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The Gamrie Brethren: At the Heart of Cosmic Struggle and the Fringes of the Imagined Community

In the RSP’s interview with Joe Webster, listeners are treated to rich ethnographic data which reveal how an immediate ‘local’ context is embedded in ‘global’ processes and networks. Webster conducted his fieldwork in the fishing village of Gardenstown or ‘Gamrie’ in Aberdeenshire, in the north-east of Scotland. Its population are notable for the concentration of followers of offshoots of the movement known as the ‘Plymouth Brethren’, or simply ‘Brethren’[1].

Both the local context and the Brethren movement generally are far from my areas of expertise, my own research concerns the contemporary relationship between ‘religious’ (including ‘non-religious’) affiliations and various constructions of ‘Scottish national identity’. In this regard I hope I can at least place Webster’s research in the wider social and historical context, the ‘national level’ alongside the ‘local’ and ‘global’ ones.

If one considers the question of how the Gamrie Brethren ‘fit into’ the wider picture of religion in Scotland, they would not appear to ‘fit’ at all. According to the latest census, conducted in 2011, only 54% of respondents identified as ‘Christian’, 16% identifying as ‘Roman Catholic’[2], and of the majority of this Christian population who could be classified as ‘Protestant’, it is difficult to gauge how many would have much in common with the Brethren – I suspect relatively few. This is novel for a country with an immensely long and complicated Christian history and which was long associated with staunch Protestantism.

While Scotland does possess an official national Church (the Church of Scotland), it could be quite accurately described as for the most part highly secularised. Along with this, religious pluralism has become part of the system of norms inculcated in Scottish civil society, despite the comparatively low numbers of non-Christian religious minorities.

In many ways this image of Scotland as secular and pluralist is that which many contemporary Scots project, a reflection both of their norms and experiences. As Benedict Anderson argued, nations are imagined communities, though the community that is imagined can vary immensely over time and in the present[3].

While much of Scotland’s romantic symbolism may be derived from the Highlands and many areas have contributed to the Scottish imagination, arguably the dominant perspective is that of the ‘central belt’. That is the area of the country dominated by its two biggest cities – Edinburgh and Glasgow; the centres of politics, business, the media, and, to large extent, ‘national’ religious institutions. Notably these cities have high concentrations of ‘non-religious’ people and are more religiously plural, meaning that a city-dweller may be more likely to attend a local Diwali celebration than a Gamrie Brethren service. As Anderson argued, ‘members’ of nations could never hope to personally interact with all who claim or are claimed to be members of the nation, which can help smooth over differences and affect the imaginative process[4].

However this does not mean that the Gamrie Brethren are necessarily representative of ‘traditional’ Scottish religion either. The movement was founded in Plymouth by an Irish medical student and would have to be implanted in this local Scottish soil. I cannot help but share the intuitive reaction of the interviewer (David Robertson) in being struck by the sense in which the movement and its religious practices appear more stereotypically ‘American’ to myself as someone raised in Scotland, than stereotypical of rural Scotland. The calls to emotional testimony of personal experience certainly do not fit the dour Calvinism stereotype of Scottish religion. Alive and well, living in Aberdeenshire and speaking Doric[5] it is though–regardless of how well it fits some preconceived image.

This cautions us against treating rural religion as an unbroken ‘survival’ of a bygone age; at the very least the Brethren could not have come to Gamrie earlier than 1831 when the movement was founded, and I would expect a much later date. Regardless, the Brethren have clearly been able to fundamentally shape life in the village down to the level of everyday interaction, and it is notable that the local branch of the ‘national’ Church has been moulded into the local ‘Brethren’ image.

Nonetheless, their case is not as atypical as it might first appear.  Without intending to essentialise, such cases have a long history in Scotland. Much of northern Scotland, especially, is rugged and rural and perhaps encourages the development of pockets of concentrated difference from the norms disseminated from the centre. When Presbyterian Calvinism was ascendant in the south, much of the north was Episcopalian with pockets of Roman Catholicism. Radical Calvinistic Presbyterianism began to take root in parts of the Highlands and continued to thrive when it began to fall from favour in the south, etc.

Webster related how the Brethren’s religious practices have led many of them to utilise Christian media, much of which is based in the US. Steve Bruce has argued that religious conservatives in Scotland did not develop the kind of alternative networks set up by their US counterparts because they were simply oblivious to the changes going on underneath their feet[6]. Nonetheless, clearly, expanding global communications have allowed the Gamrie Brethren to take advantage of such networks, which, in turn, inform the local context.

This religious context may be rural and divergent from the current Scottish norm (in both senses of the word) but this does not make it a product of isolation, and, in fact, appears to be as caught up in wider developments as central belt secularism. However, these global links clearly attain specific local significance. Webster’s informants not only see the power of God and the Devil working in their daily lives but also in the political relationship between the fishing communities of the north-east and the European Union.

Over the course of the interview, the question of how the Gamrie Brethren view themselves in relation to Scottish national identity and modern Scottish society was never broached as such. One would certainly not want to presume that it is significant at all; the local setting and transnational Evangelical networks may be of much greater significance. Webster has indicated that religious decline did not appear to trouble his informants who viewed it as indicative of end times. Scottish secularism may be viewed in similar terms. They may draw comfort and significance from the history of Scottish Protestantism, its leading figures such as John Knox and the Covenanter rebels, as many Scots did and still do. The advantage of a long and untidy history is there are plenty of ‘Scotlands’ to choose from. Clearly dealing with the religious landscape of the country in the present offers up no less diversity.

Bibliography

Anderson, B. Imagined Communities (2006) London: Verso

Bowker, J. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997) Oxford: Oxford University Press

Broun, D., Finlay, R.J. and Lynch, M. (eds.) Image and Identity: The Making of Scotland through the Ages (1998) Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd

Brown, C. Religion and Society in Scotland since 1707 (1997) Edinburgh University Press

Bruce, S. No Pope of Rome: Anti-Catholicism in Modern Scotland (1985) Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing

Devine, T.M. The History of the Scottish Nation 1700-2000 (2000) London: Penguin Books Ltd.

National Records of Scotland 2011 Census: Key results on Population, Ethnicity, Identity, Language, Religion, Health, Housing and Accommodation in Scotland – Release 2A (2013) Crown Copyright 2013

[1] C.f. “Plymouth Brethren” in Bowker, J. (ed). Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997) Oxford: Oxford University Press: p756

[2] National Records of Scotland 2011 Census: Key results on Population, Ethnicity, Identity, Language, Religion, Health, Housing and Accommodation in Scotland – Release 2A (2013) Crown Copyright 2013: p5

[3] Anderson, B Imagined Communities (2006) London: Verso: p5-6

[4] ibid

[5] ‘Doric’ is the name of the highly specific form of Scots or Lallans spoken in the region.

[6] Bruce, S No Pope of Rome: Anti-Catholicism in Modern Scotland (1985) Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing: p216

 

African, Christian… Fake? Explorations in Religious Authenticity

A highlight of Afe Adogame’s interview is his emphasis upon the brimming capacity for African Christianities, whether in Western or African settings, to contribute to the broader, age old discourse on religious authenticity. Adogame asks, “which kind of Christianity is authentic?” Certainly, as he asserts, to answer this question as a scholar is to make a loaded theological statement, and I would add, to also assume a rather provocative level of religious authority. Nevertheless, the question is important for both the practitioner and the scholar.

Presently, many Westerners (and Africans) address Christianity’s place in contemporary Africa as a colonial import. A subsequent repercussion is that Western forms of Christianity are referenced as the normative standard bearers for Christian authenticity. Indeed, in some parts of Africa, people refer to mission-based mainline Protestant and Catholic churches as “orthodox” churches. From this perspective, the question of “which kind of Christianity is authentic” is less about critically examining issues in authenticity and more about asking whether indigenously-led Christianities ought to be treated as legitimate expressions of Christianity, or as exotic Africanized pseudo-Christianities.

Adogame rightly problematizes this framework in a couple of ways. He reminds listeners that Africa has fostered Christian communities since the emergence of early Christianity, and therefore, the continent has always been relevant to discussions of authenticity. Further, he reminds listeners that transculturation is not a simple, unidirectional scheme. While African communities have appropriated Western Christianities in numerous ways, so too have Western Christian communities participated in ongoing cultural appropriations. Thus, Adogame suggests that many contemporary African Christianities are not “Africanized” versions of Christianity, but “African interpretations of Europeanized Christianities.”

This latter point is an excellent one, although I do not think that Adogame has taken it quite far enough. When he speaks of “the West” in this interview, he refers only to Europe, which inadvertently discounts the significance of Africa’s relationship with North America. Might we also consider contemporary African Christianities as “African interpretations of Americanized Christianities” or, perhaps even, “African interpretations of American adaptations of Europeanized Christianities?” My intention is not to get caught up in petty linguistic criticisms, but it is important to acknowledge the drastic differences between North American forms of Christianity and those of Europe, as well as North American relationships with Africa and those between Europe and Africa. These differences significantly affect the forms and trajectories of Christianites in Africa, including the growing presence of African ministries in Western settings.

While Adogame mentions that many African Christians today perceive Europe to be a religiously “dark continent,” I have not found the same sentiments to be very consistent when applied to North America, particularly the United States. Rather, many African Christians, especially those in the booming Pentecostal-Charismatic sector, look to American evangelical leaders for ideas on missions strategies, organizational structures, styles of preaching, as well as Christian thought and theology. This is not to say that Africans in the Pentecostal-Charismatic sector uncritically mimic thriving forms of American Christianity, but the parallels cannot be ignored when viewing the growth of the African Christian self-help literature, franchise-style church institutions, televangelism, and prosperity gospels.

Nevertheless, Adogame’s commentary makes a strong case as to how studies of African Christianities can elevate current approaches to authenticity, and I stand in full agreement. Because of Africa’s place within the longue durée of Christian history, its complicated relationships with colonial powers and missions projects, as well as its recent role in “reverse missions,” African Christianities are particularly well-positioned to elucidate issues in power, religious authority, and the ways in which religious interpretations and practices are culturally informed. All of these factors can significantly contribute to any discourse on religious authenticity.

In the remainder of this short essay, I want to turn attention to one additional dimension of religious authenticity through a quick illustration from some of my own work. When Adogame rhetorically asks, “which kind of Christianity is authentic,” he implies that conversations on religious authenticity revolve around evaluating various strains of interpretation and practice. Or, put another way, that religious authenticity is a matter of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. But is it?

A recent ethnographic project of mine examines what I call a “fake pastor phenomenon” in Ghana. One of the most densely Pentecostal-Charismatic places in the world today, the nation is experiencing an eruption of quackery accusations aimed at leaders in Pentecostal-Charismatic ministries from local street evangelists to African celebrity pastors such as TB Joshua or Enoch “Daddy G.O.” Adeboye. It is truly a media sensation, with fiery accusations and juicy exposés reported nearly daily in local press and tabloid sources, comedians and rappers mocking “fake pastor” prototypes, and Ghanaian film industries frequently featuring a “fake pastor” character in their plotlines. But, it is also a focal point of community gossip. Many worry that African Christianity is being run amok by charlatans. There are numerous circumstances in which a Pentecostal-Charismatic leader may rank among the accused, but the general premise is that “fake pastors” are those who are perceived as abusing their position of religious authority for the sake of personal (usually financial) gain.

One of the things that I like so much about the “fake pastor phenomenon” is how well it wonderfully complicates questions of authenticity. It places issues of sincerity and intentionality center stage, reminding us that there are more dimensions to the authenticity discourse than questioning orthodoxy and orthopraxy. I also like the “fake pastor phenomenon” for its implications in the West. What does it mean when leaders of African churches, like Bishop Kofi Adonteng Boateng and his Virginia-based Divine Word International Ministries, are accused of “fakery?” What does it mean when influential platforms in the West such as the evangelically-inclined periodical, Christianity Today, feature a Ghanaian news dispatch that condemns religious quackery in Ghana while simultaneously attempting to bracket mainline denominations from the phenomenon?

Most of all, I like the “fake pastor phenomenon” for its implications for responsible scholarship. How are we, as scholars, to consider “fake pastor” accusations when illustrating forms of contemporary African Christianities? When building (or deconstructing) taxonomies? When theorizing trends in global Christianity?

African Christianity in the West

‘Africa’. ‘Christianity’. ‘The West’. Three seemingly simple terms with clear referents. Three categories which – perhaps unsurprisingly, to regular listeners of the RSP – have been, and continue to be, associated with and invoked in support of myriad competing agendas, truth claims, ideologies, and more.

In telling the story of the complex interrelationship between these terms, some might point to the Berlin Conference of 1884/5 as a defining moment marking the beginning of intensive Euro-American Christian mission to Africa. Others might direct attention to the fact that Christianity has been present in Africa almost since its emergence, with three of the best known figures of the early church – Anthony (c. 285-356), Athanasius (296-373) and Augustine (354-430) – living and working in the north of the continent. Still others might prefer a more contemporary approach, focusing upon the Christianities that can be discerned among communities of African origin in Diaspora. This week’s podcast focuses upon the latter.

In this interview with Chris, Dr Afe Adogame of the University of Edinburgh provides a stimulating introduction to this vast and complicated triad.

Discussion covers a wide range of questions, including:

  • What makes African Christianity ‘African’? Is it only for ‘Africans’? Who decides? Why do we take this huge continent as a single entity?
  • If African Christianity is particularly non- or anti-Western, how does this manifest itself in the West? Is it also non-African (i.e. non-indigenous?)
  • Does referring to ‘African Christianity in the West’ or even ‘African Christianity’ in general perpetuate racial divides, systems of exclusivity?
  • What is the public image of African Christianity in the West? Is there one?
  • What does the study of African Christianity – in the West or elsewhere – bring to the study of ‘religion’ in general?

This interview was originally conceived as a kind of two-parter with an interview on ‘African Indigenous Traditions in the West’ which has, as yet, not occurred. Of course, it must be stated that ‘Christianity’ and ‘Indigenous Traditions’ are not the full story of ‘religion’ in Africa, with one glaring omission being ‘Islam’ amongst others. However, due to time constraints this interview will focus almost exclusively on ‘Christianity’ and we shall attempt to rectify this in the future.

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Having Coffee with God: Evangelical Interpretations of God as a Person Among People

Characteristics attributed to God often indicate apotheosis—some quality beyond human understanding, beyond worldly constraints. Commonly used terms include supernatural, omnipotent, and incorporeal, to name a few. Four decades ago, it would have seemed absurd to hear God characterized by American evangelical Christians in terms of personhood, with words such as audible, visible, or coffee-drinker. In this interview, psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann describes how God becomes real for certain groups of evangelicals and how practicing prayer through mental imagery can develop sensory awareness of God’s presence. Discussing the fieldwork of her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, Luhrmann explains the experience of God, not as a distant transcendent deity, but as a figure who is entirely present and accessible through an intensely personal relationship.

Through years of fieldwork with members of The Vineyard Movement, a multi-branch American evangelical church, Luhrmann observed congregants in direct contact with their friend, God. Through Vineyard prayer practices, congregants develop what Luhrmann describes as a “new theory of mind” in which even mundane thoughts are interpreted as evidence of God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, xxi). In her RSP interview, she recalls a congregant suggesting that, to understand the experience of the divine in real time, she should treat God as a real person and literally have a cup of coffee with him. For American Christians raised on a more formal association with God, positioning him in such a casual role might seem like a return to the playground days of imaginary friends. However, congregants insist that the sense of God’s presence is not only external but also interactive.

Luhrmann posits this conceptualization of a highly participatory God as a natural development within the context of emerging pluralism in America. As she explains in her interview, it all began with “hippie Christians” of the 1960s (e.g. the “Jesus Freaks”) who wove charismatic traditions of Pentecostal Christianity into their philosophy and practices. Instead of dropping acid to contact a transcendent reality, they brought transcendence down to them, making God a “person among people.” Luhrmann suggests that this form of association with God has staying power, providing a way to keep God not only close in heart, but actually present in life.

Though a popular notion in contemporary charismatic evangelical thought, a personal relationship with God does not always come easily; it often requires a learning process of becoming comfortable with God’s presence. Vineyard churches encourage practicing pretend casual conversations with God. In a sense, congregants become comfortable with God by playing house with him, literally pouring him a cup of coffee and chatting. To reinforce God’s presence, prayer groups occasionally designate someone to stand in for him as a human surrogate. Additionally, members are encouraged to imagine God as a loving therapist who is genuinely interested in their lives and concerns.

So, is this imaginary-yet-real God accessible to anyone? Luhrmann observed that about one-quarter of her interviewees do not experience intense sensations of God’s presence, while others experience God so intensely and frequently that Vineyard members refer to them as “prayer warriors” (Luhrmann 2012, 155). To investigate these apparent differences, Luhrmann used the Tellegen Absorption Scale to evaluate subjects on proclivity for absorption, or tendency for becoming absorbed in their imaginations. Results reflected trends of higher scores relative to higher reports of what Luhrmann describes in the interview as “cool, weird spiritual experiences.” She concludes that sharpened mental representations of God described by congregants correlate with (1) belief in God’s direct presence through sensory experiences, (2) absorption tendencies, and (3) practice of imagining God’s presence.

Seemingly central to Lurhmann’s interest is how some congregants report “mental changes” following prayer practices, as if, through prayer training, their minds learn to sense God (Luhrmann 2012, 190). In her book When God Talks Back, she describes Vineyard groups that convene to improve prayer practices through kataphatic exercises, where congregants imagine themselves observing or participating in a biblical scene while paying close attention to sensory details of the experience. She studied the effects of these absorbing imaginative practices among congregants, finding this type of prayer to be more effective in enhancing vividness of mental imagery than listening to scriptural lectures or apophatic prayer (i.e. centering the mind on a spiritually meaningful word). Like training for a triathlon, regularly practicing absorption in this way strengthens sensory awareness, enabling congregants to “give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events,” thus becoming more receptive to (and conscious of) God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, 221-2).

From an etic perspective, it is difficult to accept claims of regularly and casually encountered religious experiences, especially when the caliber is so amplified as to relate a persistent (very real) presence of God. Yet, ironically, skeptics are not alone in facing the problem of interpreting the intangible; this challenge indeed characterizes the Vineyard experience at its core. As the process of sensing God requires an initially effortful imagination, congregants face the issue of discernment in determining the validity of their experiences. Luhrmann notes in the interview that congregants are often skeptical themselves; some even gossip about others who claim questionable divine requests. Interpreting divine inspiration requires the help of the community, with increasing urgency in cases of greater demands. To determine whether God’s instructions are real or imaginary, congregants employ a loose pattern of heuristics: (1) real God experiences are typically spontaneous and surprising; (2) the experience should realistically coincide with God’s expected behavior; (3) the credibility of an experience is valence-dependent; as Luhrmann suggests in the interview, Vineyard’s “teddy bear of a God” should inspire warm and fuzzy feelings.

Luhrmann makes a significant move by highlighting the interpretive challenge facing Vineyard congregants. She shows believers confronting the issue of maintaining faith in something that cannot be proven by scientific means. They are not shying away from epistemological evidence—they are actively engaged in altering their minds to welcome it in the form of God’s sensed presence. By illuminating the believer’s narrative, Luhrmann clarifies the spiritual experience that frequently halts discourse due to its internalized nature. She must be commended for this contribution to the enormous project of bridging the gap between believers and non-believers. For the sake of religious studies discourse, Luhrmann faces the tyrannical problem of communication head-on, enabling the possibility of respect through understanding.

References

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

Prayer, Pretense, and Personification: How God becomes real

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

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

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

group_prayer

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

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

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

Citations

Resisting Conformity at the Margins of Marginal Christianity

In what her interviewer has reckoned to be the first Religious Studies Project podcast to focus solely on the study of an expression of contemporary Christianity, Gladys Ganiel introduces listeners to a modern religious orientation that deserves sustained scholarly attention. The Emerging Church Movement (the ECM) might be numerically small but it is, she suggests, far from insignificant.

Despite a growing number of ethnographies of individual emerging church congregations, as well as critical overviews of the emerging church conversation as an identifiable form of religious discourse, many scholars of religion have either never heard of the ECM or claim, as Josh Packard suggests, that emerging Christianity must ‘join the mainstream or die out’.[1] It is assumed that it is merely a ‘transitional reaction’ against modern evangelicalism that will merge with the liberal mainstream, especially if, as Robert Warner declares, ‘post-evangelicals define themselves negatively and seem unlikely to develop a sustainable and distinct theological agenda’.[2]

But against such assessments, as I have argued elsewhere, emerging Christianity is structured around identifiable sets of values, beliefs and practices that lend it cohesion and relative stability whilst also enabling divergence.[3] Ganiel’s book, The Deconstructed Church (co-authored with Gerardo Martí), is an important academic analysis that also takes the ECM seriously as a phenomenon that is organised around a clear (albeit contested and continually ‘deconstructed’) set of activities.

Graffiti outside The Menagerie, Belfast, where Ikon first began meeting. Photo credit: Mark Berry, safespace community, Telford.

Graffiti outside The Menagerie, Belfast, where Ikon first began meeting. Photo credit: Mark Berry, safespace community, Telford.

Acknowledging the difficulties surrounding the identification and definition of a subject of study that is not only deliberately diverse but also intentionally resistant to definition, Ganiel and Martí nonetheless discern within emerging Christianity a distinct religious orientation built around the practice of deconstruction. The Deconstructed Church illustrates in particular how these practices encourage the creation of pluralist congregations and of what Ulrich Beck calls ‘cooperative egoism’,[4] facilitating a strategic form of religiosity through which participants undertake ‘meaning work’ that maintains tensions between individualism and collective identity. Such practices are driven by what Ganiel and Martí call ‘the religious institutional entrepreneurs’ who seek to resist the institutionalization of this orientation under pressures to conform to inherited forms of Christianity – primarily what participants see as the ‘Seeker Megachurch’ and the ‘Solemn Mainline’ models. As James S. Bielo has observed, the emerging church is therefore a particularly rich research site for the empirical study of interacting Christianities, since its religious and cultural critique is dependent upon prevailing traditions as interlocutors.[5] The question of this deconstructive orientation’s ultimate sustainability is, as Ganiel acknowledges, open to debate. But it is also ripe for scholarly study, and for critical consideration from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

My own research has focused on understanding how the identifiable social or cultural imaginaries that structure what I call the emerging church discursive milieu interact with continental philosophy and radical theologies.[6] As Charles Taylor has noted, when theory ‘penetrates and transforms’ an imaginary, new practices are either taken up or improvised.[7] It is the innovative communicative practices and expressive acts of an emerging church imaginary, which is transformed when emerging Christians engage with the philosophical traditions of deconstruction and materialism, that most interest me – and I see emerging church figures like Peter Rollins (a founder of Ikon, Belfast) and Kester Brewin (a founder of Vaux, London) as catalysts for such an engagement.

In The Deconstructed Church, however, Ganiel and Martí focus on deconstruction as a sociological process that enables the ECM to ‘establish competitive arenas in response to pressures for conformity’ whilst nonetheless continuing to conceive of God in the ‘relatively concrete terms’ of conventional Christian theism.[8] This means that Ganiel and Martí are better able to more adequately represent the mainstream of the ECM than I am, for entrepreneurs like Rollins and Brewin push the emerging church conversation in more radical directions as they engage the work of thinkers like John D. Caputo and Slavoj Žižek. Popular figures in North American emerging Christianity would not understand crucifixion and resurrection in the ways that Rollins does and would not state their disbelief in a personal God or divine salvation as Brewin has.

‘What makes emerging Christianity “Christian”?’, Ganiel is asked in this interview. In her response, she sympathises with those within the ECM who treat this question as one that deflects from more primary issues of concern. She refers to an instance – recounted more fully here – that also recalls the response Rollins gives to the question of the historical resurrection of Jesus. He says, ‘Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ’, by which he means that he does so every time he fails to ‘serve at the feet of the oppressed’ and yet also affirms that resurrection in those ‘few and far between’ moments when he stands up ‘for those who are forced to live on their knees’.[9]

Such an apparently evasive answer frustrates not only researchers seeking clarity about the beliefs held by emerging church entrepreneurs like Rollins, as Ganiel notes, but also those who wish them to conform either to traditional theistic belief or to modern atheistic belief.

Rollins’ critique of religious idolatry and ideology is intended as more than a corrective to conventional Christianity that would enable Christians to discover the God beyond the idol ‘God’ and a richer faith beyond instrumental religion without challenging more fundamentally their continued reliance on what he might call – following Žižek – ‘a subject supposed to believe’ on their behalf; namely, priests, Christ, God, the community of believers, the church structures themselves (the buildings, the liturgies, the statements of faith), etc., that sustain the fantasy of the presence and coherence of meaning, purpose, value and truth. On the other hand, however, the experience of the death of such a subject does not result in conventional atheism, since it is not only God that dies (i.e., that does not exist) but a transcendent source of or an absolute justification for any universal principle or set of principles, including those provided by reason as well as by revelation.

Rollins and Brewin are on the margins of a numerically marginal expression of Christianity. However, just as the significance of the ECM lies not in its relative size but in its manifestation of a religious orientation that seeks to resist conformity with inherited models of Christianity, the significance of these two marginal figures lies in the ways in which they seek to resist conformity with both modern western theism and modern western atheism. Rollins and Brewin are, therefore, two of the ‘expert theorizers’[10] within the ECM whose engagement with continental philosophy and radical theology is contributing to the construction of what I call an emerging a/theistic cultural imaginary.[11]

Both Rollins and Brewin propose that there is revolutionary political potential in the kinds of spaces that they advocate, and I am interested in exploring how to measure that claim, even if, as Ganiel notes, there are methodological difficulties in determining the impact of emerging Christianity on society more broadly. I would especially like to examine further the discursive motif of suspension in their work and to investigate empirically the communal practices that enable such a suspension of belief and identity. These religious (or, rather, ir/religious) spaces are imagined to be individually and collectively transformative, temporarily subtracting participants from their social roles and relations and allowing them to envision new forms of interaction and association: ‘we not only affirm one another in excess of our culturally given identities but expose these identities as contingent’, Rollins writes, concluding that thereby ‘we can more productively engage in exploring how to transform society’.[12] But the efficacy of these practices of suspension has yet to be documented. What kinds of sociality are exhibited in and encouraged by participation in ‘suspended space’? And what is the relationship between such spaces and participants’ wider social, political and economic lives?

 

Bibliography

Beck, Ulrich, 2010, A God of One’s Own: Religion’s Capacity for Peace and Potential for Violence, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Beck, Ulrich, and Johannes Willms, 2004, Conversations with Ulrich Beck, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bielo, James S., 2009, ‘The “Emerging Church” in America: Notes on the Interaction of Christianities’, Religion 39/3, pp. 219-32.

Ganiel, Gladys, and Gerardo Martí, 2014, ‘Northern Ireland, America and the Emerging Church Movement: Exploring the Significance of Peter Rollins and the Ikon Collective’, Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions, 1/1, pp. 26-47.

Martí, Gerardo, and Gladys Ganiel, 2014, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moody, Katharine Sarah. 2010, ‘“I Hate Your Church; What I Want is My Kingdom”: Emerging Spiritualities in the UK Emerging Church Milieu’, The Expository Times 121/10, pp. 495-503.

  • forthcoming, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity: Deconstruction, Materialism and Religious Practices, Ashgate.

Packard, Josh, 2012, The Emerging Church: Religion at the Margins, Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers / First Forum Press.

Rollins, Peter, 2009, ‘My Confession: I Deny The Resurrection’, (January 01) http://peterrollins.net/2009/01/my-confession-i-deny-the-resurrection/

Taylor, Charles. 2004, Modern Social Imaginaries, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

  • 2007, A Secular Age, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Warner, Robert, 2007, Reinventing English Evangelicalism, 1996-2001: A Theological and Sociological Study, Milton Keynes: Paternoster.

 

Notes

[1] Packard, The Emerging Church, p. 31. Growing academic interest in emerging Christianity is starting to be reflected in the programmes of some of the major conferences in the field of religious studies. For example, in August this year there was a panel on the ECM and the transformation of ‘conventional’ Christianity at the Association for the Sociology of Religion annual conference. And there will be sessions on emerging Christianity at the 2014 American Academy of Religion and Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conferences as well.

[2] Warner, Reinventing English Evangelicalism, p. 230, fn. 62.

[3] See Moody, ‘“I Hate Your Church; What I Want is My Kingdom”’.

[4] See Beck, A God of One’s Own and Beck and Willms, Conversations with Ulrich Beck.

[5] See Bielo, ‘The “Emerging Church” in America’.

[6] See Moody, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity.

[7] Taylor, A Secular Age, pp. 172 and 175. See also Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries.

[8] Martí and Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church, p. 26 (italics removed); and Ganiel and Martí, ‘Northern Ireland, America and the Emerging Church Movement’, p. 45.

[9] Rollins, ‘My Confession’.

[10] Martí and Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church, p. 81.

[11] See Moody, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity.

[12] Rollins, ‘The Worldly Theology of Emerging Christianity’, p. 84.

The Emerging Church

What do you get when you mix a dash of pub culture, a splash of irreverence, a healthy dose of conversation, a smattering of postmodernist critique, a drizzle of discourse on problematic concepts such as ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’, and a host of other eclectic and idiosyncratic ingredients to taste? Depending upon the measures, one possible outcome could be an ideal-typical podcast from your friends at The Religious Studies Project. Prepare in a slightly different manner and your culinary exploits could produce a manifestation of the Emerging Church. However, in the case of the latter, similar results might be obtained from a completely different set of ingredients.

The Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is notoriously difficult to define. What are scholars of ‘religion’ to do with a trend seemingly emerging both within and without many contemporary manifestations of (Western) Christianity, that is both anti-institutional and ecumenical, aims to avoid hierarchies and power structures, embraces creativity, deconstruction and experimentation, and actively promotes a ‘neutral’ and ‘non-judgmental religious space’ where almost anything goes? In this week’s podcast, Chris is joined by Dr Gladys Ganiel to discuss this ‘problematic’, important and boundary-pushing phenomenon.

In The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford, 2014), Ganiel and co-author Gerardo Marti write:

“We define Emerging Christians in terms of sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction. We characterize the ECM as an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization. As such, the ECM is best seen as a mix of both reactive and proactive elements, vying for the passion and attention of Christians and nonbelievers. Emerging Christians react primarily against conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism but also against other forms of traditional Christianity that they have experienced as inauthentic. At the same time, they proactively appropriate practices from a range of Christian traditions […] to nourish their individual spirituality and to enhance their life together as communities.” (25-26)

What is it that makes this movement ‘Christian’? What does it do to traditional understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘secularization’? How does one research such a seemingly diffuse and unbounded phenomenon? Is it only a matter of time before this movement undergoes a process of systematization? These questions and more form the basis of a discussion which took place in May 2014, at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin in Belfast, a couple of days after the 3rd Annual Conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion.

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

 

“Unruly Angels”: An Interview with Ingvild Gilhus

What is an angel, and why have they exerted such a fascination on the public imagination since antiquity up to the present day? In this interview with David Robertson (our 100th “official” podcast!), Ingvild Gilhus, a historian of religion with considerable experience in dealing with popular religion in both the ancient and modern worlds, discusses where the concept of angels comes from and how they have been variously constructed, from the white-suited messengers of the New Testament to the embodiment of the “higher self” in New Age accounts.

In particular, she explains that angels seem always to break boundaries. Neither human nor god, male nor female, whether Christian or otherwise, angels seem always to have functioned as representatives of an unruly popular religious impulse which seems to sit just below the elite constructions with which the study of religion has traditionally concerned itself.

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

Oh, and stay tuned at the end for two special guest appearances!

Demons, Exoticism, and the Academy

Something that strikes me about contemporary spiritual warfare is how it’s not so radically different thematically in its interests and its languages than a lot of contemporary American religion. So the argument that ‘this is something out in left field’ really isn’t true, I don’t think. -Sean McCloud

 Dave McConeghy’s interview with Sean McCloud offers so many potential avenues of discussion that it is difficult to pick only one; spiritual warfare is, after all, one of the most-discussed theological issues in contemporary Evangelicalism/Charismaticism today, yet one of the least-discussed points in the Academy: a point which leads McCloud to quip that “most scholars of American religion are completely blind to [spiritual warfare],” and that the study of it still engenders reactions of “Ugh. Why would we study those silly people?”

Often, discussions of American religion seem to start with Cotton Mather and end with Billy Graham, and, in my experience, spiritual warfare is indeed often seen as something that is “out in left field,” a “fringe” practice, or “weird” religion. (For those unfamiliar with the term, “spiritual warfare” refers both to the battle waged between God and demons, as well as the battle waged between Christians and demons.) Many (if not most) of the major texts in the academic canon of American religious history—even those books focused exclusively on church history—omit the practice altogether.  So McCloud is right: while a supernaturalistic demonology may seem exotic to those who have not often encountered it, there is a large swath of Christians who consider spiritual warfare to be both frequent and mainstream.

 Pervasiveness in Evangelical Circles

If there is any useful statistical data on the demonological practices of present-day Evangelicals, I am unaware of it.[1] However, if we look to some of the largest and most influential churches, pastors, or texts in the American landscape, spiritual warfare seems to have a kind of omnipresence. Take Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, for instance, which has eleven branches in the Seattle area alone, in addition to being the “flagship” of the Acts 29 Network, an umbrella group for more than 500 likeminded ministries.[2]  Driscoll asserts that “demons are real and they attack God’s people,” and has developed a rigorously organized theology that seems to have gained a lot of traction, particularly among those who believe in demons yet shun what they see as a kind of looser, laissez-faire mentality amongst their more Charismatic counterparts. It’s worth noting that Driscoll’s demonology has even made its way outside of Christian circles, in the form of a Nightline debate with Deepak Chopra and “heretic” Carlton Pearson.

Similarly, Bethel Church is among the most influential Charismatic groups today, if not the most influential. Spiritual warfare is far from a “fringe” practice for them, nor for Charismatics in general. The many books that Bethel pastors have published are full of the “prayer walks” and “generational inheritances” that McCloud mentioned.  Beni Johnson, for instance, details how she led a prayer walk and ritual cleansing of “Panther’s Meadow,” a space on Mt. Shasta that she claims is used for “ungodly practices,” by which she means New Age and occult spirituality.[3] According to her story, the Pagans practicing there go feral as a result of her prayers, hissing and fleeing the scene. And then there’s Kris Vallotton’s Spirit Wars, in which demonic, generational inheritances are a central feature of the text. At one point, Vallotton claims that when his mother was a young woman, a fortune teller had read tarot cards for her. This reading had caused a curse, which released demons to kill his father, haunt his mother, and which were now haunting he himself in the present day.[4] While these specific cases are on the more extreme end, the point here is that for Bethel and likeminded Charismatics (of which there are many), demons are a very real threat that must be dealt with.

There are, of course, countless other figures we could examine to demonstrate salience: John Hagee, T. D. Jakes, Rick Joyner, Joyce Meyer, to name only a few of the prevailing voices today. And McCloud and McConaghey are right to identify that this isn’t something brand new, but something that has been developing for quite some time. Tanya Luhrmann’s recent book on Evangelical experientiality which depicts an increase in spiritual warfare amidst the spiritual innovation of the 1970s and Cuneo’s argument that The Exorcist birthed the rise of deliverance movements in the years following the film are both legitimately observing real social trends, yet what we think of spiritual warfare today has been a part of the American landscape for much longer than this; whatever spike in spiritual warfare occurred in this period, it was working with material that was already present in the mix.[5]

This, of course, only addresses the contemporary forms, for if one looks deeper into church history, its absence is the exception rather than the rule. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony, for instance, is almost entirely about spiritual warfare, from the ritual cleansing of Pagan temples to demonic manifestations of corporeal abuse.[6] Nancy Caciola has given a wonderfully insightful account of demon possessions (and treatments) that antedate the medieval witch scares.[7] Heiko Obermann’s biography of Martin Luther depicts him as constantly at war with the devil, not just in mind, but physically as well: Satan troubled his bowels and thumped his stove.[8] John Wesley, Thomas More, St. John of the Cross, even the Gnostics had their demons in one form or another. Spiritual warfare doesn’t look the same in every case (and often quite different from how contemporary Evangelicals practice it), but the point here is that demons and spiritual warfare aren’t something that snake handlers invented just yesterday, it is a major thread woven through the entire history of Christianity, and one that continues to be woven through it today.

 Comparable Trends

McCloud’s most important point is that spiritual warfare isn’t some outlying fringe practice, but one that completely dovetails a wider world of supernaturalism in contemporary America. Part of the problem of the Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model of American religious history is that it tends to emphasize the Scottish Common Sense Realist, rationalist, denominational, naturalist, cessationist leitmotif of Calvinist Protestantism. As he pointed out, there is something to be said for contemporary media presenting demonology as something strange and outdated, and of course, these media are part of the issue here: as he argued elsewhere, the mainstream/fringe dichotomy has largely been constructed by those authoring the media, who themselves privileged a white, middle class Protestantism.[9]

In recent years, this Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model has gradually been getting more complicated, as some scholars have started drawing attention to the supernaturalist counternarrative that has always existed alongside rationalism, but in terms of popular perception—including that among many academics—there still seems to be a sense that American religion shuns these hierophantic irruptions. Though we have largely abandoned the idea that “religion” means five world faiths that can be broken into neat little denominations, we often tend to still organize our research (and faculty posts) along such lines. Embedded in that inherited arrangement is decades of scholarship that has omitted the supernatural for ideological reasons: first, in seeing all religions through the lens of Victorian Protestantism, the supernatural has traditionally been deemphasized in favor of texts, beliefs, and rituals, and then second, why dwell on demons, ghosts, or channeled spirits when the juggernaut of secularization is going to eradicate them anyway? The religion of the future was to be logical, heady, and amenable to scientific narratives—the collected repertoires of our fields were forged in this mindset, and though secularization may have fallen by the wayside, it seems like topical reorientation has been slower to acclimate.

Closing

Spiritual warfare is ubiquitous, both in the contemporary American Evangelical milieu, but also in the broad and far-reaching history of religion. It is worth examination, for numerous reasons—phenomenologically, it’s a central part of the experience for many, both as individuals and as groups. Ideologically, it can enshrine social opposition as demonic. Ritually, it can be a means of demarcating space. Sociologically, it can establish the boundaries of group membership.[10] Psychologically, it can be a means of interpreting and moving past one’s own moral failings. Theologically, it is central to theodicies. No matter how you cut it, spiritual warfare is important and needs to be addressed as such.

 Bibliography

Bramadat, Paul. The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Brown, Candy Gunther. Testing Prayer: Science and Healing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Cuneo, Michael W. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

McCloud, Sean. Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Obermann, Heiko. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

 

 


[1] There is a Pew survey from 2008 which registered 68% of Americans as believing “that angels and demons are active in the world today,” but this says nothing about whether they actually believe those demons ought to be confronted, let alone how they should be confronted. I am unaware of any surveys that pry deeper than this one. http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf

[2] Such “networks” are arguably replacing the model of Protestant denominationalism, allowing for individual churches to maintain ideological autonomy while still remaining linked to other churches with similar viewpoints. See Candy Gunther Brown’s Testing Prayer for a more thorough explanation. Candy Gunther Brown, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 21-63.

[3] Beni Johnson, The Happy Intercessor, (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc, 2009), 95.

[4] Kris Vallotton, Spirit Wars: Winning the Invisible Battle Against Sin and the Enemy, (Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 2012), 160-161.

[5] Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 26, 30-32; Michael W. Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, (New York: Doubleday, 2002).

[6] Athansius, The Life of St. Anthony and Letter to Marcillinus, ed. Robert C. Gregg, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.)

[7] Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[8] Heiko Obermann, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 104-109.

[9] Sean McCloud, Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 4-11.

[10] It’s noteworthy that in Paul Bramadat’s ethnography of a Canadian Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter, this was one of the more explicit ways he interpreted their spiritual warfare as functioning. “The sense of living among, if not being besieged by, often demonically cozened infidels contributes to what Martin Marty has described as a form of “tribalism” which unites the group…in short, because spiritual warfare discourse is based on a sharp dualism between the saved and the unsaved, it helps believers to retrench their sense of superiority (since that is what it amounts to) and to accentuate the fundamental otherness of non-Christians.” Paul Bramadat, The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000), 115.

Demons, possessions, and exorcisms: Sean McCloud on “Spiritual Warfare”

How should one approach the study of demons and spiritual warfare? In this conversation with University of North Carolina, Charlotte professor Sean McCloud, demons, possessions, and exorcisms that might have once been considered fringe or marginal elements of the American religious scene are now part of a robust “haunted” or supernatural landscape.

Today the spiritual warfare movement that began in mission fields in South America and Africa is now institutionalized in the charismatic New Apostolic Reformation churches as well as popularized in film and cinema. Where should we place haunted objects in the world of religious studies? What do we do with figures like Peter Wagner who led the supernatural movement and then found himself attacked by his allies?

What we find is a transnational interest with demons that has yet to be fully charted or explained. McCloud argues that rising supernatural interest coincides with consumerism and neoliberal capitalism. In the spiritual warfare manuals that serve as his primary data, capitalist and even therapeutic language seems to mark this as a product that borrows from a wide range of 20th century themes. Even perceived enemies of evangelicalism—like the soft metaphysical stylings of The Secret—become fodder for incorporation into the spiritual warfare paradigm. Welcome to the supernatural turn!

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

NSRN Annual Lecture 2012 – Matthew Engelke: In spite of Christianity

We’re delighted to bring you a bonus podcast during our summer break – we’ll be back to our normal weekly schedule by mid-September. This is a recording of the are available here.

Details of Matthew Engelke’s lecture are given below. We would like to take this opportunity to remind you that you can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive it weekly, on Psychology of Religion Panel Session at the International Association for the Psychology of Religion World Congress.

In spite of Christianity: Humanism and its others in contemporary Britain – Dr Matthew Engelke

matthew-engelkeWhat do we talk about when we talk about religion? What do we recognize as essential and specific to any given faith, and why? In this lecture, I address these questions by drawing on fieldwork among humanists in Britain, paying particular attention to humanism’s relation to Christianity. In one way or another, humanists often position themselves in relation to Christianity. In a basic way, this has to do with humanists’ commitment to secularism—the differentiation of church and state. In more complex ways, though, it also has to do with an effort to move “beyond” Christianity—to encourage a world in which reason takes the place of revelation—while often, at the same time, recognizing what’s worth saving and even fostering from the legacies of faith. All these various relations and perspectives suggest how we should understand social life in contemporary Britain as what it is in spite of Christianity—and not.

Dr. Engelke has recently completed a year of ethnographic fieldwork in the offices of the British Humanist Association [BHA] and is soon to publish his findings. As part of this research project Dr Engelke worked with BHA accredited celebrants and also trained as a funeral celebrant. This work leads the way for a happily increasing number of similar research projects and this will be further encouraged by the recent launch the Programme for the Study of Religion and Nonreligion at LSE, which is coordinated by Dr. Engelke .

The full text of this lecture is available to download here.

The Secular Reality

If, as [Douglas Pratt] is contending, we don’t want the “metaphysical dimension” and “stories” of religion at the personal as well as societal level, this is not persistence; this is a new phenomenon altering centuries of evolving theological trajectory.

The Secular Reality: A Response to Pratt’s “Durkheimian Dread”

By Thomas J. Coleman III, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 6 February 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Douglass Pratt on the Persistence and Problem of Religion (4 February 2013).

Douglas Pratt presents us with a most noble and worthwhile endeavor in his Religious Studies Project podcast entitled, The Persistence and Problem of Religion. It is clear that he is interested in easing tensions that exist between various religions throughout the world. However, a call for clarification is needed with regards to “persistence” and there are several contentious points that should be addressed. As a scholar specializing in religious concerns relating to Christian-Muslim relations, Pratt seems to be arguing against Secularization from an activist’s position.  Within the same podcast, Pratt labels the more conservative fundamentalist viewpoint as “nonsensical” and calls the secular stance “crazy”. This leads the listener to perceive a paradox. In one sense, Pratt appears to be a post-modernist advocating for religious freedom and expression of individual belief yet he wants to limit some forms religious expression, for example fundamentalism. Moreover he does not seem to understand the theoretical complexities and benefits of the secularization paradigm as proposed within sociology of religion. Within this paradigm religion certainly is slowly dissolving from within public sphere yet at the same time multi-cultural and religious values are equal. Secular space ensures that no one religion has dominance over another. Hence the paradox of Pratt’s view, why argue against an obvious benefit of secularization while also limiting certain types of religious forms which, in his argument, is what secularization does. As Pratt attempts to cut through the secularization hypothesis, he, perhaps unknowingly, lends it overwhelming support with his own inconsistent viewpoint. This paper will provide a point-by-point analysis of Pratt’s view as noted within the podcast.

The Problem of Persistence

First, Pratt fails to adequately define what is meant by persistence. Persistence is a highly ambiguous term as used in the podcast. In what form, and where do we really have a “persistence of religion”? Is persistence directly related to the institution of religion? Is persistence the theological continuation within a religion? Is persistence an issue of church attendance or religious self-identity? His initial remarks state, “There has been a resurgence of religious phenomena…and religion in the news”. The end of the interview sheds no more light as to what sort of persistence religion has seen, we are only left with the indubitable point that religion exists as a declarative fact. The decline of religion in Europe and many other developed countries has even been termed “apparently unstoppable” by other theologians (Oviedo, 2012). It is unclear how Pratt would address an apparent decline in many westernized nations. Either way, the term persistence evades us as Pratt acknowledges that many people “don’t want the narratives”. If, as he is contending, we don’t want the “metaphysical dimension” and “stories” of religion at the personal as well as societal level, this is not persistence; this is a new phenomenon altering centuries of evolving theological trajectory.

What about Secularization?

Pratt implies that the sixties and seventies forced the secularization thesis out the door of the social sciences. His talking points, and comments throughout lend nothing short of support toward this “out-going theory”. Sociologist Mark Chaves whose research on secularization spans just over two decades (1989, 1993,1994, 2011), declared in his 2011 ARDA Guiding Paper that, “no indicator of traditional religious belief or practice is increasing”.

 “Secularization is most productively understood not as declining religion, but as the declining scope of religious authority” –Chaves 1994

Chaves view is supported by other established researchers and historians such as Steve Bruce (2011) who argue that while various differences exist within the secularization paradigm (e.g. cyclical, linear, situational/geographical, etc.) a social shift is occurring but it is not addressed in any type of detail within the podcast by Pratt. The first half of the interview, Pratt repeatedly supports two main tenets of the secularization thesis, the first being that Government and public life has become/is becoming more secular. He even states that religious expressions of narrative are being “eliminated” and “pushed out of the public realm altogether”. He goes on to give us multiple examples of such from around the world. The second blessing of support Pratt gives secularization is reflected in comments such as, “the expressions of religion that relate to the narrative, are being, as it were eliminated, or pushed to one side”. If he is correct, and people are casting the underlying narratives and myths that religion has been built upon aside or directing their efforts in another form, religion in its traditional sense may indeed be falling victim to secularization. Secularization may remove religion from the public sphere of influence such as governmental recognition or funding but it certainly does not appear that there is an active effort to control or remove religions from their own sacred spaces. In other words, communism attempted to control religion through a variety of methods. It just does not appear this is happening in Western Europe or North America.

Points of Contention

“In terms of modern western history…yes society needs the values of religion, but we don’t want the stories.”  – Pratt

Pratt seems to hold what I will coin as “Durkheimian dread” for the persistence of secularization; whereby society has no replacement for, and is lost without, traditional religion. It is clear that many in today’s world may feel similar. However, research has shown that this presumed societal need for religious glue seems to be nothing more than an unsupported position (Zuckerman, 2006; Paul, 2009). Paul’s findings indicate a strong correlation between the “most successful societies” and the most secular societies. It follows from this, that the role of religion as playing an important role in the structural functionalism of today’s world is certainly in question.

“Secularist, anti-religious…”  -Pratt

The terms “secularist” and “anti-religious” are conflagulated both explicitly and implicitly throughout the podcast. Many people who identify as religious consider themselves secularists and even donate time and money towards ensuring governments and public spaces remain secular. Ascribing to a faith tradition and supporting the secularity of public spaces are in no way mutually exclusive, and should never be confused (Robbins, 2012; Voas & Day, 2010). This is the problem with gross overgeneralizations about people; they typically ignore the complexity of the human landscape – secular or religious.

Towards the end of the interview Pratt seems to advocate controlling the comprehension and transformative direction that religious narratives can and do take. He puts forth the idea that if we do not prevent more fundamentalist understandings of faith (which he describes as “narrow”) from growing, then the scope of religious studies will henceforth be more narrow, we will not have as much to study. It is hard not to picture Pratt’s argument as wild and theoretically porous, stigmatizing and complicating the religious and irreligious minorities as he attempts to kill the ills of religious conflicts in our world. Unfortunately in this most noble endeavor, he ends up demonizing what many would see as the most promising remedy for increasing religious tension in the world, a secular government. In the words of His Holiness the Dali Lama,

“Secularism does not mean rejection of all religions. It means respect for all religions and human beings including non-believers,” (Gyatso, Tenzin HH. Dalai Lama, 2006)

 

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

Thomas J. Coleman III is an undergraduate student in psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is one of the few undergraduates at the university to conduct research alongside graduate and post graduate students. He holds the Assistant Project Manager Position on the Bielefeld International Spirituality Research Study and is the Project Manager for the UT Chattanooga study of non-belief in America exploring the complexities of self-identity adjectives in how atheist and agnostic participants self-describe. Currently Mr. Coleman is overseeing and developing a research project on the domain intersections within Horizontal/Vertical Transcendence and interrelated correlates. His email address is Thomas-J-Coleman@mocs.utc.edu

References

  • Bruce, S. (2011). Secularization: In defence of an unfashionable theory. USA: Oxford University Press.
  • Chaves, M. (1989). “Secularization and religious revival: Evidence from U.S. church attendance rates.” 1972-1986 Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28(4): pp. 464-477
  • Chaves, M. (1993). “Intraorganizational Power and Internal Secularization within Protestant Denominations.” American Journal of Sociology 99(1):1-48.
  • Chaves, M. (1994). “Secularization as declining religious authority.” Social Forces, 72(3), 749-774.
  • Gyatso, Tenzin HH. His holiness the Dalai Lama said secularism is the basis of all religions. (2006, November 26). Retrieved from http://tibet.net/2006/11/13/his-holiness-the-dalai-lama-said-secularism-is-the-basis-of-all-religions/
  • Oviedo, L. (2012). “Struggling with secularization.” Reviews in Religion and Theology,19(2), 188-199.
  • Paul, G. (2009). “The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional psychosociological conditions.” Evolutionary Psychology, 7(3), 399-441.
  • Robbins, M. (2012, February 17). “Christians should unite with atheists to defend secularism.” The Guardian, Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2012/feb/17/1
  • Voas, David and Abby Day. (2010). Recognizing secular Christians: Toward an unexcluded middle in the study of religion (ARDA Guiding Paper Series). State College, PA: The Association of Religion Data Archives at The Pennsylvania State University, from http://www.thearda.com/rrh/papers/guidingpapers.asp.
  • Zuckerman, P. (2006). “Atheism: Contemporary rates and patterns.” In M. Martin (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (pp. 47-68). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mormonism, Growth and Decline

Mormonism – or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) – exploded onto the scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States of America, and has courted controversy ever since. From the recent upsurge in worldwide visibility of Mormonism due to the widespread attention given to the religious identity of Mitt Romney (the Republican Candidate in the 2012 US Presidential elections), to the huge success of the Southpark creators’ hit musical The Book of Mormon, there is no shortage of ill-informed opinion surrounding this group. Unsurprisingly, the academic study of religion has its own questions about Mormonism: can it be described as a New Religious Movement? Is there a unified phenomenon which can be classified as Mormonism? Is Mormonism to be considered as a form of Christianity? This week, Chris is joined by Ryan Cragun – Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida – to discuss not only these conceptual issues, but issues relating specifically to quantitative research, Mormon demographics, and the worldwide growth and decline of the LDS Church.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter.

What numbers should a quantitative scholar use when ‘counting’ Mormonism? Who does the categorization? Is Mormonism outside of the US different? In what ways? And what about Mormonism in the ‘heartland’ of Utah? These are just some of the questions which come up in the interview, and Professor Cragun provides a great introduction not only to Mormonism and quantitative research, but also to Mormon growth and decline in the context of the secularization thesis, and to the intricate relationships and correlations which can be observed between LDS membership and factors such as gender, employment, education, and ethnicity.

A number of papers are referred to in this interview, including Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses, The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists, and The Price of Free Inquiry in Mormonism, all of which can be accessed on Ryan’s personal website. Ryan Cragun is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida. He is author and co-author of many peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Contemporary Relgiion, Sociology of Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and more, and is the co-author (with Rick Phillips) of Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion (2012), and author of the forthcoming What You Don’t Know About Religion (but Should).

This interview was recorded in the business centre at the Lord Elgin Hotel, Ottawa during the Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts Conference. We are grateful to everyone who facilitated the recording in any way.

Is There a Christian Agenda Behind Religious Studies Departments?

[Martin] alludes to a greater problem: the imbalance of power, the greater influence of Christianity in Western academia, compared with other religions, both major and minor.

Is There a Christian Agenda Behind Religious Studies Departments?

By Raphael Lataster, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 23 January 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Dale Martin on Religious Studies and Biblical Studies (21 January 2013).

Editor’s Note: A version of this post was published earlier today with a couple of minor but important changes made by Chris and mistakenly not communicated to the author. These unauthorised changes have been removed, and the version presented below meets with the approval of both Mr Lataster and the editors. The RSP would like to apologise to Mr Lataster, and to our readers, for any unintended misrepresentation of this important piece.


Around the half-way mark of Jack Tsonis’ interview with Professor Dale Martin, a contention was raised, that if true, is damaging to Religious Studies (and related disciplines), and betrays the value and one of the key initial purposes of the field. It is obvious to many of us that Religious Studies is useful, due in part to the critical, secular, etic approach to religion that it encourages. (Although this does not necessitate that Religious Studies scholars be irreligious, or be forbidden to or encouraged to avoid teaching or researching their own personal faith). Tsonis questions Martin on criticism that many Religious Studies scholars are effectively arguing for the usefulness of religion, demonstrating a pro-religious agenda. Tsonis mentions one academic claiming that Religious Studies scholars “claim the prestige of the university while following the rules of the seminary.” Tsonis wonders if this is a real phenomenon, and what effects this may have on our colleagues’ methodologies, funding, and employment prospects. Martin’s answer is thoughtful, but also damning.

In attempting to deny the claim, Martin acknowledges that many scholars working in Biblical Studies are Christians, and many of them are of the conservative type. He then says that the claim does not align with his experience, citing examples of scholars teaching on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, without personally practicing or arguing for those faiths. It seems that not only has Martin acknowledged the issue in a roundabout way, but also alludes to a greater problem: the imbalance of power, the greater influence of Christianity in Western academia, compared with other religions, both major and minor. This discussion prompted me to reminisce about my own experiences in my first year of working in the scholarly world, particularly in initiating my Master’s research dissertation.

I faced opposition from within the department to the extent that I had considered abandoning the project. These challenges presented themselves despite the fact that I had not yet decided the angle, or of course, the conclusions. What was the topic that proved so challenging to research? Jesus mythicism, the contention that there may not have been a ‘historical Jesus’. I would eventually pass, with the examiners – themselves scholars of Religious Studies – agreeing that a review of the methods of many Biblical scholars is necessary (for example, the increasingly-maligned Criteria of Authenticity) and that it is entirely rational to be sceptical over the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. Such conclusions should not necessarily be so controversial in a field dedicated to the critical and non-confessional study of religion. More worryingly, there were instances where I felt pressure to alter the direction of the project, in order to allow for more ‘Christian-friendly conclusions’.

But why would such respected scholars wish to interfere with the most fundamental of academic freedoms? It may have had something to do with their personal religious beliefs about Jesus. Interestingly however, such belief is not actually required for such a reaction. One example is provided by noted Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, one of many secular New Testament experts. Professor Ehrman is an outspoken atheist, yet dogmatically defends the historicity of Jesus and the usefulness of his teachings, while harshly and fallaciously (Lataster 2013) criticising those scholars that are audacious enough to be more sceptical than he (Ehrman 2012). Hector Avalos argues that even many non-Christian scholars are influenced by the political power, and finances, of pro-Christian organisations (Avalos 2007). Avalos claims that positive attitudes towards the Bible, Christianity, and religion in general, is often seen as necessary in order to keep these academic disciplines relevant, and funded.

Hoping that Avalos’ gloomy conclusions were wrong, and that experiences such as my own are rare, I would then discover a powerful Christian undercurrent in a related – and perhaps more esteemed – field; ancient history. While studying the historical Jesus under one of Tsonis’ colleagues from the Ancient History department of Macquarie University, I ‘learnt’ that there is a “resurrection-shaped dent in the historical record.” I would then participate in a public debate against one of my own Religious Studies postgraduate colleagues, and another Ancient Historian from Macquarie University, where my (Christian) opponents used their authority as subject-matter experts in attempting to convince the audience that it is perfectly rational to believe that a miracle-man was brought back from the dead by an unproven deity. It didn’t matter to this ancient historian that his resurrection claim is burdened by a crippling prior probability, is supported by extremely poor sources, or that there are far more probabilistic – and naturalistic – explanations, despite his agreeing with my reasonable claim that history is probabilistic. Christian influences can even be found in Philosophy departments, once great bastions of rationalism and scepticism, via Philosophy of Religion (Quadrio 2009).

Back to the interview, Martin further addresses the contention that Religious Studies scholars border on being crypto-theologians, and defends his ‘insider’ status. He argues that his Biblical criticisms ought to be given more weight (compared with a non-believer’s criticisms) as he is a Christian, and might be expected to aggressively defend his faith and agree more with his fellow adherents. As with the speculative criterion of embarrassment, Martin’s criticisms are partly interesting due to their counter-intuitive nature. These relatively small criticisms however, must be weighed against the fact that Martin still believes the unsubstantiated and question-begging claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, by God. Fortunately, in a recent debate, he correctly acknowledges that Jesus’ resurrection cannot be established historically, though this belief does form a part of his worldview (Licona et al. 2012), his values, and ultimately, would be expected to directly or indirectly affect his researching and teaching on Christianity. Martin might indeed offer the occasional criticism here or there, resulting in minor conflict with his fellow believers, but he stops short of, and would not be expected to, criticising and renouncing Christianity and Christian beliefs as a whole.

Further commenting on what became the dominant theme of the interview, Martin offered a surprising and seemingly unreasonable counter to the claim that Religious Studies scholars are apologising for religion. Instead of denying this claim, he accuses English, History, and Political Science scholars as being apologists for modern liberalism. Rather than outright denying or acknowledging what may be a vitally important issue in education, Martin offers a tu quoque justification. i.e. “Everyone else does it.” With the discussion drawing to a close, Martin demonstrates an example of my claim that what he offers is only relatively benign pseudo-criticism of his faith. He criticises researchers who attempt to show the similarities of Christianity to other religions and myths (an important and historical foundation of Religious Studies), while asking scholars to be more open-minded to the potential truth of supernatural events and experiences. I am not arguing that the perspectives of ‘insiders’ are not valuable, that religious believers are unwelcome in Religious Studies departments, and related fields, or that religion is not a force for good in the world. I merely wish to share my own experiences on the matter, and to encourage scholars to leave their personal beliefs at the door, as they enter the sacred grounds of the University.

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

With a background in pharmacy, medicine, and finance, Raphael Lataster is a hopeful PhD candidate, having recently passed his Master of Arts (Research), undertaken in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, with Distinction. His main research interests include Christian origins, logic, epistemology, justifications and social impacts of secularism, Taoism, overpopulation and sustainability concerns, pantheism, and pandeism. Raphael wrote his Master’s thesis on Jesus mythicism, concluding that historical and Bayesian reasoning justifies a sceptical attitude towards the ‘historical Jesus’. For his doctoral work, Raphael will analyse the major philosophical arguments for God’s existence (as argued by William Lane Craig, Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Aquinas), attempt to demonstrate the logical impossibility of the monotheistic concept, explore the theological tendencies of Philosophy of Religion, and formulate a conditional logical argument for a pantheistic weltanschauung. Raphael is currently writing and attempting to publish numerous articles summarising his Master’s dissertation, and exploring the themes of his proposed doctoral project. Raphael is always open to – and encourages – feedback and advice, especially regarding the politics and processes of academia and publishing, and alternative worldviews.

References

Avalos, Hector. The End of Biblical Studies. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012.

Lataster, Raphael. Jesus scepticism: An examination of the arguments for various ‘Jesus as a myth’ theories. Master’s thesis, Sydney University, 2013.

Licona, Michael, and Dale Martin. Did Jesus Rise Physically from the Dead? Arva, ON: The Navigators, 2012. Video recording.

Quadrio, Philip A. Kant and Rousseau on the critique of philosophical theology: The primacy of practical reason. Sophia 48, no. 2 (2009): 179-193.

 

Podcasts

The Gamrie Brethren: At the Heart of Cosmic Struggle and the Fringes of the Imagined Community

In the RSP’s interview with Joe Webster, listeners are treated to rich ethnographic data which reveal how an immediate ‘local’ context is embedded in ‘global’ processes and networks. Webster conducted his fieldwork in the fishing village of Gardenstown or ‘Gamrie’ in Aberdeenshire, in the north-east of Scotland. Its population are notable for the concentration of followers of offshoots of the movement known as the ‘Plymouth Brethren’, or simply ‘Brethren’[1].

Both the local context and the Brethren movement generally are far from my areas of expertise, my own research concerns the contemporary relationship between ‘religious’ (including ‘non-religious’) affiliations and various constructions of ‘Scottish national identity’. In this regard I hope I can at least place Webster’s research in the wider social and historical context, the ‘national level’ alongside the ‘local’ and ‘global’ ones.

If one considers the question of how the Gamrie Brethren ‘fit into’ the wider picture of religion in Scotland, they would not appear to ‘fit’ at all. According to the latest census, conducted in 2011, only 54% of respondents identified as ‘Christian’, 16% identifying as ‘Roman Catholic’[2], and of the majority of this Christian population who could be classified as ‘Protestant’, it is difficult to gauge how many would have much in common with the Brethren – I suspect relatively few. This is novel for a country with an immensely long and complicated Christian history and which was long associated with staunch Protestantism.

While Scotland does possess an official national Church (the Church of Scotland), it could be quite accurately described as for the most part highly secularised. Along with this, religious pluralism has become part of the system of norms inculcated in Scottish civil society, despite the comparatively low numbers of non-Christian religious minorities.

In many ways this image of Scotland as secular and pluralist is that which many contemporary Scots project, a reflection both of their norms and experiences. As Benedict Anderson argued, nations are imagined communities, though the community that is imagined can vary immensely over time and in the present[3].

While much of Scotland’s romantic symbolism may be derived from the Highlands and many areas have contributed to the Scottish imagination, arguably the dominant perspective is that of the ‘central belt’. That is the area of the country dominated by its two biggest cities – Edinburgh and Glasgow; the centres of politics, business, the media, and, to large extent, ‘national’ religious institutions. Notably these cities have high concentrations of ‘non-religious’ people and are more religiously plural, meaning that a city-dweller may be more likely to attend a local Diwali celebration than a Gamrie Brethren service. As Anderson argued, ‘members’ of nations could never hope to personally interact with all who claim or are claimed to be members of the nation, which can help smooth over differences and affect the imaginative process[4].

However this does not mean that the Gamrie Brethren are necessarily representative of ‘traditional’ Scottish religion either. The movement was founded in Plymouth by an Irish medical student and would have to be implanted in this local Scottish soil. I cannot help but share the intuitive reaction of the interviewer (David Robertson) in being struck by the sense in which the movement and its religious practices appear more stereotypically ‘American’ to myself as someone raised in Scotland, than stereotypical of rural Scotland. The calls to emotional testimony of personal experience certainly do not fit the dour Calvinism stereotype of Scottish religion. Alive and well, living in Aberdeenshire and speaking Doric[5] it is though–regardless of how well it fits some preconceived image.

This cautions us against treating rural religion as an unbroken ‘survival’ of a bygone age; at the very least the Brethren could not have come to Gamrie earlier than 1831 when the movement was founded, and I would expect a much later date. Regardless, the Brethren have clearly been able to fundamentally shape life in the village down to the level of everyday interaction, and it is notable that the local branch of the ‘national’ Church has been moulded into the local ‘Brethren’ image.

Nonetheless, their case is not as atypical as it might first appear.  Without intending to essentialise, such cases have a long history in Scotland. Much of northern Scotland, especially, is rugged and rural and perhaps encourages the development of pockets of concentrated difference from the norms disseminated from the centre. When Presbyterian Calvinism was ascendant in the south, much of the north was Episcopalian with pockets of Roman Catholicism. Radical Calvinistic Presbyterianism began to take root in parts of the Highlands and continued to thrive when it began to fall from favour in the south, etc.

Webster related how the Brethren’s religious practices have led many of them to utilise Christian media, much of which is based in the US. Steve Bruce has argued that religious conservatives in Scotland did not develop the kind of alternative networks set up by their US counterparts because they were simply oblivious to the changes going on underneath their feet[6]. Nonetheless, clearly, expanding global communications have allowed the Gamrie Brethren to take advantage of such networks, which, in turn, inform the local context.

This religious context may be rural and divergent from the current Scottish norm (in both senses of the word) but this does not make it a product of isolation, and, in fact, appears to be as caught up in wider developments as central belt secularism. However, these global links clearly attain specific local significance. Webster’s informants not only see the power of God and the Devil working in their daily lives but also in the political relationship between the fishing communities of the north-east and the European Union.

Over the course of the interview, the question of how the Gamrie Brethren view themselves in relation to Scottish national identity and modern Scottish society was never broached as such. One would certainly not want to presume that it is significant at all; the local setting and transnational Evangelical networks may be of much greater significance. Webster has indicated that religious decline did not appear to trouble his informants who viewed it as indicative of end times. Scottish secularism may be viewed in similar terms. They may draw comfort and significance from the history of Scottish Protestantism, its leading figures such as John Knox and the Covenanter rebels, as many Scots did and still do. The advantage of a long and untidy history is there are plenty of ‘Scotlands’ to choose from. Clearly dealing with the religious landscape of the country in the present offers up no less diversity.

Bibliography

Anderson, B. Imagined Communities (2006) London: Verso

Bowker, J. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997) Oxford: Oxford University Press

Broun, D., Finlay, R.J. and Lynch, M. (eds.) Image and Identity: The Making of Scotland through the Ages (1998) Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd

Brown, C. Religion and Society in Scotland since 1707 (1997) Edinburgh University Press

Bruce, S. No Pope of Rome: Anti-Catholicism in Modern Scotland (1985) Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing

Devine, T.M. The History of the Scottish Nation 1700-2000 (2000) London: Penguin Books Ltd.

National Records of Scotland 2011 Census: Key results on Population, Ethnicity, Identity, Language, Religion, Health, Housing and Accommodation in Scotland – Release 2A (2013) Crown Copyright 2013

[1] C.f. “Plymouth Brethren” in Bowker, J. (ed). Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997) Oxford: Oxford University Press: p756

[2] National Records of Scotland 2011 Census: Key results on Population, Ethnicity, Identity, Language, Religion, Health, Housing and Accommodation in Scotland – Release 2A (2013) Crown Copyright 2013: p5

[3] Anderson, B Imagined Communities (2006) London: Verso: p5-6

[4] ibid

[5] ‘Doric’ is the name of the highly specific form of Scots or Lallans spoken in the region.

[6] Bruce, S No Pope of Rome: Anti-Catholicism in Modern Scotland (1985) Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing: p216

 

African, Christian… Fake? Explorations in Religious Authenticity

A highlight of Afe Adogame’s interview is his emphasis upon the brimming capacity for African Christianities, whether in Western or African settings, to contribute to the broader, age old discourse on religious authenticity. Adogame asks, “which kind of Christianity is authentic?” Certainly, as he asserts, to answer this question as a scholar is to make a loaded theological statement, and I would add, to also assume a rather provocative level of religious authority. Nevertheless, the question is important for both the practitioner and the scholar.

Presently, many Westerners (and Africans) address Christianity’s place in contemporary Africa as a colonial import. A subsequent repercussion is that Western forms of Christianity are referenced as the normative standard bearers for Christian authenticity. Indeed, in some parts of Africa, people refer to mission-based mainline Protestant and Catholic churches as “orthodox” churches. From this perspective, the question of “which kind of Christianity is authentic” is less about critically examining issues in authenticity and more about asking whether indigenously-led Christianities ought to be treated as legitimate expressions of Christianity, or as exotic Africanized pseudo-Christianities.

Adogame rightly problematizes this framework in a couple of ways. He reminds listeners that Africa has fostered Christian communities since the emergence of early Christianity, and therefore, the continent has always been relevant to discussions of authenticity. Further, he reminds listeners that transculturation is not a simple, unidirectional scheme. While African communities have appropriated Western Christianities in numerous ways, so too have Western Christian communities participated in ongoing cultural appropriations. Thus, Adogame suggests that many contemporary African Christianities are not “Africanized” versions of Christianity, but “African interpretations of Europeanized Christianities.”

This latter point is an excellent one, although I do not think that Adogame has taken it quite far enough. When he speaks of “the West” in this interview, he refers only to Europe, which inadvertently discounts the significance of Africa’s relationship with North America. Might we also consider contemporary African Christianities as “African interpretations of Americanized Christianities” or, perhaps even, “African interpretations of American adaptations of Europeanized Christianities?” My intention is not to get caught up in petty linguistic criticisms, but it is important to acknowledge the drastic differences between North American forms of Christianity and those of Europe, as well as North American relationships with Africa and those between Europe and Africa. These differences significantly affect the forms and trajectories of Christianites in Africa, including the growing presence of African ministries in Western settings.

While Adogame mentions that many African Christians today perceive Europe to be a religiously “dark continent,” I have not found the same sentiments to be very consistent when applied to North America, particularly the United States. Rather, many African Christians, especially those in the booming Pentecostal-Charismatic sector, look to American evangelical leaders for ideas on missions strategies, organizational structures, styles of preaching, as well as Christian thought and theology. This is not to say that Africans in the Pentecostal-Charismatic sector uncritically mimic thriving forms of American Christianity, but the parallels cannot be ignored when viewing the growth of the African Christian self-help literature, franchise-style church institutions, televangelism, and prosperity gospels.

Nevertheless, Adogame’s commentary makes a strong case as to how studies of African Christianities can elevate current approaches to authenticity, and I stand in full agreement. Because of Africa’s place within the longue durée of Christian history, its complicated relationships with colonial powers and missions projects, as well as its recent role in “reverse missions,” African Christianities are particularly well-positioned to elucidate issues in power, religious authority, and the ways in which religious interpretations and practices are culturally informed. All of these factors can significantly contribute to any discourse on religious authenticity.

In the remainder of this short essay, I want to turn attention to one additional dimension of religious authenticity through a quick illustration from some of my own work. When Adogame rhetorically asks, “which kind of Christianity is authentic,” he implies that conversations on religious authenticity revolve around evaluating various strains of interpretation and practice. Or, put another way, that religious authenticity is a matter of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. But is it?

A recent ethnographic project of mine examines what I call a “fake pastor phenomenon” in Ghana. One of the most densely Pentecostal-Charismatic places in the world today, the nation is experiencing an eruption of quackery accusations aimed at leaders in Pentecostal-Charismatic ministries from local street evangelists to African celebrity pastors such as TB Joshua or Enoch “Daddy G.O.” Adeboye. It is truly a media sensation, with fiery accusations and juicy exposés reported nearly daily in local press and tabloid sources, comedians and rappers mocking “fake pastor” prototypes, and Ghanaian film industries frequently featuring a “fake pastor” character in their plotlines. But, it is also a focal point of community gossip. Many worry that African Christianity is being run amok by charlatans. There are numerous circumstances in which a Pentecostal-Charismatic leader may rank among the accused, but the general premise is that “fake pastors” are those who are perceived as abusing their position of religious authority for the sake of personal (usually financial) gain.

One of the things that I like so much about the “fake pastor phenomenon” is how well it wonderfully complicates questions of authenticity. It places issues of sincerity and intentionality center stage, reminding us that there are more dimensions to the authenticity discourse than questioning orthodoxy and orthopraxy. I also like the “fake pastor phenomenon” for its implications in the West. What does it mean when leaders of African churches, like Bishop Kofi Adonteng Boateng and his Virginia-based Divine Word International Ministries, are accused of “fakery?” What does it mean when influential platforms in the West such as the evangelically-inclined periodical, Christianity Today, feature a Ghanaian news dispatch that condemns religious quackery in Ghana while simultaneously attempting to bracket mainline denominations from the phenomenon?

Most of all, I like the “fake pastor phenomenon” for its implications for responsible scholarship. How are we, as scholars, to consider “fake pastor” accusations when illustrating forms of contemporary African Christianities? When building (or deconstructing) taxonomies? When theorizing trends in global Christianity?

African Christianity in the West

‘Africa’. ‘Christianity’. ‘The West’. Three seemingly simple terms with clear referents. Three categories which – perhaps unsurprisingly, to regular listeners of the RSP – have been, and continue to be, associated with and invoked in support of myriad competing agendas, truth claims, ideologies, and more.

In telling the story of the complex interrelationship between these terms, some might point to the Berlin Conference of 1884/5 as a defining moment marking the beginning of intensive Euro-American Christian mission to Africa. Others might direct attention to the fact that Christianity has been present in Africa almost since its emergence, with three of the best known figures of the early church – Anthony (c. 285-356), Athanasius (296-373) and Augustine (354-430) – living and working in the north of the continent. Still others might prefer a more contemporary approach, focusing upon the Christianities that can be discerned among communities of African origin in Diaspora. This week’s podcast focuses upon the latter.

In this interview with Chris, Dr Afe Adogame of the University of Edinburgh provides a stimulating introduction to this vast and complicated triad.

Discussion covers a wide range of questions, including:

  • What makes African Christianity ‘African’? Is it only for ‘Africans’? Who decides? Why do we take this huge continent as a single entity?
  • If African Christianity is particularly non- or anti-Western, how does this manifest itself in the West? Is it also non-African (i.e. non-indigenous?)
  • Does referring to ‘African Christianity in the West’ or even ‘African Christianity’ in general perpetuate racial divides, systems of exclusivity?
  • What is the public image of African Christianity in the West? Is there one?
  • What does the study of African Christianity – in the West or elsewhere – bring to the study of ‘religion’ in general?

This interview was originally conceived as a kind of two-parter with an interview on ‘African Indigenous Traditions in the West’ which has, as yet, not occurred. Of course, it must be stated that ‘Christianity’ and ‘Indigenous Traditions’ are not the full story of ‘religion’ in Africa, with one glaring omission being ‘Islam’ amongst others. However, due to time constraints this interview will focus almost exclusively on ‘Christianity’ and we shall attempt to rectify this in the future.

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Having Coffee with God: Evangelical Interpretations of God as a Person Among People

Characteristics attributed to God often indicate apotheosis—some quality beyond human understanding, beyond worldly constraints. Commonly used terms include supernatural, omnipotent, and incorporeal, to name a few. Four decades ago, it would have seemed absurd to hear God characterized by American evangelical Christians in terms of personhood, with words such as audible, visible, or coffee-drinker. In this interview, psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann describes how God becomes real for certain groups of evangelicals and how practicing prayer through mental imagery can develop sensory awareness of God’s presence. Discussing the fieldwork of her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, Luhrmann explains the experience of God, not as a distant transcendent deity, but as a figure who is entirely present and accessible through an intensely personal relationship.

Through years of fieldwork with members of The Vineyard Movement, a multi-branch American evangelical church, Luhrmann observed congregants in direct contact with their friend, God. Through Vineyard prayer practices, congregants develop what Luhrmann describes as a “new theory of mind” in which even mundane thoughts are interpreted as evidence of God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, xxi). In her RSP interview, she recalls a congregant suggesting that, to understand the experience of the divine in real time, she should treat God as a real person and literally have a cup of coffee with him. For American Christians raised on a more formal association with God, positioning him in such a casual role might seem like a return to the playground days of imaginary friends. However, congregants insist that the sense of God’s presence is not only external but also interactive.

Luhrmann posits this conceptualization of a highly participatory God as a natural development within the context of emerging pluralism in America. As she explains in her interview, it all began with “hippie Christians” of the 1960s (e.g. the “Jesus Freaks”) who wove charismatic traditions of Pentecostal Christianity into their philosophy and practices. Instead of dropping acid to contact a transcendent reality, they brought transcendence down to them, making God a “person among people.” Luhrmann suggests that this form of association with God has staying power, providing a way to keep God not only close in heart, but actually present in life.

Though a popular notion in contemporary charismatic evangelical thought, a personal relationship with God does not always come easily; it often requires a learning process of becoming comfortable with God’s presence. Vineyard churches encourage practicing pretend casual conversations with God. In a sense, congregants become comfortable with God by playing house with him, literally pouring him a cup of coffee and chatting. To reinforce God’s presence, prayer groups occasionally designate someone to stand in for him as a human surrogate. Additionally, members are encouraged to imagine God as a loving therapist who is genuinely interested in their lives and concerns.

So, is this imaginary-yet-real God accessible to anyone? Luhrmann observed that about one-quarter of her interviewees do not experience intense sensations of God’s presence, while others experience God so intensely and frequently that Vineyard members refer to them as “prayer warriors” (Luhrmann 2012, 155). To investigate these apparent differences, Luhrmann used the Tellegen Absorption Scale to evaluate subjects on proclivity for absorption, or tendency for becoming absorbed in their imaginations. Results reflected trends of higher scores relative to higher reports of what Luhrmann describes in the interview as “cool, weird spiritual experiences.” She concludes that sharpened mental representations of God described by congregants correlate with (1) belief in God’s direct presence through sensory experiences, (2) absorption tendencies, and (3) practice of imagining God’s presence.

Seemingly central to Lurhmann’s interest is how some congregants report “mental changes” following prayer practices, as if, through prayer training, their minds learn to sense God (Luhrmann 2012, 190). In her book When God Talks Back, she describes Vineyard groups that convene to improve prayer practices through kataphatic exercises, where congregants imagine themselves observing or participating in a biblical scene while paying close attention to sensory details of the experience. She studied the effects of these absorbing imaginative practices among congregants, finding this type of prayer to be more effective in enhancing vividness of mental imagery than listening to scriptural lectures or apophatic prayer (i.e. centering the mind on a spiritually meaningful word). Like training for a triathlon, regularly practicing absorption in this way strengthens sensory awareness, enabling congregants to “give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events,” thus becoming more receptive to (and conscious of) God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, 221-2).

From an etic perspective, it is difficult to accept claims of regularly and casually encountered religious experiences, especially when the caliber is so amplified as to relate a persistent (very real) presence of God. Yet, ironically, skeptics are not alone in facing the problem of interpreting the intangible; this challenge indeed characterizes the Vineyard experience at its core. As the process of sensing God requires an initially effortful imagination, congregants face the issue of discernment in determining the validity of their experiences. Luhrmann notes in the interview that congregants are often skeptical themselves; some even gossip about others who claim questionable divine requests. Interpreting divine inspiration requires the help of the community, with increasing urgency in cases of greater demands. To determine whether God’s instructions are real or imaginary, congregants employ a loose pattern of heuristics: (1) real God experiences are typically spontaneous and surprising; (2) the experience should realistically coincide with God’s expected behavior; (3) the credibility of an experience is valence-dependent; as Luhrmann suggests in the interview, Vineyard’s “teddy bear of a God” should inspire warm and fuzzy feelings.

Luhrmann makes a significant move by highlighting the interpretive challenge facing Vineyard congregants. She shows believers confronting the issue of maintaining faith in something that cannot be proven by scientific means. They are not shying away from epistemological evidence—they are actively engaged in altering their minds to welcome it in the form of God’s sensed presence. By illuminating the believer’s narrative, Luhrmann clarifies the spiritual experience that frequently halts discourse due to its internalized nature. She must be commended for this contribution to the enormous project of bridging the gap between believers and non-believers. For the sake of religious studies discourse, Luhrmann faces the tyrannical problem of communication head-on, enabling the possibility of respect through understanding.

References

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

Prayer, Pretense, and Personification: How God becomes real

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

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

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

group_prayer

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

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

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

Citations

Resisting Conformity at the Margins of Marginal Christianity

In what her interviewer has reckoned to be the first Religious Studies Project podcast to focus solely on the study of an expression of contemporary Christianity, Gladys Ganiel introduces listeners to a modern religious orientation that deserves sustained scholarly attention. The Emerging Church Movement (the ECM) might be numerically small but it is, she suggests, far from insignificant.

Despite a growing number of ethnographies of individual emerging church congregations, as well as critical overviews of the emerging church conversation as an identifiable form of religious discourse, many scholars of religion have either never heard of the ECM or claim, as Josh Packard suggests, that emerging Christianity must ‘join the mainstream or die out’.[1] It is assumed that it is merely a ‘transitional reaction’ against modern evangelicalism that will merge with the liberal mainstream, especially if, as Robert Warner declares, ‘post-evangelicals define themselves negatively and seem unlikely to develop a sustainable and distinct theological agenda’.[2]

But against such assessments, as I have argued elsewhere, emerging Christianity is structured around identifiable sets of values, beliefs and practices that lend it cohesion and relative stability whilst also enabling divergence.[3] Ganiel’s book, The Deconstructed Church (co-authored with Gerardo Martí), is an important academic analysis that also takes the ECM seriously as a phenomenon that is organised around a clear (albeit contested and continually ‘deconstructed’) set of activities.

Graffiti outside The Menagerie, Belfast, where Ikon first began meeting. Photo credit: Mark Berry, safespace community, Telford.

Graffiti outside The Menagerie, Belfast, where Ikon first began meeting. Photo credit: Mark Berry, safespace community, Telford.

Acknowledging the difficulties surrounding the identification and definition of a subject of study that is not only deliberately diverse but also intentionally resistant to definition, Ganiel and Martí nonetheless discern within emerging Christianity a distinct religious orientation built around the practice of deconstruction. The Deconstructed Church illustrates in particular how these practices encourage the creation of pluralist congregations and of what Ulrich Beck calls ‘cooperative egoism’,[4] facilitating a strategic form of religiosity through which participants undertake ‘meaning work’ that maintains tensions between individualism and collective identity. Such practices are driven by what Ganiel and Martí call ‘the religious institutional entrepreneurs’ who seek to resist the institutionalization of this orientation under pressures to conform to inherited forms of Christianity – primarily what participants see as the ‘Seeker Megachurch’ and the ‘Solemn Mainline’ models. As James S. Bielo has observed, the emerging church is therefore a particularly rich research site for the empirical study of interacting Christianities, since its religious and cultural critique is dependent upon prevailing traditions as interlocutors.[5] The question of this deconstructive orientation’s ultimate sustainability is, as Ganiel acknowledges, open to debate. But it is also ripe for scholarly study, and for critical consideration from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

My own research has focused on understanding how the identifiable social or cultural imaginaries that structure what I call the emerging church discursive milieu interact with continental philosophy and radical theologies.[6] As Charles Taylor has noted, when theory ‘penetrates and transforms’ an imaginary, new practices are either taken up or improvised.[7] It is the innovative communicative practices and expressive acts of an emerging church imaginary, which is transformed when emerging Christians engage with the philosophical traditions of deconstruction and materialism, that most interest me – and I see emerging church figures like Peter Rollins (a founder of Ikon, Belfast) and Kester Brewin (a founder of Vaux, London) as catalysts for such an engagement.

In The Deconstructed Church, however, Ganiel and Martí focus on deconstruction as a sociological process that enables the ECM to ‘establish competitive arenas in response to pressures for conformity’ whilst nonetheless continuing to conceive of God in the ‘relatively concrete terms’ of conventional Christian theism.[8] This means that Ganiel and Martí are better able to more adequately represent the mainstream of the ECM than I am, for entrepreneurs like Rollins and Brewin push the emerging church conversation in more radical directions as they engage the work of thinkers like John D. Caputo and Slavoj Žižek. Popular figures in North American emerging Christianity would not understand crucifixion and resurrection in the ways that Rollins does and would not state their disbelief in a personal God or divine salvation as Brewin has.

‘What makes emerging Christianity “Christian”?’, Ganiel is asked in this interview. In her response, she sympathises with those within the ECM who treat this question as one that deflects from more primary issues of concern. She refers to an instance – recounted more fully here – that also recalls the response Rollins gives to the question of the historical resurrection of Jesus. He says, ‘Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ’, by which he means that he does so every time he fails to ‘serve at the feet of the oppressed’ and yet also affirms that resurrection in those ‘few and far between’ moments when he stands up ‘for those who are forced to live on their knees’.[9]

Such an apparently evasive answer frustrates not only researchers seeking clarity about the beliefs held by emerging church entrepreneurs like Rollins, as Ganiel notes, but also those who wish them to conform either to traditional theistic belief or to modern atheistic belief.

Rollins’ critique of religious idolatry and ideology is intended as more than a corrective to conventional Christianity that would enable Christians to discover the God beyond the idol ‘God’ and a richer faith beyond instrumental religion without challenging more fundamentally their continued reliance on what he might call – following Žižek – ‘a subject supposed to believe’ on their behalf; namely, priests, Christ, God, the community of believers, the church structures themselves (the buildings, the liturgies, the statements of faith), etc., that sustain the fantasy of the presence and coherence of meaning, purpose, value and truth. On the other hand, however, the experience of the death of such a subject does not result in conventional atheism, since it is not only God that dies (i.e., that does not exist) but a transcendent source of or an absolute justification for any universal principle or set of principles, including those provided by reason as well as by revelation.

Rollins and Brewin are on the margins of a numerically marginal expression of Christianity. However, just as the significance of the ECM lies not in its relative size but in its manifestation of a religious orientation that seeks to resist conformity with inherited models of Christianity, the significance of these two marginal figures lies in the ways in which they seek to resist conformity with both modern western theism and modern western atheism. Rollins and Brewin are, therefore, two of the ‘expert theorizers’[10] within the ECM whose engagement with continental philosophy and radical theology is contributing to the construction of what I call an emerging a/theistic cultural imaginary.[11]

Both Rollins and Brewin propose that there is revolutionary political potential in the kinds of spaces that they advocate, and I am interested in exploring how to measure that claim, even if, as Ganiel notes, there are methodological difficulties in determining the impact of emerging Christianity on society more broadly. I would especially like to examine further the discursive motif of suspension in their work and to investigate empirically the communal practices that enable such a suspension of belief and identity. These religious (or, rather, ir/religious) spaces are imagined to be individually and collectively transformative, temporarily subtracting participants from their social roles and relations and allowing them to envision new forms of interaction and association: ‘we not only affirm one another in excess of our culturally given identities but expose these identities as contingent’, Rollins writes, concluding that thereby ‘we can more productively engage in exploring how to transform society’.[12] But the efficacy of these practices of suspension has yet to be documented. What kinds of sociality are exhibited in and encouraged by participation in ‘suspended space’? And what is the relationship between such spaces and participants’ wider social, political and economic lives?

 

Bibliography

Beck, Ulrich, 2010, A God of One’s Own: Religion’s Capacity for Peace and Potential for Violence, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Beck, Ulrich, and Johannes Willms, 2004, Conversations with Ulrich Beck, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bielo, James S., 2009, ‘The “Emerging Church” in America: Notes on the Interaction of Christianities’, Religion 39/3, pp. 219-32.

Ganiel, Gladys, and Gerardo Martí, 2014, ‘Northern Ireland, America and the Emerging Church Movement: Exploring the Significance of Peter Rollins and the Ikon Collective’, Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions, 1/1, pp. 26-47.

Martí, Gerardo, and Gladys Ganiel, 2014, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moody, Katharine Sarah. 2010, ‘“I Hate Your Church; What I Want is My Kingdom”: Emerging Spiritualities in the UK Emerging Church Milieu’, The Expository Times 121/10, pp. 495-503.

  • forthcoming, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity: Deconstruction, Materialism and Religious Practices, Ashgate.

Packard, Josh, 2012, The Emerging Church: Religion at the Margins, Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers / First Forum Press.

Rollins, Peter, 2009, ‘My Confession: I Deny The Resurrection’, (January 01) http://peterrollins.net/2009/01/my-confession-i-deny-the-resurrection/

Taylor, Charles. 2004, Modern Social Imaginaries, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

  • 2007, A Secular Age, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Warner, Robert, 2007, Reinventing English Evangelicalism, 1996-2001: A Theological and Sociological Study, Milton Keynes: Paternoster.

 

Notes

[1] Packard, The Emerging Church, p. 31. Growing academic interest in emerging Christianity is starting to be reflected in the programmes of some of the major conferences in the field of religious studies. For example, in August this year there was a panel on the ECM and the transformation of ‘conventional’ Christianity at the Association for the Sociology of Religion annual conference. And there will be sessions on emerging Christianity at the 2014 American Academy of Religion and Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conferences as well.

[2] Warner, Reinventing English Evangelicalism, p. 230, fn. 62.

[3] See Moody, ‘“I Hate Your Church; What I Want is My Kingdom”’.

[4] See Beck, A God of One’s Own and Beck and Willms, Conversations with Ulrich Beck.

[5] See Bielo, ‘The “Emerging Church” in America’.

[6] See Moody, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity.

[7] Taylor, A Secular Age, pp. 172 and 175. See also Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries.

[8] Martí and Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church, p. 26 (italics removed); and Ganiel and Martí, ‘Northern Ireland, America and the Emerging Church Movement’, p. 45.

[9] Rollins, ‘My Confession’.

[10] Martí and Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church, p. 81.

[11] See Moody, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity.

[12] Rollins, ‘The Worldly Theology of Emerging Christianity’, p. 84.

The Emerging Church

What do you get when you mix a dash of pub culture, a splash of irreverence, a healthy dose of conversation, a smattering of postmodernist critique, a drizzle of discourse on problematic concepts such as ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’, and a host of other eclectic and idiosyncratic ingredients to taste? Depending upon the measures, one possible outcome could be an ideal-typical podcast from your friends at The Religious Studies Project. Prepare in a slightly different manner and your culinary exploits could produce a manifestation of the Emerging Church. However, in the case of the latter, similar results might be obtained from a completely different set of ingredients.

The Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is notoriously difficult to define. What are scholars of ‘religion’ to do with a trend seemingly emerging both within and without many contemporary manifestations of (Western) Christianity, that is both anti-institutional and ecumenical, aims to avoid hierarchies and power structures, embraces creativity, deconstruction and experimentation, and actively promotes a ‘neutral’ and ‘non-judgmental religious space’ where almost anything goes? In this week’s podcast, Chris is joined by Dr Gladys Ganiel to discuss this ‘problematic’, important and boundary-pushing phenomenon.

In The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford, 2014), Ganiel and co-author Gerardo Marti write:

“We define Emerging Christians in terms of sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction. We characterize the ECM as an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization. As such, the ECM is best seen as a mix of both reactive and proactive elements, vying for the passion and attention of Christians and nonbelievers. Emerging Christians react primarily against conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism but also against other forms of traditional Christianity that they have experienced as inauthentic. At the same time, they proactively appropriate practices from a range of Christian traditions […] to nourish their individual spirituality and to enhance their life together as communities.” (25-26)

What is it that makes this movement ‘Christian’? What does it do to traditional understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘secularization’? How does one research such a seemingly diffuse and unbounded phenomenon? Is it only a matter of time before this movement undergoes a process of systematization? These questions and more form the basis of a discussion which took place in May 2014, at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin in Belfast, a couple of days after the 3rd Annual Conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion.

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

 

“Unruly Angels”: An Interview with Ingvild Gilhus

What is an angel, and why have they exerted such a fascination on the public imagination since antiquity up to the present day? In this interview with David Robertson (our 100th “official” podcast!), Ingvild Gilhus, a historian of religion with considerable experience in dealing with popular religion in both the ancient and modern worlds, discusses where the concept of angels comes from and how they have been variously constructed, from the white-suited messengers of the New Testament to the embodiment of the “higher self” in New Age accounts.

In particular, she explains that angels seem always to break boundaries. Neither human nor god, male nor female, whether Christian or otherwise, angels seem always to have functioned as representatives of an unruly popular religious impulse which seems to sit just below the elite constructions with which the study of religion has traditionally concerned itself.

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

Oh, and stay tuned at the end for two special guest appearances!

Demons, Exoticism, and the Academy

Something that strikes me about contemporary spiritual warfare is how it’s not so radically different thematically in its interests and its languages than a lot of contemporary American religion. So the argument that ‘this is something out in left field’ really isn’t true, I don’t think. -Sean McCloud

 Dave McConeghy’s interview with Sean McCloud offers so many potential avenues of discussion that it is difficult to pick only one; spiritual warfare is, after all, one of the most-discussed theological issues in contemporary Evangelicalism/Charismaticism today, yet one of the least-discussed points in the Academy: a point which leads McCloud to quip that “most scholars of American religion are completely blind to [spiritual warfare],” and that the study of it still engenders reactions of “Ugh. Why would we study those silly people?”

Often, discussions of American religion seem to start with Cotton Mather and end with Billy Graham, and, in my experience, spiritual warfare is indeed often seen as something that is “out in left field,” a “fringe” practice, or “weird” religion. (For those unfamiliar with the term, “spiritual warfare” refers both to the battle waged between God and demons, as well as the battle waged between Christians and demons.) Many (if not most) of the major texts in the academic canon of American religious history—even those books focused exclusively on church history—omit the practice altogether.  So McCloud is right: while a supernaturalistic demonology may seem exotic to those who have not often encountered it, there is a large swath of Christians who consider spiritual warfare to be both frequent and mainstream.

 Pervasiveness in Evangelical Circles

If there is any useful statistical data on the demonological practices of present-day Evangelicals, I am unaware of it.[1] However, if we look to some of the largest and most influential churches, pastors, or texts in the American landscape, spiritual warfare seems to have a kind of omnipresence. Take Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, for instance, which has eleven branches in the Seattle area alone, in addition to being the “flagship” of the Acts 29 Network, an umbrella group for more than 500 likeminded ministries.[2]  Driscoll asserts that “demons are real and they attack God’s people,” and has developed a rigorously organized theology that seems to have gained a lot of traction, particularly among those who believe in demons yet shun what they see as a kind of looser, laissez-faire mentality amongst their more Charismatic counterparts. It’s worth noting that Driscoll’s demonology has even made its way outside of Christian circles, in the form of a Nightline debate with Deepak Chopra and “heretic” Carlton Pearson.

Similarly, Bethel Church is among the most influential Charismatic groups today, if not the most influential. Spiritual warfare is far from a “fringe” practice for them, nor for Charismatics in general. The many books that Bethel pastors have published are full of the “prayer walks” and “generational inheritances” that McCloud mentioned.  Beni Johnson, for instance, details how she led a prayer walk and ritual cleansing of “Panther’s Meadow,” a space on Mt. Shasta that she claims is used for “ungodly practices,” by which she means New Age and occult spirituality.[3] According to her story, the Pagans practicing there go feral as a result of her prayers, hissing and fleeing the scene. And then there’s Kris Vallotton’s Spirit Wars, in which demonic, generational inheritances are a central feature of the text. At one point, Vallotton claims that when his mother was a young woman, a fortune teller had read tarot cards for her. This reading had caused a curse, which released demons to kill his father, haunt his mother, and which were now haunting he himself in the present day.[4] While these specific cases are on the more extreme end, the point here is that for Bethel and likeminded Charismatics (of which there are many), demons are a very real threat that must be dealt with.

There are, of course, countless other figures we could examine to demonstrate salience: John Hagee, T. D. Jakes, Rick Joyner, Joyce Meyer, to name only a few of the prevailing voices today. And McCloud and McConaghey are right to identify that this isn’t something brand new, but something that has been developing for quite some time. Tanya Luhrmann’s recent book on Evangelical experientiality which depicts an increase in spiritual warfare amidst the spiritual innovation of the 1970s and Cuneo’s argument that The Exorcist birthed the rise of deliverance movements in the years following the film are both legitimately observing real social trends, yet what we think of spiritual warfare today has been a part of the American landscape for much longer than this; whatever spike in spiritual warfare occurred in this period, it was working with material that was already present in the mix.[5]

This, of course, only addresses the contemporary forms, for if one looks deeper into church history, its absence is the exception rather than the rule. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony, for instance, is almost entirely about spiritual warfare, from the ritual cleansing of Pagan temples to demonic manifestations of corporeal abuse.[6] Nancy Caciola has given a wonderfully insightful account of demon possessions (and treatments) that antedate the medieval witch scares.[7] Heiko Obermann’s biography of Martin Luther depicts him as constantly at war with the devil, not just in mind, but physically as well: Satan troubled his bowels and thumped his stove.[8] John Wesley, Thomas More, St. John of the Cross, even the Gnostics had their demons in one form or another. Spiritual warfare doesn’t look the same in every case (and often quite different from how contemporary Evangelicals practice it), but the point here is that demons and spiritual warfare aren’t something that snake handlers invented just yesterday, it is a major thread woven through the entire history of Christianity, and one that continues to be woven through it today.

 Comparable Trends

McCloud’s most important point is that spiritual warfare isn’t some outlying fringe practice, but one that completely dovetails a wider world of supernaturalism in contemporary America. Part of the problem of the Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model of American religious history is that it tends to emphasize the Scottish Common Sense Realist, rationalist, denominational, naturalist, cessationist leitmotif of Calvinist Protestantism. As he pointed out, there is something to be said for contemporary media presenting demonology as something strange and outdated, and of course, these media are part of the issue here: as he argued elsewhere, the mainstream/fringe dichotomy has largely been constructed by those authoring the media, who themselves privileged a white, middle class Protestantism.[9]

In recent years, this Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model has gradually been getting more complicated, as some scholars have started drawing attention to the supernaturalist counternarrative that has always existed alongside rationalism, but in terms of popular perception—including that among many academics—there still seems to be a sense that American religion shuns these hierophantic irruptions. Though we have largely abandoned the idea that “religion” means five world faiths that can be broken into neat little denominations, we often tend to still organize our research (and faculty posts) along such lines. Embedded in that inherited arrangement is decades of scholarship that has omitted the supernatural for ideological reasons: first, in seeing all religions through the lens of Victorian Protestantism, the supernatural has traditionally been deemphasized in favor of texts, beliefs, and rituals, and then second, why dwell on demons, ghosts, or channeled spirits when the juggernaut of secularization is going to eradicate them anyway? The religion of the future was to be logical, heady, and amenable to scientific narratives—the collected repertoires of our fields were forged in this mindset, and though secularization may have fallen by the wayside, it seems like topical reorientation has been slower to acclimate.

Closing

Spiritual warfare is ubiquitous, both in the contemporary American Evangelical milieu, but also in the broad and far-reaching history of religion. It is worth examination, for numerous reasons—phenomenologically, it’s a central part of the experience for many, both as individuals and as groups. Ideologically, it can enshrine social opposition as demonic. Ritually, it can be a means of demarcating space. Sociologically, it can establish the boundaries of group membership.[10] Psychologically, it can be a means of interpreting and moving past one’s own moral failings. Theologically, it is central to theodicies. No matter how you cut it, spiritual warfare is important and needs to be addressed as such.

 Bibliography

Bramadat, Paul. The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Brown, Candy Gunther. Testing Prayer: Science and Healing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Cuneo, Michael W. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

McCloud, Sean. Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Obermann, Heiko. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

 

 


[1] There is a Pew survey from 2008 which registered 68% of Americans as believing “that angels and demons are active in the world today,” but this says nothing about whether they actually believe those demons ought to be confronted, let alone how they should be confronted. I am unaware of any surveys that pry deeper than this one. http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf

[2] Such “networks” are arguably replacing the model of Protestant denominationalism, allowing for individual churches to maintain ideological autonomy while still remaining linked to other churches with similar viewpoints. See Candy Gunther Brown’s Testing Prayer for a more thorough explanation. Candy Gunther Brown, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 21-63.

[3] Beni Johnson, The Happy Intercessor, (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc, 2009), 95.

[4] Kris Vallotton, Spirit Wars: Winning the Invisible Battle Against Sin and the Enemy, (Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 2012), 160-161.

[5] Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 26, 30-32; Michael W. Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, (New York: Doubleday, 2002).

[6] Athansius, The Life of St. Anthony and Letter to Marcillinus, ed. Robert C. Gregg, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.)

[7] Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[8] Heiko Obermann, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 104-109.

[9] Sean McCloud, Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 4-11.

[10] It’s noteworthy that in Paul Bramadat’s ethnography of a Canadian Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter, this was one of the more explicit ways he interpreted their spiritual warfare as functioning. “The sense of living among, if not being besieged by, often demonically cozened infidels contributes to what Martin Marty has described as a form of “tribalism” which unites the group…in short, because spiritual warfare discourse is based on a sharp dualism between the saved and the unsaved, it helps believers to retrench their sense of superiority (since that is what it amounts to) and to accentuate the fundamental otherness of non-Christians.” Paul Bramadat, The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000), 115.

Demons, possessions, and exorcisms: Sean McCloud on “Spiritual Warfare”

How should one approach the study of demons and spiritual warfare? In this conversation with University of North Carolina, Charlotte professor Sean McCloud, demons, possessions, and exorcisms that might have once been considered fringe or marginal elements of the American religious scene are now part of a robust “haunted” or supernatural landscape.

Today the spiritual warfare movement that began in mission fields in South America and Africa is now institutionalized in the charismatic New Apostolic Reformation churches as well as popularized in film and cinema. Where should we place haunted objects in the world of religious studies? What do we do with figures like Peter Wagner who led the supernatural movement and then found himself attacked by his allies?

What we find is a transnational interest with demons that has yet to be fully charted or explained. McCloud argues that rising supernatural interest coincides with consumerism and neoliberal capitalism. In the spiritual warfare manuals that serve as his primary data, capitalist and even therapeutic language seems to mark this as a product that borrows from a wide range of 20th century themes. Even perceived enemies of evangelicalism—like the soft metaphysical stylings of The Secret—become fodder for incorporation into the spiritual warfare paradigm. Welcome to the supernatural turn!

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

NSRN Annual Lecture 2012 – Matthew Engelke: In spite of Christianity

We’re delighted to bring you a bonus podcast during our summer break – we’ll be back to our normal weekly schedule by mid-September. This is a recording of the are available here.

Details of Matthew Engelke’s lecture are given below. We would like to take this opportunity to remind you that you can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive it weekly, on Psychology of Religion Panel Session at the International Association for the Psychology of Religion World Congress.

In spite of Christianity: Humanism and its others in contemporary Britain – Dr Matthew Engelke

matthew-engelkeWhat do we talk about when we talk about religion? What do we recognize as essential and specific to any given faith, and why? In this lecture, I address these questions by drawing on fieldwork among humanists in Britain, paying particular attention to humanism’s relation to Christianity. In one way or another, humanists often position themselves in relation to Christianity. In a basic way, this has to do with humanists’ commitment to secularism—the differentiation of church and state. In more complex ways, though, it also has to do with an effort to move “beyond” Christianity—to encourage a world in which reason takes the place of revelation—while often, at the same time, recognizing what’s worth saving and even fostering from the legacies of faith. All these various relations and perspectives suggest how we should understand social life in contemporary Britain as what it is in spite of Christianity—and not.

Dr. Engelke has recently completed a year of ethnographic fieldwork in the offices of the British Humanist Association [BHA] and is soon to publish his findings. As part of this research project Dr Engelke worked with BHA accredited celebrants and also trained as a funeral celebrant. This work leads the way for a happily increasing number of similar research projects and this will be further encouraged by the recent launch the Programme for the Study of Religion and Nonreligion at LSE, which is coordinated by Dr. Engelke .

The full text of this lecture is available to download here.

The Secular Reality

If, as [Douglas Pratt] is contending, we don’t want the “metaphysical dimension” and “stories” of religion at the personal as well as societal level, this is not persistence; this is a new phenomenon altering centuries of evolving theological trajectory.

The Secular Reality: A Response to Pratt’s “Durkheimian Dread”

By Thomas J. Coleman III, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 6 February 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Douglass Pratt on the Persistence and Problem of Religion (4 February 2013).

Douglas Pratt presents us with a most noble and worthwhile endeavor in his Religious Studies Project podcast entitled, The Persistence and Problem of Religion. It is clear that he is interested in easing tensions that exist between various religions throughout the world. However, a call for clarification is needed with regards to “persistence” and there are several contentious points that should be addressed. As a scholar specializing in religious concerns relating to Christian-Muslim relations, Pratt seems to be arguing against Secularization from an activist’s position.  Within the same podcast, Pratt labels the more conservative fundamentalist viewpoint as “nonsensical” and calls the secular stance “crazy”. This leads the listener to perceive a paradox. In one sense, Pratt appears to be a post-modernist advocating for religious freedom and expression of individual belief yet he wants to limit some forms religious expression, for example fundamentalism. Moreover he does not seem to understand the theoretical complexities and benefits of the secularization paradigm as proposed within sociology of religion. Within this paradigm religion certainly is slowly dissolving from within public sphere yet at the same time multi-cultural and religious values are equal. Secular space ensures that no one religion has dominance over another. Hence the paradox of Pratt’s view, why argue against an obvious benefit of secularization while also limiting certain types of religious forms which, in his argument, is what secularization does. As Pratt attempts to cut through the secularization hypothesis, he, perhaps unknowingly, lends it overwhelming support with his own inconsistent viewpoint. This paper will provide a point-by-point analysis of Pratt’s view as noted within the podcast.

The Problem of Persistence

First, Pratt fails to adequately define what is meant by persistence. Persistence is a highly ambiguous term as used in the podcast. In what form, and where do we really have a “persistence of religion”? Is persistence directly related to the institution of religion? Is persistence the theological continuation within a religion? Is persistence an issue of church attendance or religious self-identity? His initial remarks state, “There has been a resurgence of religious phenomena…and religion in the news”. The end of the interview sheds no more light as to what sort of persistence religion has seen, we are only left with the indubitable point that religion exists as a declarative fact. The decline of religion in Europe and many other developed countries has even been termed “apparently unstoppable” by other theologians (Oviedo, 2012). It is unclear how Pratt would address an apparent decline in many westernized nations. Either way, the term persistence evades us as Pratt acknowledges that many people “don’t want the narratives”. If, as he is contending, we don’t want the “metaphysical dimension” and “stories” of religion at the personal as well as societal level, this is not persistence; this is a new phenomenon altering centuries of evolving theological trajectory.

What about Secularization?

Pratt implies that the sixties and seventies forced the secularization thesis out the door of the social sciences. His talking points, and comments throughout lend nothing short of support toward this “out-going theory”. Sociologist Mark Chaves whose research on secularization spans just over two decades (1989, 1993,1994, 2011), declared in his 2011 ARDA Guiding Paper that, “no indicator of traditional religious belief or practice is increasing”.

 “Secularization is most productively understood not as declining religion, but as the declining scope of religious authority” –Chaves 1994

Chaves view is supported by other established researchers and historians such as Steve Bruce (2011) who argue that while various differences exist within the secularization paradigm (e.g. cyclical, linear, situational/geographical, etc.) a social shift is occurring but it is not addressed in any type of detail within the podcast by Pratt. The first half of the interview, Pratt repeatedly supports two main tenets of the secularization thesis, the first being that Government and public life has become/is becoming more secular. He even states that religious expressions of narrative are being “eliminated” and “pushed out of the public realm altogether”. He goes on to give us multiple examples of such from around the world. The second blessing of support Pratt gives secularization is reflected in comments such as, “the expressions of religion that relate to the narrative, are being, as it were eliminated, or pushed to one side”. If he is correct, and people are casting the underlying narratives and myths that religion has been built upon aside or directing their efforts in another form, religion in its traditional sense may indeed be falling victim to secularization. Secularization may remove religion from the public sphere of influence such as governmental recognition or funding but it certainly does not appear that there is an active effort to control or remove religions from their own sacred spaces. In other words, communism attempted to control religion through a variety of methods. It just does not appear this is happening in Western Europe or North America.

Points of Contention

“In terms of modern western history…yes society needs the values of religion, but we don’t want the stories.”  – Pratt

Pratt seems to hold what I will coin as “Durkheimian dread” for the persistence of secularization; whereby society has no replacement for, and is lost without, traditional religion. It is clear that many in today’s world may feel similar. However, research has shown that this presumed societal need for religious glue seems to be nothing more than an unsupported position (Zuckerman, 2006; Paul, 2009). Paul’s findings indicate a strong correlation between the “most successful societies” and the most secular societies. It follows from this, that the role of religion as playing an important role in the structural functionalism of today’s world is certainly in question.

“Secularist, anti-religious…”  -Pratt

The terms “secularist” and “anti-religious” are conflagulated both explicitly and implicitly throughout the podcast. Many people who identify as religious consider themselves secularists and even donate time and money towards ensuring governments and public spaces remain secular. Ascribing to a faith tradition and supporting the secularity of public spaces are in no way mutually exclusive, and should never be confused (Robbins, 2012; Voas & Day, 2010). This is the problem with gross overgeneralizations about people; they typically ignore the complexity of the human landscape – secular or religious.

Towards the end of the interview Pratt seems to advocate controlling the comprehension and transformative direction that religious narratives can and do take. He puts forth the idea that if we do not prevent more fundamentalist understandings of faith (which he describes as “narrow”) from growing, then the scope of religious studies will henceforth be more narrow, we will not have as much to study. It is hard not to picture Pratt’s argument as wild and theoretically porous, stigmatizing and complicating the religious and irreligious minorities as he attempts to kill the ills of religious conflicts in our world. Unfortunately in this most noble endeavor, he ends up demonizing what many would see as the most promising remedy for increasing religious tension in the world, a secular government. In the words of His Holiness the Dali Lama,

“Secularism does not mean rejection of all religions. It means respect for all religions and human beings including non-believers,” (Gyatso, Tenzin HH. Dalai Lama, 2006)

 

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

Thomas J. Coleman III is an undergraduate student in psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is one of the few undergraduates at the university to conduct research alongside graduate and post graduate students. He holds the Assistant Project Manager Position on the Bielefeld International Spirituality Research Study and is the Project Manager for the UT Chattanooga study of non-belief in America exploring the complexities of self-identity adjectives in how atheist and agnostic participants self-describe. Currently Mr. Coleman is overseeing and developing a research project on the domain intersections within Horizontal/Vertical Transcendence and interrelated correlates. His email address is Thomas-J-Coleman@mocs.utc.edu

References

  • Bruce, S. (2011). Secularization: In defence of an unfashionable theory. USA: Oxford University Press.
  • Chaves, M. (1989). “Secularization and religious revival: Evidence from U.S. church attendance rates.” 1972-1986 Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28(4): pp. 464-477
  • Chaves, M. (1993). “Intraorganizational Power and Internal Secularization within Protestant Denominations.” American Journal of Sociology 99(1):1-48.
  • Chaves, M. (1994). “Secularization as declining religious authority.” Social Forces, 72(3), 749-774.
  • Gyatso, Tenzin HH. His holiness the Dalai Lama said secularism is the basis of all religions. (2006, November 26). Retrieved from http://tibet.net/2006/11/13/his-holiness-the-dalai-lama-said-secularism-is-the-basis-of-all-religions/
  • Oviedo, L. (2012). “Struggling with secularization.” Reviews in Religion and Theology,19(2), 188-199.
  • Paul, G. (2009). “The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional psychosociological conditions.” Evolutionary Psychology, 7(3), 399-441.
  • Robbins, M. (2012, February 17). “Christians should unite with atheists to defend secularism.” The Guardian, Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2012/feb/17/1
  • Voas, David and Abby Day. (2010). Recognizing secular Christians: Toward an unexcluded middle in the study of religion (ARDA Guiding Paper Series). State College, PA: The Association of Religion Data Archives at The Pennsylvania State University, from http://www.thearda.com/rrh/papers/guidingpapers.asp.
  • Zuckerman, P. (2006). “Atheism: Contemporary rates and patterns.” In M. Martin (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (pp. 47-68). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mormonism, Growth and Decline

Mormonism – or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) – exploded onto the scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States of America, and has courted controversy ever since. From the recent upsurge in worldwide visibility of Mormonism due to the widespread attention given to the religious identity of Mitt Romney (the Republican Candidate in the 2012 US Presidential elections), to the huge success of the Southpark creators’ hit musical The Book of Mormon, there is no shortage of ill-informed opinion surrounding this group. Unsurprisingly, the academic study of religion has its own questions about Mormonism: can it be described as a New Religious Movement? Is there a unified phenomenon which can be classified as Mormonism? Is Mormonism to be considered as a form of Christianity? This week, Chris is joined by Ryan Cragun – Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida – to discuss not only these conceptual issues, but issues relating specifically to quantitative research, Mormon demographics, and the worldwide growth and decline of the LDS Church.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter.

What numbers should a quantitative scholar use when ‘counting’ Mormonism? Who does the categorization? Is Mormonism outside of the US different? In what ways? And what about Mormonism in the ‘heartland’ of Utah? These are just some of the questions which come up in the interview, and Professor Cragun provides a great introduction not only to Mormonism and quantitative research, but also to Mormon growth and decline in the context of the secularization thesis, and to the intricate relationships and correlations which can be observed between LDS membership and factors such as gender, employment, education, and ethnicity.

A number of papers are referred to in this interview, including Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses, The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists, and The Price of Free Inquiry in Mormonism, all of which can be accessed on Ryan’s personal website. Ryan Cragun is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida. He is author and co-author of many peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Contemporary Relgiion, Sociology of Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and more, and is the co-author (with Rick Phillips) of Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion (2012), and author of the forthcoming What You Don’t Know About Religion (but Should).

This interview was recorded in the business centre at the Lord Elgin Hotel, Ottawa during the Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts Conference. We are grateful to everyone who facilitated the recording in any way.

Is There a Christian Agenda Behind Religious Studies Departments?

[Martin] alludes to a greater problem: the imbalance of power, the greater influence of Christianity in Western academia, compared with other religions, both major and minor.

Is There a Christian Agenda Behind Religious Studies Departments?

By Raphael Lataster, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 23 January 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Dale Martin on Religious Studies and Biblical Studies (21 January 2013).

Editor’s Note: A version of this post was published earlier today with a couple of minor but important changes made by Chris and mistakenly not communicated to the author. These unauthorised changes have been removed, and the version presented below meets with the approval of both Mr Lataster and the editors. The RSP would like to apologise to Mr Lataster, and to our readers, for any unintended misrepresentation of this important piece.


Around the half-way mark of Jack Tsonis’ interview with Professor Dale Martin, a contention was raised, that if true, is damaging to Religious Studies (and related disciplines), and betrays the value and one of the key initial purposes of the field. It is obvious to many of us that Religious Studies is useful, due in part to the critical, secular, etic approach to religion that it encourages. (Although this does not necessitate that Religious Studies scholars be irreligious, or be forbidden to or encouraged to avoid teaching or researching their own personal faith). Tsonis questions Martin on criticism that many Religious Studies scholars are effectively arguing for the usefulness of religion, demonstrating a pro-religious agenda. Tsonis mentions one academic claiming that Religious Studies scholars “claim the prestige of the university while following the rules of the seminary.” Tsonis wonders if this is a real phenomenon, and what effects this may have on our colleagues’ methodologies, funding, and employment prospects. Martin’s answer is thoughtful, but also damning.

In attempting to deny the claim, Martin acknowledges that many scholars working in Biblical Studies are Christians, and many of them are of the conservative type. He then says that the claim does not align with his experience, citing examples of scholars teaching on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, without personally practicing or arguing for those faiths. It seems that not only has Martin acknowledged the issue in a roundabout way, but also alludes to a greater problem: the imbalance of power, the greater influence of Christianity in Western academia, compared with other religions, both major and minor. This discussion prompted me to reminisce about my own experiences in my first year of working in the scholarly world, particularly in initiating my Master’s research dissertation.

I faced opposition from within the department to the extent that I had considered abandoning the project. These challenges presented themselves despite the fact that I had not yet decided the angle, or of course, the conclusions. What was the topic that proved so challenging to research? Jesus mythicism, the contention that there may not have been a ‘historical Jesus’. I would eventually pass, with the examiners – themselves scholars of Religious Studies – agreeing that a review of the methods of many Biblical scholars is necessary (for example, the increasingly-maligned Criteria of Authenticity) and that it is entirely rational to be sceptical over the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. Such conclusions should not necessarily be so controversial in a field dedicated to the critical and non-confessional study of religion. More worryingly, there were instances where I felt pressure to alter the direction of the project, in order to allow for more ‘Christian-friendly conclusions’.

But why would such respected scholars wish to interfere with the most fundamental of academic freedoms? It may have had something to do with their personal religious beliefs about Jesus. Interestingly however, such belief is not actually required for such a reaction. One example is provided by noted Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, one of many secular New Testament experts. Professor Ehrman is an outspoken atheist, yet dogmatically defends the historicity of Jesus and the usefulness of his teachings, while harshly and fallaciously (Lataster 2013) criticising those scholars that are audacious enough to be more sceptical than he (Ehrman 2012). Hector Avalos argues that even many non-Christian scholars are influenced by the political power, and finances, of pro-Christian organisations (Avalos 2007). Avalos claims that positive attitudes towards the Bible, Christianity, and religion in general, is often seen as necessary in order to keep these academic disciplines relevant, and funded.

Hoping that Avalos’ gloomy conclusions were wrong, and that experiences such as my own are rare, I would then discover a powerful Christian undercurrent in a related – and perhaps more esteemed – field; ancient history. While studying the historical Jesus under one of Tsonis’ colleagues from the Ancient History department of Macquarie University, I ‘learnt’ that there is a “resurrection-shaped dent in the historical record.” I would then participate in a public debate against one of my own Religious Studies postgraduate colleagues, and another Ancient Historian from Macquarie University, where my (Christian) opponents used their authority as subject-matter experts in attempting to convince the audience that it is perfectly rational to believe that a miracle-man was brought back from the dead by an unproven deity. It didn’t matter to this ancient historian that his resurrection claim is burdened by a crippling prior probability, is supported by extremely poor sources, or that there are far more probabilistic – and naturalistic – explanations, despite his agreeing with my reasonable claim that history is probabilistic. Christian influences can even be found in Philosophy departments, once great bastions of rationalism and scepticism, via Philosophy of Religion (Quadrio 2009).

Back to the interview, Martin further addresses the contention that Religious Studies scholars border on being crypto-theologians, and defends his ‘insider’ status. He argues that his Biblical criticisms ought to be given more weight (compared with a non-believer’s criticisms) as he is a Christian, and might be expected to aggressively defend his faith and agree more with his fellow adherents. As with the speculative criterion of embarrassment, Martin’s criticisms are partly interesting due to their counter-intuitive nature. These relatively small criticisms however, must be weighed against the fact that Martin still believes the unsubstantiated and question-begging claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, by God. Fortunately, in a recent debate, he correctly acknowledges that Jesus’ resurrection cannot be established historically, though this belief does form a part of his worldview (Licona et al. 2012), his values, and ultimately, would be expected to directly or indirectly affect his researching and teaching on Christianity. Martin might indeed offer the occasional criticism here or there, resulting in minor conflict with his fellow believers, but he stops short of, and would not be expected to, criticising and renouncing Christianity and Christian beliefs as a whole.

Further commenting on what became the dominant theme of the interview, Martin offered a surprising and seemingly unreasonable counter to the claim that Religious Studies scholars are apologising for religion. Instead of denying this claim, he accuses English, History, and Political Science scholars as being apologists for modern liberalism. Rather than outright denying or acknowledging what may be a vitally important issue in education, Martin offers a tu quoque justification. i.e. “Everyone else does it.” With the discussion drawing to a close, Martin demonstrates an example of my claim that what he offers is only relatively benign pseudo-criticism of his faith. He criticises researchers who attempt to show the similarities of Christianity to other religions and myths (an important and historical foundation of Religious Studies), while asking scholars to be more open-minded to the potential truth of supernatural events and experiences. I am not arguing that the perspectives of ‘insiders’ are not valuable, that religious believers are unwelcome in Religious Studies departments, and related fields, or that religion is not a force for good in the world. I merely wish to share my own experiences on the matter, and to encourage scholars to leave their personal beliefs at the door, as they enter the sacred grounds of the University.

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

With a background in pharmacy, medicine, and finance, Raphael Lataster is a hopeful PhD candidate, having recently passed his Master of Arts (Research), undertaken in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, with Distinction. His main research interests include Christian origins, logic, epistemology, justifications and social impacts of secularism, Taoism, overpopulation and sustainability concerns, pantheism, and pandeism. Raphael wrote his Master’s thesis on Jesus mythicism, concluding that historical and Bayesian reasoning justifies a sceptical attitude towards the ‘historical Jesus’. For his doctoral work, Raphael will analyse the major philosophical arguments for God’s existence (as argued by William Lane Craig, Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Aquinas), attempt to demonstrate the logical impossibility of the monotheistic concept, explore the theological tendencies of Philosophy of Religion, and formulate a conditional logical argument for a pantheistic weltanschauung. Raphael is currently writing and attempting to publish numerous articles summarising his Master’s dissertation, and exploring the themes of his proposed doctoral project. Raphael is always open to – and encourages – feedback and advice, especially regarding the politics and processes of academia and publishing, and alternative worldviews.

References

Avalos, Hector. The End of Biblical Studies. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012.

Lataster, Raphael. Jesus scepticism: An examination of the arguments for various ‘Jesus as a myth’ theories. Master’s thesis, Sydney University, 2013.

Licona, Michael, and Dale Martin. Did Jesus Rise Physically from the Dead? Arva, ON: The Navigators, 2012. Video recording.

Quadrio, Philip A. Kant and Rousseau on the critique of philosophical theology: The primacy of practical reason. Sophia 48, no. 2 (2009): 179-193.