to reinforce the notion that religion is concerned with private, individualized beliefs of an ontological, epistemological and/or moral nature. It does not provide room for pupils to consider how ‘religion’ might be broader than assent to propositional beliefs or to explore further the nature of belief and how it can function in all our everyday lives. As Day writes of Jordan, ‘[He] had many beliefs, although not in God, Jesus, the Bible and “stuff”. He believed in doing well at school, helping at home, being with his friends’ (2009, 267).

In recent years, there has been increased debate about the inclusion of secular philosophies within the RE classroom. As I have argued elsewhere , there seem to be a number of problems with some of the recommendations that have been made in this debate, specifically that it repeats the assumption that belief (whether religious or secular) is tantamount to assent to propositions. But exploring the nature of belief more broadly would seem to be one way in which young people could understand religion ‘beyond belief’ and start to recognise the role that beliefs play in all our lives, rather than viewing belief as solely propositional and peculiar to religion. Space within the curriculum should perhaps be found, therefore, to encourage pupils to explore the nature of belief as not only a marker of religious identity but also of social or relational identities, as Day suggests.

Towards the end of the interview, Day discusses some of the ways in which academics can disseminate project findings, as well as give back to the communities they have involved in their projects. Day’s research into what people actually believe has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of how belief functions in the everyday lives of ordinary people. My research with 14- and 15-year olds suggests that it would be helpful if more of these insights could reach not only researchers of religion but also educationalists and policy makers, in order to benefit young people studying religion and belief at school.

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.

References

  • Day, A. (2009) ‘Believing in Belonging: An Ethnography of Young People’s Constructions of Belief.’ Culture and Religion 10 (3) 263-278
  • – (2011) Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lee, L. (2012) ‘Research Note: Talking about a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’ Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1):129-139.
  • Liebenberg, L. (2009) ‘The visual image as discussion point: increasing validity in boundary crossing research’. Qualitative Research 9:441-67.
  • Lindquist, G. and Coleman, S. (2008) ‘Introduction: Against Belief?’ Social Analysis 52 (1) 1-18
  • Morgan, D. (ed.) (2010) Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief. London: Routledge.
  • Needham, R. (1972) Belief, Language and Experience. Oxford: Blackwell
  • Ruel, M. (2002) ‘Christians as Believers’ in Lambek, M. (ed.) (2002) A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Belief, Belonging, and Academic Careers

Almost twenty years ago, Grace Davie observed that despite plenty of studies into the ‘exotic edges’ of religion, ‘the picture in the middle remains remarkably blurred’. Seeking to address this imbalance and engage with the ‘beliefs of ordinary British people in everyday life’, Abby Day‘s recent book, Believing in Belonging (the first topic for this interview), builds upon her doctoral and later postdoctoral fieldwork, beginning within small communities in Yorkshire, and extending to a number of modern industrialised nations.

in this interview with Chris, recorded at the 2013 BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference at Durham University, Day introduces listeners to the concept of ‘belief’ and sets out her own inductive approach, using semi-structured interviews, whereby definitions were allowed to arise from the field. Her central thesis acts as a focal point for a wide-ranging and insightful discussion on a variety of topics from nationalism and secularisation, to the usefulness of censuses as tools for measuring ‘religion’, to gender and belief in destiny. These themes are also picked up and developed in a recent volume published by Ashgate – Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular – which was co-edited by Abby, Chris, and Giselle Vincett.

Wearing one of her other hats, Abby also presents regularly on how to build an academic career, win research funding, and get articles published, and has published the books academic publishing and building an academic career.

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.

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

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Belief […] can be used as a concept to bridge […] frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it).

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

By Liam T. Sutherland

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 15 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Martin Stringer on Situational Belief (13 May 2013)

The work of Professor Martin Stringer is a breath of fresh air for all those who reject both the simplistic belief-centred approach to religion and its attendant backlash. It makes belief an important part of the way that religions are researched and analysed, but not in a fashion recognisable to many.

The traditional belief-centred approach drags with it a raft of assumptions that have proved consistently absent in the field, most notably that religious communities are centred on a coherent body of beliefs which mediates membership and divides them sharply from outsiders. Religious beliefs are often described in ways so philosophical and abstract that they would appear to in no way relate to the everyday lives of practitioners, who may have never encountered such supposedly integral doctrines. This approach has been overturned by examinations of ritual, visual religion, ethnicity, kinship, power etc.  Other assumptions have been overturned, such as the notion that adherents engage exclusively in practices sanctioned by their tradition. Stringer found in his own fieldwork in the North of England that professing Christians would seek the advice of astrologers and claim to believe in reincarnation.

The inaccuracy of such assumptions has led to a rejection of ‘belief’ as a problematic concept. However, many of these assumptions cannot be countered without re-examining the concept of belief. Arguably this is because they reflect a misrepresentation of the workings of belief, not the applicability of the concept itself.  The rejection of belief is based on equally untenable assumptions, usually simple, negative or inverted versions of those mentioned above. ‘Belief’ is often described by its critics in the words of Clifford Geertz, as though it always entailed some kind of ‘abstract Baconian deduction’, always hermetically sealed, intellectual, elite systems which are removed from everyday life. Attempting to remove belief from accounts of religion is a hollow, unsatisfying and deliberately blinkered means of avoiding its pitfalls –  as Geertz added it is like staging Hamlet without the prince.

Stringer has shown that people use belief in extra-empirical beings as coping mechanisms and to anticipate and deal with problems. People may seek the structure, resources and cultural resonance of a Christian church, the ability to predict and respond to future problems offered by an astrologer, and the comfort of being able to chat with dead relatives who can listen and respond. All of these examples depend on a variety of factors, one of which is surely that they are considered to reflect belief in powerful, efficacious and therefore useful realities.

This approach to belief highlights the fact that while religion may have ritual, visual and ideological functions, it is never devoid of interpretations of the cosmos. The fact that some religions are orthopraxic, emphasising the necessity of correct practice not correct belief, does not mean that such religions are devoid of belief. As Segal has argued, religion could not perform any kind of ideological or psychological function if it was not a somewhat independent factor: that is, if many did not believe in the claims being made. A deity may need to be ritually appealed to or appeased but may not be concerned with the mental state of practitioners. This fact does not mean that no one considers the deity to be a real being that requires appeasement. While there may be evidence for other motivations for the performance – cultural heritage, to legitimate the traditional power structure etc. – a practitioner’s statement is surely the best evidence we have. As Horton pointed out, it would be incredibly patronising and unsound for scholars to assume that they have the ‘correct’ interpretation of believers’ statements.

Another crucial contribution that Stringer has made in the rehabilitation of the concept of belief is his notion of ‘situational beliefs’, which serves to explain the apparent ‘contradictory’ nature of many popular religious practices in the modern west. The fact that people may appear to practice many traditions simultaneously, or engage in practices prohibited by their (orthodox) tradition, cannot necessarily be taken as clear evidence that they do not believe in the belief statements they are making. Stringer contends that beliefs are most powerful and consciously thought about in specific situations in which they are relevant, such as a ritual-communal setting like a Church service or in the context of problems or obstacles in the person’s life. While the cognitive dimensions and interpretation which attend religious practices should not be downplayed, not all believers will insist on indivisible, coherent bodies of doctrines, but rather adopt piecemeal and patchwork systems. This may be derided by its critics as a ‘pick and mix’ approach but Stringer’s evidence contributes to the evidence that it is the norm not the exception throughout the world.

However, the concept of belief itself must be examined more closely if it is to be of any value as a scholarly tool. Beliefs must be differentiable in some way from thoughts, and could generally be defined as thoughts which are considered to respond to reality with varying degrees of conviction and held over a notable length of time. The thorny question of where the division lies between belief and knowledge was broached by the interviewer, David Robertson. Stringer places the divide along the lines of how much a statement could possibly be verified, i.e. if I put my cup down it is on the table (knowledge), or whether all leopards are Christian (belief).

According to traditional epistemology, however, all knowledge contains belief. One can claim knowledge if one believes a proposition, has sound reasons to justify this, and the proposition happens to in fact be true[1] Belief is thus a constituent part of the process of gaining knowledge, all knowledge contains belief but not all beliefs count as knowledge. Beliefs themselves can be sub-divided according to how they are justified, whether the belief is empirical and rational and thus accessible to all, or based on experiential or cultural justifications.

One of the interesting questions to come out of Stringer’s research is: how incoherent are the beliefs of the practitioners under study? It is certainly the case that they may not match the traditional expected forms of practice, but while Stringer’s model of situational belief is highly useful, it does not necessarily mean that human beings do not retain a drive for coherence[2]. Stewart Guthrie argued that the worldwide tendency of anthropomorphism, which lies at the heart of many religions, is based on a tendency to seek coherent patterns.

Are the forms of religion in evidence here not so different from the traditional orthodoxies, which no longer have the power or legitimacy to maintain their hegemony, that we find it difficult to recognise them? Practitioners don’t feel a need to accept traditions as whole packages, as Stringer mentioned, and may not even be aware of doctrines that they are contradicting. Furthermore, their God may no longer be a jealous one. That is not to argue that Stringer did not find very palpable evidence of contradictions and a loose attitude to creating a unitary, coherent worldview, even for the individual.

Another traditional view of belief challenged by Stringer is the idea that religious beliefs are always deeply held, of ‘ultimate concern’ to use Paul Tillich’s phrase. This arguably reflects Stringer’s link to the Tylorian tradition, which describes religious belief as a pragmatic means of interpreting the cosmos and indeed to coping with it. This means that believers may not develop an intense ‘faith’ in or sacred aura around these beliefs but, instead, may be willing to adopt new beliefs and abandon old ones, according to how well they appear to offer a valid interpretive mechanism.  As Fitzgerald has astutely pointed out, belief in deities or spirits may be considerably less important or sacred than values such as hierarchy, purity or democracy.

One of the main concepts employed by scholars in place of ‘belief’ is ‘experience.’ Experience is an extremely useful focus but it can be used problematically much like belief and does not perform the same role.  It would certainly be implausible to deny that religious practitioners have real experiences: social, psychological and sensory but the problem is of course that experiences can never be separated out of their frameworks of interpretation. Religious believers frequently claim to have experiences of the love of God and the power of crystals, not just the warmth of their congregation or the pageantry of a festival.

By using the notion of ‘experience’ scholars can conveniently ignore the inherent tension between the naturalistic-cultural and theological frameworks of interpretation. Scholars should not ignore this tension but face it head on: religious people claim to know or experience metaphysical realities because they have interpreted experiences found among specific groups and inculcated by rituals etc. in a particular way. Scholars of religion study only these human beings and do not interpret these experiences in the same way, but cannot simply dismiss them because they lie outside the scientific framework. Belief here can be used as a concept to bridge these frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it). Many would not claim to believe in metaphysical realities, but to know them or experience them, but that does not mean that it is useful for scholars to adopt these turns of phrase. They must ‘re-describe’ religious claims in a manner which does not endorse their position.

Experience here takes on the same character as the concept of ‘faith’ that Stringer critiqued, which is used to keep scholars at arm’s length. Adding the concept of belief to the analysis makes it more precise and rich by clarifying  how subjects understand and interpret their experiences, how they separate perceived reality from perceived illusion and modelling the cognitive framework within which actors presume to act. Certainly if social networks can inculcate common behaviour and even common experiences, they can inculcate frameworks of interpretation which are genuinely held to correspond to reality.  The point is that religious believers claim to believe in more than the emotive content of rituals, to believe in ontological realities. Social scientists may be methodologically agnostic to the existence of such phenomena, but they should not leave belief in them out of analysis, because concern with human beings means concern with the cognitive worlds they inhabit.

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:

481753_10151274231722302_1786021171_nLiam Sutherland is a native of Edinburgh who has studied Religious Studies twice at Edinburgh University and is about to go back for third time in September of this year. His undergraduate work focused on Indigenous Religions, taking contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality as his dissertation topic. His Masters by research concerned the legacy and influence of Sir E.B. Tylor on contemporary theoretical debates in the study of religion and his upcoming PhD will focus on religion and Scottish National identity. He has previously written An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy,and The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald for the Religious Studies project, and participated in roundtable recordings on What is the Future of Religious Studies? and Should Religious Studies be Multidisciplinary?

Bibliography

  • Fitzgerald, T. The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) Oxford University Press
  • Geertz, C.  “Religion as a Cultural System” in Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books
  • Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) Oxford University Press
  • Horton, R. Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science(1993) Cambridge University Press
  • Lévy-Bruhl, L. Primitive Mentality (1966) Clare, A.L. (trans.) Beacon Press
  • McCutcheon, R.T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion (2001) State University of New York Press
  • Segal, R. “Theories of Religion” in Hinnels, J. R. (ed.) Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (2005) Routledge
  • Stringer, M.D. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion (2008) Continuum
  • Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom Volumes 1 & 2 (1871) John Murray

[1] This approach may well be criticised by many but mostly due to the seemingly arbitrary third factor: that a proposition happens to be true!

[2] I would not argue that Stringer is attempting to revive the position of the early anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl who argued that many cultures could not recognise contradictions because they thought only in a ‘mystical’ and ‘pre-logical’ framework. Stringer’s account of religion is far too embedded in ordinary life for that. It is possible to speculate that religious people much like non-religious people do not think about the totality of their cognitive cosmos at any one time, rather the aspects that concern them at any one time.

Situational Belief

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David and Martin Stringer (and Eileen Barker) in the Great Hall of Durham Castle!

“Belief” is a critical category in the study of religion. Indeed, for some scholars, it is the very essence of religion; as Clifford Geertz wrote, “To know, one must first believe.” Others, however, see the emphasis on belief as part of the Protestant bias in the development of the discipline, and have proposed various ways of avoiding talking about it at all. In this interview recorded at the recent SOCREL conference in Durham, Martin Stringer explains his model of situational belief to David, and explains how it not only better represent how beliefs actually function for individuals, but also challenges preconceived notions of what “religion” “is” in several ways.

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

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Professor Martin Stringer is Professor of Liturgical and Congregational Studies and Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham. He trained as a social anthropologist, and his research has focused on Christian groups in the UK and diversity among inner-city communities. His theoretical approach is to use anthropological methods of ethnography in detailed and extended studies of real life situations, where he believes religion can be most fruitfully understood.

His recent publications include Rethinking the Origins of the Eucharist (SCM, 2011) and A Sociological History of the Christian Worship (Cambridge University Press, 2005). However, of particular relevance to this interview is Contemporary Western Ethnography of the Definition of Religion (Continuum, 2008). Also of interest is his paper ‘Towards a Situational Theory of Belief’ (Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, Vol XXVII, No 3, Michaelmas 1996, pp217-234).

Bruno Latour, Talking “Religiously”, part 2

This is the second part of our interview with Professor Bruno Latour, and if you haven’t already, you can listen to the first part here.

This time, Latour and David Robertson discuss Latour’s recent works We Have Never Been Modern and On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Discussion moves from his critique of the distinction between the manufactured and “real”, and how this affects our models of belief.

Conversation finally turns to his Gifford Lecture Series, presented this February in Edinburgh, with the title Facing Gaia: An Enquiry Into Natural Religion. While we are used to problematising the category religion, Latour argues that we should equally question the category of natural. Videos and abstracts of Bruno Latour’s complete Gifford Lecture series can be viewed on the University of Edinburgh’s page.

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

Bruno Latour is Professor at Sciences Po Paris and has also been Professor at the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines in Paris and visiting Professor at University of California (San Diego), at the London School of Economics and Harvard University. After field studies in Africa and California he specialized in the analysis of scientists and engineers at work. In addition to work in philosophy, history, sociology and anthropology of science, he has collaborated on many studies in science policy and research management, producing significant works such as Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts and most recently Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies). He has also made a valuable contribution to the political philosophy of the environment with the book Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, a theme which the Gifford Lectures continue.

Bruno Latour, Talking “Religiously”, part 1

Professor Bruno Latour is one of the most respected scholars in the social sciences today. This February, he came to Edinburgh University to deliver the annual Gifford Lecture Series, established in 1888 to ‘promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term” – an opportunity we felt we could not miss. Previous presenters have included such luminaries as William James, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and E. B. Tylor. So how does an anthropologist of science come to be giving the Gifford Lectures?

In this first part, Latour and David Robertson discuss the broader relevance of his work for Religious Studies. They discuss actor-network theory, of which Latour was instrumental in developing. This includes some discussion of phenomenology and religious “essence”. Discussion then moves to Latour’s forthcoming work, Rejoicing: or the Torments of Religious Speech (Polity 2013), a more personal work which concerns not “religion” or “religions” but the adverb “religiously”. What does it mean to talk religiously, and is it still even possible? It is at the same time a fierce attack on religions, but a passionate defence of religious speech.

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

Videos and abstracts of Bruno Latour’s complete Gifford Lecture series can be viewed on the University of Edinburgh’s page.

Bruno Latour is Professor at Sciences Po Paris and has also been Professor at the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines in Paris and visiting Professor at University of California (San Diego), at the London School of Economics and Harvard University. After field studies in Africa and California he specialized in the analysis of scientists and engineers at work. In addition to work in philosophy, history, sociology and anthropology of science, he has collaborated on many studies in science policy and research management, producing significant works such as Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts and most recently Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies). He has also made a valuable contribution to the political philosophy of the environment with the book Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, a theme which the Gifford Lectures continue.

Five Lectures on Atheism, Nonreligion, and Secularity, from the NSRN

In partnership with the NSRN (Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network), it is our pleasure to bring you the audio recordings of five very important lectures.

The first is the NSRN Annual Lecture from April 2011, recorded at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham:

The other four are the keynote lectures from the NSRN’s Biennial Conference, recorded at Goldsmiths University, London, in July 2012:

Chris, one of the Religious Studies Project’s (RSP) ‘editors-in-chief’, is also Managing Editor of the NSRN’s website and therefore, when the NSRN wanted to make available some podcasts from recent events, it seemed like a win-win situation for both organizations for the RSP to host and disseminate these podcasts on behalf of the NSRN. These lectures come as part of an extensive series of podcasts from the RSP which touch on the study of non-religion – from our recent roundtable discussion on Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies, to our interviews with Linda Woodhead, Callum Brown, and Lois Lee. We appreciate that not all of our visitors will be particularly interested in this area of research, and for that reason we have released all of these lectures at the same time,and avoided placing them on iTunes. However, we are sure that every listener will find something of interest in these recordings, and wish you happy listening over the ‘Christmas’ period.

For those of you who don’t know the NSRN, the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network is an international and interdisciplinary network of researchers founded in 2008 which aims to centralise existing research on the topic of non-religion and secularity and to facilitate discussion in this area. The NSRN run a series of events including their biennial conference and annual lecture series, in addition to maintaining a vibrant website with extensive collection of resources, publications, and listings for teachers and students working in the area of non-religion and secularity.

Due to the lecture style of these recordings, it is somewhat inevitable that the audio quality will be lower than we would like, and that there might be references to PowerPoint presentations or other events happening in the room. However, we know that these will be minor irritations when compared with the stimulating scholarship that you are about to hear, and we are very grateful to the NSRN for working with us to bring you these lectures.

Vernacular Religion: Because you’ll Find More than the Devil in the Details

There is an important message embedded in Marion Bowman’s notion of “vernacular religion”–that when we plant our feet firmly on the ground, amidst the fray of religious life, we are confronted with the unmistakable heterogeneity of both belief and practice. As living people “do religion” on the ground it may not always resemble the religion of the Qur’an, the Vatican or your Buddhism 101 textbook. It should come as no surprise then that this type of grounded religion was understood for years as “folk religion,” or as folklorist Don Yoder put it “the totality of all those views and practices of religion that exist among the people apart from and alongside with strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion” (Yoder 1974:14). The near synonym “popular religion” has also been used with frequency (e.g. Jolly 1996).

Yet, as we heard, Bowman objects to both “popular” and “folk” religion as scholarly categories because of what they imply in contradistinction. For instance, in regards to “popular religion” she says “so this is opposed to…unpopular religion?” But the problems run deeper.  “Folk religion” is hampered by a legacy of distinguishing the religion of the folk from, as Yoder put it “official religion” and thereby demeaning its value. Indeed this is true of “popular religion” as well (e.g. Vrijhof and Waardenburg 1979). So while Bowman credits Yoder for trying to rescue “folk religion” from this two-tiered structure and the negative valuation it gets within it, she chooses instead to follow one of Yoder’s former students, Leonard Primiano, in rejecting the term altogether (Primiano 1995; Bowman and Valk 2012).

Enter “vernacular religion.” Primiano succinctly defines the concept as “religion as it is lived: as human beings encounter, understand and interpret it,” and in her podcast Bowman also refers to it as “that everyday religion” (Primiano 1995:44). Here religious studies scholars and sociologists might respectively recognize a pair of conceptual cousins with similar parameters. As religious historian David Hall describes it, to focus on “lived religion” means looking at “religion as practiced and…the everyday thinking and doing of lay men and women” (Hall 1997:vii). In a similar vein sociologist Nancy Ammerman tells us that the study of “everyday religion” privileges “the experience of the nonexperts, the people who do not make a living being religious or thinking and writing about religious ideas” (Ammerman 2007:5). Yet these conceptual cousins might perhaps still evoke distinctions (like those between the church hierarchy and the laity or the expert and the nonexpert) that Bowman hopes vernacular religion more consciously elides. To Bowman there is a sense in which like “vernacular speech” or “vernacular architecture,” all religious forms are vernacular because all are context specific. In other words the beliefs and practices of religious experts and elites are just as vernacular as those of the laity. The same goes for the variety of religious forms within larger traditions. There is nothing more or less authentic about Hungarian Calvinism than Scottish Calvinism, for instance.

In this vein one might consider Frank Korom’s work on the Indo-Trinidadian celebration of Hosay an excellent example of vernacular religion scholarship, though Korom’s own interpretive frame centers around another linguistic analogy; creolization (Korom 2002). In his monograph, Hosay Trinidad, Korom traces how the somber Shiite commemoration of the death of the Imam Hussain, known as Muharram, was transformed into the carnivalesque Trinidadian celebration of Hosay. As it traveled across space and time Muharram/Hosay adapted to and incorporated various local customs, first on the Indian subcontinent then in the Caribbean. Hosay thus illustrates Bowman’s point that not only are religious vernaculars marked by context dependent differences, but they are formed out of them. As she puts it in the podcast, vernacular religious traditions are like vernacular architecture in that both are built out of local materials.

The idea of “building” a tradition also suggests a certain amount of agency or at least semi-conscious activity by vernacular religionists. Though Bowman never refers to Anne Swidler, one gets the sense that Swidler’s notion of culture as a “‘tool kit’ of symbols, stories, rituals, and world-views, which people may use in varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems,” fits nicely with Bowman’s approach (Swidler 1986:273). While vernacular traditions are products of cultural tinkering they are simultaneously resources through which future tinkering is made possible. Contemporary Druids therefore use the vernacular Christian myth describing Joseph of Arimathea’s visit to Glastonbury to support the idea that there was an ancient druidic center of learning there. Why else would Joseph have traveled so far? Likewise the prevalence of Marian devotion (particularly involving St. Brigid) is reinterpreted by the Goddess community as evidence of the presence of the goddess Birdie in Glastonbury (Bowman 2004). Here we see how vernacular religion also provides an alternative to concepts of religious mixing like “syncretism,” which have undergone a sustained critique over the years for, among other things, devaluing agency and reinforcing a two-tiered dominant/subordinate relationship between traditions that are in creative contact with each other (Baird 1971; Korom 2002; Schmidt 2006).

But the championing of human agency also raises questions. How much agency and how much consciousness do individual practitioners actually have? In the podcast Bowman describes “folklore,” and hence the stuff of vernacular traditions, broadly as “mental furniture.” Like a chair in a room we utilize the artifacts of folklore without consciously thinking about the fact that they exist or how they are arranged. This unconscious dimension of folklore qua mental furniture begins to sound a bit more like Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus” than a cultural tool kit (Bourdieu 1977). While Swidler favorably compares her cultural tool kit to Bourdieu’s habitus one gets the sense that there is more conscious mastery involved in the utilization of cultural tools than there is in the activities of the “structuring structures” of the habitus. In fact Sherry Ortner has critiqued Bourdieu on these very grounds, claiming that Bourdieu insisted on “the inaccessibility to actors of the underlying logic of their practices.” Ortner suggests instead that people are “at least partially ‘knowing subjects’” who “have some ‘penetration’ into the ways in which they are formed by their circumstances” (Ortner 2005:34). I tend to agree with her.

Now what I find somewhat problematic with Bowman’s presentation of vernacular religion and folklore vis-à-vis agency and consciousness is not that Bowman is a Bourdieuian, since she’s clearly not. It’s that in the end I’m not sure that she’s carved out a firm position. As Primiano develops the notion of vernacular religion in his treatise he individuates it down to the concept of “uniculture” or “the personal discourse which we all carry on with ourselves as self-aware beings” (Primiano 1995:49). In other words, according to Primiano, individuals are capable of being cultures unto themselves in which beliefs and practices are formed out of self-contained relationships between one’s own thoughts. In the end I’m not sure what is gained by the reframing of cognitive processes as folklore other than the celebration of some sort of self-religion but one thing is evident—Primiano’s world is chock full of human agency. So where does Bowman stand?

In the podcast Bowman says that the study of folklore brings value to the study of religion by being about what people “actually” think and do as opposed to what they are supposed to think and do. Here Bowman is echoing Primiano who also writes about folklore dealing with the “actual beliefs of the people” (Primiano 1995:51). In one sense one could say, fair enough. Folklorists collect examples of beliefs and practices from actual practitioners, which may or may not align with what religious authorities proscribe for those practitioners. But how do we know that an informant is presenting a past mental state accurately, or even a present one without exaggeration or distortion? Primiano admits that “[h]uman beings do not always communicate what they believe to others because their individual beliefs can be substantially different. This fact is especially true concerning religious beliefs” (Primiano 1995:50).  Bowman also tells us that lived religion has always had a “mix and match” quality, but that sticking to the “official script” was so necessary in the past that only in the 20th century has there been a “glorious coming out” of what “people actually do.” Clearly neither Bowman nor Primiano believe that we’ve managed to transcend self-distortion entirely, so how productive is it then, in this context, to talk about the “actual?” Finally, and even more broadly what are we to assume about our informants’ capacities to understand the underlying logic of their practices no matter how earnest they are with us?

I don’t think there are easy answers to those questions, and I’m not sure that Bowman does either. In my view, her work unpacking vernacular religion in Glastonbury seems more nuanced than her description of the concept. For instance she depicts the ceremony of the Holy Thorn in a way that challenges assumptions about “official” Christianity in the U.K. as well as the variable meanings of the practice to Glastonbury’s locals (Bowman 2006). And when she describes Glastonbury as “a context in which cultural tradition, informal transmission and the personal experience of efficacy are likely to be as important as authoritative texts or religious professionals,” she doesn’t cast aside the professionals and their authoritative texts, but instead shows how the thoughts and actions of her informants complicate and are complicated by them (Bowman 2005:165). But in my opinion this type of nuance needs more adequate formulation in the theoretical description of vernacular religion, or else it could lead other adopters of the term to believe “the actual” is actually within their grasp. There is also a case to be made for Catherine Albanese’s suggestion that vernacular religion should be rescued from its radical individualism and repositioned within the communal frame one expects from something being likened to a communal linguistic practice (Albanese 1996:736). And in fact Bowman’s ethnographic work seems to reflect the communal model more than the individual one.

The final critique I would raise goes back to perhaps the essential premise behind Primiano’s creation of vernacular religion as a concept—the dissolving of the distinction between “official” and “unofficial” forms of religion. Both Primiano and Bowman make a strong case for scholars getting out of the business of accepting centralized, authoritative forms of religion as more authentic or even more ideal typical than local practices. However, this should not mean analytically abandoning such distinctions altogether because when they exist in the world we study they are bound to be part of the “mental furniture” of our informants. They are also bound, therefore to structure their religious experiences and practices. So while vernacular religion is invaluable in reminding scholars of the heterogeneity and ambiguity of religion as it is lived this reminder needs to be tempered by the realization that religious actors often work hard to demarcate and disambiguate their religious experiences and that such actions often have meaningful consequences. No study of religion can be complete without taking these consequences into account.

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.

References

  • Albanese, C. L. 1996. “Religion and American Popular Culture: An Introductory Essay.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion LXIV(4):733–742.
  • Ammerman, Nancy Tatom. 2007. Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives. Oxford University Press US.
  • Baird, Robert D. 1971. Category formation and the history of religions. Mouton.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2005. “Ancient Avalon, New Jerusalem, Heart Chakra of Planet Earth: the Local and the Global in Glastonbury.” Numen 52(2):157–190.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2004. “Procession and Possession in Glastonbury: Continuity, Change and the Manipulation of Tradition.” Folklore 115(3):273–285.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2006. “The Holy Thorn Ceremony: Revival, Rivalry and Civil Religion in Glastonbury.” Folklore 117(2):123–140.
  • Bowman, Marion, and Ülo Valk, eds. 2012. Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief. London ; Oakville, CT: Equinox Pub.
  • Hall, David D, ed. 1997. Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
  • Jolly, Karen Louise. 1996. Popular religion in late Saxon England: elf charms in context. University of North Carolina Press.
  • Korom, Frank J. 2002. Hosay Trinidad: Muharram Performances in an Indo-Caribbean Diaspora. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Ortner, Sherry B. 2005. “Subjectivity and Cultural Critique.” Anthropological Theory 5(1):31 –52. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
  • Primiano, Leonard Norman. 1995. “Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folklife.” Western Folklore 54(1):37–56.
  • Schmidt, Bettina E. 2006. “The Creation of Afro-Caribbean Religions and their Incorporation of Christian Elements: A Critique against Syncretism.” Transformation (02653788) 23(4):236–243.
  • Swidler, Ann. 1986. “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies.” American Sociological Review 51(2):273–286. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
  • Vrijhof, P. H., and Jean Jacques Waardenburg. 1979. Official and Popular Religion: Analysis of a Theme for Religious Studies. Walter de Gruyter.
  • Yoder, Don. 1974. “Toward a Definition of Folk Religion.” Western Folklore 33(1):2–15. Retrieved June 20, 2012.

The Faith-Spangled Banner: Changes in American attitudes and belief in all directions

The Faith-Spangled Banner: Changes in American attitudes and belief in all directions

By Lindsey Arielle Askin, Durham University

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 13 June 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ariela Keysar on “What does ‘belief’ mean to Americans?” (11 June 2012).

In contemplating a response to Prof Ariela Keysar’s interview with the Religious Studies Project over her work as Associate Director of ISSSC and its most famous endeavour, ARIS, I was struck by the dilemma faced when introducing myself to people here in the UK and telling them where I am from. The replies range from everywhere and between, ‘Connecticut, that’s near Minnesota,’ to the occasional, ‘I know exactly where that is! I’ve driven through your state! It’s very pretty in autumn.’ UK knowledge of the United States is a tricky one to evaluate, as it varies widely from an extensive familiarity since childhood of everything American, especially television and films, to nearly nothing at all with the basic ability to place New York City on a map and knowledge of the Simpsons and Glee.

Therefore I will try to carefully tread both lakes of knowledge (or ponds, respectively), and I sincerely hope that I can be informative and insightful for those in the latter group, without condescending to those who are frequently much more informed about what’s going on in America than many Americans themselves. Some of the data found by ARIS might be news to many, and yet other more subtle trends seem to defy all prediction.

At the end of the interview, Keysar promoted the ARIS 2008 Summary Report, available for free on the ARIS website. The report summarizes trends and findings since 1990 (NRSI) and 2001, the two previous years when ARIS was conducted. It contains many informative tables, and is divided into three parts: (1) national statistics on belief according to the questions posed by the survey, and how these responses were grouped together as quantitative data; (2) the data according to age, gender and marital status; and finally, (3) the data according to race, educational level, and geography—the last of which gives the term ‘Bible Belt’ a run for its money.

The first question to ask about quantitative demographic data that is arranged into percentages (e.g. 75% of Americans today are …), is how population and immigration affects our understanding of the numbers. ARIS shows us most of all, then, the changing composition of American society, not just the changing religious membership rates, since the population of the US increased by 30% from 175,440,000 in 1990 to 228,182,000 in 2008 (all numbers are drawn from Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar’s ARIS 2008 Summary Report).

So, delving more deeply into the data, ARIS discovered that the reason Islam in the US is slightly more male than female, and slightly younger than other faiths, is because of immigration. For another example, despite national losses in Catholicism, Texas and Californa’s Catholic composition increased due to America’s largest minority, Hispanic or Latino, who have immigrated to these states.

Other trends mark shifts in between movements in Christianity; the main trend is from mainline Churches to more Evangelical or non-denominational Churches. And while the number of Christians in America has risen, paradoxically America is now less Christian, because there are simply more non-Christian American citizens in 2008 than were in 1990 or even 2001. Yet one section persistently seemed to defy movement, immigration and other trends of changing social composition in America: the Nones.

The Nones are an interesting category. Despite age, education level, and geography especially (that is, even in the South), the Nones managed to rise in all demographic categories, from 8% in 2001 to 15% in 2008. While such a large percentage now professes non-belief, this is a group distinct from those who would self-identify as atheists, who stand at 0.7% of the American public (agnostics at 0.9%). The disparity between the Nones/No Religion and the Atheist and Agnostic categories is stark. Keysar muses that while many Americans today may feel a lack of belief, there is still very much a taboo surrounding explicit self-identification as an atheist or agnostic (see Edgell et al. 2006). Finally, while there is a remarkable variation of over 100 unique responses to the question, ‘What is your religion, if any?’ – the reply of ‘None’ was the most common of all answers. Yet still, the number of Americans today who identify as Atheist or Agnostic has still risen. Slowly but surely, the taboo is becoming less strong.

Other interesting facts from ARIS 2008 include the responses to questions about God and belief. The gaps between belief and religious category offer proof today that in America, association with religion no longer automatically equates to belief in God—or, just as much, that non-association with any religion equates to a lack of belief. Listening to Keysar’s podcast creates a sudden dawning realization that many religious people in America often have less belief than people who profess to be non-religious. It seems, in fact, that religious association often has little to do with what one believes (or how one votes). It is a shame that ARIS cannot ask about political leanings, but I think the results would challenge more than confirm many European (and North-East American) stereotypes about the religious composition of Republican and Democrat party voters.

Yet despite this trend – most confusing of all, when asked about human evolution, only 33% of Nones actually ‘professed belief’ in the concept. However, positive belief in evolution was not the only committal answer, as those who outright rejected evolution was then 36% of the whole survey, and only 17% of Nones – leaving the largest chunk of Americans with no professed religion or faith mostly unsure of how they felt about evolution.

Keysar labels evolution, as much as religious identification, still a ‘cultural wedge’ in society, in her words. And yet, paradoxically, very few of the Nones, 17% to be exact, believed that there was anything to horoscopes. Nones are now very sceptical of New Age practice, but also, strangely, of human evolution. This makes up a very interesting profile for many Nones: no organised religion, no New Age, perhaps God, perhaps not, or perhaps God acting in the world and in one’s personal life, but no evolution. The ghost of the Scopes trial still haunts American society.

Finally, the Summary Report notes religious belief according to gender and religion. In America, there are 49 males for every 52 females (ARIS Summary Report, p.11). All Christian groups matched this national average, whereas in non-Christian religions where there were a higher percentage of immigrants, there were more males. Yet the Nones numbered 60% male, matching the suspected theory that women remain more religious than men. As far as marriage goes, rates are high regardless of religion or lack thereof. Catholics and Nones match at 11%, while, shockingly, Pentecostals have a rate of 16% divorced.

The final table of the Summary Report tells us much more about the composition of American states and regions today than is widely assumed. Familiarizing yourself with this type of information proves particularly interesting in an election year. New England is becoming less Catholic, Nones have increased everywhere but especially in New England more than anywhere else (more ways in which New England is like the Old England – in addition to being green and pleasant), and the South is becoming more Catholic in many states, less Protestant almost everywhere, and non-Christian religions are on the rise!

I have attempted to include some of the most interesting trends that were not all found in the podcast. The most important thing I have learned from this podcast and the work of ARIS is that religion no longer automatically means belief in God or providence, and that the non-religious in America are often just as religious as those professing faith. Most surprisingly, the former category is also simultaneously suspicious of both New Age trends and science. Anyone who has switched on a TV in both the USA and the UK will notice that American channels tend be more receptive to showing things about aliens, conspiracies, ghosts, and alternative medicine. Which makes me think, would the disbelieving response of the Nones have been different if the question had been about ghosts or aliens, instead of star signs?

The trends which have occurred over the seven year period between 2001, the year everything changed, and 2008, have all been surprising. We have certainly grown in many ways since 2001, but our self-perception as a ‘Christian nation’ may need to shift. The most delightful changes are the ones that show a shifting composition in regions typically viewed by others and ourselves to be traditionally one way or another, such as the Bible Belt – because for today and in future years, those stereotypes might need to radically shift to reflect reality.

The two things which my friends in Britain seem to pay more attention to in America than anything else are politics and religion, which our media likewise seems to use as a lens for making sense of the world. So, it is truly fascinating to discover that all is not as it seems. One thing I have noticed personally from trips back home is, as ARIS has found, that more Americans want to reject self-identification with any ‘organized religion’ at all. Could this be partly due to the polarity of our media, about which Americans constantly speak and attribute so much in our society? Are we becoming switched off by the lambasting, while others still seem inspired by it?

Could it be we are becoming more sceptical? I have always understood that we Americans have a strange relationship with scepticism; we both love it and hate it, don’t allow our politicians to have it, and mistrust it in our enemies. And yet, we seem to be slowly becoming more sceptical as a nation, albeit sometimes in strange ways. But what an unexpected change, and who knows where it will lead in the next ARIS years? Keysar’s project has, at least, made me increasingly sceptical of my own traditional understanding of this increasingly complex and colourful nation.

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:

Lindsey Arielle Askin is currently a postgraduate taught MA student in Biblical Studies at Durham University, is taking lots of dead languages, and is writing a dissertation on Second Temple attitudes to Hebrew in the Book of Jubilees. She is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, has done a PG Cert in education, and is from Connecticut, USA. Lindsey is involved in various reading groups, web committee, Café des Femmes reseach group, founded her own Apocrypha/Pseudepigrapha reading group, and runs its updates blog “Interesting Texts“. Her research interests are in dead languages, Second Temple Judaism, biblical criticism, Dead Sea Scrolls, scribal practices, and the Old Testament. She is also interested in computers, book-repair/binding, and TeX. She aims to commence her PhD studies in October 2012.

References:

Edgell, Penny, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann. 2006. ‘Atheists as “Other”: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society’. American Sociological Review 71 (2) (April): 211–234.

Ariela Keysar on “What does ‘belief’ mean to Americans?”

‘Belief’ lies at the core of E.B. Tylor’s canonical definition of religion as belief in ‘spiritual beings’. However, in the last decades of the twentieth century the concept became unfashionable in the social sciences, with scholars from all parts of the world denouncing its centrality as a Western, Protestant bias which has limited application to other religions. In recent years, however, there has been something of a resurgence of interest in ‘belief’ and Chris recently attended an international symposium entitled “What does it mean to believe?” at the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK, organised by Dr Abby Day, and the British Council. At this symposium, Professor Ariela Keysar presented a paper entitled “What does ‘belief’ mean to Americans?”, and later on discussed the content of this paper with Chris for this podcast.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

In his keynote address, right at the very start of the symposium, Gordon Lynch raised what he dubbed the erroneous assumption prevalent throughout much of social science that belief is universal, consistent and articulate-able. As Keysar’s data from a number of large-scale, quantitative studies shows, belief changes over time; it is situational, practical, functional, generational; it varies geographically; it varies across and within religious traditions; it has meaning outwith religion, and may be meaningless within; beliefs about the meaning of life may play very little role in daily life.

Listeners may be interested in the following excellent resources mentioned in the podcast which are freely available online:

Dr. Ariela Keysar, a demographer, is Associate Research Professor of Public Policy and Law and the Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. She was a principal investigator of the American Religious Identification Survey 2008, the largest survey of religion in the U.S., covering over 50,000 respondents. She was also a principal investigator of the ISSSC web survey of Indian scientists, which is the first in a series of studies of worldviews and opinions of scientists around the world. Ariela Keysar was the study director of the American Jewish Identity Survey 2001 and the associate director of the Longitudinal Study of Young Adults Raised in Conservative Synagogues 1995-2003.

Dr. Keysar is the co-editor of most recently: Secularism, Women & The State: The Mediterranean World in the 21st Century; also Secularism and Science in the 21st Century and Secularism & Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives as well as co-author of Religion in a Free Market and The Next Generation: Jewish Children and Adolescents.

Listeners may also be interested in our interview with Callum Brown, who is also looking at large-scale surveys, and our roundtable discussion on the issue of using such surveys for research purposes.

What to do with Davie’s ‘Vicarious Religion’?

 

Like with many of Grace Davie’s conceptualizations, the notion of “vicarious religion” is destined to garner much attention and debate. I must admit that when I first read about it, I rolled my eyes without really knowing why. Perhaps I predicted that the same puddle of ink would be spilt in debating the finer points of what was meant and what was actually meant by the new concept. The author would churn out countless articles explaining his or her new framework, which would invite responses from scholars pointing out missteps, which would in turn invite rejoinders from the author insisting that they had been misunderstood. This is how academia tends to work, and it may be why the general public is often vicariously exhausted by our efforts.

Academic self-deprecation aside, I was fascinated by the Religious Studies Project’s interview with Grace Davie. While many different topics are covered in the podcast, in the space I have available I want to focus particularly on her notion of vicarious religion, and examine some of the critique it has spawned, and explore the ways it has been useful for scholars in the sociology of religion.

Davie has in various places defined vicarious religion as “the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who (implicitly at least) not only understand, but, quite clearly, approve of what the minority is doing” (Davie 2007, 22). In the podcast, she notes that while church structures are no longer able to “discipline the behavior and beliefs” of Europeans, there is still some support for their “public utility.” As she points out, although relatively few people are attending these churches, “there is still a certain expectation that they would do things on behalf of a wide number of people when the need arises…For example, if you or I approached the clergy for a funeral of a family member, and that funeral was denied, we would feel somehow that the church had not done what it was there to do.” It is in a similar light that some scholars have seen religion as an “institution of oughts” (Christiano et al. 2008, 43).

According to Davie (2006, 25) religion can operate vicariously in several ways, from church leaders performing rituals and believing on behalf of others to embodying moral codes and offering a space for public debate. Interestingly, if we take seriously Jose Casanova’s (1994) argument that the secularization thesis consists of three different propositions – religious decline, differentiation, and privatization – Davie’s notion of vicarious religion does not challenge any one of them. Indeed, vicarious religion seems to be a theory that takes the differentiation thesis for granted when attempting to explain how religion (at least in Great Britain and perhaps Europe) functions in society. Even individuals vicariously practicing religion are acknowledging, when practicing it in such a way, that society is differentiated and the sphere of religion may have “utility” only for certain purposes.

One of the main critiques of the vicarious religion thesis was put forth by Steve Bruce and David Voas (2010). As they (2010, 245) point out, “Vicarious religion clearly exists; our objection is that it seems to be the exception in the contemporary world, while Davie claims that it is the rule in Europe.” To be fair, Davie suggests nothing of the sort. In fact, she (2010) has been quite clear that “vicarious religion”, as well as “believing without belonging” before it, should be viewed as tools in the sociologist of religion’s toolbox. They cannot be used to extract every nail or tighten every screw, but will likely be useful for some projects. In his most recent book, Bruce (2011, vi) expresses annoyance at scholars who “present a small case study as a rebuttal of a story about large-scale social change.” However, in his disagreement with Davie, it is Bruce who has perceived a large-scale argument when what is presented is “one factor among many in the continuing re-adjustment of religious life in modern Europe” (Davie 2010, 264).

Another major point of disagreement inevitably seems to lie with their differing definitions of religion. While Bruce begins his most recent book by arguing that “social scientists spend far too much time quibbling over words” – a statement that I tend to agree with – it is precisely because Bruce and Davie have different starting points that disagreement immediately follows. For Bruce (2011, 1), functional definitions of religion, those examining “the purposes it serves or the needs it meets” tend to “assume what ought to be demonstrated.” However, Davie is very much working from a functional perspective. Bruce (2011, 1) settles instead for a substantive definition “as beliefs, actions, and institutions based on the existence of supernatural entities with powers of agency or impersonal processes possessed of moral purpose that set the conditions of, or intervene in, human affairs.” Indeed, problems arising from these differing perspectives have “been there continuously, without those who hold to a substantive – or substantial – definition (associated with the substance of belief) and those who favour a functional one (which takes account of the functions of religion in social life) being able to agree and so transcend or resolve the difficulty” (Hervieu-Leger 2000, 32).

In seeing how the vicarious religion thesis has recently been operationalized, let us spend some time on the work of Peter Hemming (2011). Hemming finds some use for the concept in his study of religion and spirituality in a community primary school and a voluntary aided Roman Catholic primary school in the north of England. Some of the parents he interviewed were reliant on their children’s schools to teach and talk about religion. As Hemming (2011, 1072) writes, “Many of the comments were linked to the legacy of past practices and parents’ own schooling memories and experiences.” This is in line with Davie’s argument that the “old residual expectations are implicitly if not explicitly there” as well as Hervieu-Leger’s (2000) view of religion as a “chain of memory.” Hemming (2011, 1073) notes that there was a desire on the part of some parents for schools to “do religion” on their behalf.

A similarly interesting case was presented by Peter Berger when discussing the church tax system in Germany. In Germany, Berger argues, there are no longer any state churches, but religious institutions continue to benefit from certain legal privileges. The “church tax” – which is about eight or nine percent of people’s income – is collected by the state and given to the churches. As Christina Sticht (2004) has noted, many citizens are leaving the church partly because they cannot afford or no longer want to pay this fairly hefty tax (see also Barker 2004). As Berger (2005, 116) quite surprisingly points out:

An individual who does not want to pay this tax can simply declare himself to be religiously unaffiliated (konfessionslos) and thus instantly save quite a bit of money. What is surprising is how many – indeed the majority at least in the western part of the country – have not done it. When asked why, they give different answers – because they might need the church at some point in their lives, because they want the church to give moral guidance for their children, because they see the church as important for the moral fabric of society. Davie has coined another apt term for this phenomenon – ‘vicarious religion’.

As is evident, then, the notion of vicarious religion can indeed be a useful conceptual tool for shedding light on some religious activities. Davie, however, suggests that this is likely not going to survive into the next generation. She imagines vicarious religion as a kind of religio-cultural residue that coats the consciousness of older generations. It is this coating that enables traditional cultural as well as religious structures to have their affective effect. According to Davie, subsequent generations whose cultural context is more varied may find less significance in their ancestral traditions and, in many ways, will continue what Roof (1999, 171) has called a process of “retraditionalizing” were new ways of being may be infused with significance and perhaps even timelessness. As these changes continue, newer and more precise tools will be required to adequately understand the contemporary religious landscape.

References

Barker, Christine. 2004. “Church and State: Lessons from Germany.” The Political Quarterly. (75.2): 168-176.

Berger, Peter L. 2005. “Religion and the West.” The National Interest. (Summer): 112-119.

Bruce, Steve. 2011. Secularization: In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bruce, Steve and David Voas. 2010. “Vicarious Religion: An Examination and Critique. Journal of Contemporary Religion. (25.2): 243-259.

Casanova, Jose. 1994. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Christiano, Kevin J., William H. Swatos Jr., and Peter Kivisto. 2008. Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Davie, Grace. 2006. “Is Europe an Exceptional Case?” The Hedgehog Review (Spring and Summer): 23-34.

Davie, Grace. 2007. “Vicarious Religion: A Methodological Challenge.” In Nancy T. Ammerman, ed. Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, pp. 21-35. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davie, Grace. 2010. “Vicarious Religion: A Response.” Journal of Contemporary Religion. (25.2): 261-266.

Hemming, Peter. 2011. “The Place of Religion in Public Life: School Ethos as a Lens on Society.” Sociology. (45.6): 1061-1077.

Hervieu-Leger, Daniele. 2000. Religion as a Chain of Memory. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Roof, Wade Clark. 1999. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sticht, Christina. 2004. “The Role of the Churches in Germany.” May. Die Rolle Der Kirchen in Deutschland. Accessed February 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.goethe.de/ges/phi/dos/rkd/en2012816.htm

What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion

What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion

By Erika Salomon, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 27 January 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Armin Geertz on ‘Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion’ (23 January 2012).

In Armin Geertz’s recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, he provides an excellent overview of the methods and challenges in the cognitive study of religion and provides examples of some interesting theories and findings from the field. I would like to delve a little further into this latter part by providing a brief review of some of the interesting and important work that has resulted from the cognitive approach.

As Geertz’s interview suggests, researchers in this field have largely focused on the idea that supernatural agents (beings with minds that can think and plan), are a central feature of religious cognition. Such beliefs take many forms and are found throughout the world—from the God of Christianity to the ancestor spirits of the Fang. Two of the most active areas within the cognitive approach to religion are explaining why such beliefs are so widespread and studying how they are like or unlike other kinds of thoughts.

The general consensus among researchers in this area is that humans are “cognitively prepared” for belief, even before they are capable of understanding the complex ideas of any given religious or supernatural belief system. Evidence from developmental psychology suggests that adult religious cognition may develop from a series of underlying cognitive biases displayed by children. Deborah Kelemen’s (1999) research, for example, suggests that children have a tendency (termed promiscuous teleology) to see natural objects as serving some kind of purpose—for example, that trees are for climbing. Lurking behind such statements is the premise that purposes are given by an agentic mind. Thus, this kind of teleological reasoning indicates an underlying belief in some being that intends objects in the natural world to serve some purpose. Similarly, in studying why adults and children both struggle to reach a scientifically-accurate understanding of evolution, Margaret Evans (2000) has found that, regardless of religious and educational background, children tend to develop towards creationist explanations for the origins of organisms up until about 10 years of age, only after which does background seem to influence these beliefs. These and a host of other biases (e.g., Jesse Bering’s simulation constraint hypothesis; see Bering & Bjorklund, 2004) seem like good candidates for precursors to religious thought in adults. The exact form that religious thought takes, of course, depends on the culture in which a person lives.

Cognitive scientists of religion are not just interested in how religious ideas originate in development but also in how such ideas work within adults’ minds. Geertz points out his own research, which suggests that at least some forms of religious thought are neurologically similar to non-religious thought. Such findings are compatible with the dominant theory in the cognitive science of religion—that religious concepts are constrained by the cognitive architecture of the human mind. Pascal Boyer (2001) has advanced the theory that humans have an innate ontology, a set of basic categories onto which all of our concepts are mapped. This ontology includes categories like human, animal, plant, and natural object, and each is associated with a set of properties. We attribute psychological, biological, and physical properties to humans, for example, whereas natural objects possess physical properties but not biological or psychological ones. Supernatural concepts are those concepts that violate the normal, intuitive properties of these categories. Thus, the concept ghost is based on the human category, but deviates from it by not possessing biological properties (i.e., ghosts do not need to eat, sleep, or perform the normal biological functions of humans). Experimental research by cognitive scientists such as Geertz and Justin Barrett has started to confirm that there are many similarities in how people reason about humans and supernatural agents. In a particularly clever set of studies, Barrett and Frank Keil (1996) found that, under cognitive load, participants seemed not to account for the counterintuitive properties of God. Instead, they reasoned that the supernatural deity would have to obey the normal laws of physics, despite explicitly believing that God need not follow such laws. For example, when asked to retell a story about God’s saving a drowning boy, participants who believed that God does not follow the normal rules of space and time inserted the detail that God finished answering a prayer somewhere else in the world before he began saving the boy, despite this detail’s not being in the original story. Like Geertz’s research, this suggests that human thinking about God and other supernatural agents is very similar to thinking about other humans.

One of the most active ongoing debates within the field involve the origins of religious thought, not just in individuals, but in humans as a species, and especially whether religious thought was selected for in the course of evolution. Many researchers, including Dominic Johnson, Azim Shariff, and Ara Norenzayan, adhere to some form of the supernatural punishment hypothesis (see, for example, Shariff & Norenzayan, 2011)—the idea that the threat of punishment from morally concerned supernatural agents helped humans increase cooperation and live in larger societies—though there are several version of this hypothesis and not everyone buys into it. This debate is exploding within the field and driving much new research into when and how religious thinking inspires cooperation.

Although cognitive scientists have begun proposing answers to questions about religious thinking, the field is quite young and there is still much to be studied. As the cognitive science of religion matures, there will no doubt be creative and exciting approaches to the current debates and to questions that are only beginning to arise in the field, such as how thinking about malevolent agents differs from thinking about benevolent ones. It is an exciting time for the study of religious cognition.

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

Erika Salomon is a graduate student studying social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has an MA in Cognition and Culture from Queen’s University Belfast and a BA in English from the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on religion and self-consciousness, religion as a social identity and moral community, and naturalistic thinking. She occasionally blogs about religious cognition at A Theory of Mind.

References:

Barrett, J. L., & Keil, F. C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31, 219–247.

Bering, J. M., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2004). The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity. Developmental Psychology, 40, 217-233.

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained. London: William Heinneman.

Evans, E. M. (2000). The Emergence of Beliefs about the Origins of Species in School-Age Children. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 46, 221–254.

Kelemen, D. (1999). Function, goals and intention: children’s teleological reasoning about objects. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3, 461–468.

Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21, 85–96. doi:10.1080/10508619.2011.556990

Podcasts

Religious Studies and the Paranormal, Part 1

In October 2013, a four day international conference was held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, on the theme of ‘Anthropology and the Paranormal’. This special two part episode explores some aspects of the sometimes fraught relationship between “paranormal” events and beliefs (The World Religions“) and Religious Studies. This two-part episode has been produced in collaboration with Jack Hunter, editor of the journal Paranthropology, and co-convenor of the Esalen conference.

In this first part, we ask, why has the study of “paranormal” experience been somewhat ignored by academia in general and Religious Studies in particular? Is the problem the term “paranormal”? What importance of these kinds of studies have for the field? Is there concern that such studies necessarily seek to justify the ontological claims of the paranormal? This latter issue is pursued in part two, to be broadcast this wednesday. Many of the scholars also offer advice for those interested in this area but are worried about “employability”. You will hear, in the following order, the voices of Jeffery Kripal, Ann Taves, Tanya Luhrmann, Fiona Bowie, Paul Stoller, Charles Emmons, Stanley Krippner and David Hufford.

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 Christmas presents etc. Fifteen international scholars from anthropology, religious studies, folklore and psychology met to discuss the potential contributions of these interrelated disciplines to the investigation of paranormal beliefs and experiences. Fiona Bowie’s report of the conference may be read here.

esalen_lineup

From left to right, back row: Michael Murphy, Susan Greenwood, Jane Hartford, Jeffrey Kripal, Raphael Locke, David Hufford, Charles Emmons, Jack Hunter, Thomas E. Bullard, Stanley Krippner, Edward F. Kelly, Loriliai Biernacki. Middle row: Edith Turner, Tanya Luhrmann, Ann Taves, Deb Frost. Front row: Geoffrey Samuel, Antonia Mills, Fiona Bowie, Sam Yau, Frank Poletti, Paul Stoller, Gregory Shushan.

 

Young People of ‘No Religion’ and Religious Education Beyond Religious Belief

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 30 October 2013, in response to Abby Day’s interview on Believing, Belonging, and Academic Careers  (28 October 2013).

Divided into two distinct halves, Christopher Cotter’s interview with Abby Day begins with a discussion of her research on the nature of belief and what ordinary people in a modern western society actually believe; and concludes with advice on publishing journal articles and acquiring funding for research projects. In my response, I’ll focus on some of the points raised concerning belief, suggest how Day’s work could benefit youth and education studies and, in particular, explain how I’ve found her approach to the study of belief helpful in my own exploration of the lives of young people who identify as having ‘no religion’.

For Day, the concept of belief has often been taken for granted in the study of religion. Rarely do we ask, what do we mean when we talk about belief? As David Morgan has observed, the academic study of religion in the West has been ‘shaped by the idea that a religion is what someone believes’, and that this amounts to a ‘discrete, subjective experience of assent to propositions concerning the origin of the cosmos, the nature of humanity, the existence of deities, or the purpose of life’ (2010, 1). Although there have been a number of scholars and researchers, particularly within anthropology, who have critiqued this view of religion (Needham 1972; Ruel 2002; Lindquist and Coleman 2008), such an understanding persists and remains prevalent within religious education (RE) in secondary schools. Day’s research not only raises questions about what we mean by belief; she also demonstrates how religious identity is often more complicated than assent to propositions. And both of these insights could be of great value to the study of religion and belief at school, as well as to researchers’, teachers’ and policy-makers’ understandings of the nature of belief within the lives of both religious and ‘non-religious’ young people.

The initial impetus for Day’s interest in what people actually believe came from the 2001 Census in England and Wales, in which 72% of the respondents identified as ‘Christian’. In what appeared to be an increasingly secular society, it seemed puzzling that such a large proportion of the population would self-identify in this way. Day decided to explore more deeply what some of these census respondents meant in their adoption of a Christian identity, by examining what they actually believed. Introducing herself to potential participants as a social sciences researcher rather than a researcher of religion, Day also began her interviews by asking people ‘what do you believe in?’ rather than ‘what is your religion?’ It was only at the very end of her interviews that she raised the topic of religious identity in connection with the 2001 Census. This approach enabled her to focus on belief without asking religious questions. And, by focusing instead on values and meaning, as well as what was important to her participants, Day was able to learn much more about how belief functioned in their lives.

Day’s study of belief beyond ‘religious belief’ encouraged me to adopt a similar methodological approach in my own research with 14- and 15-year-olds who report ‘no religion’, exploring how ticking the ‘no religion’ box related to their wider lives without asking questions about religion. I wanted to learn about the people, places, objects, activities and times – the material cultures – that were significant to these young people, as well as to understand their beliefs and values, their methods of constructing narratives of meaning and purpose, and the influence of family, friends and society on their lives and identities. My primary research method was photo-elicitation interviews, in which the photos taken act as ‘prompts and supports to participant narrative’ (Liebenberg, 2009, 448). But I also wanted to avoid any tendencies to take photos that specifically focused on participants’ ‘non-religiosity’ or illustrated their attitudes towards religion. So I embedded the religion question from the 2011 Census alongside questions that collected other seemingly unconnected data and left explicit discussion of participants’ reasons for self-identifying as having ‘no religion’, as well as of their understandings of ‘religion’, to the end of the interview.

Just as Day discovered, however, where it remains important, interview questions about ‘belief’ or ‘life’ more generally still enable participants to talk freely about religion. But, while Day found that religion and religious beliefs played a relatively unimportant part in the lives of some participants who nonetheless chose ‘Christian’ as their religious identity in the 2001 Census, my research with young people who ticked ‘no religion’ indicates that some who self-identify in this way nonetheless find religion and religious beliefs to be significant in their lives.

Day’s research offers valuable insights into some of the reasons people in a modern western society choose to adopt a ‘Christian’ identity when surveyed. For some, it acts as a ‘social marker’ that helps them to feel secure within their communities, creating a boundary between themselves and others; being Christian is something that they are born into, akin to an ethnic identity. This position is nicely illustrated in her interview with ‘Jordan’, a 14-year-old who she describes as an ‘unbelieving Christian’. Although he states ‘I don’t believe in any religions’, Jordan identifies as ‘Christian’ because ‘on my birth certificate it says I’m Christian’. Day explains that, for him, ‘Christian’ doesn’t mean much, he doesn’t do anything that is typically ‘Christian’, and his understanding of a Christian is ‘someone who believes in God and Jesus and Bible and stuff’. While he does not believe in these things, his grandparents do because they are ‘Irish and really strong Christians’. This understanding of what being a Christian entailed is perhaps not surprising, considering Jordan was ‘reflecting how the term “belief” has become associated with “Christian” over the centuries’ (Day, 2009, 266-7). Day’s research provides a welcome corrective to an understanding of belief as primarily propositional and Christian, illustrating the various ways belief functions in all our everyday lives, cutting across conventional boundaries between the religious and the secular.

Although Jordan differs from my participants in that he identifies as ‘Christian’ rather than as having ‘no religion’, understandings of the Christian religion and of what a Christian identity entails are similar. In many of my interviews, it became clear that participants reduce ‘religion’ to metaphysical, existential and/or ethical belief systems that are either true or false. Since participants do not hold these beliefs, they tick the ‘no religion’ box. For some, in order to identify as Christian it is not only necessary to believe everything within that religion, but to have a strong faith in those beliefs. As one 15-year-old girl told me, ‘I don’t think my belief in God is strong enough for me to tick “Christian”. … If there was a sort of “in between” box, I probably would have ticked that. But to categorise what I believe, I’d say I don’t really have a religion’.

My research interests in the lives of young people who report ‘no religion’ dovetails with the emerging field of Nonreligion and Secularity Studies. Lois Lee has provided a working definition of ‘non-religion’ as ‘anything that is primarily defined in a relationship of difference to religion’ (2012, 131), indicating the necessity of reflexivity not only about specific relationships of ‘difference’ but about understandings of ‘religion’ itself. Day is right to emphasise the importance of clarity in relation to the term ‘belief’, but perhaps she could have spoken more during the interview about what she means by ‘religion’. This would then assist further discussion of her proposal that ‘belief’ crosses conventional boundaries between ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’, making religion, as she says, ‘a subset of belief’.

For the young people of ‘no religion’ that I interviewed, ‘religion’ is understood as consisting of impossible propositional beliefs that are displaced by scientific knowledge. Religion requires acceptance of all its beliefs and cannot incorporate participants’ diversity of beliefs; as another 15-year-old girl said, ‘there would never be a religion for everything I thought’. Religion demands restrictive ethical beliefs, behaviours and belongings that limit autonomy and authenticity. And even when religious ethics are admirable, participants separate ethics from religion because religion remains reduced to primarily metaphysical beliefs.

Although there were a number of reasons that these young people viewed religion and belief in this way, one influence on their understanding clearly came from what they were taught in school. In state-maintained secondary schools in England, some form of RE is mandatory and one of the ways in which schools meet this requirement is through exam courses at GCSE. ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ is one of the most popular strands of exam RE, with pupils being tested on their knowledge of how religious adherents are supposed to live and act, and on their ability to critique religious truth claims and provide rationale for their own beliefs about what is true. For example, the following questions have been set on recent exam papers:

Explain why some people say that religious revelation is only an illusion (AQA GCSE Religious Studies Short Course Specification A, June 2010)

Explain why most Christians are against euthanasia (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Do you think the universe is designed? Give two reasons for your point of view (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Although this might help pupils develop their critical thinking skills, this approach to the study of religion seems to reinforce the notion that religion is concerned with private, individualized beliefs of an ontological, epistemological and/or moral nature. It does not provide room for pupils to consider how ‘religion’ might be broader than assent to propositional beliefs or to explore further the nature of belief and how it can function in all our everyday lives. As Day writes of Jordan, ‘[He] had many beliefs, although not in God, Jesus, the Bible and “stuff”. He believed in doing well at school, helping at home, being with his friends’ (2009, 267).

In recent years, there has been increased debate about the inclusion of secular philosophies within the RE classroom. As I have argued elsewhere , there seem to be a number of problems with some of the recommendations that have been made in this debate, specifically that it repeats the assumption that belief (whether religious or secular) is tantamount to assent to propositions. But exploring the nature of belief more broadly would seem to be one way in which young people could understand religion ‘beyond belief’ and start to recognise the role that beliefs play in all our lives, rather than viewing belief as solely propositional and peculiar to religion. Space within the curriculum should perhaps be found, therefore, to encourage pupils to explore the nature of belief as not only a marker of religious identity but also of social or relational identities, as Day suggests.

Towards the end of the interview, Day discusses some of the ways in which academics can disseminate project findings, as well as give back to the communities they have involved in their projects. Day’s research into what people actually believe has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of how belief functions in the everyday lives of ordinary people. My research with 14- and 15-year olds suggests that it would be helpful if more of these insights could reach not only researchers of religion but also educationalists and policy makers, in order to benefit young people studying religion and belief at school.

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.

References

  • Day, A. (2009) ‘Believing in Belonging: An Ethnography of Young People’s Constructions of Belief.’ Culture and Religion 10 (3) 263-278
  • – (2011) Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lee, L. (2012) ‘Research Note: Talking about a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’ Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1):129-139.
  • Liebenberg, L. (2009) ‘The visual image as discussion point: increasing validity in boundary crossing research’. Qualitative Research 9:441-67.
  • Lindquist, G. and Coleman, S. (2008) ‘Introduction: Against Belief?’ Social Analysis 52 (1) 1-18
  • Morgan, D. (ed.) (2010) Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief. London: Routledge.
  • Needham, R. (1972) Belief, Language and Experience. Oxford: Blackwell
  • Ruel, M. (2002) ‘Christians as Believers’ in Lambek, M. (ed.) (2002) A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Belief, Belonging, and Academic Careers

Almost twenty years ago, Grace Davie observed that despite plenty of studies into the ‘exotic edges’ of religion, ‘the picture in the middle remains remarkably blurred’. Seeking to address this imbalance and engage with the ‘beliefs of ordinary British people in everyday life’, Abby Day‘s recent book, Believing in Belonging (the first topic for this interview), builds upon her doctoral and later postdoctoral fieldwork, beginning within small communities in Yorkshire, and extending to a number of modern industrialised nations.

in this interview with Chris, recorded at the 2013 BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference at Durham University, Day introduces listeners to the concept of ‘belief’ and sets out her own inductive approach, using semi-structured interviews, whereby definitions were allowed to arise from the field. Her central thesis acts as a focal point for a wide-ranging and insightful discussion on a variety of topics from nationalism and secularisation, to the usefulness of censuses as tools for measuring ‘religion’, to gender and belief in destiny. These themes are also picked up and developed in a recent volume published by Ashgate – Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular – which was co-edited by Abby, Chris, and Giselle Vincett.

Wearing one of her other hats, Abby also presents regularly on how to build an academic career, win research funding, and get articles published, and has published the books academic publishing and building an academic career.

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.

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

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Belief […] can be used as a concept to bridge […] frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it).

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

By Liam T. Sutherland

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 15 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Martin Stringer on Situational Belief (13 May 2013)

The work of Professor Martin Stringer is a breath of fresh air for all those who reject both the simplistic belief-centred approach to religion and its attendant backlash. It makes belief an important part of the way that religions are researched and analysed, but not in a fashion recognisable to many.

The traditional belief-centred approach drags with it a raft of assumptions that have proved consistently absent in the field, most notably that religious communities are centred on a coherent body of beliefs which mediates membership and divides them sharply from outsiders. Religious beliefs are often described in ways so philosophical and abstract that they would appear to in no way relate to the everyday lives of practitioners, who may have never encountered such supposedly integral doctrines. This approach has been overturned by examinations of ritual, visual religion, ethnicity, kinship, power etc.  Other assumptions have been overturned, such as the notion that adherents engage exclusively in practices sanctioned by their tradition. Stringer found in his own fieldwork in the North of England that professing Christians would seek the advice of astrologers and claim to believe in reincarnation.

The inaccuracy of such assumptions has led to a rejection of ‘belief’ as a problematic concept. However, many of these assumptions cannot be countered without re-examining the concept of belief. Arguably this is because they reflect a misrepresentation of the workings of belief, not the applicability of the concept itself.  The rejection of belief is based on equally untenable assumptions, usually simple, negative or inverted versions of those mentioned above. ‘Belief’ is often described by its critics in the words of Clifford Geertz, as though it always entailed some kind of ‘abstract Baconian deduction’, always hermetically sealed, intellectual, elite systems which are removed from everyday life. Attempting to remove belief from accounts of religion is a hollow, unsatisfying and deliberately blinkered means of avoiding its pitfalls –  as Geertz added it is like staging Hamlet without the prince.

Stringer has shown that people use belief in extra-empirical beings as coping mechanisms and to anticipate and deal with problems. People may seek the structure, resources and cultural resonance of a Christian church, the ability to predict and respond to future problems offered by an astrologer, and the comfort of being able to chat with dead relatives who can listen and respond. All of these examples depend on a variety of factors, one of which is surely that they are considered to reflect belief in powerful, efficacious and therefore useful realities.

This approach to belief highlights the fact that while religion may have ritual, visual and ideological functions, it is never devoid of interpretations of the cosmos. The fact that some religions are orthopraxic, emphasising the necessity of correct practice not correct belief, does not mean that such religions are devoid of belief. As Segal has argued, religion could not perform any kind of ideological or psychological function if it was not a somewhat independent factor: that is, if many did not believe in the claims being made. A deity may need to be ritually appealed to or appeased but may not be concerned with the mental state of practitioners. This fact does not mean that no one considers the deity to be a real being that requires appeasement. While there may be evidence for other motivations for the performance – cultural heritage, to legitimate the traditional power structure etc. – a practitioner’s statement is surely the best evidence we have. As Horton pointed out, it would be incredibly patronising and unsound for scholars to assume that they have the ‘correct’ interpretation of believers’ statements.

Another crucial contribution that Stringer has made in the rehabilitation of the concept of belief is his notion of ‘situational beliefs’, which serves to explain the apparent ‘contradictory’ nature of many popular religious practices in the modern west. The fact that people may appear to practice many traditions simultaneously, or engage in practices prohibited by their (orthodox) tradition, cannot necessarily be taken as clear evidence that they do not believe in the belief statements they are making. Stringer contends that beliefs are most powerful and consciously thought about in specific situations in which they are relevant, such as a ritual-communal setting like a Church service or in the context of problems or obstacles in the person’s life. While the cognitive dimensions and interpretation which attend religious practices should not be downplayed, not all believers will insist on indivisible, coherent bodies of doctrines, but rather adopt piecemeal and patchwork systems. This may be derided by its critics as a ‘pick and mix’ approach but Stringer’s evidence contributes to the evidence that it is the norm not the exception throughout the world.

However, the concept of belief itself must be examined more closely if it is to be of any value as a scholarly tool. Beliefs must be differentiable in some way from thoughts, and could generally be defined as thoughts which are considered to respond to reality with varying degrees of conviction and held over a notable length of time. The thorny question of where the division lies between belief and knowledge was broached by the interviewer, David Robertson. Stringer places the divide along the lines of how much a statement could possibly be verified, i.e. if I put my cup down it is on the table (knowledge), or whether all leopards are Christian (belief).

According to traditional epistemology, however, all knowledge contains belief. One can claim knowledge if one believes a proposition, has sound reasons to justify this, and the proposition happens to in fact be true[1] Belief is thus a constituent part of the process of gaining knowledge, all knowledge contains belief but not all beliefs count as knowledge. Beliefs themselves can be sub-divided according to how they are justified, whether the belief is empirical and rational and thus accessible to all, or based on experiential or cultural justifications.

One of the interesting questions to come out of Stringer’s research is: how incoherent are the beliefs of the practitioners under study? It is certainly the case that they may not match the traditional expected forms of practice, but while Stringer’s model of situational belief is highly useful, it does not necessarily mean that human beings do not retain a drive for coherence[2]. Stewart Guthrie argued that the worldwide tendency of anthropomorphism, which lies at the heart of many religions, is based on a tendency to seek coherent patterns.

Are the forms of religion in evidence here not so different from the traditional orthodoxies, which no longer have the power or legitimacy to maintain their hegemony, that we find it difficult to recognise them? Practitioners don’t feel a need to accept traditions as whole packages, as Stringer mentioned, and may not even be aware of doctrines that they are contradicting. Furthermore, their God may no longer be a jealous one. That is not to argue that Stringer did not find very palpable evidence of contradictions and a loose attitude to creating a unitary, coherent worldview, even for the individual.

Another traditional view of belief challenged by Stringer is the idea that religious beliefs are always deeply held, of ‘ultimate concern’ to use Paul Tillich’s phrase. This arguably reflects Stringer’s link to the Tylorian tradition, which describes religious belief as a pragmatic means of interpreting the cosmos and indeed to coping with it. This means that believers may not develop an intense ‘faith’ in or sacred aura around these beliefs but, instead, may be willing to adopt new beliefs and abandon old ones, according to how well they appear to offer a valid interpretive mechanism.  As Fitzgerald has astutely pointed out, belief in deities or spirits may be considerably less important or sacred than values such as hierarchy, purity or democracy.

One of the main concepts employed by scholars in place of ‘belief’ is ‘experience.’ Experience is an extremely useful focus but it can be used problematically much like belief and does not perform the same role.  It would certainly be implausible to deny that religious practitioners have real experiences: social, psychological and sensory but the problem is of course that experiences can never be separated out of their frameworks of interpretation. Religious believers frequently claim to have experiences of the love of God and the power of crystals, not just the warmth of their congregation or the pageantry of a festival.

By using the notion of ‘experience’ scholars can conveniently ignore the inherent tension between the naturalistic-cultural and theological frameworks of interpretation. Scholars should not ignore this tension but face it head on: religious people claim to know or experience metaphysical realities because they have interpreted experiences found among specific groups and inculcated by rituals etc. in a particular way. Scholars of religion study only these human beings and do not interpret these experiences in the same way, but cannot simply dismiss them because they lie outside the scientific framework. Belief here can be used as a concept to bridge these frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it). Many would not claim to believe in metaphysical realities, but to know them or experience them, but that does not mean that it is useful for scholars to adopt these turns of phrase. They must ‘re-describe’ religious claims in a manner which does not endorse their position.

Experience here takes on the same character as the concept of ‘faith’ that Stringer critiqued, which is used to keep scholars at arm’s length. Adding the concept of belief to the analysis makes it more precise and rich by clarifying  how subjects understand and interpret their experiences, how they separate perceived reality from perceived illusion and modelling the cognitive framework within which actors presume to act. Certainly if social networks can inculcate common behaviour and even common experiences, they can inculcate frameworks of interpretation which are genuinely held to correspond to reality.  The point is that religious believers claim to believe in more than the emotive content of rituals, to believe in ontological realities. Social scientists may be methodologically agnostic to the existence of such phenomena, but they should not leave belief in them out of analysis, because concern with human beings means concern with the cognitive worlds they inhabit.

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:

481753_10151274231722302_1786021171_nLiam Sutherland is a native of Edinburgh who has studied Religious Studies twice at Edinburgh University and is about to go back for third time in September of this year. His undergraduate work focused on Indigenous Religions, taking contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality as his dissertation topic. His Masters by research concerned the legacy and influence of Sir E.B. Tylor on contemporary theoretical debates in the study of religion and his upcoming PhD will focus on religion and Scottish National identity. He has previously written An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy,and The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald for the Religious Studies project, and participated in roundtable recordings on What is the Future of Religious Studies? and Should Religious Studies be Multidisciplinary?

Bibliography

  • Fitzgerald, T. The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) Oxford University Press
  • Geertz, C.  “Religion as a Cultural System” in Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books
  • Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) Oxford University Press
  • Horton, R. Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science(1993) Cambridge University Press
  • Lévy-Bruhl, L. Primitive Mentality (1966) Clare, A.L. (trans.) Beacon Press
  • McCutcheon, R.T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion (2001) State University of New York Press
  • Segal, R. “Theories of Religion” in Hinnels, J. R. (ed.) Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (2005) Routledge
  • Stringer, M.D. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion (2008) Continuum
  • Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom Volumes 1 & 2 (1871) John Murray

[1] This approach may well be criticised by many but mostly due to the seemingly arbitrary third factor: that a proposition happens to be true!

[2] I would not argue that Stringer is attempting to revive the position of the early anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl who argued that many cultures could not recognise contradictions because they thought only in a ‘mystical’ and ‘pre-logical’ framework. Stringer’s account of religion is far too embedded in ordinary life for that. It is possible to speculate that religious people much like non-religious people do not think about the totality of their cognitive cosmos at any one time, rather the aspects that concern them at any one time.

Situational Belief

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David and Martin Stringer (and Eileen Barker) in the Great Hall of Durham Castle!

“Belief” is a critical category in the study of religion. Indeed, for some scholars, it is the very essence of religion; as Clifford Geertz wrote, “To know, one must first believe.” Others, however, see the emphasis on belief as part of the Protestant bias in the development of the discipline, and have proposed various ways of avoiding talking about it at all. In this interview recorded at the recent SOCREL conference in Durham, Martin Stringer explains his model of situational belief to David, and explains how it not only better represent how beliefs actually function for individuals, but also challenges preconceived notions of what “religion” “is” in several ways.

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

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Professor Martin Stringer is Professor of Liturgical and Congregational Studies and Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham. He trained as a social anthropologist, and his research has focused on Christian groups in the UK and diversity among inner-city communities. His theoretical approach is to use anthropological methods of ethnography in detailed and extended studies of real life situations, where he believes religion can be most fruitfully understood.

His recent publications include Rethinking the Origins of the Eucharist (SCM, 2011) and A Sociological History of the Christian Worship (Cambridge University Press, 2005). However, of particular relevance to this interview is Contemporary Western Ethnography of the Definition of Religion (Continuum, 2008). Also of interest is his paper ‘Towards a Situational Theory of Belief’ (Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, Vol XXVII, No 3, Michaelmas 1996, pp217-234).

Bruno Latour, Talking “Religiously”, part 2

This is the second part of our interview with Professor Bruno Latour, and if you haven’t already, you can listen to the first part here.

This time, Latour and David Robertson discuss Latour’s recent works We Have Never Been Modern and On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Discussion moves from his critique of the distinction between the manufactured and “real”, and how this affects our models of belief.

Conversation finally turns to his Gifford Lecture Series, presented this February in Edinburgh, with the title Facing Gaia: An Enquiry Into Natural Religion. While we are used to problematising the category religion, Latour argues that we should equally question the category of natural. Videos and abstracts of Bruno Latour’s complete Gifford Lecture series can be viewed on the University of Edinburgh’s page.

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

Bruno Latour is Professor at Sciences Po Paris and has also been Professor at the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines in Paris and visiting Professor at University of California (San Diego), at the London School of Economics and Harvard University. After field studies in Africa and California he specialized in the analysis of scientists and engineers at work. In addition to work in philosophy, history, sociology and anthropology of science, he has collaborated on many studies in science policy and research management, producing significant works such as Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts and most recently Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies). He has also made a valuable contribution to the political philosophy of the environment with the book Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, a theme which the Gifford Lectures continue.

Bruno Latour, Talking “Religiously”, part 1

Professor Bruno Latour is one of the most respected scholars in the social sciences today. This February, he came to Edinburgh University to deliver the annual Gifford Lecture Series, established in 1888 to ‘promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term” – an opportunity we felt we could not miss. Previous presenters have included such luminaries as William James, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and E. B. Tylor. So how does an anthropologist of science come to be giving the Gifford Lectures?

In this first part, Latour and David Robertson discuss the broader relevance of his work for Religious Studies. They discuss actor-network theory, of which Latour was instrumental in developing. This includes some discussion of phenomenology and religious “essence”. Discussion then moves to Latour’s forthcoming work, Rejoicing: or the Torments of Religious Speech (Polity 2013), a more personal work which concerns not “religion” or “religions” but the adverb “religiously”. What does it mean to talk religiously, and is it still even possible? It is at the same time a fierce attack on religions, but a passionate defence of religious speech.

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

Videos and abstracts of Bruno Latour’s complete Gifford Lecture series can be viewed on the University of Edinburgh’s page.

Bruno Latour is Professor at Sciences Po Paris and has also been Professor at the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines in Paris and visiting Professor at University of California (San Diego), at the London School of Economics and Harvard University. After field studies in Africa and California he specialized in the analysis of scientists and engineers at work. In addition to work in philosophy, history, sociology and anthropology of science, he has collaborated on many studies in science policy and research management, producing significant works such as Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts and most recently Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies). He has also made a valuable contribution to the political philosophy of the environment with the book Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, a theme which the Gifford Lectures continue.

Five Lectures on Atheism, Nonreligion, and Secularity, from the NSRN

In partnership with the NSRN (Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network), it is our pleasure to bring you the audio recordings of five very important lectures.

The first is the NSRN Annual Lecture from April 2011, recorded at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham:

The other four are the keynote lectures from the NSRN’s Biennial Conference, recorded at Goldsmiths University, London, in July 2012:

Chris, one of the Religious Studies Project’s (RSP) ‘editors-in-chief’, is also Managing Editor of the NSRN’s website and therefore, when the NSRN wanted to make available some podcasts from recent events, it seemed like a win-win situation for both organizations for the RSP to host and disseminate these podcasts on behalf of the NSRN. These lectures come as part of an extensive series of podcasts from the RSP which touch on the study of non-religion – from our recent roundtable discussion on Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies, to our interviews with Linda Woodhead, Callum Brown, and Lois Lee. We appreciate that not all of our visitors will be particularly interested in this area of research, and for that reason we have released all of these lectures at the same time,and avoided placing them on iTunes. However, we are sure that every listener will find something of interest in these recordings, and wish you happy listening over the ‘Christmas’ period.

For those of you who don’t know the NSRN, the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network is an international and interdisciplinary network of researchers founded in 2008 which aims to centralise existing research on the topic of non-religion and secularity and to facilitate discussion in this area. The NSRN run a series of events including their biennial conference and annual lecture series, in addition to maintaining a vibrant website with extensive collection of resources, publications, and listings for teachers and students working in the area of non-religion and secularity.

Due to the lecture style of these recordings, it is somewhat inevitable that the audio quality will be lower than we would like, and that there might be references to PowerPoint presentations or other events happening in the room. However, we know that these will be minor irritations when compared with the stimulating scholarship that you are about to hear, and we are very grateful to the NSRN for working with us to bring you these lectures.

Vernacular Religion: Because you’ll Find More than the Devil in the Details

There is an important message embedded in Marion Bowman’s notion of “vernacular religion”–that when we plant our feet firmly on the ground, amidst the fray of religious life, we are confronted with the unmistakable heterogeneity of both belief and practice. As living people “do religion” on the ground it may not always resemble the religion of the Qur’an, the Vatican or your Buddhism 101 textbook. It should come as no surprise then that this type of grounded religion was understood for years as “folk religion,” or as folklorist Don Yoder put it “the totality of all those views and practices of religion that exist among the people apart from and alongside with strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion” (Yoder 1974:14). The near synonym “popular religion” has also been used with frequency (e.g. Jolly 1996).

Yet, as we heard, Bowman objects to both “popular” and “folk” religion as scholarly categories because of what they imply in contradistinction. For instance, in regards to “popular religion” she says “so this is opposed to…unpopular religion?” But the problems run deeper.  “Folk religion” is hampered by a legacy of distinguishing the religion of the folk from, as Yoder put it “official religion” and thereby demeaning its value. Indeed this is true of “popular religion” as well (e.g. Vrijhof and Waardenburg 1979). So while Bowman credits Yoder for trying to rescue “folk religion” from this two-tiered structure and the negative valuation it gets within it, she chooses instead to follow one of Yoder’s former students, Leonard Primiano, in rejecting the term altogether (Primiano 1995; Bowman and Valk 2012).

Enter “vernacular religion.” Primiano succinctly defines the concept as “religion as it is lived: as human beings encounter, understand and interpret it,” and in her podcast Bowman also refers to it as “that everyday religion” (Primiano 1995:44). Here religious studies scholars and sociologists might respectively recognize a pair of conceptual cousins with similar parameters. As religious historian David Hall describes it, to focus on “lived religion” means looking at “religion as practiced and…the everyday thinking and doing of lay men and women” (Hall 1997:vii). In a similar vein sociologist Nancy Ammerman tells us that the study of “everyday religion” privileges “the experience of the nonexperts, the people who do not make a living being religious or thinking and writing about religious ideas” (Ammerman 2007:5). Yet these conceptual cousins might perhaps still evoke distinctions (like those between the church hierarchy and the laity or the expert and the nonexpert) that Bowman hopes vernacular religion more consciously elides. To Bowman there is a sense in which like “vernacular speech” or “vernacular architecture,” all religious forms are vernacular because all are context specific. In other words the beliefs and practices of religious experts and elites are just as vernacular as those of the laity. The same goes for the variety of religious forms within larger traditions. There is nothing more or less authentic about Hungarian Calvinism than Scottish Calvinism, for instance.

In this vein one might consider Frank Korom’s work on the Indo-Trinidadian celebration of Hosay an excellent example of vernacular religion scholarship, though Korom’s own interpretive frame centers around another linguistic analogy; creolization (Korom 2002). In his monograph, Hosay Trinidad, Korom traces how the somber Shiite commemoration of the death of the Imam Hussain, known as Muharram, was transformed into the carnivalesque Trinidadian celebration of Hosay. As it traveled across space and time Muharram/Hosay adapted to and incorporated various local customs, first on the Indian subcontinent then in the Caribbean. Hosay thus illustrates Bowman’s point that not only are religious vernaculars marked by context dependent differences, but they are formed out of them. As she puts it in the podcast, vernacular religious traditions are like vernacular architecture in that both are built out of local materials.

The idea of “building” a tradition also suggests a certain amount of agency or at least semi-conscious activity by vernacular religionists. Though Bowman never refers to Anne Swidler, one gets the sense that Swidler’s notion of culture as a “‘tool kit’ of symbols, stories, rituals, and world-views, which people may use in varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems,” fits nicely with Bowman’s approach (Swidler 1986:273). While vernacular traditions are products of cultural tinkering they are simultaneously resources through which future tinkering is made possible. Contemporary Druids therefore use the vernacular Christian myth describing Joseph of Arimathea’s visit to Glastonbury to support the idea that there was an ancient druidic center of learning there. Why else would Joseph have traveled so far? Likewise the prevalence of Marian devotion (particularly involving St. Brigid) is reinterpreted by the Goddess community as evidence of the presence of the goddess Birdie in Glastonbury (Bowman 2004). Here we see how vernacular religion also provides an alternative to concepts of religious mixing like “syncretism,” which have undergone a sustained critique over the years for, among other things, devaluing agency and reinforcing a two-tiered dominant/subordinate relationship between traditions that are in creative contact with each other (Baird 1971; Korom 2002; Schmidt 2006).

But the championing of human agency also raises questions. How much agency and how much consciousness do individual practitioners actually have? In the podcast Bowman describes “folklore,” and hence the stuff of vernacular traditions, broadly as “mental furniture.” Like a chair in a room we utilize the artifacts of folklore without consciously thinking about the fact that they exist or how they are arranged. This unconscious dimension of folklore qua mental furniture begins to sound a bit more like Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus” than a cultural tool kit (Bourdieu 1977). While Swidler favorably compares her cultural tool kit to Bourdieu’s habitus one gets the sense that there is more conscious mastery involved in the utilization of cultural tools than there is in the activities of the “structuring structures” of the habitus. In fact Sherry Ortner has critiqued Bourdieu on these very grounds, claiming that Bourdieu insisted on “the inaccessibility to actors of the underlying logic of their practices.” Ortner suggests instead that people are “at least partially ‘knowing subjects’” who “have some ‘penetration’ into the ways in which they are formed by their circumstances” (Ortner 2005:34). I tend to agree with her.

Now what I find somewhat problematic with Bowman’s presentation of vernacular religion and folklore vis-à-vis agency and consciousness is not that Bowman is a Bourdieuian, since she’s clearly not. It’s that in the end I’m not sure that she’s carved out a firm position. As Primiano develops the notion of vernacular religion in his treatise he individuates it down to the concept of “uniculture” or “the personal discourse which we all carry on with ourselves as self-aware beings” (Primiano 1995:49). In other words, according to Primiano, individuals are capable of being cultures unto themselves in which beliefs and practices are formed out of self-contained relationships between one’s own thoughts. In the end I’m not sure what is gained by the reframing of cognitive processes as folklore other than the celebration of some sort of self-religion but one thing is evident—Primiano’s world is chock full of human agency. So where does Bowman stand?

In the podcast Bowman says that the study of folklore brings value to the study of religion by being about what people “actually” think and do as opposed to what they are supposed to think and do. Here Bowman is echoing Primiano who also writes about folklore dealing with the “actual beliefs of the people” (Primiano 1995:51). In one sense one could say, fair enough. Folklorists collect examples of beliefs and practices from actual practitioners, which may or may not align with what religious authorities proscribe for those practitioners. But how do we know that an informant is presenting a past mental state accurately, or even a present one without exaggeration or distortion? Primiano admits that “[h]uman beings do not always communicate what they believe to others because their individual beliefs can be substantially different. This fact is especially true concerning religious beliefs” (Primiano 1995:50).  Bowman also tells us that lived religion has always had a “mix and match” quality, but that sticking to the “official script” was so necessary in the past that only in the 20th century has there been a “glorious coming out” of what “people actually do.” Clearly neither Bowman nor Primiano believe that we’ve managed to transcend self-distortion entirely, so how productive is it then, in this context, to talk about the “actual?” Finally, and even more broadly what are we to assume about our informants’ capacities to understand the underlying logic of their practices no matter how earnest they are with us?

I don’t think there are easy answers to those questions, and I’m not sure that Bowman does either. In my view, her work unpacking vernacular religion in Glastonbury seems more nuanced than her description of the concept. For instance she depicts the ceremony of the Holy Thorn in a way that challenges assumptions about “official” Christianity in the U.K. as well as the variable meanings of the practice to Glastonbury’s locals (Bowman 2006). And when she describes Glastonbury as “a context in which cultural tradition, informal transmission and the personal experience of efficacy are likely to be as important as authoritative texts or religious professionals,” she doesn’t cast aside the professionals and their authoritative texts, but instead shows how the thoughts and actions of her informants complicate and are complicated by them (Bowman 2005:165). But in my opinion this type of nuance needs more adequate formulation in the theoretical description of vernacular religion, or else it could lead other adopters of the term to believe “the actual” is actually within their grasp. There is also a case to be made for Catherine Albanese’s suggestion that vernacular religion should be rescued from its radical individualism and repositioned within the communal frame one expects from something being likened to a communal linguistic practice (Albanese 1996:736). And in fact Bowman’s ethnographic work seems to reflect the communal model more than the individual one.

The final critique I would raise goes back to perhaps the essential premise behind Primiano’s creation of vernacular religion as a concept—the dissolving of the distinction between “official” and “unofficial” forms of religion. Both Primiano and Bowman make a strong case for scholars getting out of the business of accepting centralized, authoritative forms of religion as more authentic or even more ideal typical than local practices. However, this should not mean analytically abandoning such distinctions altogether because when they exist in the world we study they are bound to be part of the “mental furniture” of our informants. They are also bound, therefore to structure their religious experiences and practices. So while vernacular religion is invaluable in reminding scholars of the heterogeneity and ambiguity of religion as it is lived this reminder needs to be tempered by the realization that religious actors often work hard to demarcate and disambiguate their religious experiences and that such actions often have meaningful consequences. No study of religion can be complete without taking these consequences into account.

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.

References

  • Albanese, C. L. 1996. “Religion and American Popular Culture: An Introductory Essay.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion LXIV(4):733–742.
  • Ammerman, Nancy Tatom. 2007. Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives. Oxford University Press US.
  • Baird, Robert D. 1971. Category formation and the history of religions. Mouton.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2005. “Ancient Avalon, New Jerusalem, Heart Chakra of Planet Earth: the Local and the Global in Glastonbury.” Numen 52(2):157–190.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2004. “Procession and Possession in Glastonbury: Continuity, Change and the Manipulation of Tradition.” Folklore 115(3):273–285.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2006. “The Holy Thorn Ceremony: Revival, Rivalry and Civil Religion in Glastonbury.” Folklore 117(2):123–140.
  • Bowman, Marion, and Ülo Valk, eds. 2012. Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief. London ; Oakville, CT: Equinox Pub.
  • Hall, David D, ed. 1997. Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
  • Jolly, Karen Louise. 1996. Popular religion in late Saxon England: elf charms in context. University of North Carolina Press.
  • Korom, Frank J. 2002. Hosay Trinidad: Muharram Performances in an Indo-Caribbean Diaspora. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Ortner, Sherry B. 2005. “Subjectivity and Cultural Critique.” Anthropological Theory 5(1):31 –52. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
  • Primiano, Leonard Norman. 1995. “Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folklife.” Western Folklore 54(1):37–56.
  • Schmidt, Bettina E. 2006. “The Creation of Afro-Caribbean Religions and their Incorporation of Christian Elements: A Critique against Syncretism.” Transformation (02653788) 23(4):236–243.
  • Swidler, Ann. 1986. “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies.” American Sociological Review 51(2):273–286. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
  • Vrijhof, P. H., and Jean Jacques Waardenburg. 1979. Official and Popular Religion: Analysis of a Theme for Religious Studies. Walter de Gruyter.
  • Yoder, Don. 1974. “Toward a Definition of Folk Religion.” Western Folklore 33(1):2–15. Retrieved June 20, 2012.

The Faith-Spangled Banner: Changes in American attitudes and belief in all directions

The Faith-Spangled Banner: Changes in American attitudes and belief in all directions

By Lindsey Arielle Askin, Durham University

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 13 June 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ariela Keysar on “What does ‘belief’ mean to Americans?” (11 June 2012).

In contemplating a response to Prof Ariela Keysar’s interview with the Religious Studies Project over her work as Associate Director of ISSSC and its most famous endeavour, ARIS, I was struck by the dilemma faced when introducing myself to people here in the UK and telling them where I am from. The replies range from everywhere and between, ‘Connecticut, that’s near Minnesota,’ to the occasional, ‘I know exactly where that is! I’ve driven through your state! It’s very pretty in autumn.’ UK knowledge of the United States is a tricky one to evaluate, as it varies widely from an extensive familiarity since childhood of everything American, especially television and films, to nearly nothing at all with the basic ability to place New York City on a map and knowledge of the Simpsons and Glee.

Therefore I will try to carefully tread both lakes of knowledge (or ponds, respectively), and I sincerely hope that I can be informative and insightful for those in the latter group, without condescending to those who are frequently much more informed about what’s going on in America than many Americans themselves. Some of the data found by ARIS might be news to many, and yet other more subtle trends seem to defy all prediction.

At the end of the interview, Keysar promoted the ARIS 2008 Summary Report, available for free on the ARIS website. The report summarizes trends and findings since 1990 (NRSI) and 2001, the two previous years when ARIS was conducted. It contains many informative tables, and is divided into three parts: (1) national statistics on belief according to the questions posed by the survey, and how these responses were grouped together as quantitative data; (2) the data according to age, gender and marital status; and finally, (3) the data according to race, educational level, and geography—the last of which gives the term ‘Bible Belt’ a run for its money.

The first question to ask about quantitative demographic data that is arranged into percentages (e.g. 75% of Americans today are …), is how population and immigration affects our understanding of the numbers. ARIS shows us most of all, then, the changing composition of American society, not just the changing religious membership rates, since the population of the US increased by 30% from 175,440,000 in 1990 to 228,182,000 in 2008 (all numbers are drawn from Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar’s ARIS 2008 Summary Report).

So, delving more deeply into the data, ARIS discovered that the reason Islam in the US is slightly more male than female, and slightly younger than other faiths, is because of immigration. For another example, despite national losses in Catholicism, Texas and Californa’s Catholic composition increased due to America’s largest minority, Hispanic or Latino, who have immigrated to these states.

Other trends mark shifts in between movements in Christianity; the main trend is from mainline Churches to more Evangelical or non-denominational Churches. And while the number of Christians in America has risen, paradoxically America is now less Christian, because there are simply more non-Christian American citizens in 2008 than were in 1990 or even 2001. Yet one section persistently seemed to defy movement, immigration and other trends of changing social composition in America: the Nones.

The Nones are an interesting category. Despite age, education level, and geography especially (that is, even in the South), the Nones managed to rise in all demographic categories, from 8% in 2001 to 15% in 2008. While such a large percentage now professes non-belief, this is a group distinct from those who would self-identify as atheists, who stand at 0.7% of the American public (agnostics at 0.9%). The disparity between the Nones/No Religion and the Atheist and Agnostic categories is stark. Keysar muses that while many Americans today may feel a lack of belief, there is still very much a taboo surrounding explicit self-identification as an atheist or agnostic (see Edgell et al. 2006). Finally, while there is a remarkable variation of over 100 unique responses to the question, ‘What is your religion, if any?’ – the reply of ‘None’ was the most common of all answers. Yet still, the number of Americans today who identify as Atheist or Agnostic has still risen. Slowly but surely, the taboo is becoming less strong.

Other interesting facts from ARIS 2008 include the responses to questions about God and belief. The gaps between belief and religious category offer proof today that in America, association with religion no longer automatically equates to belief in God—or, just as much, that non-association with any religion equates to a lack of belief. Listening to Keysar’s podcast creates a sudden dawning realization that many religious people in America often have less belief than people who profess to be non-religious. It seems, in fact, that religious association often has little to do with what one believes (or how one votes). It is a shame that ARIS cannot ask about political leanings, but I think the results would challenge more than confirm many European (and North-East American) stereotypes about the religious composition of Republican and Democrat party voters.

Yet despite this trend – most confusing of all, when asked about human evolution, only 33% of Nones actually ‘professed belief’ in the concept. However, positive belief in evolution was not the only committal answer, as those who outright rejected evolution was then 36% of the whole survey, and only 17% of Nones – leaving the largest chunk of Americans with no professed religion or faith mostly unsure of how they felt about evolution.

Keysar labels evolution, as much as religious identification, still a ‘cultural wedge’ in society, in her words. And yet, paradoxically, very few of the Nones, 17% to be exact, believed that there was anything to horoscopes. Nones are now very sceptical of New Age practice, but also, strangely, of human evolution. This makes up a very interesting profile for many Nones: no organised religion, no New Age, perhaps God, perhaps not, or perhaps God acting in the world and in one’s personal life, but no evolution. The ghost of the Scopes trial still haunts American society.

Finally, the Summary Report notes religious belief according to gender and religion. In America, there are 49 males for every 52 females (ARIS Summary Report, p.11). All Christian groups matched this national average, whereas in non-Christian religions where there were a higher percentage of immigrants, there were more males. Yet the Nones numbered 60% male, matching the suspected theory that women remain more religious than men. As far as marriage goes, rates are high regardless of religion or lack thereof. Catholics and Nones match at 11%, while, shockingly, Pentecostals have a rate of 16% divorced.

The final table of the Summary Report tells us much more about the composition of American states and regions today than is widely assumed. Familiarizing yourself with this type of information proves particularly interesting in an election year. New England is becoming less Catholic, Nones have increased everywhere but especially in New England more than anywhere else (more ways in which New England is like the Old England – in addition to being green and pleasant), and the South is becoming more Catholic in many states, less Protestant almost everywhere, and non-Christian religions are on the rise!

I have attempted to include some of the most interesting trends that were not all found in the podcast. The most important thing I have learned from this podcast and the work of ARIS is that religion no longer automatically means belief in God or providence, and that the non-religious in America are often just as religious as those professing faith. Most surprisingly, the former category is also simultaneously suspicious of both New Age trends and science. Anyone who has switched on a TV in both the USA and the UK will notice that American channels tend be more receptive to showing things about aliens, conspiracies, ghosts, and alternative medicine. Which makes me think, would the disbelieving response of the Nones have been different if the question had been about ghosts or aliens, instead of star signs?

The trends which have occurred over the seven year period between 2001, the year everything changed, and 2008, have all been surprising. We have certainly grown in many ways since 2001, but our self-perception as a ‘Christian nation’ may need to shift. The most delightful changes are the ones that show a shifting composition in regions typically viewed by others and ourselves to be traditionally one way or another, such as the Bible Belt – because for today and in future years, those stereotypes might need to radically shift to reflect reality.

The two things which my friends in Britain seem to pay more attention to in America than anything else are politics and religion, which our media likewise seems to use as a lens for making sense of the world. So, it is truly fascinating to discover that all is not as it seems. One thing I have noticed personally from trips back home is, as ARIS has found, that more Americans want to reject self-identification with any ‘organized religion’ at all. Could this be partly due to the polarity of our media, about which Americans constantly speak and attribute so much in our society? Are we becoming switched off by the lambasting, while others still seem inspired by it?

Could it be we are becoming more sceptical? I have always understood that we Americans have a strange relationship with scepticism; we both love it and hate it, don’t allow our politicians to have it, and mistrust it in our enemies. And yet, we seem to be slowly becoming more sceptical as a nation, albeit sometimes in strange ways. But what an unexpected change, and who knows where it will lead in the next ARIS years? Keysar’s project has, at least, made me increasingly sceptical of my own traditional understanding of this increasingly complex and colourful nation.

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:

Lindsey Arielle Askin is currently a postgraduate taught MA student in Biblical Studies at Durham University, is taking lots of dead languages, and is writing a dissertation on Second Temple attitudes to Hebrew in the Book of Jubilees. She is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, has done a PG Cert in education, and is from Connecticut, USA. Lindsey is involved in various reading groups, web committee, Café des Femmes reseach group, founded her own Apocrypha/Pseudepigrapha reading group, and runs its updates blog “Interesting Texts“. Her research interests are in dead languages, Second Temple Judaism, biblical criticism, Dead Sea Scrolls, scribal practices, and the Old Testament. She is also interested in computers, book-repair/binding, and TeX. She aims to commence her PhD studies in October 2012.

References:

Edgell, Penny, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann. 2006. ‘Atheists as “Other”: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society’. American Sociological Review 71 (2) (April): 211–234.

Ariela Keysar on “What does ‘belief’ mean to Americans?”

‘Belief’ lies at the core of E.B. Tylor’s canonical definition of religion as belief in ‘spiritual beings’. However, in the last decades of the twentieth century the concept became unfashionable in the social sciences, with scholars from all parts of the world denouncing its centrality as a Western, Protestant bias which has limited application to other religions. In recent years, however, there has been something of a resurgence of interest in ‘belief’ and Chris recently attended an international symposium entitled “What does it mean to believe?” at the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK, organised by Dr Abby Day, and the British Council. At this symposium, Professor Ariela Keysar presented a paper entitled “What does ‘belief’ mean to Americans?”, and later on discussed the content of this paper with Chris for this podcast.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

In his keynote address, right at the very start of the symposium, Gordon Lynch raised what he dubbed the erroneous assumption prevalent throughout much of social science that belief is universal, consistent and articulate-able. As Keysar’s data from a number of large-scale, quantitative studies shows, belief changes over time; it is situational, practical, functional, generational; it varies geographically; it varies across and within religious traditions; it has meaning outwith religion, and may be meaningless within; beliefs about the meaning of life may play very little role in daily life.

Listeners may be interested in the following excellent resources mentioned in the podcast which are freely available online:

Dr. Ariela Keysar, a demographer, is Associate Research Professor of Public Policy and Law and the Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. She was a principal investigator of the American Religious Identification Survey 2008, the largest survey of religion in the U.S., covering over 50,000 respondents. She was also a principal investigator of the ISSSC web survey of Indian scientists, which is the first in a series of studies of worldviews and opinions of scientists around the world. Ariela Keysar was the study director of the American Jewish Identity Survey 2001 and the associate director of the Longitudinal Study of Young Adults Raised in Conservative Synagogues 1995-2003.

Dr. Keysar is the co-editor of most recently: Secularism, Women & The State: The Mediterranean World in the 21st Century; also Secularism and Science in the 21st Century and Secularism & Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives as well as co-author of Religion in a Free Market and The Next Generation: Jewish Children and Adolescents.

Listeners may also be interested in our interview with Callum Brown, who is also looking at large-scale surveys, and our roundtable discussion on the issue of using such surveys for research purposes.

What to do with Davie’s ‘Vicarious Religion’?

 

Like with many of Grace Davie’s conceptualizations, the notion of “vicarious religion” is destined to garner much attention and debate. I must admit that when I first read about it, I rolled my eyes without really knowing why. Perhaps I predicted that the same puddle of ink would be spilt in debating the finer points of what was meant and what was actually meant by the new concept. The author would churn out countless articles explaining his or her new framework, which would invite responses from scholars pointing out missteps, which would in turn invite rejoinders from the author insisting that they had been misunderstood. This is how academia tends to work, and it may be why the general public is often vicariously exhausted by our efforts.

Academic self-deprecation aside, I was fascinated by the Religious Studies Project’s interview with Grace Davie. While many different topics are covered in the podcast, in the space I have available I want to focus particularly on her notion of vicarious religion, and examine some of the critique it has spawned, and explore the ways it has been useful for scholars in the sociology of religion.

Davie has in various places defined vicarious religion as “the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who (implicitly at least) not only understand, but, quite clearly, approve of what the minority is doing” (Davie 2007, 22). In the podcast, she notes that while church structures are no longer able to “discipline the behavior and beliefs” of Europeans, there is still some support for their “public utility.” As she points out, although relatively few people are attending these churches, “there is still a certain expectation that they would do things on behalf of a wide number of people when the need arises…For example, if you or I approached the clergy for a funeral of a family member, and that funeral was denied, we would feel somehow that the church had not done what it was there to do.” It is in a similar light that some scholars have seen religion as an “institution of oughts” (Christiano et al. 2008, 43).

According to Davie (2006, 25) religion can operate vicariously in several ways, from church leaders performing rituals and believing on behalf of others to embodying moral codes and offering a space for public debate. Interestingly, if we take seriously Jose Casanova’s (1994) argument that the secularization thesis consists of three different propositions – religious decline, differentiation, and privatization – Davie’s notion of vicarious religion does not challenge any one of them. Indeed, vicarious religion seems to be a theory that takes the differentiation thesis for granted when attempting to explain how religion (at least in Great Britain and perhaps Europe) functions in society. Even individuals vicariously practicing religion are acknowledging, when practicing it in such a way, that society is differentiated and the sphere of religion may have “utility” only for certain purposes.

One of the main critiques of the vicarious religion thesis was put forth by Steve Bruce and David Voas (2010). As they (2010, 245) point out, “Vicarious religion clearly exists; our objection is that it seems to be the exception in the contemporary world, while Davie claims that it is the rule in Europe.” To be fair, Davie suggests nothing of the sort. In fact, she (2010) has been quite clear that “vicarious religion”, as well as “believing without belonging” before it, should be viewed as tools in the sociologist of religion’s toolbox. They cannot be used to extract every nail or tighten every screw, but will likely be useful for some projects. In his most recent book, Bruce (2011, vi) expresses annoyance at scholars who “present a small case study as a rebuttal of a story about large-scale social change.” However, in his disagreement with Davie, it is Bruce who has perceived a large-scale argument when what is presented is “one factor among many in the continuing re-adjustment of religious life in modern Europe” (Davie 2010, 264).

Another major point of disagreement inevitably seems to lie with their differing definitions of religion. While Bruce begins his most recent book by arguing that “social scientists spend far too much time quibbling over words” – a statement that I tend to agree with – it is precisely because Bruce and Davie have different starting points that disagreement immediately follows. For Bruce (2011, 1), functional definitions of religion, those examining “the purposes it serves or the needs it meets” tend to “assume what ought to be demonstrated.” However, Davie is very much working from a functional perspective. Bruce (2011, 1) settles instead for a substantive definition “as beliefs, actions, and institutions based on the existence of supernatural entities with powers of agency or impersonal processes possessed of moral purpose that set the conditions of, or intervene in, human affairs.” Indeed, problems arising from these differing perspectives have “been there continuously, without those who hold to a substantive – or substantial – definition (associated with the substance of belief) and those who favour a functional one (which takes account of the functions of religion in social life) being able to agree and so transcend or resolve the difficulty” (Hervieu-Leger 2000, 32).

In seeing how the vicarious religion thesis has recently been operationalized, let us spend some time on the work of Peter Hemming (2011). Hemming finds some use for the concept in his study of religion and spirituality in a community primary school and a voluntary aided Roman Catholic primary school in the north of England. Some of the parents he interviewed were reliant on their children’s schools to teach and talk about religion. As Hemming (2011, 1072) writes, “Many of the comments were linked to the legacy of past practices and parents’ own schooling memories and experiences.” This is in line with Davie’s argument that the “old residual expectations are implicitly if not explicitly there” as well as Hervieu-Leger’s (2000) view of religion as a “chain of memory.” Hemming (2011, 1073) notes that there was a desire on the part of some parents for schools to “do religion” on their behalf.

A similarly interesting case was presented by Peter Berger when discussing the church tax system in Germany. In Germany, Berger argues, there are no longer any state churches, but religious institutions continue to benefit from certain legal privileges. The “church tax” – which is about eight or nine percent of people’s income – is collected by the state and given to the churches. As Christina Sticht (2004) has noted, many citizens are leaving the church partly because they cannot afford or no longer want to pay this fairly hefty tax (see also Barker 2004). As Berger (2005, 116) quite surprisingly points out:

An individual who does not want to pay this tax can simply declare himself to be religiously unaffiliated (konfessionslos) and thus instantly save quite a bit of money. What is surprising is how many – indeed the majority at least in the western part of the country – have not done it. When asked why, they give different answers – because they might need the church at some point in their lives, because they want the church to give moral guidance for their children, because they see the church as important for the moral fabric of society. Davie has coined another apt term for this phenomenon – ‘vicarious religion’.

As is evident, then, the notion of vicarious religion can indeed be a useful conceptual tool for shedding light on some religious activities. Davie, however, suggests that this is likely not going to survive into the next generation. She imagines vicarious religion as a kind of religio-cultural residue that coats the consciousness of older generations. It is this coating that enables traditional cultural as well as religious structures to have their affective effect. According to Davie, subsequent generations whose cultural context is more varied may find less significance in their ancestral traditions and, in many ways, will continue what Roof (1999, 171) has called a process of “retraditionalizing” were new ways of being may be infused with significance and perhaps even timelessness. As these changes continue, newer and more precise tools will be required to adequately understand the contemporary religious landscape.

References

Barker, Christine. 2004. “Church and State: Lessons from Germany.” The Political Quarterly. (75.2): 168-176.

Berger, Peter L. 2005. “Religion and the West.” The National Interest. (Summer): 112-119.

Bruce, Steve. 2011. Secularization: In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bruce, Steve and David Voas. 2010. “Vicarious Religion: An Examination and Critique. Journal of Contemporary Religion. (25.2): 243-259.

Casanova, Jose. 1994. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Christiano, Kevin J., William H. Swatos Jr., and Peter Kivisto. 2008. Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Davie, Grace. 2006. “Is Europe an Exceptional Case?” The Hedgehog Review (Spring and Summer): 23-34.

Davie, Grace. 2007. “Vicarious Religion: A Methodological Challenge.” In Nancy T. Ammerman, ed. Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, pp. 21-35. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davie, Grace. 2010. “Vicarious Religion: A Response.” Journal of Contemporary Religion. (25.2): 261-266.

Hemming, Peter. 2011. “The Place of Religion in Public Life: School Ethos as a Lens on Society.” Sociology. (45.6): 1061-1077.

Hervieu-Leger, Daniele. 2000. Religion as a Chain of Memory. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Roof, Wade Clark. 1999. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sticht, Christina. 2004. “The Role of the Churches in Germany.” May. Die Rolle Der Kirchen in Deutschland. Accessed February 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.goethe.de/ges/phi/dos/rkd/en2012816.htm

What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion

What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion

By Erika Salomon, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 27 January 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Armin Geertz on ‘Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion’ (23 January 2012).

In Armin Geertz’s recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, he provides an excellent overview of the methods and challenges in the cognitive study of religion and provides examples of some interesting theories and findings from the field. I would like to delve a little further into this latter part by providing a brief review of some of the interesting and important work that has resulted from the cognitive approach.

As Geertz’s interview suggests, researchers in this field have largely focused on the idea that supernatural agents (beings with minds that can think and plan), are a central feature of religious cognition. Such beliefs take many forms and are found throughout the world—from the God of Christianity to the ancestor spirits of the Fang. Two of the most active areas within the cognitive approach to religion are explaining why such beliefs are so widespread and studying how they are like or unlike other kinds of thoughts.

The general consensus among researchers in this area is that humans are “cognitively prepared” for belief, even before they are capable of understanding the complex ideas of any given religious or supernatural belief system. Evidence from developmental psychology suggests that adult religious cognition may develop from a series of underlying cognitive biases displayed by children. Deborah Kelemen’s (1999) research, for example, suggests that children have a tendency (termed promiscuous teleology) to see natural objects as serving some kind of purpose—for example, that trees are for climbing. Lurking behind such statements is the premise that purposes are given by an agentic mind. Thus, this kind of teleological reasoning indicates an underlying belief in some being that intends objects in the natural world to serve some purpose. Similarly, in studying why adults and children both struggle to reach a scientifically-accurate understanding of evolution, Margaret Evans (2000) has found that, regardless of religious and educational background, children tend to develop towards creationist explanations for the origins of organisms up until about 10 years of age, only after which does background seem to influence these beliefs. These and a host of other biases (e.g., Jesse Bering’s simulation constraint hypothesis; see Bering & Bjorklund, 2004) seem like good candidates for precursors to religious thought in adults. The exact form that religious thought takes, of course, depends on the culture in which a person lives.

Cognitive scientists of religion are not just interested in how religious ideas originate in development but also in how such ideas work within adults’ minds. Geertz points out his own research, which suggests that at least some forms of religious thought are neurologically similar to non-religious thought. Such findings are compatible with the dominant theory in the cognitive science of religion—that religious concepts are constrained by the cognitive architecture of the human mind. Pascal Boyer (2001) has advanced the theory that humans have an innate ontology, a set of basic categories onto which all of our concepts are mapped. This ontology includes categories like human, animal, plant, and natural object, and each is associated with a set of properties. We attribute psychological, biological, and physical properties to humans, for example, whereas natural objects possess physical properties but not biological or psychological ones. Supernatural concepts are those concepts that violate the normal, intuitive properties of these categories. Thus, the concept ghost is based on the human category, but deviates from it by not possessing biological properties (i.e., ghosts do not need to eat, sleep, or perform the normal biological functions of humans). Experimental research by cognitive scientists such as Geertz and Justin Barrett has started to confirm that there are many similarities in how people reason about humans and supernatural agents. In a particularly clever set of studies, Barrett and Frank Keil (1996) found that, under cognitive load, participants seemed not to account for the counterintuitive properties of God. Instead, they reasoned that the supernatural deity would have to obey the normal laws of physics, despite explicitly believing that God need not follow such laws. For example, when asked to retell a story about God’s saving a drowning boy, participants who believed that God does not follow the normal rules of space and time inserted the detail that God finished answering a prayer somewhere else in the world before he began saving the boy, despite this detail’s not being in the original story. Like Geertz’s research, this suggests that human thinking about God and other supernatural agents is very similar to thinking about other humans.

One of the most active ongoing debates within the field involve the origins of religious thought, not just in individuals, but in humans as a species, and especially whether religious thought was selected for in the course of evolution. Many researchers, including Dominic Johnson, Azim Shariff, and Ara Norenzayan, adhere to some form of the supernatural punishment hypothesis (see, for example, Shariff & Norenzayan, 2011)—the idea that the threat of punishment from morally concerned supernatural agents helped humans increase cooperation and live in larger societies—though there are several version of this hypothesis and not everyone buys into it. This debate is exploding within the field and driving much new research into when and how religious thinking inspires cooperation.

Although cognitive scientists have begun proposing answers to questions about religious thinking, the field is quite young and there is still much to be studied. As the cognitive science of religion matures, there will no doubt be creative and exciting approaches to the current debates and to questions that are only beginning to arise in the field, such as how thinking about malevolent agents differs from thinking about benevolent ones. It is an exciting time for the study of religious cognition.

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

Erika Salomon is a graduate student studying social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has an MA in Cognition and Culture from Queen’s University Belfast and a BA in English from the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on religion and self-consciousness, religion as a social identity and moral community, and naturalistic thinking. She occasionally blogs about religious cognition at A Theory of Mind.

References:

Barrett, J. L., & Keil, F. C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31, 219–247.

Bering, J. M., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2004). The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity. Developmental Psychology, 40, 217-233.

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained. London: William Heinneman.

Evans, E. M. (2000). The Emergence of Beliefs about the Origins of Species in School-Age Children. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 46, 221–254.

Kelemen, D. (1999). Function, goals and intention: children’s teleological reasoning about objects. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3, 461–468.

Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21, 85–96. doi:10.1080/10508619.2011.556990