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From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A developing field…

The twenty-first century has witnessed growing academic and popular interest in a variety of categories which are related to ‘religion’ but conceptualized as ‘other’… atheism, non-religion, secularity, religious indifference, and so on. Each of these categories can be conceptualized as aspects of the general category ‘unbelief’—‘used in a wide sense, implying a generalized lack of belief in a God or gods’ (Lee and Bullivant 2016).

Back in 2012, Chris sat down – with friend and colleague Ethan Quillen – to speak to Lois Lee, on the topic of ‘non-religion’. Since then, a lot has changed. Lee has climbed the academic ladder, publishing her first monograph with OUP in 2015 – Recognizing the Non-Religious: Re-Imagining the Secular – and currently serving as project leader on the Understanding Unbelief programme. This is a major new research programme aiming to advance scientific understanding of atheism and other forms of ‘unbelief’ around the world through core research and an additional £1.25 million being spent on additional projects and public engagement activities. Chris’s career has also progressed, with recent work including co-editing New Atheism: Critical Perspectives and Contemporary Debates, and beginning a postdoctoral project engaging in a comparative study of ‘unbelief’ in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In this podcast, we check in with the state of the field, discuss developments beyond the Anglophone “West”, some of the many exciting projects being worked on under the “Understanding Unbelief” banner, the utility and pitfalls of the terminology of “unbelief”, and some of the critical issues surrounding the reification of survey categories.

Of relevance to the themes discussed, include Marta Trzebiatowska’s blog post on gender issues in non-religion studies: Not for Girls? Gender and Researching Nonreligion. This blog is part of the NSRN/SSNB blog series on research methods. The full series is introduced here: Research Methods for the Scientific Study of Nonreligion, by Lois Lee, Stephen Bullivant, Miguel Farias and Jonathan Lanman, Nonreligion & Secularity Research Network, 2016.

Specific Understanding Unbelief projects mentioned in the podcast include:

* Mapping the Psychology of Unbelief Across Contexts and Cultures, PI: Jonathan Jong, Psychology, Coventry University, UK
* Nonreligious Childhood: Growing Up Unbelieving in Contemporary Britain, PI: Dr Anna Strhan, Religious Studies, University of Kent, UK,

Listeners may also be interested in our podcasts on “Understanding the Secular“, “Permutations of Secularism“, “Non-Religion”, “Secular Humanism“. “The Post-Secular“, “Studying Non-Religion within Religious Studies“, “The Secularization Thesis” and more…

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

From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A Developing Field

Podcast with Lois Lee (26 February 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Lee_-_Non-Religion_to_Unbelief_-_A_Developing_Field_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): Greetings, Religious Studies Project listeners! I am speaking to you from London, in the abode of Dr Lois Lee, who’s returning to the Religious Studies Project. Hi, Lois.

Lois Lee (LL): Hi. Lovely to be here again.

CC: Lois was one of our first interviewees back in 2012. I can’t remember the specific date, or why it was happening. I can remember sitting in a seminar room in New College – along with my then colleague, and still good friend Ethan Quillen – talking about the concept of non-religion with Lois. And now, five, well possibly six years on – depending how we calculate that – we’re checking in again to talk about non-religion, unbelief, the development of the field, how we go about studying this, other major developments that are happening in the field at the moment, and anything else that we can fit into the next 25 minutes! So, when we last spoke to you I remember you saying, “If we’re still having this conversation in 10 years about non-religion, something’s gone wrong.”

LL: Yes.

CC: We’re not quite having the same conversation – but maybe I’ll just throw that at you as a way to kick things off.

LL: And we’re not quite ten years on – so I don’t have to falsify the thesis, or prove or disprove it at this stage! But no, it’s very interesting to reflect on that. I remember saying that, and I’ve referred to that quite often since then. A bold claim from someone who’s argued that we need to look at non-religion and that there’s practical, methodological and analytic utility in using that concept to research religion, and something we might think about as religion, religious-like, or religion-related. But I was saying at the time, “Look, it’s a means to an end. And ten years on, hopefully, we won’t need that means to an end anymore.” I would revise that view now, which is good: we need to be moving forward and so on. Because I think that the discursive study of non-religion is much, much more important than I was engaging with in my work at the time. Not that it wasn’t recognised, because work of critical secular scholars and critical religion scholars were showing that quite clearly. So Johannes Quack worked on and so on – these non-religious discourses are very widespread. They are, as all these scholars show and would argue, definitional of a whole epoch, perhaps, and vast swathes of the world. So I think there’s actually a lot of water in looking at – and Jim Beckford has made this point very clearly – that we really need a strong discursive study of non-religion. And I don’t see that disappearing any time soon. So we’re going to need non-religion in the longer term and be engaging with it. But I’m going to stand by the spirit of the claim, if not the letter of the claim, in that what I was getting at was that – and probably this points to my own research interests – is that many people and things that are identified as non-religious are identified because of attachments that are not purely discursive. They’re not just about relationality to religion, they’re a way of describing lots of different things. And I’ve been particularly interested in what I’ve called in my book “existential cultures”, what Baker and Smith call “cosmic meaning systems”, what other scholars refer to as “worldviews”. And what we see now – and this is very timely to address this question now, because all of the work I’ve just mentioned has been published in the last three years at the longest – is a lot of play around working with how we’re going to describe this stuff that is underlying what’s expressed as “non-religious identities”, “non-religious practices” and “positionalities” and so on. Or analytic language: so, identifying as scholars identifying people as non-religious. And really, what we have in mind are, for example, naturalist worldviews and so on. So I feel totally vindicated in fact, in that claim, in that I think in five years, a lot of the work that’s fallen within the language on non-religion – that we use the language of non-religion to identify – we won’t be using that language any more. (5:00)And it’s precisely because there’s so much dynamism at the moment around developing better analytic categories – to get at what a lot of us have been getting at. And learning from our research and so on, that’s important to the people we’re talking with. So a lot of the work that we talk about in terms of non-religion is going to fall within – well, I’m not going to say what, just now! But maybe it’s the study of worldviews, maybe it’s existentiality, maybe it’s cosmic meaning systems, who knows?

CC: Excellent. I’ve just realised that I completely omitted to properly introduce you at this beginning of this interview!

LL: (Laughs) But surely I need no introduction, Chris?

CC: Exactly! But you’ve already touched on it, just there. So, Lois is a research fellow at the University of Kent, where she’s currently principal investigator on the Understanding Unbelief programme, which is something that we’ll get to very shortly. She’s also a founding director of the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network, which you’ll have heard plenty about on this podcast thus far. And her 2015 book with OUP was called Recognising the Non-Religious: Re-Imagining the Secular. So you’ve heard about the book, just there. And we’ll get on to some of this just now. Maybe the book’s actually something to springboard from, since again we didn’t speak about that last time.

LL: Yes

CC: Maybe just tell us about your own trajectory, and how you got to this stage of being PI in a project looking at unbelief.

LL: That’s right. Well, I suppose when we last talked it was a twinkle in the eye! But the book is a culmination of what we were talking about in that earlier podcast, which I’m sure is available to listeners, if they’re interested, to return to it. And as you say, I’ve already sort of alluded to some of the work in that book, which was about identifying and engaging with populations. In particular, I was most interested in populations we identify as non-religious, and saying we need to understand them in their capacity of identifying as non-religious or being identified as others, by others as non-religious. And that many of the claims that are made about the religious would be partial if we didn’t work much more closely with that population. That book arose from work that began in 2006, when sociology – my area – but the human sciences more broadly had not really engaged with this non-religious population, in any detail. They’d had sporadic forays – significant, but sporadic forays – into that area. So the book was very much a kind-of “call to arms” in way. But the title sort-of summarises, I guess, recognising the non-religious: that as researchers we need to recognise the non-religious, as societies we need to recognise the non-religious. I talk a bit about the commitments, investments, social attachments and so on, of non-religious people that lead them to feel a sense of grievance if societies only recognise the analogous needs of religious people. So there’s a political argument there in the end. So where have we got to? How does that lead to the Understanding Unbelief programme?

CC: Yes.

LL: Well, I think we’ve touched on that trajectory slightly already, which is that my kind-of emerging interest was particularly in the kinds of what I shall call “existential beliefs and cultures”. The “worldviews” is a more commonplace word we might think about. I think it’s slightly problematic, and we probably don’t have time to get into that. But I think it’s going to lead to some really interesting conversations with people really engaging closely with that concept, and critically, which hasn’t happened around worldview in the same way it’s happened with religion. So it will be really interesting to see that work. But what I’m interested in is the way in which humans conceptualise their own existence and the nature of reality. That conceptualisation is intrinsically transcendent – so it’s stepping back to take to a perspective on reality and existence – and, in that way, is something that is very much shared between, well, cuts across religious and non-religious divides. Whether all humans are as interested in this conceptualisation is a very open question. And that’s very much where the book ends up, is saying there are lots of things going on when people self-identify or are identified as others, by others as non-religious. There are lots of political things going on. There are lots of socio-cultural things, some of which we might feel very sympathetic to and some of which we might be very, very concerned about (10:00). There’s a lot going on. But one important thing that’s going on is that non-religious people have worldviews and they aren’t recognised clearly enough in the conceptual language we have, or in the academy, for example, or other places in public life. So we have the Sociology of Religion, and it’s not clear how well that makes space for the sociology of non-traditional, nonreligious worldviews, and I’m very much arguing we should do that. The Unbelief programme builds on that in that . . . . So, the focus on belief – there’s a couple of different reasons we’re using the term “unbelief”. And we always use it in scare quotes. I think it’s important to say that one of the reasons that we have turned to that term is that we think it’s very obviously a folk category that emerged from Christian traditions. It can’t be confused with a viable analytic concept. And we had some concerns about atheism, secularism – and non-religion, actually – that they had acquired a kind of veneer of analytic coherence that wasn’t always borne out. And so we wanted to . . . . And this arises from conversations with others in the field about where the field was at. We wanted to slightly step back from that and invite people to be a bit critical about what they’re doing and not close off questions, as well. For example, I’ve spoken recently about the disproportionate focus on positive atheists over and above strong agnostics in research. We now have an emerging scholarship around Atheism, with a capital A, and very little about agnostics. But there are lots of people who make the strong agnostic claim that humans can’t know about the nature of human reality and existence, or God, or whoever. We didn’t want to foreclose on that by having a programme on atheism, for example. So, partly, one of the strengths of unbelief is that it’s very, very broad. It allows people to focus on different things that are going on within that rubric, to not imagine they’ve got a specific or coherent analytic category to start off with, but to think about what they’re doing. But it is a word that includes belief. That’s partly because one stage that I think the field is at is that there’s been a lot of energy in the last ten years . . . . The Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network: I founded that in 2008, so we’re ten years on now. And in that period there’s been a kind of intense period of field-building in lots of different human science disciplines. A group who discussed the formation of this programme said that one of the issues in the field was that there was no longer strong communication between different human science disciplines within the field. At the beginning there was, because there was so little scholarship we were absolutely thrilled to read anything that emerged. Now that it’s a success story it’s great. There’s lots to read. And one of the kind-of unintended consequences of that is that some of that interdisciplinary engagement has faded. You know, it’s enough to keep up with the Sociology of Non-Religion or Secularism – as it might be called in the US – as well as trying to keep up with the Psychology of Atheism which is probably the favoured term in Psychology. And that’s fine, but also a shame, because we could learn from each other and from that material. And, partly, the language of belief just reflects different disciplinary conventions: a focus on the cognitive in Cognitive Anthropology, Cognitive Science; belief is very meaningful and significant within Psychology and Social Psychology. So, we’re trying to kind-of bring those things together and find a language that makes sense to different researchers.

CC: Yes. I mean, I can see perhaps some of our listeners bristling in that we’ve been trying – “we” in Religious Studies – to get way from a belief-centred model of religion, in a sense. You know, because it’s so much more than that, potentially. So then, to take this other side of the coin, and then also say it’s “unbelief”, it’s potentially got the same problems as reifying belief. But it’s under-theorised. It doesn’t have that cachet – as you were saying – that it’s potentially an analytic term. And it also . . . And I’ve got to say that my current project is a comparative study of unbelief in Scotland and Northern Ireland, partly piggy-backing on the UU programme. But also, I found that was a much easier word to utilise with funders, and people who were assessing applications who were outside of these debates. Unbelief wasn’t as problematic in a sense as religion, non-religion – a lot less baggage, but made a bit of intuitive sense (15:00). So that’s part of it.

LL: I think that’s really important point, actually. And I think, sometimes, there are different modes of scholarship. My mode has been to work out what concepts are useful to me and what aren’t and then run away with the ones that are useful to me. But that shuts off a lot of conversation with people who are using different concepts. And unbelief, I think, is really useful, because it’s sort-of salient and intelligent to broader populations. They know where you’re at. Some of the preparatory work for this programme was developed in a programme called the Scientific Study of Non-Religious Belief. And if you’ve read work around relational theories of non-religion, non-religious belief is something that makes sense. But if you haven’t, and this is something that in earlier iterations of the project we came up against, you are not clear what a non-religious belief is. “Is that just any belief, that isn’t religious?” “Well, no. That’s not what we meant.” But that kind of confusion isn’t always helpful to having kind-of knowledge exchange with different kinds of audiences and research partners in a way that unbelief is helpful. It draws out its controversies, too. But a lot of that discussion can be very helpful. I think we have a sense that one of the major goals of the project, which is very descriptive in its intention . . . . So, you can summarise its core research question as being: “To summarise the nature and diversity of – scare quotes – “unbelief”. And I tend to think of one of the major outcomes of the programme being the ability to identify different profiles of unbelievers within national populations, and maybe breaking that down further still. We could think about them as denominations of unbelievers perhaps, but maybe that’s not a helpful way of going about it.

CC: Hmm.

LL: But I think, in doing that, we should be able to identify much more concrete positive language that will hopefully replace, in many ways, the concept of unbelief. I think unbelief is . . . . I’d be interested to know what you think, with your project. But for me, I’m not sure there’s going to be analytic validity usefulness. It’s quite clearly a kind of folk category.

CC: Mmm.

LL: But it’s a gateway to hopefully identifying a set of better, more interesting concepts – better and more interesting also than atheism and secularism and non-religion. And again, that’s a bit of a concern with those concepts, because they’re slightly helpful. They are all helpful in lots of different ways, but because they’re helpful they sort-of close down options to push further in certain directions. Whereas, in a way, unbelief is so clearly a sort-of folk category, it sort of invites us to think: “Well, what am I talking about here?” So I might be inclined to say, again, that unbelief is another transitional concept, like non-religion. And, if I’m still using the concept in 10 years’ time . . . . (Laughs)

CC: (Laughs) Why not?

LL: So we can meet again in a few years, and see what’s come to pass.

CC: Exactly, and what new . . .

LL: I think it’s a productive conversation. And in the programme we’re also concerned to broaden out the conversation from academia and engage much more effectively with broader audiences. And again, a sort of language that makes sense to broader audiences will help us to do that and help us to learn from perspectives outside of academia.

CC: Excellent. Now, there’s a few directions we could go in here. And part of me is wanting to push that button again about: are we potentially reifying groups here, by talking about types of unbelievers and dichotomising the world? But, listen to our previous interview – listen to my interview with Johannes Quack, back from 2015 and also read some of Lois’s work, some of my work where we do engage with this, alright?

LL: (Laughs)

CC: To skip to a debate that hasn’t been had before – well this will just be re-treading ground – but tell us about this Understanding Unbelief programme, then. So, there are four other . . . . You are the principal investigator, there’s a core team and then there’s a whole bunch of other different projects going on?

LL: There’s a lots of people- I won’t mention everyone by name. I hope they’re not offended. But there’s a lot going on

CC: So what is it? What is going on?

LL: I think it does say something about where the field has got to. So, as I sort-of said earlier, I think there’s been a phase of field-building which has been a lot of conceptual work, which has involved a lot of making the argument about why we need to study this group to our colleagues in academia (20:00). And that’s something that you’ve been involved with, and several others have been involved with. And I think that argument has clearly been won, aided and abetted by broader social contexts in which there’s a recognition of non-religious actors: people describing themselves as non-religious. So I think that’s great. And we’re moving into a new phase now, where we’re concreting or pushing that more general work further. There are lots of different ways in which people are seeking to break down those populations and be more specific again. That’s something you’ve done in your work, and I’ve done in my work. So, when we first started discussing this programme there was a sense that . . . . I mentioned some sort-of field-wide interests and concerns: about the usefulness of some inter-disciplinary work; about moving on from some of the conceptual debates we’ve been having; not encouraging a new round of work about concepts, but really getting involved in empirical settings. But, very chiefly, was a sense that, empirically, we needed to work outside of the West; that learning about atheists, people who identify as atheists and go to the atheist church, for example, or read new atheist material, was something that had been quite well-covered in the field by that point. And we needed to think beyond that, so: outside of Anglophone settings; outside of Northern European settings and the US and Canada; but also – within those settings and beyond – thinking about demographic groups that had not been well studied. Matt Sheard has a paper in Secularism and Non-Religion about non-elite, non-religious people within the UK and how little they’ve been researched. I agree. I agree: non-white, women, agnostics rather than atheist. So, there’s a very big population. We’ve done the work of saying: “This is why we need to engage with them. Here are some ways of engaging with all these different groups.” And now we really need to do it. And also, yes, get outside of the kind-of well-worn tracks. So, we wanted to consolidate some of the work that had been done. And from that basis, really, hopefully be part of ushering in this new phase. Which . . . I think there’s lots of other work that’s going on concurrently, which is a part of that. So the approach has been . . . I’m working with a multi-disciplinary team to lead the programme. So we have Jonathan Lanman who’s a cognitive anthropologist, Miguel Farias who’s a social psychologist, and Stephen Bullivant who’s a theologian and also a sociologist with expertise in quantitative work. I’m a sociologist with a focus on qualitative work. So that team – we’re doing research across five different countries, I can’t think how many continents, a few continents – is kind-of the centre of that project. But we also now have 21 project teams working around the world to do work much, much more widely than a small team could ever do, given that, as I’ve already sort of alluded to, actually the empirical work was fairly narrow. And in order to answer questions about the nature and diversity of non-belief we really needed to be very broad. Our core project is working strategically with five countries that are revealing about broader global trends and so on. But actually, it’s great to have work going on in lots of different places. So one of the projects which is grounded in Psychology is working with – I can’t think in total how many countries it is – ten or so countries that have very high numbers of people who identify as non- religious. So that includes South Korea, Australia, Japan, Azerbaijan, Vietnam and so forth. So, a really diverse set of countries that they’ll be going to and using psychological methods to engage with those populations. At the same time, we have close ethnographic research going on. A project based . . . . I should say all of the information on these projects and all the other projects is available on our website.

CC: Which is?

LL: The easiest URL is understanding-unbelief.net. It also lives with the University of Kent system, but you can find it there. And no doubt it will be available on the podcast website. (25:00) I say that, because there are so many projects, and they’re very exciting and so much worth looking at

CC: Yes, we could spend an hour talking about each one.

LL: Yes. But, to just to give a sense of the kind of contrast, there’s an ethnographic project that’s looking at magical thinking in two different European settings and working very closely, very much exploring kind-of unbelief: people who are cast as and cast themselves as unbelievers. And they’re working with a very typical population of rationalist thinkers. But looking at things we might identify, and they, as anthropologists, are used to identifying as magical thinking within those populations. So between those very broad quantitative studies, and those very detailed and nuanced qualitative studies, we’re hoping . . . we’re not going to be able to map the world of unbelievers, but we’re hoping to be able to join a lot of dots and get a much, much broader picture of . . . . How are they described? Is it the fourth-largest faith group in the world? The non-religious, or people who don’t affiliate with a religion are the third-largest religion, and unbelievers are the fourth-largest faith group. To put it somewhat crudely.

CC: Right.

LL: So there’s a lot to learn. And we hope to learn something about that group.

CC: Excellent. And listeners can keep an eye on that website over the coming couple of years. So when’s the project wrapping up? It’s 2019, isn’t it?

LL: Yes. I think it officially ends in late 2019, but there’ll be activity ongoing I would think – with a sense of all these different projects and work coming through from that – for the longer term, I would think.

CC: Absolutely. We’re already coming up to sort-of the end of our time. I’m going to ask you a question now that I didn’t prep you with, so feel free if I have to rewind. But we were saying, before we started recording, that there’s maybe a sort of dearth of female voices speaking in this area and researching in this area. So I just wondered if you have any comments on that. A final thought as a sort-of leading light in this area?

LL: A topical theme in societies more broadly. No, that’s a good thing to focus on. A good question, thank you. Yes, in the last project I was involved with – the Scientific Study of Non-Religious Belief- we had a series of blogs on methods, one of which focuses on gender and talks about a concern, in the study of non-religion and atheism, about the way in which both that field is gendered and the study of that area is gendered. Partly this comes down to kind of quite interesting feedback loops. So, for example, we have studies that show that the language of atheism is slightly more popular with men than it is with women. And that’s reflected in research. So I am a woman. And I quickly said, “I don’t like atheism, that’s not my main framework – I prefer non-religion.” And that’s typical, actually, of quite a lot of researchers, to slightly generalise. But there is a kind of way of engaging with very male dominated atheist cultures – like the New Atheism and so on – that interests men. And then other voices – really interesting work that prefers concepts like non-religion or secularity, or secularism, and so on – that’s sort-of been lost a bit. I’ve noticed that happening. And there are several collections that are very male-dominated. And as much as this is not distinctive to our field, there is, as I say, a sort of relationship between what we’re studying and how we study it that is specific to our field. And actually, that sort-of brings us back to the topic of agnosticism. So we, in my field, are very generally acquainted – and so are sociologists of religion – with the idea that religious people are more likely to be women, and non-religious people are more likely to be men. So wherever you’re coming from, this gendered phenomenon is known. It shouldn’t be overstated, but it is marked. And it’s interesting, within the non-religious field, if you break that down between people who have strong atheistic beliefs and have sort-of strong agnostic beliefs, then the gender profile looks quite different. And the agnostics are more female overall and atheists are more male. So again, there’s that concern that gender may be a factor in what we’re researching, what we’re choosing to research, and what’s being neglected. In the UK the agnostics are a larger group than the atheists. Why haven’t we looked at them? (30:00) Part of the answer to that question is about gender, and it’s by no means the whole answer to that question, but I think it’s an element – or something we should at least be exploring and concerned about. I’m really thrilled, actually, that we have so many research teams on the Understanding Unbelief programme and it is a very gender-balanced set of researchers. And because of the way in which our own perspective shapes the questions we ask and how we look at them, and so on, I think that’s a very good sign for the work we’ll . . . what we’ll learn through the programme. But I do think it’s an interesting topic for us to reflect upon. As I say, there’s an NSRN blog that’s been written on it and I think there’s scope for a bit more work around reflecting on . . . . It’s sort of the other side of the coin of the focus on the study of elites – even within particular cultural settings – is thinking about who’s researching them. And that very much relates to broader questions in academia at the moment about non-elite voices having space to be heard. And the perspectives we might be missing. You know, I think it’s a question of good and bad science in those kinds of terms. Because we will find out new things if we include a broader range of perspectives. This we know. This we know. So yes, I think that would be a good thing for us to be reflecting on as field, going forward into the next phase. I can’t remember if we’re reflecting on the last 5 years or the last 10 years, but . . . looking forward anyway!

CC: Well, reflecting on a lot, anyway! Good. And hopefully the Understanding Unbelief programme will contribute a lot to that as well. So, we’re out of time, Lois. But it’s been wonderful to speak to you.

LL: And you.

CC: And I’m sure the listeners will come back in another 5 years and we’ll see where the conversation is next time. Alright.

LL: (Laughs).

Citation Info: Lee, Lois, and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A Developing Field”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 23 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/from-non-religion-to-unbelief-a-developing-field/

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Playing the Field: the Logistics of Religion and Video Game Studies

The field of religion and video games is still new and forming. In its struggle to find itself, it simultaneously competes with a university’s traditional understanding of both education and culture, often involving Gregory Price Grieve’s comment that video games are perceived as “low brow” culture. The view of video games as, again to quote Grieve, “just above pornography,” is a misconception that the academic study of video games is constantly fighting against.

That being said, hearing about Grieve’s success in bringing the study of video games to his university is promising. Not only was he able to establish courses for the study of religion and video games, but was also able to work with his library and university in order to establish gaming centres for students to play games. Having digital media pushed across disciplines throughout the university, as well as having a Digital Media Centre in their library, helps to establish video games and other forms of digital media as important and worthy of study in the university.

Grieve did have an understanding university, which is something important to keep in mind. While his approach to getting video games in the classroom is a format presented to be copied, not everyone is lucky enough to be present in a university that is so understanding. This is especially the case in universities rooted in academic tradition, built on older standards which seldom factor in elements of popular culture. This is not even considering the cost of this kind of endeavour. Even with a buy-in from the library, Grieve’s project still needed $10,000. And this is only considering the technicalities of this new media, and not the thought process of people who still believe that video games are not an important element of popular culture today, or who don’t seem to really care about the “popular” at all. In that sense, there are bigger problems facing some people at less understanding universities than a lack of technology.

The positive reception Grieve has experienced with his students can hopefully begin to be experienced by researchers and teachers in the study of video games in many universities throughout the world. However, there are many elements that still work against progression in the field. Some of the thoughts and actions impeding the growth of the field are, sadly, still present even among scholars in the field. By studying only video games, we impede ourselves and the progress which can be made; there are many aspects of video games which are affecting other elements of popular culture. An example of this are Let’s Play videos, in which players record themselves playing a video game, with commentary and sometimes even recordings of the player’s face (as the Let’s Player PewDiePie became known for), which are then uploaded on video sharing sites such as YouTube. Unfortunately, the popularity of Let’s Plays have been stereotyped almost as much as video games themselves are, an element that is unfortunately heard even in Grieves interview in which he relegates their popularity and interest almost exclusively to “teenagers”, even though the demographic may not be this concrete, especially for Let’s Players who are older themselves, such as Fun Haus. PewDiePIe has over 41 million subscribers, and it is hard to imagine that all 41 million are only teenagers. Not to mention that the fastest growing demographic for gaming content are women over the age of 25.[1]

What Let’s Plays demonstrate for academics of video games is the creativity enjoyed by Let’s Players. Geoff Ramsey, the founder of the Let’s Play group Achievement Hunter has commented on this creativity: “Any time we can take and use [a game] in a way that it wasn’t necessarily intended by the developers, that’s like the best thing in the world to me.”[2] This out-pouring of creativity allows researchers to have easy access to new narratives being created and the emotions they create and share. These new narratives and emotions are not experienced solely by the Let’s Player, but also by those who watch these videos; these narratives are then shared by the viewer to others, and new narratives are created by the viewer in relation to these new narratives. These videos are then not only relegated to the realm of video games, but also to internet studies and realms of internet discourse, particularly when elements of them become shared as memes.

The field of religion and video games is still emerging, and thus still solidifying its own definition and place. What is most important is for scholars interested in engaging with digital media, like video games, to demonstrate to their students, universities, and themselves that video games are a medium worthy of study.

[1] Gautam Ramdurai, “Think Gaming Content is Niche? Think Again,” Think with Google, December 2014, accessed February 2016, https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/think-gaming-content-is-niche-think-again.html.

[2] Rooster Teeth, Let’s Play Live: The Documentary, Video (2015), ), http://roosterteeth.com/episode/r-t-docs-let-s-play-live-let-s-play-live-the-documentary

Religion Without Culture is No Religion at All

I’d like to start by thanking Jon Lanman for his insightful description of CREDs, CRUDs, and the larger issue of content and context biases as the foundations of religion. I want to focus my comments on this last part: the differing roles of content biases and context biases in explaining religion. The cognitive science of religion has spent much time and effort identifying different content biases that relate to religious belief, and has paid very little attention to the role of culture and cultural learning. The work that has been done by Lanman and others has shown that CREDs, and other context biases, play a fundamentally important role in understanding religions and religious belief (Lanman 2012), and I’d argue explain the bulk of what we generally think of when we think about religion.

One of the first things to recognize is that content and context biases play very different roles in the explanation of religious belief. I will leave aside minimally counterintuitive content (for all the reasons presented in Purzycki & Willard, 2015), and focus on theory of mind and agent based content (see Willard and Norenzayan, 2013). As Lanman mentioned, content biases constrain the type of supernatural concepts we are likely to create and explain why certain types of concepts are common in religions around the world. These biases explain things like why anthropomorphic gods are more compelling and more common than the idea of God as an abstract concept, but they have little to say about why we should believe in one person-like god over another. Context biases, on the other hand, explain all the parts of religion that we learn from other people. These are the cultural parts of religion. Context biases cause us to pay attention and learn from some people or groups over others, and therefore adopt the beliefs and practices of those people/groups over the beliefs and practices of others. Put simply, content biases can help explain why Zeus is very much like a person, but context biases are required to explain why people stopped believing in Zeus in favor of other Gods (Gervais & Henrich, 2010).

This problem of belief—known as the Zeus problem or the Mickey Mouse problem—is often talked about but rarely reflected on in any great depth. I see this problem as a much more fundamental one than just the problem of why people believe in one god over another. It is a problem of why people adopt complex religious beliefs and practices at all. The intuitive appeal of some types of content over others cannot explain why or how this content coalesces into religious traditions or why traditions that have persisted for centuries suddenly change or fade away.

I have shown before that individual differences in the susceptibility to these content biases do predict the likelihood that a person holds religious or other supernatural beliefs (Willard and Norenzayan, 2013). I would add that these findings should only apply in places where religion is optional. A person who is raised in a culture where religion is endorsed and practiced by most, or all, other people is unlikely to even consider the possibility of non-belief, regardless of their intuitions. The forces of conformity, prestige, and credibility will easily trump any lack of intuition. Even the most unintuitive of ideas can persist in a culture with some amount of learning (calculus is not going to disappear anytime soon).

On the other side, a person who is highly affected by these content biases but raised in a culture with no religious traditions is not going to spontaneously create Christianity and all its traditions (even Jesus needed help with this). At most, these content biases would create the sense that additional invisible minds exist in the world, and maybe, a desire to explain this feeling. Even in a culture in which some people are religious and some are not, strong intuitions are unlikely to lead people to religion without some input from culture, especially if there are other options.

In recent work, I have looked at exactly this. In a large study conducted in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, done in collaboration with Lubomir Cingl and Ara Norenzayan, I found that susceptibility to these content biases predicted far more of the individual variance in paranormal beliefs (21%) than in the belief in God (8%), and almost no variance in religious participation (3%). Exposure to religious CREDs showed the opposite effects. CREDs explain a substantial portion of the variance in religious participation (25%) and belief in God (15%), while explaining almost no variance in paranormal beliefs (2%). Content-based intuitions did lead people to believe, just not necessarily in religion. It was the CREDs that brought people to praise the lord (Willard, Cingl & Norenzayan, n.d.).

If content can explain the tendency to hold supernatural beliefs, but cultural learning is required to create religions, then we can make specific predictions about how these things should vary around the world. First, we should expect supernatural beliefs would persist in some proportion of the population even when religion declines. Second, cultures that have no religious beliefs should exist, but cultures devoid of all supernatural beliefs should not. I have two examples that demonstrate exactly these things. First, the high rate of supernatural belief among the religious ‘nones’, and the rise of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ suggest that many people who leave religion maintain some type of supernatural beliefs. In my own research I find that though only 18% of the 1000 people we sampled in the Czech Republic claim to be religious, 56% endorse the belief in some type of deity or spiritual power, and only 22% explicitly claim to believe in nothing at all.

The second, far more compelling, example is the Hadza of Tanzania. The Hadza are one of the few hunter-gatherer societies still remaining on the planet, and they have no ritual practices or any formal belief system (Marlowe, 2010). What they do have is basic supernatural beliefs. Many Hadza believe that the sun is a god, and some believe that the moon is too, but these beliefs are not shared by everyone nor are they enforced. Though supernatural beliefs exist among the Hadza, they have never coalesced into something that we would identify as a religion. They have not lost their religious beliefs through increased existential security and modernization. Science has not given them an alternative to religion. They simply never created a religion in the first place.

None of this suggests that content biases are not important; they are extremely important, but they explain only a small piece of the larger puzzle that is religion. Content biases can explain why supernatural beliefs are everywhere, but when we talk about religions, we are often not talking about this. When we talk about religions, we are generally referring to the complex sets of beliefs and practices that extend far beyond these basic intuitions. Since we humans are a highly cultural species, we cannot help but pass our beliefs to others and build traditions around them. It is this process that drives the creation of religions. Content biases are more like a slow moving current than a rushing stream. They can push our boat in one specific direction, but only if no one is rowing in the boat in another direction. Rowing up stream may be more effortful than rowing down stream, but ultimately it is the rowing that will get us where we are going.

References

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

Lanman, J. A. (2012). The Importance of Religious Displays for Belief Acquisition and Secularization. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27(1), 49–65

Marlowe, F. (2010). The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania (Vol. 3). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Purzycki, B. G., & Willard, A. K. (2015). MCI theory: a critical discussion. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1–42.

Willard, A. K., & Norenzayan, A. (2013). Cognitive biases explain religious belief, paranormal belief, and belief in life’s purpose. Cognition, 129(2), 379–391.

Bias, Expectations, and the Role of the Media in Reporting on Religion

These kinds of situations can create a confluence of undisclosed interest, a phenomenon that can call into question even further the accuracy of media investigation and reporting.

Bias, Expectations, and the Role of the Media in Reporting on Religion

By Matthew C. Durham, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Teemu Taira on Religion and the Media (8 April 2013).

In their discussion of Religion and the Media, Christopher Cotter and Dr. Teemu Taira touch on some rather deceptively salient points.  Dr. Taira’s comments about the media as a means of establishing a collective identity springs first to mind.  If this is true, and it does not seem controversial to assume such, the responsibility placed upon the media is tremendous.  This is especially so if we also assume that the role of the media is to accurately convey reality as it is.  Perhaps this is too idealized an expectation?  After all, members of the media are just as tied to their own biases, expectations, and subjective viewpoints as any of the rest of us.

But regardless of the sometimes overwhelming complexities in conveying an accurately factual picture of reality, it seems reasonable to expect of the media that it can separate at least some of the proverbial chaff from the wheat.To wit; some ideas, when surreptitiously conflated, present a picture of reality that is about as far from factual as is possible.  Dr. Taira mentions a particular example of this when he discusses the use of the ambiguous “Christian Nation” concept.  His description of its use in the UK seems strongly akin to how it is used here in the USA, in that its meaning varies between something along the lines of “we recognize our cultural Christian heritage” to “our legal system should reflect Christian theology.” This sort of factual versus normative ambiguity can serve multiple purposes, and in cases like these it is important to determine who benefits from it such that we can decide whether perpetuating it does a disservice to our collective epistemic integrity.

In this particular example, Dr. Taira notes that this ambiguity can be very beneficial to liberal Christianity in maintaining its cultural pre-eminence.  While it is not immediately clear why Dr. Taira limited this benefit to only liberal Christianity in the UK (Given the theological ambiguity in the term “Christian,” it would seem to potentially benefit conservative Christianity just as well.), the overall point is well taken.  When the media fails to determine or disclose the intent or interests of a speaker, it can be seen as little more than a mindless megaphone.  This problem is compounded in light of Dr. Taira’s comments about the tendency amongst religion reporters to be more religious (and more friendly to religion) than the surrounding population.  These kinds of situations can create a confluence of undisclosed interest, a phenomenon that can call into question even further the accuracy of media investigation and reporting.

Other important areas of study require (or strongly encourage) that investigators acknowledge their personal interest in certain outcomes.  Investigators in clinical drug trials, for example, must provide disclosure of financial interest prior to their involvement in a study such that their methodology and the integrity of their data can be evaluated with appropriate caveats.  And beyond the personal benefits of cultivating this level of honesty, such disclosure can also benefit us in that it can strongly motivate the development of ever more thorough research methodology.  A researcher who provides potential critics with disclosure of his or her biases, for example, is going to be all the more motivated to preempt any undue influences from those biases – thus preventing critics from dismissing the research on grounds of undue bias.

It might be suggested that, due to the very different contexts in which the two operate, the media should not be held to the same standards as are academic or clinical researchers.  But if we intend that the media be not only a means to establish a collective identity,but that it also function to inform us through an attempt at accurately conveying a factual picture of reality; then there would seem to be some potential benefit in the media looking to academic or clinical research for guidance.

One of these potential benefits may be in counteracting epistemic and moral polarization through the tendency in media consumers to seek out only those media providers that they perceive as confirming or reinforcing their own expectations, biases, or connections to other people or groups with which they share significant commitments.  Dan Kahan’s research on communication of scientific information, for example, suggests that people not only seek out providers of information who appear to reflect their own values, but that they develop a form of “protective cognition” that pre-emptively determines what sort of information is credible.   People whose values are more egalitarian and who are suspicious of industry, for example, might see industrial activities as being more risky and thus more appropriately subject to restriction or regulation.  And they will likely seek out media providers who reflect those values.

Kahan’s research suggests, though, that presenters of scientific information can preclude this tendency and reduce polarization by muddling up expectations.  Kahan tested this by pairing experts whose appearance (besuited and gray-haired versus denim-shirted and bearded) and publication history fit particular cultural expectations.  He then paired these experts with arguments that contradicted those expectations.  The besuited and gray-haired expert, for example, presented arguments in favor of the scientific legitimacy of climate change while the denim-shirted and bearded expert criticized it.  Without these expectations to rely upon, “people shifted their positions and polarization disappeared.”

It seems quite plausible that the results of Kahan’s research could also be applied to more than just the presentation of scientific information.  If part of the media’s purpose is to genuinely inform us rather than to reinforce our existing polarized beliefs, then there may be a lesson to be learned here.  The lesson is not that the media should attempt to push any particular idea for broader cultural acceptance.  Rather, and to again reference Kahan, perhaps the media could confound those expectations in such a way as to create an opportunity for a more honest and open-minded consideration of the best information available?

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:

In his professional capacity, Matthew Durham has worked in over 150 studies in the field of cancer research as a Regulatory Coordinator for a large physician owned oncology practice.  He spends most days striving to learn and improve upon a variety of industry best practices, as well as devise useful metrics through which the efficacy of those practices can be evaluated.  In his academic life, he is an Undergraduate Philosophy and Religion major at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga whose main areas of focus are religious exegesis, religious epistemology, and philosophy of science.  His current interest is in studying the cognitive processes through which religious experiences are both interpreted and later recalled.  Most importantly, he is the lucky husband of an exceptional woman and the proud father of a precocious toddler.

References

Kahan, D. (2010). Fixing the communications failure. Nature, 296-297.

The Insider/Outsider Problem

 

The Insider/Outsider problem is one of the most perennial problems in the academic study of religion. This distinction, relating to where scholars position themselves relating to the subject matter (whatever that may be), permeates not only almost every aspect of academia, but has profound implications for each and every one of us conducts ourselves in relationship with the other people we encounter in our day-to-day lives. Dr George Chryssides joins Chris this week to discuss this fascinating issue.

This interview was recorded in September 2011 at the British Association for the Study of Religions‘ Annual Conference, hosted by Durham University.

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


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


The Insider/Outsider Problem

Podcast with George Chryssides (20th February 2012)

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Catrin Sawford

Audio and transcript available at: Chryssides Insider_Outsider Problem

Christopher Cotter (CC): The insider/outsider distinction is one of the most fundamental distinctions in the study of religions. I’m not going to get into it too much now because here to discuss it with me today is Dr George Chryssides, the honorary research fellow in contemporary religion at the University of Birmingham. He is also the author of, amongst many other things, ‘The Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses’, published in 2008, and the recently published ‘Christians in the 21st Century’. So, welcome Dr Chryssides.

George Chryssides (GC): Thanks, hi.

(CC): So, insider/outsider. To a lay person, what is an insider, and what is an outsider in the study of religions?

(GC): Well, there’s been a lot of debate about what exactly an insider or an outsider is but basically, in theory, the insider is the person that follows the religion, the outsider is the person like me, most of the time. I can’t belong to all the religions I study so I’m looking at it as a non-believer, as a non-practitioner, I’m trying to make sense of it.

(CC): So, you make two important points there, even in that little brief statement. One is, who does the defining? Is it you as an academic defining who is an insider or who is an outsider, or do you go by the tradition that you are studying at that time?

(GC): Well, I think it’s clear most of the time that I’m the outsider, because most of the time I’m trying to understand but initially I’m having problems working out what the religion believes, and why they do it and what it’s based on and what all the various activities are that they follow and what the reasons are for them. So I’m the outsider. It’s sometimes said that the outsider tries to make the strange familiar. For instance, it’s strange to me but it’s my job to make it familiar, first of all to myself, but secondly to the people I’m writing for or lecturing to or whatever. The other side to that is that is that it’s sometimes said that if you’re the insider, studying your own religion, you’re trying to make the familiar strange. In other words the religion that you follow seems very familiar to you but yet you don’t see what’s problematic about it. To give you an example that’s not to do with New Religious Movements, I was brought up as a Protestant Christian and I could never really understand what the big deal about the Reformation was because it seemed obvious to me that the Bible was the book that you followed and read and based your life on and what on earth was it that Martin Luther did. Just telling people that. But then it’s when you try and study a bit more and make it seem a bit more strange to you when you realise that there are Roman Catholics that say it’s not just the Bible, actually the Church was there first, it was the Church that defined the Bible and you’ve actually got two sources of authority then I can understand my own tradition that bit better because of this, kind of, strangeness that I’ve introduced and it’s not quite so familiar, not quite so comforting to me. Do you see what I mean?

(CC): Yes. So you hit on the other key issue, from my perspective anyway, which is what happens if you are an insider trying to be an outsider? And even an outsider is going to bring, implicitly they’re going to have their own community or set of ideas which they are an insider of. How does an academic go about juggling those two roles when they come to write?

(GC): Well, I think there are a lot of difficulties with that. One is that you’re trying to empathize, you’re trying to get, I suppose ideally, into the insider’s mind to see what it means to them, (5:00)what it is they do, why they do it and so forth, there’s that aspect to it. Sometimes people have said to me there’s another aspect, there’s faith maintenance. I used to get comments from the Church I belong to when I was researching Unification Church, they would say to me, ‘I don’t know how you maintain your faith coming into contact with all these religions’. Actually that wasn’t a problem for me because I guess I wasn’t personally attracted to any of them, I didn’t actually think of joining. But again some people might, and maybe that’s okay, maybe it’s not. I think as the researcher you need to decide that.

(CC): One of the more recent, I was going to say ‘founding fathers’ but he’s not a founding father, but one of the more recent canonical figures in the phenomenological study of religion is Ninian Smart and one of the key things he’s remembered for is the idea of methodological agnosticism, where an outsider will come into a community and study and yet attempt to maintain some sort of agnostic stance on the truth or belief claims of that community. How…do you have any reflections on how this works out in practice?

(GC): Yes. I sometimes have said to students, and sometimes they’ve been surprised, I’ve said there’s actually a sense in which we’re not interested in truth. So, if I’m working on, let’s say the Jehovah’s Witnesses, my key question is not “might they be teaching the truth”? What my job is, is to understand them and to get them right and to make sure I’m not misrepresenting them and to raise key questions about them. On the other hand, because the Jehovah’s Witnesses talk about “being in the truth”, that’s often their phrase, for people who have accepted their form of spirituality, they want me to accept the truth. Every so often the city overseer will take me aside and say “You know George, I’ve really got to say this to you but I’m very concerned that you’re still not yet in the truth”. And I always notice the word “yet” in what he says because he’s still hopeful that I will one day study the religion enough to see that really “what else could be true?!”. So we’ve got a different agenda. Here I am with this methodological agnosticism, I’m not supposed to be asking the question “might they be right?” but from their point of view, they’re saying well, “there’s no question about it, we are right, we’ve got the truth and we wish you would accept it”. I think we agree to differ but the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I think with some of the Unification Churches seminars I used to attend, certainly the last one I found that very high pressure, there was no let up. You know, “what did you think of this lecture?”, and “why don’t you agree that it’s true?” and so on, so you can actually encounter that as someone who studies religion.

(CC): Yes, I mean how often are you aware of this, of the fact that perhaps what you’re being presented with by the community that you’re studying is actually what’s going on, or if it’s their attempt to present themselves in a certain way to the academic? Have you ever had any experiences of that dynamic?

(GC): Obviously, any religious organisation will want to show themselves up in the best favourable light. I think one has got to make a point of reading the critics as well as the exponents and to ask whether things are as good as they say. And I think we’re used to that actually in any form of religion, old and new. There’s the ideal and the real, and you will get vicars pushing sermons about how Christians show love to each other and so on, and if you compare that with what goes on in the average church there’s usually a big difference. If you read the media you read a lot about the paedophile priests and so on, but of course that doesn’t get into the textbooks because that’s not the ideal. So you’ve got to match up ideality and reality. As somebody who’s studying (10:00) religion I think I’ve got to reflect on both.

(CC): It was the…another phenomenologist of religion, it was William Brede Kristensen, to paraphrase him, who had the idea that the believer is always right. So that everything you do as a scholar of religion you bring back to the believer and if they can’t accept it, then it isn’t a true representation. This was also, I think it was Cantwell Smith elaborated on that, saying that a depiction of a religion must be true to, if it was Christianity, a Christian, but also to a Muslim, or to someone who didn’t have that believe at all. I’m wondering if you’ve ever had experience of that or any thoughts on that, taking your writing back to the community that has been studied?

(GC): Yes, I will usually do that if it’s at all possible because you often pick up a lot of your own misconceptions or the odd error, or sometimes it’s not even an error, it might be the way that you’ve put something that really just gives it a wrong slant. I don’t think that the believer is always right because that seems to give a kind of an infallibility to the believer, and we all make mistakes. Believers can give you information that is wrong simply because maybe they’ve forgotten or they haven’t checked themselves. I mean, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses were to tell me that their annual memorial is on the 10th of April when in fact when it was on the 17th, that would just be a mistake and hopefully I would sort that out to make a point of going along on the correct night. So I think one has got to allow that there can be mistakes. Sometimes even the believer may not understand their own tradition fully. Sometimes you do get to the point where a follower of a new religious movement will say to you, “gosh, how do you know all that about us, we didn’t know that”. I have had that comment from members of the unification church and sometimes from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised because you wouldn’t expect a Sunday school teacher to know as much as someone who is studying Christianity. I think one has got to bear in mind the phrase “the believer is always right”, meaning that you check things against the believer’s account. If believers do make mistakes of course then the fact that they’ve made a mistake is part of the phenomenon as well. So there is that to bring in. I remember Eileen Barker once saying “everything is data”. She actually said that apropos of Susan Palmer being excluded from an event organised by the Raelians. Evidently Susan was disappointed about this and she had asked Eileen Barker what she should do and how she should respond and Eileen’s comment was “everything is data”. So if you are excluded or I suppose even if you were chucked out of a meeting that ought to be an interesting fact in itself. So yes, the believer is not always right but you should always take the believer very seriously.

(CC): As far as scholars who are insiders and scholars who are outsiders, I’ve certainly been involved in many a heated debate about which is the better position or which is more valid, so I’m going to sort of rhetorically ask, insider or outsider scholar?

(GC): You can’t pick one or the other. I think really you’ve got say there are outsiders that bring to bear certain things that the insider can’t and vice versa. The insider might be over enthusiastic about their own religion and they may privilege their own particular tradition. But at least the insider will know what religion means and that can be a problem if you’re the outsider. There are probably some outsiders that aren’t really very sure of why people follow a religion or what it means to them and so on. On the other hand they’ve got, one hopes, some kind of objectivity. So an outsider studying Christianity might be more likely to take aboard the fact that (15:00) there are three major traditions in Christianity for example whereas someone who is inside may see just Evangelical Protestantism as the only version. So I think one has got to say that different stances have got their own pros and cons. But it’s also not that simple because I think scholars talk about insiders as if there’s only one kind of insider. When you think about it there are different traditions within a religion so, am I an insider to Christianity? Well the answer is, yes, I am, but I’m not an insider to Eastern Orthodoxy or to the Salvation Army or to Roman Catholicism. So there are a whole lot of, well there not even concentric circles here, I might be in some things in my own religion but excluded from others. Or what about the role of women for example, I‘m not sure I can speak totally from a woman’s point of view because I’m not an insider to that and I can’t be. I think we’ve got to watch we don’t make it kind of black and white. Also I think that you’re not just in or out, you can be thinking about joining a religion, so you’re kind of moving in. You can make the decision to come in, to be the enthusiastic new convert, you can get to the next stage where maybe you’re going to get a bit complacent as the insider, but then you can go out the other end. So there’s the ex-member perhaps at the end of that, and they’ve got something to tell as well that is worth taking seriously. I don’t think we’ve done enough study of ex-members either, of all the new religions, because actually they’re very difficult to find, apart from the ones that tell you what a horrible experience it’s been belonging to the religion they’ve just left.

(CC): The ones who feel they’ve got something to say will say it but the ones who maybe don’t feel they’ve got anything to say, don’t… so how on earth do you find them?

(GC): I don’t know whether you want me to say a bit more about that because I can do. I think there are –

(CC): Yes

(GC): -different kinds of ex member that we ought to be interested in. There’s certainly the kind that goes and tells the media how bad it was. That’s certainly one kind, and then the other question is “why do they do that?” I mean, maybe they have had a bad experience, I’m sure some of them have, but equally there may be people who feel “well I’ve come out, I’ve wasted years of my life, how do I justify that?” As Jim Beckford says in one of his books, they devise story, they devise a scenario, to account for the entry and exit. So you get brainwashing stories. But equally you get people like the woman who cut my hair recently, we got on to talking, and it transpired that she had belonged to the Soka Gakkai, and I said “Well, why did you leave?” and she said “well I actually didn’t like being out late at night” which is when they had their meetings. “I thought I was being followed by somebody who was going to rob me so I didn’t go back”. So her reason for not going back was totally nothing to do with the religion but we don’t hear that story and I find that really interesting that there are these stories out there that we haven’t actually taken aboard as students of religion.

(CC): Definitely. Two more things that I’d like to ask and then I think we’re getting near wrapping up.

(GC): Okay.

(CC): One is, how does this understanding of insiders and outsiders, how does that impact upon the media, and when the media get in an expert on a religion, or a religious leader and you know, ask them questions about “what does your religion think about this?” or “What is your religion’s response to this?” What’s going on there? What issues does that bring up?

(GC): I think there would be all sorts of things that go on there. It depends on what they’re after, it depends on who the interviewer is. There is a YouTube clip of Sun Myung Moon being interviewed and all the questions that are asked by that interviewer are designed to embarrass him and show what a hypocrite he is and so on. So it depends on what stance you have. Equally, there have been interviews where the follower or a leader of a new religion has been taken very seriously and it has been a genuine attempt to find out what’s going on. So I think maybe it can have different motives at different times.

(CC): Mmm.

(GC): (20:00) I would hope they would go for the model of finding out what the believer or leader thinks rather than try to have a sensationalist story about the religion in question.

(CC): And the final one is bringing in my own research, which is into non-religion. We’ve been talking about different sorts of insiders and outsiders, but I’ve wonder specifically about the non-religious outsider trying to study a religion and if there’s any dynamic going on there? Is, I guess I’m asking, is a religion of some description necessary to understand another religion?

(GC): So the question is if you’ve got no religion what- why are you studying religion at all, or-?

(CC): how – is it possible for you to understand someone else’s religious experience if you have never had a religious experience to gauge that against?

(GC): Well, I don’t know. My mother was very religious and she brought us up to be very religious and to have this kind of interest in religion as something that was really important, so I’m not sure what it’s like myself, to be in a situation where I just don’t know what religion is about and why people join. Sometimes students have said “I’ve never been in a church in my life” and I really don’t know what that’s like to be honest. So I don’t know how they kind of, get in on religion. I imagine they may find some of it somewhat difficult to understand. So yes, I’ve been an insider to religion and that certainly gives me an advantage in some respects but maybe that makes me, kind of, too prone to see it as something important. Whereas other people have said things like “religion is poison”, I think it was Mao Zedong that said that.

(CC): Mmm.

(GC): So yeah, I don’t know what it’s like to be coming from that point of view. So yes, we all have our starting points. I guess we’ve got to recognise what that starting point is and to realise that there are other people that are outsiders to religion and they themselves, I’m sure, have got a valid perspective to offer that is an interest to all of us.

(CC): Lots of very fascinating issues there, Dr Chryssides, that we could go on about for a lot longer.

(GC): We certainly could, and thanks for talking to me.

(CC): And thanks for talking to us!


Citation Info: Chryssides, George, and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “The Insider/Outsider Problem”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27th March 2018. Transcribed by Catrin Sawford. Version 1.1. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-george-chryssides-on-the-insideroutsider-problem/

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Podcasts

From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A developing field…

The twenty-first century has witnessed growing academic and popular interest in a variety of categories which are related to ‘religion’ but conceptualized as ‘other’… atheism, non-religion, secularity, religious indifference, and so on. Each of these categories can be conceptualized as aspects of the general category ‘unbelief’—‘used in a wide sense, implying a generalized lack of belief in a God or gods’ (Lee and Bullivant 2016).

Back in 2012, Chris sat down – with friend and colleague Ethan Quillen – to speak to Lois Lee, on the topic of ‘non-religion’. Since then, a lot has changed. Lee has climbed the academic ladder, publishing her first monograph with OUP in 2015 – Recognizing the Non-Religious: Re-Imagining the Secular – and currently serving as project leader on the Understanding Unbelief programme. This is a major new research programme aiming to advance scientific understanding of atheism and other forms of ‘unbelief’ around the world through core research and an additional £1.25 million being spent on additional projects and public engagement activities. Chris’s career has also progressed, with recent work including co-editing New Atheism: Critical Perspectives and Contemporary Debates, and beginning a postdoctoral project engaging in a comparative study of ‘unbelief’ in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In this podcast, we check in with the state of the field, discuss developments beyond the Anglophone “West”, some of the many exciting projects being worked on under the “Understanding Unbelief” banner, the utility and pitfalls of the terminology of “unbelief”, and some of the critical issues surrounding the reification of survey categories.

Of relevance to the themes discussed, include Marta Trzebiatowska’s blog post on gender issues in non-religion studies: Not for Girls? Gender and Researching Nonreligion. This blog is part of the NSRN/SSNB blog series on research methods. The full series is introduced here: Research Methods for the Scientific Study of Nonreligion, by Lois Lee, Stephen Bullivant, Miguel Farias and Jonathan Lanman, Nonreligion & Secularity Research Network, 2016.

Specific Understanding Unbelief projects mentioned in the podcast include:

* Mapping the Psychology of Unbelief Across Contexts and Cultures, PI: Jonathan Jong, Psychology, Coventry University, UK
* Nonreligious Childhood: Growing Up Unbelieving in Contemporary Britain, PI: Dr Anna Strhan, Religious Studies, University of Kent, UK,

Listeners may also be interested in our podcasts on “Understanding the Secular“, “Permutations of Secularism“, “Non-Religion”, “Secular Humanism“. “The Post-Secular“, “Studying Non-Religion within Religious Studies“, “The Secularization Thesis” and more…

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when finding UNBELIEVABLE deals on academic texts, strawberry jam, vintage clothing, and more.

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

From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A Developing Field

Podcast with Lois Lee (26 February 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Lee_-_Non-Religion_to_Unbelief_-_A_Developing_Field_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): Greetings, Religious Studies Project listeners! I am speaking to you from London, in the abode of Dr Lois Lee, who’s returning to the Religious Studies Project. Hi, Lois.

Lois Lee (LL): Hi. Lovely to be here again.

CC: Lois was one of our first interviewees back in 2012. I can’t remember the specific date, or why it was happening. I can remember sitting in a seminar room in New College – along with my then colleague, and still good friend Ethan Quillen – talking about the concept of non-religion with Lois. And now, five, well possibly six years on – depending how we calculate that – we’re checking in again to talk about non-religion, unbelief, the development of the field, how we go about studying this, other major developments that are happening in the field at the moment, and anything else that we can fit into the next 25 minutes! So, when we last spoke to you I remember you saying, “If we’re still having this conversation in 10 years about non-religion, something’s gone wrong.”

LL: Yes.

CC: We’re not quite having the same conversation – but maybe I’ll just throw that at you as a way to kick things off.

LL: And we’re not quite ten years on – so I don’t have to falsify the thesis, or prove or disprove it at this stage! But no, it’s very interesting to reflect on that. I remember saying that, and I’ve referred to that quite often since then. A bold claim from someone who’s argued that we need to look at non-religion and that there’s practical, methodological and analytic utility in using that concept to research religion, and something we might think about as religion, religious-like, or religion-related. But I was saying at the time, “Look, it’s a means to an end. And ten years on, hopefully, we won’t need that means to an end anymore.” I would revise that view now, which is good: we need to be moving forward and so on. Because I think that the discursive study of non-religion is much, much more important than I was engaging with in my work at the time. Not that it wasn’t recognised, because work of critical secular scholars and critical religion scholars were showing that quite clearly. So Johannes Quack worked on and so on – these non-religious discourses are very widespread. They are, as all these scholars show and would argue, definitional of a whole epoch, perhaps, and vast swathes of the world. So I think there’s actually a lot of water in looking at – and Jim Beckford has made this point very clearly – that we really need a strong discursive study of non-religion. And I don’t see that disappearing any time soon. So we’re going to need non-religion in the longer term and be engaging with it. But I’m going to stand by the spirit of the claim, if not the letter of the claim, in that what I was getting at was that – and probably this points to my own research interests – is that many people and things that are identified as non-religious are identified because of attachments that are not purely discursive. They’re not just about relationality to religion, they’re a way of describing lots of different things. And I’ve been particularly interested in what I’ve called in my book “existential cultures”, what Baker and Smith call “cosmic meaning systems”, what other scholars refer to as “worldviews”. And what we see now – and this is very timely to address this question now, because all of the work I’ve just mentioned has been published in the last three years at the longest – is a lot of play around working with how we’re going to describe this stuff that is underlying what’s expressed as “non-religious identities”, “non-religious practices” and “positionalities” and so on. Or analytic language: so, identifying as scholars identifying people as non-religious. And really, what we have in mind are, for example, naturalist worldviews and so on. So I feel totally vindicated in fact, in that claim, in that I think in five years, a lot of the work that’s fallen within the language on non-religion – that we use the language of non-religion to identify – we won’t be using that language any more. (5:00)And it’s precisely because there’s so much dynamism at the moment around developing better analytic categories – to get at what a lot of us have been getting at. And learning from our research and so on, that’s important to the people we’re talking with. So a lot of the work that we talk about in terms of non-religion is going to fall within – well, I’m not going to say what, just now! But maybe it’s the study of worldviews, maybe it’s existentiality, maybe it’s cosmic meaning systems, who knows?

CC: Excellent. I’ve just realised that I completely omitted to properly introduce you at this beginning of this interview!

LL: (Laughs) But surely I need no introduction, Chris?

CC: Exactly! But you’ve already touched on it, just there. So, Lois is a research fellow at the University of Kent, where she’s currently principal investigator on the Understanding Unbelief programme, which is something that we’ll get to very shortly. She’s also a founding director of the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network, which you’ll have heard plenty about on this podcast thus far. And her 2015 book with OUP was called Recognising the Non-Religious: Re-Imagining the Secular. So you’ve heard about the book, just there. And we’ll get on to some of this just now. Maybe the book’s actually something to springboard from, since again we didn’t speak about that last time.

LL: Yes

CC: Maybe just tell us about your own trajectory, and how you got to this stage of being PI in a project looking at unbelief.

LL: That’s right. Well, I suppose when we last talked it was a twinkle in the eye! But the book is a culmination of what we were talking about in that earlier podcast, which I’m sure is available to listeners, if they’re interested, to return to it. And as you say, I’ve already sort of alluded to some of the work in that book, which was about identifying and engaging with populations. In particular, I was most interested in populations we identify as non-religious, and saying we need to understand them in their capacity of identifying as non-religious or being identified as others, by others as non-religious. And that many of the claims that are made about the religious would be partial if we didn’t work much more closely with that population. That book arose from work that began in 2006, when sociology – my area – but the human sciences more broadly had not really engaged with this non-religious population, in any detail. They’d had sporadic forays – significant, but sporadic forays – into that area. So the book was very much a kind-of “call to arms” in way. But the title sort-of summarises, I guess, recognising the non-religious: that as researchers we need to recognise the non-religious, as societies we need to recognise the non-religious. I talk a bit about the commitments, investments, social attachments and so on, of non-religious people that lead them to feel a sense of grievance if societies only recognise the analogous needs of religious people. So there’s a political argument there in the end. So where have we got to? How does that lead to the Understanding Unbelief programme?

CC: Yes.

LL: Well, I think we’ve touched on that trajectory slightly already, which is that my kind-of emerging interest was particularly in the kinds of what I shall call “existential beliefs and cultures”. The “worldviews” is a more commonplace word we might think about. I think it’s slightly problematic, and we probably don’t have time to get into that. But I think it’s going to lead to some really interesting conversations with people really engaging closely with that concept, and critically, which hasn’t happened around worldview in the same way it’s happened with religion. So it will be really interesting to see that work. But what I’m interested in is the way in which humans conceptualise their own existence and the nature of reality. That conceptualisation is intrinsically transcendent – so it’s stepping back to take to a perspective on reality and existence – and, in that way, is something that is very much shared between, well, cuts across religious and non-religious divides. Whether all humans are as interested in this conceptualisation is a very open question. And that’s very much where the book ends up, is saying there are lots of things going on when people self-identify or are identified as others, by others as non-religious. There are lots of political things going on. There are lots of socio-cultural things, some of which we might feel very sympathetic to and some of which we might be very, very concerned about (10:00). There’s a lot going on. But one important thing that’s going on is that non-religious people have worldviews and they aren’t recognised clearly enough in the conceptual language we have, or in the academy, for example, or other places in public life. So we have the Sociology of Religion, and it’s not clear how well that makes space for the sociology of non-traditional, nonreligious worldviews, and I’m very much arguing we should do that. The Unbelief programme builds on that in that . . . . So, the focus on belief – there’s a couple of different reasons we’re using the term “unbelief”. And we always use it in scare quotes. I think it’s important to say that one of the reasons that we have turned to that term is that we think it’s very obviously a folk category that emerged from Christian traditions. It can’t be confused with a viable analytic concept. And we had some concerns about atheism, secularism – and non-religion, actually – that they had acquired a kind of veneer of analytic coherence that wasn’t always borne out. And so we wanted to . . . . And this arises from conversations with others in the field about where the field was at. We wanted to slightly step back from that and invite people to be a bit critical about what they’re doing and not close off questions, as well. For example, I’ve spoken recently about the disproportionate focus on positive atheists over and above strong agnostics in research. We now have an emerging scholarship around Atheism, with a capital A, and very little about agnostics. But there are lots of people who make the strong agnostic claim that humans can’t know about the nature of human reality and existence, or God, or whoever. We didn’t want to foreclose on that by having a programme on atheism, for example. So, partly, one of the strengths of unbelief is that it’s very, very broad. It allows people to focus on different things that are going on within that rubric, to not imagine they’ve got a specific or coherent analytic category to start off with, but to think about what they’re doing. But it is a word that includes belief. That’s partly because one stage that I think the field is at is that there’s been a lot of energy in the last ten years . . . . The Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network: I founded that in 2008, so we’re ten years on now. And in that period there’s been a kind of intense period of field-building in lots of different human science disciplines. A group who discussed the formation of this programme said that one of the issues in the field was that there was no longer strong communication between different human science disciplines within the field. At the beginning there was, because there was so little scholarship we were absolutely thrilled to read anything that emerged. Now that it’s a success story it’s great. There’s lots to read. And one of the kind-of unintended consequences of that is that some of that interdisciplinary engagement has faded. You know, it’s enough to keep up with the Sociology of Non-Religion or Secularism – as it might be called in the US – as well as trying to keep up with the Psychology of Atheism which is probably the favoured term in Psychology. And that’s fine, but also a shame, because we could learn from each other and from that material. And, partly, the language of belief just reflects different disciplinary conventions: a focus on the cognitive in Cognitive Anthropology, Cognitive Science; belief is very meaningful and significant within Psychology and Social Psychology. So, we’re trying to kind-of bring those things together and find a language that makes sense to different researchers.

CC: Yes. I mean, I can see perhaps some of our listeners bristling in that we’ve been trying – “we” in Religious Studies – to get way from a belief-centred model of religion, in a sense. You know, because it’s so much more than that, potentially. So then, to take this other side of the coin, and then also say it’s “unbelief”, it’s potentially got the same problems as reifying belief. But it’s under-theorised. It doesn’t have that cachet – as you were saying – that it’s potentially an analytic term. And it also . . . And I’ve got to say that my current project is a comparative study of unbelief in Scotland and Northern Ireland, partly piggy-backing on the UU programme. But also, I found that was a much easier word to utilise with funders, and people who were assessing applications who were outside of these debates. Unbelief wasn’t as problematic in a sense as religion, non-religion – a lot less baggage, but made a bit of intuitive sense (15:00). So that’s part of it.

LL: I think that’s really important point, actually. And I think, sometimes, there are different modes of scholarship. My mode has been to work out what concepts are useful to me and what aren’t and then run away with the ones that are useful to me. But that shuts off a lot of conversation with people who are using different concepts. And unbelief, I think, is really useful, because it’s sort-of salient and intelligent to broader populations. They know where you’re at. Some of the preparatory work for this programme was developed in a programme called the Scientific Study of Non-Religious Belief. And if you’ve read work around relational theories of non-religion, non-religious belief is something that makes sense. But if you haven’t, and this is something that in earlier iterations of the project we came up against, you are not clear what a non-religious belief is. “Is that just any belief, that isn’t religious?” “Well, no. That’s not what we meant.” But that kind of confusion isn’t always helpful to having kind-of knowledge exchange with different kinds of audiences and research partners in a way that unbelief is helpful. It draws out its controversies, too. But a lot of that discussion can be very helpful. I think we have a sense that one of the major goals of the project, which is very descriptive in its intention . . . . So, you can summarise its core research question as being: “To summarise the nature and diversity of – scare quotes – “unbelief”. And I tend to think of one of the major outcomes of the programme being the ability to identify different profiles of unbelievers within national populations, and maybe breaking that down further still. We could think about them as denominations of unbelievers perhaps, but maybe that’s not a helpful way of going about it.

CC: Hmm.

LL: But I think, in doing that, we should be able to identify much more concrete positive language that will hopefully replace, in many ways, the concept of unbelief. I think unbelief is . . . . I’d be interested to know what you think, with your project. But for me, I’m not sure there’s going to be analytic validity usefulness. It’s quite clearly a kind of folk category.

CC: Mmm.

LL: But it’s a gateway to hopefully identifying a set of better, more interesting concepts – better and more interesting also than atheism and secularism and non-religion. And again, that’s a bit of a concern with those concepts, because they’re slightly helpful. They are all helpful in lots of different ways, but because they’re helpful they sort-of close down options to push further in certain directions. Whereas, in a way, unbelief is so clearly a sort-of folk category, it sort of invites us to think: “Well, what am I talking about here?” So I might be inclined to say, again, that unbelief is another transitional concept, like non-religion. And, if I’m still using the concept in 10 years’ time . . . . (Laughs)

CC: (Laughs) Why not?

LL: So we can meet again in a few years, and see what’s come to pass.

CC: Exactly, and what new . . .

LL: I think it’s a productive conversation. And in the programme we’re also concerned to broaden out the conversation from academia and engage much more effectively with broader audiences. And again, a sort of language that makes sense to broader audiences will help us to do that and help us to learn from perspectives outside of academia.

CC: Excellent. Now, there’s a few directions we could go in here. And part of me is wanting to push that button again about: are we potentially reifying groups here, by talking about types of unbelievers and dichotomising the world? But, listen to our previous interview – listen to my interview with Johannes Quack, back from 2015 and also read some of Lois’s work, some of my work where we do engage with this, alright?

LL: (Laughs)

CC: To skip to a debate that hasn’t been had before – well this will just be re-treading ground – but tell us about this Understanding Unbelief programme, then. So, there are four other . . . . You are the principal investigator, there’s a core team and then there’s a whole bunch of other different projects going on?

LL: There’s a lots of people- I won’t mention everyone by name. I hope they’re not offended. But there’s a lot going on

CC: So what is it? What is going on?

LL: I think it does say something about where the field has got to. So, as I sort-of said earlier, I think there’s been a phase of field-building which has been a lot of conceptual work, which has involved a lot of making the argument about why we need to study this group to our colleagues in academia (20:00). And that’s something that you’ve been involved with, and several others have been involved with. And I think that argument has clearly been won, aided and abetted by broader social contexts in which there’s a recognition of non-religious actors: people describing themselves as non-religious. So I think that’s great. And we’re moving into a new phase now, where we’re concreting or pushing that more general work further. There are lots of different ways in which people are seeking to break down those populations and be more specific again. That’s something you’ve done in your work, and I’ve done in my work. So, when we first started discussing this programme there was a sense that . . . . I mentioned some sort-of field-wide interests and concerns: about the usefulness of some inter-disciplinary work; about moving on from some of the conceptual debates we’ve been having; not encouraging a new round of work about concepts, but really getting involved in empirical settings. But, very chiefly, was a sense that, empirically, we needed to work outside of the West; that learning about atheists, people who identify as atheists and go to the atheist church, for example, or read new atheist material, was something that had been quite well-covered in the field by that point. And we needed to think beyond that, so: outside of Anglophone settings; outside of Northern European settings and the US and Canada; but also – within those settings and beyond – thinking about demographic groups that had not been well studied. Matt Sheard has a paper in Secularism and Non-Religion about non-elite, non-religious people within the UK and how little they’ve been researched. I agree. I agree: non-white, women, agnostics rather than atheist. So, there’s a very big population. We’ve done the work of saying: “This is why we need to engage with them. Here are some ways of engaging with all these different groups.” And now we really need to do it. And also, yes, get outside of the kind-of well-worn tracks. So, we wanted to consolidate some of the work that had been done. And from that basis, really, hopefully be part of ushering in this new phase. Which . . . I think there’s lots of other work that’s going on concurrently, which is a part of that. So the approach has been . . . I’m working with a multi-disciplinary team to lead the programme. So we have Jonathan Lanman who’s a cognitive anthropologist, Miguel Farias who’s a social psychologist, and Stephen Bullivant who’s a theologian and also a sociologist with expertise in quantitative work. I’m a sociologist with a focus on qualitative work. So that team – we’re doing research across five different countries, I can’t think how many continents, a few continents – is kind-of the centre of that project. But we also now have 21 project teams working around the world to do work much, much more widely than a small team could ever do, given that, as I’ve already sort of alluded to, actually the empirical work was fairly narrow. And in order to answer questions about the nature and diversity of non-belief we really needed to be very broad. Our core project is working strategically with five countries that are revealing about broader global trends and so on. But actually, it’s great to have work going on in lots of different places. So one of the projects which is grounded in Psychology is working with – I can’t think in total how many countries it is – ten or so countries that have very high numbers of people who identify as non- religious. So that includes South Korea, Australia, Japan, Azerbaijan, Vietnam and so forth. So, a really diverse set of countries that they’ll be going to and using psychological methods to engage with those populations. At the same time, we have close ethnographic research going on. A project based . . . . I should say all of the information on these projects and all the other projects is available on our website.

CC: Which is?

LL: The easiest URL is understanding-unbelief.net. It also lives with the University of Kent system, but you can find it there. And no doubt it will be available on the podcast website. (25:00) I say that, because there are so many projects, and they’re very exciting and so much worth looking at

CC: Yes, we could spend an hour talking about each one.

LL: Yes. But, to just to give a sense of the kind of contrast, there’s an ethnographic project that’s looking at magical thinking in two different European settings and working very closely, very much exploring kind-of unbelief: people who are cast as and cast themselves as unbelievers. And they’re working with a very typical population of rationalist thinkers. But looking at things we might identify, and they, as anthropologists, are used to identifying as magical thinking within those populations. So between those very broad quantitative studies, and those very detailed and nuanced qualitative studies, we’re hoping . . . we’re not going to be able to map the world of unbelievers, but we’re hoping to be able to join a lot of dots and get a much, much broader picture of . . . . How are they described? Is it the fourth-largest faith group in the world? The non-religious, or people who don’t affiliate with a religion are the third-largest religion, and unbelievers are the fourth-largest faith group. To put it somewhat crudely.

CC: Right.

LL: So there’s a lot to learn. And we hope to learn something about that group.

CC: Excellent. And listeners can keep an eye on that website over the coming couple of years. So when’s the project wrapping up? It’s 2019, isn’t it?

LL: Yes. I think it officially ends in late 2019, but there’ll be activity ongoing I would think – with a sense of all these different projects and work coming through from that – for the longer term, I would think.

CC: Absolutely. We’re already coming up to sort-of the end of our time. I’m going to ask you a question now that I didn’t prep you with, so feel free if I have to rewind. But we were saying, before we started recording, that there’s maybe a sort of dearth of female voices speaking in this area and researching in this area. So I just wondered if you have any comments on that. A final thought as a sort-of leading light in this area?

LL: A topical theme in societies more broadly. No, that’s a good thing to focus on. A good question, thank you. Yes, in the last project I was involved with – the Scientific Study of Non-Religious Belief- we had a series of blogs on methods, one of which focuses on gender and talks about a concern, in the study of non-religion and atheism, about the way in which both that field is gendered and the study of that area is gendered. Partly this comes down to kind of quite interesting feedback loops. So, for example, we have studies that show that the language of atheism is slightly more popular with men than it is with women. And that’s reflected in research. So I am a woman. And I quickly said, “I don’t like atheism, that’s not my main framework – I prefer non-religion.” And that’s typical, actually, of quite a lot of researchers, to slightly generalise. But there is a kind of way of engaging with very male dominated atheist cultures – like the New Atheism and so on – that interests men. And then other voices – really interesting work that prefers concepts like non-religion or secularity, or secularism, and so on – that’s sort-of been lost a bit. I’ve noticed that happening. And there are several collections that are very male-dominated. And as much as this is not distinctive to our field, there is, as I say, a sort of relationship between what we’re studying and how we study it that is specific to our field. And actually, that sort-of brings us back to the topic of agnosticism. So we, in my field, are very generally acquainted – and so are sociologists of religion – with the idea that religious people are more likely to be women, and non-religious people are more likely to be men. So wherever you’re coming from, this gendered phenomenon is known. It shouldn’t be overstated, but it is marked. And it’s interesting, within the non-religious field, if you break that down between people who have strong atheistic beliefs and have sort-of strong agnostic beliefs, then the gender profile looks quite different. And the agnostics are more female overall and atheists are more male. So again, there’s that concern that gender may be a factor in what we’re researching, what we’re choosing to research, and what’s being neglected. In the UK the agnostics are a larger group than the atheists. Why haven’t we looked at them? (30:00) Part of the answer to that question is about gender, and it’s by no means the whole answer to that question, but I think it’s an element – or something we should at least be exploring and concerned about. I’m really thrilled, actually, that we have so many research teams on the Understanding Unbelief programme and it is a very gender-balanced set of researchers. And because of the way in which our own perspective shapes the questions we ask and how we look at them, and so on, I think that’s a very good sign for the work we’ll . . . what we’ll learn through the programme. But I do think it’s an interesting topic for us to reflect upon. As I say, there’s an NSRN blog that’s been written on it and I think there’s scope for a bit more work around reflecting on . . . . It’s sort of the other side of the coin of the focus on the study of elites – even within particular cultural settings – is thinking about who’s researching them. And that very much relates to broader questions in academia at the moment about non-elite voices having space to be heard. And the perspectives we might be missing. You know, I think it’s a question of good and bad science in those kinds of terms. Because we will find out new things if we include a broader range of perspectives. This we know. This we know. So yes, I think that would be a good thing for us to be reflecting on as field, going forward into the next phase. I can’t remember if we’re reflecting on the last 5 years or the last 10 years, but . . . looking forward anyway!

CC: Well, reflecting on a lot, anyway! Good. And hopefully the Understanding Unbelief programme will contribute a lot to that as well. So, we’re out of time, Lois. But it’s been wonderful to speak to you.

LL: And you.

CC: And I’m sure the listeners will come back in another 5 years and we’ll see where the conversation is next time. Alright.

LL: (Laughs).

Citation Info: Lee, Lois, and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A Developing Field”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 23 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/from-non-religion-to-unbelief-a-developing-field/

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Playing the Field: the Logistics of Religion and Video Game Studies

The field of religion and video games is still new and forming. In its struggle to find itself, it simultaneously competes with a university’s traditional understanding of both education and culture, often involving Gregory Price Grieve’s comment that video games are perceived as “low brow” culture. The view of video games as, again to quote Grieve, “just above pornography,” is a misconception that the academic study of video games is constantly fighting against.

That being said, hearing about Grieve’s success in bringing the study of video games to his university is promising. Not only was he able to establish courses for the study of religion and video games, but was also able to work with his library and university in order to establish gaming centres for students to play games. Having digital media pushed across disciplines throughout the university, as well as having a Digital Media Centre in their library, helps to establish video games and other forms of digital media as important and worthy of study in the university.

Grieve did have an understanding university, which is something important to keep in mind. While his approach to getting video games in the classroom is a format presented to be copied, not everyone is lucky enough to be present in a university that is so understanding. This is especially the case in universities rooted in academic tradition, built on older standards which seldom factor in elements of popular culture. This is not even considering the cost of this kind of endeavour. Even with a buy-in from the library, Grieve’s project still needed $10,000. And this is only considering the technicalities of this new media, and not the thought process of people who still believe that video games are not an important element of popular culture today, or who don’t seem to really care about the “popular” at all. In that sense, there are bigger problems facing some people at less understanding universities than a lack of technology.

The positive reception Grieve has experienced with his students can hopefully begin to be experienced by researchers and teachers in the study of video games in many universities throughout the world. However, there are many elements that still work against progression in the field. Some of the thoughts and actions impeding the growth of the field are, sadly, still present even among scholars in the field. By studying only video games, we impede ourselves and the progress which can be made; there are many aspects of video games which are affecting other elements of popular culture. An example of this are Let’s Play videos, in which players record themselves playing a video game, with commentary and sometimes even recordings of the player’s face (as the Let’s Player PewDiePie became known for), which are then uploaded on video sharing sites such as YouTube. Unfortunately, the popularity of Let’s Plays have been stereotyped almost as much as video games themselves are, an element that is unfortunately heard even in Grieves interview in which he relegates their popularity and interest almost exclusively to “teenagers”, even though the demographic may not be this concrete, especially for Let’s Players who are older themselves, such as Fun Haus. PewDiePIe has over 41 million subscribers, and it is hard to imagine that all 41 million are only teenagers. Not to mention that the fastest growing demographic for gaming content are women over the age of 25.[1]

What Let’s Plays demonstrate for academics of video games is the creativity enjoyed by Let’s Players. Geoff Ramsey, the founder of the Let’s Play group Achievement Hunter has commented on this creativity: “Any time we can take and use [a game] in a way that it wasn’t necessarily intended by the developers, that’s like the best thing in the world to me.”[2] This out-pouring of creativity allows researchers to have easy access to new narratives being created and the emotions they create and share. These new narratives and emotions are not experienced solely by the Let’s Player, but also by those who watch these videos; these narratives are then shared by the viewer to others, and new narratives are created by the viewer in relation to these new narratives. These videos are then not only relegated to the realm of video games, but also to internet studies and realms of internet discourse, particularly when elements of them become shared as memes.

The field of religion and video games is still emerging, and thus still solidifying its own definition and place. What is most important is for scholars interested in engaging with digital media, like video games, to demonstrate to their students, universities, and themselves that video games are a medium worthy of study.

[1] Gautam Ramdurai, “Think Gaming Content is Niche? Think Again,” Think with Google, December 2014, accessed February 2016, https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/think-gaming-content-is-niche-think-again.html.

[2] Rooster Teeth, Let’s Play Live: The Documentary, Video (2015), ), http://roosterteeth.com/episode/r-t-docs-let-s-play-live-let-s-play-live-the-documentary

Religion Without Culture is No Religion at All

I’d like to start by thanking Jon Lanman for his insightful description of CREDs, CRUDs, and the larger issue of content and context biases as the foundations of religion. I want to focus my comments on this last part: the differing roles of content biases and context biases in explaining religion. The cognitive science of religion has spent much time and effort identifying different content biases that relate to religious belief, and has paid very little attention to the role of culture and cultural learning. The work that has been done by Lanman and others has shown that CREDs, and other context biases, play a fundamentally important role in understanding religions and religious belief (Lanman 2012), and I’d argue explain the bulk of what we generally think of when we think about religion.

One of the first things to recognize is that content and context biases play very different roles in the explanation of religious belief. I will leave aside minimally counterintuitive content (for all the reasons presented in Purzycki & Willard, 2015), and focus on theory of mind and agent based content (see Willard and Norenzayan, 2013). As Lanman mentioned, content biases constrain the type of supernatural concepts we are likely to create and explain why certain types of concepts are common in religions around the world. These biases explain things like why anthropomorphic gods are more compelling and more common than the idea of God as an abstract concept, but they have little to say about why we should believe in one person-like god over another. Context biases, on the other hand, explain all the parts of religion that we learn from other people. These are the cultural parts of religion. Context biases cause us to pay attention and learn from some people or groups over others, and therefore adopt the beliefs and practices of those people/groups over the beliefs and practices of others. Put simply, content biases can help explain why Zeus is very much like a person, but context biases are required to explain why people stopped believing in Zeus in favor of other Gods (Gervais & Henrich, 2010).

This problem of belief—known as the Zeus problem or the Mickey Mouse problem—is often talked about but rarely reflected on in any great depth. I see this problem as a much more fundamental one than just the problem of why people believe in one god over another. It is a problem of why people adopt complex religious beliefs and practices at all. The intuitive appeal of some types of content over others cannot explain why or how this content coalesces into religious traditions or why traditions that have persisted for centuries suddenly change or fade away.

I have shown before that individual differences in the susceptibility to these content biases do predict the likelihood that a person holds religious or other supernatural beliefs (Willard and Norenzayan, 2013). I would add that these findings should only apply in places where religion is optional. A person who is raised in a culture where religion is endorsed and practiced by most, or all, other people is unlikely to even consider the possibility of non-belief, regardless of their intuitions. The forces of conformity, prestige, and credibility will easily trump any lack of intuition. Even the most unintuitive of ideas can persist in a culture with some amount of learning (calculus is not going to disappear anytime soon).

On the other side, a person who is highly affected by these content biases but raised in a culture with no religious traditions is not going to spontaneously create Christianity and all its traditions (even Jesus needed help with this). At most, these content biases would create the sense that additional invisible minds exist in the world, and maybe, a desire to explain this feeling. Even in a culture in which some people are religious and some are not, strong intuitions are unlikely to lead people to religion without some input from culture, especially if there are other options.

In recent work, I have looked at exactly this. In a large study conducted in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, done in collaboration with Lubomir Cingl and Ara Norenzayan, I found that susceptibility to these content biases predicted far more of the individual variance in paranormal beliefs (21%) than in the belief in God (8%), and almost no variance in religious participation (3%). Exposure to religious CREDs showed the opposite effects. CREDs explain a substantial portion of the variance in religious participation (25%) and belief in God (15%), while explaining almost no variance in paranormal beliefs (2%). Content-based intuitions did lead people to believe, just not necessarily in religion. It was the CREDs that brought people to praise the lord (Willard, Cingl & Norenzayan, n.d.).

If content can explain the tendency to hold supernatural beliefs, but cultural learning is required to create religions, then we can make specific predictions about how these things should vary around the world. First, we should expect supernatural beliefs would persist in some proportion of the population even when religion declines. Second, cultures that have no religious beliefs should exist, but cultures devoid of all supernatural beliefs should not. I have two examples that demonstrate exactly these things. First, the high rate of supernatural belief among the religious ‘nones’, and the rise of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ suggest that many people who leave religion maintain some type of supernatural beliefs. In my own research I find that though only 18% of the 1000 people we sampled in the Czech Republic claim to be religious, 56% endorse the belief in some type of deity or spiritual power, and only 22% explicitly claim to believe in nothing at all.

The second, far more compelling, example is the Hadza of Tanzania. The Hadza are one of the few hunter-gatherer societies still remaining on the planet, and they have no ritual practices or any formal belief system (Marlowe, 2010). What they do have is basic supernatural beliefs. Many Hadza believe that the sun is a god, and some believe that the moon is too, but these beliefs are not shared by everyone nor are they enforced. Though supernatural beliefs exist among the Hadza, they have never coalesced into something that we would identify as a religion. They have not lost their religious beliefs through increased existential security and modernization. Science has not given them an alternative to religion. They simply never created a religion in the first place.

None of this suggests that content biases are not important; they are extremely important, but they explain only a small piece of the larger puzzle that is religion. Content biases can explain why supernatural beliefs are everywhere, but when we talk about religions, we are often not talking about this. When we talk about religions, we are generally referring to the complex sets of beliefs and practices that extend far beyond these basic intuitions. Since we humans are a highly cultural species, we cannot help but pass our beliefs to others and build traditions around them. It is this process that drives the creation of religions. Content biases are more like a slow moving current than a rushing stream. They can push our boat in one specific direction, but only if no one is rowing in the boat in another direction. Rowing up stream may be more effortful than rowing down stream, but ultimately it is the rowing that will get us where we are going.

References

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

Lanman, J. A. (2012). The Importance of Religious Displays for Belief Acquisition and Secularization. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27(1), 49–65

Marlowe, F. (2010). The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania (Vol. 3). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Purzycki, B. G., & Willard, A. K. (2015). MCI theory: a critical discussion. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1–42.

Willard, A. K., & Norenzayan, A. (2013). Cognitive biases explain religious belief, paranormal belief, and belief in life’s purpose. Cognition, 129(2), 379–391.

Bias, Expectations, and the Role of the Media in Reporting on Religion

These kinds of situations can create a confluence of undisclosed interest, a phenomenon that can call into question even further the accuracy of media investigation and reporting.

Bias, Expectations, and the Role of the Media in Reporting on Religion

By Matthew C. Durham, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Teemu Taira on Religion and the Media (8 April 2013).

In their discussion of Religion and the Media, Christopher Cotter and Dr. Teemu Taira touch on some rather deceptively salient points.  Dr. Taira’s comments about the media as a means of establishing a collective identity springs first to mind.  If this is true, and it does not seem controversial to assume such, the responsibility placed upon the media is tremendous.  This is especially so if we also assume that the role of the media is to accurately convey reality as it is.  Perhaps this is too idealized an expectation?  After all, members of the media are just as tied to their own biases, expectations, and subjective viewpoints as any of the rest of us.

But regardless of the sometimes overwhelming complexities in conveying an accurately factual picture of reality, it seems reasonable to expect of the media that it can separate at least some of the proverbial chaff from the wheat.To wit; some ideas, when surreptitiously conflated, present a picture of reality that is about as far from factual as is possible.  Dr. Taira mentions a particular example of this when he discusses the use of the ambiguous “Christian Nation” concept.  His description of its use in the UK seems strongly akin to how it is used here in the USA, in that its meaning varies between something along the lines of “we recognize our cultural Christian heritage” to “our legal system should reflect Christian theology.” This sort of factual versus normative ambiguity can serve multiple purposes, and in cases like these it is important to determine who benefits from it such that we can decide whether perpetuating it does a disservice to our collective epistemic integrity.

In this particular example, Dr. Taira notes that this ambiguity can be very beneficial to liberal Christianity in maintaining its cultural pre-eminence.  While it is not immediately clear why Dr. Taira limited this benefit to only liberal Christianity in the UK (Given the theological ambiguity in the term “Christian,” it would seem to potentially benefit conservative Christianity just as well.), the overall point is well taken.  When the media fails to determine or disclose the intent or interests of a speaker, it can be seen as little more than a mindless megaphone.  This problem is compounded in light of Dr. Taira’s comments about the tendency amongst religion reporters to be more religious (and more friendly to religion) than the surrounding population.  These kinds of situations can create a confluence of undisclosed interest, a phenomenon that can call into question even further the accuracy of media investigation and reporting.

Other important areas of study require (or strongly encourage) that investigators acknowledge their personal interest in certain outcomes.  Investigators in clinical drug trials, for example, must provide disclosure of financial interest prior to their involvement in a study such that their methodology and the integrity of their data can be evaluated with appropriate caveats.  And beyond the personal benefits of cultivating this level of honesty, such disclosure can also benefit us in that it can strongly motivate the development of ever more thorough research methodology.  A researcher who provides potential critics with disclosure of his or her biases, for example, is going to be all the more motivated to preempt any undue influences from those biases – thus preventing critics from dismissing the research on grounds of undue bias.

It might be suggested that, due to the very different contexts in which the two operate, the media should not be held to the same standards as are academic or clinical researchers.  But if we intend that the media be not only a means to establish a collective identity,but that it also function to inform us through an attempt at accurately conveying a factual picture of reality; then there would seem to be some potential benefit in the media looking to academic or clinical research for guidance.

One of these potential benefits may be in counteracting epistemic and moral polarization through the tendency in media consumers to seek out only those media providers that they perceive as confirming or reinforcing their own expectations, biases, or connections to other people or groups with which they share significant commitments.  Dan Kahan’s research on communication of scientific information, for example, suggests that people not only seek out providers of information who appear to reflect their own values, but that they develop a form of “protective cognition” that pre-emptively determines what sort of information is credible.   People whose values are more egalitarian and who are suspicious of industry, for example, might see industrial activities as being more risky and thus more appropriately subject to restriction or regulation.  And they will likely seek out media providers who reflect those values.

Kahan’s research suggests, though, that presenters of scientific information can preclude this tendency and reduce polarization by muddling up expectations.  Kahan tested this by pairing experts whose appearance (besuited and gray-haired versus denim-shirted and bearded) and publication history fit particular cultural expectations.  He then paired these experts with arguments that contradicted those expectations.  The besuited and gray-haired expert, for example, presented arguments in favor of the scientific legitimacy of climate change while the denim-shirted and bearded expert criticized it.  Without these expectations to rely upon, “people shifted their positions and polarization disappeared.”

It seems quite plausible that the results of Kahan’s research could also be applied to more than just the presentation of scientific information.  If part of the media’s purpose is to genuinely inform us rather than to reinforce our existing polarized beliefs, then there may be a lesson to be learned here.  The lesson is not that the media should attempt to push any particular idea for broader cultural acceptance.  Rather, and to again reference Kahan, perhaps the media could confound those expectations in such a way as to create an opportunity for a more honest and open-minded consideration of the best information available?

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:

In his professional capacity, Matthew Durham has worked in over 150 studies in the field of cancer research as a Regulatory Coordinator for a large physician owned oncology practice.  He spends most days striving to learn and improve upon a variety of industry best practices, as well as devise useful metrics through which the efficacy of those practices can be evaluated.  In his academic life, he is an Undergraduate Philosophy and Religion major at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga whose main areas of focus are religious exegesis, religious epistemology, and philosophy of science.  His current interest is in studying the cognitive processes through which religious experiences are both interpreted and later recalled.  Most importantly, he is the lucky husband of an exceptional woman and the proud father of a precocious toddler.

References

Kahan, D. (2010). Fixing the communications failure. Nature, 296-297.

The Insider/Outsider Problem

 

The Insider/Outsider problem is one of the most perennial problems in the academic study of religion. This distinction, relating to where scholars position themselves relating to the subject matter (whatever that may be), permeates not only almost every aspect of academia, but has profound implications for each and every one of us conducts ourselves in relationship with the other people we encounter in our day-to-day lives. Dr George Chryssides joins Chris this week to discuss this fascinating issue.

This interview was recorded in September 2011 at the British Association for the Study of Religions‘ Annual Conference, hosted by Durham University.

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


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


The Insider/Outsider Problem

Podcast with George Chryssides (20th February 2012)

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Catrin Sawford

Audio and transcript available at: Chryssides Insider_Outsider Problem

Christopher Cotter (CC): The insider/outsider distinction is one of the most fundamental distinctions in the study of religions. I’m not going to get into it too much now because here to discuss it with me today is Dr George Chryssides, the honorary research fellow in contemporary religion at the University of Birmingham. He is also the author of, amongst many other things, ‘The Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses’, published in 2008, and the recently published ‘Christians in the 21st Century’. So, welcome Dr Chryssides.

George Chryssides (GC): Thanks, hi.

(CC): So, insider/outsider. To a lay person, what is an insider, and what is an outsider in the study of religions?

(GC): Well, there’s been a lot of debate about what exactly an insider or an outsider is but basically, in theory, the insider is the person that follows the religion, the outsider is the person like me, most of the time. I can’t belong to all the religions I study so I’m looking at it as a non-believer, as a non-practitioner, I’m trying to make sense of it.

(CC): So, you make two important points there, even in that little brief statement. One is, who does the defining? Is it you as an academic defining who is an insider or who is an outsider, or do you go by the tradition that you are studying at that time?

(GC): Well, I think it’s clear most of the time that I’m the outsider, because most of the time I’m trying to understand but initially I’m having problems working out what the religion believes, and why they do it and what it’s based on and what all the various activities are that they follow and what the reasons are for them. So I’m the outsider. It’s sometimes said that the outsider tries to make the strange familiar. For instance, it’s strange to me but it’s my job to make it familiar, first of all to myself, but secondly to the people I’m writing for or lecturing to or whatever. The other side to that is that is that it’s sometimes said that if you’re the insider, studying your own religion, you’re trying to make the familiar strange. In other words the religion that you follow seems very familiar to you but yet you don’t see what’s problematic about it. To give you an example that’s not to do with New Religious Movements, I was brought up as a Protestant Christian and I could never really understand what the big deal about the Reformation was because it seemed obvious to me that the Bible was the book that you followed and read and based your life on and what on earth was it that Martin Luther did. Just telling people that. But then it’s when you try and study a bit more and make it seem a bit more strange to you when you realise that there are Roman Catholics that say it’s not just the Bible, actually the Church was there first, it was the Church that defined the Bible and you’ve actually got two sources of authority then I can understand my own tradition that bit better because of this, kind of, strangeness that I’ve introduced and it’s not quite so familiar, not quite so comforting to me. Do you see what I mean?

(CC): Yes. So you hit on the other key issue, from my perspective anyway, which is what happens if you are an insider trying to be an outsider? And even an outsider is going to bring, implicitly they’re going to have their own community or set of ideas which they are an insider of. How does an academic go about juggling those two roles when they come to write?

(GC): Well, I think there are a lot of difficulties with that. One is that you’re trying to empathize, you’re trying to get, I suppose ideally, into the insider’s mind to see what it means to them, (5:00)what it is they do, why they do it and so forth, there’s that aspect to it. Sometimes people have said to me there’s another aspect, there’s faith maintenance. I used to get comments from the Church I belong to when I was researching Unification Church, they would say to me, ‘I don’t know how you maintain your faith coming into contact with all these religions’. Actually that wasn’t a problem for me because I guess I wasn’t personally attracted to any of them, I didn’t actually think of joining. But again some people might, and maybe that’s okay, maybe it’s not. I think as the researcher you need to decide that.

(CC): One of the more recent, I was going to say ‘founding fathers’ but he’s not a founding father, but one of the more recent canonical figures in the phenomenological study of religion is Ninian Smart and one of the key things he’s remembered for is the idea of methodological agnosticism, where an outsider will come into a community and study and yet attempt to maintain some sort of agnostic stance on the truth or belief claims of that community. How…do you have any reflections on how this works out in practice?

(GC): Yes. I sometimes have said to students, and sometimes they’ve been surprised, I’ve said there’s actually a sense in which we’re not interested in truth. So, if I’m working on, let’s say the Jehovah’s Witnesses, my key question is not “might they be teaching the truth”? What my job is, is to understand them and to get them right and to make sure I’m not misrepresenting them and to raise key questions about them. On the other hand, because the Jehovah’s Witnesses talk about “being in the truth”, that’s often their phrase, for people who have accepted their form of spirituality, they want me to accept the truth. Every so often the city overseer will take me aside and say “You know George, I’ve really got to say this to you but I’m very concerned that you’re still not yet in the truth”. And I always notice the word “yet” in what he says because he’s still hopeful that I will one day study the religion enough to see that really “what else could be true?!”. So we’ve got a different agenda. Here I am with this methodological agnosticism, I’m not supposed to be asking the question “might they be right?” but from their point of view, they’re saying well, “there’s no question about it, we are right, we’ve got the truth and we wish you would accept it”. I think we agree to differ but the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I think with some of the Unification Churches seminars I used to attend, certainly the last one I found that very high pressure, there was no let up. You know, “what did you think of this lecture?”, and “why don’t you agree that it’s true?” and so on, so you can actually encounter that as someone who studies religion.

(CC): Yes, I mean how often are you aware of this, of the fact that perhaps what you’re being presented with by the community that you’re studying is actually what’s going on, or if it’s their attempt to present themselves in a certain way to the academic? Have you ever had any experiences of that dynamic?

(GC): Obviously, any religious organisation will want to show themselves up in the best favourable light. I think one has got to make a point of reading the critics as well as the exponents and to ask whether things are as good as they say. And I think we’re used to that actually in any form of religion, old and new. There’s the ideal and the real, and you will get vicars pushing sermons about how Christians show love to each other and so on, and if you compare that with what goes on in the average church there’s usually a big difference. If you read the media you read a lot about the paedophile priests and so on, but of course that doesn’t get into the textbooks because that’s not the ideal. So you’ve got to match up ideality and reality. As somebody who’s studying (10:00) religion I think I’ve got to reflect on both.

(CC): It was the…another phenomenologist of religion, it was William Brede Kristensen, to paraphrase him, who had the idea that the believer is always right. So that everything you do as a scholar of religion you bring back to the believer and if they can’t accept it, then it isn’t a true representation. This was also, I think it was Cantwell Smith elaborated on that, saying that a depiction of a religion must be true to, if it was Christianity, a Christian, but also to a Muslim, or to someone who didn’t have that believe at all. I’m wondering if you’ve ever had experience of that or any thoughts on that, taking your writing back to the community that has been studied?

(GC): Yes, I will usually do that if it’s at all possible because you often pick up a lot of your own misconceptions or the odd error, or sometimes it’s not even an error, it might be the way that you’ve put something that really just gives it a wrong slant. I don’t think that the believer is always right because that seems to give a kind of an infallibility to the believer, and we all make mistakes. Believers can give you information that is wrong simply because maybe they’ve forgotten or they haven’t checked themselves. I mean, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses were to tell me that their annual memorial is on the 10th of April when in fact when it was on the 17th, that would just be a mistake and hopefully I would sort that out to make a point of going along on the correct night. So I think one has got to allow that there can be mistakes. Sometimes even the believer may not understand their own tradition fully. Sometimes you do get to the point where a follower of a new religious movement will say to you, “gosh, how do you know all that about us, we didn’t know that”. I have had that comment from members of the unification church and sometimes from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised because you wouldn’t expect a Sunday school teacher to know as much as someone who is studying Christianity. I think one has got to bear in mind the phrase “the believer is always right”, meaning that you check things against the believer’s account. If believers do make mistakes of course then the fact that they’ve made a mistake is part of the phenomenon as well. So there is that to bring in. I remember Eileen Barker once saying “everything is data”. She actually said that apropos of Susan Palmer being excluded from an event organised by the Raelians. Evidently Susan was disappointed about this and she had asked Eileen Barker what she should do and how she should respond and Eileen’s comment was “everything is data”. So if you are excluded or I suppose even if you were chucked out of a meeting that ought to be an interesting fact in itself. So yes, the believer is not always right but you should always take the believer very seriously.

(CC): As far as scholars who are insiders and scholars who are outsiders, I’ve certainly been involved in many a heated debate about which is the better position or which is more valid, so I’m going to sort of rhetorically ask, insider or outsider scholar?

(GC): You can’t pick one or the other. I think really you’ve got say there are outsiders that bring to bear certain things that the insider can’t and vice versa. The insider might be over enthusiastic about their own religion and they may privilege their own particular tradition. But at least the insider will know what religion means and that can be a problem if you’re the outsider. There are probably some outsiders that aren’t really very sure of why people follow a religion or what it means to them and so on. On the other hand they’ve got, one hopes, some kind of objectivity. So an outsider studying Christianity might be more likely to take aboard the fact that (15:00) there are three major traditions in Christianity for example whereas someone who is inside may see just Evangelical Protestantism as the only version. So I think one has got to say that different stances have got their own pros and cons. But it’s also not that simple because I think scholars talk about insiders as if there’s only one kind of insider. When you think about it there are different traditions within a religion so, am I an insider to Christianity? Well the answer is, yes, I am, but I’m not an insider to Eastern Orthodoxy or to the Salvation Army or to Roman Catholicism. So there are a whole lot of, well there not even concentric circles here, I might be in some things in my own religion but excluded from others. Or what about the role of women for example, I‘m not sure I can speak totally from a woman’s point of view because I’m not an insider to that and I can’t be. I think we’ve got to watch we don’t make it kind of black and white. Also I think that you’re not just in or out, you can be thinking about joining a religion, so you’re kind of moving in. You can make the decision to come in, to be the enthusiastic new convert, you can get to the next stage where maybe you’re going to get a bit complacent as the insider, but then you can go out the other end. So there’s the ex-member perhaps at the end of that, and they’ve got something to tell as well that is worth taking seriously. I don’t think we’ve done enough study of ex-members either, of all the new religions, because actually they’re very difficult to find, apart from the ones that tell you what a horrible experience it’s been belonging to the religion they’ve just left.

(CC): The ones who feel they’ve got something to say will say it but the ones who maybe don’t feel they’ve got anything to say, don’t… so how on earth do you find them?

(GC): I don’t know whether you want me to say a bit more about that because I can do. I think there are –

(CC): Yes

(GC): -different kinds of ex member that we ought to be interested in. There’s certainly the kind that goes and tells the media how bad it was. That’s certainly one kind, and then the other question is “why do they do that?” I mean, maybe they have had a bad experience, I’m sure some of them have, but equally there may be people who feel “well I’ve come out, I’ve wasted years of my life, how do I justify that?” As Jim Beckford says in one of his books, they devise story, they devise a scenario, to account for the entry and exit. So you get brainwashing stories. But equally you get people like the woman who cut my hair recently, we got on to talking, and it transpired that she had belonged to the Soka Gakkai, and I said “Well, why did you leave?” and she said “well I actually didn’t like being out late at night” which is when they had their meetings. “I thought I was being followed by somebody who was going to rob me so I didn’t go back”. So her reason for not going back was totally nothing to do with the religion but we don’t hear that story and I find that really interesting that there are these stories out there that we haven’t actually taken aboard as students of religion.

(CC): Definitely. Two more things that I’d like to ask and then I think we’re getting near wrapping up.

(GC): Okay.

(CC): One is, how does this understanding of insiders and outsiders, how does that impact upon the media, and when the media get in an expert on a religion, or a religious leader and you know, ask them questions about “what does your religion think about this?” or “What is your religion’s response to this?” What’s going on there? What issues does that bring up?

(GC): I think there would be all sorts of things that go on there. It depends on what they’re after, it depends on who the interviewer is. There is a YouTube clip of Sun Myung Moon being interviewed and all the questions that are asked by that interviewer are designed to embarrass him and show what a hypocrite he is and so on. So it depends on what stance you have. Equally, there have been interviews where the follower or a leader of a new religion has been taken very seriously and it has been a genuine attempt to find out what’s going on. So I think maybe it can have different motives at different times.

(CC): Mmm.

(GC): (20:00) I would hope they would go for the model of finding out what the believer or leader thinks rather than try to have a sensationalist story about the religion in question.

(CC): And the final one is bringing in my own research, which is into non-religion. We’ve been talking about different sorts of insiders and outsiders, but I’ve wonder specifically about the non-religious outsider trying to study a religion and if there’s any dynamic going on there? Is, I guess I’m asking, is a religion of some description necessary to understand another religion?

(GC): So the question is if you’ve got no religion what- why are you studying religion at all, or-?

(CC): how – is it possible for you to understand someone else’s religious experience if you have never had a religious experience to gauge that against?

(GC): Well, I don’t know. My mother was very religious and she brought us up to be very religious and to have this kind of interest in religion as something that was really important, so I’m not sure what it’s like myself, to be in a situation where I just don’t know what religion is about and why people join. Sometimes students have said “I’ve never been in a church in my life” and I really don’t know what that’s like to be honest. So I don’t know how they kind of, get in on religion. I imagine they may find some of it somewhat difficult to understand. So yes, I’ve been an insider to religion and that certainly gives me an advantage in some respects but maybe that makes me, kind of, too prone to see it as something important. Whereas other people have said things like “religion is poison”, I think it was Mao Zedong that said that.

(CC): Mmm.

(GC): So yeah, I don’t know what it’s like to be coming from that point of view. So yes, we all have our starting points. I guess we’ve got to recognise what that starting point is and to realise that there are other people that are outsiders to religion and they themselves, I’m sure, have got a valid perspective to offer that is an interest to all of us.

(CC): Lots of very fascinating issues there, Dr Chryssides, that we could go on about for a lot longer.

(GC): We certainly could, and thanks for talking to me.

(CC): And thanks for talking to us!


Citation Info: Chryssides, George, and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “The Insider/Outsider Problem”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27th March 2018. Transcribed by Catrin Sawford. Version 1.1. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-george-chryssides-on-the-insideroutsider-problem/

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